Posted on 9/18/11 07:40 AM
Kung Fu is a film style completely alien to most Westerners. When you ask anyone about subtitled films, they usually point to "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" as their sole endeavor into this different realm. While a good movie, Ang Lee's film doesn't begin to reach the heights that the classics of the genre set forth.
Released in 1981, "The Prodigal Son" is a bona fide classic of the genre. Possibly the best film that director Sammo Hung ever made, the film details a story about a mislead Martial Arts practioner who believes he is the greatest fighter in this town.
Leung Jan (played by Jackie Chan contemporary Yuen Biao) lives in the town of Foshan around the mid-19th century. He is heralded as a champion, unaware that his father is actually paying his opponents to lose to him. His opponents know how lousy he is, but take the bribe money and nickname him "The Prodigal Son."
Some of Jan's friends attend an opera one night and are attracted to the leading lady. Attempting to get some time with her, Jan's friends push too far and are beaten by the opera troupe. They also discover that the leading lady was in fact a man (played wonderfully by Lam Ching-Ying).
To get revenge, Jan shows up at the opera tent the next day to savagely beat the men responsible. There, Jan learns that the man who wrecked his friends is named Leung Yee Tai and that he knows everything about Jan. He explains to Jan how he's been fooled, but Jan won't hear it.
After a relatively quick bout (and a hilarious musical number), Jan is beaten and his life is turned upside down. He doesn't know whom to trust and only wishes to learn actual Kung Fu to better prepare himself for the world.
This sets off an entire series of events that can best be described as high-octane and outlandish. Being that the film is mostly a Kung Fu Comedy, certain scenes contain humor that appeal to Eastern viewers first and foremost. But, since it is a Kung Fu movie, violence is also prevalent.
The film deftly walks the line between being serious and being light-hearted. During scenes where Jan is trying to win over Yee Tai, we often see Yee Tai pulling a straight face to Jan and then turning his back and smirking. One of my favorites has to be where he refuses to take roast pork from Jan, but then snatches the bowl and calls him an idiot.
There's also a scene towards the middle where Jan has to fill in for one of the opera troupe members and he utters some weird type of gibberish. When he repeats this to Yee Tai, Yee Tai slaps him and says, "Those are unprintable words!" It all fits into how ludicrous the setting of the film is.
The film is peppered with fight scenes in-between all the exposition and they really pack a punch. Sammo Hung is great at displaying the fundamentals of Wing Chun while making everything quick and visceral. Camera angles really show off the impact of the hits and the physicality of the actors sells the action well.
What really sells the film is how mature it gets towards the end. After a thrilling middle scene involving people jumping fire, Jan and Yee Tai escape to the country side to avoid death. They meet up with Yee Tai's brother, Wong Wah-Bo (played by Sammo Hung) and the film takes a much more comedy laden approach.
The second half begins with Wah-Bo walking towards his calligraphy table with the folk legend Wong Fei-Hung's theme playing. He yawns and the music immediately slows down and cuts out. He then does some calligraphy for his daughter, bouncing around the room and eventually falling on his face. It's insane to watch, but all very humorous due to Hung's expressions. Even while directing, Hung still manages to put on a great performance.
While not much is detailed about the brother's relationship, Wah-Bo and Yee Tai eventually go at it and insult each other left and right. One scene (improperly translated) has the two brothers fighting over who gets to train Jan. Jan runs back and forth and eventually gives up and runs off.
The best bits have to be the training sequences. Sammo Hung was a true master of his craft and he distills so much useful information about Wing Chung Kung Fu. Jan's training shows quick cuts of the most effective uses of Wing Chun, from quick and forceful jabs to low footwork and even some light acrobatics.
When Jan trains under Wah-Bo, we are even told how to react to moving opponents. The ruthless side of Kung Fu is shown, too. Instead of simply attacking at your opponent's core, Wah-Bo instructs how using weaker points (such as eyes and genitals) or even wounds can lead to victory, which is most important.
This all would be pointless without an amazing climax and Sammo Hung really outdoes himself with this film. Jan meets with Ngai after his teacher is murdered and the two have a duel to end all duels. The pacing is lightning fast, the hits look brutal and the blood is so dramatic and over-the-top that it just blends into a glorious scene.
While there is no real closure and the plot is lacking in depth, "The Prodigal Son" is a true classic of the Martial Arts genre. When it comes down to it, fight scenes are what makes or breaks a kung fu film and his movie has them in spades. They are also leaps and bounds above what other films in the genre have.
I couldn't recommend this movie enough, but I will say that the Fox DVD has some awful subtitles. If possible, seek out the Hong Kong release from 2006 or the UK Hong Kong Legends DVD. Both of those are better representations of how amazing his cinematic gem is.
Posted on 6/15/11 08:09 PM
"X-Men: First Class" is better than it probably should have been. While it's certainly not a perfect movie by any means and some more development for the characters would have been nice, this film marks a good way to open up the summer blockbuster season.
The general plot to "First Class" revolves around the origins of X-Men's biggest players; Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), Raven (Jennifer Lawrance) and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender). The film begins with a very young Erik in Germany during the Holocaust witnessing his parents being snatched away from him. He uses a latent telekinetic power to bend the bars of the metal gate and his attracts the attention of Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon).
After that scene, we're introduced to a very young Charles in his mansion. He awakens at night when he sense a different presence in his house. He is greeted by his own mother, though Charles clearly knows that his isn't the real deal. Soon, Raven reveals to Charles that she is actually a doppelganger and Charles trades some very diplomatic words with her, which kick starts the story.
We're soon treated to more of Erik and Sebastian, setting up some backstory for the rest of Erik's plot. Sebastian attempts to coax Erik into harnessing his mutant powers at will, to which Erik has no idea to even do. With a gun pointed at Erik's mother, Sebastian gives him a countdown and then pulls the trigger, which sets Erik off and ends with him killing two guards and rampaging through a room filled with metal (but conveniently behind glass). It's very flashy and the angst is fairly convincing.
Flash forward a few decades and we now see that Charles is making strides with his doctorate and that Raven is having a fairly hard time adjusting into society. It's not unlike previous X-Men films, but the focus on the characters is a lot deeper and more human than ever before.
Erik, on the other hand, has dedicated his life to finding Shaw and destroying him. He infiltrates a bank in Germany and nearly kills the CEO before getting the man to reveal where Shaw has turned up.
Before I jump into more description, I'd like to make note of how well done the special effects are. Just like "Thor," "First Class" has some fairly advanced and realistic effects pumping through it's veins. Everything blends very well with the world and characters around it and it actually enhances a lot of the tension within the scene. Erik rips a guys metal filling out from his tooth and it just resonates with the viewer unlike any kind of torture scene before it.
Speeding things up, Charles soon meets Erik and the two form a group with the help of the CIA to find all the mutants in the world. This leads to Charles and Erik forming the X-Men and us getting to understand the background of a few of our favorite characters. It also leads to a wonderful cameo from Hugh Jackman.
During this time, a side plot involving the CIA uncovering the mutants goes underway with Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne). She is the catalyst that gets Charles and Erik together and while her character starts out fairly interesting, you soon learn that she is basically a macguffin to get everything going. It's incredibly strange, considering how strong of a female lead she is.
Also, a half-baked romance between Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) and Raven goes down. You can clearly understand Raven's point of view, but Hank never gives off any kind of positive impression. He's in it for the science and it just seems typical of the genre to make him oblivious. It's really sad as Raven is fairly complex.
I suppose that's one of my bigger problems with the film. We're introduced to a plethora of characters, but not a lot of them really mean a whole deal to the plot. It's great to see training montages that are slick and well edited, but I don't really know who the guy with magma rings is. I also don't understand why Angel looks like a hooker from the 2000's. The anachronistic attitude this movie has seems fairly awkward as it does so well in every other respect. Not nailing the 1940's makes it seem like this is just a modern take on X-Men instead of a reboot.
My other complaint is the ending. The film wraps things up so damn quickly that it's head-spinning. Everything is leading up to a nice conclusion where Charles and Erik will have some tension, but instead we're given the entire kitchen sink. X-Men turn into their comic book forms, others go evil for no damn reason and Charles and Erik split. It destroys any chance for the civil war between the two and annihilates the possibility for a sequel, which is sad considering how well this movie was done.
Still, the solid acting and decent editing make for a very fun time at the movies. The new, more mature attitude towards the source material also provides the first X-Men film that one can take very seriously. Overall a very good film, but not a must see. You don't be disappointed if you do go, however.
Posted on 5/21/11 06:30 PM
"Thor" is, quite honestly, a decent summer movie. Considering the source material, this is far better treatment than the franchise even deserves, but that doesn't mean the film is without faults.
"Thor" follows an abridged version of how the titular character, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), ends up on planet Earth. Spinning viking mythology on it's head, the story shows Odin (Anthony Hopkins) passing over his kingship of Asgard to Thor, his first son. Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor's younger brother, is a bit jealous, but is willing to accept Thor as the new king.
During the coronation, some attackers from the realm of Jotunheim break into the weapons vault of Asgard and nearly pilfer a relic that originally belonged to them. Tales told of how Odin stormed Jotunheim and taught their people, known as the Frost Giants, the might of Asgard.
While Odin wants nothing more to do with the matter, Thor begins to decree his father as senile and Loki is more than willing to back Thor on this claim. Thor wants to teach the Frost Giants the same power that Odin once did, but Odin is reluctant as the move will bring about an end to the generations of peace the two realms have had.
Regardless, Thor is headstrong and is being egged on by Loki, so he attacks Jotunheim with his friends and them cause a massive battle to break out. Nearly being overwhelmed, Odin comes in at the last second to wisk everyone away and save their lives. For disobeying his father, though, Thor is banished to another realm and is relieved of his hammer, Mjolnir.
This brings Thor to the Earth realm, where he has to learn to deal without his godly strength. Along with that, Thor begins to question whether his actions truly were in the best interest of Asgard, along with falling in love with a woman.
This is where the film begins to derail a bit. While the viking part is pretty well done with some excellent CGI and unbelievable scenary (though all of it is green screened), the portion of the movie on Earth is very generic.
We've seen dozens of films, superhero or not, where a headstrong "teen" has to deal with his apparently lack of respect for elders and protocol. It doesn't help that the romantic interest in the film seems incredibly rushed. For that matter, none of the characters on Earth seem to contribute much to the overall plot.
They're almost Macguffins, if not for the fact that they take Thor away from the government that's trying to subdue him. It seems like there is some kind of subplot involving lack of freedoms, but nothing really ever happens with it. Thor learns to deal with mortality and we see him regain everything fairly quickly.
As for the dealings in Asgard, the plotline with Loki can be telegraphed a mile away for people who know Viking mythology, but it's definitely very well paced and acted. The cuts between Thor on Earth and Loki in Asgard bring a lot of diplomatic tension to their stories and the action that is thrown in is of such a dramatic and kinetic quality that you can't help but be entertained.
It's too bad that the ultimate conclusion is anticlimactic. The finale battle isn't even really a battle and the loose ends with the characters on Earth don't even get tied up. People are left waiting, the King comes to terms and Jotunheim returns to civility. Well, that's incredibly convenient.
Despite this plot failings, though, you can definitely pick on to other aspects of the film to help you enjoy your 2 hour trip more thoroughly. The music is actually fairly decent for a superhero movie and it's entirely orchestrated. I thought we lost the ability to create new compositions, but I have to give it up to Patrick Doyle. The first few selections in the moving are generally moving and the action scenes don't fall prey to the typical low basses and violin noises heard from the genre.
As for direction, it's alright. Certain scenes drag a bit and the camera angles can sometimes be confusing (one shot flips upside down and then returns to normal within 3 seconds), but the action is usually in frame and everything is clear. Sometimes the color scheme works against the viewer (and I'm sure the 3D would be terrible), but you can't fault a desolate world for being bleak.
The action is fairly interesting. I haven't really seen a full blown CGI movie where it was used to superb effect, but "Thor" definitely achieves that feat. When he slams his hammer, the reverberations in the ground look amazing. The design of the enemies is straight out of a survival horror video game and they look wonderful when being dismembered or broken.
The only other area of comment would be the acting. It's passable at times and pretty good at others. Natalie Portman, surprisingly, doesn't really nail her character. She's got a good face and can emote her lines properly, but there's no real sense of urgency to her, even with her entire life being flipped upside down. I guess she's earned the right to phone one performance in, though.
Anthony Hopkins is...well, he's not Hannibal again. So that's an improvement. His performance here is very reminiscent of Beowulf, so expected something subdued and generally consistent. His outbursts feel angry and his quiet scenes aren't overdone.
Chris Hemsworth is actually a fairly good superhero. Thor has some decent lines of hilarity and his face is very expressive and bright. While the body seems a bit fake, he does genuinely look like a burly man who would clobber anyone who steps in his path.
The supporting cast is extremely unimportant. The mother has all of 10 lines and Thor's merry men only come into play for the beginning and end. Their plot in Asgard is well done, but you don't really get attached to anyone.
And that's about it for "Thor". While Marvel has definitely produced far better superhero adaptations, they've also done much worse. You can't go wrong with a film that is mystical and actually feels very magical, despite lacking in character development. If anything, the action is good enough that you can't shut your brain off and still have a great time.
Posted on 2/05/11 01:36 AM
Aw yeah, another classic Kung Fu film. Or is it? While "The Magic Blade" may not be the best example of Shaw Brothers in the 70's (no, I think "36th Chamber of Shaolin" will do), the film provides a very fun, lighthearted tale that is sure to please Kung Fu fans (and possibly leave non-genre fans scratching their heads).
The plot follows two rival swordsmen, Yen Nan-Fei (Lo Lieh), and Fu Hung-Hsueh (Ti Lung). They had some dispute a year prior that left Fu the champion and Yen wanting revenge (for his honor, I guess). During their beginning duel, assassin's assault Yen and Fu steps in to save him.
This then spawns a tale where the two swordsmen protect each other through a path of twists and turns that, honestly, makes no sense. The plot is exceptionally thin, even for Kung Fu standards. I usually don't find myself trying to piece things together in these movies, even when plots don't exist ("Dirty Ho" is awesome, but really, what happens?), but "The Magic Blade" had me wondering with every camera cut.
Moments in the film jump around with hardly any indication of how much time has elapsed (and I believe the film takes place over a week, but it could be a single night) and there are several scenes of exposition that don't even build characters like intended. Fu explains about how he was looking for his wife, in one scene, but then he forgets to mention how his skill progressed. That's a basic for Kung Fu films and it's mind boggling as to why he doesn't elaborate.
The villains are also given no kind of set up. While I suppose you don't need a reason to kick someone else's ass on film, it would be at least nice to know why Fu is fighting foes that have no quarrel with him.
Regardless, the fight choreography is where this film shines. It certainly isn't the greatest Shaw Brothers has ever done with Wuxia Pen ("Come Drink with Me" holds that honor), but the lightning fast swings and inventive weapons keep each scene fresh and electric. The movie also gets props for having a villain called "Devil Grandma." That's just stupid on so many levels, but amazing at the same time.
The best fight takes place during the middle section (which is awkward as that honor is usually reserved for the final scene). Fu get's ambushed on the road and is surround by enemies on a full scale chess board. They all move like their counter-part pieces and even attack with some clever skills. It's honestly quite breath taking to behold and it's astonishing to try and figure out how many extras must have been used (though "The Heroic Ones," filmed in 1970, had a cast in the 100's).
While it's always hard to gauge acting in these films (especially hard when I refuse to watch anything in English dub), Ti Lung has a extreme presence in this film. He won an award for his work in "The Blood Brothers" a few years prior to this (and more recently in 1999's "The Kid") and that same energy and demeanor are in spades in this film. For a movie that's not even that impressive otherwise, it's great to see Lung command such attention.
Lo Lieh is typecasted, again, though genre fans will love that. He's great at what he does, though, so it's no wonder why his role as the hero in "King Boxer" didn't become his career. He doesn't get a lot of time to develop in this film, but his final speech is quite perfidious.
The sets are at a Shaw Brothers high in this film. It doesn't reach the heights of "The One Armed Swordsmen," but that film had an entire forest built. Still, seeing jungles and houses with camp fires is great.
It's also impressive that actual cinematography exists. The Shaw Brothers back lot gets pulled out for once and we are treated to a dried river bed and the impressive field used for the Chess match. With such natural beauty, it has always baffled me as to why Shaw Bros. didn't step outside for their movies. It really helps draw you in with the lush greens.
By the time the film is over, I wasn't displeased. I've definitely seen better from Shaw Brothers, but this does boast some awe-inspiring locations and choreography. It also has a silly villain, incredibly asinine plot and some lackluster direction. Even with those flaws, "The Magic Blade" is well worth genre-fans time and may even be a bit of a goofy trip for those new to Kung Fu/Wuxia Pen.
Posted on 1/22/11 12:46 AM
An amalgamation of all of Aronofsky's past films and talents, "Black Swan" is a very intense, visceral experience with an incredible performance from Natalie Portman and with superb direction.
The film follows the decay and blossom of Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) as she tries out for the role of the Swan Queen in a theater production of Swan Lake. The plot line of Swan Lake concerns a White Swan and a Black White, like the Yin and Yang of a being. The White Swan is obsessed with perfection while the Black Swan is the embodiment of seduction and chaos.
This is echoed between Nina and new dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis). Nina is graceful, completely in control and, quite possibly, the best dancer in her production. Lily is chaotic, loose and seductive. Striving to get the role, Nina begins to drive herself insane.
Nina somehow lands the part and this sends the former star, Beth (Winona Ryder), over the edge. After Beth makes an attempt to take her own life, Nina begins to descend into a state of entropy where the lines of reality are blurred and her actions become darker and darker.
The film showcases this with twisted direction and an almost exclusive use of close-up shots. Everything comes off with a fervent energy and really draws you into the action, especially when nothing is going on.
The selected use of soundtrack further drivers home the inner torment of Nina as the sounds are warped and almost sound backwards. The wonderful CGI implementation also feels natural and dark, further cementing the contorted core of the movie.
The film brings up some very intriguing parallels to Swan Lake, itself. You can make connections between Nina's life and what is occurring in the play and it really keeps you guessing at all times. The ending may be predictable, but it's a blast to see an almost horror movie style presentation.
Previous Aronofsky films have had this kind of dark plotline before (just look at "Pi" or "Requiem for a Dream"), but they never truly tried to explain what made the character tick. It's wonderful to see how ballet and that want/need to be accepted can push someone off a figurative mountain.
Portman's portrayal needs to be seen to be believed. While Portman never became a typecast actress, her roles before never truly allowed her much room to showcase all her talents. Yeah she's been edgy, sexy and passionate, but never all at once. She even becomes the opposite of her character at points and it's completely believable and instinctive.
Interestingly enough, Mila Kunis is the exact opposite. While her talents are put to good use, her role is almost the exact same of what she's portrayed in the past. The loose woman looking for fast times and fun. I suppose do what you're good at and Kunis is always eye catching, so it does work very well off of Portman's madness.
Winona Ryder as the old talent is good, if minimal. Barbara Hershey as the control freak mom does well and showcases a nice buffer to Nina's behavior. Vincent Cassel definitely exudes power and control with some great facial expressions.
What works best, though, is just how well edited the film is. As I said, the CGI is very clean and implemented in a natural way and it never seems like too much. While violent in thought, the gore factor isn't too extreme and it works to psychologically frighten you.
What isn't so great is the transformation into the Black Swan. I understand that the pressure of the production is turning Nina against herself, but she still isn't presented as an ugly person. She gets wasted one time and has some sex; that's not that dark.
Regardless, the film takes a very deep and bleak look at fame and obsession and is well worth your time. That is uses some superb film making techniques and has what is possibly Portman's penultimate performance doesn't hurt either.
Posted on 1/19/11 11:25 AM
"Travellers and Magicians" is a very charming import film. It's story may be mashed around a bit, but the ultimate message is something that can resonate with people of any race, religion or age.
Dondup (Tshewang Dendup) is a newly appointed religious official in a remote village in Bhutan. Growing weary of, "nothing to do," as he proclaims, Dondup receives a letter from a friend informing him that he has arranged for a ticket to America. Dondup leaps on the idea and acts quickly to get out of his requirements and village.
While walking to the bus, Dondup gets held up by one of the villagers and is delayed. Getting aggravated, he starts to sprint, but the bus leaves without him. Now wondering what the hell to do, Dondup sits by the side of the road and waits for cars to come by.
A man carrying apples (Ap Dochu) sits next to Dondup and asks how the cars are. Since Dondup doesn't want a damn thing to do with people, he acts very cold and walks away. While sitting about a mile up the road, a monk (Sonam Kinga) walks up to Dondup and proceeds to sit next to him. Only wanting to simply pass the time while waiting for a car, the monk tries his best to speak with Dondup. Dondup makes some rude remarks and the monk understands that, being a man of importance, the monk would be given first rides. So the monk then walks down the path to the appleman and leaves Dondup.
As night falls, Dondup begins to grow tired of doing nothing all day. The appleman and the monk start a fire to cook some food and invite Dondup down, even after his rude reception. Dondup swallows his pride and joins them. While eating, the monk asks Dondup where he is going, which Dondup responds with some abstract words. This leads the monk to re-tell a Buddhist teaching.
The story follows Tashi (Lhakpa Dorji) and Karma (Namgay Dorjee), two brothers in a secluded village in Bhutan (much like Dondup's) who are very opposite of each other. Tashi dreams of far away places and women while Karma is highly intelligent and interested in magic. One day during their lunch, Karma mixes together a potion that sends Tashi on a fantasy trip.
This trip takes Tashi to an even more remote village where he meets an old man and his wife, Deki (Deki Yangzom). This story leads to love, betrayal and some other interesting twists.
The whole movie is a big metaphor or appreciation of life. While it's definitely vague in that regard, the film doesn't try to shove anything down your throat. It presents you with ideas, philosophies and people and then lets you piece together everything. It's a very non-linear approach to a storyline and it works well, though the beginning is a bit slow and is purely exposition.
It's wonderful when you think about it. Is leaving the best thing for a person, or is embracing what they're given? You're left curious as to what Dondup will do with all of this.
The acting is solid, if a bit sub-dued. Dendup gives a very convincing performance as Dondup. He seems distant and distracted until a certain character comes into the story later. Kinga as the monk is annoying in a certain respect, but mainly because his character is just very interested in everything around him. He's realistic and sincere, both qualities that a monk should have.
Supporting characters include the Appleman and a few other travelers that Dondup encounters. They're all secondary, even if one character strikes Dondup's heart strings. They aren't given a lot of dialog, though, so it's hard to come to any conclusion about them.
The people in the monk's story are the bulk of this tale and they certainly nail their parts. Dorji is very distant to everyone at first, but then becomes a bit of a menacing force. His actions overtake him and his facial expressions really drive home his inner-terror. Yangzom is attractive and deadly and she gives a quaint level of seriousness to her character. It's intriguing to no end.
On a more technical level, the movie has fine direction and a good, if minimalist, soundtrack. Nothing holds the film back in any regard and when the music does pop up, it's very psychedelic. What is fantastic is the cinematography, though. Bhutan is an extremely beautiful country and it's a wonder why more movies haven't been shot there.
When everything is said and done, seeing the characters part is incredibly hard. You may not know much about them, but you want to see their tales conclude and have closure. The monk sums up the whole movie well though. "A blossom is only beautiful because it is temporary." Amen to that.
Posted on 1/16/11 09:08 PM
A film that a close friend of mine recommended to me years ago, "Falling Down" is a very interesting piece of cinema. While it's not handled with the best poise or grace that the subject deserves, the plot takes a humorous and disturbing look at how mundane annoyances can drive a man into insanity.
The story begins with William Foster (Michael Douglas) sitting in traffic. The camera starts to zoom in and shake at random things like flies buzzing around, children crying in other cars and signs flashing, building up to an explosion when William decides to just get the hell out of his car.
When he steps out, another citizen asks what he's doing and William simply responds, "Going home!" On his way home, he uses a pay phone to call his ex-wife Beth (Barbara Hershey) and then proceeds to say nothing. Now out of change, he walks into a Korean market and flips out.
His speech goes on about commercialism and how simple shop owners are ripping off their customers and is, honestly, pretty damn truthful. While not harming the owner, William busts up the shop, buys a soda at a new, lower price and then walks back to the payphone to call his ex-wife again.
After telling Beth that he'll be coming home for their daughter's birthday, William walks straight into Gang territory. When some gangsters try to hassle them, William beats them down with a baseball bat and then continues through the gangland. Later a drive-by occurs and William comes into possession of firearms. He shoots a gangster and then moves along.
At the same time, an old officer on his last day (Robert Duvall) receives a complaint from the same Korean shop owner that William roughed up. He explains to Officer Pendergast that some crazy white guy is going on a rampage. Later in the day, a young Latina woman comes to Pendergrast after her boyfriend and his friends crash their car and are shot by a crazy white guy.
As the plot moves along, it essentially follows a "Cat and Mouse" style of storytelling. We, as viewers, see William hassle people and generally over-react to simple situations and then are treated to Officer Pendergast trying to piece the events together. It's not very tantalizing at almost 2 hours in length.
What is entertaining is watching Michael Douglas. If you know the man's voice, hearing it as a psychopath is incredibly unsettling. His cold, deep growl makes you unsure of his intentions and his actions are so melodramatic that you can never quite figure out if he's going to just gun down anyone.
It works as a great satire of American society in the 90's (and even rings a bit true in today's troubling economic times). Violence in the media and in movies was at an all time high and it's a joy trying to figure out the influences that William must have had. It's also hilarious to see a man blow a pay-phone away when someone gives him lip.
You almost feel like you are William in some scenes. Everyone has had a rough day and just wishes they could punch the crap out of something and seeing it happen is glorious. It sort of delves into your own psyche and makes you wonder if you're as sick and twisted as William.
What doesn't work is the damn cop drama. "Cat and Mouse" films can be very intriguing when done properly, but "Falling Down" doesn't nail that part right. We see far too much of what William is doing for Pendergast's investigation to really be meaningful. We know why William is going on his rampage and watching the cops make assumptions or, generally, just not understand isn't fun.
It doesn't help that Duvall doesn't give a memorable performance. He's so low-key and generic that you can almost picture him smiling at the fat check he must have gotten. When the man was in movies such as "The Godfather," "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Apocalypse Now," you expect something more. Instead, he's just another run of the mill cop.
The supporting characters are also pretty crappy as well. I can understand gang members in an inner city, but the Neo-Nazi doesn't even make sense. His comments about gays and general hatred of African-Americans seems like it's either out of place or trying too hard. Duvall's co-star is bland and even Douglas's onscreen wife doesn't properly show the sense of dread she is going through from hearing her exes voice.
The direction by Joel Schumacher isn't anything to write home about. It moves the plot along alright, but it definitely could have used less exposition. Almost any interaction William has with 1 scene characters is simply him getting angry, roughing things up and then moving along. No development or anything. The action is also a bit extreme at times, but thankfully not gory.
The only other big complaint I have is the actual character of William. I would be fine if his story had him just flipping out one day, but apparently he is the archetype of the "Angry White Man." His past is revealed throughout the film and we learn that he was always violent. While he never physically abused his wife, he was often belligerent and put her through mental anguish. He even has some notions of racism when he speaks to the Korean shop owner. It's incredibly hard to relate to that or root for him. I do like that the ending shows the repercussions of such berserk behavior, so at least the film understands how crazed it's main character is.
But when you take away some of the political subtext, the film can be enjoyable. The action is handled in a very cheesy manner (mostly due to Schumacher's direction) and most of the performances aren't good, but the general idea of the film is what really helps get you through. We all wish we could just tell our daily annoyances to fuck off and it's entertaining to see it happen on film. Not a classic, but worth at least one viewing.
Posted on 1/15/11 07:48 PM
"Fearless" is an extremely under rated gem from the 90's. The film deals with complex themes of finding oneself and dealing with trauma, along with helping others and discovering what love/friendship really means.
The film is the story of Max Klein (Jeff Bridges) after he survives a dramatic plane crash. The man always lived with a certain degree of fear, but for some reason he's now staring the reaper in the face and laughing. He proceeds to help the remaining survivors find safety and their families and then leaves the scene.
The FBI soon tracks him and gives him transport back to his family. His wife, Laura (Isabella Rossellini), and their children are grateful to have Max back, but Max is completely distant. He hardly talks and even slaps an airline appointed psychologist, Dr. Perlman (John Turturro). Over the next few months, Max slips even farther away and hope grows dim of him returning to normal.
Dr. Perlman arranges for Max to meet one of the other survivors, Carla (Rosie Perez). Carla lost her 2 year old son in the crash and is completely devasted, secluding herself so much as to not even talking to her own husband, Manny (Benicio Del Toro). Max and Rose soon start a great friendship that culminates in Max acting like an angel and leading her to redemption.
The film takes a very in-depth look at what victims of accidents deal with in their lives. While it may not necessarily be the same for everyone, people have lost themselves after witnessing traumatic events and the solitude and seclusion is portrayed perfectly by Jeff Bridges. The man should have won an Oscar for his acting in this film as it's completely believable and engaging.
Rosie Perez, who did take home awards, is equally as gripping and engrossing. The grief her character suffers is blasted out of the screen and her anger at the airline, herself and God is showcased wonderfully. It's baffling how Perez didn't become a bigger star after this role, but she definitely deserves more commendations.
The supporting cast are all solid, too. Rossellini plays the confused, worried and caring wife great and her children are handled with child like wonder and ignorance. John Turturro sounds very cautionary and inquisitive, much like a Dr. would. Even the extras play off of the leads well.
The soundtrack is good, but not very original. Featuring tunes from Beethoven, U2 and The Gipsy Kings, it's definitely an eclectic collection, but it's mostly the melodramatic orchestral scores that send home the drama.
The direction is very jumpy, but definitely absorbing. Peter Weir knows just how long to hold a scene and when to place in mysterious flash backs. It helps to showcase the disorientation that the characters are dealing with after their accident.
The only real drawback to the film is the uplifting ending. While I wouldn't prefer that it happen another way, I would have liked if it gave more closure to the proceedings. It seems like a cheap way to solve Max's problems by just "breathing" life into him.
Also, the beginning is a bit of a mindfuck. Things just happen for 15-20 minutes before everything falls into place and that can be off putting for some viewers. Again, I understand the angle, but it's definitely something to look out for.
So in the end, "Fearless" is definitely a must see. If you've ever had to deal with a horrific event, accident or death, there's bound to be some theme or thought that will sit with you from this film. And even if you've never experienced a hardship on a personal level, the great direction and performances are reason enough to see the film. A character study at a top-tier level, "Fearless" does not let down.
Posted on 1/14/11 07:25 PM
Remakes that are of good quality are extremely rare nowadays. You either get something that misses the entire point of the original or tries to shoehorn in modern ideas that distract from the original context. "True Grit" side steps the latter by being as old-fashioned as possible and hits the nail right on the head, in terms of the original.
The film is the story of a strong young woman named Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) who wants to exact revenge for the death of her father at the ends of Tom Cheney (Josh Brolin). To do so, she haggles her way into some money and proceeds to hire the most ruthless marshal in Arkansas, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges). While trying to persuade Cogburn, he runs into Texas Ranger Le Beouf (Matt Damon) and convinces the two to form a union and help her stop her father's killer.
Much in the fashion of classic westerns like "The Searchers," "True Grit" is about tearing down the fantasy of the American cowboy. Cogburn is portrayed for everything that he is; a fat, old, drunkard of a louse. Le Beouf is a noble man with little skill. Mattie, on the other hand, is one of the strongest and most powerful people in the film, even at the age of 14.
Their journey is filled with violence and breath taking locales. Their friendships and personalities grow as the film movies along and seeing it unfold makes you attach to each of them. When certain scenes pop up and a character's fate is in question, you really do get tense.
The direction by the Coen brothers is inspired a bit by Spielberg. Superimposition is around almost every corner and while it definitely works to help give a sense of longevity to the proceedings, at the end it almost seems a bit much. Regardless, the pacing is tight and the action is centered and free of shaky cam, so you never are in question as to exactly what is happening in front of you.
The soundtrack is solid, but not unlike other Western films. There's a few rather gentle pieces that work to extrapolate some emotions from the wilderness, but it doesn't really have a strong presence in the film.
What takes this film well above standard Western fare, other than the direction, are the performances. Jeff Bridges, after a rather lack luster appearance in Tron Legacy, is simply awesome. He mutters almost everything and getting any kind of clear sentence from the man seems impossible. His posture and poise on a horse all really help to sell the fact that Cogburn is a lazy drunk. His facial features and long beard even work in his favor, giving his silent moments a menacing scowl and a determined look.
Matt Damon, while certainly a very strong actor, is able to tone down his macho exterior and create a very clumsy, well meaning ranger. Anytime you see Le Beouf wander onto the screen, you wonder exactly how he's going to mess up. Damon doesn't disappoint and the way he portrays himself with a faux sense of power is entertaining.
Hailee Steinfeld, though, steals the whole damn show. Most Westerns usually leave the women to the background or have them act as damsels in distress, but "True Grit" shows that anyone can be a damn cowboy when they put their heart into it. Steinfeld captures the raw fire and energy of Mattie and portrays the character as a firecracker. She's smart, quick witted and a force to be reckoned with. Steinfeld even nails the child factor by being feeble in her action scenes and showcasing a very harrowing look when danger comes around. This is easily the best performance of the year and I will be extremely saddened if his girl does not get an Oscar.
As for supporting actors, Josh Brolin's role is very minimal. He definitely sounds like a true idiot, but he doesn't get a lot to do in the film. The whole build up of the menace of his being to only see it torn down is definitely a highlight, though.
While this may not be the huge blockbuster hit that every critic is claiming, solid performances and great direction make the film a wonder to watch. After a year of disappointing sequels and lack of fulfillment with many plot lines, it's great to see that "True Grit" remembers how to tell a thoughtful story. I recommend this wholeheartedly.
Posted on 12/18/10 10:29 PM
Tron: Legacy is a bit of a strange beast. While IMAX certainly made the experience dazzling and captivating, seeing the film in a regular 3D presentation was no where near as enjoyable. Once you strip off the amazing visuals and superb soundtrack, you're left with a story that contains one dimensional characters and some Deus Ex Machina crap that really makes no sense and has several loop holes.
The plot follows Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) in his conquest to ruin his father's company, now run by people who want nothing to do with the Flynn name. After causing some mayhem, Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner), an old friend of Kevin Flynn's (Sam's father, played by Jeff Bridges), confronts Sam and tells him that he received a page from Kevin's old work room. The catch is that the phone line had been disconnected for some 20 years.
Sam goes to investigate the arcade and is soon sucked into "The Grid," a virtual world within the computer. This world is completely unlike what Kevin Flynn saw himself in during the original 1982 movie. Dark, gritty, flashy and highly advanced, "The Grid" is a very modern and sleek interpretation of what a world inside your CPU would be like.
It's quite the sight to behold (especially during the IMAX specific sequences) and the direction is definitely framed for soaking in the details. The run time even surpasses 2 hours and most of that is because of all the slow shots that establish some of the incredible CGI.
After Sam deals with a few of the classic Tron games (now with multiple battles commencing simultaneously), he is discovered to be a "User," or a person from the outside world. This leads the runner of "The Grid," CLU, to have a small chat with Sam. It turns out that CLU is a coded version of Kevin Flynn and has some screws loose. CLU sees Sam as a pawn to lure Kevin out, so he proceeds to challenge him to the iconic Light Cycles.
And the battle is completely thrilling. The light cycles are definitely leaps and bounds more advanced than the original film and play out more like an F1 race on bikes with beams of death. While this is all going on, though, one has to wonder where the character development is. Sam utter's maybe half a pages worth of dialog and his character doesn't dramatically change from the first sighting of him. CLU showcases some impressive face mapping technology (to make him look like a much younger version of Jeff Bridges from 1985), but his face allows for extremely limited emotion. It's all extremely cold, regardless of how much high octane action may be going on.
Well, during the middle of the Light Cycle battle, Sam is saved by some rogue program. Not staying to question, he jumps in the vehicle and is taken off of the game grid to his safety. The program then introduces herself as Quorra (Olivia Wilde) and takes Sam to his father. While the first scene of Sam and Kevin together may be touching to fans of the original film, there really is no build up to their reunion. We're constantly told they haven't been in contact for 21 years, but the movie doesn't show any scenes of Kevin in "The Grid" longing for his family or Sam dealing without a father figure. It's strange how the movie throws their tears at you and expects you to just relate.
After Sam and Kevin are back together, the movie loses a lot of steam. Kevin begins to explain how he discovered a race of "advanced" programs called "ISOs" that manifested themselves and looked up to Flynn as "The Creator." Kevin wanted to bring them to the real world as a "Miracle" and thought that their knowledge would change the perceptions of theology, medicine and science. It really doesn't fit into the small scale style of the original Tron and it honestly feels like some kind of "Matrix Revolutions" deal. The writers must have thought that Tron fans would just eat up anything.
Sam begins to hatch a plan for everyone to escape and then Kevin begins to explain some more about how they can't simply just leave. It becomes bloated and the film literally has no action for half an hour. I know that we were treated to a very thrilling opening and that the budget must have been through the roof (something short of $300 million), but when the story sucks literally all the momentum out of the film and there are no good characters to fall back on, your film becomes extremely tiring.
Well, to sum up the ending, CLU is the antagonist and everyone is trying to escape him. How CLU is exactly evil isn't made clear until the end, but then shifts and makes you wonder if Flynn was bad. It's really strange and the ultimate outcome feels extremely cheap. There is also another long and dragged out scene of Quorra explaining her origins and at that point, you begin to tune out the dialog and start focusing on the electric (and always wonderful) soundtrack and visuals. That's all Tron is about, anyway.
Daft Punk certainly have crafted a masterful soundtrack to the film, as well. Everything has an electronic or robotic sound to it. The direction of the film is very looming, slow and in-depth and the scores match it scene for scene. I wonder if the duo simply watched the film first and started their score, or if the director slowed down specific moments just to accompany their soundtrack, but it works in every instance. It also doesn't hurt that "Derezzed" is an immediate club hit.
Acting...well, haha. This one should be good. Garret Hedlund reminds me a lot of Sam Worthington, an actor that I literally cannot stand. His voice is very blah, his demeanor is typical roid fueled anger and his shouting just sounds silly. Olivia Wilde is actually kind of funny in her portrayal of the confused program, but it's not a very original idea. The first Tron movie had many of the programs asking Flynn if the real world was any better, so to repeat a character after 28 years is just lazy, but that's honestly more a fault of the writing. Wilde definitely makes her character cute at times and charming in others, so her performance is solid.
Jeff Bridges plays himself. It's incredible. Flynn was not a hippie/junkie in the first movie and seeing Bridges essentially reprise his role from "Big Lebowski" is just awkward. He spouts off about Zen and knocking on the sky and it really makes no sense. Again, this may be more a problem with writing, but Bridges really isn't doing anything that you can't see in any one of his other films.
On the flip side, Bridges as CLU is definitely neat. While CLU isn't a very complex character, seeing such a polar opposite to the good guy is fun. When CLU captures programs, it's a wonder what he'll do and you honestly get a little scared by him (especially his digital face).
The only other performance worth nothing is Michael Sheen, even if his screen time is limited to possibly 10 minutes. He plays something like Roy from "Blade Runner" and I honestly loved it. Michael Sheen is a very dynamic actor and seeing him incorporate his styles from "Frost/Nixon" and "30 Rock" into one was mesmerizing.
As for the IMAX; That is the true way to experience this movie. I know that the 3D movement might be a gimmick and that movies that lack character and plot will still lack them in a different environment (much like Legacy proves), but IMAX really brings the wonder of "The Grid" to life. The thundering bass combines with the spell bounding 3D to truly suck you into the film. There is one scene in the beginning that literally makes you wonder if you're standing right next to Sam and the IMAX specific sequences are phenomenal.
But even with all the praise I can sing about Tron: Legacy, the film doesn't have a heart. The original Tron at least had a special kind of charm about it. It was lighthearted, funny and had some impressive technology that launched a new revolution for film making. All Legacy truly gets perfect is it's soundtrack. IMAX was always going to develop (as it has over the past decade and a half) and 3D technology still isn't required for a film.
So, my final verdict. If you were a die-hard Tron fan, you obviously can't pass this up. If you love Daft Punk, this is a very fascinating compliment to their work. If you enjoy cheesy action films, again, this is worth seeing. But if you want some depth or even coherency with your movie viewing, I wouldn't waste your time.