Monday, November 25, 2013

Soft Touch

The Touch (2002) is the first film that Michelle Yeoh produced as well as starred in. Too bad that it is so ordinary.

It is about a family circus, run by Michelle Yeoh and her brother Brandon Chang. This acrobatic family has protected the secret of the mystical remains of a Buddhist saint. Now, a plaque that is part of the secret has been stolen by bad guy Richard Roxburgh and his gang of violent numbskulls. But independent thief (and Yeoh's ex-boyfriend) Ben Chaplin has stolen the plaque back and brings it to the circus. I think that covers the setup.

The movie moves around to Malaysia, the Miao tribes of southern China, the deserts of the west and Tibet. This contributes to the classy look of the film. The fights are generally fun, although the action is far from non-stop. Yeoh is fabulous as always, and Chaplin is appealing, although I can't say he knocked me out.

Roxburgh had a bit of fun with his part - when Chaplin shows up after supposedly being killed, Roxburgh sighs "Can't anyone kill anybody around here?" So, he's fun.

But - the big fight at the end is quite dire. It was all wirework and CGI flames, which isn't a dealbreaker necessarily - the anti-grav ending of Jackie Chan's The Myth was quite ridiculous, but I still liked it. This just wasn't that good.

Fortunately, her next film, Silver Hawk, was much more fun, even though a lot less classy.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Oh, No! There Goes Tokyo!

Pacific Rim (2013) is pretty much the definitive Big Stupid Friday movie. As I've said before, we like a big, noisy, mindless action movie on Friday nights to help us shut down our minds. This one hit the spot.

Directed by Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy, Hellboy II), this is your basic live version of a giant monsters vs. giant robots anime. It seems that these Godzilloid monsters called kaiju have started coming out of the Pacific and stomping on our cities. Mankind react quickly, building giant robots to punch them back to the trenches.

Digression: Why not shoot them with missiles from airplanes or long-range gun batteries? This is not discussed, but I assume the answer is: "Our puny weapons are powerless to stop them".

Now these giant robots are controlled by a pair of pilots in cybernetic mind-meld, because why not. Mankind has gotten pretty blase about these monsters because the robots, called Jaegers, are so good. But then our hero, Charlie Hunnam, loses his co-pilot/brother to a new, badder kaiju, and now mankind is in trouble again.

Hunnam gets pulled back into the Jaeger program by hard-assed General Idris Elba. He takes a shine to Elba's assistant/ward, Rinko Kikuchi. Meanwhile, two bickering comic relief mad scientists are predicting worse monsters to come.

The scientists are a hoot:
  • Burn Gorman is the fussy mathematician with a touch of autism
  • Charlie Day is the tattooed Rick Moranis/Elvis Costello type who is just a little too into kaiju
After Day makes an amazing discovery about the kaiju, Elba sends him out to the black market kaiju parts district to try and buy some fresh brain. Since these 100-ton monsters are showing up all over the place, you'd think there would be plenty of material to go around. And you'd think the army would have access to it. And you'd think that they might keep the mad scientist in the lab, and send a flunky to get the brain, but anyway: The kaiju-part bootlegger is Ron Silver - Hellboy himself.

But the best parts are the manga/anime elements: The robot workshop, the monsters, the fights, etc. The rest is just frosting.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Havana Calling

The Big Boodle (1957) stars Errol Flynn in his declining years, and is set in Havana, in its declining years - two spectacular ruins, together.

Flynn plays a blackjack dealer at a Havana casino. When a mysterious woman loses 500 pesos in counterfeit currency, he gets into a heap of trouble. The crooks are after him, and he gets beaten up and shot. Police colonel Pedro Armendariz plans to either hold him for counterfeiting or use him as bait to get the real counterfeiters. On the plus side, he meets an impoverished banker from a noble old family with a beautiful daughter. But what is his connection to the counterfeiters, and hers?

This is a pretty average semi-noir, with a couple of things going for it. Flynn is far from his matinee idol heyday, but he is still a fine actor with a nice low-key approach (or maybe he's just drunk?). The colonel, Armendariz (Kerim Bey in From Russia with Love) is pretty good, and so are the femmes fatales.

Pre-revolutionary Havana is a big part of the movie's charm, in good old black-and-white. My favorite part is an extended club-crawl, as Flynn trawls a subject through town hoping to shake loose a clue. We get to see a number of musical acts, including a beer bottle percussionist that really gets on someone's nerves.

In conclusion, pretty pedestrian, with some points of interest for fans. We liked it.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Down is Up

White House Down (2013) doesn't get a lot of love, but for us, it just hit the spot. (Yes, this is another edition of "We liked that movie that everybody says is junk".)

It stars a somewhat Brendan Frasier-esque Channing Tatum as a bodyguard for the Speaker of the House, but he is hoping to get a job with the Secret Service guarding the President. Partly this is because his daughter is a White House fanatic and it's about the only way he can get the 11 year old to give him the time of day. So he takes her on a White House tour on the day that terrorists take the White House hostage. But, since this is a Roland Emmerich movie, first they blow up the Senate, because of course they do.

Now Tatum wasn't going to get the Secret Service job, because the hiring boss turns out to be one of his many ex-girlfriends, Maggie Gyllenhaal, in serious ballbuster mode. But in the confusion he winds up guarding the president anyway - President Jamie Foxx!

Now, here's the thing - this is an action comedy - comedy quotient somewhere around Die Hard, say. A lot of the people who didn't like this movie seemed to have missed that. They saw it as unrealistic, not goofy. Fair enough, it wasn't really laugh-out-loud funny, maybe it's just not your thing.

The other reason a lot of people didn't like this movie is that Foxx was clearly doing his Obama. Almost every negative review in IMBD had something to say about Kenyan socialists. Now, I think Obama is possibly the coolest president in history. Maybe not the best, but the one with the most cool. Foxx plays the president as idealistic, a little geeky, and fun. There's a little scene with the President grabbing some hard shoes from the closet, then changing his mind and grabbing a pair of Air Jordans - the best footwear for a hostage situation.

Come on, wouldn't you bet that Obama has a pair in his closet?

The little girl, Joey King, is pretty great - courageous but not suicidal, with just enough "fuck you" attitude mixed in. I also enjoyed the terrorists - if you ever find yourself shouting "just shoot him!" at a movie, you'll like these guys. But, violent as they are, they still manage to look like lovable lunkheads half the time.

Now, it seems that there was another White House hostage movie that came out this year, Olympus Has Fallen. It's got Gerard Butler instead of Channing Tatum, Morgan Freeman instead of Jamie Foxx. Maybe it's better - a lot of people think so. But this was just what we wanted on a Friday night.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Art, Crime and Rock and Roll

Last Sunday we decided to take a break from the contemporary action movies we've been enjoying and go back to a simpler time, with some streaming black-and-white: Crime Against Joe (1956).

Joe, John Bromfield, is a Korean war vet, who lives with his mother and tries to paint. When he can't get the dream girl he is painting right, he goes out and gets drunk. He has a few adventures, most of which he doesn't remember the next day. Which is too bad, because some women have been getting attacked and one of them was murdered. So Joe, his chubby cab-driving pal Red (Henry Calvin) and carhop Slacks (Julie London) set out to find the real killer.

This is definitely Poverty Row, but has several things going for it. It's filmed in Tucson and has a nice lived-in small town feel. The murderer left behind a class pin, so all the suspects came from the same high-school. And almost everyone we meet had a motive and opportunity, sometimes just barely sketched in. It's not exactly clever, but it's a decent script.

Bromfield is pretty good - he's a bad artist sponging off his mother and drinking too much, but still manages to seem like a good guy. Julie London is the only "name" actress and she doesn't do any singing, but she looks pretty sweet. There's another singer, Alika Louis, who sings at the Pango Pango tiki bar - got to love a tiki bar.

So, not a great movie, but a fun 70 minutes if you like this kind of thing. We've been watching old Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which were made at about the same time, so this fit right in.

Since it's so short, we added a second feature, It's All Over Town (1963). This one is an English color production, full of musical numbers, but just as low-budget as Crime Against Joe. It pretends to be a documentary, with a narrator speaking Scouse, about two lads out on the town. This gives them the excuse to show a lot of songs and a little strip-tease (filmed in reverse). The songs are mostly very square - the star is Frankie Vaughan, a third-rate Sinatra who, it is said, was very popular at the time. But there are also appearances by The Hollies with a very young Graham Nash, and the Springfields, with a tall-haired Dusty Springfield. Granted, they have only  2 songs each, and one of the Springfields' numbers is a hideous faux-Latin "Maracabamba". But some of the other acts aren't bad, including trad-jazzman Acker Bilk and sweet Clodagh Rogers - One of Lenin's favorites, according to Monty Python.

The lads watching these numbers, Lance Percival and William Rushton (billed as Fat Friend), were also appearing in That Was The Week That Was, which I remember liking at the time. This, not so much, although it is only 60 minutes long and an interesting look at pop music before the Beatles were fab.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Grim Fairy Tale

You know, everybody says that Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013) isn't very good. I think they are right. I know, I'm the guy who likes Fantastic Four and Daredevil, who just praised After Earth. This one, not so much.

The story is in the title: Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton) are grown up now, and they travel the land hunting witches. The mayor of Augsburg hires them to get rid of the witches in the dark forest who have been stealing children, although the sheriff doesn't like them.

The opening gag - glass bottles of milk with pictures of the lost children tied to them - isn't really typical. There aren't a lot of anachronism jokes, although there are plenty of anachronisms. The time period is during the Middle Ages, but after the discovery of insulin. The witch hunters' weapons (other than fear and surprise) are crossbows and shotguns that never run out of ammo. Everybody talks in medieval-ese,  except Renner, who says things like, "Whatever you do, don't eat the fuckin' candy." You know, when Bob Hope played the one guy who talked modern in a pirate film, it wasn't funny, and it still isn't.

Yes, there is gore and fights and blood and monsters and anachronistic ass-kicking, all of which is good. Did I mention that I own The Brothers Grimm? Which isn't very good, but is better than H&G. I don't quite know why. Renner is a lot of fun, especially when he is grumpily avoiding the pretty Pihla Viitala. Arterton is a bit less defined - Her role wasn't much and she didn't do much with it, but she didn't do bad in the fights.

So, not a good movie. Not terrible, but probably not worth the 90 minutes.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Back Again

As a little treat for ourselves, we watched Back to the Future Part II (1989). It's fun to watch something that is just that good.

While the first episode took place mostly in the 1950s past, this one travels to the future for a bit of fun with Marty McFly's dopey son and evil ancient Biff Tannen. While they are there, Biff travels back in time to set his younger self up with future knowledge. So when our heroes return to 1985 (the present), it is a horrible, Biff-ruled dystopia. Sort of an It's a Wonderful Life turn of events.

As in the first movie, every detail counts. A lot of the comedy comes from re-running or reframing jokes from the BttF1. But a surprising amount is quite dark - evil, alterna-1985 is quite realistically squalid.

It is almost the future (2015), and it doesn't look like we're going to get hover boards or flying cars. But it is amazing how accurate their images of the 1980s was, from within the 1980s. They really nailed that 80s nostalgia joint, showing a lot of self-awareness.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Bearded Fury

When I was writing about that sub-standard Danny Trejo movie we saw, I completely forgot to mention Bad Ass (2102). I heard about it on the movie podcast How Did This Get Made and had to watch it.

It's got a pretty high-concept premise - the movie is based on a viral Youtube video, known as Epic Beard Man. Basically, an old guy (with a beard) sees some punks acting threatening on a bus and whales the tar out of them. This movie is the story of that man (except completely made up).

Trejo plays Bad Ass, as he is known in the movie version of the viral video: a Vietnam vet who was tortured by Charlie, came back to LA to find his girl was married, couldn't get a job. He wanted to be a policeman, but his war injuries kept him out. So he wound up working as a hot dog guy, and that's where he stayed until he grew old.

Then one day, he's on the bus and sees some punks, etc. The video of the confrontation goes viral, and he gets his moment of glory. But it doesn't really help much. His mom dies and he moves into her old house with her dog with an old army buddy. Then the buddy gets killed by punks and he doesn't start looking for trouble, but when it comes to him, he settles it.

There really isn't much to this - it's pretty much a standard straight to video actioner. It has some cute stuff riffing on viral videos and YouTube. Other than that it has Danny Trejo with a Fidel Castro beard in shorts and a fanny pack. It has him sad and alone and it has him kicking butt. He's great either way.

Other than that, there is a subplot with a whitebread cop who takes him for ride-alongs. I took him for a secret crook or racist, he was so patently honky. But he was just a nice guy.

This is not a great movie, but it is certainly a good one, and let's Danny be Danny even more than Machete. But even if you don't watch it, you've got to listen to the How Did This Get Made podcast. It includes an awesome interview with Danny Trejo, explaining fun facts like:
  • He always has a knife in movies as a joke on the parole board - his parole terms won't let him carry an edged weapon
  • He is an expert at the claw machines, and gives the stuffed animals he wins to children's charities
  • From his time in prison, he learned to judge who was truly dangerous by the look in their eyes. Guess which movie stars he sees as most deadly (not Nic Cage)

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

After Oblivion

You know, After Earth (2013) really isn't that bad. It got pretty terrible reviews, and deserved a lot of them. But there was a lot to like here.

The backstory: One thousand years before the story starts, the Earth became so toxic it had to be evacuated. Mankind has settled on another planet, and seems to be doing pretty well, but some aliens have dropped some monsters to exterminate humans. These monsters are blind, but sense fear, so human Rangers learn to suppress their feelings and become invisible. That is a lot of backstory - pretty much enough for a whole movie, or possibly a spin-off series that director M. Night Shyamalan expected there to be a demand for.

So, on the story-story. Will Smith is the coolest of all Rangers, the man with no feelings (by the way, his character is called, get ready, Cypher Raige). His son, Jaden, on the other hand, washes out of cadet academy for feeling too much. His mom, Sofie Okonedo, convinces Will to take Jaden out on a space patrol. They get into a gravity storm or some such bafflegab, and crash on a forbidden planet - the most dangerous planet in the Universe: Earth!

Now, we are finally in the story! And... I'll just stop summarizing here, and talk about the good and the bad. The overstuffed, silly plot is one bad thing. Another is the acting. Papa Smith's acting decision is militarized anomie - he has no feelings and expresses everything in military lingo. Young Smith goes for permanently terrified. I hate to say it, but I mean Stepin Fetchit levels of anxiety. I know the kid has more range than this, and I think he could be pretty likable, but this is offputting.

Also, the plot is full of nonsense - like the evolution of flying snakes, giant eagles and poison slugs in the 1000 years that man has been away. I had a similar problem with Oblivion - the timescales just don't make sense. In fact, it might have worked better if this wasn't supposed to be Earth, just a hostile planet. But then you don't get the silly eco-editorial message, which they clearly wanted to stuff in as another plotpoint.

On the other hand, a lot of sfnal thought went into this movie, maybe too much. I can imagine that they figured the accelerated evolution of all these creatures was due to a mix of pollution and genetic tampering. They just forgot to mention it.

Or take the technology. The future tech available included levitating wheelchair, but not simple pegleg prosthetics. Well, it was a frontier world, with a funny mix of resources, social mores, etc. Maybe they were too macho? And the tech that they do have is based on fabric, flexible plastic and something like artificial bone made out of cardboard and electrical tape. This looks both like cheap art direction and internally consistent future tech. In fact, future architecture (Jaden's mom is an architect) features billowing cloth that Ms. Spenser and I independently surmised generated power when it blow around.

Speaking of cheap art direction, I saw an old Captain Video space serial, and the space ship didn't even have seats, just subway-style straps. I thought that was hilariously low-budget. Watch for the straps in the cockpit of the After Earth spaceship!

In fact, we enjoyed the overall look of the film - the tech, the new planet, the jungles of Earth. But I suppose that almost any movie can look beautiful. Art direction is a science now.

I can't say this was a good movie. I listened to the take-downs on the How Did This Get Made podcast, and I can't really argue (usually from laughing too much). But is wasn't much worse than Oblivion - which as just as absurd and suffered from Tom Cruise as well - and that's a pretty good movie.

In conclusion, go see it and tell me I'm wrong.