East Meets Western Review: The Warrior’s Way; The Good, The Bad, and the Weird

The conflict is multilayered – there’s the immediate threat posed by The Colonel and his gang of murderous cowboys, the impending threat posed by the Sad Flutes as they pursue Yang, and the more subtle character conflicts of Yang attempting to leave his violent life behind, and Lynne avenging her family’s murder. If you’ve been watching a lot of Asian import movies in the past ten years, you’ll see a lot of familiar territory explored, but against the Western backdrop everything feels like a fresh new take.

Note: Since The Warrior’s Way is currently in theaters, I’ll try to avoid spoilers. I really do recommend this movie though, you can’t ask for a better time!

One reason why you haven't heard of this movie is the way it was marketed. Does this look like a crazy surrealist Western?

Let me just say that already, The Warrior’s Way is fast approaching the list of My Favorite Movies–a list that has many entries, some changing constantly, but which I will always come back to, again and again. I was really surprised by the vitriolic comments directed at it on the IMDB user board, and I’m not really convinced we saw the same movie, or went into it with the same expectations.

Written and Directed by Sngmoo Lee,

Warrior’s Way is the story of Yang, the world’s greatest assassin and member of the Sad Flutes gang. It’s never explicitly stated where he originates from, but given that the movie  involves ninjas, you might surmise it takes place in Japan, despite the fact that Yang is played by Jang Dong Gun, a Korean actor.  When tasked to kill the last member of a rival clan, thus ending a centuries-old war, he finds he can’t–because the target is a baby. Rather than kill the baby (although there is a  a picture of him in the dictionary under the entry for ‘Murder’) he flees. The rest of the Sad Flutes come after him, including their leader, the Saddest Flute, and so he flees to America with the baby.

The movie is a mix of practical sets and green screen, which lends a charming, nostalgic feel to the precedings. After all, this is NOT a historical movie by any means, and you’ll either suspend your disbelief with the first fight scene, or you won’t, which is probably what happened with all those negative comments. I went in expecting to have fun, and I did, as well as nearly crying at the end.

In the US, Yang finds a crummy town of shanties and shacks, half-digested by the desert, and populated by rustics and–weirdly–the members of a now-defunct circus troupe. The head of the whole shebang is 8-ball, an African-American dwarf (Tony Cox, best known from his role as the larcenous Marcus in Bad Santa) who used to be the circus’s ringmaster. Accompanying him are the various freaks and clowns and bearded ladies you’d expect of a circus troupe. Towering over everything are the skeletal remains of a Ferris wheel, silhouetted against the perpetually-sunset hued sky. He also meets Lynne (Kate Bosworth), whose entire family was murdered by local psycho gangleader The Colonel (Danny Houston, at his greasy, frightening best) and who desperately attempts to train herself with knives, despite being really, really inept at it.

As with more traditional Westerns before it, Warrior’s Way depicts Yang as a sort of Man with No Name trope; he comes to the town and begins to make a place for himself and the child, taking over his dead friend’s laundry and teaching Lynne how to be a better knife-thrower. I do have to say, at first when he took over the laundry house I kind of cringed, but it was also an interesting character and story move–here’s a man who has killed hundreds and could rule this town like a tyrant-king, but instead chooses to take up almost the lowest rung on the social ladder of the town. Not because he can’t do anything else, but because he is inflicting a self-punishment by washing other people’s drawers.

Not just a pretty face, he's also socially conscious! With cute anime shirts!

There has been much criticism about the stoic, almost monosyllabic performance by Jang in the film, compared to Geoffrey Rush’s over the top town drunk, or Kate Bosworth’s rootin-tootin performance as Lynne. I think it’s just a problem of perspective — having watched a lot of Asian and specifically Korean movies, I had no trouble connecting with Yang. The man was trained from a young age to be an emotionless murder machine, so as he attempts to cultivate gentleness within himself he also learns how to express himself without, you know, killing people.

Even a slight shift of his brows is for him like writing pages and pages of long slobby poetry about his feelings. Also, it’s not like Clint Eastwood was a fount of emotion in his Westerns–he got angry. He yelled. That’s about it. Unless we’re talking about Paint Your Wagon, which we’re not. Ever.

The conflict is multilayered – there’s the immediate threat posed by The Colonel and his gang of murderous cowboys, the impending threat posed by the Sad Flutes as they pursue Yang, and the more subtle character conflicts of Yang attempting to leave his violent life behind, and Lynne avenging her family’s murder. If you’ve been watching a lot of Asian import movies in the past ten years, you’ll see a lot of familiar territory explored, but against the Western backdrop everything feels like a fresh new take.

I also wanted to say that I was happy Lynne and Yang sort of almost start a relationship–too often in movies the minority mentor winds up a sexless monk, all teachy and supporty without any exploration of more complex feelings that would develop in such a relationship.

So the long and short of it is see the movie, it’s worth it. At the least, it’s definitely worth a rent on a Saturday night, best viewed with friends.

Warrior’s Way is in theaters right now. GO! GO SEE IT!

Great Moments in Humanism Entry: Groundhog Day

A movie like this is bittersweet, because while it enriches the viewer, I can think of countless people who would benefit from the kind of psychological ‘time out’ that Phil experiences. Because that’s what it is – someone basically said ‘You sit in this corner and think about what you’ve done,’ except on a cosmic scale.

Phil Connors: What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?

Ralph: That about sums it up for me.

Seriously. This is amazing.

Groundhog Day.

You’ve seen it or, or you haven’t, or you’ve seen it, and wondered what all the fuss was about.

Or you’ve seen it, and you know exactly where I’m going.

Harold Ramis’s 1993 film Groundhog Day stars Bill Murray as egocentric megabastard Phil Connors, a cynical weather man with disdain for only the whole of creation, who is trapped in a strange time flux and relives the same day over and over again.

The premise sounds corny, and when I first saw the movie at age 12 or so I wondered what the hell was going on with it. But it stuck with me. It’s like bookmarking a page that has a word you don’t understand and mean to look up, and then years later you either understand the word or have enough experience under your belt that you can figure out what it means. I love things like that. . . that you need to mature in order to understand.

Newsman Phil has to go to Punxatawney Pennsylvania to report on the verdict of Punxatawney Phil, the most famous groundhog in the US, on whether or not to expect more spring or winter. Each day is begun with the alarm clock playing Sonny and Cher’s ‘I got you, babe,’ and at first Phil makes the most of his situation–since everything happens the same way every day, through observation he is able to later manipulate situations to his own advantage, and uses this knowledge to rob banks, romance women, eat horribly, and generally sate his most base appetites. When he realizes the one thing he wants that he can’t have is Rita, he embarks on a journey of never-ending self-destruction: despondent about being trapped forever in a small town with no consequences to his actions, he throws himself off buildings and crashes cars or steps in front of trucks in the hopes of killing himself and escaping the hell that is a never-ending Groundhog Day.

Get used to this image.

Groundhog Day was incredibly underrated when it came out–which is a shame, because it’s much smarter than the average crappy romance comedy/fantasy. There’s a key line that ties the whole movie perfectly together.

While attempting to romance the unwilling object of his affection, Rita, played by Andie MacDowell, Phil screws up and draws her ire. She slaps him and asks if the whole day has been some some big ploy to get her to love him. He responds with the incredibly apt: ‘But I don’t even like myself.’

That’s the key part of the whole movie–Phil’s cynicism and misery springs from the fact that he really, truly hates himself, and therefore everything and everyone else in the world.

Here’s the interesting part, where the movie goes from a goofy romance-comedy to a brilliant character study; we get to see Phil really grow and change as a person. He starts out a childish, selfish douchebag, belittling anyone who shows him kindness and dismissing kind people as weak. As he begins to manipulate situations to his advantage, thus getting anything he wants, he realizes that this is boring. He attempts to woo Rita, meticulously researching her likes and dislikes and trying desperately to synthesize a personality that she finds attractive: studying French poetry, memorizing her favorite things, and asking her endless questions to get to know her better. Alas, she sees through his attempts for what they are: a facile attempt to fool her into liking him.

He really does play in real life, I think.

After she drops him, his despondence leads to the aforementioned many suicide attempts. He is truly, truly miserable now, in a hell of his own making.

Since being a selfish bastard didn’t make him happy, he  decides to try going in the opposite direction: he becomes the town’s worker of small miracles, changing tires for old ladies, helping the helpless, etc.  His crusade of selflessness includes trying to save an elderly homeless man from death, and here he really begins to evince the change: unable to save the man, he finally begins to understand what caring for others is.

Since he seems to have unlimited time, he learns the piano and reads classical literature, teaches himself too cook and other tasks he might have overlooked or been uninterested in previously.  This intellectual banquet leads him to further realize how petty and mean he was before this strange phenomena happened to him, and his bad attitude is tempered and reshaped over the small eternity he spends on Groundhog Day.

A movie like this is bittersweet, because while it enriches the viewer, I can think of countless people who would benefit from the kind of psychological ‘time out’ that Phil experiences. Because that’s what it is  – someone basically said ‘You sit in this corner and think about what you’ve done,’ except on a cosmic scale.

It’s only when Connors learns to love himself, and by extension other people, that he is able to escape from Groundhog Day.

I like Groundhog Day because it imagines that even the most cold-hearted bastard is capable of change, given the right amount of time and right circumstances. Murray is the perfect person for this role, since he knows how to portray someone both cynical and warm: after all, cynics are usually people whose soft hearts were broken early in life, and grow callous and cold in an attempt to prevent it from ever happening again. Having been a cynic and grown up around them, I know exactly what I’m talking about. Murray probably knows that or experienced it in some form himself, since he illustrates it so beautifully in his characters. Sure, he doesn’t have the world’s widest range, but he has what he does down to a science.

Groundhog Day is available on Instant Watch.

 

 

 

 

 

Coraline and the color palette of childhood

Here’s the short version of this entry: I just love Coraline.

Look out, world!

There haven’t been a lot of movies made in the last ten years that I can watch over and over again and still enjoy, that offer a really escapist feeling, that I’m not distracted by overblown production values or weak performances; Coraline definitely falls into that category.

There’s something beyond reproach about it. That’s not to say it doesn’t have flaws, but when you’re completely engrossed in the liquid grace of the stop motion puppetry, the textures of the world, sharp writing, brilliant characterizations, and beautiful music,  it’s easy to forgive.

There’s also the beauty of the color palette.

We first meet Coraline as she moves into a depressingly drab house on a gray, late-winter day. Dead trees cluster in the background, and a slate sky drops rain. Her parents are just as drained, with good reason: her beige-sweater sporting Mom was recently in a car accident and also wears a neckbrace, and Coraline’s dad resembles the microwavable version of Adrien Brody.

I shouldn't make fun, I'm only a few steps away from this myself.

From a child’s standpoint, Coraline’s parents might be viewed as selfish and neglectful; an adult looks on their attempt to focus on their desperately-needed work and sympathizes. After all, without the catalogue, the family doesn’t eat, since they’re freelance writers.

There were even a few moments when their plight seemed more serious than Coraline’s, and her whining for their attention made her less sympathetic and seem overly-self centered, even for a child.

It’s a depressing world for anyone, and an intelligent child like Coraline is doubly affected.

Which is where the color palette comes in.

I'd watch this cooking show. Hell, it's less terrifying than anything Paula Deen can come up with.

When the Other Mother builds a world to tempt Coraline, she fills it with lush, warm colors and luxuriant textures. The delicious food, the wallpaper, furniture, clothing, and plants of the Other World radiate color, almost drown the viewer in hues. My DVD came with a 3D version of the movie (and glasses! SO COOL!) and I haven’t given that a spin yet, but I hope it’ll be worth all the kerfuffle.

The color palette of childhood is simple, visceral. We want to wear our straw hats with our green pinafore and orange sweater and blue sock, possibly while wearing fairy wings or a tail, if we’re fairly young. Therein lies the appeal in the colorful mishmash of Coraline’s outfits: her pink dress and green tights, or the green and orange gloves she covets which her mother initially rejects have an individualistic charm to them, but also symbolize the time in our lives when we still did things for ourselves rather than others.

Once in high school a girl in my class was horrified with embarassment when a teacher pointed out the girl was wearing brown shoes with a black belt. I took this lesson to heart and swore never to make the same faux pas; now I could give a shit, although I do tend to shy away from bright colors.

From early high school until just two years ago, I wore black, gray, and if I was feeling saucy, purple or red. That was it. I was terrified of wearing The Wrong Thing together, and those four colors made me feel safe. Somehow, I forgot that wearing clothing had everything to do with what I liked, and nothing to do with what other people wanted. Inch by inch I’ve crept away from that security blanket, and now wear bright greens and blues, as well.

Now, I am seriously covetous of Coraline’s Other Outfit, which the Other Mother has made for her.

Cringing Genius Nerd and Horrific Ghost-child sold separately.

Part of the reason I like it is because the stars remind of me of the character Eleanor from Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House.

You don’t need to know the whole story of Hill House if you don’t already; what you need to know is that Eleanor is a shy, vulnerable woman bullied for years by her mother, who decides to take part in an experiment mostly as a way of asserting herself. As she drives to the house, she imagines a destiny for herself that is extricated from her overbearing mother: she’ll have a house some day, with stone lions guarding the front door, and she’ll drink from a cupful of stars. In short, she’ll do what SHE wants, HOW she wants, WHEN she wants.

The cupful of stars thing has always stuck with me, and when I saw the color and design on Coraline’ shirt it reminded me forcibly of Eleanor’s cupful of stars. It reminded me of those childhood things I’d given up or lost, most of all the intangible ones.

A person can live without their old toys, but not without the imagination that brought them to life.

There’s merit to the putting away of childish things as you become an adult, but finding a balance–neither giving up entirely on childish things nor retreating back into them–is what most people struggle with.

So I’d like to raise a cupful of stars to Coraline, for helping me find some of those things I thought I’d lost.

I actually found a woman on Etsy who’ll make the sweater, and while the child part of me wants it now, NOW, the adult part of me insists I wait until I actually can afford to drop 150 dollars on a sweater.


Big Drunk Posts – Babe: Pig In the City

Read this. Don’t skip it. You’ll be thankful you did.

Mrs. Hoggett learns Horrifyng Lessons

When the original Babe movie came out, a young cousin of mine insisted on watching it over and over again. Although I loved the movie when it came out (I was in high school at the time) watching it ad nauseum turned me off to the notion of the sequel, Babe: Pig in the City, when it appeared in theaters.It seemed like a shameless attempt at cashing in on zeitgeist.

It sort of fell off my radar after that.

In 2008, The Onion did a New Cult Canon review of the film, and in reading about it and watching the clips I realized I might really be missing out on something. I put it in my Netflix queue and sort of forgot about it.

Then one of my dad’s closest friends died.

I found out the night before, was up most of the night crying, and decided to call in to work the following day.

While at home, I saw we had movies, and being a person who likes movies in a time of emotional upset, I decided to watch whatever the hell was near at hand. It turned out to be today’s entry.

As a children’s movie, Babe: Pig in the City is somewhat wanting. There are a lot of bizarre plot twists, characters with shady motivations, disturbing characters, and downright twisted imagery.

Things get weird. So, so weird.

As an affirmation of remaining true to oneself, throwing off the expectations of others, the benefits that may come with risk, and continuing to struggle in the face of impossibly bleak odds, it is a goddamn masterpiece.

That’s right: the truth gets typed in bold.

Between horrible Rube Goldbergian accidents, geriatric clowns, licentious chimpanzees, art deco/steampunk architecture, rampant species-ism, brutal life lessons, and animal violence, Pig in the City seems more like something one of the Davids (Lynch or Cronenberg) might jot down in their Bad Dream Diary and forget about. It’s easy to see why it failed as children’s movie, when it was really the next City of Lost Children.

At base, it’s about getting separated from one’s protector/parent/comfort zone and the inherent fear of needing to fend for oneself, as well as other less-articulated fears like fierce dogs, strangers, liars, clowns, and even the police:  in a particularly frightening scene where the Health Department conducts a Swat-style raid on a hotel full of animals in hiding,, many animals are brutally subjected to cages, choke-poles, nooses and just rough treatment. There are so many facets to the film it’s almost trite to try and name them all. What Miller was attempting was something less like Bambi and more like ET, but unfortunately the timing was wrong–a film like this would have cleaned up in the 80’s, when children’s fare tended to wander into the dark more often.Unfortunately, the late 90’s was more geared towards the sugar-coated, Nerf-encased products of today.

Do not, do NOT, be frightened away from seeing this movie because of this image. It's worth it, believe me.

An important factor differentiating the first Babe from its much darker second is that the second was largely scripted by George Miller, who directed (but didn’t write) the first. Miller began his career as a trauma center surgeon in Australia, putting back together people who had grievously damaged themselves in traffic accidents, and it was this constant exposure to youth bike/racing culture that brought him to write and direct the films he’s much better known for than Babe:

The Mad Max films.

The man who directed a movie about a sweet little pig who refuses to conform to barnyard stereotypes also wrote Mad Max. He wrote THUNDERDOME for Christ’s sake.

Here’s a fun little gratuitous jaunt in the Wayback Machine, about a woman named Entity and her little Raggedy Man:

Yeah, I feel like watching it again RIGHT NOW, too. Mel Gibson may be a crazy ass ranty mysogynist, but that movie isn’t just Mel Gibson. It’s George Miller, Tina Turner, Angry Anderson, giant trucks, chainsaw battles, and everything else.

Pig in the City is a rightful entry into the new Film Canon: as mentioned above, it makes an abysmal children’s movie, and an amazing affirmation of keeping one’s moral compass amid unrelenting social pressure.

On the screen, I finally saw the sorts of things I believe in being displayed: respect for others and their rights and beliefs, understanding, reciprocal altruism (the concept that the good you do may be returned: karma, sort of), and most of all, optimism.

The first two-thirds of the movie are brilliant, but it begins to break down in the 3rd with an extended ‘zany party bungee’ scene. I can see why such a strangely lighthearted sequence would fit, if only it had been a little more underplayed it might have netted the Babe movies another Oscar nod.

There are rumors that Miller is writing a 3rd installment to the franchise: they may come to nothing, but I wouldn’t mind seeing a 3rd Babe film. I hope it’s as good as Babe 1, if only so it makes decent money and is a delight for children, but secretly I’m hoping for another installment of the wondrous weirdness that is Pig in the City.

Happy Pig! See it for the happy pig!

Pig in the City is not available on Instant Watch.

4 Badasses You Never Saw Coming

The Man With No Name, James Bond, Dwight McCarthy, Lara Croft, Indiana Jones, Marv, Al Swearingen, Titus Pullo, Tony Soprano, Han Solo.

Badasses are in no short supply these days–you could come up with probably five off the top of your head, and hands down everyone would agree ‘Yup, pretty badass.’

But what about unexpected badasses? Those badasses who don’t come immediately to mind but nevertheless can ‘tho down’ when necessary? What about badasses that come at you sideways?

Today’s entry is all about 4 Badasses You Never Saw Coming.

4. Princess Leia.

Way more than a steel bikini no matter what a Google Image search says, Princess Leia is more than capable of Throwing Down when necessary.

Just a small girl and her Big Gun

To wit: We meet Leia when she is running from the cops–that might not sound so badass, but consider what running from the police got her: dropped like keys into a storm drain.

Storm Troopers don’t know the meaning of the words ‘civil rights.’ That’s why the Galactic Empire is evil–because they do whatever the shit they damn well please, which is why rebels are even more badass in this situation: breaking the rules gets you zapped with lasers. And lasers are HOT. They burn through things. Sometimes those things are meaty, because they are people.

Consider also that Leia fed the Imperials bogus info concerning the rebel base–knowing full well they’d figure that shit out. Then she WATCHES while her home planet/family/pets/house/neighborhood/wallet/everything in her entire life, gets blown to hell. She’s definitely upset, but she also WATCHED HER HOME PLANET GET DESTROYED and still didn’t give up the real rebel base. Leia knows what the stakes are–keep silent and one planet gets destroyed, talk and LOTS of planets get destroyed. Considering that the death star’s main purpose is, you know, destroying planets.

In this rare exception, it might have been better for Alderaan to run from the police.

3. Babe The Pig

Who’s a good piggy? WHO’S A GOOD PIGGY?

ANSWER ME DAMMIT! I DEMAND TO KNOW WHO'S A GOOD PIGGY!

Babe the Pig is, and by and large, he’s a bonafide hero.

After all, on the one hand, he saves the farm (twice!), stands up to feral dogs and disapproving orangutans, faces a terrifying elderly clown and saves a bull terrier in one of the most moving and humane moments in film.

Some day I’ll get drunk enough to post my semi-hysterical and embarrassingly earnest review of Babe: Pig in the City, but today is not this day. Today is for Babe, and our other unsung badasses.

Watch this clip and tell me this pig doesn’t have guts.

Could YOU turn around and face an oncoming bull terrier bigger than you?

2. The Mad Hatter

Back in the Old West, you judged how ridiculously badass a gunfighter was by how outlandish and insane their outfit.

This would be the equivalent of holding a Desert Eagle and many shooting trophies in your hands at all times.

The logic went that if someone was fool enough to dress like a pretty pretty princess, they were the walking equivalent of an apocalypse.

From Doc Holliday to Wild Bill Hickok, who never met an ascot he didn’t like, nature’s maxim of  ‘the brighter the plumage the more serious the danger’ was for a brief time, applied to humans. What had been true of insects and poisonous plants for millions of years finally, and gloriously, applied to mammals.

Enter the Mad Hatter, Alice’s long lost friend and guide to the weirdness she finds through the mirror in the recent Tim Burton adaptation.

'At My Signal, Unleash Hell. And Cucumber Sandwiches.'

The statement his outfit makes is nothing short of a declaration of war on every living being on Earth.

There are alien satellites observing this shit and transmitting this declaration back to their home planets, and in about five thousand years a bunch of Lovecraftian horrors will land and demand to know where the BeHatted One is so they may kill him and bring order to the galaxy, Dagon Style.

But consider also the weapon the Hatter shows up with at the third-act battle:

The Hatter Comes Heavy.

That is a CLAYMORE. The folks who used them were called Highlanders, and the only thing that differentiates Highlanders from Vikings is that they wear plaid. Nothing else.

Here is a demonstration of what Claymores can do. It is worksafe and very entertaining, if by entertaining you mean HOLY SHIT LOOK WHAT THAT SWORD CAN DO. Please also note the hefty fellow waving that pigsticker around–if a weedy little fellow like the Hatter is using one, then it means his eyes probably got that way through a constant and consistent application of Angel Dust. Not the man you want to be facing on the battlefield.

1. Mr. Faun Tumnus

'Would you like to walk back to my house? I seem to have misplaced my big white molesty van!'

When first we meet Mr. Faun Tumnus in the recent Chronicles of Narnia adaptation, he’s a timid little fellow who drops his shit and screams when surprised by the terrifying countenance of a small girl.

He gets wild by breaking into the sardines, and making hot tea. He is adorable, except he has goatlegs and entertains children without wearing pants. Or maybe for some folks, that’s a plus. It’s a big world out there.

Anyhoo, we realize this is all a big act. Later on, once all the statues have been brought back to life, Tumnus is more than ready to plow furrows across the White Witch’s ass and he heads down to the battlefield to do it…

…in nothing but a fancy red scarf.

There was a name for the guys who used to go to war without clothes on: psychopaths Berserkers.

Mr. Tumnus hasn’t brought armor, or even a weapon. He IS the weapon.

I have figured out the secret of Faun Tumnus, and it is that he is a Berserker. He doesn’t have the spear and the wolf pelt, but just give him a few minutes and he’ll have a pile of them–taken from the enemy and dumped on the field.

You only see a brief scene of him running towards the battlefield, but it’s because ostensibly this is a children’s movie and watching a goatman tear monsters apart with his bare hands and then eat their organs would incur at least a PG-13 rating.

No more child molestation jokes. Seriously.

Additionally, Mr. Tumnus has HOOVES. Which are hard little pointy things.

It’s bad enough being kicked in the face by a human foot, imagine taking a hoof to the face–it be like being bludgeoned.

Now imagine that foot belongs to the mythological equivalent of Bruce Lee, and realize that Mr. Tumnus was the Narnians’ secret weapon all along. Aslan was just there to tell him where to go.

There are dozens, hundreds more unsung badasses to go, but I hope you enjoyed this little sampling. As always, there’s More To Come.