Not rated, but that's because it is a pre-MPAA movie. This is a disturbing film involving a serial killer. Yeah, the fact that it is a silent movie often means that we don't see truly disturbing content (although I'm flashing back to "Blood of the Beasts" and can't stand by that statement absolutely.) The movie is meant to be haunting. Spinning out of the main plot are themes of gender difference and toxic masculinity. It's a pretty messed up movie, but nothing would be a big red flag here.
DIRECTOR: Alfred Hitchcock
It is another sleepy morning and I don't even have time to make tea to wake me up. It's going to be a busy one, so let's see if I can squeeze out a blog about a silent film before my life gets too busy. (Is your life like this? If so, you are probably pretty blessed.)
I recently made the mistake of misremembering stuff about the remake of this movie, simply titled The Lodger. I had seen A Story of the London Fog a long time ago. It was a rough print. (Although, now that I'm thinking about that, where is that box set?) The silent Hitchcock movies never really spoke to me back then. Even today, as much as I'm open to the notion of watching everything and appreciating silent film, I don't deny that there is a bit of a burden placed on me when watching the silent film. It's one of those things that really test my concentration. I typically throw my phone on the opposite side of the room with any movie, but I can't deny that my mind drifts from time-to-time. With silent film, you really can't get away from that. So when I watched the remake of The Lodger, I didn't remember how the original film ended. But now I've rewatched the OG Lodger and I guess I have things to say. I mean, that's probably a good thing when you have to write a daily film blog.
I think that Rear Window might be one of the most influential movies when it comes to the grand scheme of pop culture. I know, Star Wars probably holds the number one spot. But in terms of tropes and suspense, Rear Window has influenced our collective consciousness more than we realized. Hitchcock keeps coming back to the idea that the world is more insidious than it appears. The innocent in stories of murder are never really innocent. One's neighbor has a dark secret and one can't trust him. Since Rear Window (and probably previously a million times), we keep having that story about the person who just has to be guilty. But I kind of love that London Fog (I'll be using this term to differentiate it from the remake) actually subverts that trope. We feel like we're watching this clearly guilty man and part of me just felt like, "What if he was innocent?"
What ends up coming out of that is a story about the evils of society. It's all about our paranoia. When I drive to work, I see those signs asking me to look out for missing persons. I take them very seriously. It becomes a little game for me on the way home, looking at license plates hoping that I could be the big hero. This is something that is bred into society. Now, I'm sure that I'm probably one of the minority that takes these warning seriously, despite my last sentence. But the quest for justice has brought civilization to some pretty dark places. If I found one of those cars on the way home, I'm sure that I would consider myself a hero. I would ride that story until the end of time. Narratives like London Fog make us feel entitled to be stuck in the middle of the action. Daisy and her family are part of this culture of fear and paranoia. From an audience's perspective, of course they have to be intimately involved in the story of a murderer. Why else would we be watching this story? Daisy, like other blonde women, feel fear from this violent force somewhere "out there" and Daisy must be important because we're watching this movie about her.
But she isn't. Daisy proves to not be special at all. Her story is extremely telling. It is a story of the victimization of women and how women like Daisy have to exist every day. While Hitchcock sensationalizes the story of Daisy, her story is really every story of a woman weaving her car keys into her fist so she can go to her car safely. It's the idea that a man that seems so intimate to her can somehow be a monster. The Lodger, as implied by his name, lives with her. He is around her at his most vulnerable. And she --and by proxy, we --can only see his worst idiosyncrasies. But that's how women have to view the world. They have to pick apart the weirdness that men present. They have to make choices about whom to befriend because it could turn out so, so badly.
Tippi Hedren recently spoke out about the behavior of Alfred Hitchcock while she was filming The Birds. She spoke out about how he sexually harassed her. Now, I believed her immediately, but my film teacher fought me on that. I don't know what information she would have that I didn't have, but now I'm really not sure whom to believe. But I do know that London Fog seems really progressive for 1927. Joe, the police officer, has many of the traits of the male protagonist. He represents chivalry and masculine strength. After all, it is Joe who is meant to bring in the Avenger to justice. But there's something that reads really icky to me about him from moment one. There's a certain Gaston quality about him that reeks of old timey masculinity. Now, I wrote his toxic masculinity off as a product of the time. After all, it's not like Hitchcock comes across as someone in touch with his feminine side...except for Mr. & Mrs. Smith. But when my gut reaction actually proved to be right, I was flabbergasted. Joe assumes that Daisy would love him because she was beautiful and he was 1920s handsome. (It's a very specific type.) But Hitchcock paints him to be this gross individual who actually ignores evidence just so he can win a woman over. The movie provides this fascinating commentary on the idea of women as objects. Yeah, Daisy still needs to be romantically attached to someone. The movie is progressive, but not THAT progressive. But still, subverting my expectations for who the heroic protagonist is fascinates me. Sure, the Lodger's backstory seems really cockamamie, but that's showbiz.
All-in-all, The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog slays, especially for a silent piece. I have to give a final note to the effective title cards and music with this movie, especially when the repeated motif of "Golden Curls, To-Nite" keeps happening. It's a really solid movie that subverts expectations. I don't know if it would work today, but it really crushes for 1927.
Rated R for being a very Judd Apatow film. There's just a bit more drugs than normal, a bit more sex than normal, a bit more language than normal. When I say "normal", I'm referring to Judd Apatow's standards. What this means for you and me? A lot of drugs, a lot of sex, a lot of language. It's a bleak comedy, so there are going to be some heavy themes throughout. R.
DIRECTOR: Judd Apatow
The writing process today will be one of sheer willpower. It's not that I don't want to write about The King of Staten Island. It's one of the movies that really sparked joy for me recently and I'd love to talk about it. It's just that it is very early in the morning and I had a baby who didn't sleep so great. Right now, I'm running on post-shower adrenaline, which is going to crash very soon. If I don't get the lion's share of writing done on this thing quickly, the rest of the day will be composed of really short writing stints and constant self-recrimination.
I really worry about Pete Davidson. I mean, I'm sure that a lot of people are worried about Pete Davidson. Normally, I glean all I can from culture news without actively engaging with culture news. But I know that Davidson has had a struggle. He seems to have a really hard life and The King of Staten Island cemented that thought for me. While not a biopic by any stretch of the imagination, Davidson and Apatow have been very forward about the semi-autobiographical nature of the film. A lot of the movie include events that really happened to him. His father, a firefighter, died in the attack on the World Trade Center. Much of Davidson's life involved his personal battles with mental illness and self-worth. The tattoo thing seems pretty on the nose, shy of him working to become a tattoo artist. To make this stuff into a raucous comedy, that takes courage. But what Davidson and Apatow do with The King of Staten Island is what good comedy should do. The film is about turning pain and tragedy into something cathartic.
It's funny, because I think The King of Staten Island will probably be filed under Apatow's more forgettable films. I have yet to see an Apatow film that I didn't like, so please understand that I hold The King of Staten Island in such esteem. It is a glorious film. It actually might be one of his better movies. But it also is such a vulnerable film. Most things that Apatow touches involve some autobiographical elements. He's a guy who puts his heart on the screen and makes you feel like you are one of his buddies. I remember thinking about This is 40 and how dangerous of a film that was. He made a movie about how marriages really take work and he made it funny. But with The King of Staten Island, this is Pete Davidson. We have Judd Apatow's directng aesthetic coupled with the toxicity of Pete Davidson's past. Because one of the major elements of Judd Apatow, despite whatever dangers he's presented on screen, he's always seemed like a pretty healthy guy. His big conflicts involve being lazy and doing drugs. But Scott in Staten Island? That guy could go off at any minute.
Scott has a lot of the same vices that Apatow's other protagonists have. He loves drugs and hanging out with his buddies too much. But when we look at Scott, for the first time there is real pity there. I firmly believe that Scott's comfort zone of drugs and tattoos comes from the fact that he is not mentally prepped for the rigors of the real world. Throughout the film, Scott is juxtaposed to all of these characters who seem to have their lives together. Scott's mom seems to be enabling him (until she doesn't). Ray is a volunteer fireman who is respected by his crew (until we find out more). His dumb little buddies, for their many faults, also seem to have a smidgen more ambition than he does. At least one of them does. The tattoo artist thing at least is a goal. But Scott seems so volatile compared to the rest of Apatow's protagonists. It's hard to imagine Seth Rogen or Paul Rudd flying off the handle when dealing with small problems. It's when Rogen and Rudd hit a low point, that's when the stakes are raised. But Scott in Staten Island has no filter. Small adversities set him off.
And that's why the discovery of the firehouse and the job there is so important. There's a great joke in the film where Scott returns home after working odds-and-ends at the firehouse. His mother full-on belly laughs at him, implying that Scott has no idea what the real world is like despite the fact that he's playing janitor for a fire station . But it is still touching that Scott finds value in this place. Emotionally, the location is charged with memories. But socially, Scott embraces a community that is positive for him. Yeah, the work isn't hard. But he is appreciated there and finds value beyond drugs and laziness. It's not like the drugs and vice stops when he gets there. But he realizes that life is more than just being a stoner. They baby-step him out of his arrested development (I've used this term now two days in a row on my blog) and into the greater world.
I keep posting about movies that have daddy issues. I really am drawn to them. I can't help myself. But Apatow and Davidson really bring up almost something new when it comes to dealing with dead fathers. Scott, while hanging out with a bunch of firemen at a minor league baseball game, confronts the firemen, claiming that being a fireman while having a family is absolutely the worst idea imaginable and is fundamentally selfish. Scott has a real point. I'm not saying this about firemen nor would I begrudge anyone from having a family. But from his perspective, Scott's life has been so polluted by the noble badge of first responder that he can't handle life normally. And again, it is from this low point that Apatow builds catharsis. Scott's argument at the baseball game makes sense. But seeing that his father was a real human being who shared many of Scott's faults while aspiring to something greater is a wonderful message. Note: I love that Steve Buscemi is a volunteer firefighter without being portrayed as his typical weirdo role. What we discover is the glorification of the dead might be worse than the reality of the warts of life.
Scott has always resented his father's choice to be a firefighter because it robbed him of having a dad. In his eyes, Scott's dad was always someone who chose strangers over his own son. Every time that Scott failed to live up to expectations, he could only compare himself to Captain America, which is an impossible comparison. But it is in the stories that he discovers at the fire station that he realizes that you can be a screw-up and a good person at the same time. It is in his father's fallibility that hope is inspired within Scott. I know that Scott's mental health will always be an issue and I don't think that the movie denies that. But what it also allows Scott to see is that whatever he is dealing with isn't going to hamper him from having real ambition. It's an absolutely inspiring story that showed this guy that he has real intrinsic value, despite the fact that the world doesn't find him valuable.
It's a great movie. Apatow has a way of taking these small moments in life and he invites us in. While I probably would never hang out with Scott's crew in real life and I would abhor the way he treated his girlfriend (at least before the final act), they feel like my buddies. I feel bad for them because they are my friends. I'm angry at them because I really believe in them. Once again, Apatow knows how to tell small stories really well. It's a bummer that The King of Staten Island probably didn't penetrate the collective consciousness as much as it should have. But it is a brilliant movie and Apatow at his best.
R for a lot of stuff. There's some really brutal violence in this movie. Couple that with the fact that it is gangland and wartime violence, it makes it very uncomfortable to watch. There is also nudity in a sexual context and language that is pretty intense. It's an R rated movie for a reason. R.
DIRECTOR: Jacques Audiard
I made a list on Facebook at the end of the year, ranking my favorite films from 2020. At the top, with a bullet, was His House, a horror movie that focused on the horrors of the refugee in England. I praised the film for being this powerhouse of cinema, both original and horrifying. Well, apparently, it isn't absolutely original in the sense that Dheepan, a movie that I don't actually remember throwing on my Netflix DVD queue, is very similar, only without the horror movie aesthetic. I don't know if it somehow delegitimizes my love for His House, but I do know that it stands on the shoulders of giants. Dheepan wrecked me as much as His House did, but somehow feels like it is treading new ground.
There's no way to write this without stressing that I'm going to be white-knighting a bit. I have some causes that really move my heart, and probably the number one cause is the treatment of immigrants and refugees. With a story of Dheepan, it covers some of the territory set forth by His House. Both films feature characters who aren't entirely innocent. This is smart. I know. I shouldn't be the one who can comment on the smartness of things. Regardless, here I am, doing exactly that. When both sets of protagonists are problematic, scamming the system to escape their home countries, it provides an emotional context to the dangers of home. Dheepan was a violent monster who was raised to kill for local warlords. Yet, this moment provides him a story of redemption. It's odd how quickly I bond with Dheepan and Yalani, despite the fact that both of them are deeply flawed individuals. They may not have had it the worst that would allow a country to embrace them in a safety state, but they still risk being caught and captured for a world of safety.
Audiard does something fascinating with his portrayal of Dheepan. We know that they are lying from very early in the film. We know that they have adopted these identities to escape their homes. But we don't really know much about Dheepan's background of violence. Yeah, there's a lot of problematic behavior, especially when it comes to gender expectations. But Dheepan almost seems to be a good person until we find out the details of his violent background in the third act of the movie.
I'll be honest. As much as the end of the movie makes a lot of sense and that I enjoyed the film as a whole, the end feels a bit Rambo for me. It definitely takes a tonal shift. But it detracts from the emotional resonance that the movie portrays. There's also something, and this is because I am trying to watch the movie as critically as I can, that might reinforce a few stereotypes about the dangers of refugees. But I just wanted to get that out of the way before I talk about what I liked about the film.
Dheepan's shedding of his violence shows that humanity is a tabula rasa. Yeah, he's not perfect throughout. He's a bit too forceful with Yalani and I really don't want to downplay that tendency or excuse that behavior. But he becomes kind of a good man throughout the piece. He is in this squalor. He cleans up for drug lords who insult him and hurt him, but he finds value of living in France. It's so interesting the setting of this film because both His House and Dheepan remind us of the problems of how we treat refugees. Dheepan, for the shame he puts on himself, seems to really thrive in this new location. He finds joy in the small things around him. It's interesting watching him repair an elevator that will go totally unappreciated, yet finding value in that work. He hates the Dheepan of Sri Lanka. He doesn't try to be the Dheepan of France, but just someone who is new and isn't going to be defined by a home country.
But I find it interesting that the film is actually titled Dheepan. Like, he's a major character and I don't deny that he's got a pretty rad character arc, but Yalani feels like a more fleshed out character. Yeah, she's quickly a victim within the story. But in terms of internal conflict, Yalani probably has a lot more to unpack. She's faking being a mother, which seems to have the potential to be a movie in itself. But when she oddly befriends Brahim, that's a deep story. She is this character who is being pulled by two very strong forces. She knew the trauma of Sri Lanka. She knew the steps that she took to get to France. She abhors the evil of her past, yet she instantly gleans onto the first dominant corrupt personality. Her interactions with Brahim are extremely telling. Her embrace of the ignorant foreigner persona contrasted to her actual desire to be footloose and fancy free says a lot about how we view the refugee. The refugee, according to Yalani, is much more fragile and deep than the assumption we have about these people. Instead, everything we see is a learned behavior, built around the fear about being sent home. There's the scene, and I'm sound a bit "Chris Farley Show" right now, where Yalani is sitting with Brahim and he comments on her head tilt. It's a clear memorable scene because there's a callback to this scene. But her honesty juxtaposed to her tone of voice is really very telling. There's this assumption in the West that immigrants are simple people who don't understand. Instead, we get this very heavy story about her constant sadness that is regularly buried because she really doesn't want to go back.
I have stuff that I want to say about Illayaal, but it does kind of fit within the story. She's this absolute powerhouse of a character and it almost makes her the least accessible character. There's this very cool irony that happens with Illayaal. Her character has been through the wringer. She's an orphan who has an entire pretense of being these people's daughter. But instead, she has the emotional maturity that Yalani absolutely lacks. Her relationship with Yalani is really interesting because there are moments throughout the story where Yalani seems to be bonding with Illayaal in a way that seems maternal. But it all kind of comes down when we realize that Yalani is the most unprepared for this lifestyle. She never wanted to be a mother. She's pretending to be significantly older than she actually is and we see that she grasps desperately to that stage of arrested development. Instead, Illayaal becomes the parent of the family. She teaches Dheepan on how to speak English and actually parents Yalani into becoming a parent of her own. Her loneliness is the only thing that really reveals her age and that is beyond understandable.
I adored this movie. I always have a hard time writing about movies that absolutely slay me. It's probably a fault that I need to overcome, considering that I've been writing this blog for four years. But Dheepan, for whatever moment of impulse I threw it on my queue, is one of the better movies I've seen in the past decade. It's not perfect. I don't love that Dheepan goes Rambo on the movie. But it also is the ending that makes the most amount of sense.
PG-13 and God bless them for this rating. If James Bond was always a bit too risque for its MPAA rating, the Daniel Craig entries really feel like the most intense version of that rating. Yeah, it never really gets into R-rated material, but Skyfall might take all of the tropes of James Bond and ramps them up. Bond's alcoholism is stronger. The violence seems more intense. Good people die. There's sexuality (which oddly might be the most tame in this one). At one point, we see why cyanide does to a person's face. It's a lot, but definitely PG-13.
DIRECTOR: Sam Mendes
I was convinced that I had written about this movie before. In fact, I'm going to check one more time right now. Nope, I haven't written about Skyfall. I just created a false memory. It's possible that it is due to the fact that Skyfall might be the one James Bond movie that doesn't try to hide a theme in the movie, but openly states it every two seconds. It might be because I write so many of these that I'm starting to lose track. Or maybe it is all due to the fact that I'm aging and memory might be a little bit more loosey-goosey than it was when I was in my 20s. Either way, I'm actually kind of jazzed that I get to write about Skyfall because it gets right what Die Another Day got wrong.
Die Another Day was a celebration of James Bond at 40. It was the 20th Bond entry in 40 years (which might have been part of the problem, come to think of it). Skyfall was the big 5-0. Man, the amount of things that were coming out between 1962 and 1964 that would affect pop culture is staggering. But James Bond's 50th Anniversary would actively address the problems that James Bond had faced culturally since GoldenEye. In that blog entry, I refer to GoldenEye as the birth of Nu-Bond. I think Albert Broccoli had stopped working on Bond and there was this cinematic feel that the other Bonds kind of lacked due to the adherence to formula. But as the West became more progressive, the problematic with chauvinist James Bond became all the more apparent. It was quaint and simple in the Connery era to have James Bond bed women and never speak to them again. It was easy to be kind of xenophobic towards an entire nation. Smoking was cool and drinking was even cooler. But from the '90s on, we kind of knew that James Bond was kind of a toxic personality. Die Another Day tried to celebrate that old way of thinking by referencing everything that came before it and covering up the problems with visuals. Skyfall, however, took a different approach.
I regularly have this moment while writing my blog. I'm going to establish that I don't love the message of Skyfall. It feels very Boomerish. You'll see what I mean later. But I will be praising the fact that Bond took a stance, even if I don't necessarily like that stance. Skyfall verbally states its theme throughout the film. If anything, it comes across as heavy-handed and slightly sophomoric. But considering that Bond doesn't necessary focus on having a message, at least not an overt message, it makes sense that Sam Mendes would allow a message about "being old-fashioned" to be harped upon time-and-again. Maybe I'm putting a bit too much of myself into the message of the movie, but I feel like the script said, "Be old fashioned", but the director said, "Be old fashioned, but..." When GoldenEye had the scene between M and Pierce Brosnan's M, about Bond being a relic of the Cold War, the message was kind of lost. Yeah, it does a really good job and I don't want to slag that movie. But Bond in Skyfall equates being old-fashioned with having a human element, not about being a drunk anti-Russian tank.
Because Bond is very fallible in this movie. A lot of the movie harps around the fact that Moneypenny ends up accidentally almost killing Bond. Like a few of the Bond movies, the movie stresses the concept that appears in many of the Fleming novels: James Bond has lost a step. But even with his fallibility, the man-on-the-ground approach is key to defeating Silva. Silva, too, is a man-on-the-ground. But Silva is so obsessed with abandoning his past that he loses what it means to have any objectivity. He talks to Bond about how many problems he can stop by following algorithms and trusting data that he has become the very villain he's trying to stop. Coupled with the fact that he holds M in contempt for holding him back from this new enlightened ways (the pulverized face may be the text, but the subtext leans into "the past is toxic"). And that's where I think a skilled director like Sam Mendes comes in.
Mendes never audibly says it, but there is this vibe that the message isn't binary. Yes, James Bond is the hero of the old guard. But it is because Bond, after fifty years, is willing to adapt and change himself for the better. He is given that chance. When Bond comes back to MI6 after looking ragged for the majority of the movie, he relies on his old tricks that don't really cut the mustard anymore. He can't fire a gun straight. He finds himself exhausted and mentally broken. Yet, M, the personification of the aging establishment (sorry, Dame Judi Dench), gives him another chance. And it is because he is willing to depend on his fallibility as opposed to his perfection, that is what makes him strong. I was thinking that it was a little weird that the therapist says "Skyfall", which sets Bond off. The film's title seems a little coincidental, to have this therapist drop this word that we've never heard before, and it ends up being the final bombastic set piece of the film. But Bond always stressed that his power came from closing off his humanity. After all, that's the final message from Casino Royale (and this, after I started by saying the other Bond movies didn't have overt messages). But in acknowledging his own vulnerability, it opens him to humanness.
So what the movie actually shows that it isn't about Bond's brute force and his cold nature. When he embraces the things that scare him, which is a combination of the past and the future, that's what allows him to prevail in the end. I love that Craig's Bond is the one who has to perform this. I always thought that Daniel Craig was the tank of the Bonds. He took Timothy Dalton's intensity and personified it. So that he turns to M in a time of need and James Bonds with her (pun very intended), that's important. There was always a relationship there between the two of them, but it was always shielded behind a wall of professionalism. But Bond returning to his home and acknowledging that M is important to him allows him to open up his world to new things. And when he Home Alones Skyfall, he's not using brute force. He's relying on technology and a war of wits. It's very not Daniel Craig. It's very mix of old-and-new. It is a strong choice.
It's a good Bond movie. Like, we all know this. Skyfall nailed exactly what Die Another Day failed at. It was this accessible piece that allowed Dame Judi Dench to retire on a high note. Yeah, I do think that Silva technically wins in this one, but it is a satisfying film that figures out that tone is more important than flash. It's a great Bond movie.
PG-13, despite having WAY MORE butt nudity. Like, it's an entire shower room full of dudes' butts and that's okay. Also, I feel like the movie feels pretty ableist at times, considering that they really teeter on making fun of a mute and deaf gentleman. Like, he ends up being this great martial arts expert, but there's running gags about how silly he sounds. It's PG-13, but not one that I would readily show my kids. PG-13.
DIRECTOR: Jackie Chan
Okay, full disclosure. I thought that I had just watched the final entry in this franchise. Apparently, there are eight film. Eight. At one point, they completely reboot the series as this dark and brooding action series, still staring Jackie Chan, but as a different guy. I can't even wrap my head around this. These movies are so adorable and goofy. There's safely a five minute fart joke with a callback to that fart joke. How can this series decide to tonally shift genre so hard. It's a really weird choice. Regardless, I will admit that I once again had fun with this movie.
Gone is the attitude of cheap filmmaking. I commented that in the first Police Story, the movie kind of felt like it was made by a bunch of college bros who were really good at filming stunts. I mean, a lot of Police Story 2 is an attempt to capitalize on a movie that was probably pretty successful, considering that the film really goes out of its way to tie into the first movie. It's odd. There's a whole second plot here. It's not like there were a ton of unresolved issues going on with the first movie that a sequel would need to correct for giant plotholes left open. Why doesn't the movie just start with the bombing plot and make the movie a cleaner hour-and-a-half. For some reason, Police Story 2 stresses that Mr. Chu is still a major person in Chan's life. I don't know why. It seems like he got stomped pretty hard in the first movie. And then, even when bringing him back, it brings him back in the weirdest way possible.
The first film ends with Chan completely disregarding police protocol and beating the living daylights out of his suspect. The final victorious shot is Chan kicking this old man through a glass display, as if that would solve the problem of...things. But the second movie says that Chu was arrested and sentenced, but freed for health reasons. We could just go that he violated a suspect's rights and that's why he's free? I mean, that seems to be the straight line from action to consequence. I mean, part of me gets why the film didn't go that way. It would make Chan pretty unlikable, that his thirst for vengeance got in the way of making a conviction. But the entire second movie is Chan desperately trying to follow the rules, but constantly getting trapped for screwing up. It's one of the central themes of the film is the attempt to do things the right way, only to get stymied and caught at the most inopportune moments. It's just so bizarre. This is also coupled with the notion that Chan is fired in the first act of the film from the police force. I mean, the movie is called Police Story 2, but I could see Chan having to take the law into his own hands.
Instead, the movie decides to fire him and immediately rehire him. Part of this is an attempt to form a wedge between Chan and May. Again, May is a saint in these movies. I will say that the sequel does a better job of making Chan more sympathetic to the struggles that he has with May. Often, the things that happen to Chan and May aren't directly Chan's fault in the second film, unlike the first film. But I do appreciate the attempt to grow the character of May from the background persona that she had in the first movie into something that actually kind of matters. I mean, when you give a character a mom, I feel like your character might have more than one layer. (I'm being sarcastic...kind of.) And it is in writing this that I become aware that the only reason that May actually has any characterization in this movie is that she can get kidnapped. It's a bummer reason, but at least it kind of gives Chan some actual motivation for this character.
What is pretty weak in this movie is the lack of characterization for the villains of the film. The first film had Mr. Chu, this guy who took it upon himself from the first act of the film to make Chan's life miserable. Even though the two of them didn't have a previous connection to each other, by the end of the film there was a real animosity. Chu became this archvillain and someone who needed to go down for his nefarious acts. But the second film really stresses that the bombers are anonymous. There's a real problem about creating a mystery like that. When we have characters who are in the background of the movie, there's no way to 1) possibly guess who they are and 2) discover any real motivation for them. While Chu became tied to the life of the protagonist, it seems like Chan and the bombers are almost unaware of each other until the final act of the film. There's nothing personal about the fight between the protagonist and the antagonist outside of the fact that they use May as a bargaining chip. And yet, the entire story of Chan is linked to the concept that his professional life intrudes on his personal life. But, you know, with a lot of punching and kicking.
I enjoy these movies. I'm really really really really tempted to get the laserdisc of Supercop and continue this going. It would make an amazing addition to my collection, despite the fact that I would have to explain this addition to my wife. After all, who really needs Laserdiscs anymore?
R. It's for drug and alcohol abuse, coupled with some pretty regular sexuality and language throughout the movie. Also, I hope you have a healthy relationship with seeing vomit because he pukes a lot in this movie. It's one of those portraits of fading stardom that gets pretty bleak and depressing, so all of that kind of secures it the R rating.
DIRECTOR: Scott Cooper
Is it weird that I own this movie? It's pretty weird. It was part of my Fox Searchlight box set. I remember watching this movie back in 2009 with my soon-to-be wife and thinking, "That's fine." There isn't anything wrong with this movie. I mean, it's not going to sound like that the more I write about it, but it's fine. Everything I have is more of a commentary on the saturation of the same formulas and tropes until the point where we hit everything being "just fine." Okay, that all sounds pretty damning. I'll say that director Scott Cooper did a fine job with this story that almost ultimately didn't need to be told.
The current bug I have is the music biopic. (That bug is somewhere where he shouldn't be because his location causes me great discomfort.0 I know that Crazy Heart isn't a biopic and that Bad Blake isn't a real musician. Thank you, world. I am also aware of how fiction works. But Bad Blake as a fictional character isn't that interesting because we've seen Crazy Heart a dozen times with the music biopic. I've complained about Bohemian Rhapsody and Walk the Line. We get the formula. It's why I liked Rocketman so much, just because it was slightly different than the rest of the pack. But there seems to be this story that needs to be told. Heck, I can't even blame nonfiction. Crazy Heart is really just another A Star is Born. And that movie was remade, like, four times! As a culture, we're so obsessed with the concept of the aging artist, particularly the music artist, self-destructing given free reign to do anything. Like, I would love a movie about a musician who finds fame and is completely responsible with it. That movie doesn't exist. Instead, Crazy Heart comes out and acts borderline in the same fashion as the rest.
We've seen the portrait of a man burying his alcoholism until it completely shatters the remains of his life. As much as I applaud Jeff Bridges for his performance, which is great, a million actors have had to do the same thing. Heck, it almost feels like it is on the nose to have Lebowski play an alcoholic. This is me being cocky as heck, but I feel like functional alcoholism might, at this point, be the easiest thing to play. (I just remembered Judy. Give my brain five minutes of a silence coupled with a lot of caffeine and I can probably throw five more movies out there with the same performance going on.) And this is where the problem happens. When I keep seeing the same characterization of debilitating alcoholism in my protagonist, I become jaded. I'm sure that there was a time of my life where I would have been moved to tears by the characterization of Bad Blake in this film. It's a tragic tale that affects a lot of people. But like I did with horror movies, I've become desensitized.
That's a problem. Getting desensitized to a horror movie is pretty bad. After all, I shouldn't be comfortable with seeing people getting ripped apart. But alcoholism is a real thing that I've interacted with. I know it is a problem for people. A movie that shows the human condition should have me relate to the human condition. But because we have this same story over-and-over-and-over, how can I get that effect of anything new? I mean, I'm just touching on music movies. I'm not even venturing out into other subgenres like movies like The Wrestler. These performances are just the same things over again. We get three quarters of the movie of toxic behavior and then the film decides whether or not to provide a redemption arc or not. With Crazy Heart we get it. The arc is pretty simple. There are a few odd Chekhov's guns that aren't fired, like Robert Duvall saying that Bad is probably going to fall off the wagon, despite the fact that it doesn't look like he does. But that's the difference.
So instead we're left with what makes Crazy Heart different from Judy, The Wrestler, Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman, Walk the Line, and others. (I have only started sipping my tea and I don't have the time or wherewithal to make a list.) I suppose that would be the inappropriate relationship between Bad and Jean. Yeah, I'm laying on my particular judginess over the film from my high horse. It's my blog and these are fictional characters. It's really weird that Jean is considered to be such a saving grace in this movie. Don't get me wrong, I started saying this movie was fine and it is totally is. I actually do ship Bad and Jean pretty hard like the movie wants me to. But both Bad and Jean seem kind of toxic characters to root for. Bad is obviously the toxic character. Cooper is doing that intentionally. I also believe that Jean might not be the healthiest person either. The knee-jerk reaction is that she knows that Bad is a terrible idea for a boyfriend. Bad, after all, seduces Jean completely drunk. When she meets him, he is who he is in all his glory. There is nothing hidden. He's nude, drunk, and pathetic. He comes onto her and she wants nothing to do with him. (By the way, the movie has a really weird definition of consent.) She is significantly younger than him and has a child at home. But she keeps leaving in the middle of the night, under the guise of journalistic integrity (there is none) to meet this celebrity that she's sexually attracted to.
But Jean gets the moral high ground for some reason. She knows that Bad is a dangerous choice to introduce to her son. She says so multiple times in the film. But she still does it. She knows that Bad is a raging alcoholic who can barely stand, but she leaves her kid with him. Yeah, some of the rage that is directed towards Bad is really an attack on herself, but she definitely seems to play the healthy character in this story. Part of me kind of wishes that Bad and Jean turned out to be Sid and Nancy. It's with this revelation that I just had that I realized how the movie could have been different for the better. Bad could potentially bring Jean down even lower. After all, I like me a bleak movie. But when Bad gets help for his alcoholism, his real redemption arc could be saving Jean. Instead, Jean pretends that her life choices are good ideas and that Bad is way more toxic than she is. (Okay, he is. But not by much.)
So it's a fine movie. I love me a music movie. The music is pretty darned great and the performances are great. It's just that we get this kinda/sorta lazy movie that refuses to take any chances. The actors in this movie have the acting chops to really push the line, but everything in this movie is just too darned safe.
Rated R for mild language and an attempted suicide, kind of. It's a fairly harmless movie and I feel like all Jim Jarmusch's films tend to lean R. But the content isn't really there. This feels like another R for the intended audience who would appreciate the movie. I don't remember any sexuality, but maybe I'm just forgetting something. Regardless, this is R, but shouldn't really offend too many people. R.
DIRECTOR: Jim Jarmusch
Of course I bought a collected works of William Carlos Williams after I watched this. That was always my little secret thing. One of the most horrifying things about being an English teacher is that everyone assumes you've read every major work ever. I mean, I try. I really do try. I love me some lists and I love crossing things off of that list. But I've faked my way through a pretty poetry intense master's degree without ever formally sitting down and reading the collected works of William Carlos Williams.
But I do tend to love poetry now, which kind of transitions me into my thought process about Paterson. See, I keep trying to like Jim Jarmusch. I keep trying and failing. Like my dislike for David Lynch, my disregard for one of the great auteurs seems to be damning my taste into a lower category. Everyone I know and respect, film wise, tends to love these directors. I want to love them so much. I really do. Do you know how much street cred I would get if I said that Lynch and Jarmusch were my favorite directors? Instead, I have to go around saying that Alfred Hitchcock and Edgar Wright are my favorite director. While lightly snobby, I'm clearly in a category that isn't all that impressive. But I keep plugging away at their films, hoping that something will inspire me to view the films in a new light. While I'm still going to be striving to watch the complete oeuvre of Jarmusch, I don't know if Paterson is going to do much to change my mind about what I've already seen. But what I will say is that "I now get it."
Paterson is kind of a special movie. Jarmusch tends to feel very comfortable with his small stories. They tend to be stories about characters with fairly minor conflicts. The titular Paterson is almost an observer of his own film. He acts as a vehicle for the camera and we can see these snapshots of other characters' lives. Paterson just wants to be happy with his wife and write his poetry. The most insane conflict he has to deal with is the notion to share his art versus keeping it sacred and private. Yeah, the story comes to a head, but in a very minor way that is almost arbitrary to the story being told. Really, Paterson mimics the experience of writing and creation. The movie centers around the creation of art with all of its joys and insecurities. Paterson seems like a very talented poet. The mundaneness of his job contrasts to the depth of his writing. I know I liked the poetry, so keep that in mind, and if I'm missing something big, I apologize. But I'm rarely impressed when a film tells me that art is good. In the case of Paterson, I really do like the poems. And the fact that, in universe, this poetry is written by a bus driver is gorgeous.
And that's why Jarmusch's take on real world art is fantastic. Paterson seems like such a healthy soul. He rarely gets upset. He seems to thrive in routine. There's a gratitude for his small life. Yet, he's constantly at odds with the notion that his poetry is worthy of anything. He regularly denies that he's a poet, despite the fact that he's always writing. He hides the poetry until its ultimate destruction. And he's surrounded by an artistic wife, as supportive as she is, that acts as a reminder of the problem with artistic folks : they tend to be flighty and fickle. Within the film, Laura is obsessed with her monochromatic painting style, creating a new project per day. She is on an artisanal cupcake kick. And she wants a new guitar to become a country fan. The only thing that actually has any consistency with Laura is the black-and-white aesthetic. But there Paterson is, everyday, affirming her life choices. I love their marriage. It's almost a marriage of saintliness, if that's something I can say. I know that they don't have children and it seems a little shallow, but they are constantly working to affirm each other. There's a very deep love that comes from two creators constantly creating. While I don't want to every change my marriage or the fact that I have four kids, there's something very appealing about two people who affirm each other's passions and encourage further exploration.
The destruction of Paterson's notebook is a little off for me. I mean, I like plot. The reason that I've never really gotten on board the Jarmusch train is the almost intentional anti-plots he offers. The movie does all of this foreshadowing in terms of storytelling that often doesn't play out. For example, the boys telling Paterson about dog-napping, coupled with the dog being left outside the bar. Any traditional narrative would couple those scenes in juxtaposition as indication that the dog would be kidnapped. Not so. Similarly, the combination of Laura's flightiness and obsession with making these cupcakes for a farmer's market implies that she will be unsuccessful in her endeavors. After all, most films need conflict and hopelessness is fodder for conflict. That doesn't happen. Instead, the cupcakes sell really well. It's this kind of stuff that implies that the rules of plot shouldn't really matter. So when Paterson and Laura come home from the movies, the idea of something major happening to something that both characters deem as vital being destroyed happens, it really throws us into a complex plot very quickly. On top of that, the inciting incident happens pretty late in the movie. Paterson undergoes an existential crisis, wondering if he could continue being a poet knowing that his work no longer existed. But he comes around pretty quickly.
Maybe because the movie was about poetry, that was the film to bring me around to Jim Jarmusch. Perhaps all of his other movies speak to their audience because they surround the passion of a very specific subgenre that I never really understood. Because I get Paterson, with its every day obsession with creation and art, I get excited. So I actually look forward to watching another Jarmusch movie with the hopes that it will at least open my eyes to something else that Jim Jarmusch has to offer.
PG-13 for violence and implied nudity. I mean, there is fighting for the majority of a movie. In a way, it's kind of a war film without a formal war being started. But there is all kind of stunt work going on here. I suppose that there's a degree of peril. I don't know if I would advocate for a PG rating here, but it is close. It's probably more uncomfortable dealing with the very implied sexuality of the movie than any of the violence. But then again, I live in America, where violence seems commonplace. PG-13.
DIRECTOR: Niki Caro
And we're back to doing another Disney remake. There are weird challenges that show up when writing a daily film blog. One of the things I didn't see coming is how film trends make writing difficult for variety's sake. I guess I'm probably going to lean heavy onto what I've written before, like with Dumbo or Aladdin, but try to say why Mulan is somehow different from those films. We'll see how this plays out together, eh reader?
So I was the only one in the room who was mesmerized by this movie. It was our New Year's Eve movie (which shows you exactly how far behind in writing I am) and the wife and kids weren't actively complaining. But they were also distracting themselves during the movie with a palpable boredom that I didn't understand. It wasn't that long ago that we had watched the animated Mulan, which bored me to tears. For those who want the Cliffsnotes version of my take on the animated Mulan, it was that the movie wasn't for me. It was the first time I had seen it because it slipped into that era of Disney film where I was just too old to appreciate what was coming out. But I found Mulan tedious and reliant on a few too many stereotypes. So when I was watching the live action version, it seemed like this was almost a new movie.
From what I understand, there is a bit of controversy regarding the live action Mulan. I can get that. I saw that there are a lot of white people behind the cameras on this movie, considering that this is a story so important to China. I also know the Uigburs were kind of slighted once again in the making of this movie, so I am hesitant to throw a lot of praise to this film. But because I'm not an expert at the specific production of this film, I'm going to write from a perspective of simply a consumer of entertainment. It's not the healthiest way to watch a film, but it does happen sometime. If I learn more, I may watch the film in a new light. But as of right now, I kind of just enjoy the movie, flaws and all.
The reason I kind of dug this movie is that I didn't like the original form. Disney has been churning out these live-action remakes to capitalize on marketable properties. But it's all been a nostalgia hunt, which is a double-edged sword. They get the money from the theatrical releases, but the reviews tend to be pretty meh because it doesn't live up to the childhood experience that colored so many youths. It's kind of why I thought that Dumbo was a good concept, despite poor execution. With Mulan, I know that lots of people love that movie. They love, love, love that movie. I don't know if it is was a Lion King level of love, but it was still something pretty palpable. But as a guy who thought that he would have to slog through a boring piece of garbage again (I'm sorry, Mulan fans), I was pleasantly surprised to see this gorgeous film that had compelling characters and solid performances. Yeah, there's wire work and CG. But the rules were established early, so we get that Hua Mulan lives in a world of fantasy action versus completely realistic violence.
The film gets a little shaky, however, when it comes to discussing themes. Mulan came out in 1998, I think. We were just back to getting over our politically incorrect phase (or getting back into it). There was this movie where a woman was the hero of the story and she didn't have to be a princess to do it. The message of the film was that it was foolish to relegate women to second class citizens because they were completely capable of being better than men given the proper opportunity. Cool, the new movie does that too. But I think that there was a bit more zealousness when it came to planning out the narrative of the live-action Mulan because there isn't exactly a subtlety. When Xianniang is introduced into the film, her scene is absolutely rad. She's this mystical fighter, teasing the notion that Mulan is simply the next of a long line of closeted female fighters in China. I like that. But Xianniang is really poorly developed throughout the movie. Her B-story doesn't really have the meat as the A-story, yet she keeps on weaving herself into the A-story. She is created without sympathy. We are never really given the time to bond with her character, but instead must hear about how difficult her life was. Mulan, we instantly get. We have these moments where her disruption of cultural femininity have gotten her into trouble. We get that, because she tends to lean into traditionally masculine behaviors, she is considered difficult by her family and society. But Xianniang is just a strong female fighter who has allied herself with the wrong side.
So as much as Xianniang is physically a capable warrior, it also kind of demonstrates female simplicity by accident. As strong of a character as she is, she teamed up with someone who is over-the-top archvillainy. And the more she is on screen, the dumber she looks. She was put in the movie to compensate for the antiquated elements of the animated movie and, as a result, becomes the newly antiquated concept in the film. And the thing is, she has so much potential. Another byproduct of her being in the film is the dilution of the actual villain. One of my major criticisms of the first film is the very thin characterization of the primary antagonist. He's just this force of nature, which is fine. But he seems like a caricature. That's even worse here because the only reason that he's the big bad of the movie is that he's the last guy to fight, coupled with the fact that he's good at fighting. It's kind of like making Jaws or Oddjob the big bad. We understand that there has to be an intellectual force behind all of the evil of the film and this movie just doesn't offer that.
So the movie is gorgeous and I'm going to have that as my big takeaway. Yeah, it is very imperfect. But considering that I don't traditionally love the Disney remakes, even with the exception of the 2019 Aladdin, Mulan takes some healthy steps towards resolving my issues with these movies. Yeah, I still think that they are pretty unnecessary. I'm sure that I'd lose my mind over a live-action version of The Great Mouse Detective, but it would just be hitting that nostalgia button that I've been holding onto for so long. Mulan is good enough, though, for me to appreciate it for what it is. It's a better movie than I thought it was going to be.
Not rated because it's old. (I sometimes don't write fancy-like.) It's the fairy tale. We've all been kind of blind to the Beauty and the Beast story for a long time. It seems fairly harmless, until you take into account the fact that the Beast is absolutely awful. (I will be going into this later.) In this version, some of the more unlikable characters die. There are little cruelties that characters perform, but nothing that would be objectionable to children. Not rated.
DIRECTORS: Jean Cocteau and Rene Clement
I suppose I live in an era where I have to get used to writing, despite national tragedies. How unfair is that? This is the country right now and I now realize that if I didn't maintain my arbitrary schedule, the world will just keep getting worse and worse. I don't mean to sound so pessimistic, but it's shocking how bad the world gets. I guess I have to take some degree of solace that I get to write about Beauty and the Beast as opposed to something that is going to get me really riled up.
The Cocteau version of Beauty and the Beast is one of those gorgeous movies that I feel is the product of an artist being allowed to be an artist. The story naturally lends itself to experimentation, especially in 1946. I'm going to be going into some of the choices that are made in the movie, both story and script wise, but watching the Cocteau version of Beauty and the Beast kind of makes the Disney one feel vapid. When I was a kid, I loved this movie. I was just the prime age for it when it came out. It wasn't my favorite. I reserve that one for Aladdin. But it was a solid movie. Yeah, some of the animation stuff, when it came to the implementation of computers, was probably pretty revolutionary and Gaston's song is a bop. But watching that movie, it isn't really a quality work. If anything, it looks cheap not just by today's standards, but by other Disney standards. And I'm clearly alone on this one because it was nominated for a ton of awards. But for Disney, Beauty and the Beast was always going to be a slam dunk. It's kind of why the Cocteau version is so appealing.
The framing of the story really allows Cocteau to have fun. While Disney decided to anthropomorphize the objects in the house, Cocteau implies hidden sentience behind every object. The objects in the Disney version are cursed, sure. But they lead basically functional lives. The objects in the Cocteau version seem truly magical. The candles on the walls being escorted by hands, our first real introduction to the cursed objects, are particularly effective. I know that he filmed that scene in reverse to have the candle magically ignite, but it is some cool, other-worldly stuff. I love the faces in the wall. The only thing that Cocteau does that didn't really grab me as a cool or spooky effect is the door. You probably don't remember the door either. The door speaks to Belle and declares its presence. That's it. The door doesn't really have a big part. It just says, "I'm a door and I'm alive." Cool. That should have probably been an important moment, but it just didn't happen.
But I really want to look at the same themes that I looked at when I wrote about the 2017 live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast. This is a bad story. Now, I will say that Cocteau makes it a less bad story, but it is still a terrible message running throughout all versions of the tale. Before I start condemning the story altogether, I will stress things that make Cocteau version more palatable. Yes, the Beast is a real threat in both versions. The only reason that Belle is there is to save her father, who made a reasonable mistake given the circumstances. But the Beast in Cocteau's version is actually fairly well-mannered. It's got that golden cage element that I will talk about, but he's not a dynamic character so much as someone who is trying to prove his own worth. His beastly behavior comes from the idea that he physically is another species. Instead of being angry and mean, he drinks like a dog. He often finds the need to hunt. These things make him far more pitiable than the Disney story, showing a Beast who is actually a jerk until Belle teaches him not to be a jerk. Now, it sounds like the Disney version has a bit more of a message to the story. Eh, I'm going to contest that pretty hard. The Beast is rewarded for his bad behavior in the Disney version. Despite the fact that he makes changes, it kind of sells the notion that a man needs to put in minimal effort and stresses that the "nice guy" thing is all a woman needs. Belle would change her feelings about him because he's nice when he used to be mean. It overshadows the abusive relationship that the Beast is full on building in the movie.
Also, the Cocteau version does a far better job establishing that Belle is a prisoner, no matter where she is. The reason Belle acclimates so well to the Beast's castle is that she's used to that kind of behavior. I don't know much about the original Beauty and the Beast story, but there's a really strong thread of Cinderella running through the Cocteau version. Belle has two evil stepsisters and a greedy brother. One of the cool themes is that Belle, and thusly, good women everywhere, are prisoners of their environments. Dad in this one, as much as he's more likable than the other members of the family, still kind of sucks. Everyone expects Belle to do everything for them. When she returns, the sisters who hate her trap her for their own selfish needs. So when Belle doesn't recognize the evil that the Beast has hoisted upon her, it's because that's what her life has always been. She's always been the prisoner of a loved one. With the case of the Beast, it's a little more literal, but it still parallels the life she had before. The Disney one kind of teased that with the song at the beginning, but it's much more understated. In the Disney version, she's trapped by the notion of a small town where things are boring. Cocteau's very oppressive home life makes the Beast's attractiveness make more sense.
But this is where I really wanted to get to: A better version of a problematic story is still a problematic story. The Beast is desperate for someone to recognize his humanity. To accomplish this, he takes a girl hostage and Stockholms her for the majority of the story. He makes her dependent on him. His logic is "If she sees that I'm a good guy, she'll have to love me." See, it's not just that he's asking to be recognized as a person. His curse is dependent on love, so he continues to ask her for her hand in marriage, knowing what the answer will be. The fact that a woman has to be convinced to love you is a really troubling message, because that's not how that should work. Belle really has no autonomy in any version of the story. She realizes that accepting her crappy scenario makes her emotionally less under duress, so she starts moving in that direction. That's not vulnerability. It's a lack of choices. She sees the world in this binary fashion: marriage or sadness. And it's only when she doesn't choose sadness that she's able to find any degree of solace. Yeah, the Beast turns into a handsome prince. That's fine. But that's a perk that she didn't know was coming. The story gives us a happy ending because that's what we want. But really, she views the Beast with love only because of what he has been compared to. The Beast is tragic, but not necessarily a love interest. He has all the power and she has none. As more relatable as the Cocteau version is, it still has major faults.
But I acknowledge the artistry of this movie. This is a movie with soul. I don't know if I needed the meta elements of the film in there, but it is a well-told story, even if the story kind of sucks.
R and it feels like a really weird R. Like, I get it. When I spell out why this movie earned the rating it did, we can all kind of see it. It's very violent. There's blood and death. It's that great '60s / '70s red paint blood too. There are multiple grizzly weapons used. Yeah, I can see an R rating too. But the tone and feel of the movie honestly gives it kind of a Technicolor musical vibe. Like, I would show this to my wife and she'd probably get into it. But still, lots of blood feels like R, so it's R.
DIRECTOR: Chia Liang-Liu
This is the true origin of Santa.
I told you I was watching a lot of Chinese action films, didn't I? I don't know how it happened. I mean, I know what got the ball rolling. I got Police Story on Blu-ray. But then, I intentionally started padding my film algorithm with non-Chinese martial arts films. If I allowed my schedule to play out the way it would, I probably would have watched four martial arts films back-to-back. It doesn't make for good writing and I wouldn't have appreciated any of them individually.
But The 36th Chamber of Shaolin was always my first Chinese martial arts movie. I had seen exploitation and blaxspoitation up to this point, but I never really saw where its source material had come from. And for a while after this movie, I kind of thought that this is what these movies looked like. I mean, I immediately adored this movie. It's so good. It's weird that it isn't so famous that it would enter the public viewing. I think only film nerds and action fans tend to watch this film. But my comparison is to the Bruce Lee movies that I've watched. And despite having just absolutely insane action behind both of these films, they feel so much different tonally.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin very much feels like a musical from the late 1960s. I didn't notice that the first time. A lot of that comes from the Technicolor mixed with the CinemaScope (it's called something different, but we get it. ShawScope? Does that sound right?). It gives the film this epic Hollywood feel to the film. There's nothing really cheap about this movie. It has an absolutely giant cast. It's almost like the movie was made to appeal to a much broader audience than simply the Chinese market. Yeah, I dig Police Story and the Bruce Lee stuff, but until Enter the Dragon, these films definitely felt small and underbudgeted.
Instead, with The 36th Chamber, there is a sense of scope and purpose. While I don't think that the movie was necessarily made with the hope to promote the martial arts, I will say that the movie gives the practice of martial arts a grandeur that we haven't seen. I've always viewed impressive martial arts movies in terms of spectacle. It's a cross between very impressive tricks and a well-choreographed dance. I mean, very rarely is a well-executed action sequence something that is meant to be moving the plot. Punching a guy once and knocking him out, for all intents and purposes, moves the plot along in the same way a ten minute action set piece does, filled with acrobatics. Yeah, I really appreciate the acrobatics, but that's just fluff to show off skills. But The 36th Chamber does something a little more than that. I kind of thought that the film was one giant montage sequence, but the elements of montage stripped away. San Ta's primary plot involves going through each of the steps of learning. From a structural perspective, these are exercises that must be varied enough to keep an audience interested, yet must connect to the idea that these are all training vehicles.
Yeah, the number "36" is almost completely arbitrary. (The number is actually "35". San Ta creates The 36th Chamber to teach laymen about martial arts.) We don't actually see all 35 chambers. But we also get the idea of scope. Very rarely does a chamber get sped up. Instead, the film is all about the growing pains that each test offers to San Ta. And like most great sports films about an underdog learning the skills necessary for success, San Ta learns about his own abilities. It's kind of great, because San Ta becomes both an insanely dynamic character while, I guess, staying the same by the end of the film. He starts off the 35 chambers extremely cocky, yet motivated to save his fellow rebels. He gets humiliated quickly by the magic powers that the other Shaolin monks display. (I just realized that he never gets that ability or else the film would have ended pretty differently.) But that adversity that he faces makes him a far more compelling character. We see all these people passing through the different chambers. But once San Ta strips away his pride, he is the guy who keeps working after hours for the skill that others simply practice during the assigned times.
But he does stay the same. The movie stresses that the martial arts is a discipline within Buddhism. San Ta spends years with the monks, living with them and learning from them. He has become a Buddhist monk and one of his major criticisms is, despite is physical prowess and aptitude in the chambers, that he hasn't gotten high enough in the study of Buddhism to continue on. I won't pretend to know the intricacies of Buddhism to comment on that in the least. But one of the main ideas that the monks try to bestow is that the knowledge of martial arts 1) should be isolated to Buddhist monks and Buddhist monks alone and 2) that all of this is for mental discipline, not physical action. But that's the reason that San Ta is learning this discipline: so that he can beat up the bad guys. And that's where the message of the movie gets kind of muddied.
San Ta is fighting for a good cause. (The joy of children everywhere.) He sees the people being harassed and beaten for wanting to be free. The movie, by the way, is way too much like Star Wars for me not to notice. He is right to want to free them and to use his skills to help others. Similarly, he wants to be the teach-a-man-to-fish guy who wants the people of China to be self-sustaining and protect themselves. These are both noble goals. But the monks are also built up in the film as the pinnacles of wisdom. The understanding that San Ta was supposed to glean in the process of learning the martial arts in the 35 chambers was humility. When San Ta leaves, the same monks don't understand San Ta's motivation. In a way, the monks kind of become antagonists because they refuse to support San Ta's beliefs. He's temporarily exiled from the monastery because of his refusal to listen to the tenets of the monastery. He hasn't focused on his devotion to Buddha (again, I don't claim to know the details of this faith), but he still comes away with what he wants.
Now, the movie really works. I don't think it doesn't. But it does have a really weird message where we have to question the morality of the Buddhist monks, who act as the sages of the film. I jump back to the Star Wars parallels with The Empire Strikes Back. In Empire, Yoda warns Luke to stay when he sees his friends suffering. His appearance at Cloud City will bring nothing but pain. Sure enough, Luke goes and Yoda's warning proved accurate. Han is still captured. Luke doesn't really rendezvous with the group until all the damage is done. He loses his hand and discovers that Vader is his father. (Spoiler alert.) But San Ta ignores his sages. Instead, he goes right into the thick of it...and wins? Ultimately, this means that the sages are kind of the bad guys of the piece. They don't want the 36th chamber to exist. They don't want to use their talents for good. They take the old "With great power" Spider-Man thing and completely go against that. It makes the Buddhist monks partially culpable for the evils that happen in China.
But as a movie, it completely slaps. It's weirdly great and I can't think of a movie like it. It feels like a cinema classic, but really, it's just a martial arts movie that completely indulges everything you want out of a movie. Like, San Ta just fights the big bad guy and wins. The. End. It's great.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.