Archive for the ‘action/adventure’ category

The Raid 2

April 13, 2014

20140413-183333.jpg2011′s The Raid: Redemption, which delighted fanboys the world over, was a simple siege film with some of the most elaborately brutal martial-arts sequences seen in years. Its writer-director, Gareth Evans, a Welshman working in Indonesia, had envisioned a much bigger and more complex crime drama called Berandal; the financing fell through, so he and his star, the young pencak silat master Iko Uwais, decided on the more controlled and less expensive story of The Raid. Now, on the heels of The Raid‘s success, Evans has reworked the Berandal script as a sequel, putting Uwais’ indomitable cop hero Rama undercover to infiltrate a major gang.

Now, part of the pleasure of The Raid was that it got in and out in 100 minutes. The Raid 2 goes on for almost an hour longer. In this case, less is more, even if the extended length allows Evans more opportunities for bone-splintering fight choreography. The fanboys, of course, will rise to the added beef. They don’t seem to mind overlength, as witness the success of the Marvel movies, almost all of which come in north of two hours (the latest Captain America tips the scales at two hours and sixteen minutes). They might not even mind that a good percentage of the big action numbers don’t even involve Rama. He sort of drifts through what’s supposed to be his movie, yanked into the fray every so often. I imagine the original drafts of Berandal either kept the undercover-cop character largely on the sidelines or didn’t have one at all. If he was an important element in those drafts, he really isn’t one now.

Ass-kicking females are always popular with the fanboys, perhaps so they can claim that the hyper-masculine entertainment they enjoy isn’t sexist. So here we get a character known as “Hammer Girl” (Julie Estelle), whose specialty is killing people with hammer claws. She wears sunglasses and kills with zero perceptible emotion. She never talks (she’s deaf). She’s cool. She’s also not a person. Aside from her, the only women we meet are bimbos in a nightclub, a strap-on-wearing porn actress, and Rama’s long-suffering wife, whom Rama calls so that he can hear the sounds of his son at play in the background. His wife has been waiting for him throughout his two-year stint in prison (so that he can get into the good graces of a mob boss’s son in jail) and however long his post-prison life among the gangsters takes, and mostly his one phone call to his wife consists of silence so he can listen to his male child. Nope, not sexist at all. But hey, we got a girl who kills guys with hammers!

I shouldn’t have expected more, though the ecstatic notices in the geek press must’ve led me on. As a portfolio of martial-arts moves and ferocious carnage that reportedly won an R rating by the skin of its teeth, The Raid 2 is as chunky and adrenalized as the first one. People are pummeled, slashed, stabbed, shot, and otherwise treated impolitely; one lucky fellow gets a big hole shotgunned into his face. The sound of an aluminum baseball bat connecting with a skull is as viscerally cringe-inducing as it’s always been. As with many martial-arts sequences, though, the villains obligingly attack the hero one at a time; only once or twice do we see a group of men ganging up on someone. This sort of thing calls attention to itself as choreography, though I can see that it fills a desperate need among fans of action films, which too often give us computer-generated people fighting. Here, at least, we can see these are real humans risking and taking injury. It’s probably no accident that the martial-arts genre rose at about the same time that song-and-dance musicals were dying. People crave physical elegance and they’ll take it in action flicks (or in stuff like the Step Up series) if they have to.

Acting is not part of the elegance, and Iko Uwais is a conscientious nonactor; there’s more going on with Arifin Putra, who plays Uco, the mob boss’s ill-tempered and spoiled son, whom Rama must befriend. A smoothie of the type that used to be described as “dashing,” Putra brings a charge of decadence and privilege to his scenes. Uco ends up donating blood all over the carpet, along with most everyone else except the unstoppable cipher Rama. Like its predecessor, The Raid 2 doesn’t do anything plotwise that hasn’t been done 7,498 times before; its distinction is its feral, pounding fight scenes. Gareth Evans films them well. But his movies feel more like demo reels than like, you know, movies, much less cinema. He’s being praised for action you can actually see, follow and get excited by, and for telling tried-and-true stories; in other words, he’s being praised for being competent.

Divergent

March 23, 2014

20140323-202716.jpgThere are five factions in the futuristic society of Divergent, and it just figures that the heroine, Beatrice “Tris” Prior (Shailene Woodley), would pick the Dauntless faction. The Dauntless are society’s warriors and protectors, and thus are subject to grueling training designed to test an initiate’s courage. When not training, the Dauntless while away the afternoons by running around, climbing things, and jumping off other things. What if Tris had chosen the Erudites, the smarties of society? Would her training consist of harrowing, highly cinematic algebra quizzes? Or what if she’d opted for Amity, the people who work the land and are noted for their kindness? Would we have an $80 million blockbuster about how Tris must face the horrific final test — being nice to cranky customers at a farmers’ market?

As it is, Divergent might as well be called Dauntless, because for most of the running time, Tris, who was born into the Abnegation faction (selfless people who help others), takes many beatings and worries incessantly about not making the cut in her Dauntless training. (Those who flunk out become “factionless,” denied the option to return home or to try their luck in another faction.) Tris, though, is a special snowflake: she’s a Divergent, meaning that she — gasp! — has more than one trait. She could fit in with Abnegation, Dauntless, or Erudite. So she’s really dangerous to this post-apocalyptic society that has arranged everyone according to dominant trait to “preserve the peace.”

I don’t really get what any of that has to do with peace. Maybe it’s explained in Veronica Roth’s trilogy of books, which I haven’t read and, judging by my boredom with the movie, will probably skip. It’s really just an elaborate metaphor for Being Your Own Beautiful Self, which apparently goes over well with readers of a certain tender age. Divergent has been compared to The Hunger Games, but at least Suzanne Collins’ fantasy had some sort of real-world relevance, even edging up to social satire. But Divergent‘s concerns seem largely solipsistic — there’s little or no larger meaning to it at all. Unlike Katniss Everdeen, who survived and became an inspiration due to a combination of luck, guts, brains and compassion, Tris just hits the genetic lottery, which is hazardous to her in the short term but will likely shake out with her as the heroine of a newly diverse and less regimented society by the third movie.

There’s little or no filmmaking excitement in Divergent, either. The director is Neil Burger, a journeyman hack who merely points and shoots, never pausing to take in beauty or terror. There’s a tiny bit of both in sequences in which Tris and, later, her Dauntless trainer and love interest Four (Theo James) submit to chemically-induced hallucinations of their deepest fears. Apparently Tris is scared of birds, fire, and drowning, while Four dislikes heights. The hallucinations at least pack a slight visual-surreal charge mostly absent from the rest of the movie, which unfolds in the gunmetal-blue Dauntless quarters or in sterile offices. I sensed no connection between Burger and this material, no urgency on his part to tell this story and open up its truths.

The gentle-featured Woodley is fine and humble as the heroine, and Kate Winslet brings cold efficiency to her performance as Jeanine Matthews, the Erudite leader who wants to overthrow the Abnegations’ control over society. I didn’t get that, either: the smart people want to go to war with the selfless people? Are this movie’s politics insane, or just nonexistent? I don’t see brainiacs like Neil deGrasse Tyson gunning for people like the Dalai Lama. Divergent also verges on saying the military is a mindless hive brainwashed by the Harvard-educated ruling class, which is more cynical than anything in The Hunger Games and an insult to ex-military men like Daniel Ellsberg. In short, the divvied-up society presented here makes no internal or subtextual sense. It doesn’t refer to anything other than a generic “fight the Man” theme — and, of course, the Man here is an intelligent woman. So, despite its kick-ass heroine, the movie doesn’t really diverge much from the standard path of Hollywood sexism at all.

Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons

March 16, 2014

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A Western reader might want to think of Journey to the West, Wu Cheng’en’s 16th-century novel, as the Chinese equivalent of The Odyssey — a seminal epic that has informed hundreds of stories in all media over the years. The tale of a Buddhist monk, Tang Sanzang (or Xuanzang), on a pilgrimage to find sacred texts, its most recent iteration was 2008′s Jackie Chan-Jet Li vehicle The Forbidden Kingdom. Now we have Stephen Chow’s version, whose subtitle, Conquering the Demons, suggests that this is only the first of a series; indeed, it functions largely as a prequel, examining the humbler days of Xuanzang (Wen Zhang) as a fledgling demon-hunter and how he first encounters the three demons who will later, at the movie’s end, accompany him on his quest.

Stephen Chow has been down this road before; in 1995 he starred in the two-part A Chinese Odyssey, wherein he played one of Xuanzang’s servants. In recent years Chow has come into his own as an actor-director whose films Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle won him an enthusiastic cult in the west. This is his first film in eight years (since the rather lukewarmly received CJ7), and the first he’s directed but does not appear in. Chow is 51 now, and possibly getting a bit long in the tooth for such roles as Xuanzang or even the Monkey King, the role he played in A Chinese Odyssey, here filled by the grimacing Huang Bo. Chow settles instead for infusing the film with his obvious love for over-the-top action, melodrama, slapstick, and movie references. As an instance of the latter, the opening sequence dealing with a water demon terrorizing a village is Chow’s opportunity to rewrite Jaws, if Jaws ended with the shark reverting to human form and Roy Scheider reciting nursery rhymes to it.

Yes, that’s Xuanzang’s M.O. Instead of destroying demons, Xuanzang, following the beliefs of his master, prefers to reform them through moral mnemonics. This puts him in conflict with fellow demon-hunter Miss Duan (Shu Qi), who takes a decidedly more Buffy-esque approach. Miss Duan disdains Xuanzang’s ineffectual methods but finds herself falling in love with the asexual monk-in-training, going so far as to stage an ambush with several colleagues to get him to have sex with her. (Which would seem unfathomably gross if the genders were reversed, but never mind; Chow never passes up a chance for a laugh, even when the jokes verge on homophobic.) Xuanzang would probably get killed without Miss Duan, but his destiny as an enlightened monk depends on his adherence to nonviolence — Chow subtly sets up a dialectic between force and persuasion.

For fans of the freewheeling Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle, Chow breaks out one elaborate set-piece after another, employing not-always-convincing special effects to pit humans or gods against beasts. The water demon is an appetizer; most of the movie deals with the pursuit of (and retreat from) a fearsome pig demon, leading up to Xuanzang’s climactic encounter with the Monkey King, the most powerful of all. Chow pulls out the stops, introducing Buddha himself as a deus ex machina who hovers above earth like the Star Child in 2001. The action, as with Chow’s previous films, is flat-out cartoonish — a live-action anime — but always with grave stakes underneath. Even when the computer-generated beasties falter in verisimilitude, the movie is still ecstatic eye candy.

But again, this is only the prologue of a much larger story, which may frustrate the uninitiated. Journey to the West has already shattered box-office records in its native Hong Kong and elsewhere, so sequels are all but guaranteed; let’s hope Chow gets the next one in the can in fewer than eight years. I enjoyed the tension, so prevalent in Asian cinema, between brutal physicality and peaceful philosophy; in the martial arts these are two sides of the same coin, something Jet Li, for example, explored in his Fearless. In order to be worthy of the Buddhist scriptures he seeks, Xuanzang must believe that the monsters who try to kill him are worthy, and capable, of redemption. It’s an oddly pleasing theme, and ending, for a shoot-the-works action-comedy.

300: Rise of an Empire

March 9, 2014

300-Rise-of-an-Empire-Spoilers-EndingIn 300: Rise of an Empire, this most testosteronal of movie franchises passes into the ungentle hands of women. On Greece’s side, there’s Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), the Spartan widow of valiant Leonidas from the original 300. On Persia’s side, we have Artemisia (Eva Green), naval commander and all-around vicious warrior. It’s one of the movie’s many failings that Gorgo and Artemesia never have a scene together; they may never have met in actual history, but the film makes such blithe hash of history anyway that an exchange between Gorgo and Artemesia, their words so hostile that their speech balloons in a comic book would have icicles hanging off them, wouldn’t have made much difference other than to add some welcome female camp to a movie loaded with manly camp.

This 300 isn’t exactly a sequel to the first, since its story unfolds before, during, and after the legendary Spartan attempt to hold off the Persians. So it has an unavoidable whiff of “Here’s something else that was happening.” It’s essentially a sidebar to the main story. It’s based, we’re told, on the graphic novel Xerxes by Frank Miller, who also wrote/drew the original 300. Xerxes hasn’t actually come out yet, but, we’re also told, it should show up in comic-book stores sometime this year. I assume Miller made some sketches and preliminary pages available to the filmmakers, as well as the basic plot, but what’s missing here is the graphic charge that made Zack Snyder’s original movie good eye candy for a while. Under the direction of Noam Murro, 300: Rise of an Empire tries hard to follow in Snyder’s footsteps — plenty of speed-ramping slow-mo action — but it just comes across as an imitator.

The heroes here are the Athenians, led by stoic beefcake Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) at sea. The Athenians aren’t as hardcore as the Spartans — remember the Spartans razzed them as “boy-lovers” in the first film — but they still love Greece and freedom, and that’s pretty much all there is to them. The Persians, ruled as before by hulking Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), want to crush Greece, and Artemisia, born Greek but traumatized as a child when Greek soldiers “raped and murdered her family,” wants to seduce Themistocles onto her team. Their resulting sex scene is probably the most ludicrous such thing I’ve seen in a film since Elizabeth Berkley and Kyle MacLachlan went at it in a pool in Showgirls. It doesn’t work on noble Themistocles, though. Afterward, Themistocles does the walk of shame back to his men, while Artemisia presumably does the ancient-world equivalent of eating cookie-dough ice cream and blasting Alanis Morissette.

Laughable as the sex scene is, it at least provides some comic relief, as opposed to the brutal ludicrousness of everything else in the movie. People (mostly Persians) get carved up practically nonstop, impaled, dismembered, stomped by horses. Their blood floats lazily in the air in lackadaisical digital blobs. Is it because the carnage is so stylized that 300: Rise of an Empire got through the ratings process with an R instead of a teen-prohibitive NC-17? If a mere slasher movie boasted this much splatter, it’d have to go back to the editing room many times before qualifying for an R. The problem is, this movie is a mere slasher movie. You go to slasher movies to see psychos slice up teenagers, and you go to the 300 movies to see Greeks slice up Persians.

Sketching in Artemisia’s backstory, the movie seems to want to zip past her motivating rage — uh, your heroes the Greeks raped her mom and killed her dad — as quickly as possible. Eva Green, who between this and Dark Shadows is developing into an actress with a definite taste for outré roles, keeps the rage front and center anyway, becoming by far the reason to sit through the film. Lena Headey, too, does her share of grief-stricken seething. That the movie thinks we’re more interested in faceless men shredding faceless men than in watching these two formidable women is proof that nobody on the creative team (including Zack Snyder, who gets a co-screenwriting credit) was really at the wheel. If some network were to make an entire series about Artemisia and Gorgo — maybe they team up to fight crime, I don’t even care — and the actresses returned to play them, I would sit for every episode five times each and join the show’s goddamn Facebook fan page.

Pompeii

February 23, 2014

Pompeii-Movie-2014-Kit-HaringtonFor a minute, I thought Pompeii was going to do something narratively exciting. We can’t have a 105-minute movie solely devoted to Pompeii being annihilated, so we get a few feeble plot threads we’re supposed to pretend to care about while waiting for Vesuvius to do its thing. We’ve got Milo (Kit Harington), the hero, a soulful Celtic slave turned gladiator, whose gentle way with horses catches the attention of young noblewoman Cassia (Emily Browning). Milo is pissed because when he was a boy, stinky Roman soldier Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland) killed his whole family. Wouldn’t you know, though, that Milo is brought to the city of Pompeii as a gladiator around the same time that Corvus, now a senator, shows up there looking to invest in rebuilding the city and take Cassia as his wife?

What would’ve made Pompeii fantastic would be to sink forty minutes or so in all this plot and then have disaster strike, wiping out both the city and the narrative. Milo, Cassia, Corvus: none of that matters now, everyone’s going to die, the Romans along with the “savages,” the innocent next to the corrupt. But Pompeii insists on riding its threadbare story to the bitter ashy end. Everything is resolved tidily. Pompeii crumbles, drowns and burns — the gods throw every last element at the city — but a few characters skitter around in the wreckage to tie up loose ends. I’ve said it for a while now: if there’s one genre that doesn’t need neat three-act structure and character development, it’s the disaster movie. We don’t go to a fireworks show to be involved in the plight of a young fireworks technician who must win the hand of a comely young pyromaniac. We just go to see the lights and feel the thunder in our bellies.

Pompeii leads up to perhaps the biggest fireworks show in recorded history, but its impact is muted by the dull foreground figures. I suspect a better movie could have been made from the 2003 novel of the same name by Robert Harris, who wrote a script for Roman Polanski to direct; the Actors’ Strike in 2007 killed the project (Polanski and Harris turned to The Ghost Writer instead). To be fair, though, few would wish a megabudget disaster flick on a master of intimate menace like Polanski in his dotage. One requires a director with a more enthusiastic chessboard-scattering hand, like Roland Emmerich (2012, The Day After Tomorrow).

Paul W.S. Anderson got the job instead, and his resumé — including a batch of Resident Evil films and assorted other works in the realm of sci-fi or horror or both — reveals more ease with post-apocalypse than with ongoing apocalypse. Anderson knocks out a few reverberant images early — for instance, dead Celtic warriors hanging from a tree — but doesn’t find much in the repetitive shenanigans of Vulcan to sustain his energy. The festivities begin as tremors that everyone either ignores or comments on with a frown (“Is that normal?” asks Milo after a particularly demonstrative rumble). After a while, as fireballs rain down on Pompeii, the wrath of the gods is just something from which heroes and villains alike must flee. To the harbor! No, wait, the harbor’s rubbish now. To the hills! Oh, hell, we’re all buggered — let’s fight, or kiss, or do something that the audience deems a worthy stance in the face of lava!

Kiefer Sutherland milks a few suavely evil moments out of his rotten senator, accompanied by right-hand man Proculus, played by Sasha Roiz of NBC’s guilty-pleasure series Grimm. This started me thinking that a better actor for steadfast Milo than the inert Kit Harington would’ve been Silas Weir Mitchell, who plays Grimm’s fan-favorite character Monroe; lost in that reverie, I let about five expensive minutes of the movie slip away from me. (Pompeii is another $100 million baby, which in this era of the $200 million blockbuster practically makes the second Terminator film look like the first Terminator film; remember when Terminator 2’s $102 million price tag was considered scandalous?) Jared Harris and Carrie-Anne Moss dither around as the benevolent but weak ruler of Pompeii and his wife; they’re supposed to reassure the audience that not all rich people back then deserved to turn into ashtrays. Pompeii may or may not have an Occupy Rome message rattling around in it; the nobles who come to see the slaves kill each other are vaporized, all right, but so are the common folk for whom Rome intends gladiatorial combat as panem et circenses to distract them from gross inequity. In the end, the gods wipe the slate clean regardless of who was nice to horses or nasty to women and children. I suppose Pompeii can lay claim to being possibly the year’s only movie to kick off with a quote from Pliny the Younger, though we should cautiously note that Transformers 4 hasn’t come out yet.

Thor: The Dark World

November 10, 2013

thor_new_still_official1Tiresome as the Thor movies can be, they occasionally yield oddball beauty on a level that you can only see in a movie that cost one hundred and seventy million American dollars. In Thor: The Dark World, for instance, there’s a gorgeously rendered Viking funeral (never mind for whom), and an evil red substance called The Aether that gooshes around in mid-air, and a “Dark Elf” named Malekith (Christopher Huddleston) who looks like a cross between Legolas and Count Orlok and who wants the Aether, but can’t have it because it flows in the veins of astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). There’s also a bit when Thor (Chris Hemsworth), our hammer-wielding hero, gazes out at the stars, and there’s just a hint of Kirby Krackle to them — one of the visual trademarks of legendary Marvel artist Jack Kirby, who helped create Thor and so much else of the Marvel universe, and whose heirs will get the following percentage of this film’s mighty profits: zero. Just a reminder.

So Jane’s been Aetherized, and Thor must protect her from Malekith while making sure that the Convergence of the Nine Realms goes off without a hitch. Got it? Heroine has something, bad guy wants it, good guy fends off bad guy. Got it. You need that simple thread to hold onto, because Thor: The Dark World, like so many other superhero sagas, clots its arteries with a great deal of plot cholesterol. The plot, indeed, relies on endless plotting to keep itself going — people are always scheming, and not just Thor’s trickster-god brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston). For some reason, Thor has to go behind the back of his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) to save the day, and this involves brawling with a good many Asgardian soldiers who are just doing their jobs, trying to get through the workday without having to chase some idiot in a spaceship. It also involves putting a large amount of trust in Loki, who, as wryly played by Hiddleston, is much the best reason to see the movie.

These Marvel movies may be full of pomp and circumstance — one legacy left by bombastic, alliteration-smitten Marvel co-creator Stan Lee — but thank Odin they have some humor, unlike the mopey, overlong DC epics we’ve been getting. Kat Dennings helps bring the proceedings down to earth as Jane’s BFF and assistant Darcy; her snark is just what’s needed in this fantasy-sci-fi behemoth that straddles worlds. Other women in the film, from Asgardian warrior Sif (Jaime Alexander) to Thor’s mother Frigga (Rene Russo), get to kick some ass, and Jane’s physics aptitude helps save the universe. It takes a while for this big machine to creak into motion, but once it’s headed for the finish line it involves everybody on every conceivable level — nobody sits on the sidelines, except maybe Odin, though Hopkins is still in full impressive roar, bellowing at Loki, “Your birthright” — the final “t” spat out like a dagger into his bad son’s heart — “was to die!”

If I don’t sound overly enthusiastic about most of the new Marvel movies, it’s partly because they blur past, leaving scraps of ghost memory. Nothing much is, or can be, at stake because we know Thor can’t die — not when Chris Hemsworth is under contract for another Thor film and two more Avengers films. (Not that superheroes ever die for long in the comic books, either.) Good must always defeat evil resoundingly, though not enough so that the villains can’t return for a sequel or two. And what’s Thor’s weakness? That he’s in love with a mortal woman, and so his loyalty is torn between two realms — that’s about it. He’s a bit impetuous, and does stuff against Daddy’s orders, but things turn out okay, so hubris is not his fatal flaw — if anything, it’s having a father who thinks he’s always right but isn’t. But again, Thor puts a thoroughly visually-imagined fantasy world on the screen, and doesn’t lumber around in it like Peter Jackson dawdling in Middle-earth for three more movies. It brings some awe and brawny excitement into comic-book cinema. I just wish these Marvel-verse movies weren’t so nerdishly interconnected that we feel as though we’re not getting the whole story until all 674 films have come out. It’d be nice to be able to skip one, once in a while, but by this point we’re too deep into it; we have to see it through until Iron Man 12 or Avengers 9 or whatever.

Machete Kills

October 12, 2013

Machete-Kills-20For an actor who trades endlessly on one basic mode — dour hard-ass — Danny Trejo gets a lot of fanboy love. I think Trejo’s fans respond to his presence, his authenticity (he spent most of the ’60s in and out of prison), and perhaps his craggy, unapologetic Mexican-ness. Danny Trejo is as far from stale whitebread as you can get. He’s the real deal. In Machete Kills, Robert Rodriguez’s sequel to his 2010 Machete, Trejo seems to hold almost everyone he meets in cool contempt. Why do these people want to start shit with him? He’s only going to kill them; it doesn’t make sense. Trejo’s Machete, like Snake Plissken, just wants to be left alone. Unlike Snake, Machete can be pulled into heroism by appeals to his sense of justice. Trejo, who does work some subtle shifts in tone into his dead-cool demeanor, stoically pushes forward while the rest of the cast goes nuts.

Here, for instance, we have Sofia Vergara as a character named Madame Desdemona, who runs a brothel, seethes about how much she despises men as she whips a client, and wears outfits studded with quick-draw weaponry. Vergara is often helplessly funny on Modern Family and elsewhere, and she’s funny here, too, but also a little terrifying — she plays vengeful rage as an over-the-top joke, but she plays it huge, operatic in scale, emptying her guns and shrieking and flipping the Iberian slap. And she isn’t even the craziest critter in this menagerie, not in a movie that also includes Demian Bichir as an agent with at least three personalities and Mel Gibson — yes, him — as an arms-running billionaire with plans to colonize space and a penchant for wearing a luchador mask to do dirty deeds.

Gibson, however deplorable he may be out in the world, is amusing and low-key insane here. He takes the spot held by Lindsay Lohan in the first Machete, proving that Rodriguez is good-hearted enough to hire just about anyone if they’re willing to do the work. (Maybe the promised next installment, Machete Kills Again…in Space, will have a role for Miley Cyrus.) Lady Gaga also shows up as La Cameleon, a bounty hunter and master of disguise — she also turns up looking like Cuba Gooding Jr. and Walton Goggins, or perhaps Cuba Gooding Jr. and Walton Goggins turn up looking like her. Rodriguez never explains; he’s off and running. The story is credited to Rodriguez and his brother Marcel (Kyle Ward worked it into a script), and it feels like something a couple of brothers would cobble together in their bunk bed when they’re supposed to be asleep. Decapitated heads! A three-bladed machete! A molecule gun that turns people inside out! Dude, that rocks!

Rodriguez makes jam-packed B-movies, but what has always separated him from colder, more impersonal practitioners of neo-grindhouse is that he seems to be having so much fun, and he lets us share it; he throws loud parties and cheerfully invites us to drop in. There’s a freewheeling honesty to the way he works, and an utter lack of pretense. His movies are what they are, and they are not for those with snobby or refined tastes. Too bad, because those people are missing some of the most vital, full-blooded pure filmmaking American cinema has to offer at the moment, especially at a time when even movies based on comic books slouch into our view like emo teenagers, all brooding and gloomy. Machete may never crack a smile but his stoicism is hard-earned; he grounds the craziness with which Rodriguez surrounds him.

The Machete movies gesture briefly towards political relevance: themes of immigration and drug cartels flow through both. Machete runs into corruption at all levels, to the point where the only person he trusts is Michelle Rodriguez as the leader of the Network, which helps Mexicans cross the border into America. Michelle’s word is so good that she persuades Machete not to kill a hitman who once crucified his brother. The scene isn’t terribly important to the plot, other than to explain why Tom Savini is returning from the first film, but it again demonstrates Robert Rodriguez’s good-heartedness. Anyone, even an assassin who nailed a priest to a cross (or even Mel Gibson), can redeem himself. Like its predecessor, Machete Kills is very far from serious, but that doesn’t make it meaningless.

I Declare War

September 15, 2013

I-DECLARE-WAR-Press-Image-1.-This-should-go-in-guide.-Property-of-IDW-Films-Inc.Back in 1969, writer Sandra Scoppettone and artist Louise Fitzhugh put out a children’s book called Bang Bang You’re Dead. It’s something of a collector’s item now — so many parents and teachers loathed it that it kicked up a lot of controversy. Anyway, the book is a starkly brilliant parable about kids playing war and really hurting (though not killing) each other. The point, made none too subtly for a readership of little boys who liked to play war, was that war isn’t and shouldn’t be a game. It draws blood. I remembered the book while watching I Declare War, a bitter but paradoxically entertaining fantasia about a group of boys (and one girl) who play war out in the Canadian woods. The movie’s conceit is that we share the kids’ imaginations: when they pick up a toy gun or a branch and pretend it’s a real gun or a bazooka, that’s what we see. In visual movie language, they’re really shooting at each other, but only in their heads. No one gets killed, but a few illusions bite the dust.

Shrewdly, I Declare War almost immediately puts us on the side of P.K. (Gage Munroe) and his army. P.K. is small, blonde and tinsel-toothed, an unlikely figure to be a general, but he’s intelligent and has studied military history. He’s serious about winning war games — his base shows off all the flags he’s won. Putting us further in P.K.’s camp is his adversary, Skinner (Michael Friend), an unpleasant “spaz” who’s just out for revenge on P.K. and is willing to torture P.K.’s best friend Kwan (Siam Yu) when he takes Kwan prisoner. Therefore a variety of “soldiers” under both boys’ “command” are cannon fodder to settle an old score between two “nations.” You could read I Declare War as an allegory for just about any conflict the United States has gotten into, or any other country.

As the movie goes on, we realize something about the fair-haired P.K.: he’s a bit of a sociopath. He’s perfectly fine with sending his best friend off to be captured and possibly tortured a second time. We’ve been rooting for him because he’s smart and his enemy is emotionally volatile, but the movie ends up asking what, exactly, P.K. stands to “win” by asking his friends to sacrifice for his own glory. There’s another brain in the group, Jess (Mackenzie Munro), who plays a lot of chess and has her own agenda; she’s technically on Skinner’s side, but isn’t really loyal to him. Jess’s favored weapon is a crossbow, which serves as a perhaps unintentional critique of the heroine of The Hunger Games. The movie suggests that the people best at planning out war games aren’t the best human beings. Skinner, warped by the desire to make a mark in this faux-violent context, comes to seem less like a villain than a victim.

I Declare War has enough downtime to flesh out all the characters, strongly played by a variety of young actors mostly unknown outside Canada. But it flies by anyway, animated by the complexity of the chessboard. François Truffaut famously opined that it was impossible to make an anti-war movie, since war is so innately cinematic and exciting, and indeed the battles here are crisply staged for maximum lizard-brain satisfaction. At times the movie is like Red Dawn with a conscience. Directors Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson (Lapeyre also wrote the script) perform a weirdly morally complicated contextual juggling act. We know it’s fake, both in and out of the film’s reality — we know the “grenades” are just balloons filled with red paint, the “guns” just wood and plastic — yet here we are, watching adolescents shooting at each other with what read visually as real bullets, and it’s fun. It’s fun in the old primate way it’s always been: the tension of the “good guys” taking cover while being shot at, the gratification of what Hannibal Smith called a plan coming together.

But it’s also not fun, and while nothing much is actually hurt here aside from some feelings, those feelings matter to us because the kids do. As you may have guessed, this is a story, like Lord of the Flies and Stand by Me, that involves kids but is meant more for adults. The language, appropriately enough, is pretty salty. Also like those stories, though, I Declare War is thematically appropriate for pre-teens, who use that language anyway, and who might best benefit from its message. If it were a young-adult book, it’d be stupidly challenged by offended parents all over the country. It’d face the same fear and loathing that greeted that Vietnam-era relic Bang Bang You’re Dead. Why do some authority figures not want children to know about the painful, unglamorous realities of war? Or have I just answered my own question?

Riddick

September 7, 2013

Karl-Urban-and-Vin-Diesel-in-Riddick-2013-Movie-Image-600x331The anti-hero Riddick, subject of three movies, an animated short, and numerous video games, is probably best suited to animated shorts and video games. I haven’t played the games, but I did enjoy Dark Fury, the 35-minute Peter Chung toon that served as a bridge between 2000’s Pitch Black and 2004’s The Chronicles of Riddick. Like Conan the barbarian, Riddick is a surly loner and killer who gets pulled into adventures wherever he travels. As played by Vin Diesel, Riddick is also a cold cod whose purpose in life seems to be avoidance. He’s always being pursued — by mercenaries, by Necromongers, by slithery creatures. His function is to send his pursuers abruptly to the next life and then swagger onward. Such a character might fare nicely on a weekly animated series for young adults (or in a monthly comic book, where Conan has thrived on and off for decades), but he doesn’t hold a live-action film together very strongly.

The title of Riddick’s new adventure, just straight-up Riddick, is likely meant to signify a new simplicity, or, rather, a throwback to the old simplicity of Pitch Black. After all, The Chronicles of Riddick was a cluttered and garish thing, with respected actors like poor Judi Dench nattering on about Necromongers or the Underverse while Vin Diesel scowled in the shadows, his silver corneae glowing like the eyes of a sullen cat. Riddick dispenses with the reheated fantasy elements of its predecessor and takes Riddick back to gritty sci-fi, pitting him against phallic, venomous critters and then against two competing bands of mercenaries. Along the way he raises a dingo-like puppy, and if you remember what generally happens to people or animals Riddick grows to care about, you’ll know not to get attached to the dingo-like puppy.

Riddick is leaner and meaner than Chronicles, but that doesn’t necessarily translate as “more fun.” Once again, as in Pitch Black, Riddick defends himself — and, incidentally, the motley group he happens to be thrown in with — from monsters. It feels pointless; by the end, Riddick is better off than he was at the start, but nothing in particular has happened to change his character. He’s the same growly deep-bass sociopath he was in Pitch Black thirteen years ago. At least in Dark Fury and Chronicles he had an androgynous girl, grown up to be a bitter woman warrior, to care about and to worry that she might end up like him. Riddick seems like a side adventure, and the events of the previous movie are blown off in a flashback that puts Riddick back at square one. We feel like idiots for having been asked to invest in the events of Chronicles and in the idea that Riddick had been elevated to a position of importance.

Diesel and series creator/director David Twohy were adamant that Riddick, like Pitch Black, carry an R rating, which allows for a bit of gore and a peekaboo scene that’s so baldly there for fans of Battlestar Galactica’s Katee Sackhoff that all I could think about was Big Bang Theory’s Howard Wolowitz (who fantasized about tubbing with Sackhoff in an episode) wearing out the Blu-ray when it arrived at his home. Sackhoff plays a nerdboy’s idea of a lesbian, a tough chick who beats the crap out of men; her name is Dahl, which phonetically means every guy in the movie appears to be calling her “doll,” and that’s essentially what she is. Aside from Riddick — who spends much of the middle third of the film ominously offscreen — the character who gets the most screen time is Santana (Jordi Molla), the scruffy leader of one of the merc teams. Santana is a dick but at least has some personality; nobody else does.

Vin Diesel, an unabashed fantasy/sci-fi geek, keeps trying to make genre franchises happen. Babylon AD didn’t work for him, and the Riddick series has proceeded in fits and starts — it’s been nearly a decade since the last film, and Diesel, who turned 46 this summer, is very much not getting any younger. He puts a lot of physical effort into these meathead movies he does (Furious 6, for the record, was much more fun), and there’s a valid question as to how much longer he can continue to do so. Diesel started off promisingly — I urge you to seek out his 1994 short film Multi-Facial on YouTube so you won’t think I’m insane when I say he’s really a good actor — but he got sidetracked into dumb Saturday-night blockbusters for teens, and he perhaps needs to stop working out (and stop listening to his agent) and do some genuine acting again. Riddick, which by all indications will be a box-office disappointment, may put the kibosh on at least one going concern that has kept Diesel in lucrative stasis.

Kick-Ass 2

August 17, 2013

kick-ass-2-mindy-macreadyThe problem with being shocking is that you can only shock once. 2010’s Kick-Ass packed a fair amount of shock for those who hadn’t read the comic book it was based on. Here was a high-school boy, Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), who took to the streets in costume as the self-styled superhero Kick-Ass and found that fighting crime was grubbier and bloodier than it usually was in the comics. Here also was an eleven-year-old moppet, Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz), who rattled off unprintables and drenched entire rooms with the arterial spray of gangsters. The whole affair was a winking satire of what the superhero genre had become, in comics and in the movies.

But, again, this sort of thing can only be fresh once. The Kick-Ass comic’s creators — writer Mark Millar, artist John Romita Jr. — turned out two sequels to the first series (Hit Girl and Kick-Ass 2), and are currently cranking out a third. The comics, trying to top the original story, have gotten progressively nastier. The movie Kick-Ass 2, based on elements drawn from the first two follow-ups, softens those elements considerably. Gone, for instance, is a scene in which Kick-Ass’ nemesis (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who went by Red Mist in the first film but has rechristened himself the Mother Fucker, guns down four little kids and goes on to rape Kick-Ass’ girlfriend. The movie, showing more satirical wit than Mark Millar did, short-circuits the rape before it begins, and no little kids are harmed. In some ways the movie is more ruthless: the Mother Fucker will not be back for Kick-Ass 3.

Written and directed by Jeff Wadlow, Kick-Ass 2 does deliver spatially clean action set-pieces that build nicely and sometimes, as when a fearsome brute called Mother Russia deals with a pack of cops, outdo what John Romita Jr. drew. (The use of a lawnmower in particular made me happy.) The Kick-Ass movies have also succeeded in attracting eccentric stars for support: the first film had Nicolas Cage as Hit Girl’s doting superhero dad, and here we have Jim Carrey, obviously enjoying himself at the time despite his post-Sandy Hook misgivings later, as a superhero team leader named Colonel Stars and Stripes. Carrey satirizes this gravel-voiced born-again-Christian hero but doesn’t ridicule him — in his way, the Colonel is a man of honor trying to redeem his past as a mob enforcer. When Carrey leaves the movie, a substantial amount of energy goes with him.

The movie is most interesting when Hit Girl, now living with a cop guardian and trying very hard to be a nice girl named Mindy Macready, navigates the social pitfalls of high school (she’s fifteen now). Hit Girl has always been a bit softer onscreen than on the page, because Chloe Moretz projects the warmth and charisma denied her comic-book predecessor, and she’s fun to watch here when trying to cope with mean girls in the cafeteria. The least interesting character continues to be poor benighted Kick-Ass himself, who functions here only as a target for the Mother Fucker’s vengeful fury. He often gets lost in the crowd — many of the folks on the Colonel’s team, like Night Bitch (Lindy Booth) or the parents looking for their missing son, are far more intriguing. They do it, like Batman, out of pain; Kick-Ass didn’t.

The Kick-Ass franchise has been a reliable piggy-bank for Millar and Romita, though it might not look as bright on Universal’s books — Kick-Ass 2 doesn’t seem to be packing ‘em in on its first weekend, and might peter out much as the Mother Fucker does. The comics haven’t been particularly inspiring either — just more of the same foul language and slice ‘n’ dice and political correctness used as a piñata. Some things just shouldn’t be ongoing concerns, and perhaps the satirical world of Kick-Ass is one of them. The first Kick-Ass comic and the first Kick-Ass movie said that the concept of superheroes is absurd, an idealistic bubble that pops bloodily against the sharp edges of reality. Once you’ve said that, what can you say that isn’t merely saying it again louder?


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