What Is A Western?

The Western: once it was king of American cinema. Now it has receded to the back of the popular conscience, only to be brought to the forefront by the occasional remake or parody. But as much as we might ridicule the Western, most of us have very little knowledge of what it actually is. Images of stets an hats, railroads, and the American southwest in the second half of the 19th century might come to mind when you hear the name, but, the truth is, none of those are pre-requisites for a Western. Many films that are widely accepted as Westerns, such as No Country For Old Men, Hell Or high Water, and Logan, take place in modern times. Many famous Western films, such as A Fistful Of Dollars and The Proposition, were shot in other countries, by non-American directors. Hell, some of the most famous Westerns of all time, like The Magnificent Seven, are either influenced by, or directly adapted from, samurai movies. So as much as we might think of the Western as an outdated, easy-to-define, all-American genre, it really isn’t. 

Which begs the question; what makes a Western a Western? If the setting and time period have nothing to do with it, what about a story makes it recognizable as a Western? To understand this, I looked at several Western films, from different time periods and countries, including Tombstone, The Searchers, The Wild Bunch, Unforgiven, No Country For Old Men, The Dark Valley, and The Proposition. And what I realized after watching them is that true Westerns are violent tales of people trying to make order out of harsh, lawless landscapes. The harshness and lawlessness of the settings are key. They help provide a visual reference for what the characters are fighting against, and demonstrate the story’s central themes. You couldn’t have a western take place in a suburb, or a big city. Those areas are too docile, too tame. Yes, cities might have crime and violence, but there it is organized. It is part of a larger entity. You could, however, have a Western take place in the 19th century Australian Outback (The Proposition), the modern-day border with Mexico (Sicario, No Country For Old Men), or even the Austrian Alps (The Dark Valley), since those environments are harsh and wild.

See, with Westerns, the land itself is a character. It is a thing that can’t be tamed, and that drives the conflict. The characters are almost always outsiders; be they homesteaders, or lone gunman entering new areas. As such, nearly all Westerns involve characters trying to tame their surroundings, or the people in them. Butch Casidy and The Wild Bunch are about changing societies trying to tame groups of free-spirited outlaws. The Magnificent Seven, Tombstone and Shane are about heroes fighting against powerful men who, in their quest to tame the landscape, have become tyrants. No Country For Old Men and The Proposition follow grizzled, disillusioned lawmen who are determined to bring order to their surroundings, but slowly realizing that they can’t. Even films which don’t directly address changing times, like The Dark Valley, True Grit, and The Searchers, involve characters whose lives have been thrown out of order, trying to return things to the way they were. A man’s niece, kidnapped by Natives. A girl’s father, shot in the back. These are people who have seen their lives thrown into chaos, and they mean to re-establish the order that was lost.

Notice how I keep saying order and chaos, and not good and evil. That’s because Westerns don’t often focus on fights between good and evil. Very often, the conflict is between people who are bad, and people who are worse. The protagonists in Westerns are always deeply flawed. They’re murderers, rapists, bigots; sometimes all of those at once. And even when they’re not those things, like Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, William Munny in Unforgiven, or Wolverine in Logan, they’re still deeply unpleasant people. They drink. They swear. They lash out at others. They’re broken people, just trying to get by in their harsh, unfair environments.

The conflict between order and chaos is also a key part of the mythology of the Western. See, the Western was born out of the United State’s expansion across the North American continent, particularly the concept of Manifest Destiny,, or the idea that the US was not only destined to encompass the entire continent, but that doing so was righteous and justified. Whites had to settle the West, the philosophy asserted, because the land was wild, and lawless, and only good, God-fearing people could make it stable. Westerns grew out of this false notion, and that is very evident in early films, particularly those of Johns Ford and Wayne, where the “wild” and “savage” Natives are shown as the villains, and the day is only saved when hunky White men come in and kill them all. It wasn’t until the 60s and 70s when we started getting “revisionist” Westerns, like The Outlaw Josey Wales, which questioned the righteousness of big money and the military. And it wasn’t until even later, with films like Dances With Wolves and Unforgiven, that we started to make films that showed how horribly treated Native Americans and Women were in that context.

And yet, even after all that alteration, even after a thousand artists tried to put a more revisionist, progressive spin on the genre, Westerns continued to tell violent stories of people trying to make order out of chaos. Dances With Wolves is all about a young man going to see the Frontier, “before it’s gone,” because he knows American society is relentless in its desire to “civilize” the West. Unforgiven is, essentially, about two men’s vastly different approaches to justice; one, Little Bill, thinks that justice can only be maintained through order and the prohibiting of fire arms, the other, William Munny, thinks that justice can only be brought about through bloody revenge. One is order, and one is chaos. Both are trying to make sense of a lawless land, just in drastically different ways. What does this prove? That Westerns can be defined, and that they are defined by their devotion to bloody tales of making order out of disorderly places.

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Phantom Thread (2017)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

In 1950s England, Reynolds Woodcock is the world’s most sought after dress maker. He and his sister, Cyril, make gowns for royals, movie stars, and millionaires. Over the years, Reynolds has slept with countless women, all of whom he discarded after they began to get on his nerves. Now, though, he has met someone new; Elsa, a maid from somewhere in mainland Europe. And even though they fight constantly, Reynolds can’t bring himself to leave her. And Elsa, for her part, won’t let him go.

Guys, I’m just gonna go ahead and say it; I didn’t care for this movie. As a matter of fact, at one point near the beginning, I almost fell asleep. This is a very long–it’s 130 minutes–very bland movie where not much happens. 90% of it is characters sitting at a table, eating in utter silence, or fitting people with dresses. And when something does happen, like when Reynolds decides to steal a dress he made back from a client, those things come so far out of left field that you’re left feeling totally perplexed. Now, granted, this is all very much in keeping with the writer/director, Paul Thomas Anderson’s, style. In case you don’t know who that is, he’s a director who made films like Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood. His pictures are notorious for being very light on actual plot, and very heavy on weird characters doing weird things. Phantom Thread continues that tradition. And if you are a fan of his, you will love this movie, and nothing I say will change your mind. As for me, I found this to be one of the dullest films of the year. And unlike other dull films I saw in 2017, like A Ghost Story, or Downsizing, there’s not at least a cool, out of the box concept to at least keep you invested. Here, it’s literally just a dude and a woman trying to have a relationship when both of them are kind of assholes. That’s it.

Now, I wanna be fair and talk about some good qualities in this flick, because there are some. The acting is good, the cinematography is beautiful, and the score is very nice. This is a competently-crafted movie. But the story is so boring, the characters are so bland, and the runtime is so long, that you just don’t care about any of those technical achievements. So, for that reason, I say, don’t go out and see this one. If you like artsy movies, or PT ANderson, you might get something out of this, but not me.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

Li Mu Bai has long led a warrior’s life. But now, after years of bloodshed, he’s determined to turn over a new leaf. So, to prove to everyone that he’s done killing, he gives his sword, the legendary Green Destiny, to Yu Shu Lien, a fellow warrior, and unrequited love interest. But when the Green Destiny is stolen, and Yu and Li’s investigation brings them to the home of a government official, they realize that there’s more to this story than meets the eye.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a movie I have loved literally my entire life. Not only was it the first film I ever saw, but it was also the movie that made me want to make movies. Seriously. As soon as I watched this back in 2000, I got a camera, and made my own kung fu movie, Crouching Lion, Hidden Eagle. Any picture that can get a six year old who doesn’t even know what a camera is to want to make movies is doing something right. And I’m not the only one who thinks that. To date, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon remains the highest grossing foreign-language film in American history, as well as the most critically-acclaimed martial arts movie of all time; with a record four Academy Awards to its name, and ten nominations, including Best Picture. But why was it so beloved? Why do people still remember it after so many years? What, to put it bluntly, makes this movie so good?

Well, several things, actually. The first is it’s script. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a very well-written movie, with it actually getting nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, and for good reason. Every single character is given depth, personality, and pain. The film is almost three hours long, and it contains many quiet scenes where characters just sit and talk to each other about their dreams and desires. As such, the protagonists of this film are considerably more well-rounded than those in other martial arts movies. The second thing that makes this movie awesome is the camerawork. Crouching Tiger, Hidden dragon is beautifully shot, with every single frame dripping with life and color. Peter Pau, the cinematographer, won an Oscar for lensing this film, and I can totally see why. Every time I watch it, I feel like I’ve been transported to another world, and it’s all thanks to the images onscreen. The third thing that makes Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon incredible is the acting. Everyone gives a subtle, restrained performance, not at all what you’d expect from a film like this, and, indeed, many members of the cast were nominated for BAFTA and Hong Kong Film Awards for their work. The standout, easily, is Zhang Ziyi, who steals the Green Destiny, and the whole damn show. She is magnetic on screen. She’s bold and fiery, and yet, vulnerable and sweet. By this point in her career, She’d already made somewhat of a name for herself back in China, but it was her work in Crouching Tiger that catapulted her into the stratosphere of stardom, not just in the East, but in the West as well. For the next five years, she was everywhere, appearing in big films like Hero, Rush Hour 2, Memoirs Of A Geisha, and House Of Flying Daggers. It is extremely rare for an Asian actress to become big in Hollywood, but Zhang Ziyi did, and it’s all thanks to her incredible performance in this movie. The fourth, and biggest, reason why Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon is awesome is the action.  It is SUPERB. It’s exciting, well-shot, beautifully-choreographed, and inventive. The fight sequences in this movie hold up after 17 years, and for good reason. They’re real. Every single moment was done in camera, by real stuntmen. And you can tell. In the film’s most famous fight scene, where Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi duke it out in a courtyard, you hear the actresses panting, and see the sweat dripping down their faces. You really believe that this is a hard, brutal fight, and that it’s taking a serious toll on both their bodies. And whenever a film can convince you that a staged action sequence is real, it’s done something right.

Now, as much as I adore Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and, trust me, I could gush about it for ages, there are some aspects of it that I don’t enjoy as much, all these years later. The biggest, by far, is the flashback sequence, wherein we see Zhang Ziyi’s backstory. Yes, it’s necessary, and it helps you understand her character. But it’s also very long, and very, very slow. It goes on for about 40 minutes, and when you watch it, you just feel like you’re in a different movie. The whole thing really hurts the pace, and I honestly tend to fast-forward through it whenever I re-watch the film. Which brings me to another point, the fact that the movie’s plot is kind of scatter-brained. It starts out as a drama about a warrior trying to abandon his bloody past. Then it becomes a mystery, where they have to find the Green Destiny. Then it turns into a romantic drama, wherein Zhang Ziyi wants to escape her arranged marriage and go live in the desert. And then, in the last 30 minutes, it becomes a kind of road movie, where Zhang Ziyi is just roaming the land, taking what she wants and fighting whomever she pleases. Yes, everyone has an arc, and all the subplots do pay off. But, upon re-watch, it does feel like some of those subplots could have been omitted, and the movie, as a whole, would have become more focused.

But those are really the only negative things I have to say about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. This is a well-shot, well-acted, emotionally-devastating character piece, with some amazing fight sequences and action. If you somehow haven’t seen this movie after all this time, go out and rent it RIGHT NOW!  You will love it.

Is The Rose Storyline In The Last Jedi Really Pointless?

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

So I’ve been surfing the web recently, and I’ve been reading a lot of reviews for Star Wars: The Last Jedi which criticize my new favorite character, Rose, and her storyline. They all pretty much have the same thing to say, “her storyline is pointless. It adds up to nothing.”

Now, my instant, gut reaction is, “well fuck you. I liked her, and you all should be more supportive of an Asian American actress finally making it big in hollywood.” But then I took a step back, and started thinking. Was her storyline really pointless? After all, her plan to find a hacker fails, the hacker she does find betrays her, and she stops Finn from sacrificing himself to save the Resistance. In a sense, neither she nor Finn did anything that was relevant, plot wise. So, yes, the Rose storyline was, in that respect, pointless.

But the question I want to ask the world is, is that a bad thing? Is it bad for movies to have scenes and characters that don’t effect the overall plot? I would argue “no.”

The best films have characters and worlds that feel lived-in, and real, and one of the best ways to do that is to show characters just interacting with each other and their environments. Filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino have made careers off of writing scenes that don’t really have an impact on the plot, and yet, are interesting, and flesh out the characters. Basically every conversation Jules and Vincent have in Pulp Fiction is like this. Their opening talk about hash bars never gets brought up again. Neither does their conversation in the diner about pork. The taxi driver Bruce Willis talks to doesn’t come back to play at all. And the discussion of pot bellies and blueberry pancakes serves no purpose whatsoever. If the film was to cut all of these “pointless” scenes, it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting, and the characters wouldn’t be nearly as memorable.

Another great example of a “pointless” scene that actually makes the movie better is the gas station stand off in No Country For Old Men. For those of you who haven’t seen it, Javier Bardem plays a psychotic killer who decides whether or not to murder people by flipping a coin and giving them the chance to call it. If they get it right, he lets them go. If they don’t, he kills them. In one scene, he goes into a gas station, and the gas station owner tries to make small talk. Javier Bardem doesn’t like that, and so flips the coin. The gas station attendant gets it right, and Bardem leaves. Now, this is the one scene that everyone who’s watched the movie talks about and remembers. They say it has the best dialogue, and the best acting. But here’s the thing; it’s pointless. The gas station attendant never comes back into the picture. And, in the end, the scene was just a whole lot of build up to nothing. Bardem doesn’t kill him. He just leaves. In terms of plot progression, this whole stand off is dead weight. And yet, if you were to take away this “pointless” scene, you’d have lost one of the best moments in cinema.

So, yes, maybe Rose’s storyline in The Last Jedi is “pointless” in that it doesn’t effect the overall plot, but that doesn’t make it bad. It introduces us to a fun new character, who provides a different perspective on the conflict. It’s got some good humor with her and Finn. There’s a fun sequence where the two of them ride horse/kangaroo monsters through a Casino, tearing it to pieces. And, as I said before, it provides us with a non-stereotypical Asian character in a major blockbuster franchise. That’s huge. See, Cliff Chang, the artist on the comic series Paper Girls, told me something heartbreaking once. He said, “growing up, I never saw myself in the artwork that I loved. And, over time, I just grew to accept that.” But that doesn’t have to be the case anymore. Rose is proof that you can have Asian characters in big budget, blockbuster franchises, who don’t speak broken English, or know martial arts, and the world won’t fall apart. Millions of young Asian-Americans will see her and think, “that could be me one day” and not “I could never be in those movies,” which, sadly, is what many people of my parent’s generation, including my father, were taught. And the fact that they won’t think it can’t happen for them, the fact that they will be inspired, is wonderful. So, yeah, Rose’s storyline is pointless. But the movie, and the world, wouldn’t be better without it.

The Post (2017)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

It’s the early 70s. Richard Nixon is in office, and the Vietnam War is in full swing. For years, the American people have been told, “Don’t worry. We’re winning. It’ll be over in no time.” But, as it turns out, that was a lie. No less than three presidents knew that the war was un-winnable, but decided to keep it going, solely because they didn’t want to say they lost. Dan Ellsberg, an analyst for the RAND Corporation, decides he can’t live with this, and so leaks several thousand classified documents detailing these lies, the Pentagon Papers, to the press. The New York TImes snatches them up straight away, but the ink has barely dried before the White House shuts them down with a restraining order. So it’s up to the Washington Post, a small, privately-owned DC paper, to pick up the slack, get the word out to the American people, and hold the government accountable for their lies. Will they be able to? Well, you’ll just have to watch the film to find out.

The Post is directed by Steven Spielberg, scored by John Williams, and starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep. Do I really need to tell you it’s good? Because it is.  It’s well-acted, well-shot, well-directed, and the story is compelling. Which is surprising. I mean, if you step back and look at it, it’s a talky drama about a newspaper leaking government documents. That’s a pretty dry premise. There’s no sex. There’s no drugs. There’s no action, though there is a brief, highly effective war scene at the start of the movie. This is a film that relies entirely on its dialogue and its actors to carry it along, and by God, both of those do so in spades. I was never bored once, and even though I knew where the story was going, since I’d learned about the Pentagon Papers in history class, I felt the pressure that these characters were experiencing. And any time a picture about events that happened over 40 years ago can make you feel invested in those events, it’s done something right.

That said, I do have a few complaints. The film is a bit slow in the first half, which is not to say it’s dull. It’s just, when The Post finally does get the papers, the movie becomes so much more vigorous and lively. So you’re left wondering why the first half couldn’t be as energetic. On top of this, the film does definitely play it safe. This is very much an Oscar-bait movie, trying to make a statement, while also not wanting to ruffle too many feathers. Granted, unlike other films like this, such as last year’s Battle Of The Sexes, which tried to talk about sexism while simultaneously making its sexist characters as likable as possible, this movie does at least pull no punches in the portrayal department. Still, it is an awards flick, and I know that some people will avoid it just because it’s that.

Nevertheless, The Post’s fine performances, tight script, and strong direction do make it worth watching. Don’t hesitate to give it a look.

Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle (2017)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, ANd Views Are My Game.

While stuck in detention, four high schoolers, nerd Spencer, jock Fridge, antisocial Martha, and phone-addicted Bethany, discover a mysterious video game called Jumanji. Figuring, “hey, we’ve got nothing better to do,” the four decide to play the game, and choose avatars. When they do so, however, they find themselves transported to the jungle world of Jumanji, and the bodies of their respective characters. Now, if they want to make it home alive, they’ll have to win the game, and avoid all the danger getting thrown their way.

Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle is a film I had absolutely no expectations for. I wasn’t even planning on seeing it, until my girlfriend suggested we give it a watch. And I am so happy she did, because this is a really fun movie. Seriously. This is probably the most fun I’ve had in a theater in almost two years. Which is weird, because, 2017 saw the release of a ton of great blockbusters–Logan, Wonder Woman, The Last Jedi, etc. But, the truth is, with each of those films, there was always something that held me back from just having a good time with them. With The Last Jedi, for instance, it was the knowledge that this was a Star Wars movie, and that there’d inevitably be angry fanboy backlash. With Wonder Woman, it was the knowledge that this was a female-led tentpole film with a lot riding on it, so please, please, please let it be good. And so on, and so forth. With Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle, however, I had no expectations. There was no baggage. As such, I could just sit back and enjoy the ride. And did I ever!

What works in this film is the humor, the chemistry between the leads, some very inventive action set-pieces, and the fact that these are actually very likable characters. Which is surprising. When I hear that the protagonists of a movie are going to be a nerd, a jock, a prissy girl, and a misanthrope, I instantly think, “Oh god, I know exactly how this’ll go down. The’ll be insufferable.” But they really weren’t. Each of them had distinct voices, personalities, interests, and each, in their own way, was very funny. I liked them as teenagers. I liked them as characters in a video game. And the actors playing them were perfectly cast. Jack Black steals the show as Bethany’s avatar in the game. Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart are comedy gold when they’re on screen. And Karen Gillan manages to be  fierce, sexy, and adorably awkward all at the same time. I laughed out loud at several points in this movie, and there were moments of action where I was legitimately on the edge of my seat. For this reason, I’d say, give Jumanji a look. It is a fun, fast-paced time at the movies. Is it deep? No. Is it groundbreaking? Not really. But the characters are likable. The action is exciting. The humor hits 90% of the time, and it’s just a great ride to be on.

Downsizing (2017)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, ANd Views Are My Game.

To fight global warming, scientists develop the means to shrink humans down. The idea is that, if people are smaller, they’ll produce less waste, use less energy, and, overall, leave a smaller footprint on the environment. It doesn’t take long, however, for people to catch on that there are other benefits to being little, like the fact that money is worth a lot more in shrunken communities. One individual hoping to escape financial woes by “downsizing” is Paul Safranek, a physical therapist drowning in debt. He and his wife visit “Leisure Land,” the most prosperous shrunken community, and decide, “screw it! Let’s get small.” Unfortunately for Paul, however, his wife gets cold feet at the last minute, and leaves him just as he’s undergoing the procedure. And seeing as downsizing is irreversible, he’s pretty much left to fend for himself in this new, miniature world. Will he survive? Well, you’ll just have to watch the movie to find out.

Downsizing is a quintessential “idea” movie. What I mean by that is, there are some films that get made solely because of the uniqueness of their central premise, as opposed to how tight their plot is, or how developed their characters are. Probably the most famous example of a film like this is M Night Shyamalan’s The Village, where the whole concept is that there is an isolated community in the woods, where the elders teach their children that it is the 1800s, when it’s actually modern times. It’s a fun idea, with a lot of potential, but the film itself doesn’t really have a lot to offer when it comes to story or character development. That’s pretty much the case with Downsizing. The premise of people shrinking down, and forming new, miniature communities, is fascinating, and original. But when you watch the movie, you can tell that Alexander Payne, the writer/director, didn’t really have a story to go along with this idea. Because after Paul shrinks down, there is a long, long stretch where nothing really happens. He gets a job, starts seeing a woman, only to have her dump him, and goes to a party. None of these things matter in the end, so they’re really just there to pad out the runtime. There’s also a ton of characters who get introduced in the start of the movie, like Paul’s wife, his mother, his wife’s father, and his friend, all of whom just kind of vanish by the end. As a result, you’re left feeling like you’ve just been told a very long, very convoluted joke with no punch line.

Now, all that said, I didn’t hate this movie. In fact, I kind of liked it. It definitely has things to admire. The central idea, as I said, is very original. The design of these new, small communities is very creative. The characters are  well-defined, and the acting is good. The stand-out, easily, is Hong Chau, whom plays Ngoc Lan Tran, a Vietnamese dissident who befriends Paul, and pulls him out of his depression. She has the funniest dialogue, she’s likable, and her performance is great. Seriously. Hong Chau has been nominated for a Golden Globe for her work in this film, and I can understand why. She feels very real, which is odd for me to say because, when I saw the trailers, I thought to myself, “Oh god. Here’s another Asian woman in an American movie speaking broken English, and pining after a White dude.” But the movie is actually a lot more sophisticated and sensitive than that when it comes to her character. Her religious fervor, determination to keep going, even when she’s exhausted and in pain, and her brutal honesty really reminded me of Asian immigrants I know, like my grandfather, and my mother’s friend, Mihua. And I’ve got to give the movie props for that.

So, between her performance, the beautiful production values, and a very interesting premise, Downsizing actually has some good things to offer. Yeah, it’s a little bit boring in places, and you can tell the writer didn’t really have a full plot thought out when they started shooting. But, if you don’t mind that, give this flick a look. You’re bound to be engaged on some level.