Tag Archive: Action/Adventure


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If your romance doesn’t break new ground or provide deep and true insight into the relations between man & woman (or whatever your romantic pairings are), your only hope of a watchable film is the spark of real chemistry between your stars. Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing is a fairly conventional “forbidden love” romantic drama, but the chemistry between William Holden and Jennifer Jones was sizzling and it made the film enjoyable despite the melodrama. Similarly, Penny Serenade is typical 1940s romance, but Irene Dunne made you wholly believe her love for Cary Grant (I’ve never believed Cary Grant’s interest in any woman on screen because he’s seemingly incapable of even pretending to be attracted to a woman). The African Queen transcends it’s dime-novel source material thanks to the fierce chemistry of leads Humphrey Bogart (To Have and Have Not) and Katharine Hepburn (Bringing Up Baby).

Director John Huston (perfect as the villain of Chinatown) brings a standard boy’s adventure tale to the big screen but, through sheer technical prowess and wonderful performances all around, pulls a gorgeous, almost lyrical tale of class, romance, and will from such meager starts. With one of the best performances of Bogie’s career (and the one that he would win his Oscar for) and an archetypal Hepburn turn, The African Queen isn’t a great film, but in the world of classic adventure movies, it’s hard to find one with more heart and sheer fun.

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After her minister brother is murdered by German soldiers during the early days of World War 1 outside of their African church, British missionary Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) is forced to seek passage back to England with the help of rough-edged steamboat captain Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart) on the titular African Queen. But, getting back to England will be more difficult than navigating the already dangerous rapids of the African river. Their only path back into British territory involves crossing a lake guarded by one of the most powerful gunboats in the German fleet.

There is nothing exceptional in the storytelling of The African Queen. The central romance hinges on the classic “rough and uncultured man is tamed by the strong-willed high class Lady” theme, and The African Queen plays zero games with that set-up throughout. The adventure is a series of set pieces where our hero and heroine almost lose their life but persevere, and the film doesn’t take many breaks to really allow these characters to breathe though a bit in the middle where Rose finally pours out all of Charlie’s gin that the movie lets you see some of the bite beneath Bogart’s  bark.

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But, The African Queen has to be a textbook example of how sheer filmcraft can overcome a conventional story (that also happens to be well-told despite its familiarity). The Technicolor photography still looks vibrant and beautiful 63 years later. It’s possible that you’ve never truly experienced the color green until you see this film in all of its remastered HD glory. The film’s major action set-pieces are something of a mixed bag because the sections that actually look like they were shot in Africa (much of the film was) make the green screen segments that much more embarrassingly dated and fake looking.

And, of course, Bogart and Hepburn make the most out of roles that are more caricature than character. As Rose Sayer, Hepburn crafts the type of character that I think of when I envision Hepburn (even if I had never seen this film before): strong-willed, middle-aged, spinster-ish with a romantic heart, and fiercer than any man on screen. Hepburn tends to bowl over her male leads with the strength of her personality, but in Bogart’s Allnut, she finally found a man as crazy and stubborn as her, and the emotional pyrotechnics as they match wits made the entire film worthwhile.

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Bogart didn’t live long past the shooting of this film. The African Queen was released in 1951 and he passed away from esophageal cancer in 1957, and part of me suspects that the rough, lean look Bogie has in this film can be attributed to the onset of his illness, and as one of the last great performances from one of Hollywood’s most iconic stars, The African Queen simply can’t be missed. At the end of the day, it never stops being a rousing adventure, but in an era where action movies had artistry, who can rightly complain?

Final Score: B+

 

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When Robert Rodriguez (The Faculty) burst onto the scene with the micro-budgeted El Mariachi in 1992, it was clear to the entire film loving world that despite that film’s lack of polish, Rodriguez was going to soon be a major player in stylistic film-making. Cue three years later with his debut studio feature, Desperado, and Rodriguez shot himself into alternative superstardom. I hadn’t seen Desperado in probably over ten years before I watched it for this blog, and I had completely forgotten that Desperado might be the greatest B-movie ever made.

Working within the realm of mythic folk heroes, neo-Westerns, and John Woo action crime thrillers, Desperado is such an astonishing second effort that one can only imagine what Rodriguez could have done on El Mariachi if he’d had more than $7,000 to make the film. Understanding that I’m in the vast minority here with regards to how highly I now hold this film, I can name few other action films that drip with so much wit, playfulness, and energy as Desperado. If Rodriguez had kept this type of quality up his entire career, he could have been as important to the industry as his good friend Quentin Tarantino.

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Desperado is a unique film in that it is both a sequel to the original El Mariachi as well as a sort of spiritual remake in that it’s the kind of movie Rodriguez wanted to make but didn’t have the money back in 1992 which is why elements of the plot feel somewhat familiar. Replacing the first film’s Carlos Gallardo, Antiono Banderas (Puss in Boots) plays the unnamed El Mariachi. Several years after witnessing the murder of the woman he loved and getting shot through the hand, El Mariachi is a whirlwind force of justice in the small border towns between the US and Mexico dispensing vigilante justice on the drug crews that were responsible for the murder of his love.

With the help of his partner Buscemi (Interview‘s Steve Buscemi), El Mariachi has attained a mythic status in the haunts of the Mexican drug dealers including a bar secretly run for the powerful cartel head Bucho (Joaquim de Almeida). Bucho was the real head of the cartel that killed El Mariachi’s lover, and El Mariachi believes that Bucho is the last man standing in the way of his quest for vengeance. But when El Mariachi meets the beautiful Carolina (Salma Hayek) as well as a young boy who wants to learn the guitar, he must decide what he will sacrifice to get his revenge.

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Quentin Tarantino shows up in this film (Desperado predates their partnership for From Dusk Til Dawn by only a year), and it’s clear that Tarantino’s early work was having on influence on Rodriguez’s writing (and would have an influence for years to come). In the film’s brilliant opening segment, Buscemi goes to the bad guy bar (with the great Cheech Marin in a small bit part) to put the fear of El Mariachi in these criminals (and to see if they recognize El Bucho’s name). It’s one long, extended story told by Buscemi (with visual accompaniment), but it adds to the mythic nature of the film as well as its own awareness of its pulpy roots.

What makes Desperado great though (even in a way that Tarantino’s later works like Django Unchained fail to achieve) is that it is entirely self-aware without winking at the audience. Desperado knows it’s an action movie where Antonio Banderas blows drug dealers across rooms while duel-wielding shotgun-pistols (not making that up) and owns a cod-piece machine gun. And it knows that it can’t take itself too seriously under that premise. But, Desperado manages to walk that balancing act of being self-aware and tongue-in-cheek without playing every moment for laugh (though I must admit that I was cackling with glee during some of the film’s more ridiculous moments).

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Antonio Banderas has become more of a caricature than a legitimate actor over the last ten years, but Desperado reminds me of why he had the potential to become such an exciting figure (alongside his great, smaller performance in Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia). El Mariachi is larger than life. He’s essentially a comic book superhero thrown into the dusty streets of Mexico fighting knife-throwing psychopaths (a memorable and early role for Danny Trejo) and Mexican drug dealers. And Antonio Banderas has all the cocksure bravura and swagger (with just the right sensitivity) to nail the role.

The movie loses just a little bit of its special energy and insanity in the final act. A plot twist arrives totally out of nowhere that feels a little too “wink wink” unless it too was played straight in which case it was poor writing for entirely different reasons. The romance between El Mariachi and Carolina doesn’t cohere in a plot sense though the sizzling sexual chemistry between Banderas and Hayek was so intense that it threatened to derail the film. They have a love scene that is among the absolute sexiest in mainstream cinema. Desperado might not be quite perfect, but as far as B-movies go, it’s more than you could ever hope for.

Final Score: A-

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Have you ever encountered a sequel in a franchise where it’s clear that overall the product is significantly better but because fundamental structural issues haven’t been addressed, it’s hard to appreciate the improvements? It’s a common phenomenon in video games with yearly sequels where significant mechanical tweaks are made but the formula starts to feel stale and basic problems are never really solved. It’s never something I’ve encountered with a film franchise before The Hunger Games though. Long time readers will know that I consider the book to be a considerable improvement over its predecessor, but maybe because the first Hunger Games film was already an improvement over the source material, it’s hard to appreciate the strides this entry made.

Suzanne Collins is a good storyteller but her prose is woefully deficient and it makes reading the books a slog. And one of the wonderful benefits of the film version was that I wasn’t forced to wade through her amateurish mastery of the English language (not to mention Gary Ross’s compelling direction and conception of what Panem would look like). And since the book of Catching Fire improved her storytelling ten fold (by truly fleshing out the world that Katniss and company inhabited), I assumed that the movie would be even better. But, perhaps it was not having the poor prose to distract me, this time I was forced to acknowledge even deeper problems in the Hunger Games universe.

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Before this review takes on an overly negative turn, let there be no misunderstanding that I thoroughly enjoyed Catching Fire and it joins Star Trek Into Darkness and Iron Man 3 as one of this year’s blockbusters with actual brains. As far as modern dystopian science fiction for teenagers go, I’m hard-pressed to name a franchise with wider reach than The Hunger Games that also deserves said fandom. The action set-pieces during the film’s third act eclipse those even in the first, and the number of stars that director Francis Lawrence gathered for this entry is almost mind-boggling. But, and I’ll elaborate on this more shortly, one glaring problem with the film kept me from totally immersing myself this time around.

For those who haven’t seen the first one (or read the book), stop now because I’m about to spoil the ending for you. After finding a way to keep herself and fellow District 12 Tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) alive during the 74th annual Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Winter’s Bone‘s Jennifer Lawrence) quickly discovers that surviving the Hunger Games was the easy part. Forced on a circus publicity tour around the 12 districts of PanEm, Katniss learns that she has become the symbol of an uprising against the totalitarian Capital. But if she wants to keep her and her family alive, she’s going to have to prove to President Snow (Don’t Look Now‘s Donald Sutherland) that her fake love with Peeta which got her through the Hunger Games is real and it’s real enough to subdue the uprising.

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But, the film would be really boring if it was just Jennifer Lawrence pretending to love the emotionally reserved (and supremely dull) Josh Hutcherson, and in order to ensure that Katniss can’t become the face of the revolution, President Snow and the new Gamemaker for the 75th Annual Hunger Games, Plutarch Heavensbee (Synecdoche, New York‘s Phillip Seymour Hoffman), devise a wrinkle to this year’s game. Known as the Quarter Quell, every 25 years the Hunger Games rules are changed dramatically and this year, the tributes are chosen from a pool of past winners and both Katniss and Peeta inevitably have their names drawn.

In my review of the book, I talked about how Catching Fire‘s lengthy prelude (the action doesn’t really begin until the film’s final act) added context to the Hunger Games universe. Not only did we learn more about the different districts and why revolution has been so effectively suppressed (but also why Katniss is the spark needed to make it… catch fire), but by spending time getting to know the other tributes, it allowed their to be more characters with depth beyond Katniss and Peeta. Of course, the introduction of great supporting characters like Finnick (Sam Claflin), Johanna (Donnie Darko‘s Jena Malone), and Beete (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close‘s Jeffrey Wright) is that it subjects Katniss to the film’s biggest problem: boring protagonist syndrome.

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Katniss is one of the great female heroines of the modern age alongside Harry Potter‘s Hermione and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo‘s Lisbeth Salander. She’s a total bad-ass and her life isn’t primarily devoted to her romantic interests (unlike a certain resident of Forks, Washington) though she’s allowed to have a romance. But, Katniss is also something of a blank slate and a cipher for readers to project themselves onto and while she’s usually defined by her bad-ass feat of heroics, if she’s not killing something with a bow, you realize there isn’t any depth to this girl (at least until Mockingjay).

And the first film solved this problem by having Katniss constantly doing something cool. There’s more exposition and universe-building in Catching Fire and, thus, more time to see Katniss interacting with others, and except when she’s playing across the wooden and entirely one-dimensional Peeta, everyone in the film is more compelling than her. Woody Harrelson (Rampart) is particularly magnificent as the drunken Haymitch as he continues to be (despite all conventional wisdom) one of the most compelling actors of the last fifteen years (when he’s given the right roles).

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New-comer to the franchise Jena Malone also steals every second she’s on screen as the deliciously bitchy Johanna who quickly reveals her own hidden depths, but anyone who’s seen Donnie Darko or Saved! knows how talented she is. And Sam Claflin is charming with enough of an edge of “is he good or bad” to make him interesting despite the ultimate conclusion. And of course, Stanley Tucci, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Donald Sutherland all turn in great roles for a series they are probably too talented to be a part of.

That’s not to discount Jennifer Lawrence’s performance. After Silver Linings Playbook and Winter’s Bone, she’s secured her title as her generation’s most promising actress, but Katniss was a particularly thin role to begin with and it feels like she has even little do this time around. Katniss is particularly “ethos”-less in this entry compared to her comrades and that makes it even harder to care for her. Her saving grace as a character this time around is that she’s usually not too far from Peeta and he can make anyone look like a character from a Kenneth Lonergan film (which is so weird cause he’s not that boring in the books).

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By focusing so much on the flatness of Katniss’s character in this entry (and a general sense that the early exposition and world-building didn’t work nearly as well on screen as it did in the book), I should reiterate that I really enjoyed Catching Fire. And, in many meaningful ways, it is a significant improvement over the first film. But, I also couldn’t stop thinking about those things the entire time the film was running. If you’re on the edge about whether or not you should see the film after this review, don’t be. You should. It’s one of the best “event” films of the year. I just wish Katniss was a more well-rounded heroine for our modern age.

Final Score: B+

 

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When movies are shot on paper-thin budgets but go on to be massive successes anyway, it gives heart to independent film-makers around the world that you don’t need a studio-sized checkbook to make an appealing movie that others will want to see. Whether that’s Paranormal Activity, Clerks, or The Blair Witch Project, there are plenty of great examples of accomplishing a lot with very little (Paranormal Activity was first shot in 2007 on a $15,000 budget and now it’s one of the most profitable films of all time). 1992’s El Mariachi was very profitable if not a huge box office smash (it made around $2 million compared to the $7,000 it required to shoot it), but it’s success is notable for an entirely different reason. With a movie financed almost entirely by taking part in a medical research study, Robert Rodriguez (The Faculty) shot himself to international superstardom as a filmmaker and it only got better from this impressive debut.

Although it will become somewhat clear that I have nothing but the utmost respect for Robert Rodriguez and El Mariachi, that respect is primarily related to how professional this film is able to feel despite the fact that Rodriguez had never made a feature-length film before, shot the movie entirely in single takes, and made it for a grand total of $7,000. Because, at the end of the day, El Mariachi is a B-movie at it’s heart (though, let’s face it, all of Rodriguez’s films are), and if this same movie were made on a budget of over half a million dollars, people would probably laugh in his face. But, the film was shot for $7,000 and for someone who struggled to shoot a five minute short film on a literal $0 budget with film-making tools given to me for free, it’s impressive to an absurd degree that Rodriguez was able to make this film.

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When a white gangster, Moco (Peter Marquardt) in Mexico double-crosses a vengeance-fueled Mexican hit man, Azul (Reinol Martinez), an all-out war breaks out between Moco’s men and the one-man death army known as Azul. Azul’s MO is to wander around as a traveling Mariachi but he secretly keeps his stash of weapons hidden inside his guitar case to be able to be pulled out at a moment’s notice. And this spells trouble when an actually mariachi, known only in the film as El Mariachi (Carlos Gallardo), stumbles into town just looking for a job and a place to play his music. But when a case of mistaken identity leads to El Mariachi being mistaken for Azul, El Mariachi becomes the prime target of Moco’s men and though he flees to the safety of a saloon ran by the beautiful Domino (Consuelo Gomez), that only spells more trouble for himself and his unwilling savior.

I won’t waste your time harping on any of the performances of the principal actors because none of them are worth praise (though Carlos Gallardo seemed like he had potential. It was a shame his career never really took off after this film). Instead, what’s impressive is Rodriguez’s ability to tell a mostly compelling action story (that was a fun spin on the classic North by Northwest tale of mistaken identity) with so few tools at his disposal. Even this early on, Rodriguez’s talents as a pop auteur were on full display and even as a neophyte, Rodriguez already had a mastery of pacing and editing. In fact, it’s the editing of the film that I often found the most impressive because as someone who’s written, directed, shot, and edited a film, editing is without question the hardest part.

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I’ll keep this review extra short cause it’s been a couple days since I’ve watched it and other than being a feat of budget wizardry, there’s not a hell of a lot to say about El Mariachi other than how enjoyable it remains even 21 years later. There’s nothing deep about this movie. It’s an action movie centered around a case of mistaken identity that happens to feature a surprisingly sympathetic hero and love interest. If you aren’t a fan of B-Action films, knowing that Robert Rodriguez made this movie on a shoe-string budget won’t make you like it more. But, for those who have a soft spot in their heart for camp, El Mariachi is a delightful exercise in independent film-making and a fascinating insight into the formative years of a star who is one of the most talented popcorn filmmakers out there today.

Final Score: B

 

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(A quick aside before my actual review. Yes, I know there’s supposed to be an accent mark over the “e” in “Léon” in the title of this piece but I have no idea how to add it. Also, it feels like it’s ten million degrees in my room right now so I apologize if any of my writing is unintelligible. My brain is totally fried.)

The poetic action film is the Great White Whale of film-making for men that don’t want to feel guilty about testosterone-fueled entertainment. We want to believe it’s out there somewhere, but despite all of that, 99% of the time we’re chasing a myth. 1994’s Léon: The Professional from French director Luc Besson (1990’s La Femme Nikita) is likely the closest cinema’s ever come to the truly poetic action film. Though the film is not without its flaws, its devotion to story, mood, and characters alongside a hyperviolent tale of both revenge and love marked Luc Besson as one of the rare purveyors of action cinema that is also a true auteur. The Professional is the sort of film that early period Tarantino could have been proud of, and thanks to an electric big screen debut from Natalie Portman (Black Swan), The Professional is the definition of a flawed masterpiece.

Léon (Margaret‘s Jean Reno) is a cleaner. But, he’s a cleaner for the Italian mob which means he’s a hitman. And he’s a damn good one though his code of “No women. No kids,” means he has a moral system he operates by. And besides the fact that he’s an almost mind-bogglingly efficient killer, Léon is almost a child at heart. He can not read English. He cares for a single potted plant like it were his own child. And he goes to watch old Gene Kelly movies at the theatre with the pure adulation of only the most innocent at heart. He barely even spends the money he earns which mostly just sits in the “bank” of his mobster boss, Tony (Moonstruck‘s Danny Aiello). But, when he crosses path with Mathilda (Natalie Portman), a 12 year old girl living in his apartment building, his simple life is thrown violently off track.

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The chain-smoking, frequently-cursing Mathilda is the emotionally and physically abused daughter of a local hood who gets himself in over his head with a corrupt and borderline psychotic D.E.A. Agent, Stansfield (The Dark Knight Rises‘s Gary Oldman). When Mathilda’s father and the rest of her family is murdered by Stansfield and other corrupt cops, Mathilda’s life is only spared because she was out buying milk at the time the hit went down. And, against his better judgment, Léon welcomes Mathilda into his home to protect her. Though Mathilda could care less about her abusive father, Stansfield’s men killed her four year old brother, and she desperately wants revenge against the men that killed her family. And so, she forces her way even more into Léon’s life and makes him teach her how to be a cleaner so that she can get the revenge she so desperately craves.

Out of the three principal leads in the film (Portman, Reno, and Goldman), you have one simply jaw-dropping performance, one deliciously hammy performance, and one “meh” performance that works within the context of the character. Natalie Portman’s ferocious turn as Mathilda is easily one of the top 10 child performances of all time, and it should be no surprise that she would later go on to win an Academy Award for Black Swan. She should have been nominated for this. There’s a scene midway through the film where Mathilda puts a gun to her head to force Léon to teach her to be a cleaner where the sadness and desperation that is consuming Mathilda is painfully apparent. Most adult actresses would have struggled with the part. Portman blew it out of the water as a 13 year old.

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Gary Oldman’s performance is the one that I refer to as being deliciously hammy. There is no question that it’s over-the-top. It is insanely over the top, but Stansfield is a villain of monstrous, pure evil, and Luc Besson gave Goldman the freedom to run crazy with the performance. There are two moments in particular that stand out. One is him sashaying to Mozart as he massacres Mathilda’s family. And the other is the infamous “EVERYONE!” quip during the climactic action sequence. Jean Reno is, unfortunately, not the world’s greatest actor. His English wasn’t very good in the 90s, and it shows in this film. But, Léon is a man of quiet contemplation and few words, and so, though Reno doesn’t deliver one of the most exciting performances of the film, he certainly delivers what is needed for his character.

As I’ve said earlier, beyond Portman’s star-making performance (had she never made another film, this would have been legacy-cementing in its own right), The Professional soars because of its singular commitment to character-development and genuine emotional pay-offs over typical action pyrotechnics. Let their be no mistake. The climax of the film is as thrilling as it gets, but its power rests in the fact that two hours into the film, we are now incredibly invested into the outcome of Léon and Mathilda’s lives. They are fully rounded, three dimensional characters, and just like in La Femme Nikita, the psychological aspect of these characters throws off more sparks than action scenes ever could. As a warped coming-of-age tale as well as an equally warped romance, The Professional finds the poetry in its carnage.

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When The Professional was first released in 1994, it generated a fair bit of controversy for the seemingly Lolita-esque nature of the relationship between Mathilda and Léon. And while I think Mathilda’s attraction to her mentor and savior was decidedly one-way (and based mostly around the lack of a reasonable father figure in her life), I have an entirely new set of contentions with the film’s handling of a thirteen year old heroine. The Professional sexualizes Mathilda. That’s just a fact. From the many angles that the film shoots her, it’s clear that Besson’s camera views Portman as a sexual object. Though it’s clearly not to the level of exploitation of Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby, I lost track of the number of times that the film shot Portman from the ass down. It was weird and it made me incredibly uncomfortable. I think the controversy surrounding Mathilda’s love for Léon was mostly misplaced because this is why people should have been upset.

When the film was released in America (where it was called The Professional as opposed to Léon in Europe), we were given a massively pared down version of the film, and though I’ve fallen in love with the European cut of the movie, I would be interested in seeing the edited version of the film because besides the sexualization of Natalie Portman, my most substantive complaint about The Professional is that it drags a little towards the end. I understand that I love this film because of the character development and commitment to building these characters up, but at times, certain elements felt like filler. Also, there’s one scene during the climactic action sequence where Jean Reno bellows (there really isn’t a better word to use here) that is the bad kind of hammy.

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If you’ve not seen The Professional, you need to drop whatever you’re doing and watch it immediately. I’m not exaggerating when I say that outside of the confines of particular war films, it’s arguably one of the greatest action films ever made. It has its flaws, and its particularly French (i.e. Louis Malle committed the same sins in Pretty Baby) with the sexuality of a young girl struck me as heartily disturbing. However, I can forgive Luc Besson his trespasses when the rest of his storytelling and character-building are so strong. From the first time I watched this film more than ten years ago, I fell in love with The Professional. And with each viewing, I find something new to appreciate and notice. Luc Besson is an auteur, and in a world where seemingly every action film (outliers like Looper the glorious exception) feels like a Michael Bay debacle, one must take the time to appreciate the art of a movie like Léon: The Professional.

Final Score: A-

 

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I am a sucker for imaginative storytelling and engrossing world building. From a classical storytelling perspective, the Russell T. Davies years of Doctor Who or the early seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation aren’t bastions of great characters or “important” insights into the human condition, but as someone who loves fantastical new worlds, they scratch that need. Ever since I was little and I was introduced to The Hobbit, I’ve had a constant desire to see new things and explore worlds I’ve never encountered before. 1984’s The Last Starfighter has a wonderful premise and a compelling mythology, but the film suffers in its execution with a story that ultimately feels woefully deficient and underdeveloped.

Perhaps it’s the screenwriter in me (long time readers should know that I’ve written two unpublished screenplays and I’m hard at work on a third one right now), but I found myself nitpicking every step of the way little areas where I felt The Last Starfighter missed a storytelling opportunity or had major characters seem embarrassingly thinly drawn. In fact, if I had to sum up my reaction to this film in one quick sentence, it’s that The Last Starfighter rests on the laurels of an ahead of it’s time basic plot but then fails to properly capitalize with compelling villains, good acting, or proper pacing. Though these thoughts didn’t keep me from enjoying the film, I kept getting pulled out of the experience after one cheesy interlude after another.

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Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) is your average teenage boy living his last summer before the beginning of college. Alex lives in a trailer park with his mother and little brother as well as his girlfriend, Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart), and he dreams of nothing more than going to a nice college and getting out of the Starlite Starbrite trailer park once and for all. And the only thing that Alex seems to enjoy in life any more besides the company of his girlfriend is the Starfighter arcade box up at the general store near the trailer park. One night Alex finally beats the Starfighter game and finds his life changed forever.

It turns out that the Starfighter video game was a secret test left on Earth by the alien Centauri (Robert Preston) to find new recruits for the Starfighter defense program defending the galactic frontier. Centauri shows up on Earth and whisks Alex away to an alien-filled space station to convince Alex to help defend the galaxy, but when it becomes clear that Alex’s life is in danger, Alex wants to go home. But, it isn’t long before he’s back on Earth and realizes that everyone he loves and holds dear will be in danger if he doesn’t fight. And Alex is forced to take up the call and become the titular last starfighter.

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None of the performances in the film are anything to write home about and pretty much all of the aliens are invariably over the top. Lance Guest is appropriately sensitive and lost as the hero and Catherine Mary Stewart also gels as his girlfriend, but it’s also clear that both were cast more for their good looks than for any acting talent. Robert Preston hams it up in every single second he’s on screen as the Merlin-esque Centauri to the point of distraction, and I’m not entirely sure what was up with the weird little laugh Alex’s alien navigator Grig had to do every time he thought something was funny.

Surprisingly, the special effects of the film both look like a product of the mid 1980s, but they also don’t distract from the overall experience of the film by coming off as too cheesy (except for maybe the absurd encephalitis that the primary alien species seems to suffer from). In fact, the 1980s video game look of some of the space ships and the space battles actually adds some perhaps unintentional charm to the film as it captures the arcade aesthetic that propelled Alex into space in the first place.

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If you are a fan of cheesy science fiction (particularly of the 1980s variety), by all means check The Last Starfighter out if you’ve never gotten around to it. It will be a pleasant diversion, and it will harken back to a day of more innocent film-making. It’s not perfect, and I wish I could have had a crack at writing the script for this film’s story, but it’s fun. If you don’t enjoy this particular brand of science fiction, you likely won’t see the point of this movie and may even think it’s quite stupid. That’s fair, but I enjoyed the hour and forty minutes I spent with this film.

Final Score: B

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Is there a more storied franchise in cinema than the James Bond series? Obviously, there are better series. Lord of the Rings, The Godfather, the original Star Wars trilogy. But, I’m unsure if there is a single character in the pop culture lexicon that has infiltrated the popular imagination as much as James Bond. And considering the fact that he has now been portrayed by five men (unless you count the satirical Casino Royale, not the new one), it makes that fact all the more impressive. As the definition of everything that is masculine, suave, and debonair, James Bond, the man, is a paragon of action heroics that has continually stood the test of time for 50 years now.

One of the most apparent goals of the James Bond franchise as carried by the broad shoulders of Daniel Craig has been a deconstruction of the entire James Bond mythos. It was a goal that Casino Royale met with ease, and that’s probably why that film remains my favorite of the whole franchise. Quantum of Solace was a great action film but a rather stale affair after the more cerebral Casino Royale, and while you saw the dark path that James had gone down, it didn’t do enough to add to his character. With the addition of Sam Mendes (American Beauty) as director, Skyfall had the potential to be the best Bond yet (and quite a few critics seemed to think it was), but the film’s ambitions ultimately outweighed it’s actual accomplishments, and while Skyfall was a riveting, dark experience (with perhaps the best Bond villain I’ve experienced yet), I was left with a nagging sense of disappointment and incompleteness through much of the picture.

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It’s difficult to discuss this movie without spoiling it’s truly excellent opening set piece which comes to set the mood for the rest of the film. Here goes. After 007 and his new partner Eve (Naomie Harris) fail to stop a terrorist from getting away with vital espionage information, not only is all of MI6 put in danger but that of every undercover NATO agent in the world. It isn’t long before they discover they’re up against a threat (No Country for Old Men‘s Javier Bardem) from M’s (Judi Dench) past who has as legitimate a reason to hate MI6 as the British government now does to hunt him down. And when Bond’s and M’s failings draw the attention of the British government (including a perfectly cast Ralph Fiennes), the film takes a sharp focus on James’s fallibility and how he always a well-placed bullet away from death.

I had to be intentionally vague about the plot of the film because while I had a myriad of issues with its plotting/pacing (I’ll get there), there were some remarkably well-timed twists and turns that I wouldn’t want to spoil for any future viewers. So, before I get into some of the problems I had with the film, let’s go with the good. Which certainly has to begin and end with the film’s top-notch casting. Daniel Craig remains, in my humble opinion, the best Bond to ever grace the screen. He brings a sense of humanity and nuance to the role that is missing from the other, more mythic Bonds. And this film sees Craig channeling a far more haggard and broken Bond than ever before. He loses nearly everything, and through this loss, Craig (and the script) form a weirdly insightful commentary on the rebirth and resurrection that is at the heart of the franchise.

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While Craig was great as usual, the real show-stoppers in Skyfall were Judi Dench’s M and Javier Bardem’s Silva. I might even go as far to say that while Bond was still the star of the show, M actually carried much of the philosophical weight of the film as well ultimately symbolizing its themes. Judi Dench should have gotten an Oscar nomination for her part in this film as I can definitely say that the only Bond side-player I’ve ever been as invested in was Casino Royale‘s Vesper Lynn. And Javier Bardem gives his best turn since Vicky Cristina Barcelona as the ambiguously gay Raoul Silva. With bleached-blond hair and flamboyant but controlled mannerisms, Bardem turned Silva into a memorable character not just from his excellent backstory and devious actions, but also through the very effective way that Bardem found both the sympathetic side in this once good man but also the darkest, most terrifying sides of his villainy.

The film was also one of the most visually striking entries in the series to date. Director of photography Roger Deakins does a phenomenal job of not just setting the visual tone of the film (which is bleak and despairing). He also provides maybe the most artistically conceived hand-to-hand combat sequence in the modern era of the franchise. Bond has tracked a villain down to a Shanghai building that’s under construction. And 007 and the bad guy fight as they’re photographed against a black silhouette while a holographic and shifting billboard outside the building provides a gorgeous backlight. And the film is just chock full of little moments and touches like that including some great shots in Scotland at the film’s end that I wouldn’t spoil even under torture. For fans of great cinematography, Skyfall is an exceptional delight.

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The high quality of so many other areas of the film is what makes it’s disappointments harder to bear. My biggest complaint is the hardest to explain but it bears exploring. To be perfectly honest, Skyfall just feels flaccid. In some regards, that was surely the film’s intent. They want to explore a more human, fallible side of James Bond. And there are moments where the film does it without robbing the movie of the propulsion that defines the series. But, over the film’s two and a half hour run (the movie is far, far too long), Sam Mendes and the screenwriters take a sledgehammer to the audience about how broken and vulnerable both M and Bond have become in the modern world, and it seems like they’re just dropping anvils on the audience with no eye/ear for subtlety. The Dark Knight Rises/The Dark Knight took a similar deconstruction of the Bruce Wayne/Batman mythos without robbing those series of what made them great in the first place.

And the film’s over-bearing length adds to the film’s other major problem. Something about this film just feels redundant. While the whole idea of Bond being an analogue man in a digital world is handled in clever ways (the introduction of the new Q was very well executed), it’s ground that other films have trod in the past, and I’m not sure if Skyfall brought much new to the table in that regard. The interplay between Bond and Q in this film could just have easily been the back and forth between Justin Long and Bruce Willis in Live Free and Die Hard. Similarly, while we see a broken down James in this film, I honestly felt like most of the development and interesting growth went to M. I didn’t feel like Bond grew very much, and in a post Casino Royale world, I have become attracted to the modern Bond franchise by the possibility of intelligent action and interesting character development.

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I’ll draw this to a close because I don’t think many people want to read a 1300 word review of why I thought this movie was really good but just shy of great. But that’s an accurate description of this ambitious though flawed entry into the franchise. Javier Bardem continues to show that he can be one of the greatest supporting men of this generation (I haven’t really seen him in many leading roles), and Judi Dench is one of the true gems of the British acting world. I honestly feel bad for anyone making a Daniel Craig James Bond film though. The bar was set so high by Casino Royale that they have to capture lightning in a bottle twice to find that magic again. I think it’s possible, and Skyfall came close. It just didn’t get all the way there.

Final Score: B+

 

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Ridley Scott is one of Hollywood’s most hit-or-miss directors. For every Blade Runner or Thelma & Louise, he makes a Hannibal or Black Hawk Down (seriously Black Hawk Down is awful). Although even his worst films are visually dynamic and interesting movies; sometimes, he just gets bad scripts to work with (or the studio meddles too much with his final product, ala the underrated Kingdom of Heaven). I think the man just doesn’t know what movies to pass on. Or perhaps it’s just an ability to constrain himself in his films. Anyways, his 1970s to early 90s productions were generally pretty great, and for a very 1980s style action flick, 1989’s Black Rain was a compelling, smart, and stylish action thriller with just enough original gimmicks going for it that you didn’t care that the story followed a fairly predictable path.

Nick Conklin (Fatal Attraction‘s Michael Douglas) is a semi-dirty cop with the NYPD. With a penchant for fast motorcycles, Nick is also under investigation from internal affairs for skimming money off the top of a drug bust. When he and his partner Charlie Vincent (The Untouchables‘ Andy Garcia) bust a Japanese crime lord for murder, they are tasked with escorting him back to Japan. However, the crime lord’s associates pretend to be cops and help the crime lord escape at the airport. Now, it’s up to Nick, Charlie, and Japanese inspector Masahiro (Ken Takakura) to recapture the criminal Sato  and get at the heart of a Yakuza-fueled gang war that is tearing the Osaka criminal underworld apart.

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I thought I was going to have trouble buying Michael Douglas as a bad-ass biker cop with an attitude. He’s such a stereotypical Hollywood pretty boy (not an insult. just a fact), but then I remembered that Romancing the Stone existed, and his turn as the cocksure Nick was a pleasant surprise. Douglas has just the right sensitivity to make the character more than just a one-note caricature of arrogant American swagger, and a natural chemistry arose between him and Andy Garcia as well as Ken Takakura. Andy Garcia brought the necessary comic relief to the movie and provided one of the film’s most memorable sequences when he and Ken Takakura did a Ray Charles number at a karaoke bar. I’m unsure if Ken Takakura is a native English speaker, but regardless, he also turned the initially unsympathetic Masahiro into a three-dimensional figure as well.

It’s odd (knowing my usual tastes in movies) that I truly enjoyed Black Rain as much as I did. There was nothing especially insightful about the film. But, the way that it painted the differences in demeanor between the brash hotshot New York detective and the traditional, group-oriented Japanese inspector was something that hadn’t been overdone to death yet at the time, and most films of the same ilk that I’ve seen since don’t do it half as well. As someone who’s lived abroad, the film captures quite well how easy it is to get lost in other cultures and the clashes that can occur when two very strong-willed people/groups collide. Ridley Scott’s direction is also great. Like his whole ouevre, Black Rain is gorgeous to look at, and when the story hits more predictable lulls (cop says he can’t help Nick. comes back to help Nick at key moment, etc), you can always count on the film grabbing your attention visually.

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I’ll keep this review short cause this isn’t exactly an art-house piece. If you’re looking for a really fun and smartly made movie that you can watch and not have to think too much during, you could do a lot worse than Black Rain. Michael Douglas continues to solidify his reputation in my mind as one of the great stars of the 80s and 90s, and I’ve always wondered why Andy Garcia didn’t become a bigger star. The only thing about this film that makes me sad (besides a certain decapitation scene… poor guy) is that it reminds me how great Ridley Scott can be when he isn’t trying to be Mr. Highbrow. With the exception of Blade Runner and maybe Alien, he’s not actually talented enough to be Mr. Highbrow. But, when he’s making great, crowd-pleasing popcorn pictures like Black Rain, he hits ’em out of the park.

Final Score: B+

 

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Although it’s easy to forget, what with my love of Glee, musical theater, and more feminine venues of artistic expression, I am a man. And occasionally, I need visceral, testosterone-fueled outlets for my more masculine urges. That’s likely why I can enjoy stylized, hyper-violent video games. Something in me as a man inherently appreciates a chance to vent that sort of aggression that evolution instilled in me somewhere but that society has more or less made unnecessary. It’s the same with how I can enjoy professional wrestling (and yes I know it’s fake) and also like Terrence Malick or Federico Fellini at the same time. It’s nice to see displays of masculine athleticism. And the visual poetry of well-choreographed martial arts explains why legions of men have loved “kung fu” movies (even when it’s a different school of martial arts) for decades now. It’s machismo with actual talent.

Long-time readers know my love of the burgeoning martial arts scene coming from Southeast Asia over the last decade or so, particularly the film’s involving Thailand’s muay thai master Tony Jaa (Ong Bak). I took martial arts lessons for a long time when I was younger (although I was pretty terrible at it), and I’ve always loved watching bad-ass men prove how athletic and talented they are destruction with just their fists and feet. I’m not sure if it’s possible to watch a well-choreographed martial arts film and not at least get an adrenaline rush from the skill these guys show with their body. It’s a true mastery of mind and body, and it’s  a talent that should be celebrated. 2011’s The Raid: Redemption starts out and worries viewers by making you think that it’s just another guns-blazing action film, but when everyone finally runs out of ammo, the movie becomes a martial arts extravaganza that’s a feast for the eyes.

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An elite swat team has orders to infiltrate a heavily guarded tenement building in the slums of Indonesia. The building is the home of the operations (and soldiers) of one of Indonesia’s most feared and brutal drug lords. Led by the honorable Jaka (Joe Taslim) and the sketchy/scheming Wahyu (Pierre Gruno), the team of 20 or so rookie swat members storm the drug den unaware of the hell they are walking into. When 75% of the force is wiped out after the group fails to kill a child who is a scout for the drug dealers, it’s up to the four remaining members of the team to fight their way out of the building. And most of the duty for escape falls on the shoulders of rookie Rama (Iko Uwais) whose martial arts skills prove to be the only thing that’s keeping him and his squadmates alive.

The characters in the film are paper thing and almost without definition beyond their ability to be weapons of mass destruction with just their fists. And the story doesn’t provide any twists that you didn’t see coming besides a minor plot point about Rama being the brother of one of the drug lord’s top lieutenants. The acting isn’t bad, but it certainly isn’t anything to write home about. But, when you’re watching The Raid: Redemption, you don’t care about any of these things. The sheer spectacle of the film as the silat fighting style is shown off like never before is enough to keep you glued to your seat for the entire running time. Whether Rama is fighting off 30 thugs with just a nightstick and knife or he and his brother attempt to fight against just one superhumanly athletic man, The Raid will serve as a future lesson on how to do gorgeous fight choreography.

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I’ll keep this review short. It’s an action film and if you don’t like martial arts movies, you’re not going to like this one. But for anybody who is a fan of the theatrics of martial arts wizardry, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a film more bad-ass than The Raid: Redemption. The film seemed a little disappointing at the beginning when everyone was still using their guns, but that’s because gunplay is almost never as gorgeous as fists of fury. But, when the fighting becomes more brutal and in-your-face, The Raid becomes a literal non-stop fight for survival that displays some of the most innovative and adrenaline-pumping martial arts action this side of Tony Jaa. Watch it now.

Final Score: B

 

Just because you prefer the films of Federico Fellini or Terrence Malick doesn’t mean you can’t just sit back and enjoy a good, old fashioned hyper-violent action movie every now and then. They’ve got to be ultra-stylistic or a glorious celebration of action cliche excess (Shoot ‘Em Up), but it’s great to have a movie that’s a purely visceral experience (as opposed to cerebral or emotional). These films almost never qualify as “great” movies, but for fans of film technique, stylistic action movies can give your mind a break while simultaneously stimulating your love of visually exciting film-making. 2007’s Smokin’ Aces is one of those films. And although it starts tripping over its own feet with its unnecessarily serious ending (which clashes with the mood of the rest of the film), if you can look past that failing, it’s remain a high-octane thrill ride ever since it was released.

In the realm of the Guy Ritchie films such as Snatch or Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (though with only half of Ritchie’s wit), Smokin’ Aces is a crime action thriller where the only thing higher than the body count is the number of players and schemes along for the ride. After Mafioso Primo Sparazza puts a hit on mob informant and Vegas showman Buddy “Aces” Israel (Jeremy Piven), just about every assassin worth his weight comes out to take him down. FBI Agents Richard Messner (Ryan Reynolds) and Donald Carruthers (Ray Liotta) race to the Lake Tahoe penthouse suite where Israel is holed up, hoping to catch up with him before the army of hit men bears down on him. On the opposite side of the law are heavy hitters including three psychotic nazi brothers, two African American female assassins (including the sultry Alicia Keys), and a man notorious for changing his face to make the perfect kill.

The film’s almost absurdly star-studded cast has to be the biggest selling point behind the clever and visceral visual style of the film. Like the disaster movies of the 1970s, it’s almost a question of “who isn’t” in this movie. You have Ryan Reynolds, Andy Garcia, and Ray Liotta as FBI Agents. Jeremy Piven is the target and rapper Common is his primary bodyguard. There are three cast members from Lost in major or minor roles. That’s Matthew Fox as hotel security guard. Nestor Carbonell as one of the primary hit men and Kevin Durand as one of the inbred psycho assassins. Alicia Keys and Taraji P. Henson are the female assassins. Ben Affleck is a bail bondsman hoping to capture Israel alive before the hit men smoke him. And none other than Captain Kirk himself, Chris Pine, plays another one of the psycho brothers. Just to round things out, Jason Bateman is a cross-dressing lawyer hoping to not lose the bail he put down on Israel.

In the cast, a few stars obviously push their way to the front. Jeremy Piven is a wonder as always. Although he starts the film out in what can be kindly called “Full Ari Gold” mode, he generally finds himself beaten down over the course of the movie by the possibility of his impending doom and the fact that he is likely about to sell out all of his closest friends. Inhabiting the coked out, arrogant, regretful, and, ultimately, terrified Buddy Israel is simply further proof that Jeremy Piven is a talented actor who got his big breaks far too late in life. Common proves that he is a capable actor in his flirtatious scenes with Alicia Keys as well as the moments where he confronts Israel about his portrayal. Ryan Reynolds also admirably acquits himself as the FBI Agent who regularly learns that there are more and more layers to this seemingly simple case.

The film’s influences are fairly obvious. Trying to pair the quick and snappy dialogue of a Tarantino film with the gambit pileups of a Guy Ritchie movie, writer/director Joe Carnahan’s actual achievements are more of a mixed bag. When the film hits its marks, it’s a wonderful thing. Whether it’s the darkly comic (but inexplicably hilarious) moment where Chris Pine’s Tremor brother forces a corpse to mime out his apology for killing him or Taraji P. Henson’s assassin opening fire on a room full of feds with a 50. sniper rifle, the movie finds the magic balance between dark humor and a wee bit of the old ultra violence. However, when the film tries to be remotely serious, it simultaneously snaps the comically violent tone of the film while also simply failing to actually be dramatic. The awful twist ending is the ultimate example of this flaw in the film’s system.

The film isn’t going to please the art-house crowd (although I consider myself to be a part of that crowd. I can just also appreciate more broadly appealing films), but if you like smart and witty action films, you could do a hell of a lot worse than Smokin’ Aces. Sometimes all that matters for a movie is whether or not it’s fun. And if you can’t find anything fun about Smokin’ Aces, you need your testosterone levels checked (unless you’re a chick and just naturally don’t have any. Still think women can find the film appealing though). It may not be as good as stylistic thrillers like La Femme Nikita or Leon: The Professional, but not everybody can be a Luc Besson. If you need your fix of hyper-kinetic, over-the-top action, you can start here.

Final Score: B