Thursday, March 31, 2011

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

It's tough being a B-movie.  You have tiny budgets, no-name directors, and a cast of nobodys --- or just as bad, a star that is hilariously past their prime.  If a cast member or the director of a B-movie becomes famous, their B-movie past is usually snickered at and derided.  However, John Carpenter did some of his best work with small budgets and relatively unknown casts, so I figured that Assault on Precinct 13 could be pretty good, even if it was only Carpenter's second effort as a director.

The very first thing that struck me about this movie is its score.

As is his custom, John Carpenter wrote the score, as well as writing and directing this movie. It's not magical or sweeping, like something from John Williams or Danny Elfman, but it's pretty ominous for 70s synthesizer music and I think it still stands the test of time.

On his first day working after a promotion, Lt. Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) is asked to babysit the all-but-officially closed down Precinct 9, District 13 (the title is amusingly inaccurate) police precinct in Anderson, Los Angeles.  I'm not sure if Anderson was ever a real neighborhood in LA (I can't find anything to confirm or deny it), but in this movie, it is a gang-infested ghetto.  Normally, this kind of assignment would be pretty dull --- answering phones, directing people to the new precinct, that sort of thing --- but Bishop and his skeleton crew (two secretaries and a police captain) is in luck.  And by "luck," I mean "a lot of trouble."

The first sign that the night will be a little unusual is when a prison transport truck stops by.  Officer Starker (Charles Cyphers) is forced to stop at Precinct 9 because one of his prisoners is extremely sick and possibly contagious.  He takes sick boy into a holding cell and does the same for Wells (Tony Burton) and the death-row-bound Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston).  That would be unusual enough, but things are about to go from "unusual" to "terrifying" in a matter of minutes.

The day before, the LAPD ambushed and killed several members of the Street Thunder gang; it seemed pretty unsportsmanlike at the time, but both sides were more than adequately armed.  The Street Thunder then made a blood oath to go nuts on the city, particularly the LAPD.  They call this blood oath the "cholo," which confused me for a while, but I suppose the meaning has changed over time.
This movie has no awkward dancing, I promise.

Anyway, the Street Thunder started their day with the intention of stirring things up --- TO DEATH!!!  They pulled out some ridiculously heavy artillery (for a list of weapons, check out the imfdb, the existence of which kind of weirds me out) and decided to go ice cream man?  Um.  Okaaay.  That's pretty random.  Only moments before, a little girl had gotten a cone from that ice cream man, but realized it was the wrong flavor, so she went back to complain.  Sorry, sister, your timing is awful.  The gang member shoots the kid dead.  Now, you may assume that this was an off-screen kill, something that was implied.  Nope.
She dead.
Distraught, the girl's father manages to shoot and kill the gang member.  While that surprised everyone for a moment, the father came to his senses and ran to the nearest police station for protection.  The good news is that he found one nearby, the bad news is that station is Precinct 9, Division 13.  So, the Street Thunder, who already have a general mission to kill people on this particular day now have a particular target (civilian dad) and an intriguing location (a nearly abandoned police station in a bad neighborhood).  You know when people talk about the wrong place at the wrong time?  This is the sort of place and time they're talking about.

If you're familiar with John Carpenter movies, then you probably know the kind of acting in store for you here.  Carpenter is certainly not a bad director, with respects to how he handles the talent, but many of his movies are more about the plot than the acting.  Such is the case here.  Austin Stoker is fine as the heroic lead, but he's nothing special.  Instead, the movie focuses more on the outlaw hero of the film, Darwin Joston.  Joston's character is shockingly calm throughout the movie, despite the threat of death constantly hanging over his head, from both the gang and the state; his delivery is very droll, monotone even, and reminded me of Ron Livingston in Office Space.  I would have loved Joston's character if he ever had a line of dialogue that wasn't a quip; his recurring "got a smoke" line felt out of place and was kind of annoying.  The rest of the cast was fine, if unspectacular.  Frequent Carpenter collaborator Charles Cyphers (the sheriff from Halloween) gave a typically appropriate performance as a not particularly nice transport guard.  Ron Livingston, of Rocky fame, was solid as a high-strung prisoner that didn't want to die.  The two secretaries, Nancy Loomis and Laurie Zimmer, were also decent in their roles.  You might have noticed that I haven't mentioned any gang members.  None of them have any dialogue and, aside from the one who shot the girl and was killed, none really stick out in my memory.
Prisoners smell bad, apparently.

John Carpenter did a fantastic job making this movie as good as it is with what he had t work with.  The pace is good, the special effects (such as they are) are believable, and the writing...well, the dialogue isn't great.  The story is good, though, and that's what matters.  You might recognize the basic idea behind Assault on Precinct 13 --- heroic policeman fighting off a large opposing force with little to no help --- from the classic Western Rio Bravo.  From what I can tell, that comparison was intentional; Carpenter, who edited the film, gave the credit to John T. Chance, the character John Wayne played in Rio Bravo.  With that classic film as inspiration, Carpenter was able to update this simple concept and turn it into a thriller.  With a no-name cast, everyone is expendable and there are more than a few shocking moments in this movie.

If you want proof, look no further than the ice cream girl getting shot.  Kids don't get killed in horror movies, much less action movies (unless it provides motivation to the main character early in the film).  That was a shocking scene to include in the film, but it was downright ballsy to actually show the girl getting shot on screen.  That scene alone makes this movie worth seeing.

The lack of any dialogue between gang members is interesting.  Just shooting the girl would make them monstrous, but they never talk.  It's almost like they're not human, which makes them all the more intimidating as movie villains.  This was a brilliant choice by Carpenter.

Assault on Precinct 13 is generally referred to as an action movie, but it doesn't quite fit into the typical action movie formula.  Maybe that is because action movies weren't really being made at the time; sure, you could have war movies or detective stories with action, but most of those movies are about the drama between shootouts.  This film is about the tension between waves of gang members attacking.  Yes, there's a lot of action in the movie, but the focus is really on how the characters inside can work together to survive.

The only thing that limits the awesomeness of this movie is the script.  I like the story, I thought the acting was fine, and I like John Carpenter's direction.  I don't particularly like any of the characters or dialogue.  In fact, I was constantly annoyed by Joston's dialogue, and his character was definitely the coolest and most interesting out of the bunch.  Despite all that, I really enjoyed this movie.  Most of the time, B-movies have small budgets and no talent because they are destined to suck, but every so often a B-movie like this shows how much a talented director can get out of limiting circumstances.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Steel Dawn

 Not every actor is greeted with immediate success with their first film.  Most actors work up to it, by taking small parts and impressing audiences and directors with supporting roles.  Similarly, not every actor can be great right out of the starting gate; most have to warm up to the idea first.  While you might guess from the title that this was Patrick Swayze's Red Dawn sequel, I like to believe that Steel Dawn is his warm-up for Road House.  We can all agree that Road House is the pinnacle of American cinema, right?  Well, this film shows hints of his greatness, but doesn't quite deliver.  Probably because this is a bad, bad movie.
Pain don't hurt...but Steel Dawn kinda does.

After World War III, the world is left a big ol' desert.  Well, at least it is where this movie takes place.  An unnamed wanderer (Patrick Swayze --- he's called "Nomad" on IMDb, but "The Warrior of Destiny" in the movie trailer...I'll just call him Dalton Jr., or DJ, to avoid confusion) travels through this harsh terrain, looking for a purpose.  Along the way, he fights sand people (the Star Wars kind, not the derogatory term) and shows off his sword, which has several holes in the blade, which absolutely don't make the sword weaker or make it look like it was designed from an erector set.
Kids love nuclear war!
While wandering aimlessly, DJ encounters his old army boss, who tells him about a sweet protection job he's heading to.  Basically, the army boss has been hired to protect some peaceful farmers from a local bully, Damnil (Anthony Zerbe).  Unfortunately, the bar where the two men stop to talk is not a friendly one.  When our hero, DJ, sips his drink, he discovers that he has been drugged.  His former boss is alerted in time, but ends up being murdered by Sho (Christoper Neame), a merciless assassin that is just looking for a worthy opponent.  That opponent can be either a weapons master, or someone who can out-mullet him.
Not an easy task, I assure you.  Having nothing else to do, DJ decides to protect the farmers that his boss was going to protect, if only to place himself in a position to get revenge on Sho.  The farm that he ends up protecting is run by Kasha (Lisa Niemi, Swayze's real-life wife).  She runs a tight ship, with the farming regulated by her right hand man, Tark (Brion James).  Kasha is about to wind up in big trouble, though; she has discovered an underground fresh water well beneath her property, and that is worth killing for.  Will Dalton, Jr. stand up for these strangers, or will this drifter switch sides?  Do you have to ask?

As far as post-apocalyptic movies go, this isn't the worst that I have seen.  In fact, it has one of the more workable premises I can think of.  It doesn't make any absolute statements about the world, it just explains that fresh water is very valuable, which makes sense in a desert.  And, let's face it, plausibility is usually a pretty big stumbling block for this type of movie.  Another plus is the fact that Brian May of Queen scores it; well, it's not a fantastic score, so I guess that's more of a tidbit, but whatever.  Trust me, it's tough finding things to applaud this movie for.

So, where does it go wrong?  Let's start with the details of this post-apocalyptic world.  For starters, can anyone explain to the hair?
I would cry, too, if I had a post-apocalyptic perm.
It was genuinely distracting.  Kasha had one of the least convincing "natural" hairstyles I can remember, and there was a surprising amount of super mullets in this movie.  DJ even braided his!  All those mullets, and not a trucker hat to be found...this is truly a disturbing future.
Is this the greatest film mullet of all time?
The hair didn't bother me as much as the use of weapons.  Dalton, Jr. earns Tark's respect by showing off battle skills using a slingshot effectively; Tark doesn't give him respect, so much as he acts like he saw the hand of God tear apart the heavens, just to give DJ a thumbs up.  As for the erector set sword, I'm going to ignore the poor logic that puts sizable holes in the blade, near the base of the sword.  Instead, I would like to point out how it is carried by DJ when he's not using it.  Normally, you put a sword in a sheath that is either hanging from a belt or slung over your shoulders like a backpack.  DJ does things a little differently.  His battle pants have a holder for his sword's handle, not it's blade.  So, when he's walking, his sword is sticking straight up, with nothing covering the blade.  That means that, if he had to grab his sword quickly, he would cut himself.  Or if he fell down or did a somersault, he would cut himself.  Or if he reached into his back get the picture.  I also "loved" their mode for fast transportation, the "wind racers."  These things look like go-karts with sails.  As you might conclude from that description, they don't look like they go very fast.  Thank goodness there is a wind rider chase scene.

The acting is about what you would expect from a Patrick Swayze vehicle.  He, once again, plays someone who doesn't emote until he has to fight the final bad guy.  I love how serious Swayze takes his terrible action roles; it is impossible to listen to him read off some of these awful lines and not smile a little.  No, he's not good in this movie, but this quiet hero does give us a glimpse at Swayze's work in Road House.  Lisa Niemi may have inspired Swayze's hit, "She's Like the Wind (Racer)," but that's about all she inspires.  When I was watching this movie, I was more impressed by Brion freaking James than either of the leads, and that's a pretty bad sign.  To be fair, I was impressed by how blonde he got his beard, but that's besides the point.  If you make the mistake of watching Steel Dawn, you might recognize Arnold Vosloo as an evil henchman.  Or you might not.  It depends on how much you love The Mummy series, I guess.  The best character in the film was a stereotypically gay doctor who was transported across the desert by rickshaw, and I that was just because of the rickshaw.  Oh, and there was a child actor that I left out of my synopsis, because he was Jake Lloyd-bad.  You're welcome.

Lance Hool has directed only three movies in his career (he's mainly a producer), but he was directed some of the greatest actors in Hollywood.  Aside from Patrick Swayze, he has had the pleasure of Chuck Norris and late-career Tom Berenger as his leading actors.  If that doesn't clue you in to Hool's directing talents, let me gently suggest that his actors tend not to be critically acclaimed for dramatic performances.  He's not much of an action director, either.  Fight scenes are nearly indecipherable; I often couldn't tell how many opponents Swayze was supposed to be fighting.  I also don't see the need for useless somersaults in the middle of sword fights, and I sure don't see the effectiveness of twirling a sword while you're fighting.  Hool managed to get poor acting and awful fight scenes out of a movie that has very little to offer except for those two things.  On the bright side, he managed to find enough sand to make the movie.
I found this German trailer for Steel Dawn and thought I would share it.  Would this have been better in German?  Anything would have helped.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

I absolutely love Raiders of the Lost Ark.  It will forever be one of my all-time favorite movies, and I will giggle at the same points or point out the same technical errors every time I see it until the day I die.  The other Indy movies though...I'm not nearly as big a fan of.  I know that's a bit of an understatement when it comes to Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but I've never been a fan of Temple of Doom, either.  Last Crusade has always been my number two Indy film, partly because it was the one I saw first (I think) and partly because it is the closest to Raiders in its tone.  I loved this movie when I was growing up, but the last time I saw it (it's been years), I was struck by how silly and almost campy it gets.  Let's see how time has changed my feelings, shall we?

The film opens with a young Indiana Jones (River Phoenix) on a Boy Scout trip, where we learn the origin of many Indy-related things.  We learn how he came to wield a bullwhip, how he got the scar on his chin, what instigated his fear of snakes, and what inspired his awesome leather jacket/fedora combination.  It's a fun action sequence, but it doesn't really factor much into the plot.

The movie begins in proper with Professor Indiana Jones (Harrision Ford) being approached a wealthy antiquity collector, Walter Donovan (Julian Glover), to assume leadership over the project he has funded to seek the Holy Grail; the last leader has recently gone missing.  Indiana refuses at first, suggesting that Donovan should hire his estranged father, Henry Jones (Sean Connery), because he is one of the most prominent Grail scholars in the world; Donovan replies that he already had --- Henry was the man who went missing.  This convinces Indy to follow his father's footsteps, because the only reason anyone would want to capture or hurt Henry was to learn about the Grail; the logic is if you find one, you'll find the other along the way.  So, off goes Indiana Jones, on history's greatest scavenger hunt to find Christianity's holiest sacred object.  Along the way, he falls for a girl, fights some Nazis, and reunites with his father.
Charlie Chaplin's dramatic turn
Sure, I could go more into the plot, but what does that accomplish?  It's an adventure, and it should be experienced like one.  Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade does a lot of things right, and it begins with the cast.  Harrison Ford's best character is Indiana Jones, and he's not reduced to pimp slapping women or children in this movie (like he was in Temple of Doom).  Instead, he's back to the clever, puzzle-solving pugilist we all know and love.  Sean Connery is pretty endearing as Indiana's book-smart (but not street-smart) father.  While his character is responsible for most of the film's humor, I thought Connery and Ford worked very well as an exasperated father/son combination.  Former Bond girl Alison Doody played the part of Dr. Elsa Schneider, both friend and foe to the Joneses.  She wasn't great, but she played her part as villain and ally just fine.  Denholm Elliott and John Rhys-Davies were both welcome additions to the cast as they resumed their roles from the original film, but neither really had the same impact this time around.  Still, it was nice to see them.  Julian Glover did a pretty solid job as the bad guy, but he wasn't quite villainous enough for my taste; lucky for him, he had Nazis on his side to help him seem worse.  I also thought River Phoenix did a very good job as a young Indiana.  Phoenix was often a very good actor, but I thought he did a good job carrying himself like the established character and not just becoming an infantile version.  His hair was absolutely ridiculous, though.
That sure looks like a 1912 haircut, Indy.
Steven Spielberg directed this, and it plays to his strengths.  When it comes to epic adventure and fun, there are few directors that can compete with Spielberg when he feels like making a popcorn flick.  The tone of the first half of this film is definitely reminiscent of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but that's not a bad thing.  Things change when Sean Connery shows up and adds some comedic elements to the film, but this is certainly a sequel with the spirit of the original in mind.  In my mind, Spielberg has two areas of expertise.  One is his talent for finding unexpected laughs in otherwise serious scenes, like the whole "Jehovah starts with an 'I'" bit.  The other is the majestic way he reveals things in movies, like the perspective bridge.
Wrong Holy Grail bridge scene, sorry.
The pace of the film is brisk, there is action every few minutes, but it manages to not feel like a dumb action movie.  You never realize just how hard it is to make an intelligent action movie until you watch a few dozen Jean-Claude Van Damme movies in a row.  The camerawork is also good, although the special effects are sometimes a little dated.  In particular, the blimp doesn't look too impressive any more, but that's definitely a minor flaw.  I think what impressed me most in this movie is the opening action sequence with River Phoenix.  Spielberg managed to create a very fluid and extended series of shots --- any one of which could have been suitable opening action scenes for a typical movie --- and still show off character traits in the process.

Speaking of the action scenes, there's a lot of them.  The good news is that they're all good.  In fact, this film might have the only decent boat chase ever; that's kind of like having the least smelly poop, I know, but it's still an accomplishment.  I think these scenes were fit into the film because Spielberg had a checklist of things he wanted Indy to fight ("We've got a tank...a blimp...a about a Nazi castle?"), but everything flows together pretty well.  The great thing about Indiana Jones is that he takes a beating when he's fighting on screen, so nothing ever looks too easy.  That's just part of his charm.

Last Crusade is certainly charming, but it is not without its problems.  I think it's kind of silly that a famously generous philanthropist (Donovan donates a lot to the museum) is the film's antagonist.  Darn those generous evil men who don't value human life!  I wish the protectors of the Grail were a little more effective than my beloved Chicago Cubs --- neither has had a big win in 2000-ish years.  I'm pretty sure that they didn't shoot a single Nazi in this whole movie.  And remember when they lit the catacombs on fire?  Indy manages to escape and climb out of a manhole in the street, only to find the Grail guys sprinting out of the library to catch him; shouldn't they have been assuming that Indy was a crispy critter right about then?  What made them check out in the street?  More to the point, why were they sprinting?  You would think two thousand years would have been enough time to practice how to kill people, but I guess you never know until the time comes.  I'm also a little confused by the catacomb fire scene on Indy's side of things; if the liquid he is swimming in it petroleum, shouldn't it hurt really, really bad when he opens his eyes underwaterpetroleum?  And those are just the silly things in the story.

There's a lot more strangeness going on with the characters.  For starters, I am going to have to submit Harrison Ford's (I presume intentionally) awful Scottish accent as one of the cartooniest foreign accents ever to grace a blockbuster picture.  What kind of a plan centers on something that stupid?  A bad plan, I agree.  Too bad it worked.  That's nothing compared to the evolution of Marcus Brody.  In the original film and the first part of this one, Marcus is a respectable, intelligent academic.  From the moment the Grail protectors knock him on the head, though, he becomes a bumbling idiot.  "But they're just making him a fish out of water in those later scenes.  He's book smart, not street smart."  Quiet, you.  I stand by "bumbling idiot."

Side note: Indiana Jones is the worst college professor ever.  He skips office hours, refuses to grade papers, goes missing for weeks at a time, and your girlfriend has a crush on him.

One of my biggest complaints about Last Crusade is also one of the aspects that makes it so unique --- the humor.  I'm pretty certain that Spielberg made a conscious effort to make a more light-hearted movie than Temple of Doom (which helped lead to the creation of the PG-13 rating), and to do so, he added comic relief.  Most of that came from the interactions between Henry and Indiana Jones.  Comic relief is fine by me, but I wish that Indy wasn't the butt of the jokes; if someone was exasperated or comically injured thanks to Henry, it was usually Indy.  It doesn't help that Marcus becomes an idiot halfway through the film, but the majority of the jokes come from Henry.  And yet, I like the dynamic between father and son, and I thought both actors did a good job.  It's kind of annoying when the one aspect of a film that makes you roll your eyes is also the (pretty effective) heart of the story, too.

That's the kind of movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is; even its worst parts contribute to the film's strengths.  Plus, it's got a ton of wicked awesome scenes in it.My personal favorites are the "No tickets" bit on the blimp, and "He chose...poorly."
...and featuring Christopher Lloyd!
Last Crusade is not my favorite Indy movie, but it stands up pretty well on its own.  It doesn't necessarily improve on the formula from the original movie, but it plays along and adds more heart.  Aside from some corny humor --- which isn't nearly as campy as I remembered --- this is a great big fun adventure.  And that's exactly what it should be.
You might have noticed the famous Wilhelm Scream when the Grail protectors fight the Nazis.  I notice it in a lot of movies, but this time I was inspired to look it up online.  Here's a fun little compilation.

Monday, March 28, 2011


When I saw the cover to Peacock, I assumed that this was going to be some sort of drama between the three actors on the cover (Ellen Page, Susan Sarandon, and Cillian Murphy).  It sounds like a reasonable premise, especially with the tag line of "If only he knew what she was doing."  Since this was released direct-to-DVD, it hasn't gotten much buzz; in other words, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

The first scene shows a 1950s American housewife doing chores --- pinning up laundry in the back yard, cleaning, cooking, etc. --- and then going upstairs to her bedroom.  On the bed is a neatly folded pile of men's clothing.  She pauses for a moment, takes off her wig, and you realize that you've been watching Cillian Murphy dressed as a woman for the past couple of minutes.  Well, I figured it out a little ahead of time, but if you weren't familiar with Murphy, that scene would have been quite a shock.  Before I go on, I have to point out that this is not exactly a movie about cross-dressing.  I mention that because, more often than not, cross-dressing in movies and television is used for cheap laughs.
There's nothing wrong with that, but I just wanted to make it clear that this isn't cross-dressing for comedy.  Murphy's character is also not pulling a Buffalo Bill in this movie and using cross-dressing in a horror film context.  This is something different.

Every morning, John (Cillian Murphy) wakes up and dresses himself up as Emma.  Emma takes care of John, doing the housework, cooking, and leaving him notes and instructions on what to do while she's "sleeping."  When it is time, Emma goes upstairs, changes into John's clothes, and he seems delighted to find breakfast with a good luck note by his plate.  Obviously, John has some sort of dissociative identity disorder, because the two personalities seem oblivious to each other.  John goes about his day as a painfully shy and socially awkward bank worker, comes home, and repeats the routine again in the morning.  No one knows about Emma.

One morning, while putting up the laundry to dry, Emma is knocked unconscious when a train car is derailed and tears through the back yard.  The accident brings neighbors running, and they find a loose caboose in the yard with a woman that no one in the small town has ever met before.  Emma excuses herself as quickly as she can, goes inside and changes into John, but the damage is done.  The townsfolk want to see and speak with the woman who narrowly avoided a tragic death; Fanny (Susan Sarandon) wants to get Emma involved in the local women's shelter; the incumbent mayor (Keith Carradine) wants to hold a rally in their back yard and have pictures taken with both John and his lovely wife, Emma; Maggie (Ellen Page), a struggling young mother, is forced to ask John for financial aid, but is willing to accept Emma's care and advice.  From the moment that train jumps the rails, John's carefully designed insular life begins to unravel.

This is Cillian Murphy's movie from start to finish.  The supporting actors are good; there really isn't a bad performance in the bunch.  Susan Sarandon is fine as a do-gooding socialite, Ellen Page showed some depth in a tough role, and even the typically mediocre Bill Pullman was fine.  I was pleasantly surprised by Josh Lucas' understated performance as the closest thing John has to a friend, too.  The supporting cast is just window dressing on this movie, though.  This is all about Murphy's performance.  I was very impressed with the way he channeled two distinct characters; changing his voice and appearance are no-brainers, but Murphy was able to give each character its own physicality, and that is where his performance impresses the most.  He's certainly not a pretty woman, but I thought he was pretty convincing, and that is a huge step toward making this film work.
Still prettier than Fergie.
This is director and co-writer Michael Lander's first feature-length film, and it definitely shows off a particular strength.  While it certainly helps that a noteworthy cast (two cast members from Inception, for starters) signed on to a movie written and directed by an unproved talent, Lander obviously had pretty clear ideas about what he wanted to do with this film.  The set and the props in scenes were arranged with particular purposes in mind, and they all paid off.  Lander also did a good job with the cast, guiding them toward very sympathetic performances (except Pullman, who was supposed to be mean).

I was less impressed with Lander's story.  By showing that John and Emma were different personalities from the same mind within the first few minutes of the film, it eliminated the main surprise of this story.  From that point forward, the movie focuses on the battle between the personas to see which will emerge victorious; this is a very gradual process, but the slow pace might have worked if there was an appropriate climax.  There isn't.  Sure, we see how far the personalities are willing to go to defeat the other into submission, but it is nowhere near as disturbing as the movie is building it up to be.

This had a lot of promising elements that could have come together to make a rather disturbing psychological drama/horror flick.  Brian Reitzell's score did a great job conveying the conflict within John's body and was occasionally very creepy.  The performances were solid all around, with Cillian Murphy giving a particularly impressive performance.  Unfortunately, something is missing.  Maybe it is the lack of a satisfying conclusion.  Maybe it's the fact that none of these characters are particularly interesting (aside from a case of multiple personalities), or maybe it's because none of the townspeople immediately realize that Emma is a dude.  Everything in this movie is so serious, so sad, so...drab.  There is no joy in this film to balance that out, and the lack of a chilling or horrifying conclusion multiplies that drab feeling.  It's not a bad idea, and I feel bad that Murphy wasted a lot of good work here, but the movie doesn't live up to the sum of its parts.
As a quick final note, I know I criticize this movie for not being horrific enough, and some people might disagree with that statement.  SPOILER ALERT: I don't care if a drifter gets killed in this movie.  Drifters are just fodder for serial killers in movies, and you knew from the moment he appeared on screen that something bad would happen to him.  That's what he gets for talking to strangers.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Jaws: The Revenge

Wow.  The fourth and (presumably) final installment in the Jaws series, Jaws: The Revenge, is quite possibly the absolute lowest point in the history of movie franchises.  Sure, there are a handful of worse movies out there, but the difference is quality between this and the original Jaws is staggering.  Is there a greater drop off in quality between a great film and its sequel?  I don't think so, but please leave a comment if you have a better nomination for the crown.  Oh, and before I forget to mention it, this review contains SPOILERS, because you should never ever ever want to watch this movie without knowing exactly what you are getting yourself into.

The first sign we have that something is going to go horribly wrong with this movie can be seen during the opening credits.  No, I'm not referring to the fact that Mario Van Peebles has high billing, although that is another bad sign.  I'm talking about SharkVision.  You know how, in the original Jaws and in many other horror movies, the camera assumes the Point of View of the killer?  Well, here the camera is underwater at times, which makes sense from SharkVision; however, the camera then lifts out of the water so that it can see clearly, just above the waves, and it spends most of its time in this position.  Let's just assume that SharkVision is the intended purpose of these shots...does that mean that this shark swims while floating on top of the ocean?  Wouldn't that mean that the beast couldn't breathe?  And wouldn't that make it a hell of a lot easier for the locals to kill?  I hope that is the intended inference I am supposed to draw from that camera work, because the alternative is that the shark has its eyes on its dorsal fin.
The presumed pre-production shark model
Anyways, it is almost Christmas time on Amity Island, where all these movies take place.  Ellen Brody (Lorraine Gary) has been living with her son, Sean, and his wife ever since her husband (Roy Scheider's character) died between movies.  Lucky bastard.  Sean, like his dad, is a local policeman and one night he is given the task of retrieving a broken piece of the dock that is stuck to a dinghy in Amity harbor.  It's the last emasculating chore he will ever have to do; as he reaches for the floating wood from the safety of his boat, a giant great white shark pops out of the water and bites his arm clean off.  It's frighteningly realistic, too; it positively doesn't look like a guy who pulled his arm out of his sleeve and is just pretending that the arm is gone, and that he simply has an arm-shaped tumor beneath his shirt.  He doesn't have to live with that tumor long, though, because the shark eats him (and a decent part of his boat) almost immediately.

When his body is discovered, Ellen immediately realizes what has happened.  The shark that didn't actually ever kill anyone in her family before is now targeting her family.  I'm not joking.  That is her conclusion, and that is the premise of this film.  Do yourself a favor and turn the movie off NOW.  Ellen's other son, Michael, comes to Amity for the funeral with his wife and daughter and invites Ellen to spend some time with them in their island home in the Bahamas.  She agrees.  The end.

But wait...there's more!  Apparently, the shark was notified that the Brodys were leaving Amity and it decides to follow them to the Bahamas.  Wow, that's pretty unbelievable.  What is completely unbelievable is that the shark arrives maybe a day or two after the Brodys.  Yes, a great white shark traveled 1200+ nautical miles --- and entered into waters where great white sharks don't live, mind you --- just to kill off Ellen Brody's bloodline.  Again, this is the professionally-written story.  People were paid to come up with this.

In the Bahamas, the shark tries to eat Michael, but fails and quits, because a shark that traveled 1200 miles to taste Brody meat is going to give up after four minutes.  Before the shark disappears, Michael manages to tag it with a device that reads the shark's heartbeat; the louder the beat, the closer the shark is.  That might seem like an oddly specific tool for Michael to randomly have at his disposal, but only if you haven't self-medicated by this point in the movie.  As an added treat, Mario Van Peebles has a very "authentic" Jamaican accent, mon.
Only one of these characters dies in this movie.
After getting its heartbeat measured, the shark somehow figures out A) that Ellen has a granddaughter and B) who she is and C) where she is and D) exactly when she will take her first dip in the ocean after returning from Massachusetts.  The result?
Oh.  My.  GAWD!  It's eating Tommy Shaw from Styx!
  The stupid shark misses the granddaughter (she's in the pink) and eats somebody else!  When Michael finds out that his daughter has been near a shark attack (she wasn't actually harmed, mind you), his response is, "I should have known..."  Instead of telling him that nobody can predict shark attacks, Mike's wife screams at him something along the lines of "YOU KNEW AND DIDN'T TELL US?!?!?"  What, that a shark was in the ocean?  Go figure!  In any other instance, I would ask what is wrong with these idiots.  Unfortunately, they are correct to be paranoid, because the shark is after them.  It's not paranoia if somebody's really out to get you your script is really that insultingly stupid.

Meanwhile, Ellen has been rediscovering the single life with a local pilot (Michael Caine, who was infamously filming this instead of accepting his Oscar for Hannah and Her Sisters) when she hears the news of her granddaughter's not-shark attack.  Ellen does the only logical thing the script allows her to do --- she steals her son's boat, heads into the ocean, and plans to kill the shark doesn't bring any weapons, so...kindness is my best guess.  How's she going to find the shark?  The answer to that is, and I quote, "It will find her."  Oh.  Okay.  Sure.  That makes sense.  Here is the original ending of the film, which was later changed for the theatrical release because audiences didn't like it:

Now, you're probably thinking, "No kidding, they didn't like that ending --- sharks don't roar!"  You have no idea.  What they ended up doing for the final cut was keep most of that ending (roars included) and changed what happened when the boat hits the shark.  As soon as they make contact, the shark explodes for absolutely no conceivable reason.  And that was the ending that test audiences liked more.

I just don't know what else to say about this movie.  I am disappointed in everybody involved, naturally.  I've seen other Joseph Sargent movies that have been both entertaining and good, but this is inept in every possible way.  Aside from the insultingly ridiculous story, the terrible cinematography, and the poor use of actors, the editing of the shark attacks makes it impossible to understand what is happening; you are left to infer what you saw, based on the aftermath.

The acting is painfully bad, although Michael Caine seemed to be having a good time.  He must have been drunk.  When he is asked about this movie, he usually gives a response something along the lines of it being the movie that gave him an island vacation, paid for a new house, and he won an Oscar while filming it, to boot.  Michael Caine is a glass half-full kind of guy, apparently.  Everyone else is B-movie quality at best.  The worst, though, was whoever played Sean.  There is a scene where he is trying to leave the police station to go home for Christmas Eve or whatever; he keeps walking out the door, but six or seven seconds after he closes the door, the police receptionist shouts "Hold it!"  You would think that it would take at least six seconds for him to walk back in again (probably more, if you factor in reaction time and rolling his eyes), but he opens the door almost immediately each time she does this...almost as if he wasn't really leaving the station, but just waiting for a cue to deliver his lines.

There are just two more things I want to touch on before I drown my memories of this movie with scotch.  The first is Ellen's unmistakable sixth sense.  When her family is attacked, she somehow knows; she has a shark sense.  Nobody mentions this, but it is an accepted fact in this movie.  The second is that Ellen has flashbacks to shark attacks just before she mysteriously blows the shark to hell.  The first clip is of Sean dying (which she wasn't there to see).  The second is of the shark not really attacking her granddaughter (for which she was way too far away to actually see anything).  The third was of her late husband preparing to not-quite kill the shark at the climax of the first Jaws (which she wasn't present for).  That is some memory she has, isn't it?

I would give this movie zero stars, but the exploding shark bit was too funny to hate.  It is the second-best (or worst, depending on you point of view) movie I have seen with an exploding shark, after Adam West's Batman: The Movie.
Now, I can understand people that want to watch bad movies and laugh at them.  There is a lot to laugh at in Jaws: The Revenge, but it's more conceptual humor than laughing at what the characters say or do in the film.  Well, except for the exploding shark, that is too awesome for words.  Because the ideas are funnier than watching the movie itself, I give this movie the Lefty Gold rating of
By the way, there has only been one shark attack fatality in Massachusetts in recorded history, and that was over 80 years ago.  Just FYI.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Lady Vanishes

In case you haven't noticed yet, I like watching movies from all time periods (although I am still leery of most silent films).  As much as I enjoy Alfred Hitchcock's most famous movies, I have only seen a few of what I would consider his "album tracks," if he was a musician.  I recently reviewed The 39 Steps and that turned out to be pretty good, so I thought I would give The Lady Vanishes a try.

The movie opens with a group of stranded travelers in a fictional Central European country.  Since their train cannot leave that day, all the passengers have to take rooms in the town's only inn, and that place is inn-adequate.
Puns.  Aren't.  Funny.
Anyway, while in the cramped inn, a few things happen.  The first is that a local street musician is strangled in the night, after the spinsterly Miss Froy (May Whitty) listened to his song from her room.  The other incident of major importance is that Iris (Margaret Lockwood) and Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) establish an antagonistic relationship.  She comes off as being uptight, he comes across as a bit of a cad, but there is no harm done, aside from preventing the audience from watching a traditional folk dance from the historical region of Madeupia in Central Europe.  The next day, everybody's boarding the train, but it becomes apparent that somebody is trying to kill little old Miss Froy; they try to drop a flower pot on her head, but miss and his Iris instead.  Dizzy, but not too hurt, Iris boards the train and ends up sitting with Miss Froy and taking tea with her in the dining car.  When they return to their passenger car, which is filled with seemingly oblivious foreigners, Iris takes a nap.  When she wakes, Miss Froy is missing, and nobody has seen her.  To be more specific, nobody claims to remember her at all.  Is Iris crazy, or has something sinister happened to Miss Froy?  Well, it's a Hitchcock movie, so I'll give you a wild guess.  But that would mean that everybody is lying about remember Miss Froy, wouldn't it?  Why would they do that?  Just as odd, the only person who is willing to believe Iris is the one man that exasperates her most: Gilbert.

If this plot sounds a little familiar to you, that's because it probably is.  The movie was remade in the late 70s as a critically reviled movie with the same title and was later updated as the Jodi Foster vehicle, Flightplan.  So, if you have seen a movie with a character vanishing from a moving vehicle, or somebody that is looking for a missing person is considered crazy, or if a clue is written on steamed glass, that movie owes a debt to The Lady Vanishes.

What struck me most about this movie is how scattered its focus is early in the film.  While they are in Fictionalvania, the first characters we notice are a couple of confirmed British bachelors that are obsessed with cricket.  In fact, they later lie about seeing Miss Froy just to keep the train from being stopped, because that might keep them from missing the game they want to watch.
"I say, old chap, why not tell a pointless lie for trivial reasons?"
I thought that folk dancing may have been important, too, because it is an odd thing to see in an old movie.  There is a lot of misdirection before the film gets going proper on the train.  I like that in a mystery, but it seems a little unnecessary here, especially since much of it offers trivial insights to the characters and darn little plot significance.

The acting is pretty solid in this film.  I don't think there are a lot of strong female roles in movies, but Margaret Lockwood did a good job balancing the characteristics of a lady in distress with a determined woman.  She could have been a little less helpless at times, but this is over seventy years old.  This was Michael Redgrave's first major film role, and he was pretty good.  He was better at playing up the comedy in scenes than in the dramatic ones, but he wasn't bad.  This movie launched the careers of Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford, who played the cricket-loving characters Charters and Caldicott; they went on to reprise these supposedly comedic characters (or ones similar to them) in a number of British movies and radio programs.  I don't see the appeal, but British humor is often baffling.  May Whitty was pretty good in the character role of Miss Froy --- she is certainly one of the better spinster actresses of her generation.  Paul Lukas also turned in a respectable performance as a doctor.

The real draw of Alfred Hitchcock movies is the man's direction, and he doesn't disappoint here.  British films at the time were (and, let's face it, are still today) lower-budgeted affairs than the typical Hollywood movie.  As such, it was interesting to see how Hitchcock handled the first scenes of the film; they look like a crane or helicopter shot of a small European town, but if you're paying attention during the slow zoom in, it is not a vast European landscape, but a miniature set.  That was kind of neat.  While I didn't particularly care for the seemingly pointless scenes at the inn, I did enjoy this movie once it got rolling.  I was impressed by how well the puzzle of the disappearing lady was laid out; you can definitely feel a sense of claustrophobia as Iris begins to panic, with so many witnesses in such a small space, and all of them insist she is imagining things.  The basic idea behind this movie, that of a crazy narrator vs.a conspiracy is an intriguing one.  The most memorable scenes are the ones where Hitchcock shows off a little bit, like the scene with the writing on the window condensation, and the little things that Hitchcock does add up to make this a more enjoyable movie.

My primary critique of this film has to deal with its tone.  I realize that many movies at the time, British ones in particular, thrillers are often filled with comedic parts.  I understand it, but I'm not a huge fan of it.  Maybe I just haven't seen it completely pulled off yet, I don't know.  I really enjoyed the middle third of the film, when there was still a question of whether or not Iris was crazy, but that semi-goofy tone bookends the movie.  I can't be the only one who thinks it feels awkward for characters like Gilbert to crack a joke while grappling with a villain.  And I don't think Hitchcock was much of a comedic director, either.  Sure, it was tolerable in the inn scenes, but none of it was really funny, so much as it was clever.  Speaking of clever, I wish the story had come up with a slightly more reasonable explanation for the missing lady.  It works, sure, but did it have to involve a magician?  That's a little weak.  The basic plot behind this film is a great one, but the mixed tone detracts from the film's tension.

Friday, March 25, 2011


Here's an interesting fact about Waterworld: although it is often referred to as a colossal flop, it eventually (thanks to VHS and DVD sales) made over $100 million in profit. Another interesting tidbit: the movie currently holds a 78% rating from Top Critics on Rotten Tomatoes, which indicates that most critics give the film a positive review.  To be honest with you, when I learned that this popularly lambasted epic was both critically and commercially successful, I felt my first urge ever to watch this movie.  I had always assumed that it was a big, expensive puddle of suck, not worth wasting my time on.  However, after a Costner fan heard me ridiculing the movie (to be fair, it was more of a dig at The Postman, which I like to call "Dirtworld"), they hit me with the facts and I was helpless to resist.

The film opens majestically, with the voice of Hal Douglas (the "In a world..." movie trailer voice) supplying the introduction.  In the distant future, the polar ice caps have melted and water covers the Earth.  Humanity has become splintered on the Waters of this World, with many banding together in scrap heap settlements.  Others find themselves as lone drifters, sailing across the globe.  And then there are Smokers, the bullies.  The Smokers use gas- and oil-powered boats to loot, plunder, and murder the timid innocents in floating settlements.  The leader of the Smokers, the Deacon (Dennis Hopper) has promised his group that he will take them to dry land.  You see, he has heard a rumor about a little girl with a map to land tattooed on her back.  One of his men, the Nord (Gerard Murphy), went undercover to a settlement and actually found the girl.  Enola (Tina Majorino) is an orphan in the settlement, looked after by the kind Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn).
"I will trade you three tots for a glimpse at your sweet back tat."

One day, a strange drifter (Kevin Costner) sails into the settlement, looking to trade a jar of dirt (which is naturally rare --- does this mean he's seen Dry Land?) for money, which he intends to spend on some necessities and then leave.  As luck would have it, the settlers discover that the drifter is a mutant (he has gills and webbed feet!) and plan to kill him; before they can do it, the Smokers attack.  Seeing the drifter as their only way to freedom, Helen and Enola free him and escape the settlement.  But the Smokers are soon chasing after them, intent on grabbing Enola and discovering the path to the oh-so-elusive Dry Land.

That doesn't sound so bad, does it?  I mean, aside from the incontrovertible fact that all movie boat chases are lame, it doesn't sound awful.  In broad strokes, there's really nothing wrong with Waterworld.  For starters, it looks great.  If you told me that they melted the polar ice caps to film this, I would believe you.  The sets are enormous and elaborate.  The wide shots are impressively land-free.  Even the costumes and the props are all pretty cool.  This is definitely what the world will look like after the inevitable zombie apocalypse, when flatulent zombies cause greenhouse gases to increase and the polar ice caps to melt.  In a lot of ways, the production values of this movie remind me of an uber-expensive version of a Road Warrior marina show.

A lot of thought went into the groups in the movie, too.  I like that there are evolutionary next-steps, like Costner's character, because that makes sense.  I don't know how much sense, because I don't know how far in the future it would take for that kind of evolution to be plausible, but I like it in my ignorance.  I like that there is a lot of religion in these hard, water-filled times; it makes sense.  I also like that normal humans hate and fear mutants, because that also seems like our naturally human reaction to the new and unknown.  Besides, I'm a huge X-Men fan.  I thought the importance that the Smokers put on cigarette smoking was pretty interesting, too.  There are a lot of details in this movie that are very impressive and clever.

The cracks in Waterworld become apparent once you turn the volume up.  The script is bad, the plot is dumb, the editing is poor, the direction is ineffective and the acting is awful. 
A fail wrapped up in a flop.

The first sign that something is wrong with this movie is actually in the very first scene.  It begins with a nice shot of Kevin Costner's ass and, right when you think that this is going to be about gluteus maximii, you see a stream of urine.  Great.  Now it's a fetish video.  Actually, we see Costner butt, pee, and then he pours the pee into a Brita filter (or something), gargles it, and then spits into his little lime tree pot.  While I think that this is certainly one of the more memorable scenes in the film and it offers an interesting look at the science part of this science-fiction epic, it's not exactly a great introduction to the hero of the story.  Typically, in epic movies, you want the hero to seem larger than life, maybe dangerous or cool, but definitely a force to be reckoned with.  The first thing Waterworld teaches us about its hero is that he drinks urine.  Not exactly the iconic establishing image most filmmakers go for.

Normally, I would condemn the director for following a screenplay that opens with pee-flavored mouthwash, but with a screenplay this wretched, that might have looked good by comparison.  If you don't believe me, here's a sample bit of script, taken from Dennis Hopper's wealth of terrible lines:
Well, I'll be damned. It's the gentleman guppy [Costner]. You know, he's like a turd that won't flush.

Ha.  Ha.  I get it.  It's a poop joke.  Does anyone want to explain why anyone in a Water World would need water pipes to flush anything?  Or why Kevin Costner's (nameless) character decides to take Helen on an undersea voyage only minutes after escaping some Smokers that they assumed were still following them?  Nobody wants to stick up for these script choices?  I don't blame you.  This is a story that has the look of an epic, but the focus is ridiculously myopic.  In a whole world of ocean, you're telling me that we have to keep running into the same handful of characters?  By the way, the far future is awfully Caucasian with Midwestern accents.  I didn't realize that Wisconsin was so well-known as a center of maritime excellence.  What happened to everybody else?  Are the British just floating in the waters a few miles above merry old England?  How about the Japanese and everybody else?  For a movie whose production crew spent so much time making sure the details were right, this script feels curiously under-edited.

I realize that I have left out several other plot-related head-scratchers, but I can only get so angry without deleting everything I type.  So, in case you're curious, here are a few other problems that popped into my head as I watched:

  • What is everyone eating?  They make a big deal about Costner catching a fish, so how does a ship full of Smokers manage to get fed?
  • Where do the cigarettes come from?
  • Why do the Smokers play with flares and fireworks when they celebrate if they are on an oil tanker?
  • Was it worth the eye-roll to reveal that the Smoker oil tanker was the Exxon Valdeez?
  • Okay, I buy into the notion that the Smokers get all their fuel from the 'Deez.  Where did they get all their gas-powered jetskis and the airplane from?  Were they floating out at sea?
  • Why does anyone need to capture Enola?  Why don't they just make copies of the map?
  • If Enola was tattooed so she could find her way home, why did they tattoo her where she couldn't read the tattoo?
  • Where is all the oxygen coming from?  It looks like plants are a rarity in this world, so how is everybody breathing?
I'm sure there's more, but the more I list, the more depressed I am that I sat through the whole thing.  Well, at least nobody can lie and tell me that the ending totally makes the movie worthwhile.

I actually don't completely hate this movie.  It's stupid, sure, but it's not too painful to watch.  I thought the actors were one-dimensional, but with a script like this, what do you expect?  Costner was okay as the nameless sailor, but he was far more entertaining and appealing when he was looking out for himself instead of being a traditional hero.  If nothing else, I can honestly say that Kevin Costner's performance is without shame; at no moment does he appear to realize just how silly this movie is, and he treats every garbage scene like it has complex meaning behind it.
"What about striped pants, semi ponytail, and seashell earrings (found where?) sounds silly?"
Dennis Hopper was in his full-fledged 90s movie villain mode here, and he is comically evil.  To call this acting "bad" misses the point.  His overacting fits the movie well and adds some humor (unintentional and otherwise) to a pretty serious movie.  I wasn't impressed by Jeanne Tripplehorn or little Tina Majorino, but it's not like they were butchering their lines.  You can't put crap into a blender and get a delicious strawberry milkshake.  Still, they weren't good.  Kim Coates was pretty terribly as a nutty drifter, but the rest of the cast is pretty inoffensive.  I noticed R.D. Calls in a minor role and, if you ever had a doubt that Jack Black was a struggling actor in Hollywood, here's his bit part:

The direction was bad, if you view it from a working-with-the-cast perspective, but I will give Kevin Reynolds credit for framing several cool-looking scenes.  If this was a silent movie (with no subtitles) this would look like a solid flick.

Is Waterworld a good movie?  Not even close.  What it is, though, is a solid idea for a good movie.  While I cannot fathom why it gets such critical leniency from major critics, it's not a terrible film.  But it's not good.  At all.  I would give it a pass and say that it's fun to laugh at and dub it Lefty Gold, but it's a long movie that feels even longer.  To watch this movie and pay attention to the whole thing is pretty exhausting.  If they cut 40 minutes out of the final product, I would probably recommend it.  As it stands, though, it is more effort than it's worth.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Ong Bak 2: The Beginning

When dueling, picking where to fight is essential.
All right, it's sequel time!  Ong Bak 2: The Beginning is the unhyphenated follow-up to Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior, and the star from the first film, Tony Jaa, is returning to star and co-direct this sequel.  If you haven't seen the first Ong Bak, here's what you need to know: nothing.  At all.  I'm serious, this sequel has absolutely nothing, even thematically, to connect it to the first movie.  Well, maybe it's a prequel, right?  It does take place over 500 years ago.  Nope, it's not.  I didn't even hear the words "Ong Bak" mentioned once in the whole movie.  That's not a bad thing, since the original movie was only worth watching for the action scenes, but it's still kind of odd.  I'm sure the Thai filmmakers just used the title to capitalize on the American DVD success of the first film, but I still think it's strange to have absolutely no mention of the title in the movie.

The year was 1974.  The Ramones were playing their first shows, Charles Bronson played a surprisingly violent watermelon farmer in Mr. Majestyk, and Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth's home run record.  Wait...that doesn't seem right...oh, it's 1974 on the Buddhist calendar, which is 1421 on the Gregorian calendar.  That changes things a bit.  Tien is the tween son of a respected provincial Lord in Siam (sadly, not Yul Brynner).
"Mecca lecca hi, mecca hiney ho"
When his family and their soldiers are ambushed by a power-hungry ruler of a neighboring city-state, Tien only narrowly escapes with his life.  His family is not so lucky.  Not that I would exactly call Tien "lucky;" he is almost immediately captured by slave traders.  When he proves to be too ornery to trade, he is thrown into a watery pit to fight a crocodile to the death. 
Sorry, Tien, Goku won't save you from this one.
Well, maybe he is lucky --- Chernang (Sorapong Chatree), leader of the Garuda Wing Cliff gang of assassins/bandits, randomly shows up and beats up the slave traders.  Chernang doesn't save Tien from the croc, though; he tosses the kid a knife and tells him, "Your life depends on you."  Tien kills the crocodile, earns the respect of Chernang, and is raised by him to become the greatest warrior in the world and the future leader of the Garuda Wing Cliff clan.  Fast-forward about a decade, and Tien (Tony Jaa) is ready to use his fighting ability to avenge his family.  And kill dozens of bad guys, naturally.

If you have seen the low-budget Tony Jaa stunt spectacular that is Ong-Bak, you will immediately be shocked by how much better Ong Bak 2 is.  To quote my lovely wife, this sequel/prequel/not-really-a-quel-at-all "looks like an actual movie and not a snuff film."  You would think setting the film in the ancient past would have introduced production problems (costumes, buildings, and weapons all need to be made), but this movie looks surprisingly good.  There is a whole lot more violence and gore this time around, and the fighting scenes (which are why you want to watch Tony Jaa) are pretty impressive.  Thankfully, Jaa's co-stars actually look like they're fighting back in this one, so it is far more entertaining than the original.

I wouldn't say that Tony Jaa's acting has improved, though.  The kid that played Tien in the first half of the film did a pretty decent job showing emotions, but Jaa is limited to a frowny face.  There really aren't any standout performances in this cast, but I thought Sorapong Chatree did a pretty solid job as the leader of the bandits/assassins/fighting enthusiasts.  I did notice Petchtai Wongkamlao's (Jaa's co-star in the first movie) cameo early in the film, and I have to admit he is much better suited for small bits of physical comedy than his Rob Schneider-esque sidekick performance in the original.  The head slave trader was played by a pretty menacing giant, but I can't figure out what the actor's name is.  We'll just call him Andre.

I'm not sure just how good the direction was in this movie.  Yes, the acting was better (or maybe just more appropriate) than in the first film, but was it actually good?  Not really.  But this was never going to be a film that focused on the acting.  This is a movie for an action director or two.  Tony Jaa and Panna Rittkrai (who was the stunt coordinator in Ong-Bak) co-directed Ong Bak 2, which probably explains the heavy shift in focus to fight scenes.  And those scenes are pretty impressive.  The great thing about this movie is that it does not suffer from lackey-lag.  In every other Jaa movie I have seen, there is a point toward the end of the film where Jaa decides to beat up about fifty bad guys at once; these bad guys usually get kicked once, fall down and stay down.  This time, though, Jaa has weapons and is killing/incapacitating all his enemies, so it actually makes sense for the bad guys to not get up and attack him some more.  The camera work is solid in these action scenes, too --- you would think that it would be tough to capture the physicality of these fight sequences, but all the important (or at least, the most affecting) details shine through.

What about the story?  It's okay.  This is a revenge tale, and I'm usually a big fan of those; revenge leads to violence, and violence in Asian movies usually leads to martial arts, which are awesome.  That said, this story is a little odd.  Okay, fine...I get the reasoning behind why Tien's family was killed.  That makes sense.  The whole bit where the bandits train Tien also makes sense.  I even understand why Tien is in an extended dance sequence as he tries to kill his father's usurper.  But then things start to get weird.  For starters, a random supernaturally-powered bird character appears out of the effing blue and is apparently more than a match for Tien.  That was a random thing to throw into the movie's final act.  At least they made up for that weirdness by having them fight...on an elephant?!?  Okay, fine.  Crow dude fights on pachyderms, got it.  It seems a little unlikely to me, but crow dudes are far more likely than SPOILER: Tien being raised by the assassins that killed his entire family.  And they didn't know!  What, they picked up an orphan that can kill crocodiles, and his family never came up in conversation?  That's just stupid.  I'm also not a huge fan of the cliffhanger ending.  Yes, it sets up the third movie pretty well, but it's not like the story is compelling enough to have you anxiously waiting to see what happens to Tien.  I'm just going to assume that he kills many, many bad guys in the next installment.

Ong Bak 2: The Beginning isn't going to wow you with a compelling story or graceful wire-fu action.  This is a big-budget action choreographer's wet dream, with huge sets and a cast with hundreds of extras.  If you can get past how much Tony Jaa looks like Mowgli, this is a very entertaining action movie, brimming with all sorts of mixed martial arts fights.  The story left me pretty indifferent, so the cliffhanger ending just made me roll my eyes, but the fighting more than made up for it.  This is certainly worth a watch, but it isn't quite as legendary as the promotional posters might lead you to believe.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Gorky Park

When I find out that a film is set in Russia, especially Soviet Russia, I can immediately make a few assumptions.  First, it is not a comedy.  I know, I know...Soviet Russia was famous for their comedy, but all their jokes end with punching Yakov Smirnoff in the face.  You can't make more than (maybe) one movie like that, so any film set in Soviet Russia is going to be a drama.
Even his fist wants to hit him.
My second assumption is that the story will involve secrecy and deception.  That's just how it is.  When you're in a country that monitors its own people, Big Brother-style, that's going to play a part in the movie.  I had never heard of Gorky Park before watching it, but it has an okay cast for the period and didn't sound like a propaganda piece, so I thought I would give it a shot.

Moscow police officer Arkady Renko (William Hurt) is called to a crime scene in Gorky Park, which is kind of like Moscow's Central Park (I think...there's ice skating, anyway).  Three murder victims have been found, all shot dead in the chest and mouth, and all three are missing their faces and fingers.  That fits the description of KGB-type killings, where they just make people disappear; Renko knows this and assumes that the KGB will take the investigation away from him at the first opportunity, to "investigate" it themselves.  The KGB does show up with suspicious immediacy, but they let Renko keep the case for some reason.

With shattered teeth and no fingerprints, Renko enlists the aid of a professor (Emperor Palpatine Ian McDiarmid) to reconstruct their faces.  While he's waiting for the prof to slowly finish his work, Renko does his best to investigate the case.  He really doesn't want to, because he knows damn well that if he implicates the KGB in a murder, he will likely end up without fingers or a face, too.  His Chief Inspector (Ian Bannen) won't take him off the case, though; in fact, he promises to protect Renko's back, no matter what he finds.  While that is probably meant to be reassuring, it raises the hairs on the back of Renko's neck.  William Hurt may not have been in Lost in Space for another fifteen years, but he clearly heard the "Danger Will Robinson!" warning.

In the due course of his investigation, Renko meets an American detective (Brian Dennehy), who is in town to investigate his brother's recent disappearance.  The two warily agree to share some knowledge, which leads Renko to a tentative ID on the victims, which leads him to a beautiful Russian woman (Joanna Pacula) and an American sable fur importer (Lee Marvin).  The deeper Renko digs, the more he finds out about people in high places.  And in Soviet Russia, knowing too much about important people is hazardous to your health.  Maybe it's because he is devoted to his job, or maybe it's because he's falling in love with the girl, but Renko puts it all on the line to solve the case.  All he needs to get all the pieces to fall into place are some identities for his victims, so he can figure out why they were killed...
"Now witness the power of this fully armed and operational reconstructed face!"
This is a police procedural, so the acting is somewhat limited.  Just as we don't ooh and ahh over Sam Waterston or Marg Helgenberger as actors, there's nothing to see here, people, move along.  William Hurt is fairly reserved and emotionally detached for most of the film.  And that's appropriate for his character, really.  Brian Dennehy turns in yet another performance where he is in a position of power, despite having obviously poor decision making skills.  This is a fairly subdued performance from Dennehy, so he's fairly likable.  Michael Elphick plays the none-too-bright partner to Renko, and he's about as good as the role requires.  Lee Marvin probably does the least acting out of anyone in the cast; he basically just croaks out his lines and you instinctively know that he's up to no good.  I like Lee Marvin, and his presence here is welcome, but this wasn't much of a stretch for his talents.  The only actor who actually emoted much in this film was Joanna Pacula, and she does a pretty good job portraying someone who distrusts authority (with good reason), but needs to go against her instincts to survive.  The rest of the supporting cast (including a brief appearance by Richard Griffiths) is fine, with most everyone playing their roles simply and efficiently.  But that's just my Western attitude imposing value on Russian acting.  After all, in America, actors play roles; in Soviet Russia, roles play you.  Wait...what?

James Horner's score is worth mentioning.  I'm no music major (my mother assumes from my childhood singing that I am tone deaf), but Horner did a great job amplifying the "something's wrong" feeling of the film.  He used pretty standard musical score instruments, like strings, horns and percussion, but they were all discordant.  It was an interesting way to supplement the story.

Michael Apted directed Gorky Park with what would have seemed like efficiency, if the film had been less than two hours.  His focus was on the story, for the most part, and the story was told well enough.  I appreciate his choice to not have the actors assume Russian accents (not everyone can pull off a Russian accent like Harrison Ford), although it makes the scene where Brian Dennehy is identified as an American by his voice seem a little silly.  I wish Apted had put a little more flair into this movie, though.  Procedurals are, by their nature, pretty cut-and-dry.  This didn't feel like a mystery or a conspiracy, but like an especially long episode of Law and Order: Moscow.  If Apted had played with the camera a little more, used some symbolism, or used some interesting establishing shots of Moscow every so often, this movie might feel like it is more than a police procedural.

Maybe that is my problem.  I have seen so many police procedurals on American television that a film version just seems like overkill.  The case doesn't seem that complicated when you watch it, and there is absolutely no question that Lee Marvin is a bad guy, so it's not like viewers are going to be surprised much by the story.  Of course, the film is spiced up a little bit by having the eternally middle-aged William Hurt have a relationship with a Russian beauty, but even that is predictable.  Of course the cop is going to fall for the beautiful witness, and of course the Russian woman in an American movie is going to be gorgeous, because all Russian women in American movies are gorgeous.  It's not like that in real life, though; all those years of putting vodka in their cereal catches up with them eventually.
Russian beauty, age 31
But I digress.  This movie is made pretty well, and it certainly fits within the boundaries of your standard police procedural.  In doing so, however, it bored me.  The story was too predictable and the format was too familiar to me.  It's not a bad film, but I can see more concise versions of it on any Law and Order rerun.
And, because we all know that the Russians aren't funny, here are some jokes about Russia made by President Reagan.