Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Say Captain

Was Captain America: The First Avenger really the first Avenger? What about Iron Man? There were 2 Iron Man movies before Captain American. OK, I guess that's in chronological order.

Because Captain America starts in the 1940s, with Chris Evans as 90-lb. weakling Steve Rogers. Now, I know what you're thinking - Chris Evans is the Human Torch, how can he be Captain America? Or were you thinking - gee, he was an ass in Fantastic Four, did they have to put him in Captain America too? But no, he's pretty likable here. He's small but scrappy and all he wants is to serve in the military. A cute agent played by Hayley Atwell and a mad scientist played by Stanley Tucci have a way to make this happen - a mad-science process that will make him into a super soldier.

Hayley Atwell's character, Peggy Carter, is pretty boss. She faces the bad guys, takes a foursquare shooting stance and starts blowing them away. Tucci is great too, doing a German accent but coming across like Umberto Eco or maybe Primo Levi - some wise old bearded European intellectual. I wish he had more screen time.

After they make Rogers super, the Army doesn't let him do anything but USO shows. But he gets to the frontlines where our boys (including Dum-Dum Duggan, Jim Morita, James Falsworth and other obvious members of Nick Fury's outfit) are getting slaughtered by a mysterious Nazi. That Nazi is really the head of Hydra, the Red Skull, played by Hugo Weaving. Weaving, I guess, has become the go-to guy for expressing himself behind a full-face mask, as he did so well in V for Vendetta.

Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), Tony's dad, gets a lot of time here. He's obviously inspired by Howard Hughes with a touch of Walt Disney. He's not a nice man or good father to Tony, but at least he's better than Bruce Banner's dad, Nick Nolte.

I'm not sure why, but this may be my favorite superhero movie this year. It felt denser, meatier than Thor, and more authentically period than X-Men: First Class. I like the female lead, and Chris Evans does a good job - better than as Torchy.

Bring on Avengers!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Yo Eleven

It's not like I liked Soderbrgh's Ocean's Eleven - but I respect it, you know? I'm not a great fan of the original Rat Pack version, either. But they share the same loose, relaxed, who-gives-a-damn charm.

Danny Ocean is George Clooney this time. He has just gotten out of prison on parole, which he immediately breaks to pull the biggest job of his career - to clean out 3 Las Vegas casinos. He gets in touch with Brad Pitt and they start to put together the team.

The team will be made up of "a Boesky, a Jim Brown, a Miss Daisy, two Jethros and a Leon Spinks, not to mention the biggest Ella Fitzgerald ever". Actually, that's a synopsis of the plot, not the team. Anyway, it sounds cool. It takes a special kind of cast to reel that line out and hook you.

The best team members, in my opinion, are Elliott Gould as the old macher who bankrolls the heist, and Carl Reiner, the alte kaker who will run the con that gets the man into the vault. Lovely to see these old hams - er old hands - interacting with the youngsters.

So, if you enjoy a mindless plot, and hearing Frank, Dino and Sammy bullshit around, watch the 1960 Ocean's Eleven. If you want the same thing with Clooney, Pitt and say, Bernie Mac, get this one.

And of course, I'll get around to Ocean's Twelve someday. But I've seen Ocean's Thirteen, and that's about enough.

In conclusion, good soundtrack, but they didn't play the Sammy Davis theme song.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Lucky 13

Japanese director Takashi Miike is known of course for gruesome violence and psychosexuality. He also likes to have a bit of fun. We've avoided his more intense films, and watched some of the goofier ones, like The Bird People in China and Sukiyaki Western Django. Now, we've watched 13 Assassins, which isn't goofy, but not as gruesome as expected. I'd say it's mainstream Miike.

The nephew of a daimyo in late feudal Japan is acting badly, raping and killing with impunity because of his rank. Worse, when he goes to the capital, he will be given a position of authority. One lord has been given to understand that the daimyo would prefer it if he did not live to visit the capital. And so this lord calls his best samurai, and with 10 others, they set out to kill a rogue noble protected by at least 200 warriors.

The first few acts of the movie set up the premise and then show the assassins training and planning. Their method will be surprise - surprise and fear... I'll start again. They plan to buy out a village on the evil lord's route and set up a killing field. The last 20-30 minutes are devoted to a long battle in that village.

The earlier parts of the movie are very much what you expect from a samurai movie: gorgeous costumes, elegant architecture, low camera angles as men discuss points of honor and warfare. The little touches, like the angle of a samurai's fingertips on the floor when he kneels before his lord. There are some Miike touches as well - a seppuku (hara-kiri) and one of the evil lord's victims: a woman with 4 limbs and her tongue cut off.

Then the final act is a long action sequence, also what you expect from a samurai movie. You definitely feel the influences of Seven Samurai, 47 Ronin, etc. The 13th assassin is a lot like Mifune's 7th samurai: a rogue and wanderer without nobility, but with strength and honor.

Well, no wonder it looks like a classic samurai film - it's a remake of the 1963 Thirteen Assassins, which I don't remember seeing. Now, back in the early 80s, Ms. Spenser and I used to watch 2 or 3 samurai double-bills a week at the Coolidge Corner theater in Brookline. So we've seen a lot of samurai movies (or chambura, as the Japanese say). And this movie is definitely one of them.

A lot is made of the duty of a samurai - Is it total loyalty to his lord, even if the lord is corrupt, insane or evil? Or should a samurai be devoted to a higher cause, justice or honor? Or is the whole concept of the ideal samurai misguided? All of that is fine, but it really comes down to strength and skill with a sword, because the best fighter gets to enforce his ideals.

To extend the metaphor, Miike's strength with the sword - his skill at sweeping yet clear fight scenes - lets him set the agenda and pronounce the moral. A nice trick he used often was a single warrior, fighting against impossible odds, almost ready to fall - then an ally comes from out of the frame to his aid and the fight goes on.

All in all, we liked this a lot for the nostalgic quality. But I don't think Miike has as much to say about this style of film as, for example, Hideo Gosha. Or what the heck, go watch something by Kurosawa.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Who's on Fist?

Legend of the Fist: Return of Chen Zhen is Donnie Yen's tribute to Bruce Lee's Fists of Fury. But actually, I didn't get that from watching, only from reading about it on IMDB. Watching it, I got the impression that someone (maybe director Andrew Wai-Keung Lau) wanted to make Lust, Caution as a martial arts film.

The movie takes place in Shanghai during the Japanese occupation. Drifter and secret martial arts hero Chen Zhen (Donnie Yen) gets friendly with a casino owner to undermine the Japanese. In the process, he gets involved with a beautiful, self-destructive singer, played by Qi Shu - she was the cargo in the first Transporter movie. Eventually, he gets a Kato-like black leather outfit and starts kicking butt.

However, if it's butt-kicking you are here for, you're not going to see a lot. It is quality Donnie Yen action, but that is not the focus of the film. Instead, you're going to see some fine period costumes and architecture, a few nightclub acts and some Casablanca-style intrigue and melodrama.

I probably should have watched Lust, Caution instead. Or Fists of Fury.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Lights, Camera, Action

Once again, I blame Filmsack for making me watch Last Action Hero. In case you haven't heard of this, this 1993 bomb almost ended Arnold Schwartzenegger's career. But, you know, it really isn't that bad.

Austin O'Brien is a kid who lives with his single mom in a gritty New York neighborhood. But he really lives at the movies, slipping out for midnight shows at an old movie theater. His favorite star is Jack Slater, played by Arnold Schwartzenegger. One night, the kindly old projectionist gives him a magic ticket, that lets O'Brien into the movie.

This is a good enough setup, as we've seen in Keaton's Sherlock Jr. and Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo. LAH has a lot of fun with it, pulling out and/or spoofing all the action movie tropes they can think of. Arnold/Slater is up against mob boss Anthony Quinn and his one-eyed hit man Charles Dance, both very funny. And the kid has seen the first part of the movie, plus every other action movie ever made, so he can figure the whole thing out long before Slater.

Then, for the fourth act, O'Brien, Schwartzenegger, and the bad guys are all dumped out of the movie and into "real" New York, more dangerous than movie-world LA. And movie Jack Slater gets to meet actor Jack Slater (or is it actor Arnold Schwartzenegger, plugging Planet Hollywood with Maria Shriver?), as well as O'Brien's mom.

I can understand why this bombed when it came out. The script has a bad case of too many cooks. Schwartzenegger/Slater's son was killed in a previous film, O'Brien needs a father figure, this theme is boring and doesn't pay off. The movie-world/real-world logic is screwy. There are a few kitchen sinks tossed in (cartoon cat detective?). Plus, the movie was hyped to the skies, and failed to meet expectations.

But none of this bothers me. I liked it - it was a goofy romp. What worked, worked and what didn't work slid right by. Compare it to, say, Kindergarten Cop and see what I mean.

I saw Kindergarten Cop. It wasn't bad. It was economical, funny and did what it set out to do. It wasn't noisy or over the top. It was much better put together than Last Action Hero. But which was more fun? I'd rather watch the sloppy silly one. It plays to Schwartzeneger's strengths.

In conclusion, never trust F. Murray Abraham. He killed Mozart!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Happy New Year!

Posting has been a little weaker than usual (which is usually pretty weak) during the holiday season. I've been spending the time with the family up in MA and ME. You'd think with no work and lots of quiet time, I would have at least caught up on 2011 (I'm 2 or 3 movies behind), but no. I resolve to do better in 2012.

But seriously, it was great to get a chance to see the Spenser family and my reader, Mr. Schprock. New England was lovely - We had snow on Christmas Eve and Christmas day, but not enough to make driving dangerous. Which is good, because my sister's family lives 350 miles from my parents and brother's family, and they live about 15 miles apart. So I also got to spend a lot of time driving around, listening to Filmsack. Great work, guys. Keep it up.

Didn't watch many movies, but we did see Steve Carell's 2008 Get Smart with the nephews. I was pretty worried about this, since we are original series Get Smart fanatics (me and Ms. S - the nephews haven't seen it). Carell and crew manage to get the the essence of the show without actually following the premise very closely. They pay homage to all the classic lines, but Carell never tries to imitate Don Adams. Ann Hathaway is good as 99, putting her own stamp on the role - but at the very end, I swear I heard the ghost of Barbara Feldon speaking through her.

But of course, Feldon is still alive, so that can't be right.

Anyway, as usual, I have no New Year's resolutions, no best of lists, no plans or projects. We will probably re-activate Netflix disk rental sometime soon. We may continue our yearly tradition of watching a different edition of the Ring trilogy, or we may not. Stay tuned!