Jim Norton: American Degenerate

American Degenerate by Jim Norton

Recently I have seen a new side to comedian Jim Norton. This year Norton showed a more charming intellectual side when he debated with Lindy West over the topic of rape jokes on Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell. He presented a strong logical mind and gave well-constructed counter arguments. Aside from joking that he and West should have ended the debate by making out, Norton’s side of the argument came off stronger at the end.

That matured charm continues in American Degenerate, his second comedy special from Epix, mostly in the form of a smile. Specifically, I mean the “I’m just joking” smile post-punchline. It consistently reminds the audience that he’s joking and reassures them to laugh along. In the past, Norton’s graphically crude jokes have ended with such conviction, at times it was hard to laugh. I immediately pondered about how true his jokes or perversions were. The charm shown here makes a substantial difference in his grotesque-oriented humor. Looking thinner and healthier, he delivers his jokes in a laid-back fashion and we are now able to laugh at both his perversions AND his mind.

And for that, this new hour act gets better as it goes along. Norton holds nothing back. He talks about the John Travolta masseuse lawsuit, the Colorado shootings and gun control. But the highlights for me were the self-revealing bits, like the bit about an annoying nudist at his local gym and a self-deprecating chunk where Norton talks about having sleep apnea (a condition I never heard of before) where the patient needs to wear a breathing mask to sleep. Norton even talks about how he hates bloggers, specifically how audiences like to blog and nitpick what offends them. That comedians shouldn’t have to apologize for what they say, reiterating the point he made on Totally Biased.

As an aspiring standup comedian, I agree with that statement. Comedians shouldn’t have to apologize and it’s silly how audiences nitpick what offends them. This is a mindset that audiences don’t realize themselves, so it’s good that that thought is being communicated out to the stratosphere. And on the topic of freedom, perhaps the most enjoyable part about this special is watching Norton reveling in his freedom of speech and openly talking about his thoughts, political views and sexuality, meanwhile laughing at himself in the process. He does all this unapologetically. And for that, it’s aptly titled American Degenerate.

Bruce Lee: Kung Fu ‧ Art ‧ Life Exhibition

BruceLeeMuseum

Ever since watching Bruce Lee beat henchmen with a pair of nunchukus on TV in Enter the Dragon, I instantly became a fan ever since. Aside from being familiar with all his films, I have read his books, notes, poetry, and even attempted to practice Jeet Kune Do moves directly from his hand-drawn sketches. In my view, Bruce Lee is culturally significant, and the way he lived his life deserves to be continually discussed and studied. Upon leaving this exhibition at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum, I realized I had a lot to say but nowhere to say it. So I’ve decided to write about my thoughts of the exhibit here…

Bruce Lee’s mind is fascinating and it is the number one thing people tend to overlook due to his accomplished physicality. He was forward thinking, worldly, a great speaker and a good actor. I remember seeing the full version of the Bruce Lee interview on the The Pierre Morgan Show. I was mesmerized by how Lee spoke, that he was perpetually shifting mental states. He would go from being a deep philosopher, to a charming movie star, to a cocky martial artist and then a self-deprecating jokey man within sentences. His eyes and vocal tones would change and he spoke with his entire body. I walked into this exhibit wanting to gain more insight about Bruce Lee’s character, how he lived his life and how Lee’s mind worked beyond his writings or films, of which I’m already familiar with. Fortunately, I got all that.

One noteworthy panel was a letter Lee wrote to his wife Linda from Switzerland. Roman Polanski paid Bruce Lee to train him in Switzerland. It didn’t seem a lot of training was done. In the letter, Lee wrote he detested going out with Polanski clubbing nightly and missed his wife and his kids a lot. The letter was written quite romantically. It showed a man that really valued his time and wasn’t interested in hedonistic pleasures. There’s currently a Johnny Walker commercial playing on Hong Kong television that stars a CGI-version of Bruce Lee on the Hong Kong rooftops reciting his “Be like water” speech. As rad as it was to see a computer rendition of an aged present-day-if-he-lived-on Bruce Lee, he never would have done such a commercial. The man doesn’t even drink alcohol! He would think it’s a wasteful thing to put into his system. The Polanski letter proves this.

Another panel featured an American magazine article that focused on how Bruce Lee married a Caucasian woman and the fact that their children were half-Caucasian half-Chinese. The reporter asked Lee if he intended to raise them as Caucasian or Oriental, with the infinitesimally subtle implication that his mixed children are soon-to-be outcasts in either society (Call me racially sensitive, but where else can that question possibly come from?). Lee gave a very simple answer (I’m paraphrasing), stating that he intends to teach them both Western and Oriental culture so that they can respect and draw the best parts of both. That struck a chord in the third culture child inside me. Even though some of his films had nationalistic sentiments (though I’d argue he was fighting against racial profiling), he was proud to be Chinese but he was never nationalistic. Similar to how he never believed in one set style to approaching a task, he didn’t categorize people by race neither. Everybody was a human being to him. Lee wanted the world to go beyond racial boundaries and he was already the living embodiment of that, waiting for the rest of the world to catch up with him. The sad thing is, we haven’t caught up yet.

The only geek out I had was seeing the notes Lee made for the final Coliseum fight in Way of the Dragon with Chuck Norris. Every move for every shot was written out in detail. This level of dedication was prevalent in his early years, as displayed in his notebook for Cha Cha dancing, where he too wrote out every single dance move so that he can be totally responsive to his dance partner. Something that stuck with me was Lee’s handwriting, it was in a graceful cursive that was evenly spaced out with no hard stresses, which suggests that he didn’t write in a hurried fashion (I know, I’m psycho).

There are five 20-minute video panels showing interviews with his family, relatives, and people in the Hong Kong movie industry who have worked with him. The videos each focus on different topics, like Lee’s personality, his work ethic and views on martial arts. A stuntman said Lee would personally pay for the hospital bills for their on set injuries, something that no movie star has ever done or has done since. Lee’s student Dan Inosanto tells a story of how Bruce Lee celebrated his birthday by sidekicking him to the ground during a sparring session, brought out a birthday cake and sang him happy birthday. I suggest everybody watch those in their entirety for the anecdotes. My only criticism of the exhibit is how people mystify Bruce Lee’s death in the video interviews (and in general actually). It irks me in a distasteful way. People as a group dealing with somebody’s death together can really go to some odd places, it compounds and becomes a weird social hive-minded thing that’s more about them dealing it more than the individual’s death itself. It tips beyond being mournful or respectful and borderlines on trivializing the event, like bad gossip. Why does it have to be a mythic mysterious end to an epic legend? Why can’t it just be an unfortunate accident?

Finally I walked through the hallway displaying looped excerpts from his 5 films. As I was shuffling by the Way of the Dragon display, I heard a child scream “Wow!”. The child was marveling at a clip showcasing Bruce Lee’s kicking ability, specifically the sheer force that cannonaded the film extra holding dear life on a kicking pad into a pile of garbage cans. That little moment struck me, to witness a mirrored version of how I discovered Bruce Lee years ago as a child watching him on TV. I reflected upon the deeper ways Bruce Lee has impacted me now and looking back I too thought, “Wow! It’s actually possible to admire a person on this many levels.”

I recommend people go see this exhibition if you’re in Hong Kong. However much you know about Bruce Lee, it doesn’t matter. He poured deep thought and passion into everything he did, whether that was shooting a movie, training himself to throw a faster side kick, writing a touching letter to his wife or chatting with a friend. There’s something deeper for everybody to discover because he is somebody you can admire on multiple levels. Bruce Lee is forever inspiring to me and I believe he will be for anybody of any age from anywhere.

 

Man of Steel by Zack Snyder

Man of Steel by Zack Snyder

A young Clark Kent is forced to confront his secret extraterrestrial heritage when Earth is invaded by members of his race.

The story of Superman, a character created during World War II, is dated by today’s standards. The fragility of his dual identity is never touched upon. The supposed smart career woman who he’s in love with never sees through his disguise as Clark Kent. He’s all powerful, doesn’t lie and always does the right thing. Nothing can physically hurt him except Kryptonite. How do you find conflict for this character? How can he grow? What is there for him to learn? This makes Superman a writer’s nightmare. The original material has written itself into a corner. It’s clear that the filmmakers’ goal was to undo many of these trappings and update Superman to a real modern context. Content aside, I’m a Christopher Nolan fan but I have never liked any of Zack Snyder’s films. What would be the end result of a Nolan-produced Zack Snyder production? Would they accomplish their goals? Is this vision of Superman going to be entertaining? This left me going in with an open mind.

Henry Cavill makes both a great Clark Kent and Superman. Surprisingly much of it is a silent performance, as he has minimal dialogue and communicates a lot of the inner turmoil through his face. The story gives him a lot to play and watching Clark grow into Superman step-by-step make up for the the most interesting segments. When he makes the choice to become Superman, we feel the gravity of that choice. The film is called Man of Steel for that very reason.

Lois Lane is the trickiest part to cast out of all the characters. The career-driven overachieving qualities of Lois Lane, if not balanced correctly, can easily make her into a bitch. She should be a jerk, but a likable jerk. It’s in Superman’s overwhelming presence where her heartier side slowly surfaces.
 Amy Adams nails the career woman part of Lois from her first scene. The heartier side she plays out convincingly as well but unfortunately the romance is a bit rushed. I would have liked to see Lois’s vulnerable side melt away slower and have it unfold in a sequel.

Russell Crowe gives the film an engaging energetic kickstart as Jor-el; he puts an enthusiasm into this role he hasn’t in years. Michael Shannon brings a ferocious intensity to General Zod, who’s written as more complex and more relatable than Terrence Stamp’s version. I believe his motivation and anger. Laurence Fishburne is always a welcome presence and makes a fine Perry White, but what is up with that diamond earring? Is that suitable for work?

Kevin Costner is the heart of the movie as Jonathan Kent. He and Diane Lane make really convincing on-screen parents. Both are real-life parents and there’s something about how being a parent that physically changes the way carry yourself that’s hard to fabricate. That quality is captured effectively here and the values the Kents instill into Clark echoes throughout the film. Martha Kent’s first scene with a young Clark at school almost moved me to tears.

Hans Zimmer’s music punctuates the film’s goal by scoring a “Man of Steel” theme as opposed to a Superman theme. There’s no distinct attempt at trying to capture Superman’s presence with musical keys, the emphasis is the man himself. This separates it from John William’s class original score. The bombastic loud soaring god-like moments are operatic, and the quieter human moments show a lonely man moving from contemplation towards action.

Zack Snyder makes good directorial choices. Snyder’s held back with his trademark slow motion shots and thank goodness for that. The handheld cinematography effectively grounds the scenes, particularly the childhood scenes in Smallville evoke Terrence Malick films. The non-linear flashbacks is a great choice as it mixes things up for an origin story that we have seen before. It was more interesting we didn’t have to go through it linearly.

The finale is too long, partly it’s a reaction from all the complaints of no action from Superman Returns. People have been talking about the issue of too much destruction. It’s more that a lot of the destruction is caused by Superman himself. He seems unaware of his surroundings and is actively using the surrounding buildings to hurt his enemies. This would have been nullified if Cavill’s Superman just saved more civilians between the fights and if the aftermath of the destruction was addressed by the media. Christopher Reeve and Brandon Routh’s versions had no problem multi-tasking. The only one Superman power that wasn’t shown was the super breath, and there were many instances he could have used that power to put out a few fires. Maybe Superman hasn’t learned that power yet but he could have used his powers more creatively as well. On a tangential note, I loved the design of the heat vision. There was a destructive ‘last resort’ quality that looked scary and painful to fire out of your eyes.

Finally, some people might feel cheated by or downright reject these changes to the Superman mythos, but these changes properly inject the necessary weaknesses that can set this version of Superman on a journey with enough lessons to learn for subsequent films (assuming they’re making at least three of these including a Justice League movie). The new places they go with Superman were ultimately what thrilled me and the quiet human moments were what moved me. Personally I would have traded 10 minutes out of the finale for 10 more minutes in Smallville.

I look forward to where they take this version of Superman. Depending on which direction of the next film may affect how I feel about Man of Steel because there are a lot of things that are left unfinished that can be fixed in the sequel (i.e. the romance, the aftermath of the damage, Superman saving more people, how the world is reacting to his presence). It’s time to cast Lex Luthor!

Next Round of Reviews! Upcoming thoughts about Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons

My next round of reviews:

Who takes 7 months to review a Batman movie? I do! It’s been a long struggle reviewing The Dark Knight Rises and Rust and Bone, realizing that the more you like something, the harder it is to articulate why it was personal to you. It was a repetitive cycle of opening up the post and geting lost in my own scrambled feelings that needed to be unknotted and structured for a reader. I encountered a similar problem with The Grandmaster review but thank goodness that only took me a week. My goal is to finish these two reviews by Chinese New Year.

Three titles that will likely be reviewed faster than the above two films.

Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons by Stephen Chow

As of right now, I haven’t seen the new Stephen Chow film yet. Even though my interest in the film is halved by the fact that Stephen Chow is not acting in it. It’s been pretty funny seeing the trailers playing in Hong Kong theaters, as it shows a lot of behind-the-scenes footage of Stephen Chow directing his actors. Which begs me to question, if they are flat out marketing the movie with footage of Stephen Chow acting out the scenes for his actors, what’s the point in seeing a Stephen Chow movie without Stephen Chow in it? I intend on finding the answer.

I have never been someone that feels my childhood is at stake when something I like is being rewritten upon, but it feels like that this time. Stephen Chow has given me some all-time highs throughout my childhood. It feels brutal. On one hand, its always fascinating to see how an artist evolves, for better or for worse. Maybe I have to accept its the end of an era. That there won’t be a Stephen Chow film with him acting in it ever again and I’m going to have to come to terms with that. Heck, I took it hard when I realized he probably wasn’t going to work with Ng Man Tat anymore.

So I’m both looking forward and dreading it at the same time.

Read my review here.