Screening Room: ‘A Touch of Zen’

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In 1971, former martial-arts director King Hu embarked on an epic reimagination of what the genre would look like. The three-hour A Touch of Zen was magical, weird, and breathtaking, often in the same scene. It was mostly ignored in its butchered release, except for some brief acclaim after finally getting a proper showing at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival.

touchofzen-dvdSince then, the film—which deeply influenced Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon—has been mostly confined to obscurity. Thankfully, Janus Films gave it a proper release earlier this year, and now there’s also a beautiful new Criterion DVD edition.

My review is at PopMatters:

The film’s second third comes as a relief after the deliberate mannerisms and fussy perfectionism of the first third. Here, A Touch of Zen pivots from quiet pastoral with supernatural elements to more John Sturges Western. As villainous forces marshal against Yang and the two fugitive generals who came to her aid, Ku uses his study of classic works of strategy to plan their defense. The set-piece battle in which the small army of guards are lured into the supposedly haunted fort for a spectacular night-time ambush is a marvel of geometric precision and subterfuge…

Here’s the trailer:

New on DVD: ‘Pina’

pina-dvdThe 2011 dance documentary from Wim Wenders, Pina, was a refreshing new usage of the 3D format for nonfiction film. (Werner Herzog tried to use it to much less effect in Cave of Forgotten Dreams). The film is available today from Criterion Collection in DVD and Blu-ray. My full review is at AMC Movie Guide:

Joy isn’t a feeling that one associates with Wim Wenders all that much. Wonder or ennui, maybe irony, but not joy. But nevertheless that’s the first thing that springs to mind with his electric new 3D dance documentary, his first feature to get a real Stateside release since 2005’s moody, downbeat Don’t Come Knocking. There are other feelings and moods wrapped up here, tragedy and loss, but with all the sunlight (has the man ever shot a brighter film?) and sweeping movement, the joy prevails. This is filmmaking as glorious music…

You can see the trailer here:


New on DVD: ‘Heaven’s Gate’

heavensgate-dvdIn the history of legendary cinematic disasters, there are flops and then there is Heaven’s Gate:

In his interview on the Criterion Collection release of the 1980 Michael Cimino film Heaven’s Gate, a craggy-looking Kris Kristofferson makes a strong appeal for the roundly maligned Western as being a potent work of political cinema. Kristofferson sticks up for Cimino’s indictment of Manifest Destiny and robber baron greed at the end of the 19th century. Of course, he did star in the thing. But still, this is the iconoclast’s take, and an unpopular coming after more than two decades of popular film history telling us that not only was Heaven’s Gate one of the greatest disasters in film history (it took in less than ten percent of the $40 million budget at the box office) but that it single-handedly ended the free-wheeling era of American filmmaking…

The Criterion Collection now offers Heaven’s Gate on DVD and Blu-ray, with plenty of the usual extras. My full review of the DVD edition is at PopMatters.

You can see the trailer for the original film release here:


DVD Tuesday: ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’


It would be too reductive to say that Wes Anderson’s films are about people who don’t fit in. Yes, his characters are on the oddball end of the spectrum. But in Anderson’s better films (like The Royal Tenenbaums), he doesn’t fall prey to the common bugaboo of those artists who celebrate the unique. Namely, he doesn’t even bother creating an outside world to judge them for their curious behavior. There is no island of misfit toys for his characters to retreat to, because the whole that is visible doesn’t seem much different. Everybody doesn’t fit in, together…

The Royal Tenenbaums is available now in a beautiful new Blu-ray transfer from Criterion. Read my full review at PopMatters.