Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Wing Chun

My knowledge of Chinese and Hong Kong cinema is pretty shameful. While I have seen and enjoyed many Chinese films over the years, I was never able to put them into any kind of historical context. I'd love to know which directors most influenced the distinct style of Kung Fu movies in their early years. Did it all start with Bruce Lee? I somehow doubt it. One of the reason's I'm so ignorant is the difficulty of finding older Chinese films in their original language. They're almost all dubbed, and I have little to no patience for dubbing.

When looking for a Kung Fu movie to watch, I pretty much picked Wing Chun at random, because I recognized some of the names in it. It stars Michelle Yeoh as Yim Wing Chun, a girl who uses her Kung Fu mastery to save her friends, family, and even her entire village from a gang of bandits. It also stars Donnie Yen as her love interest.

Wing Chun is a pretty light-hearted movie, with a lot of comedy and a twisty little romance. It's pretty PG-rated. The humor is a little more over-the-top than I usually like, but I'll admit that I did laugh out loud a couple times.

The real centerpiece of the movie, is of course, the Kung Fu battles, and surprise! This movie is directed by the master choreographer, Yuen Wo Ping, the guy behind The Matrix, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Kill Bill, and countless other martial arts spectacles. It goes without saying that the fights are a real treat. His trademark wire-fu is still in it, but it's a little older than those other movies, so the wires themselves are still very visible.

My favorite fight was probably the one where another master challenges Wing Chun to prove males are superior fighters. She sets up a tray of tofu and challenges him to smash it if he can. Then she effortlessly (ok, a little effort) keeps the tofu tray away from his blows by blocking him and tossing the tray itself around. It's a lot of fun, and there's a good deal of Jackie Chan-ish physical comedy involved. There's another great fight on top of a giant spear stuck in a rock wall, too.

Wing Chun was pretty enjoyable, though the story didn't really blow me away. It suited my needs, though, since, at the moment, I was looking for something light and breezy to watch, and something shorter in length than a lot of the more epic, House of Flying Daggers types of movies (I still haven't seen House of Flying Daggers, so you might see a review of that coming up in the future). Still, the fight choreography alone made the movie worth watching.

Next time, I might check out something more serious. I have it on good authority that Ip Man is a good one.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Sword of Doom

It's been a while since I've done an old samurai movie, hasn't it? To be perfectly honest, that last one I watched, Samurai Rebellion, was such a downer that I was a little reluctant to watch another. Well, enough time has passed for me, so here comes The Sword of Doom, a 1966 classic directed by Kihachi Okamoto.

The Sword of Doom is dark, intense, and brutal, but it's much less of a downer than Samurai Rebellion for one reason: you are not supposed to like the main character. I'm not sure I've seen a samurai movie told from the perspective of such a bad guy before.

The Sword of Doom stars Tatsuya Nakadai, best known to westerners, perhaps, as the gun-wielding villain in Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo. Nakadai plays Ryunosuke Tatsue, a stone cold bastard of a man who is introduced to us by killing a harmless old grandfather for no real reason (OK, the old man was praying for death at a shrine, but it wasn't Ryunosuke's place to carry it out), and not registering a bit of emotion for doing so.

He goes back to the village, where he is participating in a Kendo tournament. A woman visits him, begging him not to defeat her husband in the battle. He scoffs, claiming swordsmanship is to a man what chastity is to a woman. He tells her he'll lose the battle if she has sex with him. She complies, her husband finds out and divorces her on the spot. The friendly, no-strings-attached tournament battle has now become a grudge match. Ryunosuke kills the guy and is exiled from his clan (killing many more guys on the way). The lady he nailed catches up to him, and says she has nothing and asks to go with him.

Two years later, he's living with her in exile, under assumed names. They have a baby from their initial encounter. He runs into an old servant of his family's who tells him that his own father, on his deathbed, regretting having unleashed such an evil man onto the world, has sent the brother of the man he killed to find and kill him.

There's way more, but I'll stop there. It's pretty complicated, right? I wasn't expecting such a complex story, most samurai movies tend to be pretty straight forward. But it was also engrossing. There are a whole bunch of characters surrounding Ryunosuke and his heinous acts, and they're all connected to each other somehow. It actually feels quite Shakespearean. There's the granddaughter of the man he slaughtered in the opening, her uncle who raised her, and Toshiro Mifune as a master swordsman of another school. Mifune doesn't have a huge role, but it's a very important one, and he owns it, and yes, he does get to mow some people down.

There's a whole lot of slaughter in The Sword of Doom. More than I've seen in most 60's samurai movies, but way, way less than the crazy ones of the 70's. In fact, the last 10 minutes or so is non-stop samurai sword action (my favorite kind of action).

The ending was a little confusing to me at first. There have been all these interwoven, complicated stories going on, and none of them pay off! I thought maybe they were trying to make a statement about something. I then did a little of research on Wikipedia and found out that The Sword of Doom was meant to be the first part in a trilogy of films, based on a classic piece of Japanese literature. The ending was a big cliffhanger that never got resolved. What a letdown it was to get so wrapped up in a story only to find out that I was never going to see it end.

Lack of resolution aside, I kind of loved The Sword of Doom. I got very involved in it, and never had any idea what was going to happen next. The cinematography, sound design, acting, and action scenes were all top notch. And the ending wasn't a total downer, because there wasn't really an ending! I hear the story was adapted a couple more times before this version was made. I'm wondering if those versions were any good, and if I can find them anywhere, so I can get a better idea of the full story.

Monday, August 29, 2011


Hey, everyone! My friend Kent and I wrote another one of our occasional back-and-forth reviews. You can read his other reviews on this site here. Enjoy! I'm the one in sexy italics!

Jim and I recently decided it was time for another cross-over. This time we took a look at “Zardoz” starring Sean Connery! If you’re like me you probably didn’t know what the fuck Zardoz was until about 2 years ago when you came across this picture of Sean Connery on the internet

And that image haunted me for YEARS afterwards. Looking in to the film it has a really strong cult following and there also seems to be a lot of hate out there for this film.

Well, I don’t know where I stand, because I just don’t know what to make of it. It was a bunch of nonsense, but I was unable to turn away. It was the 1970’s, everyone! Drugs!

I’d like to interject here for a moment and say, watching this movie kinda made me feel the same way when my friends tried to introduce me to Stanley Kubrick in high school. completely confused, like I wasn’t in on what was going on. Basically, I agree with Jim I should’ve watched this stoned. It starts off with just a floating head, telling us his name is Arthur Frayn, and he sometimes goes by Zardoz, he’s a god of sorts.

You’re forgetting to mention that he has a goatee and a curly mustache painted onto his face. And the “floating head” technique is him wearing black in front of a black backdrop and them cutting him out and moving him around the frame.

Really that is the highlight of the movie, its kinda all downhill from there, I mean Zardoz or Art as his friends call him was by far my favorite part of this movie. He’s barely in it, but he’s SO hammy and I kinda feel like everyone else was really serious going in to this. Arthur seems to be the only one who REALLY enjoyed his role and had fun with it.

I think his character was supposed to be a “performer” or an “artiste” or something, so naturally, he acted like the worst Shakespearean actor ever would. I wonder if it was scripted that way, or John Boorman was just like “yeah, do that” when the actor brought it up. I get a sense there were a lot of “yeah, do thats” in this movie. After making Deliverance, nobody was around to tell Boorman, “maybe don’t do that”.

I could see that, but moving on to the actual..........plot...of this movie. After we get passed the floating head we have a bunch of men in red masks ride horses and making noise. They don’t appear to be making any sense they just kinda are mumbling loudly. At this point they see the giant floating head of Zardoz, which is some stone head that speaks to them and tells them probably the greatest line in cinematic history. “The Penis is evil!”

Also that guns are good. Then the stone Zardoz head vomits guns all over the place and the barbarian men scramble to pick them up. That’s when we get our first glimpse of Connery, as he turns around and shoots the camera with his gun. See that? It’s a James Bond thing! He did it in this too! I wish Finding Forrester had started out that way.

Every Connery movie should’ve start out like that. Sean Connery then climbs out of a pile of wheat that’s apparently inside the giant stone head of Zardoz. Seriously at this point we’re probably what 15 minutes in? it’s already had floating heads, barbarians being told their peni are evil and gun vomiting.

Well let’s add one more: Inside the floating heads are bunch of sleeping naked people wrapped in cellophane! We could keep adding stuff all night. Every new minute of the movie there’s something inexplicable going on on camera, and it all adds up to... umm...

I couldn’t agree more, my favorite part about inside the floating head wasn’t even the people wrapped in cellophane, it was how 70’s everything looked, but like “future 70’s” they mine as well have put a lava lamp in the middle of the room below a disco ball and all the actors should’ve been wearing roller skates through the entire movie, and if they had, it wouldn’t have been the least bit out of place.

I can’t believe we’ve written so much and we’re still at the beginning of the movie. I swear, I took copious notes for the first half, until finally, I wrote “I fucking give up” and let the weird wash over me. We better get moving on this: The Arthur Frayn/Zardoz/floating head mustache man jumps out at him and Connery shoots him and he falls to his death, and Connery takes the head back to its home, some future paradise place where people are immortal. I skipped like 30 things or more there.

That’s what makes this such a hard movie to review really, I mean not much actually happens as far as “plot” but so much is constantly going on. Regardless, this is where you meet the rest of the main characters, a woman named Consuella, a man named Friend, and another woman who’s called May. If Zardoz hadn’t been in this movie, Friend would’ve been my favorite, he’s a complete asshole and he acts the part well. May and Conseulla just have a little battle over whether to kill Connery’s character.........I can’t actually remember his name, or to study Connery.

ZED! His name’s Zed. Also, we find out that they are in “The Vortex” and Zed is from the “Outlands” and we knew they worship Zardoz, but did you catch that he refers to a unit of time called “Zardays”? I’m going to start measuring my life in Zardays.

it only makes sense to measure your units of time in Zardays or Zarweeks, Zaryears, etc. There’s also two specific “races” I guess you’d call them apart from the eternals?of people, those are the apathetics and, some other group who’s name escapes both of us. They’re basically immortals that have lived too long and have kinda gone a bit nuts.

Yeah, I think apathy is a disease that they can’t cure, so they just put them all in a cave where they stand around and don’t care about things. And the old people were eternally young people, who have been punished by being aged to the point of senility but still not allowed to die.

It’s not exactly they weren’t allowed to die, it’s that they didn’t know how to die. If you died the Tabernacle, which is some sort of sentient being that talks to the eternals through their giant crystal rings, would just bring them back to life as a baby. This is where I think we should kinda leave it. because we’re hitting page 3 and I could probably easily write another 2 pages, if I don’t cut myself off soon. Any closing thoughts?

In the end, we find out Zardoz’s master plan, and see in flashback how he executed it, and that scene’s a doozy, with the book and all. I won’t ruin that because it was hilarious. But basically Zed was sent to The Vortex to bring back humanity and the life cycle to people who had forgotten to live and be human. It just goes a looooooooong way to say that.

So, Zardoz is a big, druggy, jumbled mess of a movie, but it’s pretty watchable in that car-wreck kind of way. I know I couldn’t take my eyes from it. I think everybody who loves film should watch it, both as an oddity and a rite of passage. It came out in 1974, the year that Coppola released The Godfather Part II and The Conversation, Mel Brooks released Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, and Polanski released Chinatown. In one of the best movie years ever, there was still room on the table for this insane bit of sci-fi overindulgence. You’ve got to admit, it was pretty original, right?

It was definately orginal! I can safely say I’ve never seen anything like this movie! My closest comparison would be something like “Barbarella” yet it’s absolutely nothing like that at all, I can safely say if there are other films like this, I’m not sure I’d want to see them. It was fun and would be good for a night with friends where there’s not much else to do. Don’t watch it on a laptop though.

No, don’t watch anything on a laptop unless you have to. Good night, everybody! Penises are evil!

Hey, me again! If you like this one, here another review I wrote with Kent: Mac and Me.

Paper Moon

The con man movie is a fairly limited genre. It's always fun to watch the con artist at work, but as clever as these characters can be, there are only so many tricks the filmmakers can play on the audience before we start to recognize them. After Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, it seemed like every con man movie ended with the con man himself getting conned. I'm sure that happened before D.R.S. too, but that's the earliest one I remember seeing that happened in. It was funny the once, but felt lazy and dissatisfying every time afterward. I'm looking at you, Matchstick Men!

Paper Moon probably needs no introduction, but here's a quick one anyway: It's a charming comedy from the 1970's that stars Ryan and Tatum O'Neal as a depression-era father-daughter con team. 9-year-old Tatum won an Oscar for it, and it was well deserved, because she really does own this movie.

Paper Moon is one of those classic movies that has eluded me for years. It's always nice to get to sit down and watch one of those. I had never seen a Peter Bogdanovich film. For whatever reason, when I was watching all the movies by those seventies guys, I passed him by. My theory: I had prior knowledge that while Coppola, Altman, Allen, Lucas, Scorsese, Friedkin, etc. were drawing heavily from the films of Europe and Asia for their inspiration, Bogdanovich looked to America's past, emulating the films he saw when he was a kid, instead of some foreign new wave. At the time I was watching all these directors, I hadn't really gotten into American films of the 30's and 40's, so I guess I just bypassed Bogdanovich. Now I've matured a little, seen and enjoyed a lot more of those old movies, and my mind is more open, I guess.

So, anyway, back to Paper Moon:

Ryan O'Neal stars as Mose, a guy in the midwest in the 1930's, who runs the old bible salesman grift. I say the "old" grift, because I swear I've seen it in something before, but I don't remember where. An old fling of his dies and he stops at the funeral to pay his respects, only to be tasked with the chore of taking her daughter, Addie, to extended family in Missouri. They suspect he might be the father (they have the same chin), but he vehemently denies it. We, of course, go into the movie with the knowledge that they're real life father and daughter, so the audience has no doubt of the truth. And they do have the same chin.

They give him $200 to get her there, and he quickly squanders it, without realizing that she knew about the money too. This leads to a hilarious showdown at a Coney Island diner where she demands her money back. He folds to her stubborn demand, thus putting the two of them on equal ground. Mose takes Addie on the road with him and uses the bible grift to raise the cash to pay her back. He soon realizes that Addie is clever and observant, far more observant than he is, and they become a team.

Ryan and Tatum O'Neal are really fun to watch play off each other. Their chemistry as father and daughter is real, and the fun they're having is infectious. My favorite chunk of the movie is when Mose picks up a woman at a carnival (Madeline Kahn). Addie can tell she's bad news, and feels threatened by the lack of attention she's getting, so she conspires an elaborate scheme to get rid of her.

Bogdanovich shot Paper Moon in black and white, as a throwback to the comedies of the 30's. He didn't go all the way with the cinematography, though. The camerawork is much more fluid than it was back then, and as a whole the movie looks and feels like a mix of the old and the new. It's also loaded with that snappy brand of old-timey dialogue, and a seemingly obsessive attention to period detail in the production design. I don't feel like the movie was particularly groundbreaking like the films of many of Bogdanovich's contemporaries, but a movie doesn't have to be groundbreaking to be great. Sometimes traditional is the way to go.

I'm glad I finally saw Paper Moon. It was a fun little conman comedy with a lot of heart and a satisfying ending that didn't make me feel like I, too, was getting conned.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Alakazam the Great (Boku No Son Goku)

This is one of those instances where Netflix really came through for me. It recommended this movie, of which I had no prior knowledge, but turns out contains a lot of my deepest interests.

The movie is Daisaku Shirakawa's "Boku No Son Goku", ridiculously titled Alakazam the Great in order to market to the American children of 50 years ago. One reason it is historically interesting is this is one of, if not the first, Japanese animations ever to be released in the states. It was dubbed by the same people who would later do Speed Racer, with Speed himself, Peter Fernandez, voicing the title character. This was before they actually translated what the characters were saying. The people didn't speak Japanese, they just watched the movie and adapted it based on what it looked like was happening. The studio that put it out also tacked on a couple of familiar voices, with Frankie Avalon as Alakazam's singing voice, Jonathan Winters, and the guy who did the voice of Winnie the Pooh narrating.

Another point of interest for me? It is an adaptation of Journey to the West, an ancient Chinese legend of Monkey, a clever, mischievous monkey on an action-packed pilgrimage to India. I've read the translated book of it, and it is one of the most fun books I've ever read. It has been adapted countless times in Asia, in all forms of media, and even a few times in the western world, most recently as a Chinese opera composed by Damon Albarn of The Gorillaz.

Sooo cool.

Now, this particular adaptation of Journey to the West is based on a Manga by the great Osamu Tezuka, the creator of Astro Boy, and considered the founding father of Japanese comics. I've been a huge fan of his works for some time now. I would hold him up to any of the great 20th century visual storytellers; Kubrick (who was also a fan), Kurosawa, Jack Kirby, etc. From what I've read, Tezuka's actual involvement in the movie was limited, but you can still see his influence in the character designs and the story itself.

The story goes as such: Alakazam (or just Monkey in the folklore) is a brash, mischievous little monkey who becomes king of his people. He's maybe not a very good king right away. When told that humans are the smartest of the animals, he seeks out Merlin (once again, an artifact of the translation) and tricks him into teaching him his magic. Once he learns this, he goes up and challenges the heavens, and is punished for his insolence by being trapped in a mountain. He is given a second chance by being allowed to act as bodyguard to Prince Amat (Tripitaka in the version I read) on his pilgrimage to India, in order to bring Buddhist scriptures back to China (this part isn't mentioned in the movie). On their way, they have many adventures (only a couple featured in the movie), and join up with a pig named Quigley (Pigsy in the version I read) and "Max Lulipopo" (known as Sandy in the book).

The movie holds up pretty well, and plays like the Japanese equivalent of a Disney fairy tale classic. The animation, especially, is very influenced by Disney. There are shades of Bambi in the animals, and the Chernobog sequence from Fantasia in some of the creatures. A really cool scene is when Alakazam goes to heaven and battles Hercules. They morph into various animals and duke it out, before ultimately becoming a dragon and a dinosaur. I have a 3 year old nephew who would love it. Alakazam is a great character, tricky in the tradition of Bugs Bunny, and kids will have an easy time liking him.

The voice work is your typical early anime dub, with the really fast talking and trying to fit the lines into the mouth movements. If you're familiar with how Speed Racer talked, it's like that. The movie was given a new, more western score, with songs very befitting of cartoons from 1960. I would be curious to hear what the songs were like in Japan. A lot of early anime (heck, even more recent stuff) was edited down for U.S. consumption, for time, or often for content. I couldn't tell if this was cut down at all. It felt pretty coherent, and there was nothing too violent, so I assume the length of the movie is pretty much intact.

The video quality on Netflix was pretty crappy; I assume there's probably not much money to be had in a DVD release of something like this, and a remastering was probably deemed not worth it by whatever studio owns the rights. Personally, I'd love to see a nice version of the movie in its original Japanese, and I'm sure a high quality DVD version of it exists over there that could easily be transferred to a stateside release. Just, you know, they don't want to spend the money.

If you love folklore and animation history like I do, or if you have younger kids and want to show them a fun story from another culture, look up Alakazam the Great on Netflix.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Fright Night (2011)

If you've read my review to the sequel to the original, you know that Fright Night is one of my favorite vampire movies. Not only was it full of 80's charm, it was also, at that point, a totally original take on the genre, with fun performances, great characters, and a little bit of self awareness.

Now we have a remake, which, while not very necessary, strives to honor the original and still bring something new to the idea for fans like me. They could have gone wrong in a lot of ways with this. They could have taken it in a soapy, mopey Twilight direction. Or they could have made one of those typical, lowest common denominator horror movies. Instead, director Craig Gillespie used the original movie as a blue print, balancing the horror and the comedy, taking the ideas behind the original characters and putting a new spin on them.

The basic premise of Fright Night is that a vampire moves in next door to a horny teen. Nobody believes the teen and the vampire starts taunting him and messing with his life by seducing his mom and girlfriend. The teen then recruits a washed up celebrity known for playing a vampire hunter to help him hunt and kill his neighbor.

The remake stays pretty true to that, but at a certain point maybe halfway through, it strays from the storyline of the original in a pretty big way, making the movie bigger in scale, and taking advantage of the bigger budget and special effects now available.

Anton Yelchin plays Charlie Brewster, the hormonal teen. In the original, he was a big horror movie geek, who always watched his hero, Peter Vincent, host a crappy horror movie showcase on local TV. In this iteration, he's set aside his geekiness, abandoning his old friends for some douchey new ones, landing a hot girlfriend, and buying expensive limited edition shoes. Fitting in with the cool kids is top priority for this Charlie, whereas in the original, getting laid and watching horror movies seemed to be all he had on his mind.

Colin Farrell takes over for Chris Sarandon as Jerry the vampire. It's pretty perfect casting. You can tell he's having a blast. He goes from charming neighbor to unholy terror on a dime. He taunts Charlie like a cat playing with its prey.

Charlie's girlfriend Amanda, played by Imogene Poots, is given quite a bit more to do in the remake, than be the object of both Charlie and Jerry's lust. In fact, both of the main female roles have been beefed up a great deal. Toni Collette plays Charlie's mom, and the close mother-son relationship Charlie has with her that's only kind of hinted at in the original is explored much deeper here.

Charlie's nerdy best friend Evil Ed is played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse. His character is one of the more different takes from the original. The original Evil Ed was a little unhinged from the get-go. He seemed like someone who might snap one day and take a weapon to school and shoot up the place or something. There were even some less-than-subtle implications of sexual confusion. That stuff is all gone. This Evil Ed is nothing more than a spurned best friend, hurt that the guy he's been hanging out with since he was a kid has moved on. He's on to Jerry long before Charlie is, in fact, he's the one that brings it to his attention. He's also the one that leads Charlie to Peter Vincent.

Which leads us to Peter Vincent, with David Tennant from Doctor Who filling in for the great Roddy MacDowell. This version of Peter Vincent has been completely retooled from the ground up. You can't really have a washed-up B-Movie actor-turned-horror show host anymore, since those shows don't really exist nowadays. Instead, Peter Vincent has been reinvented as a gothy, pompous, drunk, Vegas magician, with a vampire themed magic act. It's a pretty bold reinvention to say the least, but Tennant goes pretty wild with it, and really makes it fun. Once the action is taken to Vegas, we get some really cool action in his suite, which is filled with all sorts of old vampire hunting artifacts he's collected off of eBay. I did miss the original hero-worship relationship between the original Charlie and Peter. Instead, you get to see a mirror between the two. Peter Vincent is a geek trying way too hard to look cool, and unlike Charlie, he's overcompensating a bit much.

The script was written by Marti Noxon, the former Buffy the Vampire Slayer writer who was Joss Whedon's second-in-command on the latter half of the series. She brings a lot of Buffy-ness to this movie, with the clever dialogue and the teen hormones. Buffy surely owes a lot to the original Fright Night, so it makes perfect sense to use it as a template.

Now, before I go, a did have a couple of issues with Fright Night 2011. One being it just wasn't sexy enough. The original was all about sex, from the very first scene being Charlie on the verge of losing his virginity. The atmosphere was thick and foggy, tension that you could cut with a knife. This one is notably dampened, with Charlie's main motivation being shifted to fitting in, Evil Ed's sexuality done away with completely, and even the foggy atmosphere is gone. I know it has a lot to do with these being different times, showing teenagers having and pursuing sex in a movie is a bit touchier nowadays, even though it still happens all the time in the real world.

My other main issue was the 3-D. Like most discerning movie-goers, I skip 3-D entirely, and I saw Fright Night in 2-D. But there were a lot of intrusive shots of things flying directly at the camera. There were also weird CG effects, like a shot of embers floating in the air around Charlie that didn't look integrated with the picture at all. Making a movie in 3-D shouldn't get in the way of the 2-D experience. In the long run, way more people are going to see it in the glorious second dimension. But I guess people expect things to jump out at you in these movies, so they shoehorn a few shots like that in.

Those few gripes aside, I thought Fright Night was a fun, quirky horror comedy, though I still liked the original better. It probably doesn't have a lot of mainstream appeal, but should please fans of the original, fans of Buffy, and fans of the old vampire movies when they were still monsters who didn't sparkle.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Power Kids

Years and years ago, on our quest for the ultimate bad movie, my friends and I rented this movie called "Seven Lucky Ninja Kids". It was a badly dubbed Chinese kids movie, rushed into an American video release to cash in on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle craze of the late 1980's. It started out wacky, with the kids each named after their personalities, (you know, Leader, Fat Kid, Smart Kid, etc.), and a dumb henchman character who dresses in drag at one point to trick them or something. But what floored us was the climax, when the kids started just brutally taking out the bad guys. There was no prior indication that the movie was going to take the turn. Our jaws dropped in shock and joy.

Well, Power Kids is like Seven Lucky Ninja Kids, minus the goofy humor. It's well made, for what it is, which is pretty much Die Hard in a hospital with kids. I think it was made as a kids movie in Thailand, but over here it would probably be comfortably nestled somewhere within the R Rating.

It follows these four kids training at a Muay Thai martial arts school. They all look after the youngest, an innocent little kid who needs a heart transplant. He is on a waiting list, but his condition debilitates when he is forced to run from some bullies who ruined his radio controlled car. Now, he needs that heart immediately. One became available at another hospital but, get this....

The American Ambassador just happens to be going to that hospital to get his heart checked up. And apparently that's national news in Thailand, because a group of terrorists take that opportunity to hold the hospital hostage to let their demands be heard. Also, the terrorists are apparently led or something by a little girl?

So, now it's up to our kids to sneak into the hospital across town and get the donor heart for the little one, and kick some terrorist ass with Thai boxing while they're at it.

Yeah, I know, the plot is completely ludicrous. It's really just a flimsy excuse to watch these kids be awesome. The Muay Thai is crazy brutal, they appear to really be landing a lot of these kicks. Although they sure do kick guys in the back a lot, as if there might be some strategically placed padding under their shirts.

Early on, we get a taste of awesome as they fight a drunk American guy who swears a lot, and they kick the living crap out of him for long, long after he stops fighting back. It seemed like he was kind of out of the fight once he kicked the pile of barbell weights, but they just keep jump kicking him in the face, one after the other until he falls, and then I think a few more times after. I forget if that really happened, but it seems totally feasible to me.

That final showdown with the terrorists is totally insane. And the triple team against the adult leader with the burn scars on his cheek is kind of endless. He's more unstoppable than the drunk American guy.

I should probably add that the kids all actually seem like pretty good actors too, and their characters are quite likeable. But that's not really why we're watching Power Kids, is it?

So, Power Kids is a pretty brutal movie, but I would think a ten-or-eleven-year-old kid raised on a healthy diet of Jackie Chan and Schwarzeneggar could handle it. Lots of people get shot and kicked, but it's not gory or anything.

Asian kids action movies have come a long way since Seven Lucky Ninja Kids. I didn't get the sense that the Ninja Kids really knew martial arts all that well (or maybe at all, it's been years). Some of these Power Kids, on the other hand, might even wind up being the next generation of Thai action stars.

Friday, August 19, 2011

30 Minutes or Less

30 Minutes or Less is a new action comedy by Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer that could have gone either way. Luckily, it went the right way. It's fast-paced and silly, with well-drawn characters and a simple, clever premise that leaves lots of room for the performers to bounce off of each other.

Jesse Eisenberg plays Nick, a slacker who delivers pizzas for a living while his friends are moving up in the world. Aziz Ansari plays his roommate and best friend, Chet. Danny McBride and Nick Swardson play Dwayne and Travis, two more slackers who are even more slackery than Eisenberg, who hatch a scheme to get someone else to rob a bank for them, so they can secure the funds to hire a hitman to knock off McBride's lottery winning dad. They do this by ordering a pizza and strapping a bomb to Nick and telling him he has 12 hours to rob the bank.

That's it. From there on out, it's just the actors bouncing off of each other and having fun. The dialogue sounds pretty largely ad-libbed by the actors, but it's a testament to the screenwriter that I couldn't always tell what was scripted and what wasn't.

I should also point out that the four leads aren't the only funny ones. Michael Pena is hilarious as the hitman McBride is hiring. Though normally a serious actor, he's proven himself a great comedic performer with bizarre turns in Jody Hill's work, like Observe and Report and a scene stealing role in the second season of Eastbound and Down, HBO's pitch-black comedy starring the king scene-stealer himself, Danny McBride.

Ruben Fleischer seems to be a pretty competent director. Zombieland was not only funny, but a really well made film. In 30 Minutes or Less, he seems to know his job is largely to step back and let his cast do their thing. The action is pretty well done, too.

The movie is probably easiest to compare to Pineapple Express, which, while I laughed a lot at it, didn't really work for me in the end. I thought the third act was a mess, and it abandoned the comedy for action and violence. I also thought Gary Cole was poorly used as the villain, who was really given nothing to do. Also, I'm just not too into the stoner thing. 30 Minutes or Less is a lot more successful for me. It keeps the action and the laughs properly coming all the way to the end.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Rise of the Planet of the Apes really took me by surprise. I had no interest in seeing this movie. My preconceived notions had already chalked it up as another pointless summer movie, an attempt to revitalize a dead franchise that was probably dead for good reason. The first trailer didn't do it for me.

But a couple weeks ago, before Captain America, I believe, we saw a trailer that, well, I wouldn't say turned me around, but it definitely intrigued me. Then we saw a TV advertisement for it, and on a whim, I said to my wife (who really didn't want to see it), "Hey, if this gets over 80% on Rotten Tomatoes, let's go see it." Not thinking she had anything to worry about, she agreed. And lo and behold, the Tomatometer hath spoken.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes was not only a fun summer thrillride, but also a well crafted, pretty good movie. A lot of care went into the character of the main ape, Caesar. He's well rendered, about as good as CGI at this point can handle, and Andy Serkis' performance inside of the CG is, well, downright brilliant.

The plot is as such: an ape that is being tested on with a potential Alzheimer's cure goes on a rampage at the facility and has to be put down. This ape had a baby, who was born with the treatment already integrated into its biology. Unable to euthanize the baby, Dr. James Franco sneaks it home and raises it as his own. This ape, Caesar, is super intelligent, but still an animal, and complications arise that lead him to eventually lead all the apes in San Francisco (surprisingly many) in a revolt against the humans who mistreated them.

Now, the movie is entertaining, but it isn't perfect. Some of the human characters leave something to be desired. James Franco, while a generally likeable guy, is kind of the dumbest, most irresponsible scientist ever. Not only does he steal his ape, he sneaks untested Alzheimer's treatments home to his dad (the always-good John Lithgow), and breaks several other basic rules and protocols that he should govern himself by. It's hard to sympathize with someone who displays more stupidity than the ape he's raising as his son.

The rest of the characters are there for one of two reasons: to be nice to apes, so we can like the humans, or to be mean to apes, so we can cheer when they get their comeuppance.

One of the little joys of Apes was the little nods to the original movie. They range from blink-and-you-miss-it clever to punch-you-in-the-face obvious, but they always coaxed a smile from me. Yes, the line you would expect is in there, and it's a hard line to sell. What made it work for me wasn't the line itself, which I think only Heston could make work, but the line that followed it, which was one of the most important in the movie.

The climactic apes vs. humans battle was kind of awesome. Seeing the apes use strategy and take orders from Caesar to outsmart the humans (not really a spoiler, it's in the title) was a blast. Don't expect the nuclear wasteland and the statue of liberty in the desert at the end, though. This just plants the seeds for ape domination, presumably because they want sequels. Rise of the Planet of the Apes: Caesar Takes Manhattan, anyone?

So, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is worth a watch. Andy Serkis carries the movie, with yet another amazing performance where he isn't even seen on camera. The story is well executed and entertaining. Plus, it reminded me that you can't always judge a book by its cover, which is a pretty easy lesson to forget.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Cowboys and Aliens

Hey, look, I'm back! Sorry I haven't been around much, I've been moving. It will still be another week or so before I start getting these reviews up on a more regular basis. And now, on to the review.

A couple years ago, when they announced Cowboys & Aliens as Jon Favreau's movie after Iron Man 2, I was pretty excited. Throw in a script worked on by the cocreator of Lost, Damon Lindelof, executive producer Steven Spielberg, and stars Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, and I thought we might be in for a real treat.

Cut to this summer, when all the promotional materials started coming out for Cowboys & Aliens. The trailer was alright, I guess, but it looked so... serious. The posters didn't look very interesting at all. Is that the stars of the movie photoshopped onto the Independence Day poster in place of the White House? Hell, even the 7-11 cups looked bland. Come on, Hollywood! Is this what you call hype?

I still held out hope for the movie. I've seen much worse advertising for what turned out to be good movies before. I've liked every Favreau film so far, to some degree. Plus, what a cool idea. Cowboys.... and Aliens! It's like Cowboys & Indians, but instead of boring old Indians, it's ALIENS! Still, I couldn't help but feel a little bit underwhelmed and unexcited for the movie itself.

Finally, a couple days ago, I saw the movie. And, sad to say, the promotional materials do a pretty decent job of representing the movie. It's a little sad, because I really felt like the filmmakers, writers, and stars all really did try to do something new and a little bit different. Swing and a miss.

The big risk they took was taking it all so damn seriously, a risk that I don't think paid off. The inherent absurdity of the title is completely ignored. There's no sense of adventure or fun. There isn't even a comic relief character, a role I was sure would be filled by Sam Rockwell. Daniel Craig plays his role as a stone-faced, no-nonsense tough guy. The role of the hero in a movie like this might have been better served by someone who knows how to wink a little at the audience, like Robert Downey Jr. (who the role was originally offered to) or Harrison Ford in his Indiana Jones heyday.

The rest of the cast do their best, but the serious tone set by Favreau and Craig flatten everybody else. All of these actors have demonstrated an ability to have fun with a role and elevate a movie, but aren't really allowed to in this one. My favorite characters were actually the sheriff and the preacher, played by Keith Carradine and Clancy Brown. Though neither were in it much, these guys actually felt way more at home in the western setting than their A-List costars.

Storywise, the movie did manage to hold my attention. There is a mystery at play, of Daniel Craig's identity, and of the intentions of the aliens, and it is slowly revealed via Lost-ian flashback. I wanted to know the answers, and the answers provided actually did have some interesting ideas in them. Jon Favreau is a capable director and storyteller, and I can't say I had any problems with the movie from a visual standpoint.

The aliens themselves were a big disappointment. They're pretty much the standard slimy monsters of all the other big invasion movies. Why are all these higher intelligences always maneating beasts that snarl and don't wear clothes? Wouldn't it be far more interesting if the aliens were more similar to humans? If they were, they could have better reflected our own brutality against the Native Americans as we eradicated them and plundered the land for its resources. Hell, just give them a spoken language and some clothes and we'd be able to see ourselves in them.

Later in the movie, there's a plot development that gave me pause and caused me to think, "whoa, that's pretty ballsy and kind of cool", but then it turned out to be a fakeout plot development that led to another plot development that made me think, "whoa, that's still pretty ballsy, but in the opposite direction". They might have gone a little too far with that one.

So, in the end, Cowboys & Aliens, though it really does try, doesn't really pay off. It didn't work for me, but I've got to give these guys a little credit for attempting something a little off the beaten path. That is, until it finds its way back onto the path with those aliens. It could have done with a little more self awareness, or conversely, if they really want to be taken seriously, a less ridiculous title.