A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 506 – Rango

Rango – July 19th, 2011

I will straight up admit to wanting to see this movie largely because of its marketing. If it had just been advertised as a CG kids film Western parody then eh, I might have seen it eventually or I might have given it a pass. Sure, it has Johnny Depp and he’s always good for a laugh, but I don’t go out of my way for Westerns and it just might not have seemed like it was anything super special. Except for the marketing, which played up how the recording for the voice acting was done, which looked like a blast. Unlike the recording booths I assume much voice acting is done in, this movie was recorded with the cast on a rudimentary set, interacting and wearing costume pieces and using props. Acting out the physical actions for the scenes they were recording for. And that just sucked me right in.

Now, we watched this on our regular DVD player and the regular DVD copy we have has nothing in the way of special features. And that is a crying shame because what I have seen of the filming done during the voice recording sessions is fascinating and I would love to have the option for a split screen (or something similar) between the animated movie and the recording sessions. It just seems like so much fun, with all the actors cavorting and playing around and acting out these things that aren’t meant to be physical. Seeing Bill Nighy act out the part of Rattlesnake Jake is just fantastic. But alas, that option doesn’t exist. We’ll have to pull out the PS3 and check the Bluray version at some point. Fortunately, even without such gimmicks the movie stands up.

It’s a Western. Let’s just put that out there and I will admit that I enjoyed it. In fact, in light of this and a few other things I’ve noted in some past reviews, I think I might have to revisit my position on Westerns. I still don’t think I’m much of a John Wayne gal, but I’ll give Eastwood a go. I’ve absorbed enough of the tropes at this point that it really would be a shame not to put them in their proper context. And I shouldn’t let an enforced viewing of The Searchers while I had a 100 degree fever color my attitude towards an entire genre, I’m sure. Some day I’ll tell that story, but it won’t be in a review for The Searchers. I’ll give Westerns a go. I’ll spend the rest of this review effusing about this particular Western. But The Searchers will always remind me of fever chills and misery and resentment. That being said, this movie is about as far from that as possible.

Sure, some of it seems like a fever dream! But that’s intentional and a heck of a lot more fun than an actual fever. It’s the story of a chameleon who finds himself bounced out of his terrarium and stranded in a desert environment he is utterly unfamiliar with. In his quest for water he finds a town, the town of Dirt, and thanks to his penchant for acting (and he is a chameleon, after all) he spins enough wild tales to impress the locals. When he lucks into winning a match against a hawk he’s made sheriff. And that’s when the real trouble starts, because now he has to live up to all the tales he’s told and stories he’s spun because Dirt has more problems than a hawk hanging around and some rough and tumble critters in the saloon.

Dirt is drying up. Less and less water in the bank. Less and less water out of the giant spigot. Things are getting dire and now Rango is the one the people of Dirt are looking to for help. And he has no damn clue what to do. He knows how to act like he knows what to do, but faced with actual problems and the need for true action, he manages to muck it up every which way. Of course. And of course you know eventually he’ll have an epiphany and figure out what to do and somehow save the day with something clever and unexpected. I mean, this movie is unique in many ways but the basic plot arc isn’t one of them.

There are two things that really set this movie apart from others of its ilk: The animation, which is gorgeous, and the script, which is funny and tight and performed brilliantly. I suspect that the latter is a combination of good writing and the aforementioned recording sessions. Every clip I’ve seen from them shows people collaborating in a way that feels almost like an acting workshop, but since it’s the sound they need, they can edit around bits they don’t want or need. The animation would follow from that too, as I believe it was done after a lot of the recording, with the actions of the cast used as reference points. The visual standards for the animation are high anyhow, with some lovely detailing done in the textures and backgrounds. I found Rattlesnake Jake, in particular, to look fantastic. And this is coming from an ophidiophobe.

Still, I do credit the writing even without the different take on voice recording. It’s a fun script that doesn’t break any new ground plot-wise but does take advantage of all of the tropes before it. There’s narration for the movie performed by a troupe of birds in mariachi outfits, playing music and telling the story but also being inside the story, coughing as dust is kicked up by the animals riding by, which they’re singing about at the time. Every little nuance of the movie, all the jokes based on the setting, they’re all clearly homage and parody both. When Rango announces that he and his posse are going to ride out! Well, that’s a moment of homage to dozens of movies. When he realizes he has no idea where he’s riding to? That’s parody. And it’s all nicely done and well-matched with the animals-as-characters concept, mixing jokes on the setting with the inevitable issues of scale.

I’m also quite pleased to say that while there is a bit of a message to the movie, which is inevitable in a movie about a town in the middle of a drought, it’s not shaped like an anvil or a sledgehammer. The movie is about what the movie is about: An unlikely hero growing into his heroism. And along the way there are messages about the environment and greed and growth at the expense of people’s lives and livelihoods. And it’s all really nicely done. It’s a fun movie and a funny movie and it’s incredibly gorgeous visually and really, my only complaint is the lack of special features on the DVD, which isn’t a complaint about the movie itself so please pay it no mind.

July 19, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rango

July 19, 2011

Rango

This was a wonderful treat. I had pre-ordered this from Amazon a while back during a small spate of movie buying one week when I had some money to spare (things have been tight lately and we haven’t been able to buy as many movies as once we did.) Then this week it abruptly showed up in our mailbox. I remember when this was in theaters earlier this year and how I really wanted to go see it then, and it’s great fun to finally be able to see it.

Amanda and I were intrigued by the way this movie was made. For ages animators have used reference material of the actors in the sound booths “performing” their parts. Pixar started to break down the walls between voice actors when they made Monsters, Inc, which I believe is the first animated feature film to allow two actors (John Goodman and Billy Crystal) to riff off of each other while recording their dialog. Prior to that each actor would record their lines alone in an isolated sound booth. What Gore Verbinski has done here is take the performance capture techniques pioneered by Robert Zemeckis for his creepily not quite human films like Beowulf and The Arctic Express, and make something looser, cooler and hipper from it. Gone are the mo-cap balls and skintight outfits. In the making of footage for this movie some of the cast are in full costume, and some are just in sweats – whatever they need to get into character. Instead Gore chose to record the movie with cameras and boom mikes as though it was an actual movie, then turn that source material over to the animators as inspiration and direction for their work. So he’s creating a kind of live-action animatic that works almost like storyboards. It’s a fantastic idea, and clearly it worked very well for this movie because it’s simply fantastic to watch and has a very natural and real feel to it in spite of its being entirely computer animated.

It also appears that the movie was animated not by traditional animators (though I don’t doubt that there were many of those employed) but by special effects artists. Of course in today’s film world there’s probably little distinction to be made there, but I think that the fact that this is the first full film produced by ILM is clearly to be seen in the amazing visual detail they cram into every frame. The art design of this movie is a kind of twisted parody of real life. All the characters (except for a couple grotesque caricature humans here and there) are based on real life animals, and all the backgrounds and props are intricately built as well. Every surface is covered in grit, hair and feathers. The whole film has a very organic but also fantastical look to it, which gives it a sense of heightened reality that goes hand in hand with the very natural performances.

But all that’s just the technology behind the movie – what’s the actual film like? It’s a fun sort of western with an unlikely hero. Johnny Depp plays a bug-eyed chameleon with a square face and a crooked neck who, at the start of the film, is a little lonely and stir-crazy in his isolated terrarium. He acts out strange fantasies with the various knick-nacks in the tank with him until he is abruptly cast out of the back of a car though, and finds himself out in the real world. On the advice of a road kill armadillo he heads out into the desert where he comes upon the parched little town of Dirt. Here in Dirt the people are dusty and downtrodden, there’s a mysterious drought, and a sinister mayor who has been buying all the dessicated farms around the town for some reason. They need a hero, and the chameleon needs to figure out how to deal with being surrounded by people. He chooses to blend in by taking on a completely new persona – Rango.

Rango is a tough-as-nails fearless pistolero with a swagger and a drawl. He comes out of the mysterious west to deal with outlaws and n’er do wells. He’s the ultimate western movie badass – except that he’s completely fictitious and a fraud. Even so, he’s exactly what the people of Dirt need, and he soon finds himself appointed sheriff and pitted against a family of water stealing groundhogs.

This is a simple and familiar story but wonderfully fun to watch nonetheless. I particularly enjoyed all the little references throughout the film. This is not a movie for children, even if it is produced by Nickelodeon The chameleon in his tank does the routine with the manequin from “Make ‘Em Laugh” that Donald O’Connor does in Singin’ in the Rain. When he’s thrown into the road at the start of the movie he careens off of the windshield of a car driven by a Hunter S. Thompson. (What kid, watching this movie, will get a Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas reference?) The plot has many references to Chinatown.

This movie was just fun to watch from start to finish. It looks as though it was fun to make too. You get the impression from the making-of material that it was a congenial kind of Pirates of the Caribbean reunion. Johnny Depp brings Rango completely to life with his swagger and his insecurity and his high pitched Kermit the Frog like wails when he’s being chased. Another Pirates alum, Bill Nighy, is fantastic as the sinister Rattlesnake Jake. This is just one of those movies that, once I was done watching it, made me want to start it right over and watch it again. It’s that kind of joy.

July 19, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 463 – No Country For Old Men

No Country for Old Men – June 6th, 2011

This is going to be a short review. I am thoroughly uninterested in this movie. Uninterested to the point of questioning this whole project. The only thing I can see about this movie that explains why we own it is the Coen Brothers. Otherwise it really isn’t at all the sort of movie either of us set out to watch. If it hadn’t been directed by the Coens, would Andy have bought it? I have no idea. I certainly wouldn’t have. Even knowing who directed it I would never have gone out and bought it. Because it’s not at all my taste. It’s a tense crime thriller and it’s a western. It’s a movie about good and largely innocent people getting brutally murdered by a sociopath. That’s not fun for me. That’s not fun at all.

I spent two hours tonight watching a movie that held no interest for me. Sure, I like Tommy Lee Jones, but not enough to watch this movie solely for him. It’s got a cast full of people I’m mildly interested in and they give excellent performances. It’s got a well written script but it’s a well written script telling a story I’m not drawn to. It’s got good cinematography and good directing and it is, overall, a very nicely crafted movie. It is an excellent example of its genre. And I didn’t enjoy one single minute of it. It’s not that I actively disliked it. This isn’t like Punch Drunk Love where I felt like a hideous movie was cheating me out of enjoying the gorgeous cinematography. And it isn’t like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where I could see how it would be a beautiful movie to other people but so thoroughly disturbed me that I couldn’t take away from it what other people did. No. I get this movie. I just don’t care about it because it isn’t for me.

And I don’t say it isn’t for me because of demographics or anything like that. It’s that the things that people enjoy about this movie aren’t my personal taste. They aren’t antithetical to my tastes. They just exist somewhere not in the same part of the Venn diagram that I occupy. I’m finding it hard to even muster up the interest in recounting the plot here. Why bother? Anyone who cares about this movie or is looking for something like it probably wouldn’t bother reading my review. But here’s the basic rundown: Llewellyn Moss is a hunter and welder who, by accident, happens upon the site of a drug deal gone bad. Several trucks, several bodies, a pick-up bed full of heroin and a valise full of money all point to someone not getting what they wanted and everyone paying for it. And that’s a good way to sum up this whole movie. Llewellyn goes home but can’t help thinking about that money. So in the middle of the night he goes back out and gets it, and for his trouble he ends up hunted down by a hit man hired to get the money back.

Llewellyn gets chased by an attack dog, which is a pretty firm clue that someone’s going to come looking for him. He sends his wife away and starts running, figuring if he can find a safe spot he can hole up and wait for the man coming to get him and get the hit man first. But the hit man isn’t just a hired gun. He’s a sociopath. Anton Chigurh kills people with a bolt gun normally used to kill livestock. And he kills people all the time. He needs a car so he kills a driver who stops for him. He kills almost everyone he encounters. He is implacable and unstoppable and he has a job to do and he’s going to do it. If I was so inclined, I’m sure I could do a fascinating character study on Chigurh and his personal code of conduct, his Two-Face-esque coin flipping and his choice of weapon. But I don’t really care about him. He’s in this movie to be the bogeyman.

Moss runs and Chigurh chases and while they do that Moss’ wife goes to her mother’s, which ends up being far from safe. Because this is a movie where horrible things happen to people who’ve done nothing wrong and I knew from the beginning what was going to happen there. I knew what was going to happen from the very beginning. This isn’t a movie where the good guys win, I’m sorry to say. That’s not the point. I don’t know if I could accurately describe the real point, but it’s definitely not about the underdog winning because good should prevail. Which is pretty depressing, but there you go.

The events of the movie are largely trailed by a sheriff played by Tommy Lee Jones. He’s close to retirement and jaded from the horrible things he’s seen and read about. And right from the start, when he sees the evidence of the drug deal gone bad and a subsequent execution of two more men he seems to know that the whole ordeal will end poorly for many people. He never seems hopeful that things will turn out okay for anyone. He just tries his best to keep things from turning out as horribly as they could. And he doesn’t seem to succeed, really. The movie ends on him, talking about a dream he had about his father. And it’s a bleak ending. A bleak ending for a grim movie I never wanted to watch and regret spending time on. An excellently crafted grim movie, but that doesn’t mean I have to enjoy having spent my evening watching it.

June 6, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | 2 Comments

Kill Bill: Volume Two

May 23, 2011

Kill Bill: Volume II

I’ve only just finished writing my somewhat tardy review for Volume One of the Kill Bill movies and now I have to start in on a whole ‘nother Kill Bill review. I remember thinking when I saw this movie in the theater that it was not as good as the first movie. It’s more cerebral. More talky and plotty. It has huge giant swaths of pithy dialog (a Tarantino specialty) but not the same level of awesomely choreographed fight scenes. Watching it back to back with the first movie helps though. They were conceived to be a single lengthy picture after all, so it makes sense that they work better together as a unit than individually on their own.

This is a movie that has to answer questions from the first half and tie up plot threads. There are questions that don’t particularly need answering, such as what is the Bride’s name which has been bleeped out up until now. (It’s Beatrix Kiddo by the way, and I honestly can’t think of any reason that I should care.) It resolves the mystery of what happened to Elle Driver’s missing eye. Most importantly it answers the question of why Beatrix left the Vipers (because she wanted to raise her unborn child outside the influence of her lover and handler Bill) and why Bill turned around and slaughtered her and her entire new life (he admits he over-reacted.)

I’m very much of two minds regarding this movie. There are parts of the movie I really enjoy. Everything having to do with Pai Mei – the Bride’s Chinese kung-fu master. He’s ornery and cranky and clearly a kung-fu legend. He has a long beard, bushy eyebrows and a big white top-knot. He laughs a lot. There’s the entire training montage, which is fantastic. There are the wild zooms in to Pai Mei’s cackling visage that feel so very authentic to the source material. (I particularly grinned at the zoom that leaves him all blurry until the focus pull brings him back.)

Michael Madsen as Bill’s down-on-his-luck brother is fantastic. You get the impression that his self-imposed exile and the crappy life he’s living is his penance for the part he played in Beatrix’s betrayal. Then he turns around and shoots her in the chest and buries her alive, so maybe he’s not too sympathetic after all. I’m just not sure what I’m supposed to think. It’s a great role for Madsen though – even if half the time I thought he looked more like Micky Rourke than like himself.

Daryl Hannah is wonderfully evil as Elle Driver. She’s just to malevolent and menacing. She’s the most heartless of all possible killers, which makes her a great foil for the Bride. It’s also great to see her get her comeuppance.

But this movie is mostly about Bill and Beatrix and B.B. The resolution of their collective plot threads is not an over-the-top super action extravaganza. It is a series of scenes with people talking at each-other. We get to see Bill finding Beatrix in the church in Texas where he first tried to kill her. We get a fairy store from Bill about Pai Mei before Beatrix goes to train with him. Bill soliloquises about learning about death, about the nature of Superman, about feeling betrayed. It should be some indication of just how talky this movie gets that a big action plot point is when Bill shoots Beatrix with a dart filled with truth serum. You thought there was going to be a shoot-out? Nope! More talking!

I do enjoy Tarantino’s pop culture dialog style in small doses. The Superman speech for example is a nice one even if it does sound more like Kevin Smith than Quentin Tarantino. It just doesn’t seem to fit the expectations set by the first movie. I wanted gallons of blood and hundreds killed. This movie (or half of the movie depending on how you view such things) is just so slow and deliberate in comparison.

One thing this movie has going for it, though, is Uma Thurman. Her performance in this movie is simply awesome. She gets to be the unstoppable killing machine, which is great. She also gets to be the mother reunited with the daughter she thought she has lost, though, and that role is such a powerful one. I am only willing to sit through David Carradine’s constant monologues because the powerful emotions that play out on Uma’s face as she reconciles her need to fulfil the title of the movie with her still existent love for the father of her child. (Well and because Carradine is fucking Kwai Chang Caine and Frankenstein – the guy could read the phone book and make it sound spiritual and sinister.)

I’ve watched both movies back to back now and I have to say that although I like the first a lot more, because it is full of light hearted action and awesome fight scenes, the second one has its place as well. I’d very much like to see the two edited together in some fashion that spreads the adrenal rush of the action a little better, but I’m happy with the product as it currently exists. I think I need a small break from Tarantino now before we embark on Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs or Inglourious Basterds. It’s very much possible to overdose.

May 23, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 448 – Kill Bill vol. 1

Kill Bill vol. 1 – May 22nd, 2011

I’ve got mixed feelings when it comes to Quentin Tarantino. I think he’s a brilliant guy who knows movies like few other people do. He has a recognizable aesthetic and he can do homage and reference while keeping the result distinctly his own. He has a good eye and an excellent ear and hearing him talk about movies it’s clear just how much he loves watching them, absorbing them and then making his own. And that’s all great. But he’s also got an ego the size of Jupiter and he can get so wrapped up in his own cleverness and image and reputation that things get overdone. Death Proof lowered him a lot in my eyes, but I have to reconcile it with this movie, which is an entirely different creature. So, like I said, mixed feelings.

This is probably one of the most obvious revenge quest movies I can think of. There’s no attempt to disguise it and that’s the point of the whole thing, that it’s righteous and bad-assed. There is never any question of who you should root for here. The Bride, whose name is omitted whenever it’s spoken, is your hero. She’s been put through hell and she’s going to get her revenge and if you’re not going to help her then she’s going to ignore you and if you hurt her then you’re as good as dead. She was beaten and shot on her wedding day, pregnant and trying to escape her former life as an assassin. We meet her as she tells the man shooting her – Bill – that it’s his baby. Just before he shoots her in the head. Now that? That is some potent backstory for a revenge plot.

I like how this movie is put together. Sure, starting out by going forward in time and then back is a bit of a gimmick but I don’t really mind. The Bride makes a list of people she needs to kill and we meet the second one first, but it’s a fast bit of action, all things considered, and it serves to introduce the character’s skills, lack of weaknesses and a good amount of her background. We hear she would have had a daughter. We get a bit about the assassination squad she was part of. We see a lot here, including action and a good amount of blood (but nowhere near as much as we will see). So I like it as an introduction. And by the time the movie ends we know what the Bride’s already been up to before she even got there.

It’s a fairly episodic movie. Yes, we see the last episode first, but otherwise it’s all clearly delineated by location. She starts in Texas, she wakes up in the hospital, she goes to Okinawa, she goes to Tokyo, she comes back to the US. Each section is well defined and within the section in Japan we get a complete style change to animation to show the backstory of one of her opponents: O-Ren Ishii. Now, the animation and storytelling there? I’m not so keen on. I can see its purpose, but it seems to be there more because Tarantino thought it would be cool than because it’s necessarily required for the plot. I’m not sure I care enough about O-Ren to see her childhood trauma and her own revenge story. And the animated style of it defines it as not a part of the rest of the movie’s storyline, but it also serves to separate it out and keep it from fitting into the movie as well as it should. And I find that frustrating. Whereas the rest of the episodes in the movie fit together as part of the Bride’s story, O-Ren’s doesn’t. It’s there for style more than substance. But that’s sort of how I see Tarantino: He has the potential for such fantastic substance, but gets distracted by style sometimes.

The other thing I really like about this movie, aside from the excellent cinematography and directing and all those things I expect from a Tarantino film, is that it’s not wall to wall violence. Oh sure, once the fight scenes start they’re relentless – as they should be – but there are other scenes where there’s little to no violence whatsoever. Specifically there’s the Hattori Hanzo scenes. Those are some fantastic bits that serve both as homage, with Sonny Chiba playing a role that’s a clear reference to a television show from the 80s, as well as character development for the Bride. She’s not a mindless assassin who uses a sword because it’s cool. She has a reverence for it and for its history. And it shows here. It’s a nice bit of quiet in a movie full of noise and I appreciate the pause it creates in the middle. It’s sort of a calm before the storm that is to come in the teahouse later on when she faces off with O-Ren and her gang.

This movie? Is not for young audiences. In fact, I’m impressed that the tricks that were used to land it an R instead of an NC-17 actually worked. And it gets shown on television! Every so often I flip past it and I usually pause to watch for a little while because I enjoy it quite a bit. But oh is it funny how it gets altered to make it “safe” for television. I’m often amused by these things (when we review The Breakfast Club I’ll share my favorite example) but this one is up there near the top of my list. I can’t speak to exactly how much blood and gore gets removed, but the most noticeable change is that “pussy wagon” is changed to “party wagon” and the line “My name is Buck and I’m here to fuck” gets changed to “My name is Buck and I’m here to party.” As if that at all hides the fact that Buck’s been selling her body while she was comatose. And there’s just something so ridiculous about trying to clean up this movie by changing the terminology but not the content.

Aside from the animated section I really feel that this is a tightly put together movie with a clear idea of where it’s going and what it wants to do and how it’s going to do it all. The Bride is a strong character, willing to do whatever it takes to get to Bill and kill him and take down the rest of her former teammates as she goes. Sure, she’s had horrible things happen to her, but the movie doesn’t seem to delight in showing them to us, which is a huge difference for me from Death Proof (also a revenge story but one in which the revenge cannot be enacted by those harmed the most because the movie just had to show how much they were harmed). The Bride faces off with a number of other strong characters, ones who have lives and backgrounds of their own and who can certainly go toe to toe with her. It’s paced well, populated well, written well. It’s full of darkly humorous lines in the midst of the revenge. And all the homage and reference are combined well to make it something different. I honestly think it stands fairly well on its own, but it’s only part one and ends on a cliffhanger, so we’ll have to finish talking about it tomorrow.

May 22, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 386 – The Good, The Bad and The Weird

The Good, The Bad and The Weird – March 21st, 2011

After so many movies, we’ve found that this project makes for good conversation fodder. After all, we’ve usually seen something weird no one’s heard of, and we’ve also seen things everyone knows. If movies come up in conversation we are well equipped. And since we tend to hang out with people who like movies, it’s a common conversation topic. So the week before last, when we had a guest before PAX East, the conversation did indeed turn to movies. We explained the project and we talked movies and we exchanged suggestions. We suggested Volcano High to her and she suggested this to us.

I admit, it sounded familiar, vaguely, but I couldn’t dredge up the specifics. Turns out I’m pretty sure another friend had mentioned it, but before this project, and I’d never gotten around to buying it. But we have it now! Truth be told, had I remembered specifics, I might have been a little more skeptical. Because see, this is a Western. It’s just a Western set in Manchuria in the 1940s. And okay, I feel a little underinformed about the time period and location, but I know enough to get the basics. And there’s a mini history lesson in the middle of the movie, so that helps (not much, since the person giving the lecture is also trying to drug the person he’s giving it to, but still). I wouldn’t be much concerned with it, except that there is fair deal of talk about the three main characters being in Manchuria because they’ve had to leave Korea behind. They talk about not having a country anymore and being on their own and if I were to take this movie seriously, I’d have to give it a little more attention.

As it stands, it’s hard to take this movie too seriously because it doesn’t take itself completely seriously. There’s a wink to the audience going on throughout this entire movie. Every scene has something in it that’s only half serious at most. The focal character of the three leads is definitely a comedic performance much of the time. Things are played for laughs all over the place even in the middle of fight scenes, but it doesn’t come off as farce. I’m not sure how it quite manages that, but it toes the line and never really crosses it. It’s still a fun action shoot-em-up, it’s just got the perfect amount of tongue-in-cheek to keep things fun.

The plot revolves around a stolen treasure map and three men who want to get the map and to take each other down. Yoon Tae-goo is a thief who’s gotten onto a Japanese train crossing Manchuria. He breaks into a private car, takes out the guards and officials carrying the map and steals it along with a good deal of cash and jewelry. But at the same time bounty hunter Park Do-won is searching for a bounty to collect on and the sinister Park Chang-yi had plans to stop the train and steal the map himself. Since Tae-goo got there first, Chang-yi goes after him. Do-won goes after them too, wanting to collect on a bounty (and they’re both listed). Oh, and the map? Is immensely important to a lot more people. It supposedly shows the location of a treasure that could mean Korea’s freedom or riches for either Japan or China. The Japanese army and a bunch of Manchurian bandits end up on Tae-goo’s trail as well.

As the movie goes on, Tae-goo tries to sell the map, then decides not to, then loses it, then gets caught by Do-won and then he gets drugged and soon we’re riding across the desert with horses and jeeps and motorcycles and mortar blasts and guns. While I would say that 90% of the movie is shoot outs and fights and action, half the bits that aren’t (and most of the bits that are) have to do with him trying to get away from someone who wants him dead or wants the map or both. The parts that aren’t to do with all of that are about Chang-yi and his vendetta against Tae-goo and how he is a total fucking bad ass. And let me say, the bit of fan service where he’s all shirtless? Byung-hun Lee, who plays him, is easy on the eyes and I did not mind one bit.

But all this is ignoring the badassery of Do-won. Now, as the bounty hunter, tracking down a notorious criminal known as the Finger Chopper, Do-won is unmistakably the “Good” of the title. He is also incredible. And I knew this while watching him. He’s got an effortless sort of competence about him. Like looking at him you know damn well he’s good at what he does and he doesn’t have to demonstrate. But after the movie was over and we watched some of the behind the scenes footage, I got a true appreciation for just how fantastic the actor playing him, Woo-sung Jung, is. Because a ton of the effects and action and stunts here aren’t really effects, and the stunts seem to largely be performed by the actors. At least, that’s the impression I got. And there’s this scene where Do-won is racing along on horseback, almost but not quite standing in his saddle, firing off his rifle and swinging it around and flipping it and reloading and firing again. In the footage we watched? There is no effect there. That is a truly impressive actor on a scarily fast horse with no apparent safety rig whatsoever, handling that rifle as if he knows exactly what he’s doing. Is that sort of stuff in classic Westerns? Because if so, I might be persuaded to take a look.

What I’m trying to say here is that this movie is full of people doing awesome stuff. It’s got some great comedic and serious acting from all three of the leads and more fantastic action and fight scenes than I can recount. It’s fun and it’s silly and it’s also set during a serious time but it never gets bogged down. It’s got a fascinating tone I can’t quite name but which I greatly enjoyed. And so I want to thank our houseguest for the suggestion. I hope she likes Volcano High and the other movies we suggested and I’m truly looking forward to watching her other suggestions. They won’t be exactly this (what could be?) but I’m hoping they will be just as awesome.

March 21, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Good The Bad The Weird

March 21, 2011

The Good The Bad The Weird

Yoon Tae-goo just chose the wrong train to hold up. He’s a small time Korean thief with a past in Manchuria during the Japanese occupation. Unfortunately for him the train he is robbing has on board a Japanese envoy who has in his possession a certain map. A map that everybody seems to want. A Korean businessman has hired a notorious and heartless killer to get the map back. The entire Japanese army is after it. A group of Manchurian marauders are after it. A gang of thieves call the Ghost Market Gang want it as well. On top of it all there’s a bounty hunter who doesn’t care about the map but is after Tae-goo and the assassin Park Chang-yi.

Back before Pax East started we had a friend over to spend the night and we got to talking about our project. She recommended a few movies we didn’t have in our collection and this was one of them. It has been described (by its director) as a “kimchee western” (as opposed to a spaghetti western.) If Sergio Leone had filmed an Indiana Jones movie set in Manchuria this might have been what would have resulted. Sounds awesome, doesn’t it?

Well it is!! There’s a quirkiness to the Korean films we have in our collection that sets them apart. Volcano High, this movie, even the monster/horror movie The Host all have a strong comedic thread that runs through them. Tae-goo could have been a serious adventurer. He has a mysterious past with Chang-yi and a preternatural ability to survive the unsurvivable. Kang-ho Song, who plays Tae-goo, absolutely steals the movie though with his inescapable charm. Woo-Sung Jung, as the steadfast bounty hunter Park Do-won gets all the coolest stunts and gunfighting. Byung-hun Lee is wonderfully sinister and badass as Park Chang-yi. At one point early in the film I commented to Amanda that he was the Korean Johnny Depp. He has an effortless smoothness that completely sells the character.

So you have these three great actors and these three great roles, and the rest of the movie is them just playing. There’s battles on a moving train. There’s daring shootouts in a marketplace. There’s an absolute whopper of a chase scene with jeeps, horses and motorcycles as all the various parties come together in a race to reach the mysterious destination the map leads to. The action is simply unbelievable, even more so if you watch the making of features on the DVD and see just how many of the stunts were simply superhuman feats of daring-do. Particularly the astonishing Woo-Sung, who absolutely floored both me and Amanda with his ability to cock a lever action rifle on a horse at full gallop. Holy shit. Furthermore, it seems that the cameramen themselves were stuntmen of a kind with some of the amazing rigs that they had to work in.

This movie is everything a thrilling western should be. It’s got operatic meditations of good and evil. It’s got men in dusters with rifles. It’s got horses, dynamite, shootouts, trains… and it infuses the whole thing with a distinctly Korean vibe that makes it even more fun. Now if you’ll excuse me I want to watch that climactic chase scene again. Wow.

March 21, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Tombstone

January 2, 2011

Tombstone

I can’t believe that this is the only western we own. I actually really enjoy a good western and of course I’ve seen a fair share. It’s just that somehow none of them have made their way into our collection. I can’t believe I never bought Unforgiven, or Silverado, or any of the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns. We don’t own Sam Raimi’s The Quick and the Dead. We don’t own Shane. We don’t even own that pretty-boy made-for-teenaged-girls heartthrob western Young Guns. Amanda has a general dislike for the entire genre, and the only reason we even own this one is that it stars Val Kilmer.

The sad truth is that I don’t actually love this movie as much as my wife does. For her it is the only western she can stand to watch, but for me it is a poorly plotted mish-mash of western tropes, which is odd since it is based on real events and supposedly many of the happenings in the film are fairly faithful to what witnesses in the day related. The biggest problem with the movie is that I don’t really end up rooting for anybody. It’s implied that I’m supposed to want Wyatt Earp and his clan to emerge victorious, but at the same time the movie (in what I assume is an attempt to maintain its historical integrity) portrays Wyatt and his brothers as thugs and gangsters who are getting rich off the misery of gamblers and other unfortunates in the town of Tombstone. It’s essentially a movie about a gang turf war, and both gangs claim the high ground and eventually have badges declaring them to be lawmen. Both gangs have a pet psychopath – the sickly Doc Holiday on the Earp side and the deranged madman Johnny Ringo on the other. Now all this moral ambiguity would probably work with the right writer and director at the helm. Eastwood’s Unforgiven for example is very much about how nobody is really as upstanding as they might wish to be and how heroes are often as despicable as the villains they battle against. But Tombstone also wants to be a rip-roaring western adventure film, so it plays down the moral ambiguity and tries hard to show just how despicable the Cowboy gang are. It just doesn’t work for me and I don’t enjoy watching it. It tries to have all the good times and fun adventure of, say, Silverado, but still be faithful to the savage times it’s trying to portray and the end result is confusing and unfocused.

I understand that this might partly be the result of an extremely troubled production. The original director was canned by the studio and the script was severely re-written when the new director came onto the project. Kurt Russell also claims to have directed large portions during the rudderless period between directors in an attempt to keep the movie afloat. I suppose it should be considered a miracle that under such circumstances the movie is as cohesive as it is.

I suppose that part of the reason it works at all is that there are huge parts of the movie that are just masses of western cliches strapped together. It doesn’t have the feel of a light-hearted homage like Silverado to it – it is dead serious – but there’s almost the feeling at times that the whole film could be edited together from the amassed footage of other westerns that went before. There’s the tense saloon standoff. The accusation of cheating at a poker game. The quick draw showdown. At one point a theater full of rowdy cowboys hoot an hollar and fire their side-arms into the air like in a cartoon. (I was waiting at the time for a shot of the badly damaged theater roof.) Near the end of the movie the adventures of Wyatt Earp devolve into a montage of revenge: lynchings, galloping shootouts, carts shown in silhouette against the Arizona sky, more shootouts. There’s a whole lot of shots of Kurt Russell riding along with a look of steely determination and firing his six-gun wildly. At times it’s almost comical.

The thing that saves this movie from being utterly awful is the fantastic cast they brought together for it. Kurt Russell is nominally the star since everything revolves around Wyatt, but the producers have absolutely packed the entire film with familiar faces. Sam Elliott is of course perfect as Virgil. Bill Paxton as the impressionable younger brother Morgan is amiable and pleasant. Michael Biehn is the psychopathic Ringo, and he does a great job being the aloof and erudite but somewhat insane member of the Cowboys. Charlton Heston has a very small cameo appearance. Robert Mitchum does the opening and closing narration. Amanda spotted Billy Bob Thornton in a small role as a belligerent card dealer. And of course there’s Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday. He has all the best parts of the movie, really.

The whole part of Doc Holliday is the one thing that this movie handles just right. He’s a nefarious cheat, gunman and thief from the very start of the movie. He doesn’t care about anything because he’s dying and he knows it. I’d almost rather that the movie were more about him than about Wyatt, because his complete lack of morals makes him such an intriguing character. Of course the movie tries to play him as a hero, and works hard to stress that there is real affection between him and Wyatt, but it doesn’t shy away from giving him a certain edge. Val Kilmer plays him wonderfully, and it’s probably one of the most complex roles I’ve ever seen him undertake.

I don’t really enjoy this movie all that much. I wish we had some better representatives of the Western genre in our collection (though Amanda would no doubt veto any attempts to add any now.) But still, I will probably watch this again some time just for Val Kilmer and Doc Holiday. So I suppose it’s not irredeemable – just like Doc.

January 2, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 308 – Tombstone

Tombstone – January 2nd, 2011

I am not a big fan of traditional Westerns. It’s tough for me to put my finger on why, though I suspect it’s a combination of most of the genre being about manly men doing manly things and some unfortunate early exposure where I had to watch the entirety of The Searchers while I had a 100+ degree fever and was then criticized for not loving it. My bias, let me share it. And I am well aware that at least some of it is foolish bias. I won’t apologize for not always enjoying a “men shooting at things” movie. If done with style and not simply brute force I’d be willing to make a go of it. And this movie does indeed have style, which is why I like it.

Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday is definitely my number one reason for liking this movie. Sure, he’s coughing up blood for most of it and he looks like he’s about to keel over right from the start. He’s clammy and pale and his eyes are bloodshot. He’s sick. And yet he still manages to be the slickest dude in the movie. Yeah, the Earps are cool and all, but Holliday is suave. I could watch this movie only for him and I’d be happy. Him and his fantastic coat. The one he’s wearing on the cover. I covet that coat.

While Kilmer as Holliday is what originally drew me to this movie, I do enjoy more of it than him. But it does have a good deal of flaws. It’s terrifically fictionalized, from what I’ve read, but well, I really don’t expect complete historical accuracy here. It makes it so much more dramatic to speed things up and have people be in the right place at the right time. And while eventually Wyatt Earp did indeed get a posse together and go hunting down his brother’s killers for revenge, in the movie it’s all made out to be very much a good vs. bad situation. In real life, well, there’s bad and then there’s varying levels of not-bad. Things got messy, but messy doesn’t make for the same sort of dramatic tension as a clear hero.

Wyatt Earp is set up right away as a reluctant hero who’d prefer to avoid fighting altogether. He refuses several requests that he take a law enforcement position in his new home and he gets rid of a troublesome faro dealer at the saloon he later works in without firing a shot or even being armed. Clearly this man is the man we want to win. The man we’ll be pissed off to see hurt. While his brothers back him up, Holliday is the real co-star here, being the rogue to play against Wyatt’s more straightlaced ways. I’ve mentioned it before, but really, having a knight/rogue dynamic in an action/adventure story works so well if you get the characters right (and from my reading it seems this was rather true to their actual personalities). It’s a great duo. And our villain, Curly Bill, is set up to be pure evil right from the start, interrupting a wedding to murder everyone, priest included, before sitting down to eat the wedding feast, surrounded by corpses. This is a movie trying very hard to put white hats on the Earps and Holliday and a hat black as coal on Curly Bill.

What with being based on historical events, the plot of the movie is sort of a given. Wyatt and his brothers, wife and sisters-in-law move to Tombstone to try and make some money and build decent lives. This is made difficult by a gang of outlaws known as the Cowboys who have ensconced themselves in the town. Wyatt avoids getting involved, but eventually his brothers, Virgil and Morgan, get themselves deputized because they can’t bear to sit by and watch the town be terrorized. The O.K. Corral gunfight happens mid-movie and then the rest of the movie is about the fallout from it, following the Cowboys’ revenge on the Earps and Wyatt’s revenge on the Cowboys for their revenge. The beginning starts with a clearly delineated good and bad but pretty soon we’re riding through a whole lot of grey area. And I don’t mind grey area. I like questionable morals and characters who seem like good people but who do horrible things and characters who seem like bad people but manage to do good. The problem is that while that’s how history actually went, that’s not how the movie presented itself to start. By the time Wyatt Earp and his posse go off to hunt down the Cowboys they’re working against the law. Wyatt’s no longer a lawman looking to bring murderers to trial. He’s a vengeance-obsessed brother, killing people on sight.

There’s an attempt at the beginning to do some biblical foreshadowing, having one of the people at the wedding quote Revelations 6:8, with the pale horse and whatnot. And then later, when Wyatt has truly lost his calm, he shouts about how he’s going after the Cowboys and bringing hell with him. The King James Bible translation of that particular bit reads “And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.” There’s lots of imagery of Wyatt on a horse, with three other men with him, riding across the plains to deal out death to his foes. It’s an attempt not just to make Wyatt Earp a hero, but to make him mythical. Stories of the Old West are a modern mythology for the United States and I will acknowledge that this movie made a valiant attempt. Unfortunately, Death on his pale horse, bringing Hell with him to Earth? Not really a heroic figure, you know? And it flies in the face of the whole Good and Bad thing that the movie set up at the start.

It’s all a pity really, because there are a lot of good performances here from people I enjoy. Sam Elliott is mighty fine as Virgil and Bill Paxton does a nice job with Morgan. I like Kurt Russell as Wyatt, even though I think the character is scripted unevenly. And I like Micheal Biehn as Johnny Ringo, Doc Holliday’s personal nemesis in this fictionalized account of events. And of course I like Kilmer as Holliday. I wish things had been done differently from the outset. From what I can tell the production was plagued with problems, from an overlong script to an absent director to trouble finding someone to distribute the picture. Maybe if things had gone smoother? But no, because the problem is the script from the start, trying to take what could have been a very interesting story about people doing horrible things for the “right” reasons, and squishing it into rigid morality roles. So while I do enjoy the movie, it’s not without reservations and it’s mostly for some great gunfight scenes and Val Kilmer in his kickass coat.

January 2, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | 2 Comments

Movie 129 – Back to the Future III

Back to the Future III – July 7th, 2010

Last time, on Back to the Future! Seriously, that’s pretty much how it starts. We get the entire last scene of the last movie, repeated for our viewing pleasure. But I won’t gripe too much because it’s a great little scene from both Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd. And then Marty recaps the plot (it sounds pretty convoluted even in one run-on sentence) and we pick up with the modern version of Doc stuck in 1885 and Marty stuck in 1955 explaining to 1955 Doc what’s happened. Which turns the entire first movie into a nice big paradox, doesn’t it? Yeah. Whatever happened to not knowing about your own destiny? Whatever.

Now, given that they uncover the DeLorean, hidden by used-to-be-modern/now-old-west Doc and fix it up and then find Doc’s grave and decide to send Marty back in time to save future/past Doc, one might think this movie is more confusing than the last one. But really, it’s only the beginning. In keeping with the whole series, Marty meets up with his family, this time the first McFlys in America, and sees the Hill Valley of the time, a tiny little logging town that’s just beginning to build what will eventually be the clock tower. His mission is to save Doc’s life and you know the drill really. Marty goes to an unfamiliar time period, shows how out of place he is, gets wrapped up in whatever trouble the Biff Tannen of the time (Mad Dog Tannen in this one) is up to, and has to fix what’s wrong in order to make time all pretty again.

This time the mess Marty gets into involves Doc and a financial dispute with Mad Dog Tannen. Doc would have gotten shot but then Marty might get shot and Doc’s fallen for the new school teacher in town and is considering not going back with Marty. Oh, not to mention that they’ve got the get the DeLorean working again with only 1885 technology. It’s really pretty straightforward. Even more so than the first movie. The vast majority of the movie takes place in the old west and the most time travel enters into it (aside from how they got there in the first place and how they get home) is Doc’s conversation with Clara – the school teacher – about Jules Verne. Yeah, sure, Marty and Doc have the usual wrangling over messing with the timeline and whether the time machine should be destroyed. But it’s pretty much just a Western dressed up in sci-fi bookends.

Not that this is a bad thing! It’s just as goofy as the others, but with the more straightforward plot and all, it’s a lot easier to watch and not feel totally jerked around. I’m a big fan of time travel and paradoxes and all, but while this one isn’t as heavy on that front as the first one is, it’s still got enough of a dose of it to keep it fun. And while Doc does suffer from a case of love-based stupidity mid-movie, it makes for some good tension. Goodness knows the whole shoot-out with Mad Dog isn’t super tense. I mean, come on. Did you ever really think these movies would kill off Marty?

No, the tension is all in the end and the final rush to get the DeLorean up to 88 while Doc deals with Clara and they’re all speeding towards an unfinished bridge and a gorge that was named after a school teacher who fell into it in the present. Or, rather, it was named that in the original timeline anyhow. I’ve got to say, I do like the sort of neon colored markers of the timeline changes. Sure, the photo gimmick is silly, but things like the first movie changing the Twin Pines Mall to the Lone Pine Mall, that’s fun. Since the whole conceit of the movies involves mucking with the timeline and making alternate histories, obviously things will be different, but the movies don’t want you to make any mistake about that whatsoever. It could be cheesy, but it’s not. It’s clever. In fact, a goodly portion of the movie is full of clever jokes and nods. Especially the end. I want that damn train.

July 7, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment