Hilda (Bella Ramsey) was a little girl raised in the woods by her mum, Johanna (Daisy Haggard) along with a deerfox, Twig, and an elf named Alfur (Rasmus Hardiker), until they moved to the troll-besieged town of Trolberg. She quickly befriends two locals named Frida and David (Ameerah Falzon-Ojo and Oliver Nelson). The group get into a ton of adventures with the residents and cryptids that occupy Trolberg, but in the second season they have to deal with the incompetent town safety patrol captain Erik (John Hopkins) and his deputy Gerda (Lucy Montgomery).
This show is a weird blend of creepy and adorable that somehow works perfectly. It routinely features monsters that, in a different art style, would be horrifying, and instead makes them the appropriate amount of threatening to be dealt with by a young girl. The situations she encounters in this season are likewise: They’d be horrifying if you really thought about it too hard, but instead they’re done in such a way that they can be approached by younger minds without trauma. The show walks a fine line, but it walks it with the same determination as its main character and manages to make it work.
The first season is mostly a fish out of water and adventure story, showing off the creative designs. The second season, though, is largely about self-reflection and humility. The main antagonist, Erik, is a person who is so caught up in the glory of being head of the town safety patrol that he frequently exposes the town to more danger and never seems capable of recognizing that fact. However, the show mirrors that with having Hilda frequently commit similarly selfish or reckless acts, albeit out of more noble desires, without learning from her errors. This reaches a pinnacle halfway through the season when an episode flat-out ends with an alternate song of Hilda saying “My name is Hilda and I don’t learn from my mistakes.” It’s a good lesson to teach kids and adults: Think about how your actions will affect others before you do them.
Overall, a fun show. If you’ve got small kids, they’ll love it.
Look, I’m not going to say that I thought Tiger King was the best show of the year, but I can say without a doubt that Tiger King was the most 2020 show. It was an absolute thrill ride into the most disturbed and depraved group of people you could get to sign a release. I don’t think we’ll see anything like it for a long time.
Everything about this show was insane and somehow I think that made it one of the most original things on television. Essentially made of recordings of Duncan Trussell’s podcast with completely unrelated (or seemingly unrelated) images animated over them, this show ended up being a bunch of powerful and existential messages concealed in weird and wacky clips.
While some shows reinvent themselves a bit with their second seasons, this show instead decided to start expanding its universe beyond just the existence of vampires, bringing in ghosts, witches, and zombies while also giving its characters more fleshed-out and hilarious backstories. Also, it gave us Jackie Daytona, the ultimate human disguise.
An adaptation of Matt Ruff’s book of the same name, Lovecraft Country managed to combine the cosmic horror and monstrosities of H.P. Lovecraft with the existential threat and atrocities of racism in the United States. A number of the episodes and characters in this show were up at the top of television. Unfortunately, it did seem to get a bit off-kilter towards the end or it would be ranked higher.
I only reviewed it last week, but this show brought Bruce Lee’s desire for a television show to life almost fifty years after his death and it is glorious. Filled with great action sequences, this show conveys the story of a martial artist in San Francisco during the late 1800s and it approaches that with an unwavering resolve towards accuracy.
A complete surprise to me, this show about a nerdy high-school girl trying to lose her virginity and achieve popularity was one of the best-written things I’ve seen in a while. It’s one of the funniest shows Netflix put out last year and I was surprised that it seemed to fade off of critics lists very quickly. Still, it’s going on mine.
If someone told me there’d be such a compelling mini-series about a woman playing chess in the 1960s, I’d have thought they were crazy, but this show managed to pull it off. Anya Taylor-Joy brought an amazing amount of charisma to a character that could easily have come off as shallow, often acting solely with her very expressive eyes. Also, it made chess awesome. Truly, a great accomplishment.
This show decided to use its second season to try and incorporate more traditional elements of the Star Wars universe into the series and rather than overshadowing the core characters, it made it clear that this was a universe filled with fun and exciting stories everywhere and that we’re only seeing a part of them. It’s what I wanted out of Star Wars for a long time. Plus, BABY YODA!!! (Now Grogu)
3) Perry Mason – HBO Max
It’s tough to do a new take on a series that ran from the fifties to the nineties, but HBO Max managed to pull it off. With a film-noir vibe and some new characterizations, this show made Perry Mason feel a little dirty while still emphasizing that he’s the good guy; the system he fights against is not. I hope they keep it going.
I hadn’t watched this show until it finished, but once I started I could not stop. It’s as funny as it gets and you will fall in love with the characters despite how much you would want to hate them at the start of the show. Containing as many moments that’ll make you cry as laugh, it deserves all of the acclaim it got.
I would never have thought you could bring The Good Place to a satisfying end. It’s a show that starts off with the premise that all of the characters are already dead and, therefore, are already living an essentially eternal existence. However, somehow, the show managed to not only pull it off, but pull it off in a more touching and more real way than I could have ever thought. It was an amazing ride and we are all the better for taking it.
The Doctor gets rescued by an old friend in time to confront an old enemy.
After the Scout Dalek was destroyed on New Year’s Day 2019, it was intercepted by agents of Jack Robertson (Chris Noth), the shady businessman from “Arachnids in the UK.” Robertson has the Dalek analyzed and repurposed into defense drones used to suppress riots along as part of a scheme with politician Jo Patterson (Harriet Waller). The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) is in prison since being caught by the Judoon, waiting for decades while trying to figure out who she really is. She is rescued by Jack Harkness (John f*cking Barrowman!) and returned to Earth, only to find out that it’s 10 months past when she left. In the interim, the Tardis Trio (Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill) have gotten upset at being left behind. They discover the Dalek threat just before the Doctor returns. At the same time, Robertson’s scientist Leo Rugazzi (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) grows a Dalek from the cells in the shell, only for it to take over his body and grow dozens of other Daleks. As the Doctor, Jack, and the Trio confront Robertson, they find out that the Daleks have taken over the defense drones and are taking over the UK. Hatching a plan, the Doctor summons another Dalek ship which destroys all of the cloned Daleks for being “impure.” The group then manages to destroy the Dalek ship and trap the Daleks in a spare imploding TARDIS. With the Earth safe, Ryan and Graham decide to stay behind and the Doctor and Yaz set off back into the stars.
This special was a bit of a surprise on a lot of levels, including both the presence of John Barrowman and the fact that it signaled the departure of Walsh and Cole from the series. Walsh was one of the better parts of the last two years of Doctor Who, so I’m curious how, or if, they’ll be able to replace him. It was also a surprise that they were able to finish filming it during Covid-19, but apparently part of it is that at least some of the shoot occurred before quarantine. Still, I’m impressed they got it out.
As far as the special goes, I actually thought it was well done. It managed to balance the Doctor’s more gentle philosophy over the last two series with the fact that Daleks generally cannot be reasoned with. As the Doctor is trying to figure out who she is following the events of the last season finale, she can focus on doing the thing that the Doctor does better than anyone in the universe: Beat the hell out of a shallow allegory for Nazism. This episode doesn’t really have the monologues that the previous Chibnail episodes relied on, but I think that is a helpful respite for both the characters and the audience. This episode comes at the end of an absolutely crap year and, frankly, I didn’t need a long morality speech. I wanted to see the Doctor trick a bunch of Daleks into being folded into a singularity and banished from reality. Chris Noth returning as the seemingly unkillable douchebag billionaire was just a nice bonus.
Overall, it didn’t do much to move the canon along, but it was a fairly entertaining hour and change. That’s all I wanted and that’ll do for now.
I’m sure there were a ton of these lists out there, but here’s another.
10) Enola Holmes – Netflix
Look, I was as surprised as you that I enjoyed this film, but I really thought the film did a great job bringing a fun and new character to life inside of a fairly established universe. Millie Bobby Brown nailed the role, being just the right amount of charming to be a fourth-wall breaker in an only moderately comedic film. I also appreciate that the mystery at the core of the film is one worthy of a Holmes character.
9) Birds of Prey (Harley Quinn) – HBO Max
This film should have failed completely but somehow just decided to be as fun and possible and it worked. While the structure of the film isn’t the best, the performances of all of the main characters are great and the humor is on point. The action sequences, also, are some of the best in the DCU despite almost no one in the film having superpowers. Plus, it gave us more of Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn despite that awful Suicide Squad film.
8) Hamilton – Disney+
I never thought we were going to get this film, but, at a time when we needed it most, Disney decided to go ahead and drop one of the absolute best musicals I’ve seen in my life. Hamilton brings everything: Amazing cast, great songs, creative choreography, and f*cking rap battles in place of boring policy debates. It’d be higher on here if it was more of a movie, honestly, but it’s still one of the highlights of last year.
7) The Old Guard – Netflix
If you had pitched me the idea of the Director of Love and Basketball doing a superhero film about Charlize Theron being a Scythian who wields a battle-axe in the modern day leading a team of immortals, I’d have offered to help you find a doctor for your stroke. However, this film worked brilliantly. Great action sequences, great acting, and deeper characters than you’d think this film could manage; this was a pleasant surprise.
6) Bill and Ted Face the Music
We had to wait a long time for this film, but it finally arrived and it managed to somehow secure Bill and Ted as one of the most successful trilogies of all time. In addition to having the talents of Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter, it incorporated Samara Weaving and Brigette Lundy-Paine as their daughters who perfectly duplicate their fathers’ idiosyncrasies. The film is hilarious and it ends with one of the best messages in a film we got all year. Just a great end to a franchise.
5) Dick Johnson is Dead – Netflix
This is the blackest comedy I have ever seen. It’s a documentary by a daughter, Kirsten Johnson, discussing and acting out with her dementia-suffering father, Dick, all of the ways in which is he likely going to die. It’s truly disturbing because her father constantly plays along with her in a grim acceptance of her mortality. It’s also the only film I couldn’t bring myself to review on here, but it’s still one that has stuck with me and will stick with you.
4) Love and Monsters – Rent on Prime
One of my friends messaged my movie group to say that this was a great new “boy and his dog” film and that is definitely a solid aspect of this story. However, this film is much bigger than that. It’s got drama, comedy, a pupper, and, of course, an unrequited romance all contained in a well-designed apocalyptic setting. It needs to get on streaming so that more people can appreciate this.
3) Soul – Disney+
Coming in right at the end of this year, Pixar gave us a true return to form. Everything in this movie is well done. Animation, pacing, writing, voice cast, and design all combined to create something that ranks among the best animated films Pixar has done. Moreover, it’s one of the most mature stories they’ve ever done and I appreciated that decision.
2) Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – Netflix
Helmed by great performances by Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis, this adaptation of August Wilson’s play is captivating in the truest sense of the term. You will be completely entranced by the monologues and dialogue as the characters share their loves, losses, hopes, and dreams. It’ll hit you in places you didn’t even know you had.
1) Palm Springs – Hulu
I know people will disagree with this ranking, but this was the only film this year where I had to pause it just to let myself express how much I was enjoying the experience. This new take on Groundhog Day featured Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti and brought an amazing amount of novelty to an overdone trope. It made me laugh as hard as any movie has in a while and I needed some laughs this year.
This show is amazing and some other network needs to pick it up.
Ah Sahm (Andrew Koji) is a Chinese-American martial artist who arrives in San Francisco searching for his sister Xiaojing (Dianne Doan). He quickly runs afoul of local authorities and gains the attention of local black marketer Wang Chao (Hoon Lee) who introduces him to Father Jun (Perry Yung), head of the Hop Wei Tong (gang), and his bastard son Young Jun (Jason Tobin). Ah Sahm saves Young Jun from being abducted and the pair become friends. Ah Sahm also becomes involved with Ah Toy (Olivia Cheng), a local Madame. However, Ah Sahm’s arrival comes at a time in which the violence between the Tongs, as well as the violence between the Irish gangs and the Chinese all are on the rise. As a result, Mayor Blake (Christian McKay) orders the creation of a Chinatown police squad under Big Bill O’Hara (Kieran Bew) and his new officer Richard Lee (Tom Weston-Jones). This comes from the machinations of the deputy mayor, Walter Buckley (Langley Kirkwood), and against the wishes of Blake’s wife, Penelope (Joanna Vanderham). There’s gonna be a lot of fighting in the future.
So, before his death, Bruce Lee pitched a series to Warner Bros. Television called Ah Saham about a martial artist in the Old West, but the network passed… only to quickly create Kung Fu starring David Carradine. The network says it’s a coincidence, which is code for “we have lawyers and you don’t.” While I do like Kung Fu and its sequel series, this show is a completely different animal. What Lovecraft Country and Watchmen did in opening people’s eyes to some of the horrible things that America did to black Americans, this show tries to do for some of the things that were done to Chinese immigrants in California, including the incipience of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the only law ever implemented specifically to prevent all members of an ethnic group from immigrating to the US (so far). It’s a hell of a demonstration, since many of the more fleshed-out and likable characters are also some of the most mistreated by this society.
I will also give the show credit for pointing out that the Irish-Chinese labor wars really just served to make the wealthy land and labor barons even wealthier. Each group kept undercutting the other and directing their violence towards their fellow laborers, while the people who are encouraging the fighting reap the benefits of the cheap labor. The show not only demonstrates this on multiple levels, but outright states it multiple times just to make sure the audience understands it.
The action sequences in the show are fantastic. They occur reliably, but not so often that they become trite. Notably, there’s a tribute to Enter the Dragon in the second season and it’s beautiful. Andrew Koji, while he does not appear to have studied Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do, was a competitive martial artist in Shaolin kung fu and taekwondo and has been doing his own stunts and fight choreography for many years. He knows how to sell a fight scene as well as almost any actor I’ve seen in quite a while. When the moment calls for it, he can also deliver a solid emotional performance, though his character mostly maintains a “silent badass” vibe. He works perfectly for this role.
The acting in general is excellent. The actors are all given a lot of solid material to work with and I cannot think of a single performance that I thought was inferior. I particularly thought that Olivia Cheng was great as the historical character Ah Toy and that Perry Tobin was great as the ambitious and kind of easily-swayed Young Jun. I also like how the show switches between subtitles and English depending on whether there are non-Mandarin speakers in the area. Sometimes it even uses the switch to great comic effect.
Overall, this was a fantastic show. Unfortunately, Cinemax has stopped making original content, so this show is now in limbo. I’m hoping that HBO Max or Netflix picks up the baton.
It’s got the makings of a good film, covered in a lot of fluff.
It’s not quite 1985 yet and America is living it up like it’s 1999, Prince’s 1982 album. If that sentence seemed like an overly roundabout and pointlessly showy way of saying “it’s 1984,” then I have successfully conveyed the movie’s tone. Diana, Princess of the Amazons, (Gal Gadot) is working as an anthropologist at the Smithsonian and somewhat covertly operating as Wonder Woman. After stopping a heist of rare antiquities, she meets Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), a new gemologist, who envies Diana for her confidence and strength. One of the items from the robbery is an inscribed stone which is given to Barbara to inspect by the FBI. After handling it, Diana discovers that her previously deceased love Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) is now alive again. At the same time, aspiring businessman Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) wants the stone for his own purposes. Action sequences ensue.
This movie reminds me a bit of the third Tobey Maguire Spider-Man film. There were good performances in it and several decent ideas, but the plot was overloaded with moments that exist just to satisfy some fleeting desire to add a single element. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still better than most of Spider-Man 3, but it has the same “let’s add 10 minutes for an unnecessary sub-plot” feeling. As a result, this movie is probably about a solid forty minutes longer than it needs to be. They just kept adding things that either needed more focus to really work or just didn’t need to be there at all. I’ll give a concrete and major example after the spoiler break.
I’m not going to say that this film is bad. I certainly wasn’t blindingly angry while watching it, which puts it ahead of at least two other films in the DCEU. There are some good sequences in it, particularly the fight sequence in the White House, and Kristen Wiig and Pedro Pascal both play their characters better than they are written. Sure, there are a lot of scenes that could be cut, but many of the scenes in the film are genuinely touching or well-done. I particularly will say that I loved the way that the main conflict was resolved. In the first movie, Diana says that her greatest power is love, but then also beats Ares by using the power of shooting magic lightning. It’s hard for me to absorb the message when the story completely contradicts it. However, in this film, Diana actually does win by using love and empathy rather than just punching. It’s a logical resolution that contains a great moral and a lesson that is completely appropriate for our time.
I will admit that while watching it I considered that the movie might be bloated and overindulgent because it’s a 1980s film. That was a decade of action movies that basically defined the term “over-the-top” and maybe this movie is trying to take that back from the extremely male-dominated genre by saying “here’s a film with a strong female protagonist that is also f*cking ridiculous.” We were willing to overlook the many flaws in Commando and turn it into a much-loved classic, so why can’t this film get the same benefit? But, if that was why, that’s still not a great reason. We don’t make ’80s action films anymore because we are no longer living in the ’80s. America, and the world, is fundamentally different and our art reflects that. The film captures the style of the period, it doesn’t need to capture the attitude behind the scenes.
Overall, I don’t think this is a great movie, but I don’t regret seeing it. I am glad they’ve gone ahead and green-lit another film, because this movie still made it clear that Patty Jenkins knows how to shoot some great sequences and Gal Gadot is a solid choice for Wonder Woman. Also, amazing post-credits cameo.
The single point at which I knew I was getting frustrated in the movie was the invisible jet sequence. It has so many logical flaws that it just started breaking my brain. First, they have to get a jet because they need to fly to Cairo in one trip and can’t fly commercial as Steve doesn’t have a passport. This is already stupid because A) Steve is possessing the body of a guy who clearly travels and thus would likely have a passport, B) Diana, a literal immortal goddess, works for the Federal Government and thus clearly knows someone who can make fake identities, and C) they pick a Panavia Tornado, a Jet whose maximum range would not get you halfway to Cairo from Washington DC on a full tank of fuel. Also, Steve can fly a jet even though he died in 1918? Then, while they’re taking off, Diana suddenly remembers that stealing a jet is a thing people don’t like and that they’re going to be attacked, so she has to make it invisible, even though she apparently hasn’t done this before. The thing that really pisses me off is that it was all just a ham-fisted way to work the Invisible Jet into the Wonder Woman film. It’s a 20 minute subplot that could just have been replaced with “oh, btw, I HAVE A MAGIC JET THAT’S INVISIBLE.” Making it a real jet that she turns invisible makes you wonder how the hell they found an airstrip or a place to refuel or how Steve used the bathroom during a 10 hour fight. If it’s a magic jet, like it usually is in the comics, then no one needs to think about any of that stuff. Or, honestly, just work the jet in somewhere else and do a jump cut to them being in Cairo. No one would have questioned them just taking a commercial plane.
There are about three different subplots like this that add nothing to the movie and feel like they were done just to add something for either the trailer or just to satisfy a studio checklist. Actually, multiple scenes from the trailer were completely pointless, like having her lasso lightning while flying or having her don Asteria’s armor only for Cheetah to tear it apart in a minute.
Then there’s Cheetah. Okay, so, I’m giving credit to the movie for the scene in which a drunk guy accosts Barbara, because it is appropriately horrifying. Particularly with him repeatedly saying “I’m a nice guy” as he tries to force himself on her. When Diana saves her, it’s completely reasonable that Barbara would wish to be like Diana and thus wish to be strong. It’s even understandable that she would start to get caught up in having that much power and attention. However, they try to convey her “start of darkness” by having her beat up the guy who accosted her. A woman beating up her would-be rapist is usually not a “villainous” act. But the biggest question is why she ever wanted to be a cheetah woman at all. She already has super-strength and such, why the hell not just ask for Wonder Woman’s full powerset? She says it’s about being an “apex predator,” which is weird enough, but cheetahs, while they technically fit the term, aren’t what you think of when you hear “apex predator.” I could not buy that last leap to being Cheetah on any level. Why not have Barbara lose her powers at the end of this film and seek alternate powers to be strong again in the next movie that have the side-effect of turning her into a cheetah? It’d give some time for an actually well-done character to believably go from nice to villain.
The thing about all of these complaints is that they stink to high heaven of studio meddling. “You can’t use a movie to set-up Cheetah without showing Cheetah” or “we need some cool shots for a trailer that will be made a year before the film is done.” If you cut all of this crap, then this movie could genuinely have been really good. I think I could re-cut the movie myself to be better with just what we have. It’s just frustrating to watch a lot of good get diluted by mediocre.
It’s a National Geographic special from Planet Express.
This episode consists of three separate vignettes of the crew re-imagined as animals.
In the first, Fry (Billy West), Leela (Katey Sagal), Zapp Brannigan (West), Bender (John DiMaggio), Amy (Lauren Tom), Hermes (Phil LaMarr), and a number of other characters are incarnated as salmon traveling upstream. Along the way, a number are killed by hazards such as whitewater and lobsters (Zoidberg). As they reach a fork in the river to their spawning site, Fry finds himself compelled to separate from Leela, with whom he had been planning to mate. Leela is instead courted by Zapp, but Fry leaps over the land, finally being kicked in when a pair of Bears (Lrrr and NdNd (Maurice LaMarche and Tress MacNeille)) fight over him, with Lrrr having eaten Zapp. Fry fertilizes Leela’s eggs and then they both die.
The second scene involves the Professor (West) playing a Pinta Island Tortoise, a species which is presumed to be near extinction due to only Hubert remaining. He attempts to find another mate and is accompanied on the journey to the other side of the island by a group of finches (Fry, Leela, Amy, and Hermes) and an iguana (Bender). Hubert moves so slowly that an entire generation of finches dies off and are replaced with new ones that have apparently evolved to better survive the new side of the island. Hubert thinks he found the other member of the species, but it turns out to be a rock. Mom, the actual female, arrives and destroys the rock, then mates with Hubert with his apparently weird turtle penis. A while later their babies hatch, only to be crushed immediately by a rock.
The final segment has everyone re-imagined as elephant seals. Bender is the alpha male “beachmaster,” who keeps all of the other males separate from the females. One male (Kif) is attracted to a particular female (Amy), but the beachmaster keeps the beta males away. On the advice of an older seal (Farnsworth), Kif tries to seduce Amy as a sneaky male, but he’s interrupted by Bender. After summoning his courage, Kif challenges Bender to a fight, but is completely destroyed, to the point that Bender is flattening his corpse while he sleeps. However, the fight distracted the beachmaster long enough that the other males all snuck in to impregnate the females, resulting in a litter of their offspring.
I am not sure what exactly the team was smoking when they decided to make this episode, but much like “Reincarnation,” this episode manages to produce a bunch of laughs by sticking to its completely nonsensical premise. Without having to care about characterization or anything else like that, the focus was just on coming up with ridiculous jokes to fill an already absurd set of plots and it pays off pretty well. I think with the “Futurama Holiday Special” the team was a little worried about coming up with a musical number or trying not to offend anyone too much, but obviously no one can get too upset about taking shots at turtles and salmon. Well, maybe biologists, but as a (former) physicist I don’t care about their opinion. Yeah, I said it. Bring it on, animal nerds.
I also appreciate that all of the animal designs are just the right kind of anthropomorphic adaptations of the characters. It’s always clear which character has become which animal, even though they’re wildly different. Part of it is that they keep each character’s color scheme, for the most part, which makes you all the more appreciative for the work that went into crafting all of the distinct color palettes in the series.
Overall, it’s not the best episode of the series, but it’s one of the funnier ones.
Let’s do one from each segment:
When the narrator says that a young salmon is called a “fry,” Leela asks what Fry’s name is. Fry responds “I don’t have a name. I’m a salmon.” It’s perfectly delivered and timed.
When Mom, as a tortoise, destroys the rock that Farnsworth is trying to seduce, Farnsworth says “you always were a hot-blooded Latina.” The narrator then adds “like all reptiles, the Galapagos tortoise is cold-blooded.” It’s someone doing a decent Morgan Freeman, so bonus points.
They adapt three of Bender’s catchphrases perfectly. “Bite my freshly-molted, blubber-filled ass,” “I’m 40% ass,” and, as he’s sleeping, “kill all penguins, kill all penguins.” I’m pretty sure that they made Bender the beachmaster solely for these.
Well, 2020 is, mercifully, over now. My resolution during the previous year was to post a review every single day. Naturally, I thought that I would get bored or fail within a month. Somehow, I did it. I wrote more than 365 reviews last year. It paid off, too, as apparently over 4000 more of you are reading every month now than at the beginning of the year. I’m not planning on keeping up a review every day for the next year, but I also have gotten used to writing them whenever I have spare time, so who knows? In any case, the blog will continue.
So I just want to say thank you, dear readers. Your support keeps me going.
Also, just to drive home how random readership can be, here are the five most-read articles of last year:
This was the last film of a great actor and the dying flame truly burns brightest.
Lee (BRUCE F*CKING LEE) is a supremely skilled martial artist who is approached by British Intelligence agent Braithwaite (Geoffrey Weeks) about an investigation into Han (Shih Kien/Keye Luke), a notorious drug lord. Han is hosting a martial arts tournament and Lee is a prime candidate to enter. Lee’s master (Roy Chiao) informs him that a man who works for Han, O’Hara (Bob Wall), killed Lee’s sister, Su Lin (Angela Mao). Additionally, he reveals that Han had been a member of the Shaolin temple like Lee, until he was expelled. Lee agrees to infiltrate Han’s island for the British. At the same time, gambling addict Roper (John Saxon) and Martial Arts master Williams (Jim Kelly) also enter the tournament. The two, having previously served together in Vietnam, quickly regain their friendship. The three, along with other competitors, arrive on Han’s island.
The three prove to be more than up to the level of the challengers, with Saxon and Williams even wagering on each other. At the end of the first day of fighting, Han supplies all of the fighters with female companionship, but orders the men to stay in their rooms. Lee arranges for his companion to be Mei Ling (Betty Chung), a secret undercover British agent, which allows him to sneak out. However, he encounters guards and is unable to find anything to report to the British, but escapes back to his room. The next morning, Han orders his chief fighter Bolo (Bolo Yeung) to kill the guards for failing. Bolo kills them all easily. Lee then faces off with O’Hara, whom he defeats easily, then is forced to kill when O’Hara tries to stab him. That night, Han summons Williams to his chambers. Williams had stepped outside the previous night to practice and Han believes he was the intruder. Han kills Williams with his metal hand when Williams tries to leave.
Han offers Roper a place in his organization. Roper, who usually operates in the gray areas of the law, considers it, but refuses when he sees Williams’ corpse. Lee sneaks into Han’s inner sanctum and finds a collection of drugs and guns and radios Braithwaite before being captured. Han orders Roper to fight Lee, but Roper refuses. Han orders Bolo to fight Roper, only for Roper to emerge victorious. Lee and Roper fight off Han’s minions, aided by released prisoners from Han’s own cells. Lee pursues Han and kills him. The British military finally arrive and Roper and Lee watch as Han’s men are overrun.
Some of you are probably wondering why I would finish the year off with Enter the Dragon. The simple answer is that I started the year off with The Last Dragon, so it seemed like a natural pairing. A movie about a man aspiring to be Bruce Lee and the movie that represents the pinnacle of Bruce Lee’s short career. It’s been a crappy year, so let’s end it with a good movie. Also, a certain brother who shall not be named showed this to his daughters and apparently it resulted in an honor duel between them, so I took that as a sign.
As you can probably guess from my subtitle, I believe this is the greatest martial arts film ever made. Yes, I’ve seen The Raid and its sequel, Once Upon a Time in China (which I would argue is less impressive than Kiss of the Dragon but I’m apparently in the minority there), Ong Bak, Ip Man, The Legend of Drunken Master, and The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. All of those are great films that usually populate the top few spots of “Greatest Martial Arts Movies” lists, but I would argue that this is the only film where NOT having it on your list does not invalidate the movie, but instead invalidates the list.
Part of it is that, in the case of many of those films, most modern production companies would not be willing to do a lot of the ridiculous things that this movie did, like having Bruce Lee grab an untrained cobra for 30+ takes (he got bit once, but it was devenomed by that point). During the final battle sequence, the film hired members of two rival gangs as extras, leading to an actual brawl on camera. As a joke scene during the movie, they shoved actual Martial Arts Champion Peter Archer onto a boat which had a hole in it. They were not aware of the hole in the boat, but Archer, an Australian, just told them to keep filming until the boat he was on actually sank. Most of the types of contact between the martial artists in this movie would not have been allowed if they hadn’t filmed in Hong Kong in the 1970s. Hell, Lee routinely had to fight the martial arts extras after filming because they kept challenging him on set. Then there’s the Bob Wall fight.
Legend has it that Bob Wall and Bruce Lee did not get along very well. Wall had already appeared in The Way of the Dragon, being a friend of Chuck Norris, and supposedly had clashed with Lee on set there. Then, during filming, Bob Wall actually cut Bruce Lee with the bottle he was using to stab him, due to it being a real broken bottle and Lee insisting that Wall keep trying to really attack him. This supposedly enraged Lee so much that during a subsequent take (which actually happens earlier in the fight in the movie), Lee actually kicked Wall harder than expected. As Wall was a professional martial artist, the scene was supposed to be more real than usually allowed, but in this case Lee kicked Wall so hard that he flew into an extra, breaking the extra’s arm. While Wall has disputed that Lee was angry at him, it’s irrelevant, because Bruce Lee kicking a man so hard that he broke another man’s arm is one of the most amazing things you could put in a movie.
Just those things alone set this movie apart. The only recent film I can think of with this much reckless disregard for the safety of the people involved was the movie Chocolate in 2008, which was filmed in Thailand and almost permanently crippled at least one person involved. Lee and Director Robert Clouse’s decision to mostly cast actual martial artists allowed for a level of realism that most films just won’t match. John Saxon was one of the only members of the cast who wasn’t a professional martial artist, but he had black belts in Judo and Shotokan Karate. Additionally, Lee trained most of the stunt people for the film, something that pays off immensely in the iconic scene of him rampaging through the facility. While most martial arts films record at a slower shutter speed so that the actors will seem faster when played normally, Lee trained the stuntmen to react to his movements so that the film could be filmed at a high shutter speed. The result is that everyone aside from Bruce Lee appears to be moving in slow motion. It shows just how fast Lee could move and react.
The performances in the film are solid, though it’s made easier with having several of the characters (Bolo and O’Hara, for example) almost entirely silent. The actor who plays Han was dubbed, but the fact that his voice acting doesn’t quite match his physical performance actually still works for the character, who is constantly practicing some level of deception. It starts with his famous iron hand and culminates in the showdown with Lee in a hall of mirrors. Jim Kelly, who was asked to be in the film less than a week before filming was set to begin after actor Rockne Tarkington dropped out, started a successful career in movies for the rest of the 70s. The scene in which Kelly humorously picks four girls for the evening is still a great performance. John Saxon, who was primarily an actor, does a great job as the comic relief. Then there’s Bruce Lee, the only man who could deliver a line like “Boards don’t hit back” and make it sound awesome.
Overall, this is just a great movie. If you haven’t seen it, you need to. Even if you’re not a fan of martial arts films, you should give it a try.
Pixar continues to show that they can make a great movie.
Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) is a middle school music teacher who has long dreamed of being a Jazz musician. He gets a call from a former student, Curly (Questlove), who informs him of an opening in the band of Jazz legend Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). Joe manages to nail the audition and gets a chance to play piano with her, only to immediately walk into an open manhole cover. Joe finds himself in the “Great Beyond,” but tries to escape so that he can play the show. He accidentally ends up in the “Great Before,” where souls are prepared to be sent to Earth. Joe poses as an instructor to fool the soul counselors (Richard Ayoade, Alice Braga, Wes Studi, Fortune Feimster and Zenobia Shroff) and gets assigned to help “22,” (Tina Fey) a soul that has remained in the Great Before for a long time due to her cynicism. Joe realizes that if he can convince 22 to go to Earth, he can potentially use that as a way back to his body and make it to the show. They are helped by the spiritualist Moonwind (Graham Norton) and opposed by Terry (Rachel House), the soul counter.
I’ll admit that when Disney announced they were going to put this on Disney+ for free on Christmas, my first thought was that it must not be very good. After all, I think that putting it on streaming at the same time as theaters makes it ineligible for an Oscar, something Pixar collects almost every year they’re eligible. Hell, the category of “Best Animated Film” was arguably created because of Pixar and Dreamworks putting out films too good for the Academy to ignore. While it’s possible that they changed the eligibility rules or that Disney did something to circumvent them here, it still led me to think that the film was a dud. I was completely and utterly wrong.
I don’t think that this is Pixar’s best movie, but I would not fight someone who said it was. This film is ambitious beyond almost anything the company has tried before. While all of the good Pixar films have some message behind it, this one probably hits people on the deepest level. I honestly don’t want to spoil it at all because it comes together so well that it really is more of an experience than a moral. It almost feels like a surprise until you realize the whole movie has been set up perfectly so that it comes to this point naturally. It really is the message we need in 2020, too. Just see it for yourself.
The other thing that surprised me is how many of the jokes in this film are just a step above what I usually expect from Pixar. Not that there movies don’t have good laughs, but they’re usually kid-friendly jokes or something that is just mildly amusing. Sure, sometimes you have some jokes like the Gum Jingle from Inside Out which is just a perfect encapsulation of something funny and frustrating about human existence, but usually it’s just that the Piggy Bank doesn’t know who Picasso is. This movie, though, had a number of gags that just made me laugh out loud. I had to pause the movie because of a well-timed line about Tina Fey messing with the Knicks. The fact that the film is talking about a mature topic seemed to allow for some more mature jokes and I appreciate that. There are still jokes for the kids, obviously.
The voice acting and the animation are as good as you would expect. The style of the afterlife, or the beforelife as it were, is very creative and done in such a way that you likely won’t be offended no matter what your religious beliefs are. They also do a great job of intertwining the mind and spirituality, particularly in the concept of “the zone,” the place that you can reach that feels beyond yourself when you are focused on something you are passionate about.
Overall, this is a movie that deserves an audience. It’s a great work by a great team.