Monday, January 30, 2012

Ong Bak 3

Not that it really matters much, but this American movie poster for Ong Bak 3 is kind of misleading.  For starters, the star of the series is out of costume --- the long hair and rags he sports in the film are nowhere to be seen.  And maybe it is the fact that I grew up with The Karate Kid, but that poster pose made me hope that I would be seeing some super-secret (albeit incredibly unlikely) crane kick action in this movie.  The posters for the film's Thailand release give a more accurate picture as to what this third installment is about:
Photoshop and (presumably) electric guitar solos
For those of you who have not been keeping up with your Thai cinema of late, I'll catch you up on the series.  In Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior, a peaceful badass from a podunk town must go to the big city and beat the hell out of a bunch of dudes.  Ong Bak 2: The Beginning bears no relation to the first film and takes place 500 years earlier.  In that film, Tien's family was killed off to allow a mean guy to assume power; Tien, meanwhile, escaped and was adopted by a clan of assassins, who trained him to be the best of the best.  At the end of the movie, Tien succeeded in killing the men who killed his family, but was captured by the bad guy who was responsible for his family's death and profited by it.  And now you're caught up.  Oh, wait...a weird crow-guy with supernatural abilities showed up in the final act to kick Tien's ass, for reasons I haven't been able to figure out.

Ong Bak 3 picks up right where Ong Bak 2 left off.  Tien (Tony Jaa) has been captured by Lord Rajasena's men and they have some fun with him.  Sure, Tien gives almost as good as he gets, but it's hard to win a fight when your arms are tied and the enemy isn't taking any chances.
More intimidating than handcuffs
Rajasena gives the order for Tien to be painfully crippled before being put to death, and Tien's knees, elbows, feet and hands get crushed.  I'm not actually sure if Tien is supposed to have died during these tortures or not, but his broken body is still apparently important.  Some of Tien's buddies show up to try and rescue Tien (a little late to that party), and it looks like they will succeed until Bhuti Sangkha (Dan Chupong), the crow-dude, flies in and murders them all.  He's not on Ranajsena's side, though; apparently, he just likes showing off and killing people.
But he looks so nice!
Anyway, Tien's body is eventually taken to a village, where he is either miraculously resurrected or miraculously healed.  At first, he just mopes around because his joints don't bend in the right directions any more, but with the help of a montage, he returns to his classic form.  Now he just needs to take his revenge on Lord Rajasena.  Too bad Bhuti already killed Rajasena and assumed his powerful position.  Don't worry, though; there is still a big fight at the end, even if the whole revenge angle was more or less negated.

Ong Bak 3 looks an awful lot like Ong Bak 2, and there's a reason for that.  Apparently, the two movies were intended to be one long epic, but budgetary and scheduling limitations forced the story to be split into two parts.  In other words, unused footage from Ong Bak 2 wound up in Ong Bak 3.  If that sounds a little lame to you, I agree.  Thanks to the story limitations, Tony Jaa is kept from fighting for most of the first hour of this 90-minute movie; the first extended action sequence actually features Dan Chupong instead of Jaa.  Chupong is pretty awesome, but that's still pretty lame.  For reasons that I simply don't understand, Ong Bak 3 shifts the focus away from fighting and toward Tien's journey to recovery and mental peace.  Big mistake.

Tony Jaa is not a very good actor.  He's a bad-ass martial artist, but his emotional range goes from "blank stare" to "gritted teeth."  Here, he is forced to act tortured for about forty minutes and try to embody the physicality of someone recovering from horrific wounds.
Jaa manages to impersonate a drunken monkey instead.  I enjoyed Dan Chupong, even though I'm still not sure why he had supernatural powers, or why nobody else seemed confused by that.  Chupong has the potential to be as big of an action star as Jaa, in my mind, assuming he can find a script that calls for beating up dozens upon dozens of henchmen.  The rest of the cast was largely inconsequential.  Tien's love interest from the previous film returns with a larger part and the evil Rajasena came back for a bit, but neither actor was particularly impressive.  Petchtai Wongkamlao returns again, in what I believe is his third character in the three movies.  After being obnoxious in the first film and only making a brief appearance in Part 2, Wongkamlao returns as an apparently mentally handicapped (or possibly very drunk) person; he's not terribly funny here, but it's definitely his best work in the series.
Comic relief sometimes means "stupid wigs"

Ong Bak 3 was co-directed by Tony Jaa and Panna Rittikrai, just as the last film was.  This time, though, both men found themselves directing something they do not have much experience with: actors.  Ong Bak 3 is not a long movie, but the vast majority of it focuses on Tien's physical and emotional recovery, while Rajasena suffered from bizarre hallucinations.  There are some basic moral themes at work here (don't be mad all the time, don't betray people, etc.) that take on a religious tone at times.  That's fine, I suppose, but these directors specialize in action choreography, and this film does not have enough of that.

Of course, there are some pretty good fight scenes in Ong Bak 3, and that is what American audiences are probably looking for in this sequel.  How good are they?  That's a tough question.  Production-wise, they look very nice.  The sets are epic and gorgeous, and some of the set pieces are fantastic, especially since Jaa doesn't use wires or CGI (most of the time) in his fight scenes.
So...real big elephant, real small action star
I was disappointed by how choreographed most of the fight scenes felt.  The second film's action scenes were great --- they were gory and weird and fantastic.  While the plot gives an explanation for the choreography (it has to do with traditional Siamese dancing), it doesn't come close to matching the fury that made the second film's fights so cool. 
As Danny Kaye would say, "They're doing choreography"
There is also significantly less gore in this sequel, which made me a little sad.  When you combine the downturn in action with a confusing story that relied on action stars to convey emotions, you wind up with an underwhelming product.  I was looking forward to Ong Bak 3, but it doesn't quite cut it.

Saturday, January 28, 2012


With the recent announcement of the 2011 Oscar nominations, I took a few moments to figure out what 2011 movies I need to watch before the big awards show.  I don't necessarily like to just watch the good movies, though; my annual best-of list includes the best and the worst of the year.  Upon reflection, however, I realized that my hatred for Sucker Punch was skewing this year's list.  I needed another suitable contender for my Worst Movie of the Year award.  But what could possibly contend with the Punch?  And then I remembered Abduction.
I wish this was my reaction to Abduction

Abduction begins with Nathan (Taylor Lautner) being one crayzee dude, riding on the hood of his buddy's truck the entire way to a huge house party.  Whoa, man!  That shows attitude and baditude!  This movie has character development coming out its ears!  And it has great dialogue, too.
Example: "He who smelt it dealt it"
The first line (that isn't "Woooo!") is "Let's go, baby, we got bitches waiting!"  I love when an opening scene gives me an accurate idea of how good the rest of the film will be.  At the party, one of Nathan's friends (Denzel Whitaker) momentarily stops binge drinking to sell some fake IDs to other party-goers.  Wait...what?  Yes, despite the apparent ease with which the characters got alcohol, they are all supposed to be teens.  To be fair, at least the actors playing the teens are all either teens or in their early twenties, so this isn't as obnoxious as it can be in films.  That doesn't really have much to do with the rest of the movie, but it stuck out to me.  Anyway, Nathan is assigned a school project with his neighbor, Karen (Lily "My dad's Phil" Collins), which has them looking into child abductions.  This assignment guides them to the wonders of the interweb, where they find a website that takes child photos and runs them through a computer-generated aging process.  On that website, Nathan and Karen find one abduction victim who is projected to look exactly like Taylor Lautner!  Or, possibly the guy from The Hunger Games.  Or some other teenager with dark hair.  OMG, IDK, ROTFL, WTF.  No wonder Nathan doesn't look like the people who raised him (the fairly pasty Maria Bello and Jason Isaacs); he was abductioned kidnapped!  Nathan contacts the website, but is put off by their odd questions ("What is your location?  What are you wearing?"); it turns out that the website is run by terrorists, who were waiting to find Nathan for some reason.  A few hours later, Nathan's "parents" are dead, and he finds himself on the run from international black ops agents, the CIA, and --- cue dramatic music --- his past.
Cue glower

Oh.  My.  Goodness.  This movie is awful.  It's not just that Taylor Lautner is incapable of mimicking human emotion, there is so much more that is wrong with Abduction.  For starters, let's look at the conspiracy that is in place.  The basic premise here is that Nathan is being raised by people who are not his parents invaluable to international terrorists.  So that whole subplot of Nathan being a child who was abducted...?  That gets debunked pretty early in the film, which makes this one of the least accurately titled movies I can recall.  It's like calling Back to the Future "Late For School."  Still, terrorists want to find Nathan to use him as a bargaining chip so they could get...something.  To find Nathan, they created and actively maintained several websites that claimed lil' Nathan was abducted.  The odds of any of these sites getting a bite from their precise target is infinitesimal, but the sites are actively monitored by a trained black ops agent at all times.  Really?  You don't outsource that to some nerd?  You give that job to the same guy who is leading the first attempt to capture the target, once he is located?  Really?  And what are the odds of the website-monitoring location being close enough to Nathan's house for the monitoring guy to grab a partner, dress up like a cop and show up at Nathan's doorstep within maybe three hours?

Thankfully, Abduction has many instances where that logic seems downright plausible, when compared to the rest of the movie.  Let's say that you're the CIA agent (played by Alfred Molina) tasked with tracking down Nathan before the terrorists.  Ignoring the fact that the CIA probably wouldn't legally lead a manhunt on US soil for a non-terrorist American citizen, let's say that you finally catch up with the boy: what do you do?  Take him to a secure location?  Bug out of the area as quickly as possible, because the terrorists are close behind?  Give him a disguise and help him go underground?
If you answered "D: commandeer a mom-and-pop burger joint and sit the highly valuable target by a large glass window," then you are apparently smart enough to apply for a job in the CIA.  Not surprisingly, "D" turns out to be a poor choice.  The odd logic of Abduction doesn't stop there, but getting any more in-depth will just give me a headache.

The acting in Abduction suffers from the presence of its two leads.  This is the first time I have seen Taylor Lautner on screen for more than a few moments and he is just shockingly bad.  I'll give him some credit; it appears that he can memorize most of his dialogue.  But he's just awful!  You know how most actors will show emotion in their parts, and will carry that emotion from dialogue chunk to dialogue chunk or even (if they're mildly competent) from scene to scene?  That ability is light years beyond what this guy can pull off convincingly.  I hope he invests that Twilight money wisely, because he won't be on the cover of Tiger Beat forever.  Lily Collins isn't as bad as Lautner, but she's still a long way off from being good here.  Granted, her character is written as a typical girl-next-door crush, but she's awkward and whiny and...well...okay, maybe she acts like a real none-too-bright teen would in a similarly outlandish situation.  That still doesn't make her pleasant to watch or explain the caterpillars on her face.
Maybe she's trying to reform Oasis?
None of the adult cast really get enough screen time to balance the awfulness that is Taylor Lautner.  Maria Bello was halfway decent.  Jason Isaacs was surprisingly likable, especially when he was living out the fantasy of Abduction viewers --- he got to beat the crap out of his "son."  Alfred Molina was wasted in a stupid supporting role, while Sigourney Weaver got to play an annoying character in a stupid supporting role.  Michael Nyqvist was suitably foreign and evil-looking as the lead terrorist/bad guy black ops agent, but it takes quite a bit more than that to make an entertaining villain. 
The blank stare of evil
Elisabeth Röhm randomly showed up as Nathan's real mother; surprisingly, this was not a speaking part.  Dermot Mulroney had an uncredited part toward the end, and now that I've seen this movie, I think "uncredited" was the way to go.

Abduction was directed by John "I was relevant in 1991" Singleton, although "directed" might be a strong term.  Sure, part of the fault lies with the paper-thin script from first-time full-feature screenwriter Shawn Christensen, but Singleton is simply a hack here.  Do you like goofy editing (best example: the reveal of the CGI-aged Nathan)?  How about poor use of camera tricks?  And one-dimensional acting?
Literally phoning it in
Yeah, John Singleton delivers on all fronts.  What bothered me most about his direction in this movie was that it is so far from playing to his strengths.  Singleton's best films (Boyz n the Hood and Baby Boy, in my opinion) have a fairly nice but uncharismatic lead actor surrounded by colorful characters; they're dramas that focus on (fairly) small-level dramas that he blows up to big-time drama.  Abduction is an action movie that should have been a tense thriller.  I love the idea of not trusting the people who raised you, but that concept (the best part of this plot) is jettisoned almost immediately for a dull, substandard chase movie.  Oh, and John Singleton can't film an entertaining fight scene to save his life.

Does anything go right in Abduction?'s not so bad that you spend the movie hating everyone involved.  It's utter crap, though, make no mistake.

Here are a few of my favorite moments from Abduction:
  • One of the reasons Nathan is convinced that he was abducted is because he recognized the shirt in the maybe-him child photo on the website.  Okay, fine.  To prove his suspicions are correct, Nathan looks for and finds this unremarkable, fifteen-plus years old shirt in a matter of minutes.  So...A) his "parents" held on to his pre-abducted belongings? B) a teenager knows exactly where his toddler clothes are stored and remembers them, down to the stains? C) his family held on to his toddler clothes instead of giving them away or selling them at garage sales, like every other American family?
  • When Nathan asks his "mom" if she is his mother, she says "...No."  Well, that was easy.
  • Terrorists looking to kidnap Nathan place a bomb in the kitchen oven, and it is working on a timer.  Maybe they should have acted like they were in a hurry then, hmm?
  • Abduction is amazing with the ridiculous amounts of perfect timing and manhours used by the CIA.  A phone call to 911 goes directly to the CIA, without an operator putting Nathan on hold.  Within moments of being spotted on a security camera, underlings are on the scene, giving chase.  And yet...two dumb teenagers manage to avoid capture for days.
  • The bad guy threatened to kill all of Nathan's Facebook friends.  
  • My wife summed up the first half of the movie with "also, so far, Taylor Lautner's a dick."
  • The bad guy steals Nathan's gun by reaching just under his crotch in a quick and sneaky manner.
  • The movie ends with a Train song.  Because the movie wasn't bad enough on its own.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Arthur (1981)

I've never understood why Dudley Moore was such a famous actor.  I get it, I get it, he was in 10, which I still haven't seen.  Aside from that, though, his filmography looks pretty weak.  The two that I immediately recognized (Like Father Like Son and Blame It On the Bellboy) were vehicles for television stars who never deserved a movie career.  The Russell Brand remake of Arthur reminded me of my puzzlement with Moore, so I decided to check this film out.  Fun fact: this comedy was nominated for four Oscars and won two!  That doesn't happen any more.

Arthur is the story of a fabulously rich man-child whose height and irreverence definitely emphasize the "child."
That's not perspective at work; Dudley Moore is tiny
Arthur (Dudley Moore) is the spoiled rotten son of a very rich man; when his daddy dies, Arthur will inherit $750 million.  In the meantime, Arthur is content to be a happy drunk from the time of his morning bath (complete with bubbles and a martini) until his driver takes him home after a day of cruising Central Park. 
He's had more to drink by 9AM than most men have all day
The fun won't last forever, though; the only way Arthur will inherit his millions is if he agrees to an arranged marriage with the stuffy Susan (Jill Eikenberry).  The family assumes Arthur will clean up, sober up and start acting like an adult (Moore was 46 when this was released) once he is forced to be married to a boring upper-crust dame.  In other words, Arthur was going to hate his life, for the sake of being rich.  There is just one small hitch in his family's plan --- he met someone he actually cares about.  While carelessly throwing his money around in a department store, Arthur happened to notice Linda (Liza Minnelli).
Hint: she's the horse wearing a hat
Linda was busy being an obvious shoplifter while wearing a red cowboy hat and bright yellow jacket; she was stealing while dressed as the bastard child of a cab and a fire truck.  Not surprisingly, someone at the store realized what she was up to and confronted her.  That's when Arthur stepped in and gallantly pretended that she was helping him shop.  From here, for reasons I can't explain, the two fall in love.  But is that enough to sway Arthur from the only life he has ever known and the obscene riches it provides?
You'd cry if you fell for Liza Minnelli, too

If absolutely nothing else, I can say that Arthur has finally helped me understand why anyone ever cared about Dudley Moore.  While I found his drunken cackle to be ridiculously over the top, Moore handled the role of this perpetual drunken child pretty well.  He was likable, rarely annoying, and occasionally very funny; while I did like his recommendation for a total stranger to divorce his wife, his best line was given to a hooker who had just explained that her mother died when she was six and she was raped at age twelve --- he asked "So you had six good years then?"  Liza Minnelli wasn't too bad as Arthur's love interest, but her looks genuinely make me uncomfortable.  She reminds me of some weird Doctor Moreau-type genetic experiment that blends human with a rat that has a comical fashion sense.  John Gielgud was pretty excellent as the uptight (but loving) father figure to Arthur, and his snide remarks provide most of the film's humor.
Jill Eikenberry and the rest of the cast were inoffensive, but fairly dull.

The best and the worst thing about Arthur was Arthur himself.  While Moore was pretty charming, his stupid drunk laugh grated on my nerves after a while.  And his character had so many missed opportunities; for being such a childish man, he didn't seem to own anything terribly ridiculous or extravagant, or just plain goofy.  All this movie really needed to put it over the top were the props Moore used in Foul Play (like the faux-tiger fur piano/wet bar).  Put them (or anything silly, really) in Arthur's bedroom and you have some inexpensive chuckles that don't add any running time to the movie.  Basically, for all the fun Arthur was having, very little of it was shown in his material belongings, which I thought was a big miss.

Arthur was writer/director Steve Gordon's only feature film; he died in 1982.  He did a pretty good job here and showed promise as a director.  It can be difficult to balance the humor of a comedy with character development, but I thought Gordon did a solid job with Arthur's character.  I would have liked Gordon to imagine Arthur's life as a little more impulsive --- if there was ever a movie that could have benefited from some Wes Anderson-style development/art direction, it's this one --- but the important thing is that Arthur was likable.  Gordon avoids the typical comedy problem of uneven pacing by never going fully slapstick.  That's a double-edged sword, though; Arthur is decently entertaining, but there is no succession of truly funny moments in the film.
Yes, yes, yes.  You're drunk.  I get it.

While I didn't exactly love Arthur, I will admit that it was entertaining.  While watching, I was underwhelmed by the lack of big jokes.  In retrospect, I am disappointed by how boring Arthur is as a character.  Still, this is a film that manages to overcome co-starring Liza Minnelli and put a unique stamp on the movie drunk and the snide butler characters.  It's worth a watch.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Faces in the Crowd

I have established a routine of reviewing the best and worst of the previous year just in time for the Oscars.  If they can wait until the end of February, why can't I, right?  That means that I am trying to fit a lot of 2011 releases in for review in January and February.  Hence Faces in the Crowd.  Normally, I wouldn't touch a Milla Jovovich movie with a ten foot pole, unless it involved killing zombies.  That's just a general rule that has served me well over the years.  Faces in the Crowd is what happens when you break the rules.
...and this is what happens when you break her concentration: blank stares

Here's the plot: Anna (Milla Jovovich) is living the good life --- she has friends, a handsome byofriend, and is a successful teacher with model-quality looks --- until she accidentally witnesses a serial killer in the act.  She tries to escape, and I suppose she does; she falls off a bridge, into a body of water, hitting her head on the way down.  That might scramble a lesser person's brains, but Anna's got quite the noggin and emerges with prosopagnosia.  That's essentially a form of brain damage that prevents a person from recognizing faces.  In practice, that means that Anna sees a new face whenever a person leaves the room; in practice, her boyfriend looks different every morning and every evening as he returns from work.  My immediate thought --- echoed by Anna's slutty friend --- is that she gets to be monogamous and still sleep with new people, but this isn't a lighthearted sex romp.  This is a drama, nay, a thriller, dammit!  So Anna has witnessed a serial killer at work and is the only surviving witness, but she couldn't ID the guy if he was standing right next to her.  That would only be mildly inconvenient, if it wasn't for the fact that the killer is stalking her at close range.

Wow.  Faces in the Crowd takes an interesting phenomenon and completely misses the mark.  The first problem I have with this movie is with Milla Jovovich.  She can't act.  Not surprised, not happy, not afraid, not disinterested, not mildly constipated.  If you cast Milla Jovovich in your movie and are expecting her to carry a dramatic role (as in, "not one where the acting is obscured by action FX") you damn well better make sure she is clothed appropriately.
An example of "appropriate"
Man, she is terrible here.  She plays a schoolteacher that regularly goes out drinking with her slutty wannabe Sex In the City friends, never seems to grade papers, and looks like this when she's stressed:
I'm surprised this movie's not titled Faces Acting Subtly.  The rest of the cast is better than Milla, but so was my preschool class performance of the Billy Goats Gruff (I was a troll and fussed over having green makeup on my cheeks, because makeup is for girls!  Yuck!).  Julian McMahon plays the cop tracking down the serial killer that magically seems immune to Anna's mental disability; she recognizes his face every time!  It's not that remarkable, though...his goatee is just that awful.
Not a Robin Hood remake
The rest of the cast is a mixed bag.  Due to the requirements of the story, most of the characters were played by multiple actors.  So, even if you love The Walking Dead's Sarah Wayne Callies, she's only actually in about ten percent of this movie.  Similarly, Valentina Vargas was not given much of a chance to shine as the super-slutty foreign friend, even though the character had Isabella Rosellini-in-Roger Dodger-potential.  As for David Atrakchi...let's just say that it's too bad he never got substituted for Demitri Martin in this movie.  (That is me subtly pointing out his lack of dramatic acting chops).  Oh, and Marianne Faithfull shows up to play a cynical therapist, if only to rasp at a new audience.

Faces in the Crowd isn't all bad, though.  It's pretty terrible, don't get me wrong, but there were some things I liked.  I liked the concept behind this movie.  Who do you trust when you can't trust your eyes?  I like that.  And writer/director Julien Magnat found an interesting way to manifest Anna's disability, by having different actors play the same part, with the original actor supplying the voice.  Sometimes, strangers would all share the same face.  That was all pretty cool.  It's too bad that the acting is wretched and the basic plot (the mystery) is hammy and predictable.
Don't protect her.  She needs to hear the truth.

What's worse than all that is how ridiculous the plot is.  First of all, I hated how easily the story got rid of Anna's existing boyfriend, who suddenly became a total prick when his girlfriend suffered brain damage.  Here is an attractive woman who is clearly trying her best to fake her way through life, despite a mental retardation, and he gets self-righteous?  Weak.  I mean, this is a guy who could totally berate and take out his anger on his girlfriend, just by changing his tie and using a silly voice, the very stuff of a Wayans Brothers comedy --- and he gives that up because she sees different faces when they have sex?  What planet is he from?  And then there is the cop played by McMahon, who explicitly denies Anna protective custody (despite her being his only witness) because it is a paperwork hassle.
"I'd take my hands out of my pockets, but, you tape"
The plot is so cheesy that Anna reads her horoscope out loud, ferchrissakes, and it always applies to her day!
Scorpio: "You will smoosh your face in despair..."
One of the worst things about Faces in the Crowd is how pointlessly long it is.  This isn't a long movie, mind you, but there is a point where it is obvious that the killer character is wearing exactly the same clothes as Anna's boyfriend, and the boyfriend sees the guy, and Anna's friend gets killed that night by someone wearing the exact same clothes as the boyfriend ---- and nobody thinks to ask the boyfriend what this doppelganger looks like!  I would have been satisfied if the boyfriend gave a mediocre description, but ignoring the fact that he saw the killer bugged the hell out of me.  All of that pales in comparison to the idiocy of Anna's character when she tried to go back to teaching young schoolchildren.  She went back to work without telling her boss about her condition and apparently walked into class without a game plan to handle not recognizing the faces of 30+ kids.  As a friend, sibling, nephew, and son of teachers, I have to call bullshit there.  For all the work teachers do off the clock, I simply cannot believe that an elementary school teacher wouldn't foresee the problem of not recognizing her students, especially when her boss references her as his "best" teacher.  Faces in the Crowd takes a decent premise and dumbs it down into a dull, poorly paced thriller that doesn't even deserve quotation marks around it.

The one good thing that resulted from me watching this movie was that it reminded me of Marianne Faithfull's 2002 album, which featured this song, written by Jarvis Cocker.  Sure, it's dirty and he covered it on his next solo album, but this is where I heard it first.

Marianne Faithfull - Sliding through life on charm by Superpatri

Friday, January 20, 2012

Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle For Earth

Looking at that movie poster, I wish I had gone out of my way to track down Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle For Earth.  It's pretty rare to see a static image that can cause epileptic seizures.  As it turns out, I accidentally stumbled across this movie while taking a trial and error approach to figuring out what channels my cable provides.  Fate must have been wearing a rubber suit that night, as I not only stumbled across this 1992 gem (it's the dubbed version, so I'll use the English translated names for the characters), but I got to watch the entire thing without commercials.  Let the Kaiju Mania begin!
Go Go Power Rangers!

Not so fast.  Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle For Earth doesn't exactly fly out of the gate.  Instead, it opts to show an Indiana Jones-esque character, Takuya, evading death and the hazards of Styrofoam bricks in an effort to take a relic from an old temple that absolutely does not resemble the set of a children's play.  Takuya narrowly escapes death by packing materials, but he is immediately arrested by the police, who were apparently waiting for him outside.  In jail, Takuya is faced with a choice; he can either sit and rot for fifteen years, or he can lead an expedition to investigate the effects of a recent mysterious asteroid.  That might not seem like a tough choice --- and it isn't --- but Takuya is being forced to work with his ex-wife, Masako, and his pay will go towards his backlog of child support.  Suck it, deadbeat!  The expedition is specifically going to investigate a surprising find on Infant Island.  When they arrive, the party survives several "comical" dangers in front of a green screen until they find the object.  It is very large, very smooth, and very hard.  What could it be?  Well, there were some cave paintings that our resident Indiana Jones analogue expertly dates as "a couple of thousand years" old that depict some animals (a moth, perhaps?) doing weird stuff.  For this next part, I want to point out that I am following the film's logic as closely as possible.  When Dr. Jones Takuya tries to determine what the object is made of, he immediately dismisses rock and metal.  Why, I don't know.  But what else could this very sturdy object be made from?  If you guessed "an egg," then you've seen more kaiju films than me.  Not only is this an egg, it is Mothra's egg, as some helpful miniature people explain.  They're not just your average miniature human that can hide behind flowers, though; these two are The Cosmos, and it is their job to keep the world in balance.
Um.  Okay.  So where the hell are the guys in rubber suits?  Not to worry.  Remember that asteroid?  It landed in the ocean and fell into the same underwater gorge where Godzilla had been hibernating.  Just as our characters were hauling the egg back to Japan, Godzilla attacks!
About damn time
But then, so does Battra!  Wait...who?  You see, Mothra is the protector of the Earth.  You didn't know that?  Yeah...neither did I.  Many years ago, there was an advanced civilization on Earth, but they started doing all sorts of ecologically bad stuff, like creating weather-controlling devices.  Apparently, they were latter-day Bond villains.  In response, the Earth created Battra, the destroyer of the Earth.  Last time, Battra defeated Mothra and destroyed that evil civilization.  With all the pollution and stuff in the world today, Battra woke up again and Mothra's egg became uncovered.  These two worldly forces are destined to battle once more, and the human race is at stake.  Well, Japan is at stake, anyway.  As for Godzilla, he's just an atomically-powered monster, caught in the middle.
I'm so glad the protector of the Earth still needs to metamorphose

I am certainly not an expert on kaiju movies, but when I sit down to enjoy a Godzilla flick, at the very least, I expect to see Godzilla kicking Tokyo's ass.  That is where Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle For Earth makes its first mistake.  Sure, we get to see Godzilla fighting Mothra and Battra, but there isn't a whole lot of wanton destruction coming from ol' greenie.  Instead, Battra is the one who ruins most of Tokyo. 
Godzilla fighting to keep his job
Now, if you've never heard of Battra before, that might be because he only exists in this single film; if there is nothing else memorable about this "dark" Mothra, at least the actor playing him is called Hurricane Ryu.  Awesome.

This is the first time I have ever seen a Mothra vehicle, and I have to admit that I was disappointed.  Is this his thing?  He's a larvae for half the movie, and then cocoons himself and then grows wings that look like they were upholstered with shag carpeting from the 70s?
Don't get me wrong, it was hilarious watching Mothra the larvae fire some sort of thread/webbing/jism at Godzilla, but the larvae form is just about the exact opposite of Godzilla on the cool scale.  To satisfy your curiosity, the exact opposite of a giant dinosaur on the cool scale would be "Homework." 

There are a lot of amusing things in Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle For Earth, even with Mothra busy being lame.  I loved the stupid miniature people, the Cosmos.  They synchronized their speech, randomly sang, and communicated with Mothra.  Oh, and they promised to to do what they can to save humanity "this time."  I love the implication there; the last time Battra erased a civilization from the planet, they either sat by idly, or they actively helped Battra.
Bitches.  Miniature bitches.
I also thought the Indiana Jones-ish opening was hilariously inept and out of place.  Obviously, you don't watch a kaiju film for the acting, but this was pretty bad.  My next favorite thing in this film was how Mothra opted to prepare for metamorphosis:
I can't be the only one who assumed he was having sex with a building, especially when that cocoon silk started spewing out.  All of that was amusing, certainly, but what took the cake was more of a conceptual joke.  SPOILER ALERT: Godzilla eventually kills Battra.  Hooray, right?  The Earth has been saved by the king of all monsters!  Well, not so much.  Nobody really celebrates.  Even odder, it seems that Battra --- whose purpose is to destroy humanity --- was planning to save the planet by destroying a meteor that would crash into Earth in the year 1999 (the year is currently 1992, remember).  Pause to consider that.  Battra apparently had an identity crisis where he needed to protect the Earth from a meteor that he somehow knew would not only hit the Earth, but ruin it.  Battra is a militant psychic environmentalist.  Even better, Mothra has a "conversation" with Battra, where he agrees to take on the burden of destroying the meteor, and so he sails into space.  The end.

Wait...what?  What just happened?  I did not see that ending coming.

I am not really sure how to rate this film.  On the one hand, it is absolutely terrible.  The acting, the direction of Takao Okawara, the action, the special effects, and the editing were all bad enough to qualify you for a medical prescription for whiskey, just to make your brain feel better.  The human storyline took up way too much time, was terrible, and was heavy-handed in its condemnation of industrialization.  On the other hand, this is a movie featuring men dressed up in rubber suits attacking poster board cities and model tanks.  Still, I would have hoped for an improvement in special effects since the original GojiraGodzilla and Mothra: The Battle For Earth is by no means good, but it is bad enough to entertain.  I give it a legitimate score of
and a Lefty Gold score of

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


It's becoming a habit.  I see a movie that I am unfamiliar with and would normally ignore, but then I notice an actor or director.  And then I recognize other cast members.  Pretty soon, I am watching the movie with the hope of discovering a diamond in the rough; the problem is that diamonds are (unsurprisingly) rare.  That's how I stumbled upon Ironclad.  Paul Giamatti, Brian Cox, Jason Flemyng and Derek Jacobi --- none of whom I trust to headline a movie, mind you --- tend to play solid supporting roles, and I had a vague recollection of James Purefoy from the Rome DVD covers.  The tagline is "Blood.  Will.  Run."  All of that should add up to a decent movie, right?
Judging by hair and makeup, I'd guess a period comedy

Ironclad opens with some narration about some of the basic reasons King John of England (Paul Giamatti) was forced to sign the Magna Carta, the document that essentially began the decline of the monarchy in the West and the rise of the individual.  This movie is not about the signing of the Magna Carta, though.  Ironclad is the story of what happened next, which is often overlooked.  After signing this important historical document, King John quickly waged war on the barons that had forced him to sign it, and he did it with Danish mercenaries.  
All of whom were designed by Frank Frazetta
Marshal (James Purefoy) was a Templar Knight who, like so many other recent film knights, had seen too much evil done in battle.  And, because this is a movie, that means that he is fated to see even more battle within the next few hours.  Marshal passed word of John's ill deeds on to others, including  the author of the Magna Carta, Archbishop Langton (Charles Dance), and a freedom-loving baron, William Albany (Brian Cox).  Agreeing that John must be stopped, the trio also agree that the place to do it is at Rochester Castle.  The castle isn't much to look at, but realty and strategic military objectives often share the same slogan: location, location, location.  If John plans to take the fight to London, he needs to capture Rochester Castle.  Albany and Marshal agree to take a few men to the castle and protect it to the last man against the evil of King John. 
Actual dialogue: "YEAAARRGH!"

I don't have any real problems with the idea of Ironclad.  Sure, I realize that the details of the film are not historically accurate, in the same way that the course of history isn't accurate when you play Sid Meier's Civilization on "Easy."
Above: my Civilization III navy, circa 1400
That reminds me...nobody ever uses the word "ironclad" in Ironclad.  Isn't that kind of strange?  It's not without precedent, of course, but I expected to see something heavily armored in the movie, at the very least.  Oh well, that's not a huge deal. 

While I have no problem with the idea behind Ironclad, I have some significant problems with its execution, starting with the cast.  Brian Cox was over-dramatic, but it was a part that called for some bombastic speeches, and he delivered them with enthusiasm.  Vladimir Kulich was pretty entertaining as John's lead Danish henchman, but he didn't get enough opportunities to show off.  I was conflicted over Paul Giamatti's performance as King John, though.  I liked that John isn't portrayed as a coward or a spoiled child, as he typically is.  I'm fine with the choice to make him into a meanie jerkface.  But Giamatti's typically solid performance has a hard time overcoming the fact that he looks like this:
You Paul Giamatti in a bad wig and silly clothes
Giamatti chewed on some scenery and gave a couple of nasty speeches, but I couldn't enjoy his nastiness because he just looked silly.  The rest of the cast of Ironclad doesn't have quite the same problem.  While many of them looked nice, there wasn't much acting or characterization.
You'd think something cool was happening here, but no
James Purefoy is the lead in this film, but he doesn't do much.  He starts out as a reluctant warrior, winds up fighting, and grimaces his way through a love interest.  Kate Mara treats Purefoy's acting as a gambling bid, seeing his grimace and raising awkward motives and terrible dialogue.  The supporting cast is fairly noteworthy, but none of their performances are.  Derek Jacobi, Charles Dance, Jason Flemyng, and Mackenzie Crook are all welcome sights in a lesser-known film, but their parts are shallow and their screen time is limited, forcing the actors into well-trodden stereotypes the audience can understand without requiring anything like acting or character development. 
Example: Crook was referred to as "Gareth"
On the bright side, I thought Jamie Foreman was decently entertaining in his limited part and relative newcomer Aneurin Barnard wasn't completely obnoxious as the idealistic youth.

Ironclad is not a complete waste of time, though.  Director Jonathan English may not have shown any skill in making me care about the fate of any of these characters and he may have co-written a script that is not terribly accurate from the historical perspective, but he did manage to do this:
Yes, that's a hatchet splitting a skull like an overripe melon.  That's not all the ridiculous violence Ironclad has to offer, either.  Hands, feet and a tongue are all forcefully removed from their owners in this film.  There is even a scene where Jamie Foreman severs a man's arm and then proceeds to beat the man with his own arm.  There's a lot of what you might expect in a castle siege fight sequence (stabbings, arrows, tar, loss of life and limb, etc.), but even the typical fare is pretty decent.  Perhaps English's greatest achievement is that he gave the battle meaning by explaining the strategic significance of it.  At one point, John's top Dane gets annoyed that he is wasting his men on this little castle and wants to move on, which seems totally sensible.  Not only did English do a good job of giving the heroes a reason to fight and die for that castle, but he also had John explain why the bad guys needed to fight and die for the castle, too.

But is that enough to recommend Ironclad?  Uh, no.  A movie like this doesn't need to have witty banter or a well-written supporting cast, but it does need two or three important elements: a hero you root for, a villain you love to hate, and/or a romance that you give a damn about.  Purefoy's character isn't charismatic, he just seems weary, and that's a tough lead character type to watch. 
This is his "I'm glad we're having pie" look
Giamatti acted well enough as John, but his hair and the obviousness of some of his schemes (like the promise he made to the Danes) were just ridiculous.  And Kate Mara...her character is married to Derek Jacobi, and yet she spends her entire siege time intent on forcing Purefoy to break his Templar vows and have sexy time with her.  Sorry, Ironclad, you are zero for three.  Still, the action is pretty good, and the warfare felt authentic to the time period.  Plus, I learned a new use for pigs; they truly are a magical animal.  I wouldn't say that Ironclad is good, but it's halfway decent entertainment if you like battles and don't want to invest much emotions into the characters.