Saturday, June 27, 2009

Locally made kung fu action in DOGS OF CHINATOWN

This micro-budget martial arts film, written and directed by my friend Micah Moore (and produced by my friend Blake Faucette, who used to own College Hill Video) had what I guess was its theatrical premiere last night. It will be playing at 7:30 every night at the Carousel Luxury Cinema here in Greensboro for the next week. I know Blake and Micah have sold Thai and Latin American distribution rights to it, and believe they're close to a domestic deal of sort (presumably straight to video).

I can't give an unbiased review of something shot by and starring people I know and like, but I was more impressed than I expected to be. The digital video photography looked surprisingly good projected on the big screen. Local reviewers have compared the film's look to Sin City, but as my friend Tim remarked, in some ways it more resembles that of Pi. Micah and Blake originally wanted to release the film in black and white, but then realized no distributor would touch it if they did, and the burnished, sepia-with-bursts-of-color look they settled on is quite striking.

Eric Jacobus, of the San Francisco based Stunt People, stars (and did the choreography). He's not a polished actor and doesn't yet have oodles of charisma (he looks kind of a like a short David Boreanaz), but his cinematic fighting skills are pretty damn impressive and he knows how to stage a good brawl. Huyen Thi, who plays the heroine, isn't great but doesn't embarrass herself, and she's pretty damn hot, even if she doesn't look even slightly Chinese. But then, none of the Chinese characters other than Wei, the hero's kung fu teacher (played by writer/director Moore's real-life sifu Brian Lee) do, since they're cast with Vietnamese and Thai locals (Greensboro doesn't have a Chinatown, but does have the makings of its own Little Saigon or Thai Town).

Like Jet Li's American starring debut Romeo Must Die, this is a Romeo and Juliet story involving rival mobs (Chinese and Italian here, as in the original script for Romeo before it was rewritten to feature African-American gangsters). But despite some clunkers in the dialogue, I think it actually has a more interesting script (admittedly, that's not all that hard), one with a few surprises and some nuance, as well as characters who don't always do what you might expect. And while Jacobus doesn't have the screen presence of Jet Li, he gives himself better fight scenes than Jet got in that or any of his Western films other than Unleashed or Kiss of the Dragon. And these fights are better edited than those in the latter.

While those fight scenes suffer from director Moore's use of Gladiator-style step-printing (something I told Micah after the show tonight), they're still really impressive, with long takes, no cheating edits, and lots of real contact. As an imported-from-LA enforcer called The General, co-action-coordinator Ray Carbonel (also of The Stunt Boys and micro-budget film Contour) isn't a much better actor than Jacobus, but he's equally impressive in the brutal fights, taking on our hero, and before that, our hero's best friend (and sifu) Wei.

Wei, who's essentially the film's Mercutio, is actually the most interesting character, a drunken horndog and easy-going party boy who is both a kung fu master and a handsome young Chinese-American. Brian Lee, who teaches at the Triangle Arnis Kung Fu Academy here in NC, is a better martial artist than an actor and some of his comedy is too broad, but he has looks and charisma and would have made for an interesting lead himself (he had what was essentially the Romeo role in his student and friend Moore's viral internet video Ninjas Vs. Pirates a couple of years ago). When he and Carbonel square off, he gets to use Shaolin Long Fist and other traditional techniques against The General's mixture of MMA and Muay Thai, which adds some nice variety to the deadly brawl.

The best actor in the cast, and the one with the most professional credentials, is Bill Oberst Jr. as Mob lieutenant Vitorio. Oberst, who played William Tecumseh Sherman on the History Channel a couple of years ago, isn't given enough to do, but he has a hell of a lot of screen presence and looks like a combination of a younger, skinnier, redheaded Harvey Keitel and a sandblasted Daniel Craig.

The biggest casting mistake was writer/director Moore giving himself the role a scar-faced Russian hitman called in by the Italians. Micah is a pretty impressive martial artist on the screen and in the real world (a couple of years ago, I saw him kick the ass of a much bigger drunken frat boy who crashed one of his parties and who got confrontational after not winning the Limbo contest!) and he might be an effective actor if he played up the incongruity of his real-life image as a goofy, gangly hipster who happens to have some serious kung fu skills. But he doesn't look very intimidating (which has worked to his advantage in some real life fights), at least not unless you're standing beside him and notice the muscles in his forearms and the size of his fists (which I hope he doesn't use on me after reading this), and this role is simply out of his range, with him deploying an accent that made him sound like he was out to get Moose and Squirrel.

But he shows real promise as a director, and I'm not just saying that because he's a friend. As I've said, I wasn't fond of the step-printing, but he knows how to frame action and when NOT to cut, and many of his compositions are unexpectedly lovely. And despite some clunker lines, he also shows promise as a writer, with a couple of character moments that would have really stood out in a production with more polished actors with better timing.

As Joe Scott said in his blog review about this film, it's a much better way to spend your time and money than Transformers 2. And not just because you get to see some locals kicking ass and taking names. Ian-Bob says check it out. It's only playing for six more days at the Carousel (and for only one screening each night), so see it while you can. Plus, during each showing, they'll be selling $1 beers, and yes, you can take them into the screening room with you.

Official Trailer here

(Apologies to the other locals, including friends like the lovely Heather Meek, whom I've not mentioned in this review, but whom I really enjoyed seeing on the big screen).


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