Monday, September 13, 2010

Season of Change

"He changes times and seasons; he sets up kings and deposes them. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning. He reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what lies in darkness, and light dwells with him" -Daniel 2:21-22

Along with the new season of Fall outside has come a new season within for me. What has begun in the summer has only grown and matured till it has become unavoidable. A season of change is at hand for me. The reason I am sharing it here, is that it will effect this blog.

I work full-time at Mosaic Church as the Ministries Director and my life for the last three years has been devoted and submitted to that body of Christ. Pastor Mario asked me back in 2005 to join the team, and we planted the church in 2007. Since then, I have given of my life to begin building the foundations and ministries that make it up. While I'd be the first to admit that I wasn't exactly experienced enough for the job, the last three years have been filled with grace, mercy, patience, and miraculous growth. How Pastor Mario (and God ultimately) ever thought they could trust me with essentials of a ministry is beyond me. Looking back over the three years, it's plain to see my faults and shortcomings and how the Lord has smoothed them out and still grown our fellowship.

During this time I was able to establish this website and begin working on my desires to review films, create film lists that interested me, and share my thoughts with the world. While my blogging has always been off and on, my film watching has always been steady. I love watching, analyzing, and talking about films. In fact, during a hard season of my Christian faith, it was the cinema and films like Adaptation, Lost in Translation, The Passion of the Christ, The Return of the King (and several more) that God used to speak to me, teach me, and guide me in ways that sermons and bible studies couldn't do. This ultimately developed into a habit (thanks to my local AMC and Regal, as well as Netflix) that consumed hours and hours of my time. I began watching and cataloging hundreds of films a year. In 2005, King Kong became the #1000 film I had ever seen. Now in 2010, I am already at #1967. In less than five years I've seen nearly 1000 films, and that doesn't count re-watches! How many hours, how much time?

While I still enjoy film, I have felt the constant calling of God to begin giving it up and moving into a new season. To accomplish the vision and mission before me, I can no longer spend my time this way. What does that mean for my film life and this site? It means I've already slashed my Netflix account (I've gone from 4 at a time to 2 and just might cancel it), cancelled my Tivo subscription, and will begin cutting back dramatically on the # of films I see in the theatre. It means I won't be purchsing anymore DVDs, and especially not ordering the Kung Fu flicks I wanted to get in for my awards (True Legend, The Legend of Chen Zhen). It means that your likely going to see little to no posts from me (regarding film) on this site for the near future. While it doesn't mean I won't share my thoughts on a couple films for here to there, it does mean that I am not going to purposefully be writing anything up or continuing with any of the projects on my list.

I don't know what the next season will look like for me or this blog; will there be many film posts? Will it become decidedly more spiritual in tone? Will it become a ministry blog? I honestly don't know. What I do know is that when God whispers, one is right to be obedient and make the sacrifice. While it feels like I am giving up something I truly love (perhaps this is why it is being asked of me), I know that God has greater plans for me and I move forward in excitement. My heart has been captured by the vision of the power and importance that the local church offers to the world. My eyes have wondered at the power of Christian discipleship and it's ability to give life to the dead, sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed. My mind is constantly overtaken by the challenge of Christian leadership. My ears have heard the call of my Savior to enter into a new season of devotion and sacrifice like I have not experienced before. Will I leave all that so I can continue to watch a film every night?

Perhaps it's silly to write so eloquently about giving up 'film', but it's truly a difficult thing for me. It's something I'm passionate about, and it's something that brings a lot of fulfillment to me. Perhaps when I come out of this new season I'll be able to step back into this world of film again, I don't know. I just might come with a renewed perspective and with more to offer. Or I might never refind my passion. I don't know. What I do know is that God is good and it is wise to listen to his voice. Where it takes me I don't know, but with him I will go.

p.s Thank you to everyone who has read/commented and shared my site with others. Thank you especially to Scott Mendelson who has linked to and promoted my site several times in places I never expected to get a shout out.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Jackie Chan's Top 100 Action Scenes: 10-1


10. Stunt Spectacular: Closing Fights & a Falling Wall
Project A Part II (1987)
Category: Fight - Multiple People

It has taken me many viewings to come around to this finale sequence, but in the end, I felt a top ten without it couldn't be representative or authoritative. It's not the only Chan finale to stretch over ten minutes long and it's not the only Chan finale to be a hybrid of stunts, visual gags for humor, and quick fights (this is a hallmark of the Project A series), but it's quite possibly the best mixture he's ever achieved. Like the last half of The Beatles Abbey Road album, this sequence plays like a medley of half imagined ideas that when taken in individual parts isn't remarkable, but when put together and taken as a whole, achieves the level of a masterpiece. Stand out moments for me include a beat where Chan enters into and fights a bad guy in a rotating cage (The most remarkable aspect is just how fluid and easy Chan makes the whole thing appear), the numerous high level falls Chan takes, and the ending stunt tribute to Buster Keaton in Steamboat Bill, Jr. Just as in Keaton's film, this mad cap assembly of moments is pure genius and quintessential to any Chan top ten.

9. Keeping the Towel On...From Turkish Baths to the Markets
The Accidental Spy (2002)
Category: Chase
(the sequence begins in the first video at 4:20 and continues into the second video)

Similar to a the "Rat Glue Factory" sequence earlier in my Top 100, this is a hugely entertaining chase scene devoted entirely to Chan's slapstick and visual gags. You can't make as many movies and action scenes as Chan has and continue to put out original material without constantly coming up with twists to the usual chase formula. This scene see's Chan put the simple idea of trying to keep his private parts covered and takes it to very creative lengths with a bevy of props. It could've been just one covering after another, but Chan actually decides to try and use these props to good use against his attackers as well. The scene plays more like an innocent riff on the similar 'Austin Powers' sequences, but with the goodness appeal and action appeal that Chan exudes.

8. Rooftop Fight and Slide
Who Am I? (1998)
Category: Fight - Multiple People

Perhaps the last great pure 'fight' that Chan ever filmed. When it comes to his contemporary fights, Chan can sometimes be overlooked because he employs a more slapdash kickboxing style as compared to the slicker and more traditional kung fu based styles of Sammo Hung, Jet Li, and Yuen Woo-Ping, but there is a real art to what Chan accomplishes in this lengthy and punishing fight. Like most of his 90's fights, it's less about the physicality (although there is a good bit of it) and more about the efficiency and intricacy of the fight. What starts out as a strong one on one fight eventually ramps up into an amazing two on one bout that uses the setting to its full advantage.

Once the one on ones break down (and I admit there is a little too much blocking by Chan here), there is a vertigo inducing sequence on the side of the building that I think is pure genius, not for just the athleticism, but Chan's camera placement as well. If the fight wasn't enough, it's capped off by one of Chan's most incredible stunts ever. I don't care if he used wires here, this stunt takes courage and bravery, and is filmed perfectly. All in all, a masterpiece of fight cinema.

7. Construction Site Mayhem
Mr. Nice Guy (1997)
Category: Fight -Prop

Starting off this sequence (one of my personal favorites to watch over and over again) is a doorway sequence that would make 'Looney Tunes' writers proud. Immediately following it is a masterpiece of prop fighting in a construction site. I remember walking through a Home Depot as a kid and imagining what a fight sequence would look like in a store like it and I think this sequence tops anything I could've imagined or dreamed. Again, it's less 'fight' and more intricate prop use, but how can one argue against the several perfectly timed and executed beats present here? When Chan rolls over the table saw, ducks under the grinder, slides down the rollers, its as if they were always meant to be used that way. This sequence never fails to put a smile on my face.

6. Jackie Chan vs. Bennie "The Jet" Urquidez
Wheels on Meals (1984)
Category: Fight - One on One

I wrote an earlier article on Chan featuring this fight and I commented on the fight there, here is what I wrote then about the fight, "Impressive right? It's brutal, quick, and well paced. Jackie and Bennie's fights caught so much attention because they are both not only legitimate fighters but they are legitimate tough guys as well. Supposedly Jackie asked Bennie to be more aggressive than usual hoping the intensity would come across on screen and it certainly does. They are both so well matched, their fights feel real to me. My favorite elements of the fight are the playful back and forth between them as they feel each other's skills out, as well as several well placed slow motion shots and impact shots. The flip and leg sweep combo that Jackie does at 0:19 is just beautiful." I still agree with the comment and would add that this is the finest one on one fight Jackie would ever produce. It not only rates in his top ten, but would blow away the top ten of most any other fighters.

5. Chairs, Ladders, and Brooms Oh My!
Police Story IV: First Strike (1997)
Category: Fight - Prop

What you have here is the pinnacle of the type of prop sequence that dominated Chan's output in the 1990's. Gone is the emphasis on big falls and hard hits, and what we do have is Chan's most efficient, intricate, and entertaining prop fight ever. It's not only the pinnacle in terms of choreography, but in direction of this category as well. The pacing, the angles, and the editing perfectly cohere to make each shot a perfect complement to the one before. The flow of the action is enhanced by a camera that is always where it needs to be, and an editor that knows exactly when to cut.

Despite it's relative shortness, it tends to feel longer due to a three act structure, and constant ramping up to a sublime climax including feats with a ladder that would make even WWE Money in the Bank ladder match contestants think twice. With the exception of one other fight on my list, this just might be Chan's most iconic fight ever.

4. Yuen Biao & Jackie Chan Clear Out a Heroine Factor w/Urquidez Part II
Dragons Forever (1988)
Category: Fight -Multiple People

There isn't much to say about this sequence other than, "WOW". The stunts are ridiculous, the fighting great, and the acrobatics are top notch. The fact that we get to see a rematch of Chan and Bennie "The Jet" Urquidez as the climax of the sequence is what puts this one into the record books.

3. Rope Factory Finale
Miracles (1989)
Category: Fight - Multiple People

It's telling that this scene came out in 1989 because it perfectly straddles two periods in Chan's films, his hard hitting and stunt filled films of the mid to late eighties and the more comedic, prop-driven and choreographed films of the nineties. Like Project A Part II's stunt extravaganza finale, this sequence strikes the perfect balance. What sets this one apart is that it isn't a medly of individual parts, but a greatest hits of one homerun gag, one homerun stunt, one homerun back and forth after another. Seriously, do others catch all the details of this fight? This is someone not just at the top of their particular game, but someone creating something completely unique and beautiful that transcends it's own trappings.

2. The Mall Brawl
Police Story (1985)
Category: Fight -Multiple People

Like my #3 choice and my #1 pick, watching this sequence for the first time was just jaw-dropping. As I said before, it represents not someone working at the top of their game, but the work of someone pushing all boundaries and executing such unique vision that it can't help but inspire and entertain. While it's not the most definitive or my favorite of all-time (that belongs to my #1 pick), this is easily the most brutal fight Jackie has produced and the best display of how he envisioned an all out cop vs. thugs finale should be.

This sequence might as well be brothers to the hospital gun fight in Hard Boiled, because both are the epitome of their genres, but both also have still yet to be topped. The crew workers apparently joked that the film should actually be entitled "Glass Story" because of how much glass they break in this finale. I could name all my favorite moments, but the stunts and fight beats are too numerous to share. Like the fight before it, this is one highlight after another.

1. Final Factory Fight
The Legend of Drunken Master (1994)
Category: Fight - Multiple People

This is Chan's greatest masterpiece. The over fifteen minute finale to his greatest film (The Legend of Drunken Master) is one of, if not the greatest, fight sequence ever put onto film. It's said that it took months to film this sequence alone, and every bit of it shows on the screen. When it comes to fight scenes, this is every bit as epic as it gets.

This is a fight fan's dream, a veritable feast of action. Within fifteen minutes we get almost every genre you want; multiple people vs. multiple people, one on many, one on two, one on one, weapons, props, and hand to hand. While it's most remembered for the final fight, it's worth noting that this progression of fights and moments is perfectly plotted. What more could one want? This is easily Chan's most definitive fight as well. Although the fight was released in 1994, it contains elements from his output in the 70's, 80's, 90's and 2000's.

Hearkening back to the old school kung fu flicks and styles of the 70's, Chan brings back his popular drunken style and throws away the slapdash kick boxing style that he thrived on since Project A. This is heavily stylized and tough to execute style of drunken boxing. Also present are the tough, stunt filled moments of Chan's mid to late 80s films. Between the fire stunts and the burning coals, this is perhaps one of the most dangerous shoots Chan has encountered. The 90's peeks its head in with Chan's clever and heavily plotted choreography featuring weapons and different objects. It's most notable in the iron bar fight between a few factory workers. Taken alone, it's a beautiful sequence that would make my Top 100. Chan's future work in the 2000's is also present in that he allows a single creative idea (often a playful one) to drive the fight, and shaping everything in it.

This is supremely evident and gratifying in the final one on one fight sequence between Chan and his most impressive opponent, the fast kicking Korean, Ken Lo. As Chan begins losing the fight to the superior Lo, watch as Chan discovers the high proof alcohol that allows him to fight fire with fire (literally). Not surprisingly after an accidental swallow, he also discovers it allows him to get drunk as well. With this discovery, Chan takes the fight to an extreme you would never guess. What follows are perhaps the most intense 5 minutes of fight every filmed. Fully red faced and going insane, Chan unleashes his full drunken style upon Lo to the amazement of even the most cynical of fight fans. After stringing together 3 or 4 full on attack combo's, the fight comes to a satisfying conclusion more than 15 minutes after it begun.

It's simply the best action sequence Chan has ever filmed. It draws on not just a part of his vision and arsenal, but encapsulates nearly everything he has wanted to accomplish on screen. What is given to us is not merely a dance of kicks and punches, but an accomplishment that engages the viewer and challenges them. It's a message to it's viewer that when one calls upon all the fullness of their faculties, executes with all their abilities, and employs their grandest of visions, they can accomplish something that speaks beyond language barriers and simple entertainment, and can inspire the world over.

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Monday, August 23, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World Review

Overall Grade: C+

Playing like an amped up hybrid of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Kung Fu Hustle, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World triumphs when it appropriates the visual cleverness and silliness of the two aforementioned films, but fails in the delivery of its thematic and emotional content. In a film that revels in shorthand references, allow me to reference a tried but true criticism of films like this, "all style and no substance".

Michael Cera plays Scott Pilgrim, a young adult in search of a life and a new girlfriend. At a party he spots Ramona, and attempts at scoring a date with her. He eventually wins out, but there is a catch. Ramona has a bit of a past, and in order to date Ramona, Scott is forced to fight all seven of her evil ex's. You see, Scott has to fight off Ramona's past that keeps catching up to her and ruining her present, get it?

While I will get to my frustrations with the film, let me first commend several of the appealing aspects of this film. First off, the film is crisply edited and thought out. It is constantly moving, with pacing more reminiscent of Crank and framing reminiscent of the anime and arcade. Continuing the video game theme is the sound design and visual effects that are seamlessly integrated into not only the fight sequences, but throughout the whole film, including a stop in the restroom. It's topped off with several enjoyable performances including a scene stealing Jason Schwartzman.

What undermines the entire film is the 'weightlessness' of the universe that is ultimately created. While I am willing to suspend disbelief for the sake of an interesting premise (that there exists an super-powered league of ex-boyfriends), I'm not willing to buy into a universe that ultimately doesn't reflect the emotional weight and gravity of the real world. Let me explain further.

In what world, outside of Pilgrim's dreams, would someone like the neurotic, jobless, and mumbling Scott Pilgrim be able to land the relationships that he does? He's able to date a 17 year old high school student, Ramona 'the girl of his dreams' and apparently dated the popular lead singer of hot indie band. The film never provides a good reason for the attraction these girls have to him, and vice versa. At least the film attempts to make the girls good looking, providing some reason for Pilgrim's attraction to them. Redeeming character traits or good personalities are to much to ask for in the stylized world. After several awkward meets, Pilgrim essentially beds the 'girl of his dreams', until she puts an impromptu end to it. Even Pilgrim's gay roommate is shown bedding numerous men, including straight men, with nary a wink. These relationships are so light and meaningless, how does anyone (including the audience) really get upset or that emotional about any of them. Let alone enough to create an entire league of angry ex-boyfriends?

This same 'weightlessness' undermines what are technically proficient fight scenes as well. The film never provides sufficient reason why Pilgrim is able to fight (outside of a DDR game) at the onscreen ability shown, nor is there any gravity to the punches and falls he takes. What should be fun and entertaining (these sequences are better shot than ones in The Expendables, but are ultimately less meaningful) became dull as I just waited for them to play out. Nor is there any real connection made between why the entire universe is overlaid with video game graphics (as interesting as it is), except for the reason as to just be there. What's that? You say I should just look past it, and enjoy it because of the playful spirit?

While that may be true in regards to the fighting, it's unforgiveable when the film attempts real lessons at it's conclusion. In the climax of the film, Pilgrim is supposed to have discovered self respect and thus ultimately that the battles he is fighting in life is not for a 'woman' but for self-respect. While that's cute, it would be nice for the rest of the film to support that conclusion. What has Pilgrim come to respect about himself in the end? He is still the same neurotic, jobless, and mumbling guy as he was before. Even without this little thematic twist, the film still plays out exactly the same as if he was just fighting for the girl/ On top of that, what about Ramona's self respect? Does she have to stand by and watch as a boy fights to free her and earn his self respect? What about all the supporting characters who continue on in self-disrespecting lifestyles filled with vulgarity and cheating? Does real self respect and love exist in a world without gravity?

It's a shame because there is really a lot of good stuff on display in this film. By the climax, I really felt as though the film was exactly what you would get had you handed a geeky film student a large budget to make anything he wanted. What you end up with is a heavily stylized and 'cool' universe that floats along without scrutiny, but ultimately crashes to earth when asked to speak to its real-world audience. It's similar to what people are realizing when it comes to 3-D films these days; while it can certainly add razzle-dazzle to a film, if it doesn't help to 'speak' to a real world audience, then it's just another visual effect.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Other Guys Mini-Review

Overall Grade: C+

There's a certain point about halfway into The Other Guys when I just stopped caring because it honestly felt like the writers did as well. It's a shame because the first half of the film works pretty well and the jokes are more hit than miss. The problem is, the film just continues to play off the same jokes to diminishing returns.

Why it works in the outset I don't know, but once one realizes that half the jokes revolve around the irony of particular people saying something outlandish, like Michael Keaton making TLC (the band not the channel) references, grandma's talking sexual maneuvers, or Ferrell's quiet mild mannered character going crazy from his pimp past. If this was the first time this kind of humor was on screen then it might sustain itself for an hour and a half, but after a decade of this humor, the irony gets old pretty quickly.

While the film tries to be topical and include 'wall street' villains, it's a shame the film tries to be serious about these villains by the end. In fact, we are treated to a terribly out of context attempt at a lesson in 'wall street' chicanery over the end credits. I don't know why films that thrive on 'stupid' humor with 'stupid' plots, over-simplified villains and cardboard motivations believe they have any type of context from which to tell any lessons. What it confirms to me is that these type of comedies, as long as it thrives on 'stupidity' for its humor are inherently limited.

It's a shame because I'm always looking for one of these comedies to break out and become well-rounded, but perhaps it's a fools errand. Has there ever been a well-rounded stupid comedy that doesn't get long in the tooth? Dumb & Dumber? Anyways, point being, its a hit and miss comedy that starts out strong and wears thin pretty quickly. If thats sufficient enough, you'll have a great time. If not, then prepare for another mixed pleasure.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Jackie Chan's Top 100 Action Scenes: 20-11


20. Amazonian Woman Brawl
Armor of God (1987)
Category: Fight - Multiple People

This is a very memorable fight that could have been even higher if it didn't feel so overly produced. It's surprising because this stems from the mid to late 80's, which normally produced more of Jackie's free-flowing and lengthy fights. That aside, it's fun to watch the contrast in this fight, and Jackie exploits the differences for all they are worth. While many of the women were probably stunt doubled, it's perhaps one of the most brutal fights with a woman that Jackie has ever produced. All in all, a great fight, but perhaps a little too gimmicky and produced to make the top ten.

19. Chased Through Kuala Lumpur
Police Story 3: Supercop (1992)
Category: Chase

Initially somewhere in the top 50, but after a re-watch it's hard not to be blown away from the epic nature of this chase sequence. It's epic, its gutsy, and it's technically proficient. I appreciate that Chan doesn't just let this scene become one thing, but goes from a great car chase, to an incredible helicopter ride and finishes it out with another jaw dropping set piece on top of a train. The intensity just doesn't stop.

18. The Wind Tunnel Fight
Operation Condor (1991)
Category: Fight - Multiple People

This fight allegedly took weeks to film and it's not hard to see why. While films like The Matrix or Inception have certainly tried to push boundaries with fights in a science fiction perspective, Chan pushes the boundaries of physicality. Incredible playful, creative, and physical, I can think of no real equals to this fight. Some downgrade it because it's not really a pure fight, but that really misses the point of this sequence. For Chan, it's how he is able to utilize a foreign environment and adapt a fight within it. By that standard, this fight is a success.

17. Axe Gang Attack
The Legend of the Drunken Master (1994)
Category: Weapon Fight - Multiple People

Again, how wonderful is it to see legends like Chan and Lau Kar-Lueng team up? Pop them both into one of the most well worn Kung Fu sequences (trashing a restaurant), and you get one of Jackie's best. Notice here the variety of camera work and perspective we get. This fight is at one time big and at other times tight and up close, but the camera captures both feelings perfectly. My favorite moments include Lau knocking people down a whole story and Chan going full on crazy with the bamboo as a weapon.

16. Singing in the Rain Marketplace Fight
Shanghai Knights (2003)
Category: Prop Fight

This is hands down the best sequence to come out of Chan's American efforts. Its the epitome of the light-hearted prop heavy work that marked his American efforts and it also plays like a greatest hits of Chan prop gags. If you've been following the lists closely and watching each video, you'd notice that many gags are re-used here and wonderfully incorporated to make a whole. What separates the sequence is the wonderfully inspired 'Singing in the Rain' moment. It's hard to pull off self-conscious sequences without coming off arrogant or prideful, but Chan is able to make reference of many of his inspirations (the rest of the film does so as well), while showcasing how he has put his own spin in it. Glad this sequence makes it into my top 20.

15. Rat Glue Factory
The Myth (2005)
Category: Chase

It's a sequence like this that proves Jackie is every bit the physical comedy equivalent of a Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. While not much of a 'fight', this sequence is a joy to watch and like most of his great sequences, milks the premise for all it is worth.

14. Police and Gangster Chase: Running, Fighting, Biking, and Falling off a Clock Tower
Project A (1983)
Category: Chase

Unfortunately, it's broken up into several scenes, but Project A features this mammoth chase sequence that includes some of Chan's most iconic work. Great inventive uses of a bicycle, great back and forth fighting, and one of the most incredible stunts ever put to film (an homage to Harold Lloyd in Safety Last). While, it can feel a little haphazard because it's so broken up, there is a pleasure to just watching these sequences unfold and continue on and on.

13. Fridges, Pinball Machines and Ski's Oh My!
Rumble in the Bronx (1996)
Category: Prop Fight

Three nonstop minutes of fighting that would dominate Chan's mid to late nineties output and probably provide his most consistently pleasing sequences. Would you ever think that fridges could be used as weapons as well as refuges?

12. Playground Fight
Police Story II (1988)
Category: Weapon Fight

If the last sequence was packed, then this one is overstuffed. Without a second to breathe, this might be the most quickly paced fight Jackie has ever put out. It starts out more stunt heavy and settles down into a brutal piece of weapon work. While it doesn't make the top ten because I don't think it's as distinctive a fight as it could be, this is one of those fights where pound for pound, it can compete with anything.

11. Opening Melee: Destroying Towns and Catching Buses
Police Story (1985)
Category: Action and Chase

Just missing out on the top 10, this sequence is the opener from Chan's standard setting Police Story. It's been said that disappointed that Hollywood didn't really understand what Chan wanted to do, he came back to Hong Kong to make a film that would put to celluloid the vision of action he wanted. That this epic scene opens the film shows just how ridiculously gutsy Chan was. Creating and destroying an entire shante town and following it up with some of the most risky parkour and bus stunts on film isn't just risky, it's legendary. This sequence has been remade by Michael Bay in Bad Boys II as well as by the Thai stunt teams in Born to Fight.

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Monday, July 26, 2010

Jackie Chan's Top 100 Action Scenes: 30-21


30. Handcuffed and Running from Pirates
Project A Part II (1987)
Category: Chase

This premise is pure silent comedy star and the execution is pure Jackie Chan. It's not a long sequence (about three minutes), but this is one of those quirky chase scenes that is distinctly Jackie. Long before parkour became popular, Jackie is not only incorporating it into his action sequences, but mixing it in successfully with comedic gags as well. Incredible athleticism, gags and some solid fight work make this an all-around wonderful sequence.

29. Nazi Gold Mine Fight
Operation Condor (1991)
Category: Fight - Multiple People

As I've stated before, this kind of sequence became Jackie's bread and butter, especially in the 90's. Put Jackie into an interesting environment, fill it with martial arts bad guys wanting to get a hold of him, and watch Jackie use every part of that environment to hide, neutralize and fight his enemies. It's not the best of the bunch, but it's still WAY out ahead of anyone else. Great, excellent work here. My favorite bit is when Chan nearly gets his head sliced by a rising steel structure overtop some electric coils (its at 2:50). It's a close call that Jackie's face sells perfectly.

28. Escalators and Horse Carriages
Mr. Nice Guy (1997)
Category: Chase

I still continue to believe that Mr. Nice Guy is one of the most underrated of Chan's efforts. Here is a sequence that shows the gentle mix that was trying to be accomplished by Chan and director Sammo Hung. Having seen multiple of Hung's 70s and 80s Hong Kong efforts it isn't hard to understand why Chan plays a chef and can still match anyone kung fu for kung fu. That kind of stuff is accepted in Hong Kong film. Unfortunately, it just doesn't fly for most American audiences that desire some Navy Seal like background for our heroes. I like the mixture of stunts, to fight, to gags that this scene is able to pull off. Unfortunately the editing misses some of the lighter moments that begin this sequence. Enjoy.

27. Train Thief Fight in Three Stages
The Legend of Drunken Master (1994)
Category: Fight - Weapons

The first time the two kung fu legends, Jackie Chan and Lau Kar-Lueng met onscreen, and it doesn't disappoint. Classic weapon work here and there is a particular sequence underneath the train where there must be 10-15 moves in a single take. It's fast and intense and shows the skill involved on both sides. It's a shame that we never saw a finale one on one with these two in a film, but at least we'll always have this one. Wish this could've made my top 25.

26. Arresting Choi Wolf in the Restaurant
Project A Part II (1987)
Category: Fight - Multiple People

Not a lot of frills and novelties in this fight, but this is about five minutes of pure fight and stunt work. It's all fast, and it all looks like it hurts. There are more bad spills and falls in this sequence than in most action stars careers.

25. Motorcycle Chase Through the City to the Docks
Operation Condor (1991)
Category: Car Chase

This is the best car chase (it happens to be a motorcycle though) in Chan's career. I don't think he ever accomplished a truly visceral scene, but he really nailed the stunt work and wide shots necessary for a great scene. Two things in particular stick out here; a sequence where he narrowly misses oncoming cars and cycles by swinging on a bar and the final stunt onto a net over the sea.

24. Pachinko Parlor Brawl
Thunderbolt (1995)
Category: Fight - Multiple People

Here's a standout sequence from an otherwise mediocre film. It's a bit more intense than the typical Chan sequence, but I really enjoy how this film continues to raise the stakes as the fight progresses.

23. Cops vs. Sailors in a Bar
Project A (1983)
Category: Fight - Multiple People

I think this sequence here is able to strike a great balance (as the best ones do) between Chan's gags and legit fight and stunt work. Nearly every gag works superbly here and because it's more limited, the stunts are more memorable.

22. Fireworks Factory Finale
Police Story II (1988)
Category: Fight - Multiple People

How does Chan live up to the standards set in the first Police Story? While not quite as good, this is a fine example of nearly everything Chan brings to the table. Much like in Police Story, Chan goes all out here with stunts, this is work that still has yet to find equal. Although Jaa and his team have come close, there are a few beats here that must've certainly inflicted terrible harm on Jackie's team.

21. Mitsubishi Car Factory Fight
Twin Dragons (1992)
Category : Fight - Multiple People - Prop

The film overall is as terrible as Van Damme's twin feature Double Impact. However, unlike Van Damme's film, Twin Dragons has a couple redeemable action scenes. This is the finale sequence where Chan uses just about everything one could find in a car garage. I love Chan literally running up a moving car, on top of the multitude of other great moments in this sequence. Something you'll hear a lot, the movie is sub-par but this sequence is worth the whole thing.

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Inception: A Second Look

**Spoilers Contained

This film has more heart and soul than anyone is giving it credit and I deserve part of the blame for that. The general critical narrative for Inception has been that it's a film that features boundless creativity, a great imagination, and a pulse pounding plot; but sadly lacks the emotion to truly involve your heart along with your mind. Upon a second viewing of the film, I think we've got it all wrong. Inception is a film that beams with humanity and features a simultaneous affront and encouragement to its viewer.

In fairness, I think that Christopher Nolan is partly to blame for such a misinterpretation of his own work. The truth is, there is just too much going on within this film to be fully experienced in just one viewing. I'm not saying that it's too complicated, but perhaps too dense to reward a viewer it's fullness with just a single screening; at least it was for me. While I'm still in awe of the ideas at play and the visuals put on screen, my second viewing was more a revelation of themes and heart. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't fighting back tears, but I was touched by several themes that spoke to me in ways I hadn't thought about in my first viewing. It has helped me to reconsider the film, and I hope that you consider them as well. Let me explain.

For me, the film's central dramatic struggle was to keep hold of reality. For the most part, this means that our characters want to know if they are in the real world or are in a dreaming state. Although it also stands in for the central idea of inception; are these my real thoughts after all? It provides for great tension in the film, as it's a nagging problem for Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) as we see him constantly spinning his top to remind himself of reality.

Interestingly, there are two people in the film who truly do lose sight of what 'reality' is; Cobb's wife Mal and a group of 'shared dreamers' in a Mombasa backroom. In the case of Mal, Cobb informs us that, "...she locked away a secret, deep inside herself, something she once knew to be true... but chose to forget." In this case, she locked away and forgot her totem (the same top that Cobb uses), symbolizing that she has chosen to lose track of reality; accepting the dream world as her new reality. In the Mombasa backroom, we are told that this group of 'shared dreamers' meets everyday for several hours of dreaming (equaling many more hours in the dream world). The overseer then states, "They come to be woken up. The dream is their reality now. Who are you to say otherwise?"

Upon first watch, I felt the Mombasa scene was more or less a throw away sequence intended to show how some have become addicted to the dreaming. In retrospect, it provides a sharp contrast and a strong argument against what would become the major theme of the film. With all that 'shared dreaming' has to offer; the extended lifetime, the creativity, and the experiences; it's not reality and therefore inferior, a shade of our real world.

In Cobb's final confrontation with his wife Mal he must confront the decision of spending a practical eternity with her in their own world ("I miss you more than I can bear, but we had our time together. I have to let you go") and desiring to return to the real world and see his children*. Ultimately, Cobb declares to Mal, "Look at you. You're just a shade, a shade of my real wife. How could I capture all your beauty, your complexity, your perfection, your imperfection, in a dream? Yes, you're the best that I can do. But, I'm sorry, you're just not good enough."

I particularly like this idea that we deserve better than our dreams, we deserve reality. Risk, adventure, loss, tragedy, grief and imperfection are central to the human experience and isn't worth losing even if it means gaining immortality or 'togetherness'. While enlightening, it's not exactly a groundbreaking insight into life and one could possible even argue (as Mal and the Mombasa shared dreamers do) that Cobb is wrong and reality isn't all its cracked up to be. This is where I think the film really shines in that Cobb comes to this insight and conclusion honestly and naturally. It is faith that is required in order to understand Cobb's arrival to truth. This is where Nolan's humanity shines through and the cold precision is put to bed.

When Saito offers Cobb the possibility of clearing his name in return for inception, Cobb asks what assurances Saito could give. The reply is "none" that he would have to take him on good faith. Saito offers, "Dare you take a leap of faith? Or become an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone." Cobb decides to take the job, hoping the reality of seeing his children again would be better than becoming old and filled with regret. Similarly, when Cobb and Saito (now an old man) both meet again in limbo, a remarkable exchange takes place,

Saito: You remind me of someone... a man I met in a half-remembered dream. He was possessed of some radical notions.

Cobb: I came here to tell you... something.
Cobb: Something that... you once knew to be true.
Saito: [remembering] Impossible...

Cobb and Saito have a vague remembrance that their current world is not reality, that reality was awaiting them, but they would both be required to die for it. There are clues, evidence (the spinning top, vague remembrances) and doubts about what is real and not (and ultimately the film still leaves room for doubt), but it will require faith in order for them to meet reality. It's not a math problem or a scientific experiment, but a journey.

While I think this is a correct interpretation of Inception's central theme, it has reverberated with me so strongly because of its ability to speak to my religious beliefs. As a Christian I believe that there are clues and evidence within our world that points to a creator God and an entire spiritual realm of reality. However, there are still doubts (Man is there doubts!) This isn't a math problem or science experiment, but a journey; one that requires faith. Incredibly, like Cobb and Saito who must give up their world of limbo, (where they have full power and control) and literally die; Christ says that we must also give up our world of power and control and die to ourselves in order find the real truth of our world. I find this incredibly enriching.

Am I saying that Inception is a Christian film? Certainly not. Both seek to speak to the truths of our existence, and in that way they are indeed similar. The film's acknowledgment that there are not only clues to ultimate reality, but also doubt about our reality, makes it surprisingly relatable (especially in our postmodern context). Even more so, the films embracement of the necessity of faith in order to experience the realities of life, makes it thoroughly human. In that sense, I think it speaks not just to Christians, but to anyone who has experienced life. Appropriately there is room to doubt for those who look for it (does that top keep spinning?), but Cobb's and Inception's embracement of the real and rejection of the dream (making it very Matrix-esque), symbolized by Cobb's journey to his children, is a full on emotion and humanity.

In fact, taken to its conclusion, the film almost insults the viewer. Like the shared dreamers of Mombasa, we viewers connect and share this dream with Nolan, projecting our own subconscious into the film. In our ever increasing media society where we consume films, television shows, and video games for hours a day, are we not like those living their lives away in a dream world? To that, the film's exhortation to reject the dream and embrace the fullness that reality has to offer is both an affront and an encouragement to its viewer. Of course it's the best type of affront, a warning and a clarion call, that reality waits beyond the doors of the theatre. This to me is the humanity of the film, and it comprises the true contribution that Inception has to offer.

*This also rings true with Cobb's notion that positive emotion always seems to trump negative emotion. Ultimately, the positive emotion of reuniting with his real children has trumped the negative emotion of the guilt he feels for conceiving the idea that would lead to Mal's death.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Jackie Chan's Top 100 Action Scenes: 40-31


40. Sword, Pipe, and Skirt Fight
The Young Master (1980)
Category: Prop Fight - Multiple People

I've always found this sequence of fights to have a very natural flow to it without feeling like it was an efficiently edited scene like in Jackie's later years. Here you see what I believe to be the first use of the comedy gag that Chan finds an artifact or prop very useful to his enemy and uses it to fight against him. Lots of great comic moments here, and the final fight between Chan and the woman is quite interesting in how she uses her skirt. In a scene later on this list, Chan will actually pick up that skirt trick and use it himself.

39. Chan vs. Bradley Part 2
Gorgeous (1999)
Category: Fight - 1 on 1

This is the follow-up match to one that occurred earlier in the film Gorgeous. It's a great one on one that features some incredible speed and a real kickboxing vibe to it. It really is a great match, but it's held back a little bit here by Chan's desire to throw a little humor into it. The fight for the most part is about realism, quickness and the upper hand, but there are a few moments that just strike me as too cheesy to give this one a higher placement on my list.

38. Rollerskate Interstate Chase
Winners and Sinners (1983)
Category: Chase

I've mentioned before that there are sequences that just set Jackie Chan apart from any other action star in the world, this is a prime example. The sequence starts out with some pretty impressive stunt work on skates by Jackie and escalates to see him skating between cars and under semi-trucks! This is real dare devil work that isn't paralleled by anyone I can think of. Could you imagine Stallone, Van Damme or Seagal doing anything like this? The whole thing is topped off by a fantastic car pile up. A great sequence.

37. Wooden Shoe Chase in Rotterdam
Who Am I? (1998)
Category: Chase

We are really getting into some of my favorites now. It's not his best chase sequence or fight sequence, but four things work and work really well in this scene. First, the whole play on Jackie losing his shoes, getting his feet hurt, and hurting other's feet serves as a fun gag that binds the whole sequence. Second, the setting really shows off the great architecture and variety in the city. Third, the use of the wooden shoes to me is genius. It's brutal, funny, and ties into the running theme. Fourth, the final stunt where Jackie slides past a street with trucks blaring by has got to be one of his greatest and most dangerous stunts of all-time or a visual trick. Either way, it always catches me off guard and by surprise.

36. Thugs Attack the Car and are Dispersed
Police Story (1985)
Category: Fight - Multiple People

Again, this is the first 'fight scene' from Jackie's redefining Police Story. The focus in these fights wasn't so much on being a stunt-fest, intricate fight fest, or a comedy showcase, but a shortened version that included all those features. The fight would be quick, brutal, and effective. It's a short scene, but there is more packed into it pound for pound than other sequences. Enjoy.

35. Shark Tank Scuba Fight
Police Story IV: First Strike (1997)
Category: Fight - Prop Fight

Here is an easy fight to overlook because it's no slugfest, but to overlook this fight would be to overlook Jackie's uniqueness. If you thought it would be impossible to have an underwater fight, think again, because Jackie milks this scene for all that its worth. Throwing in some great gags with sharks, blood from cuts, and air tanks, just makes this an even better all-around fight scene. Add this with the skate sequence above and has anyone ever had two more diverse action sequences in their career?

34. An Old Man Stops Two Robbers
The Young Master (1980)
Category: Fight - Multiple People

The final and best fight sequence from The Young Master. It's a great all-around fight that Jackie chooses to show off about every skill he has. It also includes the use of the skirt trick from the 'Sword, Pipe, and Skirt' sequence mentioned above. Overlooked and under appreciated, this scene is a great representative of how early Jackie was distinguishing his brand of action apart from any drunken styles.

33. Three Way Fight in Lo Sam Pao's Lair
Project A (1983)
Category: Fight - Weapons Fight - Multiple People

It's always great to see the 'three brothers' (Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Yuen Biao) get together for a fight sequence. It starts out as a pretty good scene where each individual gets some great moments and develops into a full three on one against Dick Wei (a regular bad guy in these films). Great team work and fighting set this one apart.

32. Drunken Master vs. Thunderleg
Drunken Master (1978)
Category: Fight - One on One

Although I prefer The Young Master to Drunken Master when it comes to older Chan films, there is no doubt that the finale fight in Drunken Master is leagues ahead of The Young Master's finale. This is one of Chan's all-time great one on one fights. It's long, brutal, and showcases what would become probably his most famous style, drunken boxing. Outside of the sequel to Drunken Master, this is his best sequence of drunken boxing.

31. Construction Site Shootout and Fight with Dick Wei
Heart of Dragon (1985 )
Category: Fight - Multiple People

Heart of Dragon teamed Chan up with Sammo Hung in an attempt at a real drama. Although the movie is a failure, their attempt at a more serious tone did produce this gem of a finale. The violence level is definitely upped from Jackie's normal limits, and the fight style is a little more brutal and street fight esque. Dick Wei re-appears here for an even better fight than the one in Project A.

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Friday, July 16, 2010

Inception Review

Overall Grade: A

"We create the world of a dream. We bring a subject into that dream and they fill it with their secrets." Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) explains this key plot point early in the film to newcomer Ariadne (Ellen Page). It's an important description of the dream heists that Inception is based upon, but it's also a good basis for understanding how the film as a whole works, how the director/writer Christopher Nolan put it together, and even on a deeper level, how an audience interacts with a film. While Inception is about as intelligent, entertaining, and imaginative as summer blockbuster's get, its lasting contribution isn't really what someone is going to get out of it, but what someone is willing to put into it. However I think I may be getting ahead of myself here, so let me begin on the surface level.

On the surface, Inception is a marvelously written heist film with a science fiction twist. Instead of stealing money, or artwork, the idea here is to extract corporate ideas within the vault of someone's subconscious. If that sounds terribly un-cinematic, it's not. This isn't a 2 hour art-house drama between an estranged and damaged widower and her psychiatrist taking place in just one shot. Nolan, his art director, and cinematographer transform and translate what could essentially be just conceptual ideas into a true visual feast. We are talking exploding realities, cities turning in on themselves, worlds crumbling, and gravity defying fights; is that visual enough for you? Two twists take this basic plotline and begin the real story that drives Inception.

First, a corporate industrialist Saito (played superbly by Ken Watanabe) wants to hire Cobb and his team not to extract an idea from a rival CEO, but instead to implant an idea. It's a risky venture that would require Cobb and his team to go several layers into the subconscious, risking their lives in the process. Cobb is at first not willing to take the risk, until the second twist comes in, Saito offers Cobb as his reward, the chance to return to the United States and see his children. Essentially offering Cobb the vaunted one last job to make things right. Cobb takes it and sees it as his chance to "come home". Why he's exiled from the US, and why he's estranged from his wife and children are answers the film will later unfold.

These two threads (the act of inception and the emotional journey home to his wife and children) really drive the action and emotion of the entire film. From here we get to see Cobb assemble his team, hatch their plan, and then, for the last half of the film, execute the inception itself. Enough about the plot and surface level stuff, how does it all come together and work as a film?

If it seems I've focused a lot on the plot, it's because this film is packed with it. In fact, it feels at times that the film is probably a little too packed with it. The world, ideas, and storyline that Nolan has created is truly incredible, creative, and intriguing. I have no doubt that the ideas and concepts Nolan explores here will spark a slew of like-minded films within the next few years. However, the world that Nolan creates is so intricate and clever, the forward momentum of plot and action so unstoppable, that the performances and drama of the film struggle to become it's equal.

From the very get go, the film hits the ground and keeps moving from one moment, one place, one idea to the next. It's a torrid pace of storytelling that can leave some behind, but more than likely, serves to wrap one up into the film and its ultimate trajectory. This is a film that starts out running, and picks up momentum as it hurls forward and digs deeper. However, the deeper it goes intellectually, the more distant I felt emotionally.

For instance, while the audience is supposed to care deeply for Cobb's emotional 'Journey Home' and reconciliation with his children and wife, the movie never takes the time to bond us with this family. While the film revels in slowly revealing the hidden secrets behind his family, it never revels in revealing to us what was so special about 'home' to begin with. It unfortunately turns his family into one-dimensional pieces of a puzzle that slowly reveals itself and solves itself, as long as you just stick along for the ride.

It's not as if Nolan doesn't spend time focusing on these relationships, there is actually a decent amount of screen time devoted to it, it's that it just doesn't work in the way that everything else does in this movie. Incredible visuals? In spades. Seamless art direction? Check. Ominous and pounding score with accompanying sound design? Best of the summer. Clever and brutal action? Will be remembered for years. Powerful and three dimensional emotional archs? Sort of.

Perhaps though, this isn't a problem of Nolan's making. As I mentioned in the opening, our characters in the film create a dream world and then allow subjects into the dream that populate the dreams with their secrets. What's onscreen is the film and world that Nolan has created; the themes and emotion of the film reflect the vision and mind (secrets) of Nolan himself. However, in talking with a few people about the film, I found that they had a connection with Cobb's family that I didn't. As I expressed my disappointment in the emotional arch, they were surprised because they felt it worked perfectly. Perhaps, the story is a bit more complex than I've given it credit. Perhaps my disappointment and disconnection reflects less Nolan and more of me?

As I began to think along that line of thought, I find it incredibly rich that the central idea of the film (that of building a dream and allowing others to fill it) are essentially what happens when an audience interacts with a film. Each film has all the same elements of a dream world created and sustained by architects (writers), point men (directors), and forgers (actors). Like dreams, movies just begin suddenly and move from scene to scene, and when they bend reality in a way that's unreal we react accordingly. What makes this idea interesting is that the audience then becomes the subject, and we fill these films, stories, and worlds with our secrets and our projections.

** For an interesting read using this line of thought, read below the end of the review. Warning, it contains some spoilers

In this way, Nolan has left several things open to the viewer, and really allows the viewer to fill in accordingly. In this regard, the film is a smashing success and works not only as entertainment, but as a journey of adventure, interaction and catharsis. Without giving away the ending, I will say that it's most not an artistic cop out, but is seated firmly within the ideas and intentions I've mentioned above.

While it isn't a perfect film, Inception is a wonderfully crafted, and intricately plotted film that allows itself to be filled with the themes and idiosyncrasies of not only it's architect and writer, but us the viewer as well. In fact, should we not have expected as much from a film entitled "Inception"? For that reason, this film is able to rise above its few faults, rise above just being an entertaining film, and become a real piece of art. Like the best films, I think it allows each new viewer not just to enjoy it as it is, but to make it their own. Learning not just about Nolan's world and his secrets, but about our own in the process.

**Continued from above: SPOILERS

Continuing from the idea I've outlined above that this film functions in the same way that audiences interact with films. When can say this interpretation actually is manifested onscreen in the character of Saito (Ken Watanabe') as the 'Tourist'. Why does he tag along as part of the team? He say's it's to ensure that Cobb goes through with it. Essentially, I would argue that Saito is the stand-in for the audience here. The film is called "Inception". This is what we want to see Cobb and his team do, along with all the action and drama that comes with it. Saito (the audience) is the one that enrolls him in this action. In fact, isn't the idea of planting ideas into someone's mind, one of the reasons we go to the movies at all? To be inspired by ideas and to let them influence us?

Saito then comes along as 'The Tourist' as the stand-in, getting to not only watch the team in action, but also take part in the whole ordeal. In fact, our main character Cobb can't leave the film until he rescues us and brings as back into the world after the act of inception occurs. It's not until this happens that Cobb is allowed, by an act of Saito, to return and find his happy ever after. Cobb isn't allowed his happy ending, until he's accomplished what we want him to do, overcome his problems (which I would argue is the idea we want to have implanted in us), and get us out in the process.

Is it foolproof? No, but I think it's got a lot to say. Just a cursory reading of the IMDB boards shows there are several other interesting ideas and readings out there as well. This is just one that speaks quite a bit of insight to me.