This blog is a continuation of a four-part series on film written by Jake Kelly. For more information about Jake and to review the earlier 2 movies, check out our blog post for Part One HERE. And Part II HERE.

6. Hero

“Your Majesty, my task is completed now. My decision will cause the deaths of many…A dead man begs you to remember: a warrior’s ultimate act is to lay down his sword.”

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Hero is a foreign martial arts film that was first released in China and, later, in the U.S. The main character “Nameless”, played by Jet Li, is an assassin who has plotted to kill the leader of a rising empire in eastern Asia, land which will later become China.Among six empires, or kingdoms, competing for the land, one of them has had the most success of defeating the others. At the start of the film, Nameless is being allowed to meet the emperor of the Qin Kingdom, the most victorious of the kingdoms, under the guise that he has killed three assassins that were plotting to kill the emperor.  Yielding to his now-known fate, the emperor and Nameless start to go further into the web of the assassination plot, revealing that the journey to kill him has been a difficult series of events and, furthermore, could be even more difficult to accomplish.

Hero is not just another martial arts movie. As you read in Part I of this series, I took martial arts for several years and was also an instructor. I love martial arts films with a passion. I’ve seen many different ones over the years. I’m highly critical of them in both their quality of martial arts and in quality of story and script. My experience has been that most martial arts movies don’t have good narratives. So when a martial arts movie comes along that actually has a great story as well as great martial arts, it instantly becomes a favorite of mine. I believe Hero is one of the best martial arts movies ever made. It’s more than a good story and cool fighting. Hero is a narrative of Chinese history, ancient mythology, fantasy, poetry, language, calligraphy, religion, and philosophy. The cinematography of Hero and the production design alone are enough to single it out from other films. It could be compared to other great art-house films. The creators of Hero use color across the film to draw us in to the story-telling happening between Nameless and the emperor. The use of color and composition adds great depth to each of the scenes, giving us a sense of wonder and mystery, constructing a way to divide different interpretations of their story-telling.

One of my favorite moments in the film is when Nameless is dueling against the assassin,“Sky,” played by Donnie Yen (from the Ip Man series). The scene takes place in a tranquil courtyard where people are playing games, closely resembling chess, and it is raining. Ten warriors first try to take Sky by their own effort, which is shown to be utterly useless. Then, Nameless calls on Sky to fight him. After they battle for a few minutes, they suddenly stop. We cut to a blind musician packing up his instrument, leaving them to battle alone. Nameless stops the musician. He pays him to stay and play a song. The man sits back down, pulls out his instrument and prepares it. Next, we cut to the assassins on each side of the courtyard facing each other. They are standing still with their eyes closed. We watch as the rain quietly falls and the music starts to play. Then, they start to imagine that they’re fighting. As they battle each other in a quasi-slow motion, we can see each detail of their movements. They believe that they can decide who the victor will be by imagining how their fight will turn out. I really enjoy this scene because it combines philosophy, fantasy, and imagination in combat. The duel between Sky and Nameless is one of mystery and wonder combined with a sense of virtue and honor. The two men fighting are not just warriors. They are masters of the martial arts filled with the highest wisdom and skill battling out their dispute while still maintaining courtesy and integrity.

“Beauty is a key to the mystery and a call to transcendence. It is an invitation to savor life and to dream of the future” (Letter to Artists). Hero contains many aspects of beauty: cinematography, martial arts, costume design, story-telling, etc. John Paul II states that the beauty of creation and created things, like we see in Hero, is not an end but the means to lead us to something more. As a narrative shrouded in fantasy, mythology, and history, we are left reaching out to the unknown, something outside of ourselves. JP II concludes: “Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God.” I think Hero does this in spades. We are filled with awe and wonder of the invisible in ways that, I would say, Christian films sometimes fail to do.

7. Singin’ in the Rain

“What’s the first thing an actor learns? ‘The show must go on!’ Come rain, come shine, come snow, come sleet, the show MUST go on!”

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Set in 1920’s Hollywood, we follow a movie production company and some of its actors as they adjust to the new sensation and demand for sound in “moving-pictures”. Singin’ in the Rain begins with two characters named Donald Lockwood and Cosmo Brown in their movie-making career. Don is a successful actor and Cosmo is a musician. When big-star Don comes across a desirable young dancer and actress named Cathy, he immediately becomes infatuated with her. However, his famous co-star from the screen – mean, jealous, and dim-witted Lina Lamont – makes her disappear from Don’s grasp by getting Cathy fired from her dance studio. When the production studio hears about the success of sound in movies, they worry that their recently made silent film will fail at the box office. Moving swiftly to reshoot the film with sound and dialogue, they realize that they are way out of their comfort and capabilities. Will they be able to save their production company as well as their own careers?

One of the most well-known and appreciated films of history, I did not see Singin’ in the Rain until I was 21 years-old. This is very unfortunate. It is a great classic film. First, I believe it is one of the funniest films that I’ve seen. Created in the 1950s, it was spared from dipping into immoral content to make someone laugh. Second, the characters are lovable and fun. Don Lockwood, played by Gene Kelly, and Cosmo Brown, played by Donald O’Connor, are two endearing personalities for the screen. Their humor, charm, and passion make them easy characters to root for and care about. Third, although not a huge fan of movie musicals, I was very captivated by the dancing and signing in this film. Seeing it for the first time, I felt like I really hadn’t seen a great song and dance performance like it ever before. Furthermore, I don’t believe I’ve seen anything better since. Last but not least, I enjoy the enchanting romance between Don and Cathy. And adding humor to that romance, we have this shallow and dense Lina Lamont trying to get between them and their careers.

My favorite and most memorable scene is when Cosmo Brown signs “Make ‘em Laugh”. Cosmo walks on top of a piano, swims on a two-by-four, and runs in circles while laying down on a carpet. It is one of the craziest and most fun scenes that I have ever seen. Donald O’Connor, who plays Cosmo, was probably made famous for this scene, or at least became more famous because of it. There are many reasons to see Singin’ in the Rain but this scene alone is enough of a reason to watch the whole movie.

It’s interesting to think about how many classic films are probably not seen by the normal, average movie enthusiast. There are many films that are available for viewing in our current age but the classics still get the short straw. As much as directors and film-makers accomplish new and exciting feats in story-telling and visual production, they cannot always give the great qualities attributed to the earliest films. There is a simplicity and purity in the content, story-telling, and production value that questions the efforts and methods of modern films and filmmakers. I’ll admit that I still haven’t seen as many classics as I should, but I’m really glad I was able to see Singin’ in the Rain. Even though it is 65 years old, it still exists as one of my favorite films of all time.

8. Whiplash

“There are no two words worse in the English language than ‘good job’.”

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Whiplash is about a freshman drummer named Alex Neiman who aspires to be the next “great” in drumming and he’s in the best music school to do so. Knowing one of the teachers of the school as a legend, he hopes to become a student of the teacher and play in his studio band. When the chance suddenly befalls him, Alex learns that becoming another “great” will come at great cost due to his teacher’s rather unconventional and highly questionable mentoring methods.

A recent film that won Academy Awards for best supporting actor (J.K. Simmons), best editing, and best sound mixing, Whiplash is most easily described as a drama that flows like a thriller. Once the movie starts, we come on board with Alex wanting to work under the famous teacher Terrence Fletcher. We want Alex to make the studio band and succeed as a drummer. However, our hope for Alex will be tested. Whiplash deals with some difficult questions and themes. It’s tough to watch at times. Terrence Fletcher has a teaching style that would be best categorized as a drill sergeant – asking only for the best, and if the best is not done, there will be negative consequences. In other words, he is an emotionally and sometimes physically abusive teacher. Terrence believes that yelling and provoking his students will push them to become better musicians. As flawed and devastating as Terrence’s philosophy is, the movie asks us: does the end justify the means? In time, Andrew becomes a better drummer. Is Terrence’s method justified then? Even though Whiplash is mostly a tragic film, I connected with a lot of the themes and questions that come from such a narrative. This movie is essentially questioning the true, the good, and the beautiful, three of the transcendental qualities that we have been talking about.

I think we can identify the music as the “beautiful”. Both Terrence and Andrew are in a music school, one to learn and the other to teach. They both struggle and fight for what they love: the music. Certain songs and styles can be very beautiful and breath-taking to us, but they can also be annoying and irritating to other people. What makes music beautiful? Even though we may not love jazz, I think we can enjoy the beauty of the music in Whiplash. The term “good” can relate to the film in two ways: being “good” at playing an instrument and being a “good” person. We will talk about the latter. In his letter, JP II says, “In a certain sense, beauty is the visible form of the good, just as the good is the metaphysical condition of beauty…. ‘The power of the Good has taken refuge in the nature of the Beautiful.’” As beautiful as the music from Terrence can be, can we say that he is a “good” person? Twisting the understanding of John Paul II, the beauty of the music is veiling the bad character of Terrence. In time, we see Terrence rub off on Andrew and then Andrew loses the good in himself and towards others. Could we describe Andrew as a “good” person before he got wrapped up in the world of Terrence Fletcher? Lastly, there is truth: great musicians have to be formed by any means necessary, even to the point of blood, sweat, and tears. There is an important scene in the film where Terrence is talking to Andrew and says, “There are no two words worse in the English language than ‘good job’.” Terrence is inciting something that he thinks is true and he defines his life and teaching style that way. The viewer and the character, Andrew, are left to seriously question that philosophy.

Right now, you may be wondering: why recommend a film like this? No one wants to watch a teacher yell profanities at a student, degrade him, and even throw a chair at his head. Whiplash is not for everyone. I ask you to approach the idea of watching the film with caution if you are worried. When I watch Whiplash, I’m brought into this world that exists for Andrew. It’s his reality. Fletcher is flesh and blood and he is the obstacle in the way for Andrew. As evil as Fletcher is, I believe in Andrew and in his dream. I want him to succeed. Even though this film is tragic, it also is redemptive. Along with the cross, there is the resurrection.

I think Whiplash tells us a lot about people who work in the field of art. Whether it be anywhere from architecture to music to movie-making, artists push themselves to intense levels for the sake of art. We believe in pushing ourselves in doing the best we can. There are always going to be prodigies of art who are instantaneously good at what they do. Still, for most of us, it’s tough. Artists do go through blood, sweat, and tears because they believe in their art and the beauty of it. And that’s what compels me about the movie: where is the line for artists? The end is so beautiful and ineffable. How far should artists go to make their work a reality? All artists struggle with this. So, as tough as Whiplash can be to watch at times, I don’t see myself rallying for Terrence Fletcher’s teaching style, nor even supporting Andrew’s actions to make every opportunity work for him. I just see an artist believing in his art and fighting for that art. And in the end, his faith and endurance is not in vain.