Text Reviews Theatrical Review

Theatrical Review: Skyfall

While it seems that the last three Batman films and Inception had been overwhelmingly influenced by the James Bond series that Christopher Nolan grew up with, it seems that now perhaps the opposite has happened: Bond writers are being influenced by the Nolan movies they grew up with. This is a good thing. As they say in the film “Almost Famous,” “If Bowie’s doing Lou (Reed), and Lou’s doing Bowie… Lou is still doing Lou.”

And if Bond is doing Nolan’s Batman, Bond is still doing Bond, baby! Only, once again, the rebooted Bond offers a darker, more stylistic approach to “Bond-ness,” while also retaining–perhaps more than ever–the spirit of the original films.


“Skyfall” is probably the best spy film since “The Good Shepherd” (which a lot of people hated, in my opinion, only because it was actually really really good) only it is a complete opposite of that film: The Good Shepherd was a complex film a lot of people did not understand, but Skyfall is very simple. It works with the basic premise of any hero film: there is a villain within, and the hero must find him and catch him. Only, the villain within was created by the system of justice that the MI6 put in place. If you go rogue, the MI6 abandons you–as it abandoned our aforementioned villain. Bond sees the villain’s old ways as a spy in himself, and after having taken literally a bullet for the greater good without the least bit of hesitation of command from his boss M, Bond perhaps wonders if he is just as expendable.

“Skyfall” finds Daniel Craig and Madame Judi Dench reprising their key roles as Bond and M respectively. But “Skyfall” also offers top-tier supporting cast members in Ralph Fiennes (Schindler’s List, The English Patient), Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men), and Naomie Harris (28 Days Later), as well as Ben Whishaw (I’m Not There) as a brand new Q. This gallery of characters, as well as others, create a decent sense of mystery about who the ultimate villain behind the inside jobs may be for the first hour. However close to the vest this is or is not played, it mostly just serves as a plot for Bond to get from exotic action scene A to exotic action scene B, and so on and so forth, but each one is spectacularly filmed and completely suspends one’s disbelief. And “Skyfall” does all of this, with a wink and a nod to both older Bond films and Bond films that are not really Bond films (enter Lucas/Spielberg’s Indiana Jones movies, the Bourne movies, and especially Nolan’s “Batman” trilogy.)

For example, when we find out that Daniel Craig’s Bond is an orphan of two parents whose tragic deaths (we’re not sure what happened to them) force him to abandon an old mansion for the foster home (an old memory that haunts him to this day) and the end of the third Bond comes full circle to where his life began: that very mansion–complete with Alfred-type guardian, only Scottish–we know that Nolan’s Bond-ish Batman reboots have affected the Bond reboots themselves.

Skyfall even comes with its own laughing psychopathic villain. Again, a good thing. Javier Bardem’s Joker-like personality and seemingly chaotic but overall calculated and complex machinations (like wanting to get captured on purpose, a la “The Dark Knight”) put him near the top of the longest rolodex of quality villains in a cinema franchise.

But dare I say it, Skyfall is probably better than all of the Batmans. Why? Because this is James Bond, fools! And at the end of the day, Bond’s character is more complex because his lack of emotion actually is his mask… so when we see 007’s various reactions to all sorts of various emotional stimuli from his past and present render the same visage from Daniel Craig, we know that this guy is tough. But we wonder if he is even human. What would make him crack? Is there anyone he truly cares about? Or did he dispense with all that caring nonsense after exacting vengeance for the death of his love Vesper Lind in the last film?

Believe it or not there is an answer to that question, and that’s the brilliant thing about Skyfall. Wearing none of its themes on its sleeve, the Bond film that takes us to the evanescent heart of the character somehow is the most bombastic and stylistic of the most recent three, and also the most rewarding. While Nolan’s Batman films took the Bond-style film, Q (think Lucius Fox) and everything with it to new heights, it takes a Bond film itself to take Bond films where they need to go. Thus, as far as the spy-action-stop-terrorists genre goes, Skyfall is as good as it gets. It takes a formula that has been improved upon outside the franchise, and brings it back within, taking it again to the next level. Skyfall’s plot and intentions can often be predicted, but not it’s soul. And that is the beautiful and unexpected treat of 007’s latest adventure.

Yes, I do believe this is the best “Bond film” not directed by Christopher Nolan, and probably also the best “Bond film” including those directed by Christopher Nolan which (stay with me!) are not actually Bond franchise films.  I cannot wait for the next Bond film, whether it is a 007 film or not (does that make sense?) It is going to have to beat “Skyfall,” the best of the ever-expanding lot.

[P.S. The film also looks great, with fantastic cinematography quite atypical of this genre. But if it has one weakness, it hits you if you’ve seen Taken 2, because it seems that the two films may have chosen the same Istanbul, Turkey locations for action and you’re seeing the same movie you just saw a few months ago–or maybe they just look the same to me, I’ve never been to Istanbul! Anyway, lucky for us, after the first ten minutes, the location is no longer important to the Bond film.]

DVD Review Text Reviews

DVD Review: 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978)

In my quest to find a fight film to unseat Raging Bull as the greatest movie of all time (everybody take a drink—podcast joke people, come on!) I stumbled upon the 36th Chamber of Shaolin.

Originally titled “Master Killer” when it was released in the USA on VHS at some point after its Asian theatrical release in 1978, the film follows the story of San Te, a young student who is naïve about human nature and man’s domination of man; his insulated upbringing gives him no understanding as to why the Manchus wish to dominate the Han Chinese.

However, eventually he has no choice but to understand—his teacher is a revolutionary, and challenges them to understand what it means to be dominated and why one should fight to be free. Later, when San Te publicly remarks that Han Chinese rebel crucified in the town square was a hero, he—under the threat of being imprisoned himself, has to apologize to the Manchus for his transgression.

This event strikes him to his core, and he begins to ask questions. He involves himself in the revolution as an errand boy. During this short period, his teacher remarks that if only the Shaolin would teach kung fu to the people, they could fight the Manchus.

Soon, San Te’s teacher becomes the target of the Manchus—fellow students are killed, and even San Te’s own father becomes the victim of his associations with Han rebels.

On the run, San Te is determined to get to Shaolin temple to learn kung fu, and seek refuge from the Manchus hunting him.

What has been summarized thus far is roughly a half-hour of exposition mostly to serve the purpose of the rest of the film—to show the world of martial arts training, self-discipline, and self-discovery.

While the story is relatively straightforward and uncomplicated, it achieves a remarkable technical realism. This is thanks to Lau Kar Leung, the director more famous for Jackie Chan’s “Legend of Drunken Master,” who keeps his comic sensibilities to a minimum here to weave a no-nonsense tale for the very purpose of introducing people to authentic Hung Gar training, discipline, and values.

Fans of extremely realistic films will enjoy this picture—even in spite of its 70’s Hong Kong set-piece feel. The realistic aspects of the film have everything to do with the execution of martial arts and what training is involved. It is said that Lau Kar Leung wanted to make a film that actually showed martial arts training in its entirety–not the five minute sequences training occupied next to sequences of kung fu fantasy in films by earlier Hong Kong directors like Chang Cheh.

The film is uncompromising in achieving this vision, which may make non-martial arts enthusiasts yawn, but is deeply rewarding for viewers seeking films about martial arts, films about fighters in general, or even the psychology of fighting.

Fight films are few and far between. Good fight films are even fewer. “36th Chamber of Shaolin” is in that small pantheon of fighter-flicks that deliver.

DVD Review Text Reviews

DVD Review: Ashes of Time Redux

I relish the golden age of cinema we live in.

Many may disagree, longing for the 60’s or 70’s. But honestly, where else can you get the ultimate vision of every director for almost any film you’ve ever taken seriously? The answer is only in DVD-land.

As a result, we now have Lucas’ THX 1138 in its fullest form, Ridley Scott’s Final Cut of Blade Runner, as well as even a restoration of Coppola’s Apocalyspe Now, a film which had no reason critically to be recut and re-released, as it has been treated as a masterpiece since the film first hit audiences.

Director’s cuts, reduxes, lost versions, restorations of nearly-lost films—and these days they all come in the mail and you keep them as long as you want… can anyone argue with what we’ve been blessed with? It’s like being in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and the future all at the same time. Could you EVER have watched Umberto D forty times (and if you have, I both envy and pity you) when it was made?
Such access and analysis would have been simply impossible.

Speaking of time, Wong Kar-Wai has released “Ashes of Time Redux,” a re-working of his 1994 cult wuxia classic, for American release in arthouse theatres and now the first American release on DVD. The result is stunning.

I’ve never seen the original Ashes of Time. Indeed, just as with other films in the pre-DVD era, access to the film as a Westerner would have been almost impossible prior to now, unless one could get a bootlegged VHS. But even as a novice, I can tell the film has been reworked, because it features an enhanced score recently recorded by Yo-Yo Ma and the time-marking storytelling style that Kar-Wai explored frequently in 2046. As the seasons change, we are reminded by a visual cue that it is Spring, Summer, Autumn, or Winter. Only, we are not told necessarily what year it is—just as in 2046 when we are told what the year is but not necessarily what the reality is. In this way, “Ashes of Time Redux,” even though the original was made ten years prior to 2046, is a pleasant sequel for the Western viewer, because to those of us who are seeing it for the first time, it is an appropriate sequel to the themes of love, regret, and time explored in his last Mandarin film.

Ashes of Time Redux also benefits from being released to a Western audience that helped Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon gross millions of dollars. That film probably was the singular moment the mainstream Western audience embraced the “wuxia” picture, which is essentially a kung-fu/medival/fantasy hybrid, much like Lord of the Rings might be to a Western audience. In wuxia pictures, there is good and evil, magic powers, and warriors adhere to an ancient code. This is the meaning of “Wu” (from Wushu [meaning ‘martial arts’] perhaps? Or maybe the province ‘Wu?’) and “Xia” which together somehow translates as “Martial Honor” or “Martial Code,” if I understand it correctly.

The only difference between this Wuxia picture and everything else the West has seen in the post-Crouching Tiger era is that there is little honor in the main protagonist at all. Actor Leslie Cheung’s (who passed away 2003, may he rest in peace) character Ouyang Feng is a bitter, isolated swordsman whose job it is to “solve problems” for people. He meets warriors that will appear in a Chinese series of novels called the “Eagle Shooting Heroes” by Louis Cha (the modern Lord of the Rings epic in the East) and during the seasons he watches them change and discover things about themselves that they never knew—but Leslie Cheung’s character, sadly, does not change at all–and according to a synopsis of the “Eagle Shooting Heroes” novels that I read, might end up ultimately turning evil (that is, if the Kar-Wai character is even the same Ouyang Feng.)

I have read that the film’s elliptical references and prequel-esque story to the Eagle Shooting Heroes’ novels is scant and reconstructionist at best, and you don’t need to have read them to understand what is at the heart of the film. I agree—but I can’t speak with the authority of someone who has read the novels. Suffice it to say I enjoyed the film without them.

The film is ultimately the best wuxia film we’ve seen stateside. It delves deeper and more realistically into its characters than any other wuxia film I’ve seen—in some ways it betrays the traditional form, which traditionally has always been about being exciting, daring, and chivalrous. “Ashes of Time Redux” exhibits none of those characteristics. It is contemplative, introspective, and its main character betrays the trust of the audience. It has more in common with a Martin Scorsese or (later) Stanley Kubrick character than any honorable warrior from traditional wuxia storytelling.

It is ironic then, that this film both predates Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in the year it was filmed, but post-dates it stylistically. This only further evidences the gifts of director Wong Kar-Wai, who’s films supposedly haven’t made a dime in theatres, yet continue to have artistic life on DVD releases because of their thematic longevity. It wouldn’t be fair to fans if Kar-Wai had filmed a lighter, more action-oriented wuxia picture (though technically–get ready to get really confused–he did! He filmed a companion comedy piece called “Eagle-Shooting Heroes” with the same cast over the same period, though I don’t think it has been made available to us since I can’t find it yet.) It isn’t in Wong Kar-Wai’s nature to give us a character the stature of Chou Yun-Fat’s “Li Mu Bai” or Jet Li’s “Hero.” Kar-Wai’s vision of broken warriors consumed with regret and lives that intersect both thematically and relationally is more Dickensian than anything traditional wuxia pictures have had to offer. “Great Expectations” comes to mind immediately, as does the long-running show “Lost,” where people are tied by their unknown and unrequited love/associations once-removed from one another. It is in these relationships Kar-Wai offers, that some characters find redemption, and some do not. Redemption is not in flying or swordfighting—though there is a little of both in the film.

It is difficult to say how tall in stature the film resides along side other films of Kar-Wai’s career. It’s my second favorite after 2046, and quite a relief after his American film disaster, “My Blueberry Nights.” It may not be a new film, but so omnipresent are Kar-Wai’s themes that one feels all of his films are somewhat interchangeable chronologically. Therefore, it is an appropriate thematic sequel to both “In the Mood for Love” and 2046, even though chronologically it is not literally true.

DVD Review Preview Text Reviews

DVD Preview: Inside Bob Dylan's Jesus Years: Busy Being Born Again

Gonna Change Your Way of Thinking

Joel Gilbert’s documentary on Bob Dylan’s sudden conversion to Christianity is an authentic, detail-oriented and thought-provoking work. It is a must see for fans and casual viewers alike. The subject-matter alone is fascinating and remains, thirty years from its occurrence, a little told story about the already mythic and mysterious artist. 

On November 9, 1979, Bob Dylan shocked San Francisco (and America at large) by performing nothing but new songs from his gospel album titled “Slow Train Coming,” and other then-unreleased gospel songs written by the rock poet. The fans, expecting his hits, classics, or the man they have created in their mind as a result of all of his previous records, is nowhere to be found.

When presumably being asked something about why he didn’t play any of his old songs at the concert or why he may have changed his music’s message, Dylan speaks in archived footage from the era “The old stuff’s not gonna save them and uh… I’m not gonna save them. Neither is anybody else gonna save them. They can boogie all night. It’s not gonna work.”

The purpose of the first-half seems to be orienting the viewer with the world Dylan was entering at the time: The Vineyard Movement, a decentralized and individualistic approach to Christianity—progressive at the time. This viewpoint, coupled with the perspective of Messianic Judaism, or, Jewish believers in Jesus as the foretold Messiah, frames the manner in which Bob Dylan, of Jewish descent, considers and then pursues his own journey to Jesus Christ.

The second-half of the film covers the most controversial music Dylan had made since he went electric in 1965.  Alienating his fan base once again, Dylan pursued this journey of personal discovery as his primary artistic expression for two and a half full-length albums and four years of touring, after which fans and critics alike remain, I would argue, mostly confused about where his belief system stands today. We are treated to samples of Dylan’s preaching at the concerts, and interviews with the band, and there is, at the heart of the film, a serious discussion of the seemingly contradictory dichotomy between religion and rock ‘n’ roll and whether Dylan was able to reconcile the two.

The film is helmed by Joel Gilbert, and released by the company Highway 61 Entertainment. Gilbert and the company seem to be offshoots of a professional Dylan tribute band called “Highway 61 Revisited.” Gilbert dresses like Dylan, and passes as a shadow of someone who might have been a version of Dylan in “I’m Not There.”  Gilbert’s appearance is a bit distracting—it makes the film seem wholly subjective from the jump. But Gilbert asks the right questions about this period of life, challenges his interview subjects from different perspectives, and is a competent and informed interviewer.  It also does an excellent job of bringing in voices of contempt for Dylan’s work during that period, most notable of which apparently was Joel Selvin, writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Selvin really gives the music industry, critics, and disenchanted fans, a voice in this film.

I would argue that the only weakness of the documentary is that the entire affect of the film, in the aggregate, seems to be sympathetic to Dylan’s conversion. But, in truth, the film spends a lot of time trying to understand what Dylan was converting to, rather than promoting or discouraging why he converted.

In the end, the film ends on a different type of note than it began, takes a somewhat surprising turn, and attempts to reveal what the film feels Dylan has always been trying to get at in his never-ending search.

As a fan of Dylan, my greatest acclaim for this film is that it covers a great deal of unchartered territory, to my knowledge, for the very first time on film and uses primary sources. It may be the most important source on Dylan’s Christian music to date, period. Only “Behind the Shades Revisited,” a book on Dylan’s life, has adequately shed some light on Dylan’s work in this period to my knowledge, besides the few interviews Dylan has given himself.  For enthusiasts and analysts of Dylan’s work, that makes this film very important.

I highly recommend this film for both people who love Dylan and casual viewers who may not have even been aware that this period of Dylan’s music existed.

No matter what conclusion one draws about what Dylan’s life or music means, your perspective is limited prior to having seen this documentary if you had not been deeply involved in Dylan’s music during this period or are not a huge fan of it. It will change the way you think about Dylan’s music, and perhaps his life. If you’re measuring Dylan’s artistry through metrics that do not include an analysis of this period, it will create a different set of rules to do so.