Saturday, November 28, 2009

Favourite Film of the Decade #7 - Shaolin Soccer

Hey, how about that? A movie on my top ten of the decade that isn't nihilistic, depressing or about people getting shot.

If you had told me 10 years ago that one of my favourite films of the 2000s would be about soccer I would have called you a goddamned, piece of fucking shit, worthless, ass raping, cum guzzling, smelly liar. But I would have been wrong, and you would have been right. Sorry, that was very thoughtless of me. Forgive me?

Had I seen Shaolin Soccer when I was a kid I'm fairly certain it would be a movie that would be up there with Evil Dead, the Star Wars trilogy, Raiders/Temple of Doom, and other legendary films of my youth. Because I saw it as an adult, it's a shame that it wasn't part of my childhood, but you can bet your booty that I'm forcing it to be a component of various nephews' childhoods ("Oh, thanks Uncle Guitarbrother, a Chinese film about soccer. You shouldn't have.").

Mr. Awesome (known to some as Stephen Chow) has made a comedy film about soccer that equals the imagination put into most fantasy epics. And it's incredibly funny as well. Whether it be the soccer field turning into a war zone or a soccer ball being kicked so hard that it becomes a flaming tiger, the viewer is kept in constant amazement at what Mr. Awesome will deliver next. And when your jaw isn't agape at what you're witnessing, you're laughing your ass off at Mr. Awesome's karaoke skills or the fittingly named "Team Evil". Plus the blending of martial arts and soccer seems so perfect I was surprised it hadn't been done before (granted Gymkata blended the wonderful worlds of acrobatics and kung fu, but I digress).

In both this and the almost equally amazing Kung Fu Hustle, Mr. Awesome invokes the spirit of Bruce Lee and gives both films, despite their craziness, heart. Both are about improving oneself and reaching an enlightened place where we can be the most we can be. The theme is a lot more prevalent in Kung Fu Hustle (a scoundrel becoming the "Chosen One"), but in Shaolin Soccer it works just as well. Mr. Awesome has stated that Lee is one of his heroes, not just his films, but his philosophy, so these films also play as a wonderful tribute to the star who died far too early.

And the humour may have some scratching their heads (the script comes from the same man who in The King of Comedy had our hero get distracted from his sentry by playing with a young boys pecker) but to those who are open to it, it's delightful (and not a joke that could get someone arrested in sight!). And the supporting cast is great. Mr. Awesome has to gather a bunch of has-been martial artists to comprise his rag tag soccer team, and each one has something hilarious about them. Even the love interest in the film is a great character, and seriously, how many times can you say that about a comedy?

As for the plot, it's nothing you haven't seen hundreds of times before, a bunch of losers need to pick themselves up to win the big one, but it's performed with such inventiveness and fun that it seems like it's original despite itself. Sure it's predictable, but you'd be disappointed if it turned out any other way.

No matter what your taste in movies, Shaolin Soccer is a must see. It's a joyful, funny movie that could cheer up the gloomiest of Guses. The only critical thing I could possibly say about the film is that I'm not watching it right now.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Favourite Film of the Decade #8 - The Pledge

"No good deed shall go unpunished". That was Sean Penn's mission statement while making his best film, The Pledge, and it seemed to keep audiences away in droves. And all those finicky folks out there complaining that Jack Nicholson keeps playing the same character over and over couldn't be bothered to see what I consider the finest performance of his career. In fact the film is littered with great performances from Michael O Keefe, Mickey Rourke, Benicio Del Toro and others. But "Excuuuuse meeee" if the subject of a retired policeman losing his sanity while pursuing a brutal child killer isn't up your alley! Drone.

I was intrigued by the advertisements for The Pledge, which made it look like an old fashioned police story about a cop who won't rest until he puts a child murderer behind bars. And knowing Penn's previous work, The Crossing Guard and The Indian Runner, I was fairly certain there would be some depth to the story as well. Penn wound up giving me much more than I had anticipated. The Pledge is a fascinating character study on a man who is compelled to do the right thing no matter what. He makes bad choices for very good reasons.

Penn makes certain to show the murderer's crimes in full detail (through photographs) so the audience can get behind Nicholson's as he tries to take this monster off the streets. However, at the midway point it seems Nicholson's character actually tries to achieve some peace and happiness by forming a relationship with a single mother and her child. Or is he only with them to use the child for bait? I think the answer is quite surprising and very well handled as the movie reaches it's inevitable conclusion with Nicholson and the child murderer coming head to head. By this time the audience may not be behind Nicholson's character anymore.

Penn has created a thoughtful morality story, where nothing is black and white. I remember talking to a friend who owned a movie poster shop (sadly closed down now) about how Nicholson's character, if looked at in a certain light, is a hero. My friend immediately laughed and said he was going to move The Pledge poster to the James Bond section because he's such a "hero". As I wiped the tears from my eyes I did have to admit that some people may just loathe the Nicholson character by the end, but I felt a great amount of sympathy for a man who the universe seemed to conspire against to prevent him from doing good. There are no easy answers in The Pledge and nor should there be. The film is about real situations involving people with unreal expectations.

And boy oh boy is Nicholson ever fantastic in his role as Jerry Black, a retiring policeman who can not find peace. In every scene he shows Black as a complex character who the audience can never tell exactly what he's thinking. There are moments when his character's real nature seems to come out, but through most of the movie he seems to exist inside his head. An Oscar worthy performance that never even got a nomination. Shame.

Though most folks would find the movie too downbeat and far too depressing I would urge anyone who enjoys a good morality tale to seek his one out. Just remember, no matter what you do, it's probably wrong to someone.