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Spinning Discs: Enter the Dragons

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I recently received a promo mailing from Barnes & Noble, advertising “Great Gifts for Dad.” Translation: Books, DVDs, and other products saturated with guns, terrorism, and revolution. Not for me. Not, at least, if a much better alternative is close at hand. Thanks to Warner Home Video, there is: a welcome anniversary reissue of Enter the Dragon on Blu-ray, starring the incomparable Bruce Lee in his showcase role.

Bruce Lee needs no introduction to Popdose readers. Lee is…wait, WTF as the kids say, there’s never once been a tag for “Bruce Lee” on Popdose? How can that be? Forty years after the release of his penultimate films (the last he completed), forty years after his tragic death at age 32, twenty years after the fun biopic Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, and no one has mentioned him once on this five-year-old site? There’s much to say, but this disc, which meshes a fine new remaster with new extras and supplements from earlier Blu-ray and DVD editions, says a great deal.

I first saw Enter the Dragon on Cinemax, once, twice…twenty, thirty times. I didn’t really experience it, though, until a midnight campus screening, my first in its proper widescreen dimensions, and with an audience that went berserk at Lee laid smack on the bad guys who defiled the Shaolin Temple in Hong Kong. To have seen it with a big, Times Square-type crowd in its day must have been something–a big, multiethnic crowd, I hasten to add, as Lee’s pure soul of a hero is teamed with white (veteran John Saxon) and black (a debuting Jim Kelly, soon to play Black Belt Jones) co-leads as they infiltrate a heroin smuggling operation amidst a martial arts tournament run by the mysterious Han (Shih Kien, with blades in place of one missing hand). Something for everyone, then, including blacksploitation fans and the Bond audience (Han strokes a white cat, Blofeld-style). At the center, however, is the magnificent Lee, once seen, never forgotten. I disagree that Enter the Dragon is the greatest martial arts movie ever made, as commentators on the disc note, and I think Lee, who had higher hopes for his first and last Hollywood production, would, too. But it is his best movie showcase, directed with respect for his astounding abilities by Robert Clouse; no “chopsocky” editing here. Great fun. And Lee died six days before it opened.

If you have the 2007 BD release of the film, hang onto it; a good documentary, “A Warrior’s Journey,” is missing from this reissue. Otherwise, a sterling presentation, stuffed with collectibles, including promotional postcards and an iron-on patch that I need to attend to, plus three new featurettes to supplement the producer and screenwriter commentary, family reminiscences, and personal home video footage that have been carried over. Original to this set are “No Way is Way,” a series of interviews with personalities inspired by Lee’s example, like Sugar Ray Leonard and George Takei (who narrates one of the older pieces, “Curse of the Dragon,” on the disc); a piece about the Wing Chun techniques that appealed to Lee; and a look at the locations, then and now, that engaged this former HK resident. If your dad would appreciate this excellent disc, I like your dad.

516Xnc4bWcLKorea, the so-called “Hermit Kingdom,” has been busting out with terrific movies for several years now. One of its biggest hits, Masquerade, has bowed on domestic DVD, and it’s a keeper, an amusing historical tale based loosely on 17th century shenanigans that will put you in mind of The Prince and the Pauper (or, if you prefer, the Kevin Kline comedy Dave). Top national star Lee Byung-hun (from I Saw the Devil at home and the G.I. Joe movies and the forthcoming Red 2 here) doubles down as a low-born acrobat, Ha-sun, who bears a close resemblance to the paranoid King Gwanghae; when the king is poisoned,  Ha-sun is obliged to take his place, and while adjusting to court life prompts a few adjustments of his own as his simple values effect surprising change. The light touch of the screenplay and direction (by Choo Chang-min) ensure that the sledding through ancient Korean politics isn’t too rough, and with the multifaceted Lee as our emissary the ride is consistently entertaining. A good place to start your voyage through one of the livelier world cinemas, with original-language with subtitles or English-dubbed options, Masquerade comes to disc with some deleted scenes and making-of featurettes. Highly recommended.

There are two inevitables in a film critic’s life: Death, and James Franco movies. The hyper-hyphenate will appear in at least seven films this year and has written, produced, and directed a few more in his spare time; This Is the End just went into release, but there is never an end to James Franco, who I see more than my parents. So I was amused to find that while lolling around the set of Oz The Great and Powerful, his highest-profile release, he picked up his trusty camera and filmed a making-of. It’s a nice one, too, with a Sam Raimi interview and some observations about the practical and digital effects. I can’t say it changed my mixed opinion of the movie that much, but I will say he seemed more engaged as a videographer than as the star of the show. Other extras (there aren’t a lot, given the tentpoledness of the enterprise) include a history of Disney’s involvement with Oz, a look at the Wicked Witch makeup effects, and a blooper reel–James Franco makes mistakes, who knew? I missed the excellent 3D at home but the 2D version is thunderously good, with an outstanding image and audio.

DVrkWDQYMIybvz_1_lThe Last Stand–well, it sure is for our beloved 80s action stars as they enter their sunset years. The Expendables props them up as, on their own, they flail at the boxoffice. The more facile Bruce Willis has a few irons in the fire, acting-wise; still, the artistic demise of his Die Hard franchise, via A Good Day to Die Hard, is painful to witness. The basic concept has been running on fumes since 1990 and Die Hard 2 and this Russia-set entry snuffs it out, with improbable action and an overextended use of CGI, which the “international” audience doesn’t seem to mind. More discerning (right? right?) Americans gave it an understandable pass after its boffo first weekend. The director, John Moore (of the equally awful Max Payne and Omen remake) talks a far better movie in his audio commentary than he delivered, with one decent sequence of vehicular mayhem in Moscow followed by a whole lot of father-son griping and a nothing plot. The Blu-ray, an uninspired “extended” cut, is loaded for bear with making-of content; the movie, empty, in that familiar late franchise way.

In contrast, The Last Stand is decent entertainment, a starring screen return for Arnold Schwarzenegger that died hard in theaters yet has blazed to life on home screens. It’s a movie of more modest enticements that gets headstrong at the end without losing its small town ambiance, as Ahnuld’s unlikely border sheriff, the leader of a ragtag squad of inexperienced cops and local gun nuts, squares off against a hard-driving drug czar and his minions as they race toward safe haven in Mexico. Lean and unpretentious, it suits the actor, in a CBS-cop-show-with-R-rated firepower way, and he draws strong support from Forest Whitaker, Luis Guzman, the unhinged Johnny Knoxville, the rarely hinged Peter Stormare, Sonny Landham, and, briefly, Harry Dean Stanton. The big finish, a rousing cornfield car chase between the sheriff and the bad guy (Eduardo Noriega), gets, and deserves, its own supplement. The film marks the US directorial debut of Korean veteran Kim Ji-woon, who has made several more distinctive films, including I Saw the Devil, starring…well, you saw above. (How I love when these entries connect.)

1000402730-w370The invaluable Warner Archive has a new website, through which the manufactured-on-demand rarities keep coming. A good ticking-clock thriller is 1953’s Terror on a Train, with the underrated Glenn Ford as a disposal expert entrusted to defuse a bomb planted on a freight train laden with high explosives. Timing out at a mere 72 minutes, this British-made thriller, reminiscent of red-and blue-wire suspense thrillers like 1974’s Juggernaut, is probably the best of the films directed by Ted Tetzlaff, a busy, Oscar-nominated cinematographer, active since the mid-1920s, who capped that phase of his career with Hitchcock’s great Notorious (1946).

Andrew and Virginia L. Stone had an intriguing, unsung dual career, with Andrew, noted for a string of crackling thrillers, directing and Virginia editing. My review of  the Archive release of 1952’s The Steel Trap for Cineaste included my appreciation for their still-startling work, and I’m pleased that its ongoing excavation now numbers 1958’s The Decks Ran Red. James Mason, who had starred that year in the Stones’ exciting kidnap picture Cry Terror!, has his hands full again, this time as a fledgling freighter captain up against murderous mutineers Broderick Crawford and Stuart Whitman. The Stones really knew how to turn the screws; it’s puzzling why they gave up this line after the apocalyptic Last Voyage (1960) and Ring of Fire (1961). Aboard this one, and a reason to see it, is Dorothy Dandridge, who had costarred with Mason and Harry Belafonte in the far more successful Island in the Sun a year earlier. Maybe your dad saw these movies first run.