Quick! Before it Expires: Pulp Fiction

I could say something like “If you haven’t seen Pulp Fiction, you shouldn’t call yourself a movie fan,” but that’s neither helpful nor productive.

Instead, what I will say is this:

If it’s been a while since you last saw Pulp Fiction, watch it again. You may find that you pick up on tidbits that you don’t remember. I always advocate revisiting movies from time to time.

If you haven’t seen a Quentin Tarantino movie, then watch this one first. You’ll be tempted to watch Reservoir Dogs first. Don’t. Watch Pulp Fiction first and then go back and watch the rest of his filmography in chronological order. (You can even watch Pulp Fiction again if you want.) The reason why I suggest this is because Pulp Fiction — more than any other Tarantino movie — gets the viewer quickly accustomed to the Tarantino aesthetic.

Pulp Fiction expires on October 1st. You can see a list of all of Netflix’s expiring movies on Queuenoodle.

Harrison

Where Have All the Ninjas Gone?

The martial arts movie might seem archaic in today’s times. I find that to be really sad. Martial arts movies are a very unique and rewarding genre of movies to watch. When you watch a martial arts movie it satisfies a part of your brain that you don’t really get from any other sort of action movie.

In order to understand why martial arts movies have fallen out of popularity, first we have to understand why they were popular in the first place.

I see two reasons for this. One, Bruce Lee. Two, novelty.

From the late 60s to early 70s, Bruce Lee slowly built up his reputation as a martial arts actor. His crowning moment of triumph came with the 1973 release of Enter the Dragon. That was the one movie that cemented his reputation as an international star. Bruce Lee spear-headed the martial arts movie explosion as the cinematic ambassador from Hong Kong.

The master.

I tend to think that even if Bruce Lee hadn’t had the determination to be an international star (and the greatest martial arts practitioner), someone else would have taken his spot and brought martial arts movies to the United States. But Lee did have that initiative and he deserves recognition as one of the driving forces behind martial arts movies popularity.

Up until the late 60s, fight sequences in movies were laughably bad. In fact, most action sequences were bad. It wasn’t until movies like Bonnie & Clyde and The Wild Bunch were action sequences became more gruesome. (Not to say that action sequences only succeed when they’re gruesome. But there’s no real way to defend a fight scene where the actor looks like he is moving through molasses.) Most of the action/fight sequences in older films can be summed up as awkward.

The novelty and inventiveness of the fight sequences in martial arts movies from Hong Kong must have been mind blowing to audiences at the time. To go from slow, telegraphed punches to a breakneck, kinetic action sequence was a huge leap. Not to forget the subject matter of these films. A lot of old-school martial arts movies are about students or teachers of martial arts — something that was foreign to audiences at the time.


The opening scene to The 36th Chamber of Shaolin.

As time went on, the output of martial arts films slowed down to a crawl. There were always spurts of films released, but nothing like in the 70s.

One explanation for this is the rise of realism in film. This is more of a recent trend, but it does fly in the face of martial arts movies’ genre conventions. Specifically we can look at Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies. Batman is a fairly outlandish premise. People are always quick to point out that Bruce Wayne has no superpowers, but the sheer amount of money, the limits of the human body, and the death-defying situations surrounding Batman are all categorically fantasy. And yet, Christopher Nolan has made two wildly successful movies that inject a sense of realism into the Batman story.

Martial arts movies are about watching the best of the best battle it out. Sometimes these masters are so good they can even float on top of trees. The martial arts movies is about escapism and seeing inventive ways of fighting. You can look to something like the Five Deadly Venoms where one of the masters can stand perpendicularly on a wall. A more realistic fight would be something like you’d see in an UFC match. But to take away the fantastical from a martial arts movie really restricts it and removes some soul from the movie. Even a movie with a more brutal style of fighting like The Protector has elements outside of reality.

Scene from The Five Deadly Venoms

Another thing is that nowadays audiences have become very savvy about storytelling. Audiences expect to see a complex story layered with nuance. Historically though, martial arts movies have a small thread of a plot to connect the fight sequences together. It’s something counter-intuitive about the genre. But movies advertised as martial arts films that spend more time with story don’t succeed as well as movies that have more action sequences. The plot to a martial arts movie should be simple, yet effective. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is about a man’s journey to become a Shaolin monk. That’s a fairly simple premise, but it offers a lot of opportunities for action sequences. I can only imagine how that story would be complicated in today’s cinema climate.

There was a time a few years ago when people became very excited about martial arts again. In 2003, Tony Jaa released Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior. This movie was extraordinarily inventive with its fight sequences. Muay Thai was a fairly unknown fighting style at the time and it really shook awake audiences. Not to mention, the movie had a gritty edge to it that also seemed fresh. On top of that, there was careful consideration to make sure the audience knew that none of the stunts in the movie were faked or helped by CGI.

Unfortunately, Tony Jaa wasted much of his hype by only focusing his skills on two franchises: Ong-Bak and The Protector. Tony Jaa had a hook/gimmick. He — much like Bruce Lee — was the ambassador from Thailand’s martial arts scene. Most martial arts stars have gimmicks. Jackie Chan’s was the mash-up of comedy and fighting skill. But unlike Tony Jaa, Jackie Chan starred in a variety of movies to show how well he could stretch his gimmick. Chan starred in movies where played police officers, adventurers, spies, and civilians out of their element. Additionally, Chan has written and directed many of his movies. That has helped to extend his staying power.

The true savior of martial arts movies has quietly churned out quality movies. His name is Donnie Yen. Not only has Donnie Yen starred in a variety of movies (and characters), he also has a good mix under his belt of hand-to-hand fighting and gun ballet movies. I don’t know if it’s a lack of exposure or an unwillingness of people to put their trust in another martial arts star, but it is unfortunate that Donnie Yen hasn’t achieved a level of success on the level of Jackie Chan or Jet Li. (Although, in my opinion, he’s on his way.)

Donnie Yen is the one in all black. Alternately, Donnie Yen is the one kicking ass.

The Matrix caused something odd to happen in action movies. The Matrix wasn’t entirely a martial arts movie, but that was a major part of the movie. Because that movie put great care into the fight sequences, it sparked something in other filmmakers that a fight scene can look amazing, but the overall movie didn’t have to be about martial arts. Nor did the central premise of the movie have to be about a skilled fighter. A movie like The Bourne Identity follows in the footsteps of The Matrix. As a fan it was great to see quality fight sequences in major releases, but it was also bittersweet because that’s the only similarity to a classic martial arts movie.

For all my speculation the most simple explanation for martial arts movies downfall is the simplest. There was a bubble in the 70s for this type of film and that bubble has long since popped. So many people thought that making a martial arts movie would lead to quick money that the market was flooded with kung fu films. You can only abuse audience’s trust so much until they swear off that type of movie. It’s not unlike the western boom of the 50s. Back then just about every tv show and a majority of movies had western motifs. Now, it’s a rare sight to see a western.

There is a silver lining to a bubble bursting though. Once a bubble bursts, the only people remaining to make martial arts movies (or westerns) are the ones who truly love that genre. If it’s no longer seen as a way to make quick money, it means that the filmmakers actually have to put love and effort into the movie.

I don’t know whether there will be another boom in martial arts movies. But that doesn’t mean the genre is dead. There’s still quality films being released, but it’s on the audience to research and track them down. In the meantime, there’s a giant back catalog of classic movies to watch. In recent years Dragon Dynasty has released many great martial arts movies that have been remastered (some are even on Blu Ray).

I’d like to leave with a list of movies to watch if you’ve never really have explored the genre. This list encompasses a wide variety of movies/stars/and time frames. Also there’s no order to this list. (Fellow fans, be sure to leave suggestions in the comments.)

1. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin
2. Five Deadly Venoms
3. Legend of Drunken Master
4. Tai Chi Master (a.k.a. Twin Warriors)
5. The Street Fighter (starring Sonny Chiba)
6. Ip Man/Ip Man 2
7. Ong-Bak (I know I complained about Tony Jaa above, but it is a really good movie.)
8. Kung Fu Hustle
9. Rumble in the Bronx
10. Iron Monkey

The last movie I want to suggest is Master of the Flying Guillotine. However, I strongly urge you not to watch that until you have a few martial arts movies under your belt. It’s kind of strange and you really need to appreciate martial arts movies to appreciate it.

Harrison

Quick! Before it Expires: Full Metal Jacket, The Hunt for Red October, & Ghostbusters II

Full Metal Jacket

I think it’s safe to say that Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket is most widely known for the boot camp sequence in the first half of the movie. And you know what? The first half of Full Metal Jacket is really good (and hilarious). But it always makes me sad to think people are so dismissive of the second half.

The second half is brilliant for two reasons. One, it shows the futility of trying to train soldiers to prepare for war. Sure boot camp can help soldiers fire their gun and learn combat tactics, but it doesn’t prepare them for the truly awful imagery or the toll it takes on the human psyche. Two, the second half very cleverly mirrors the character arc of Private Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio). I won’t spoil it, but if you’ve never seen the movie, be on the look out for that.

The Hunt for Red October

I’ve always felt submarine-based movies existed as their own little club. You know the ones that sat in the corner of the lunchroom and weirded everyone out. That’s not to say that there aren’t any good submarine movies, but a submarine-based movie is a very specific type of story to tell and there’s always going to be overlapping plot points.

If there’s one standout submarine movie I can point to it’s The Hunt for Red October. Based off the Tom Clancy novel of the same name, this is the first movie made to feature the Jack Ryan character. Alec Baldwin brings a suave intelligence to the role of Jack Ryan as he chases down a rogue submarine piloted by Sean Connery. The movie was directed by John McTiernan in his heyday and that is a prime reason to watch. Back in the late 80s/early 90s when you watched a McTiernan movie, you always knew it was going to be a special type of action movie. There’s a very specific sense of passion in his movies that no one else has been able to replicate since.

Ghostbusters II

Let’s get a few caveats out of the way for Ghostbusters II. One, it’s not as good as the first one. Two, if you’re between the ages of, say, 22 and 30 you’ve probably seen it. Three, it may cause a sense of depression because all signs point to a third movie with the original cast won’t be made. (The jury’s still out on a reboot/remake).

With those points in mind, Ghostbusters II is still a fun movie. The cast still delivers great performances and the action is still great for a movie that is primarily categorized as a comedy. Even better is the idea of a sentient, evil painting. While audiences may have scoffed at the idea back in 1989, it doesn’t seem that out of place today. (The first movie had a giant mascot reigning terror on New York City; a painting doesn’t seem that far-fetched in that movie universe.) The standout choice I always have to give credit to is that they gave Rick Moranis’ character a much more fleshed out storyline. (His character in the first movie was the unsung comedic force that kept the movie fun when the Ghostbusters weren’t on screen.)

All three movies expire in on October 1st. You can see a list of all of Netflix’s expiring movies on Queuenoodle.

Harrison

To Remake, or not to Remake

I spent a long time a couple of weeks ago complaining, and then offering a solution to, the problem of the lack originality of Hollywood. A hot topic that comes up during this discussion, is idea of the remake, which is something that I have mixed feelings about. On one hand I’m all for, not remaking every single title in the catalogue, on the other hand, there are several remakes that rather I’m fond of.

The Thing 1981

One such example of a good remake is the Thing, from 1981, directed by John Carpenter and starring Kurt Russell. Carpenter who directed the remake was an admirer of the Howard Hawks 1955 version.

The Thing 1951

So why would a director who loved a movie, remake it? He was asked to by the studio (paychecks are often a great motivator) and he felt that by going back to the original story and changing the creature from a lumbering humanoid alien into the Rob Bottin-created, slimy, shape-shifter that I love. What he created is one of my favorite movies and one of the greatest horror/sci-fi films of all time. But wait, the remake saga continues…

The Thing 2011

Yeah, the Thing is being remade, or should I say rebooted, right now. Luckily, it’s the story of the Norwegian camp that is mentioned in Carpenter’s The Thing. But, from the trailer it does seem like a rehashing of the 1981 version. I do enjoy the symmetry of a “Thing” movie every thirty years. Which reminds me…

The Conversation 1974

Blow Up 1966

At first sight, these two films don’t seem very similar and if you see them, they are completely different movies . But they are intimately related. Blow up, directed by Antonioni (like i need to repeat that after that extended trailer) is about a photographer who thinks he witnesses a murder through the lens of his camera. The Conversation is about a man who thinks he hears a plan to commit murder. While not a direct remake, these two movies deal with the same themes of paranoia and the morality of the voyeur or in the Conversations case the audi-eur. Blow Up is more of an art film, and The Conversation something of a innovative blend of art film and paranoid thriller, both films stand alone as unique films. When watched in succession they inform each other, creating a unique film viewing experience.

So what is the difference between remakes that work and those that don’t? Here is where I get divisive.

I have three tenets of what could make a good remake. They’re more like principles that I would have to meet before making or funding a remake myself or if I look for before going to see a remake.

First, I think there should be at least a few years before we remake a film. If you’re asking yourself if this is a rip on the new Spider-Man reboot you’re absolutely right. Do you blame me? If the new Spider-Man movie premiers as scheduled, in 2012, it will be 10 years after the Spider-Man it’s rebooting, and only five years after Spider-Man 3. It’s about over-saturation of the market. If I know anything about movie goers, then I’d put money on that they are willing to go see a sequel to a good movie, but not willing to see the same movie again and again.

Second, Do not make a shot for shot remake of anything. I think Gus Van Sant can testify to this:

Psycho 1998

Audiences aren’t stupid and they want to see something they (think) they haven’t seen before. Freshness is key. So follow the Coppola or Carpenter model – make a film that stands on its own or make a different movie that is inspired by other films. Otherwise we know how the movie ends before we go see it. How can you sell a movie we’ve already seen?

Third, a bad original movie is often better than a bad remake. If you go to something you’ve never seen before and you don’t like it, at least you’ve spent your ticket money supporting originality. Seeing Spider-Man 3 in 2017, and it sucking will be worse because now you’ve paid for a bad movie twice.

Oh and by the way studios, original movies can make money. Only one remake (Alice in Wonderland) made the top ten grossing movies of last year and only four were in the top twenty five (The Karate Kid, Clash of the Titans, Robin Hood). Most of these remakes were vastly different from the movies that preceded them. If the only reasons to remake a title are you can and for monetary gain, then don’t do it. Your studio will do better in the long run.

The fact is that remakes are a part and have been a part of cinema since it’s inception. If Warner Brothers didn’t remake a film in 1941 called the The Maltese Falcon, then the relatively unknown actor Humphrey Bogart and unknown director John Huston may not have had the careers that they do. When you know that little detail, it’s hard to argue against remakes…

Feel free to disagree, or offer up suggestions for the best remake of all time. In the comments section or via email: moviedebaters at gmail.com.

-Box Office figures obtained from The Numbers

-Thanks to Jeff Goldsmith for the inspiration

Josh E.

Quick! Before it Expires: The Conversation 1974

This taut paranoiac thriller starring Gene Hackman is one of the greatest remakes of all time. (And also foreshadows my Friday post nicely.) The film revolves around Harry Caul, who thinks he overhears a plot to commit murder while surveilling an assignment. While wrestling with the decision to prevent the murder from happening, he thinks that he is being followed, or is he? This film is also important because its one of the few films that Francis Ford Coppola both wrote and directed. The Conversation won a ton of awards and has been completely brushed aside in the Coppola catalogue by the Godfather films. It’s sound design alone is worth the recommendation.

It expires in two days (Sept 15). 

Josh E.

Debate: Best School-based Movie

In an effort to be cute and a bit topical we decided our next debate would be about school films. naturally our first inclination was “best high school movie” but, arguing over whether fast times or dazed and confused could match any John Hughes films or (and maybe more importantly) which John Hughes movie is the best is a tall and predictable order. So in order to avoid that dilemma we are expanding the debate to include any film where a school or school aged people plays a role and Harrison and I both have abandoned Hughes all together. I invite all of you Hugheseans to leave their arguments in the comments section, or email them to moviedebaters[at]gmail.com and we might publish it.

Splendor in the Grass

My choice for the best school-based film is Splendor in the Grass from 1961.  The film, directed by Elia Kazan and starring a young Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood, examines a relationship between two high schoolers. I thought long and hard about what a good school movie is, and for me, it’s about encapsulating the themes and struggles of what a school-aged people face. Splendor in the Grass, despite being 50 years old this year, and being set in the late 1920s, it deals with similar themes a high schooler in modern times might.  It also balances the line at being simultaneously a contained, highly personal film, between two young lovers, their choices, the consequences to those choices and the choices and consequences that all young people face. Sex, love, breaking up with someone you shouldn’t have, moving on, pressure from society, pressure from your parents, and the pressure to be successful are all themes that Bud and Deanie both deal with in the film. I dont’t want to spoil the details of the plot but it’s about a boy and girl who love each other but outside pressures keep getting in the way of that.

I recommend it for the strong performances from Wood and Beatty but mostly Wood who was Oscar-nominated for her performance. I can’t understate the depth of expression that Wood has just in her eyes, which she can use to seem simultaneously broken and empowered. Bosley Crowler, New York Times critic, agrees with me, saying about Woods performance: “beauty and radiance … carry her through a role of violent passions and depressions with unsullied purity and strength. There is poetry in her performance, and her eyes in the final scene bespeak the moral significance and emotional fulfillment of this film.”

I also recommend it because of Elia Kazan. If you don’t know the work of Kazan, please do yourself a favor and check him out. Unfortunately, due to his cooperation with HUAC, he seems to be under-appreciated, but he needs to be appreciated. Kazan helps these young actors by painting a portrait so emotionally complex that even when Bud makes the wrong decisions that almost destroys Deanie, you can’t help but still find him a likable character. It’s a trend in the Kazan films I’ve seen over and over, (Splendor, On the Waterfrong, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) characters are forced to make choices that will destroy themselves or hurt others but it is understand why they are doing it and you love them anyway.

Yes some of the details of the plot are a bit dated, especially when the stock market crashes… Well, maybe not that part, but it’s a movie worth watching just because the film is two great young actors and one great director who have created an honest portrayal of love and its consequences.

-Josh E.

Brick

I get the feeling that most school-based movies are designed for the audience to feel either A) “School was great!” or B) “School sucked.” It might seem unfair to reduce down this sub-genre into two underlying meanings. Perhaps you could reduce down the slasher genre to “the killer gets away” or “the killer is stopped.”

But to base a movie around whether school was good or not does not seem like compelling subject matter. For the most part school is something all Americans have to go through in some form or another. That means it’s an equalizing experience for people. And yet, movies are often described as escapism. So where does an audience escape to while watching a movie about a shared experience? Even movies like Billy Madison or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off — with their on-the-precipice-of-fantasy plots — still boil down to school sucks or school is great.

Enter Brick. Directed by newcomer Rian Johnson and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the story is about a high school student turned private eye in a highly stylized world where everyone talks like it’s 1940.

Brick takes place at a school but it’s not about being at school. Rather, the plot is about Gordon-Levitt snooping around trying to figure out who killed his sometimes girlfriend.

The genius aspect of Brick is that it takes a shared experience like school and recasts the major players in a different light. The nerd is now an underground source of knowledge; the goth-loner is a drug peddler; the theater chick is a femme fatale. By recasting these roles, the audience can see and feel something familiar in an unexpected and rewarding way. Rian Johnson knows that school based movies can be trite and hackneyed. But by changing up the dynamic of school socio-politics, he created a story which makes the audience think harder about school than any other school based movie.

Not to mention the acting, film noir dialogue, and plot are all heads and shoulders over any other standard school movie. Even if you don’t think Brick is the best school movie, its freshness should wake you up and make you pay attention to the clever ways film noir is spliced into the plot.

– Harrison

Support Your Local Indie

Even though Harrison and I would love to think of ourselves as film critics, we’re not. We started this site to share our discussions/opinions/beliefs and debates about movies because we think that others share our opinions and we would like someone out there to determine which one of us is right.

In this post I’d like to share an opinion that I have and many of my friends also have. If you are anything like me, you are annoyed at the product that Hollywood is selling. Before you jump all over me, let me explain my position.

This post is written from two perspectives: as a student of film and as a consumer. In college, I spent four years studying film theory, film production and screenwriting. I mention this not to proclaim the superiority of my opinion but to explain that I have been exposed to a variety of different genres of film from experimental to early hollywood films. These films are some of the wildest and most interesting films I’ve ever seen. Because of this exposure I continue to search for the innovation and originality in every movie experience. Here’s an example:

I Am Cuba (1964)

The summer movie season of 2011 is one of the worst I can remember if originality is one of the judging criteria. There were at least five comic book movies, nine sequels and three reboots, not to mention the couple cross-pollinating sequels to comic book movie. That is the nature of Hollywood. If I’m spending 100 million dollars on a movie I’m going to make sure that it’s going to reach as broad an audience as I can. And banking on recognizable names is a proven way to reach that broad audience: the highest grossing films of 2010 were Toy Story 3, Alice in Wonderland, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1. Sequel, Reboot, Sequel.

I’m not here to bitch about how Hollywood isn’t original, rather I’m here to offer an alternative. If you are going to go to the movies, try to find an independent theater around you. I went to the movies four times the entire summer, and saw four movies: Super 8, Midnight in Paris, Tree of Life and a second run of Win Win. I went to the large mall multiplex once to see Super 8, but for the others I went to the Spectrum. It runs the best selection of films including small indies, local filmmakers, one night only live theater events, and foreign films.

Spectrum - Albany NY

Thanks Mike!

Another and more viable option is to search out movies that you want to see. With the advent of Twitter and the internet film has been democratized and everything, including film, has become more interactive. Follow and “like” independent filmmakers and keep track of what they are doing. Chances are they might be self-distributing their films and they are easily found after a quick google search.

Edward Burns is doing this with his film Nice Guy Johnny

There are also several sites that allow you to pay per movie including Amazon Rentals, Netflix original movies and sites that specialize in distributing independent film sites. In the era of HDTV’s your home can become your personal screening room. The point of this post is to encourage you, the viewer, to take charge of their entertainment. Don’t settle for something that you don’t want to see. Hollywood will eventually follow the money to where you, the consumer, is spending it.

Instead of dragging your girlfriend into see Spiderman 119, find new and interesting alternatives, whether that’s a movie you downloaded and paid for on your computer, a live film screening, or a trip to the local independent theater. Besides the indie theater has the best popcorn.

Josh E.