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The five greatest Martial Arts movies

Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon

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The recent specialty run of The Raid: Redemption, a remake of an Indonesian language martial arts film, calls to mind all the great, hyper-gory kung fu movies that have come before. After viewing, over the years, hundreds of martial arts films – The Boxer from Shantung, which didn’t quite make the list, especially comes to mind – I’ve narrowed The List down to a stone cold five. Agree or disagree in the comments section with these, my Five Greatest Martial Arts Movies:

5. “Hero” (2002)

Set roughly two centuries before the birth of Christ, in Mandarin with English subtitles and color-coded sequences, Hero is not your typical martial arts film. There are, of course, many types of martial arts movies – comedies, revenge stories, Hong Kong chop sockey, straight-up dramas and, among others, Epics. Hero is an epics epic of a martial arts movie, set to glorious cinematography in pre-unified China during the period of the Warring States. Drenched in sanguinary reds and powerful, vibrating golds, the fighting scenes — mostly aerial — defy gravity and even narrative logic. Not that that matters.

So — what about the fighting? Anyone who doubts that a martial arts fight can be a beautiful experienced would be hard pressed to continue in that mode of thinking after seeing this film. Directed by Yimou Zhang, the fight scenes – particularly the one between Nameless (played by Jet Li) and Sky (played by Donnie Yen) – are masterful dances of death set against stunning scenery and weather to unique camera angles. Jet Li – one of the three great martial arts film legends along with Bruce and Jackie Chan –steals all of his scenes as a nameless protagonist in a fugue to kicking serious ass.

4. “The Legend of Drunken Master” (2000)

The fact that Jackie Chan – the second of the Big Three martial arts film stars — does almost all of the choreography in his films only adds to his legitimacy as the real deal; the fact that this movie is a comedy as well as the best part of a legendary franchise makes it a classic. As Elvis Mitchell wrote in The Times of the film’s climactic final battle scene, “(This sequence is better than anything in ‘The Matrix’ because there are no digital effects and Mr. Chan is seen in almost every frame.) It is fitting that the punch-outs bring dance numbers to mind, since Mr. Chan’s wind-it-up version of drunken boxing looks like a lethal version of the Cabbage Patch.”

Jackie Chan’s low center of gravity is in full effect in Legend of Drunken Master. This is one of the few cases – Godfather II, in another genre, comes to mind – when a sequel (LODM tag line: “Old wine in a new bottle”) actually surpasses a classic original story. Jackie Chan is here in his most elaborately choreographed of Hong Kong chopsockeys. Legend of Drunken Master is also as funny as it is brutal, a rarity.

3. “Ip Man” (2008)

Ip Man is arguably the best choreographed martial arts film of all time, also the one with the most fully realized narrative. Set in the 1930s, Ip Man is based on the true story of real life martial arts Grand Master Yip Man, the man who trained Bruce Lee, arguably the greatest martial artist of all time, in the deadly art of Wing Chun. This film neatly falls into the category of revenge story, one of the most enduring within the martial arts genre, but is also a sweeping epic not unlike Hero. In short, against oppression and injustice coming out of the Japanese invasion of 1947, Ip founds the school of Karate that will eventually beget Bruce Lee – the greatest martial arts film star of all time. The final fight sequence between Ip (played by Donnie Yen, who starred in that other martial arts epic Hero) and the Japanese General Miura is the stuff of legend.

Available on DVD and BluRay, this forgotten classic is highly recommended. From the story of Bruce Lee’s mentor to, appropriately …

2. “Enter the Dragon” (1973)

As elegant as Hero is, Enter the Dragon – the opposite end of the martial arts film spectrum — is as gritty and brutal and awesome. “Life,” Hobbes reminds us in his cynical masterpiece Leviathan, “is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” No more so than in this cynical classic. Enter the Dragon’s opening Shaolin Monastery fight sequence.

With a despicable air of Bond villainy – excommunication from the Shaolin order, prostitution, an underground fight club on a private island — a musky-seedy 70s testosteronal vibe that permeates the entire film. Where in Hero the martial arts are almost a well-choreographed dance, in Enter the Dragon, perhaps the first fully realized film of the 1970s, is cynical – the perfect negative antidote to the over idealistic 60s. This, incidentally, was Bruce Lee’s last (and best) film, released six days after his death. Which leads us to, finally …

1. “Five Deadly Venoms” (1978)

Pop-culturally influencing everyone from Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill to the Wu Tang Clan (The Mystery of Chessboxin; Shaolin Finger Jab), the Five Deadly Venoms is a symphony of astonishing violence wrapped in what can only be properly construed as the most intriguingly graphic novel-ish sort of narrative ever to be put across in a kung fu movie. There is a thin line indeed between a martial arts movie and a graphic novel, but nowhere more so than in this classic, amazing film.

Here’s the lowdown: Five great martial arts assassins, nicknamed after their fighting styles, based on animals – Toad (impenetrable skin; massive defense skills), Centipede (fast strikes), Lizard (scales walls), Snake (fingers that bit like fangs) and Scorpion (Can paralyze through pressure points) – are sought out by the mysterious Yang, the final student of a noble dying master of “The School of Venoms.” It is, as in all great martial arts films, a matter of honor.

Saying anything else about this film would spoil the fun. But the fight scenes are as elaborate and cartoonish – in the best possible way – as the plot. Toad, in particular, is my favorite of the venoms, because his impenetrable skin allows him to display something very rare in martial arts films – a masterful defensive (not offensive) style. But it is Chiang Sheng’s Yang who steals the show, crafting complex styles on the fly to fight the School of Venoms, who may or may not be the villains of the movie. Two snake fingers up!

What is your favorite martial arts movie? Tell us in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.