Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Day 41 - The Red Shoes

The Red Shoes (1948) directed by Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

I was interested in The Red Shoes after watching Black Swan, as it is the most referenced film concerning ballet. Apparently this was the film that Brian De Palma saw that made him want to become a director and was highly influential in the dance sequences of An American in Paris and Singing in the Rain. Cautiously optimistic of its high praise going into the movie, I am glad to report that it lives up to the hype and is well deserving of its classic status.

I suppose the main question that The Red Shoes asks is, "What does it take to be great?" Undoubtedly, it takes great talent, but there must also be an almost ruthless ambition and desire to succeed. And with this desire to be the best also comes great sacrifice. In today's age of celebrity, we often get a first hand look at what athletes and entertainers must do to get where they are at and life isn't always peaches and cream. One of the first things to go is personal relationships. When a singer is on tour months at a time, it is often difficult to maintain a love life. When actresses are young and in their prime, they often hold off on having children. It isn't that they don't want to have a family, it's just that they love what they do too much to stop. As the film's antagonist Boris Lermontov says, "You cannot have it both ways. A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love can never be a great dancer. Never." He argues that the very best at what they do live, breathe, and eat their craft. Everything else is just a distraction. That is the conflict in The Red Shoes, the balance between a young dancer's dream to become great and her love life.

The film's title, The Red Shoes, is the name of the ballet in the movie which in itself is named after the Hans Christian Anderson fairytale. In the story, a magical pair of red shoes compels whoever wears it to dance uncontrollably. It is an obvious parallel to Vicky's situation in the movie which doesn't need to be spelled out.

This film is part romance, part comedy, part dark plotting and tragedy and one hundred percent artistically captivating. Very few films grasp such a wide range of moods and genres and even fewer do it as well as The Red Shoes. There are several striking characteristics about this movie that makes it so great. First is the lead acting by Moira Shearer and Anton Walbrook who play the dancer Vicky and the ballet company's iron fisted director Boris respectively. Only an actual dancer could have played Vicky's part and Shearer can act to boot. While she doesn't quite have the radiance of the big Hollywood actresses, her screen presence is quite formidable, especially when she is dancing. Walbrook plays Boris as cold and cynical, yet charming and engaging. He has a fiery passion regarding Vicky, but not in a romantic way. He is not jealous of Julian because he is her lover, but because he feels Julian will prevent her from achieving greatness (under Boris's guidance of course).

It is impossible to watch The Red Shoes and not notice the lush colors. It is films like this and The Wizard of Oz that makes one wonder why cinema abandoned Technicolor. You simply don't see these vibrant hues in today's films. Martin Scorsesse has said that this is one the most beautiful color films ever.

Finally, I must talk about The Red Shoes ballet in the middle of the movie which is in a word, amazing. This sequence is vivid in colors and imagery and nifty special effects which create an almost surreal dreamlike experience not just for Vicky but the viewer as well. The background seamlessly dissolves from one realm to the other providing backdrop for a well choreographed dance sequence. All told, the ballet sequence lasts over fifteen minutes, an almost unheard of time in movies. In fact, prior to this movie it was unheard of to have such a long dance break in a movie as it was the first to do so. Its critical success allowed future musicals like An American in Paris and Singing in the Rain to follow suit.

Grade: A

Monday, May 30, 2011

Day 40 - 13 Assassins

13 Assassins (2011) directed by Takashi Miike

Being a samurai is pretty awesome for a couple reasons. One, you get to carry around a kick-ass sword and it's not just for show either; you can slice off a finger or three if you wanted to. Second, you are often considered noble and honorable in a society that places a lot of value on these sort of things. You're a local celebrity, there are no professional athletes in your time period so you're the closest thing to being an idolized hero. And you probably get all the geisha you could ever want. But what is your place in a society that no longer needs you? Such was the state of Japan during the end of the Edo period in the mid 1800's. It was an age of relative peace where the power of the samurai had been greatly reduced. True samurai were becoming rarer and rarer and those that remained had no battles to fight, all they had left to cling on to was their sacred code.

Duty and honor are at the heart of Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins. How does one achieve honor? Is it taking your own life in political protest as someone does in the very beginning of the film? Is it taking your own life out of shame as a woman who is just raped and witness to her husband's murder? Is it fulfilling the Confucius ideal of laying your life on the line for your master? Or is it laying your life on the line for justice and the greater good? All are honorable in their own way, but what it ultimately boils down to is doing what you think is right and there is no greater gesture than self sacrifice.

13 assassins must band together to take down an evil and sadistic lord who might one day gain a higher position in the shogunate government. How evil is he? He kills and dismembers people for fun. He rapes a woman and butchers her husband in front of her, commenting on how hard it is to cut through a monkey's bones. He is arrogant and narcissistic, basically a grade-A douchebag. So obviously he needs to be taken out. The first two acts are devoted to assembling the team of assassins together and formulating their plan of attack, while the final act is 45 minutes of glorious action. Structurally it is very similar to Kurosawa's classic Seven Samurai, which doesn't seem like a coincidence. 

The lead samurai of the group, Shinzaemon, has been waiting all his life for the day he could die an honorable death, to lay it all on the line for something he truly believes in. Each member of his team has his own little backstory and the film does a good job in introducing the audience to the characters. Miike does the best he can so that when it finally comes down the final battle, we know who is who and that we actually care what happens to them. One issue that I had though, and through no fault of the movie, is keeping track of some of the guys since I'm not familiar with any of the actors and they all look the same. (As an Asian, I am allowed to say this about other Asians.) Not everybody is given equal backstory as some characters are clearly more important than others. And it doesn't help that the cast of heroes is almost double that of Seven Samurai. But regardless of whether or not you remember their names, you do recognize their heroism.

This isn't simply a one dimensional story of good versus evil, however. Though Lord Naritsugu is clearly evil and must go down, he is protected by his own samurai, Hanbei, who ends up being a sympathetic character. Henbei is a samurai in the most traditional sense, in that he is a faithful servant ready to die for his lord, no matter his personal feelings or thoughts. It is perhaps a misguided sense of honor, but only because his lord is so evil. All Henbei has in this world is that honor, without it he would cease to be a samurai. While admiring Shinzaemon, he scorns him as well for not understanding his duty to Naritsugu. While pitted against each other, both are actually fighting for the same thing, to preserve their way of life, the life of the samurai.

The 13 assassins lay out a careful plan to attack the evil lord in a classic against all odds fight, 13 of them versus over 200 bad guys. The battle is intense, bloody, and enthralling and unlike the similarly themed 300, 13 Assassins doesn't rely on cheap tricks or thrills, it is just down right gritty. The 45 plus minute action sequence is all worth it thanks to the first two acts that set it up, something many action movies fail to balance, but which 13 Assassins handles quite well.

Grade: A

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Day 39 - Kung Fu Panda 2 in 3D

Kung Fu Panda 2 in 3D (2011) directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson

First and foremost, I was a big fan of the original Kung Fu Panda which was fresh, sweet, funny, action orientated, and beautifully animated, a top notch animated film that even Pixar would be proud of. While Kung Fu Panda capitalized on being cuddly and cute, it wasn't all about silly gags and furry creatures; there was a strong and engaging story as well, taking a cue from Pixar in making a family film suited for all ages, adults included. With the recent slew of disappointing sequels being released lately, would Kung Fu Panda 2 just be a bigger and louder picture or will it retain the charm that made the first one so successful? Thankfully, it is a little bit of both.

While the original film focused on Po the panda (Jack Black) discovering himself by fulfilling his destiny, in the sequel, he must revisit his past in order to complete this self discovery. One of the gags in the series is how Mr. Ping, a goose, came about to fathering a panda, something the audience accepts with a grain of salt, but to which Po is oblivious to. But you could hardly blame Po. Why wouldn't the goose that has raised and loved him his whole life be his father? So what if he looks a little different, are you the splitting image of your father? But it is all explained in the second film and leads to the same self doubt and uncertainty that plagued Po in the first film, where he must ask himself the age old question, "Who Am I?" It is a seemingly simple but ultimately complex question that few people can truly answer, let alone a cuddly panda.

Shen, an evil peacock, serves as a foil to Po in more ways than one. Like Po, Shen must deal with issues of his own past in facing his destiny, but unlike Po, he knows exactly who he is because of it. He poignantly remarks, "The dead are in the past and I must look to the future." Incidentally, not only is Shen trying to take over China, he also holds the secret to Po's past. Two birds with one stone, as they say. Shen also represents a change in Chinese history, perhaps the beginning of the end of kung fu, or the Chinese ideal. If his cannons can obliterate cities, what chance does kung fu have against that? Po represents the last stand in not just saving China, but also its way of life, a major point in Chinese history dealing with the western influence in China during the late 1800's to early 1900's. (One Upon a Time in China deals directly with this, though Kung Fu Panda 2 is likely of a different era, when animals knew kung fu.)

This discussion is obviously all deeper than it has to be; Kung Fu Panda 2, like its predecessor, is a fun kids action-adventure. While Po and the Furious Five must stop Shen, it is the manner in which they do it that counts. There is a nice ebb and flow of digging deeper into Po's backstory, comedic hijinks and nifty action to keep things going smoothly. One of the funnest moments involve the good guys sneaking around town in a dragon costume gobbling up bad guys Pac-Man style.

The first Kung Fu Panda looks great on Blu-ray. The characters and animation are all sharp and crisp and move smoothly and it's entirely in 2D. It is difficult to judge how good Kung Fu Panda 2 looks because of the 3D. While the 3D is well done, it is hard to tell just how detailed the animation looks when things are popping out at you in all directions. This is especially true during a high speed chase scene where it was hard to focus on any one particular thing as there was so much going on screen and going so fast. I suspect on average it actually looks slightly worse than the original, but from what I can tell it still looks pretty darn good. I will say though that the action sequences aren't as intriguing in this film as the first one. There is nothing that tops the first's battle for the dumpling in showcasing the delicate motions and intricacies of kung fu; much of the action here is big and frenzied.

In a story that focuses more on Po than the first one, a lot of the original characters take a backseat, which is good in that you don't want to rehash the same story as before, but bad in that you'd like to see more from those quirky characters you found so charming. Dustin Hoffman as Master Shifu, doesn't get much screen time at all, which is a bummer because he is both wise and hilarious. While the Furious Five are faithful tagalongs to Po, they barely have any lines of significance. You almost forget that this movie stars the voices of Jackie Chan, Lucy Liu, Seth Rogen and David Cross. The notable exception is Angelina Jolie as Tigress, who's role has actually been beefed up. She was the most dynamic of the five in the original and now in this one forms a nice bond with Po. Potential romance in a third installment, perhaps?

While I think the original is a little better due to its originality and the crispness of the story and action, Kung Fu Panda 2 is a fine sequel that in some regards actually surpasses the first. While both features stories of self discovery and send a positive message, the sequel is certainly deeper and more emotional, even if a little messier. The ending is satisfying and rewarding, almost tear inducing, something you'd probably think impossible for a stupid cartoon movie, right?

Grade: B+

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Day 38 - The Road Home

The Road Home (2000) directed by Zhang Yimou

Do you believe in love at first sight? If you don't, then you're going to have a difficult time with The Road Home. I don't really believe in love at first sight, infatuation or lust yes, but it's really difficult to really love someone without getting to know them. That said, most romances in movies are, to varying degrees, stories of love at first sight or, at the very least, rushed romance. After all, movies have to fit an entire story in about two hours, which is why you can watch two people meet for the first time in a bar and five minutes later they're lying naked next to each other in bed. But that isn't really love at first sight because there is an implication of a passage of time between the meeting at the bar and the hook up. There is the assumption that something happened between those scenes that resulted in them in bed together and we take it for what it's worth. In Zhang Yimou's The Road Home there nothing implied behind the scenes; the love is instantaneous with no indication there is anything more than the first encounter between the two central characters. It's a simple story of girl sees boy, girl likes boy, girl chases boy, girl gets boy, the end. If you can buy that premise, then this movie captures that simplicity perfectly and rather elegantly. If you have any ounce of cynicism in your body, you may find the story implausible. I was going to use the the word "unconvincing", but thought that might be a poor choice of a word. The girl, Di, is very convincing in her love for Changyu, though you may unconvinced that this would actually happen.

The story opens in the present with the narrator of the film, Luo Yusheng, driving back to his childhood home in rural China after his father dies. His mother wants an old fashioned traditional funeral procession where men carry the body back to the village. The son doesn't see the point in this, as a vehicle would be much more convenient, but the mother is adamant that her husband take "the road home" by foot. At first it seems her wish is merely out of an old rural tradition, but later on we discover it is because of what this road meant for them all those years ago. This beginning part of the movie is shot in black and white and as Yusheng looks at an old photograph of his father and mother, the story of their courtship is told via flashback in glorious color during the 1950's.

His father, Changyu, is a teacher from the city who arrives in this small rural village to build a new school and be the village's teacher. Di, played by Zhang Ziyi in her debut role, is an eighteen year old farm girl who immediately becomes infatuated upon his arrival. She is too shy to approach him, but stays as near as possible to watch him, listen to him, and in her own little way, to be with him. She does little things to try to grab his attention; she wears her best outfits in hopes of being noticed, she cooks her best meals for the workers building the school in hopes that he picks her plate, she draws water from the well on the far side of the village which happens to be next to the school. On the surface, you can chalk this up to simple puppy love or a schoolgirl crush, but it's clear that it is much more to her than that. Okay, so we've established the fact that she's crazy over him, but you never really know why. She never really talks about what she sees in him other than that she loved his voice. Is he kind? Is he gentle? Is he funny? Is he smart? We never know. We basically know nothing about Changyu as the story is told from Di's point of view.

They have brief encounters throughout where they exchange awkward conversations. Both are too shy to talk about how they feel, but beneath that silence is an understanding and affection towards each other, at least that is what I assume we are to gather. Changyu is sent away to the city, apparently in some sort of political trouble (we never find out what it is), and must leave the village just as the two seemed to be connecting. He promises her that he will return. She is heartbroken, but dutifully waits for him. She is a complete wreck and unbearably lonely. On the day he said he would return, she waits at the road in the freezing cold to the point of sickness. This is the significance of the road home that she insists that her husband's funeral procession take forty years later. It is at this road where she waited for him to return back to the village, to her. She wishes for him to come home one last time. Of course, he does return to her and they live happily ever after to the end of the movie.

Some critics have used this film's simplicity as one of its strengths, it's a love story stripped down to its very basics where we can just appreciate the emotion and beauty of it. That may be true, but its simplicity can also be used as its weakness as well. The story is purposely shallow as there is nothing else to focus on. Also, Di is entirely one dimensional, dutiful, faithful, love stricken and utterly helpless without Changyu. She's so forlorn and incapacitated by her love that she comes across as a little pathetic. I would suspect that most feminists would be a little offended by her portrayal.

As for the tone of the movie, the sentiment is laid on so thickly to the point of pandering. The main score is way overused as are the dissolving shots of the landscape and Zhang Ziyi. All are admittedly very beautiful, but it basically amounts to a fancy slideshow rather than a movie. How many times do we have to see Zhang Ziyi's face in a close up looking off into the distance or at Changyu? Half of the movie is basically just watching her watching him.

I will give credit where credit is due though, this movie looks great, which should be expected from Zhang Yimou, who has a reputation for filming visually striking movies such as Raise the Red Lantern, Hero and House of the Flying Daggers. The golden fields, Di's bright red jacket, the picturesque country landscapes that evoke a sense of nostalgia are all wonderfully shot. In her very first role, Zhang Ziyi displays her natural beauty (helped by the fact that she seems to be starring in some kind of perfume commercial frolicking in the fields) and has a sweet innocence and charm to her.

While I wasn't overly moved by the flashback sequence (aka the majority of the movie) the black and white present day scenes are very touching. After we established Di's undying and unrequited love for her husband, we get to see her forty years later as an old lady mourning his death. She misses him dearly but also has the time to worry about her son. He offers to take her back with him to the city not wanting to leave her all alone, but she refuses telling him, "I don't want to leave your father." Pretty moving stuff.

In The Road Home, you either got along for the ride or you didn't. It is clearly meant to be an emotional film, which I'm sure it is for many people, but if you're a robot like me, you can only watch with a sort of detachment.

Grade: C+

Friday, May 27, 2011

Day 37 - The Hangover Part II

The Hangover Part II (2011) directed by Todd Phillips

Intro Story:
Funny story, sort of. I'm in my seat waiting for the movie to begin. As expected, the crowd is loud and rambunctious, full of teenagers and twenty-somethings ready to get their laugh on, when suddenly a security guard comes in and looks at a row of teenagers near the front. It then occurred to me that this movie is rated R and these kids should not be in here. It's been so long since I've had to worry about sneaking into movies, but I do remember watching American Pie in theaters all those years ago and being mildly nervous about getting caught. I didn't realize that people actually went into the the theater to check though. I thought once you were in, you were gold. Anyways, the guard tells this entire row to get up and a dozen or so kids slowly get up and shuffle their way out of the theater. I can't say for certain, but I bet one of them was crying in shame. It was kind of funny to watch, but made me sad at the same time. One, there were at least twelve of them in this group. Even if you included my immediate family, I don't think I could get twelve people together for anything, let alone a movie. I have trouble finding one person to go to the movies with sometimes. Two, which is somewhat related to one, I am getting old. Three, it got me to thinking just how pervasive popular culture can be. The Hangover Part II, like the recently released Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, could basically be the worst thing ever and people will still watch. They have to watch. Hell, even I have to watch in fear of being left behind. I must know what the wolf-pack will do next!

On to the actual movie:
I'll be honest, I wasn't the biggest fan of the original Hangover. It was funny, but not that funny, at least not enough to give it its official bro status among everyone my age. But it was fresh and fun, filled with outrageous situations and an absurd plot. So how do you follow up a hugely popular adult comedy based on people recovering from a bachelor party hangover? Do it all over again.

You got to give credit to director Todd Phillips for knowing what made the first movie so successful and trying to give his audience exactly what it wants, so he made sure to carefully follow the premise of the original in this one. The problem is that he spends so much effort trying to invoke the memories of the original that he forgets to add anything new in the sequel. Too often they made references to the the first movie meant to get a reaction that I found some of the laughter forced. While there are certainly outrageous moments meant to top some of the gags in the original, they aren't nearly as fresh and the plot points are more tired than funny. And most importantly, this movie isn't anywhere close to as funny as the original and it makes you realize just how shallow the whole premise is.

Zach Galifianakis was arguably the secret ingredient to the first movie in his performance as Alan, who to put it bluntly, is kind of an idiot. But those exact same qualities that made him so endearing in the original turns against him here as his schtick grows a little stale. It's one thing to be dumb, but you also have to charming, otherwise you're just annoying. Bradley Cooper, as Phil, is too cool to have anything really embarrassing happen to him and isn't really funny enough to carry jokes, a problem I had with him in the first movie as well. He doesn't really add much to the comedic formula. It seems his entire role in this movie is to look bewildered and exclaim "What the f*ck?!" over and over. Ed Helms, as Stu, is quite good and the best gags are deservingly saved for him.

Also, The Hangover Part II actually starts off way too slowly. It takes a seemingly excruciatingly long time to set up the story with few laughs to support the weight.

I think even the die hard fans of the original will have to agree with me that Part II is at least slightly disappointing. Despite following the formula of its predecessor, it fails to spark the same magic or retain the same interest throughout. There isn't one thing that this movie does better than the original. Certainly there are funny moments; you may even call this movie funny, but so are clowns, and they're horrible. If you want real adult style comedy in the same vain, you should check out Kristen Wiig in the much funnier Bridesmaids while it's still out.

Grade: C

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Day 36 - The Bicycle Thief

The Bicycle Thief (1948) directed by Vittorio De Sica

Italian neorealism is a style of film set amongst the poor and working class, typically dealing with issues of poverty and dispair. This was the backdrop of the Italian landscape after the second World War, ravaged by a depression and moral decay. The Bicycle Thief is set dab in the middle of it, telling the story of a working class stiff trying to recover his stolen bike, but really that's just a plot device to show the destitution of Italian society. It shows the extraordinary lengths and despair that people must go through in order to simply survive. 

The film opens in the front of an unemployment office where hordes of people wait around for jobs to come up. Antonio has been out of work for some time now but gets a lucky break when he gets a job putting posters up around town, but the only requirement is that he must have a bicycle to get around. Antonio, with a family to feed and desperate for work, does not have a bicycle but lies and says he does, one of the moral compromises he must make to get by. In order to get a bike, Antonio must pawn his bed sheets, his wife's dowry. The sheets are bundled up into a sack and pawned off. In a telling shot, a man takes the sack in the back room and throws it into a gigantic storage unit of similar sacks revealing that Antonio isn't the only person in this position. His story, his plight, can be anyone's. Antonio buys the bike and is ecstatic to begin work. As luck would have it, on his very first day someone steals his bike right in front of him. Needless to say, Antonio is crushed and must get his bike back. Without it, his family will starve.

So Antonio and his young son spend the next hour or so of the movie roaming the streets of Rome trying to find the bike, a fool's errand if there ever was one. They don't have much luck and Antonio grows increasingly desperate as it becomes harder to hide his anguish and helplessness. And that is basically the entire film. You just watch them wandering around searching for the bike and Antonio's growing desperation. As already mentioned, the simplistic plot is just the tour guide for the neorealistic setting. In their wanderings of Rome, the viewer gets an up close look at the poverty and social conditions of post WW2 Italy. Take these two images for example. What else really needs to be said about them?

It starts to get really good when Antonio ends up running into the thief and has a heated confrontation with him. It is not clear, however, if he actually is the thief or not. After all, Antonio only had a quick glimpse of the thief's face during the theft. The bike is nowhere to be found and the kid has a clean record. Despite no proof or collaborating witnesses, Antonio is convinced the kid is scum. The gathering crowd watching the spectacle become wary of Antonio's unfounded accusations as he grows increasingly hostile. Eventually, Antonio must back down and retreat empty handed, dejected as ever before. What follows is perhaps one of the most dramatic and emotional moments captured on film. For those who have not seen The Bicycle Thief yet, I won't go into details but it is pretty powerful stuff and basically makes the entire movie.

As great as the last act is, the rest of the movie can be a bit tedious and dull. The single-minded quest to find the bicycle is not powerful or compelling enough to carry the middle as there is only so much of this story you can tell before you must get on with it. While the search seems to be carried out with meticulous and inordinate detail, it loses its impact along the way. Maybe I was distracted or tired at the time, but my emotional connection to Antonio during the middle was wavering as the search for the bike seemed empty. I could sense and see Antonio's desperation, but I could not feel it, until the powerful last act of course. Regardless, The Bicycle Thief's status as a world classic is well founded. Few other movies tell so much with so little or have the raw emotional impact of its closing shot.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Day 35 - All About Eve

All About Eve (1950) directed by Joseph Mankiewicz

Looking at this film sixty years after its release, I think it's somewhat fitting that the subject matter for All About Eve can be applied to the movie itself. In today's age of forward motion, it seems like everyone is looking ahead for the next big thing, whether it's the newest technology, the trendiest fashions or the latest media to consume. But it is perhaps the human element that is most telling. Everyone dreads getting older, not necessarily out of fear of one's mortality but rather out of fear of being replaced or forgotten, the fear that your star has shone and that you're no longer needed. This is especially poignant in the world of entertainment, where actors and actresses always have to look over their shoulders for the next big thing, that person who might one day take the roles they're desperately trying to hold on to. This or course raises the question, is newer actually better? Or more importantly, is aging really that big of a deal?

Bette Davis plays the role of aging but still highly regarded Broadway star, Margo Channing. Anne Baxter plays Eve Harrington, a young and adoring fan, who manages to cajole her way into Margo's inner circle, becoming her faithful secretary, friend, understudy and eventually bitter rival. In a way you might consider Margo as All About Eve itself, each day getting older and deeper into the recesses of cinematic history in the face of modern movies. But just because Margo is getting older does it make her any less relevant? I'm always befuddled when I hear people say that they hate black and white movies, or to get at what they're really saying, they hate old movies. They would deprive themselves of some of the best films ever made out of spite and plain ignorance in favor of the latest B-rate Hollywood release.

While the picture may not be in color or high definition, one thing that does not age is great acting. Bette Davis is marvelous as Margo, fiery, funny, intelligent, and absolutely demanding your attention. She makes no qualms about playing an older woman, even if her character Margo does. It is fitting that towards the end, Margo decides she doesn't want to play 20-somethings anymore, she matures enough in the film to realize she doesn't have to prove anything to anybody. It is more fitting, however, that she is pitted against Anne Baxter in the film, who all due respect, doesn't hold a candle to Davis.

All About Eve is sharply written and superbly acted throughout. The scene that first grabbed my attention is Davis' heated argument with her fiance, showing her growing suspicions and paranoia about Eve. She gets to have more tantrums later, being a total bitch yet having an air of dignified class at the same time. Above all else, this film is downright nasty, showing the ruthless ambition required to succeed. Margo begins as cold, jealous, and pompous while Eve has an aw-shucks humility and a faithful admiration of Margo. You start out by rooting for Eve, but by the end you can't believe what a conniving weasel she is. Eve does end up with the success she dreamed of, but at what costs? This isn't meant to be an old is good, new is evil argument, but there is a lot to be said about respecting and appreciating the past.

Grade: A

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Day 34 - True Legend

True Legend (2011) directed by Yuen Woo-ping

Just exactly how much substance are you willing to sacrifice in favor of style? Watch True Legend to find out. It will capture your imagination and test your patience at the same time. From the martial arts choreographer of The Matrix, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Kill Bill, True Legend continues the tradition of highly stylized fighting sequences that Yuen Woo-ping has seemed to master. However, unlike in the aforementioned titles, True Legend lacks the vehicle in which to properly display his choreography. Behind the shiny coating lies a simplistic plot, flawed characters, an uneven visual style and a completely puzzling and unnecessary last act.

The film begins with a dramatic rescue of a Chinese prince led by the heroic General Su. Appreciative of his bravery and leadership, the prince offers Su a promotion to regional governor. Seeking a life of peace and wanting to start a family, Su instead recommends his step-brother Yuan for the position. From the outset, it is clear that Yuan suffers from overshadowed sibling syndrome and his resentment of Su is obvious. Fast forward five years later and Su and his wife Ying (Yuan's sister) have a son and are content living a quiet life. Yuan returns home, now as a powerful governor, with a bone to pick. Stuff happens which leads to a fight. Yuan, having perfected a deadly technique called the Five Venom Fists, defeats and badly injures Su, taking his son in the process. Su, broken and defeated, spends an inordinate amount of screen time feeling sorry for himself and then training to defeat Yuan and take back his son.

In the midst of all this are dream-like training montages where Su trains to the brink of insanity against the Wu Shu God. His sessions serve as a test against not just the legendary warrior but against himself as well. He needs to only regain the confidence he once had to not only defeat Yuan but also his own self doubt. The problem with these sequences is that after all the suffering and hardships he must endure, you never gain the sense that Su has truly learned anything from his training and self reflection. There is no aha! moment to signify his transformation, making his growth unconvincing. He wallows in his self pity for so long, it is hard to feel anything for him other than to know that he must persevere because that is just how movies go.

The eventual showdown between Su and Yuan is the highlight of the film as you get exactly what you expected, a no holds barred kung fu extravaganza. However, for whatever reason, the movie doesn't end after the fight. There is an additional thirty minutes tacked on in a completely unrelated narrative that destroys whatever growth or self realization that Su had in the first portion of the movie. Su degenerates into a unredeemable drunkard whose self loathing can be smelled from across the screen. He begs us to feel sorry for him, but instead we're just disgusted by what he's become and the glorious action of the first hour and a half is slowly washed away into an unmoving melodrama. Then, in the second grand finale of the movie, he takes on a bunch of Russians led by the late great David Carradine in an awkward cameo. Suddenly, I stopped caring how cool the fighting tried to look and could only focus on how monotonous it's all become and couldn't wait for it to end.

The acting and script leaves a lot to be desired. For instance, Yuan is so evil in this film, it's almost laughable. He kills at least ten of his own men out of anger, making me wonder why they are so quick to rush to him to give him bad news. The fighting sequences are very good, though there are portions that rely too much on style rather than the good old fashioned fighting we want to see. Yuen didn't need the cheap tricks to make the fighting sequences in Crouching Tiger compelling, so why do it here when he has such capable martial artists to carry the action at his disposal? Visually speaking, the picture is both beautiful and laughably generic. The real life landscapes are lush and vibrant, while the computer generated backdrops look made for TV rather than for a big budget (at least for Hong Kong standards) film, creating a very uneven look and feel, much like the rest of the film.

If the movie were to end after the battle between Su and Yuan, I would have given True Legend a solid B for its brisk and simple entertainment, but the final act basically ruins the the movie.

Grade: C+

Monday, May 23, 2011

Day 33 - Supercop (Police Story 3)

Supercop (Police Story 3) (1992) directed by Stanley Tong

Growing up in a Chinese household in the early 90's, my first exposure to action movies wasn't to Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone, but to Hong Kong stars like Chow Yun Fat and Jackie Chan whose action films, for my money, easily surpassed their Hollywood counterparts. In the years prior to Jackie Chan's big American success in Rush Hour and Shanghai Noon, Americans were slowly getting their feet wet with Chan in dubbed rereleases of some of his Hong Kong hits such as Rumble in the Bronx and Supercop.

I was positive I had seen this movie before when I was little but obviously I didn't remember anything from it, until I saw some of the familiar stunts which have somehow stuck with me after all these years. The Thailand shoot out and the helicopter/train scene were as familiar to me now as they were nearly twenty years ago. I streamed this over Netflix which has the English dubbed American release. Given that its an action comedy and that Jackie Chan and Michelle Yeoh participated in the dubbing process, it isn't a big distraction. Like the old martial arts flicks with the horrible dubbing, you didn't really care what they were saying anyways as long as they kicked ass. One weird thing they did in an obvious attempt to cater to an American audience is the inclusion of a hip hop soundtrack. It's not prevalent as there are only two scenes with with it playing in the background, but I was a little puzzled over hearing Tupac bumping at the boss's penthouse, complete with explicit lyrics and all. I somehow doubt a middle aged Chinese kingpin is listening to much gangster rap.

The plot follows Chan, a Hong Kong supercop, who is sent on an undercover mission to infiltrate a crime lord's gang. That's all you really need to know, really. The story arc should be familiar to anybody whose seen these type of undercover cop stories, but the real highlights are obviously the action sequences and the outrageous stunts, which this film has plenty of. Perhaps the best description I've ever read about the martial arts genre is that martial arts films are like musicals, in which there is a certain rhythm to them. There are plot points and dialogue to string you along until its about time for people to jump a motorcycle onto a moving train.

One thing that is markedly different from the more family friendlier films in Chan's catalogue is how violent Supercop is. There are surprisingly a lot of shootouts in this movie. It actually shouldn't be too shocking considering that the early 90's Hong Kong action films (especially John Woo and Chow Yun Fat movies) practically made an art out of mowing people down, but it's a little strange seeing Jackie Chan shooting someone. While the scenes are fine and have held up well even two decades later, I would have much rather seen more physical stunts by Chan and Yeoh.

As you all know, Jackie Chan is probably the most renowned stunt artist ever. The best part of a Jackie Chan movie comes at the end during the credits when they show the blooper reel. It's only then do you realize just how difficult it is to do what he does and just how dangerous it all is. The scene where Michelle Yeoh jumps a motorcycle onto a moving train lasts all of maybe three seconds in the movie and it's easy to overlook, but when you see her in the bloopers repeatedly skipping off the top of the train and falling ten feet off the side into a pile of boxes do you really appreciate their craft. Oh, did I mention that the train is moving? Speaking of Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Tomorrow Never Dies), she steals the show in this one as the best fighting sequences and the most outrageous stunts are saved for her (save for Jackie Chan's helicopter sequence). She, like Chan, would make a name for herself for doing all her own stunts and is considered one of the, if not, best female action stars of all time.

As for Jackie Chan, we all know he does his own stunts, has feet and fists as quick as lightning and finds interesting ways to use props and set pieces to do ridiculous physical feats, but he is also a master of physical comedy. While his action scenes are fast and intense, there is always a comedic element to them which leaves you smiling and nervous at the same time. In the scene where he is fighting on top of the train, he tiptoes precariously on the side railings flailing his arms about in a cartoonish frenzy reminiscent of old silent films. In fact, Chan credits a lot of his inspiration to the physical comedy of Buster Keaton, the early 20th century silent era star. I would have loved to see Chan do a black and white martial arts silent picture, which conceptually sounds amazing. It could be argued that Chan is in fact a modern day silent film star whose physical acting transcends language, which helps explain his universal appeal.

Grade: B+

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Day 32 - Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011) directed by Rob Marshall

Captain Jack is back in the fourth installment of the cash cow that is Pirates of the Caribbean. The first one was fun and exciting, one of the more memorable action adventures in recent memory. Then came the inevitable sequel that was too big for its britches, but the first Pirates was still fresh in our hearts and minds so we could let some of the transgressions slide in a passable encore. The third Pirates, to put it bluntly, was an abysmal and convoluted mess, pretty much ruining all the goodwill that the original created. But at least they seemed to tie all the loose ends in the storyline and mercifully laid the franchise to rest, or so we thought. I didn't think Johnny Depp would want to do another sequel as he seems like the kind of actor looking for new and interesting roles to take on, but there is only so much money you can turn down before you're like, "$56 million, really?" (I've read figures as low as $33m and as high as $75m but $56m seems to be the most quoted number, which would make this role the highest paid base salary for a movie ever.)

So going into On Stranger Tides, I wasn't expecting too much as my mouth was still bitter from the taste of At World's End and the previews looked less than promising. I had the misfortune of missing the 4:00 regular showing, so had to settle for the 4:30 3D showing. Word of advice to those who absolutely must see this film, please do not watch it in 3D. There are basically no 3D effects at all and the tint of the glasses make an already dark and murky picture look even darker. With my eyes feeling especially strained and some of the scenes unwatchable with the glasses on, there were moments I simply had to take them off to give my eyes a rest. And low and behold, there is barely any difference at all in the picture with the glasses on or off save for the little bit of fuzziness used in the layering effects for the 3D. I could not help but notice just how poor On Stranger Tides looked most of the time, which seems inexcusable for a big budget action adventure.

On Stranger Tides feels sloppy and lazy. The action scenes are surprisingly ho-hum and the laughs are few and far between. For a summer blockbuster, this movie doesn't feel fun at all. Depp seems to be going through the motions as there is only so much he can do with Jack Sparrow, who has lost so much of his luster over the course of these movies. While he was all the rage eight years ago, I doubt many people are going out this Halloween dressed as Captain Jack again. The story is messy, absurd, and at times hard to follow. More unforgivably, I simply didn't care what happened. Jack and other parties are looking for the fountain of youth for their own reasons, then there is something about catching mermaids, a woman from Jack's past (Penelope Cruz), the legendary pirate Blackbeard, and some pseudo-morality tale of faith and saving souls. By the time you get to the climatic finale, which is surprisingly good, you've already lost interest in the outcome.

Looking at the box office reports, it seems that On Stranger Tides has made a killing so far, but still a tad short of expectations. I'm sure by the end of its run, it will have made a nice little profit, but hopefully not enough for Bruckheimer and company to think about a Pirates 5, though it'll be interesting seeing Depp cash in the first ever $100m paycheck for a movie.

Grade: C-

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Day 31 - The Outlaw Josey Wales

The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) directed by Clint Eastwood

Clint effing Eastwood. The Man with No Name, Bill Munny and now, the outlaw Josey Wales. Okay, before I get ahead of myself, Josey Wales is not in the same caliber as the No Name trilogy or Unforgiven, but very few are.

The Outlaw Josey Wales has the set up of a revenge flick as we see Josey, a peaceful Missouri farmer, watch his family murdered in front of him by Union soldiers during the Civil War. He joins up with a Confederate rebel militia to fight with the notion of one day getting his revenge against the evil Captain Terrill that killed his family. Then there is a rather long montage of the war with that classic marching/ battle tune with trumpets and drums and repetitive and annoyingly loud gunfire. Didn't do it for me. Anyways, some time has passed and Josey Wales' outfit is offered amnesty by the Union Army, who as the average American probably doesn't know, won the Civil War. Still bitter, Josey is the only one who doesn't surrender. However, he does get to watch his former compadres get tricked and ultimately massacred by the blue coats. Extra points for the revenge factor. Josey tries to intervine by commandeering a gatling gun and mows down a bunch of the bad guys. Now Josey must live on the run as an outlaw as he is hunted by the blue coats and bounty hunters.

However, after that initial scene of his family dying, you never really do get the sense of injustice or anger in Josey. He, like Eastwood's famous Man with No Name character, is a taciturn individual leaving the viewer to try to guess his moods. It works in the No Name trilogy because that character already is who he is, he's thrust into situations without really needing to build his character. His actions speak for themselves. But in TOJW, Josey's stoic demeanor and silence doesn't help sympathize himself to the people around him or to the viewer. By the time you get to the middle of this long movie, you almost forget why he was so mad in the first place.

With both his actual and adopted families dead and gone, Josey doesn't have much time to reflect on his losses. He must live on the run as a drifter and loner, but slowly reconnects to humanity through the chance encounters he has along the way. First he meets a wily old Indian, played by Chief Dan George, who is unexpectedly hilarious. Along the way they add more people to their posse, a Navajo girl, an elderly woman and her granddaughter. Despite being a loner, Josey unwittingly becomes the leader and father figure of the group. Maybe now he can finally be at peace, but whatever momentary quiet they can find is always in jeopardy as Josey is still a wanted fugitive.

Eastood obviously has a stupendous screen presence as his mere scowl is enough to get grown men peeing in their pants. He plays Josey with a quiet determination similar to his Man with No Name, though there is much more room here for comedic elements. He has a lot of good funny interactions with Chief Dan George and has a bunch of quotables including gems like "Are you gonna pull those pistols or whistle Dixie?" One odd mannerism I'm not sure if meant to be humorous or to convey toughness is his trademark tobacco spit. He spits on everything, the floor, insects, dead folks, live folks and even a poor old dog (two or three times, for you PETA guys).

I'm not sure if it is the quality of the transfer on the DVD or if it was just filmed that way but the interior and night shots in this film are way too dark, to the point of being pitch black at times. You can barely see shapes moving across the screen. The shots of the western landscape, however, are very nicely done. It's amazing how beautiful a barren and dusty desert and look with a picturesque blue sky in the backdrop.

TOJW was sort of an uneven experience for me. It seemed to drag on forever in the first third, but once Josey meets up with the Indian, it picks up pretty fast. There is also the aforementioned revenge angle which I feel didn't have the impact it should have had. Also, most of the characters don't have much depth if any at all. In fact, most are stock characters. On the other hand... it's actually kind of hard to come up with an 'on the other hand' aside from Clint effing Eastwood. This film doesn't have any particularly weak points, making for a steady and relatively smooth ride, but there isn't really anything that jumps out as being remarkable.

Grade: B-

Friday, May 20, 2011

Day 30 - In the Realm of the Senses

In the Realm of the Senses (1976) directed by Nagisa Oshima

In the Realm of the Senses is based on real life events that occurred in Japan in 1936 where a woman asphyxiated her lover and then cut off his penis and testicles, carrying them around with her until her arrest. This film gained notoriety for its sexual content in which actors and actresses engage in actual penetrative sex and fellatio, breaking a long standing taboo of mainstream cinema. It certainly crosses the line between pornography and art, but pornography is meant to excite and arouse which is not the intent of this film, though I'm not even sure I understand why it is necessary to include these scenes to begin with. It doesn't really enhance the sense of erotism or to make any point other than to seemingly shock the viewer. To be fair, the actual explicit scenes (explicit being defined as penetration, not full frontal nudity which occurs throughout) only occur in several minutes in a couple of scenes in a film filled end to end with sex. Basically the entire film revolves around the two lovers Sada Aba and Kichizo Ishida doing it over and over again.

Sada is a young woman working at an inn who soon catches the eye of the inn's proprietor Kichizo. The two soon begin a torrid affair where they are consumed by each other's sexuality. The title of this film is aptly named as the two hedonists truly do live in the realm of the senses. All things else go by the wayside as they have sex in front of geishas and maids, not even stopping to have their room cleaned or to have sake poured for them. As the movie progresses, so do their sexual tastes and desires as they grow increasingly experimental and dangerous in their routines.

Sada begins the film as passive and submissive and slowly turns possessive and jealous. She brandishes a knife on Kichizo and jokingly threatens to cut off his penis if he goes back to his wife. You can sense the growing shift in the power dynamic between the two until Kichizo is resigned to be a puppet for her pleasures.

The main problem with this film is that the constant sex becomes tiring, which might have actually been director Nagisa Oshima's goal, to demonstrate their need to experiment more sexually and also to show just how much it is wearing down on Kichizo. It seems almost ironic to say that you wish there was less sex and more plot, but in this case it is true. While you get a good sense of their desire and passion, you don't really get much else in this film and the ending seems like a natural and inevitable progression rather than a shocking result. It sort of just happens. That isn't to say I wasn't intrigued. It's hard not to be slightly titillated by this film, but there is only so much you sex you can sell before before getting to the point of being monotonous.

Grade: C

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Day 29 - Batman: Under the Red Hood

Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010) directed by Brandon Vietti

I remember every day after school I would watch Batman: The Animated Series where I fell in love with the whole Batman mythology, a crime fighting superhero that used his wits and natural abilities to catch bad guys. And it was a great show too, arguably one of the best cartoon series ever and inarguably the best media representation of Batman in the 1990's, even including Tim Burton's live-action movies. The show was faithful to the source material, presenting a dark (well as dark as you could be for a kid's cartoon show) and mature Batman, something that the live action-films strayed away from. I still throw on an episode every now and then when I'm feeling nostalgic.

The guys over at DC and producer Bruce Timm have kept the animated Batman alive by releasing several full length features over the years to limited but respected fanfare. Such titles include Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993), Batman & Mr. Free: SubZero (1998) and Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman (2003). These films weren't simply extended episodes from the show; they were darker and more complex, almost cinematic. It wouldn't be until comic book movies really took off and especially with Christopher Nolan's Batman reboot that DC Universe Animated Original Movies was created to make high quality direct-to-video film projects. I've seen a bunch of them, mostly mediocre, but the ones that intrigued me the most always featured Batman, whether paired up with Superman or in the Justice League. Batman: Under the Red Hood marks DC Universe Animated Original Movies first full length Batman solo story and it is a winner.

Based on Batman comic book storylines "A Death in the Family" and "Under the Hood", the film is probably the closest I've seen to a true representation of the Batman universe, which is incredibly violent and dark. There are no qualms about showing savage beatings, murder, blood, and violence with guns. And right in the middle is Batman, whose sense of morality would seem like a weakness in such a harsh world, but is actually where he draws his strength from. Under the Red Hood deals a lot with morals, making the tough choice, living with decisions, consequences and regret. Batman is reminded of his biggest failure every day in his bat cave when he sees the Robin outfit in a glass case. It is a memento of his former ward and to serves as a reminder of the fact he was unable to save Jason Todd from being murdered by the Joker.

Five years after the death of Robin, Batman is still fighting crime in Gotham which has been overrun by Black Mask, a Tony Montana wannabe, who controls the crime in the city. However, there is a new face in town, the mysterious Red Hood, who seems intent on bringing Black Mask down and taking over. He isn't some ordinary criminal though. He seems to have an affinity and familiarity with Batman as well, playing a cat and mouse game with both Black Mask and the caped crusader. Batman must figure out a way to stop him and uncover his mystery.

To be clear, this is a straight to home video release, not a big studio production, so the animation is more reminiscent of its animated series roots than of a gorgeous hand drawn Disney picture. The pictures aren't crisp, but they get the job done and the dark muddled look of Gotham City is captured nicely. The action sequences are actually animated quite well. The voice acting is nicely done, though it's weird not having Mark Hamill play Joker's voice. Once he gets the evil laughing going though, you forget all about that and focus on how crazy and evil this clown really is. The script isn't perfect as there are some throwaway lines. Something that I've noticed a lot when watching movies lately is when two people are talking to each other and one person explains something for the audience's benefit rather than for the other person, which is pretty common in telling backstories and an easy way to explain something. In just sounds peculiar when people talk like that, it's as if they're reading from a book or something. Also, despite there being a mystery element in the plot, it is fairly obvious, though it almost seems intentional.

The main selling point to Under the Red Hood isn't the action or even necessarily the plot, but rather the character study it provides. It gives great insight into the minds and morals of both Batman and the Red Hood and the final showdown couldn't have been written better. This movie is a must see for any Batman enthusiast and even if you're not, it's still an intriguing story.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Bonus - The Chaperone

The Chaperone (2011) directed by Stephen Harek

Note: I'm not going to include this movie into my official count, so consider this one a freebie! You're welcome.

Honestly I don't even know how I ended up watching this movie. I got home last night a lot earlier than I thought I would and wasn't tired enough to sleep but not quite awake enough to watch anything meaningful. So fiddling around Netflix on my iPad (product placement), I stumbled upon this gem and just pressed play to see what Triple H was up to. For those of you who don't know who Triple H, or the Cerebral Assassin, is, where were you in the 1990's? This dude has won more championships than Hulk Hogan and The Rock combined! I think Dwayne Johnson can rest easy though; his spot as the best wrestler turned movie star ever is safe.

So, anyways, before I know it I'm 15 minutes into the movie and I still haven't seen anything terrifically bad to laugh at yet and was getting somewhat annoyed that this movie was starting to look passable. Then by the time I hit the 30 minute mark, I see that I'm still not any more tired than I was before and there's only about an hour left to go. Ray-Ray (Triple H) is just starting to try to reconnect with his long lost daughter after seven years in the slammer, so I figured I'd see how this one would play out. And then an hour later, it's 2:00 am and Ray-Ray regains his daughter's trust and love and the world is a happier place.

Okay, obviously the movie is not good. Despite being labeled as a comedy, it's not very funny, but I guess you can call it fun? Eh, not really. It's sort of just there. This movie has already taken up more time of my life (and yours now by reading this post) than it deserves, so I'll just leave it at that. It's definitely not the worst movie I've seen though, which was kind of a bummer.

Grade: D

- This movie also has a scene where an Asian guy goes all crazy with his kung fu only to be scared away by Triple H's mere presence, marking the second time I've seen this set up in the same day with two different movies.

Day 28 - Priest

Priest (2011) directed by Scott Stewart

Okay, I understand why this film got universally slammed by critics, but it really isn't that bad. While lacking anything remotely noteworthy, at least Priest moves along briskly without embarrassing itself too badly, keeping you mildly interested throughout. And after its crisp 87 minute run time, you shrug it off and be done with it, feeling neither repulsed or elated having seen it. (I knew this movie was in trouble when I saw the previews which looked like it was going for something epic and then saw that the runtime would only be 87 minutes, which typically means they shot a bunch of garbage they had to cut out and the story and characters are going to be paper thin, which they are.)

Priest is set in a post-apoptolytic word after a centuries long war between humans and vampires. Most of the human population lives within walled cities run by the totalitarian church. "To go against the church is to go against God" is repeated over and over throughout the movie. With the war over and the vampire menace contained, the highly trained super warriors, priests, are no longer needed in this new future and disbanded by the church, leading lonely lives having difficulty integrating into society. This is all explained with a two minute animation sequence that sets up the rest of the story.

On the outskirts of these walled cities are outposts and towns in a dusty western landscape, where a a pack of vampires attack a family and take their daughter, the priest's (Paul Bettany) niece. The position of the church is that there is no vampire menace and forbids the priest to go outside the city to search for her and to disobey these orders is to break his vow. After all, "to go against the church is to go against God." Catchy the first time they say it, but you get the point after like the seventh time in the first twelve minutes of the movie. Naturally, he looks for her. What results is a sci-fi/horror/western/action/adventure movie to find the girl and uncover the mystery of these new wave of vampires.

From the previews, it appeared that The Priest's main appeal would be its visual style, which, while grandiose, delivers nothing really spectacular or original. The dark and grimy futuristic cities are straight out of Blade Runner, but not as cool. The dusty and barren wasteland is exactly that. The vampires are gross and slimy, but clearly CGI creatures there to get sliced and diced. Half of the movie is set in dark and dungy spaces without much else going on. As much as I love The Matrix, bullet time has ruined the action movie genre, not because it isn't cool, but because its been the crux of lazy action choreographers for far too long. When the bullet time is the only appealing part of an action sequence, it probably needs more work, especially since we've seen it like a bazillion times the past decade. But overall, the film looks above average, which one would hope from a former visual effects guy (Scott Stewart) as the director, but nothing spectacular.

While the story keeps moving forward at a nice pace, it seems to have forgotten to take the character development and dialogue with it. Paul Bettany is dead serious and humorless without much to say. He is accompanied by fellow priest, or priestess, Maggie Q, who also never smiles, though does share some tender insight in like, one scene where I guess they needed to give some character to the characters. The sheriff, who I guess you could call Paul Bettany's sidekick in the movie is played by Cam Gigandet. He is awful and a walking talking cliche, simple as that. There are also some ungodly (pun intended) lines of dialogue that are real eye rollers.

All that said, nothing is absolutely horrible as others may suggest and put all together, The Priest manages to limp its way home to be a watchable, albeit forgettable, time killer you wouldn't have minded watching, unless there was something better of course. Of course I have an affinity towards these type of movies. Think of it as a better Judge Dredd, and come on, who cares enough or feels so indignant as to actually regret watching that movie? If you just look at it as a mindless summer movie, you get what you want out of it and I'm not ashamed to admit I enjoyed it. Tack this one up as a guilty pleasure.

Grade: C

- As an Asian, I must of course report anything racist I see. There is a scene where an Asian character goes all crazy with his kung fu only to get taken out with one simple blow. Standard.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Day 27 - Panic Room

Panic Room (2002) directed by David Fincher

If I had to make a list of my favorite directors right now, David Fincher would be somewhere at the top next to Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson and Darren Aronofsky. The guy basically never misses and it's a movie like Panic Room where he shows what a great director he is. I'll just put it out there right now, Panic Room is not a great film. There's only so much you can do with the premise and the screenplay, but that is precisely the point. Fincher manages to turn a run of the mill Hollywood popcorn flick into a well crafted and satisfying nail-biter with an incredible amount of suspense. An action movie with such a simple premise shouldn't be this good, yet it is.

A woman and her daughter move in to a new house and as luck would have it, that very night three intruders break in trying to find something hidden in the house's panic room. Sensing the intruders, the mother and daughter lock themselves in the room trying to figure out the next step as the intruders do their best to break in. During this home invasion, you can get the sense this isn't your typical popcorn flick as Fincher weaves his camera in and out, up and down, side to side in long continuous shots building up the suspense. One particularly effective technique that is used frequently is rather than cutting from the mother and daughter to the bad guys in the next room, the camera will instead pass right through the wall giving the viewer the sense just how close they really are to each other. You almost want them to get away from the wall in fear that the bad guys might just reach right through it to grab them.

There is, however, only so much you can do with the script. Despite the elements of suspense, there are no real surprises here as these kind of movies have to stick to the script as they say. That doesn't make it any less thrilling though. Jodie Foster carries the movie with her strong performance as the desperate mother trying to protect her daughter, played by Kristen Stewart in one of her earliest roles. The problem with the bad guys is that they seem pretty niched. Forrest Whitaker is a bad guy with a conscience who just wants to get the job done without hurting anybody. Jared Leto seems to be calling the shots but loses his composure quickly as things don't go according to plan, while Dwight Yoakam is a total wild card who has no qualms with using violence.

In the grand scheme of things, Panic Room ends up being an exciting little thriller that'll be lumped in the same category as the rest of them, but it deserves a little more respect than that. It manages to thrill and excite with a sense of style and artistry. While far from Fincher's best work, it still manages to outshine the typical Hollywood fare.

Grade: B

Monday, May 16, 2011

Day 26 - Death Wish

Death Wish (1974) directed by Michael Winner

I always wondered why the Gotham police department has such a problem with Batman. Here's this dude sticking his neck out to catch bad guys, which is their job by the way, and instead of thanking him, they try to hunt him down! What's up with that? Then I watch a movie like Death Wish and realize exactly why vigilante justice, and the notion of the comic book hero, could never work. It's dicks like Paul Kersey ruining the fun for everyone.

Okay we get it, you're grieving for your wife's murder and the rape of your daughter. You're tired of the injustice you see around you. Your city is filled with low lives and scum. You don't have the means to build a Batmobile or the physique to fit in a skin tight costume. All you got is a gun and this ridiculous looking mustache and your misplaced sense of social justice. But, Paul, let's call a spade a spade here. Why are you pretending to be a vigilante when you're actually a serial killer a la Dexter Morgan? You just want to see bad guys die, you cold hearted son of a bitch!

Apparently when Death Wish first came out it was panned by critics for its violence and message of vigilantism. I wouldn't have a problem with either if not for the fact that its so forcefully shoved down the viewer's throat. Death Wish actually does a good job in being a revenge flick where it can be exciting and powerful. Where it fails however is when it tries to act as some sort of social commentary when it just sounds pompous. Once Paul Kersey goes all Charles Bronson (i.e. badass) on the world, you can't go five minutes without some sort of conversation about vigilantism, crime, gun laws, etc etc. There is even a random unsolicited blurb at a cocktail party about the relationship between race and crime. Death Wish doesn't know if it wants to be an action film or some community college sociology discussion. In fact, the whole thing reeks of a propaganda piece, probably sponsored by the NRA or Batman himself. Well probably not Batman since he wouldn't condone of killing people.

I could even stomach the pro-gun pro-vigilante stance Death Wish takes if it weren't such a poorly conceived and poorly acted movie as well. Characters are completely one dimensional caricatures and New York City is like the end of Batman Begins where all the inmates escape and run wild through the city. I've seen Bronson before in his big hits like The Dirty Dozen and The Great Escape, but those performances escape me right now. His performance in Death Wish is mixed at best, though I'll admit he does appeal to me, though more for his legacy than his actual acting skills, which from my sample size of one seems pretty limited to me.

Grade: C

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Day 25 - The Lady Vanishes

The Lady Vanishes (1938) directed by Alfred Hitchcock

What do you do when you're so sure of something but nobody believes you? Do you quietly let it go or insist what in your mind must be true? There is an old psychology study that goes something like this: A teacher draws a straight line on the board and asks students to describe that line. She calls on a student who answers obviously, "It's a straight line." The teacher, however, gives a quizzical look and asks if someone else wants to try. Another student says, "That line is curved" to which the teacher nods in approval. The first student is obviously not buying it and insists that it's a straight line. Another student interjects and says that it is indeed a curved line and soon everybody in the room agrees with him that it is curved. If you're the one student who sees a straight line, what do you do? Maybe it is curved after all...

In The Lady Vanishes, a woman who bumps her head at a train station is taken care of by a fellow passenger, a friendly elderly woman named Mrs. Froy. When the woman, Iris, wakes up from a nap she discovers that the older lady is gone and nobody seems to remember having ever seen a Mrs. Froy on the train. Dun-dun-dun!!! Iris insists that Mrs. Froy is real and must be in trouble but has a difficult time getting people to believe her.

There is the classic Hitchcock suspense and intrigue, but I was surprised by the amount of humor and even romance involved, which seems out of place in this conspiracy mystery film. For instance, there is a fight scene in the middle that is almost whimsical rather than gripping. Despite the precarious nature of the premise, the underlining tension seems to be washed away by all the other things going on and by the time the mystery is revealed, the film takes a new course and turns into a whole new movie altogether. Also, while the first 25 minutes or so of the movie is used to establish characters, it seems almost unnecessary and irrelevant to the plot, including a well crafted, but unexplained and non-pertinent scene used for shock value more than anything.

Overall, a decent look into early Hitchcock. While the tension and drama is there, there is never that impacting wow moment that one expects from the master of suspense.

Grade: B-

- If you have ever seen the 2005 movie Flightplan, starring Jodie Foster, the premise should be somewhat familiar except the train is replaced by a plane. Flightplan borrows elements from The Lady Vanishes, including the clue in the glass window.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Day 24 - Knife in the Water

Knife in the Water (1962) directed by Roman Polanski

Okay I must have missed the boat here (pun sort of intended) because I don't get why this film has such high marks across the board. Roman Polanski's debut film pretty much got universal praise upon its release and even more since then and is widely considered a classic. I'm sure it must be great in many ways, but rather than try to sugarcoat it and just regurgitate other people's reviews, I will continue my ignorance and be perfectly honest. What's the big deal?

Knife in the Water only features three characters, a snobby upper class husband, his trophy wife and a young college age hitchhiker they pick up on the road. The two are on their way to a day trip on their boat and the husband invites the hitchhiker to come along. So the three of them are alone on this boat for a day where the rest of the movie revolves around the growing animosity between the two men. In the description of the movie, there is a supposed sexual tension going on between the three characters. Certainly there is a dynamic between the two men where one tries to assert his masculinity over the other. The older man tries to belittle the younger by making him do menial tasks on the boat and by asserting his intellectual superiority, especially his knowledge of sailing in which the young man has none. The younger man responds by showing off his brawn and weiding a gigantic pocket knife, pure hunter-gatherer style. But while they are jockeying for alpha male on the boat through their banal banter, the woman looks on with disinterest as if listening to the arguments of two children. One would assume that there'll be a growing rift between the husband and wife as the younger man and her interact, but that simply doesn't happen. There seems to be no sexual tension whatsoever between the young man and woman as they seem totally uninterested in each other throughout much of the movie. There is one scene where he accidentally takes a quick glance in her direction as she's undressing, but it seems like an honest mistake. They don't make any passes at each other, no subtle seduction or flirtation, so where is the tension? What is the real conflict here other than the husband being an ass and the young man being a punk? It doesn't seem like the husband should be at all jealous or worried about the other guy advancing on his woman.

So the real conflict is this class struggle between this high society snob and this poor college kid. Assuming that they get into any deep philosophical debates to drive this forward (which they don't), why should I care? What does it mean for this guy to order the other guy around on the boat and what does it say about the difference in class and social structure? What is Polanski trying to tell the viewer? The overall message seems simplistic, not profound, and it would help if he demonstrated this point in any kind of interesting manner.

All that aside, the real problem with Knife in the Water is that it is monotonous, tedious, and at times, dare I say, boring, which is completely contradictory to most other reviews. So clearly I must be a Neanderthal. Perhaps I am being overly harsh because there are certainly interesting moments, which in a vacuum are good scenes, but taken as a whole, don't seem to be leading anywhere. By the time things finally get dicey, you wonder if it was worth the wait.

If there is one saving grace to Knife, it is that it is very well shot. Virtually the entire movie is filmed on water and Polanski and his cinematographer don't miss a beat. It makes you think just how nice it would be to just be out on a boat on a nice sunny day. Picturesque would be an appropriate word. Perhaps my favorite shot is a rather trivial one but it demonstrates Polanski's creativeness. The young man lies on his back on the deck of the boat looking up at his finger blocking the sun. He squints with one eye open with the other closed and rapidly switches his eyes back and forth. The resulting effect is a jump cut back and forth with his finger slightly to the right, then left, then right.... A neat little trick.

Overall, Knife in the Water, while having its moments, left a lot to be desired. The concept seemed intriguing, but everything that supposedly happens doesn't happen for me. Maybe I am the young man in the movie, ignorant of the world, while Polanski and the film elite is the husband pointing their noses down at me.

Grade: C+

Friday, May 13, 2011

Day 23 - Bridesmaids

Bridesmaids (2011) directed by Paul Feig

Kristen Wiig, of SNL fame, finally gets her own vehicle to star in in the new Judd Apatow produced comedy, Bridesmaids. Think Knocked Up, but where the circle of friends are ladies rather than dudes. Wiig, who I've been a big fan of for a while in her often hilarious minor roles, pulls no punches in her writing and comedic style and is as rude and crude as any comedian with a penis. There are plenty of sex jokes and gross out gags. She even manages to call a twelve year old girl the dirty C word. Female comedians are often held to an unfair standard where they not only have to be funny but ladylike as well. The hell with that, if a woman wants to tell sex and fart jokes, let her, as long as she brings out the laughs. I think we've matured enough as a society to the point that if a joke is funny, it's funny, no matter who tells it.

Bridesmaids follows the story of a down on her luck woman, Annie (Wiig), whose best friend Lilian (fellow SNL member Maya Rudolph) asks her to be her maid of honor. Lilian has her own little world that Annie's not a part of with friends Annie's never met. Immediately tensions flare up as Annie is introduced to Lilian's other best friend, the seemingly perfect Helen, an upper class socialite that Annie cannot relate to. As the date gets closer to the wedding, Annie's life spirals further downwards as she must accept her changing world and deal with her own issues.

This movie is funny, sometimes uproariously so, but at times over the top crude. While vulgar jokes have become the norm, especially in Apatow produced movies, there are instances in Bridesmaids where it feels dirty just for the sake of being dirty. It's not a "I don't want to watch girls do that" thing, but a "I don't want to watch anybody do that" thing. One character in particular, Megan (Melissa McCarthy), is so obnoxiously out of left field that she detracts from the movie. While at times funny, her character is entirely unbelievable and purely there for gags. I would rather have more screen time go to Wiig's wacky antics.

This is a long comedy that could have spent a little more time in the editing room. I felt that some scenes were allowed to go on a tad too long or unnecessary all together if the script was a little tighter. It seems that they wanted to fit in as many jokes as possible and didn't know which ones to get rid of. There were some hit or miss moments that could have been left out and progress the story a little bit faster and more efficiently.

This is a fine movie that displays Kristen Wiig's talents as a writer and comedian and is the obvious star here. With some more fine tuning, Bridesmaids could have been better (can't you say that about any movie?), but it's hard to complain about a movie that is at times so genuinely funny.

Grade: B

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Day 22 - The Princess Bride

The Princess Bride (1987) directed by Rob Reiner

For my tens of loyal fans out there, you may have noticed I did not have an entry for Thursday, May 12, but it wasn't my fault! Blogger.com was down for like 30 hours and I was unable to post my entry, but I had it all ready to go and everything! I swear! Luckily I've found out that I can fiddle with the timestamp of my post and just set it for May 12th and you'll be none the wiser! Bwahaha!

As the grandfather opens his book to read to his grandson, the uncertain youth asks, "A book?" to which the grandfather replies, "That's right. When I was your age, television was called books. And this is a special book… And today I'm going to read it to you." At first the kid is reluctant to hear the story, afraid it might be one of those "kissing books" much in the same way the typical guy might roll his eyes at the idea of having to watch another chick flick on a date.

The kid is sure to cover his bases and asks his grandpa, "Has it got any sports in it?"
Incredulous, the grandfather replies, "Are you kidding? Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles..."

And so begins the famed fantasy-action-adventure-romantic-comedy bed time story, The Princess Bride. This movie basically has it all, romance for the ladies, heroes and villains and adventure for the kids, and surprisingly witty and snappy comedy for the guys, the ultimate family film. It's a formula that studios like Pixar have adopted so well in making movies with universal appeal. The Princess Bride is light hearted fun, but its most appealing aspect, at least to me, is how funny it is. Characters deliver absurd lines with deadpan precision, but doesn't degenerate itself into a slapstick farce like Mel Brooks or Monty Python pictures, retaining its sense of charm. It pokes fun at the fairy tales of our youth and imagianation, yet embraces them at the same time, entrenching itself into the genre and our hearts.

Simple, short and sweet, just like my writing!

Grade: A-

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Day 21 - Thor

Thor (2011) directed by Kenneth Branagh
Lots of weird stuff going on blogger.com right now deleting posts and such, this is the second time I've posted this....

Intro Rant:
When I first heard that they were making a movie on Thor I was somewhat skeptical because I wasn't sure how he would translate onto film. How would he be portrayed? How would they demonstrate his powers? Thor, in the comics and in Norse mythology, isn't just a superhero, but a god. One of the big appeals of recent comic book hits like Iron Man and Batman is actually the human element. Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne are regular human beings who do extraordinary things without any special powers. It leaves open the possibility that they could actually exist in our realities, maybe even be one of us (if we were billionaires of course). Even more improbable heroes like Spiderman or the X-Men deal with human problems on human levels. Peter Parker is just the dorky guy next door, your friendly neighborhood spiderman as he likes to proclaim. However, once you start going into Superman category, it stretches the boundaries of what is actually possible and messes with the balance of realism and imagination. In the DC universe, you have Batman patrolling Gotham City fighting crime, and is the very best that human kind can offer. But once Superman enters the picture, Batman's abilities becomes irrelevant in the face of such an awesome force. Superman can fly, can travel faster than speeding bullet, is virtually indestructible, saves entire planets, no, universes, while Batman has trouble protecting one tiny city. Given the realistic approach Christopher Nolan has given his Batman series, a crossover with Superman would never work in his vision, even if they are great allies in the comics. Hell, even bad guys that actually exist in Batman lore like The Penguin, Killer Croc or Mr. Freeze would be difficult to portray in Nolan's more realistic world.

One of the conflicts with Thor is that in order to acknowledge his existence, you have to throw disbelief out the window and fully embrace not just comic book lore but also its supernatural and extraterrestrial ethos. You have to expand our tiny world into Marvel's vision of the greater universe, which feels drastically different from the world presented to us in Iron Man. How is Thor supposed to fit into Tony Stark's world without totally diminishing Iron Man's status as a hero? I only bring this up because of amount of cross promotion between the recent Marvel films for the upcoming Avengers movie which throws these two together, along with what seems like a realistic portrayal of Captain America and other heroes.

Finally I talk about the movie:
My suspicions only grew as we spend much of the early part of the movie in Thor's home world Asgard across the galaxy. This superhero movie starts to feel a lot more like a fantasy/adventure in the lines of Lord of the Rings or Star Wars than a rock'em sock'em action flick. Thor's home world looks so incredibly computer generated (read fake) it's hard to imagine someone from this plane existing in our planet, let alone a desolate spot like New Mexico, yet the narrative manages to find a nice balance between the events on Asgard and on Earth, though nothing really important seems to happen on Earth.

Thor is a big, big picture with a pretty loaded cast including the likes of Natalie Portman and Anthony Hopkins (and future star hunk Chris Hemsworth). There are big sets and big effects, but practically everything is done in front of a green screen, giving much of the film an artificial look. Despite the big production, the premise remains simple. Thor, who is arrogant and brash, must learn to be a better person by living amongst humans. So we get a character study dressed up in a big action picture, yet his transformation doesn't really seem to jive. There doesn't seem to be the gradual progression or the "Aha!" moment that signifies Thor's change; we sort of just accept that he does. There is, of course, the girl factor. Superman had Louis Lane to keep him grounded on Earth. Thor has Jane Foster, astrophysicist, yet their romance seems just as unconvincing as the rest of the picture. Am I supposed to believe they just fall for each other, that Thor would suddenly turn into the hero he is because of some girl he's known for like, three days?

Despite the paltry character development and heavy reliance on big effects, it does get the job done as a big summer blockbuster. The special effects are sure to wow some people, while the "epic" story will be enough to hook others in. There is some well timed humor sprinkled throughout and the obligatory (though somewhat underwhelming) battles. Chris Hemsworth flexes his muscles and is generally pretty charming, along with a solid performance by his supporting cast. This movie does feature TWO Academy Award winners after all. Given the difficult source material to work with, Thor does a decent job in introducing us to one of Marvel's lesser known heroes in a generally entertaining summer blockbuster. At least it's done its job to keep me interested to see how he fares side by side Robert Downy's star power in The Avengers.

Grade: B