Sunday, November 28, 2010

'Suicide Kings' succeeds despite iffy start-point

Suicide Kings (1997)
Starring: Christopher Walken, Denis Leary, Henry Thomas, Johnny Galecki, Nathan Dana, Sean Patrick Flanery, and Jay Mohr
Director: Peter O'Fallon
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

When Avery (Thomas) convinces some friends (Dana, Galecki, Flanery, Mohr, and Thomas)  to kidnap retired mob boss Charlie Bennett (Walken) in the hopes of forcing him to help locate Avery's kidnapped sister, they Ivy Leaguers quickly find themselves out of their depth. Things prove to be more complicated than even they even appear to begin with when, Charlie's eyes and ears on the street (Leary) discovers that one of the four friends was also involved in the kidnapping of the sister and that an elaborate double-cross may be afoot.

If one can set aside the weak starting point of this film (why would four otherwise intelligent people think it was a good idea to kidnap a violent and powerful mobster?) and some "huh?" moments in character behavior when the film is at its most tense, "Suicide Kings" is very enjoyable movie that skips back and forth over a dividing line between thriller and dark comedy.

While all the the cast does a great job in this character-driven movie, Walken is especially as the sharp-witted and sharp-tongued, always cold-as-ice-and-scheming mobster; Leary is fabulous as a thug with a soft spot for life's down-and-outs (but who otherwise is a remorseless killer; and Galecki is hilarious as an "audience stand-in character", expressing exactly the sort of fear and confusion . The rapid-fire, funny dialogue and the ever-larger questions of who will win the battle of wills going on between the kidnappers and their victim--not to mention who among the characters is the true criminal and who, if any, will walk away alive at the end--make the film even more engrossing.

If the story had been a bit more grounded in something that resembled common sense, this would have been a Seven Star movie. As it is, it's getting Six Stars for being an average "pressure cooker" sort of thriller with comedic overtones, but with some stand-out performances.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Was there a point to 'The American'?

The American (2010)
Starring: George Clooney, Violante Placido, Paolo Bonacelli, Johan Leysen, and Thekla Reuten
Director: Anton Corbijn
Rating: Two of Ten Stars

A freelance assassin and gunsmith (Clooney) finds that he himself may be targeted by assassins. He retreats to a small Italian village where he sets about making one last weapon before retirement... and gradually starts to reconnect with humanity.

This is probably the best-looking, best-acted film that will ever be featured on this blog.

Every single shot is absolutely perfectly composed and gorgeous to look at. George Clooney is better here than even in the films he did for the Coen Brothers. The rest of the cast likewise show themselves to be masters of their craft--they have to, because much of this film is conveyed through body language and subtle facial expressions instead of dialogue. To call this movie "quiet" is almost an understatement... there is barely even soundtrack music.

But for all the good things here, it is lacking one very important element: A story.

As gorgeous as this movie is and as great as the acting was, nothing of any consequence happens in this film. Sure, there's a little action. Sure, there's a gorgeous babe who spends most of her time on screen completely naked. Sure, George Clooney makes a gun for a mysterious hit-woman. But what passes for the plot here adds up to a whole lot of nothing.

Not having a strong plot isn't necessarily a bad thing for a film that is first and foremost a character piece. But what is bad here is that it's a character piece where we never go below the surface of the characters. The actors are giving the script their all, but nothing is brought to light with those performances because the story goes nowhere. Hell, we barely learn anything about their daily lives, other than the most superficial things. (I referred to Clooney as an assassin in my summary, but I'm not convinced that's an accurate description. The preview for the film refers to him as an assassin, there are moments in the film where I believe he's an assassin--especially in the opening sequence--but he seemed more like a master gunsmith who sometimes takes to the front lines to me. Maybe I missed a key exchange?)

Maybe I nodded off during a key moment of the film; as I said, this is very quiet movie... perhaps the most quiet I've ever seen that involves gunplay and killing. I don't think that I did, because the visuals were mostly engaging. However, it's fairly early in the film that it becomes apparent that things are going nowhere... and no matter how beautiful the scenery is, it gets dull watching it when you know there's no point. Heck, even the Big Sex Scene seemed like it went on and on and on and on and on.

I really wish I liked this movie more than I do, but I think the Two Stars may be even too generous a rating. They are being awarded for the great acting and beautiful visuals, because in all other areas, this movie is a complete failure.

Monday, November 22, 2010

'Marked for Death' is a good Seagal movie

Marked for Death (1990)
Starring: Steven Seagal, Keith Davis, and Basil Wallace
Director: Dwight H. Little
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Recently retired DEA undercover agent John Hatcher (Seagal) is drawn into a conflict with a Jamaican drug lord (Wallace) when an old friend (Davis) comes to him for help. But when it appears the drug gang wields true supernatural powers born from voodoo rituals--rituals that are soon targeted at Hatcher and his family--will this "one last job" prove too much for Hatcher to handle?

"Marked for Death" is a fast-paced action film revolving around the usual neigh-invulnerable Steven Seagal kick-ass character. Everything in it is over the top, but it all adds up to great fun and lots of mindless mayhem. If you enjoy your action heroes with a side of late 1980s Batman-esque comic book violence (where criminals are a cowardly and superstitious lot, and supernatural occurrences may or may not be clever hoaxes) you're going to get a big kick out of this film as it careens from set-piece fight to set-piece fight, with a few well-staged chase scenes and car crashes in between. The film offers no great surprises for experienced action movie fans, but everything here is competently done.

The cast all do a fine job in their roles, none of which required great range but almost all of which were physically demanding. Stars Keith Davis is decent as the stouthearted sidekick; Basil Davis manages to exude some serious menace as the drug lord voodoo priest, with enough physical presence and charisma that viewers can feel like Seagal's character is in danger of losing the big final battle; and Steven Seagal is still at the top of his game in this film, fit and trim enough to both be believable as a martial arts expert and able to do his own fight scenes and stunts.

If you've never seen some of Seagal's older movies--but have only been subjected to the increasingly bloated version of him that's been lumbering across screens since 1996 forward--you should check out this movie. It's a great example of what those who speak fondly of him and his movies are thinking of when they do so.

Trivia: The 2003 Seagal vehicle "Belly of the Beast" follows almost the exact same plot as this movie, playing out like an incoherent remake of "Marked for Death", complete with Voodoo-wielding villains. Click here to read my review.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

'The Maiden Heist' works because of stars

The Maiden Heist (2009)
Starring: Christopher Walken, Morgan Freeman, William H. Macy, and Marcia Gay Harden
Director: Peter Hewitt
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

When the gallery collection they've guarded for countless years is sold to a museum in Denmark, three security guards (Freeman, Macy, and Walken) decide to steal three pieces they have grown deeply attached to.

"The Maiden Heist" presents three of the most talented actors working today in a gentle, well-mannered comedy that's populated with believable characters who embark on an unbelievably complex endeavor: An art heist that involves creating forgeries of three pieces of art and replacing them for the originals. As these three characters bumble their way through their first and last heist, it is the charm and humanity that Walken, Freeman, and Macy imbue them with that make the humor and jokes work.

In fact, without the charm of this movie's stars, it would have fallen completely flat. The strange (and not very bright) character that Macy plays would have been annoying instead of amusing if played by a lesser actor--and as it is, the main joke involving him obsessively getting naked and flexing his muscles in front of his beloved sculpture in the gallery isn't as funny as the filmmakers thought it was, given that they repeat it a couple of times. Similarly, Walken's adventure- and romance-starved security guard would have come across as a jerk if not for his ability to convey that he still loves his wife even while portraying the character as being tired of her and everything else in his life, except for the mystery and adventure that he sees hidden in his favorite painting. And Freeman's male "cat lady" closet artist would have come across as a flaming queen if anyone but an actor of his great skill had been cast in the part. The characters and the script they reside in are elevated spectacularly by the presence of these three great actors.

If you like low-key, character driven comedies and have a taste for heist movies where the heist only works if the amateurs trying to pull it off get very, very lucky, this is a film you should check out. It's better than it's direct-to-DVD pedigree would imply, as it only ended up as such because the original distributor went bankrupt before it was released.

Friday, November 12, 2010

'Stone' should sink like a rock

Stone (2010)
Starring: Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, Milla Jovovich, and Francis Conroy
Director: John Curran
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

A sociopathic arsonist (Norton) and his wife (Jovovich) set into motion a scheme to manipulate a prison parole officer (De Niro) to secure his release from prison.

Take a half-baked drama inspired by classic film noir pictures, tack on some poorly developed ideas about redemption and the transformitive power of spirituality, and conclude the story with a limp and overly vague montage in an attempt to hide the fact that no one really bothered to come up with a solid story arc or real motivations for any of the characters in the film, and you have "Stone".

I've said many times that a good actor can elevate a bad script, but they seen something to work with. Despite the fact we have three good actors in this film, there's really nothing for any of them to do a whole lot with, other than to speak their lines and hope no one notices the only thing consistent about this film is that it is unrelentingly boring. Every time it looks like it might finally be building some momentum, we're treated to another scene of De Niro driving in his car and listening to Christian talk radio, or a shot of the prison at dawn with Christian talk radio heard on the soundtrack.

There was the potential here for this film to a good old fashioned thriller with De Niro as the man facing destruction after being manipulated into making a bad call, Jovovich as a borderline psycho femme fatale, and Norton as the mastermind behind it all. It could even had possessed a nice twist, as Norton's character finds spiritual redemption but his crazy wife won't stop the plan and the now-desperate parole officer won't believe his new-found good intentions. But the filmmakers here were obviously not content with making a straight-forward potboiler, and they had to throw in a bunch of "deep" material that required far more real character development and just plain characterization than the stereotypes in this get. (Norton and Jovovich are playing to the material; their performances are good but not spectacular or anything we haven't seen them do before. De Niro seems to be giving his part all he can, which is almost a shame because he's better than this movie deserves.)

"Stone" is a film to either rent on DVD, or wait for it to show up on television. It's not worth the bother of going to the theatre, and it's certainly not worth a paid admission.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Something's missing in this movie....

Golden Ninja Invasion (1987)
Starring: Leonard West, Stephanie Burd, Alan Davies, Jerry Brown, Susan Evans, Marshal Lucas, and Eric Lee
Director: Bruce Lambert
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

The nefarious Red Sun gang are looking to expand their empire of fear, vice, and drugs, but they face opposition from a brave cadre of Thai police officers, and the righteous Blue Ninja. But can even the bravest, most pure-hearted of champions of good withstand the onslaught of Mr. Warren and his ninja?!

As you watch "Golden Ninja Invasion", it becomes obvious that there are a couple of things missing in this movie: There's no Golden Ninja, and there's no invasion that takes place by said Golden Ninja, or any other ninja in this film. That list grows when you take into account the poster art featured above, as the film also doesn't feature helicopters buzzing the United States Capitol Building, nor any fiery car crashes. (There are a couple of car chases, but no real crashes.)

What the film features is an incoherent story about a criminal gang are aided by a group of Ninja in their fight against sort of Thai anti-gang unit--one member of which has had his hand replaced by a metal hand that shoots electrical bolts when the plot calls for it--and a handful of uniformed cops. There's also some sort of scientist in possession of top secret documents the gang wants for reasons never explained. As if the movie wasn't confusing enough, a mysterious Mr. Warren is behind the gang and the Ninja, and he is opposed by some ancient martial artist and the powerful Blue Ninja.

The plots upon plots and story lines barely connecting are the result of this being yet another one of those patchwork Ninja films from the 1980s. Like so many others, this movie was created by Chinese filmmakers for sale in the Western market by merging an existing (possibly never distributed) film with a few new scenes featuring Caucasian actors and some guys in ninja outfits doing very silly stuff. What makes this film almost unique in the dozens of these that were foisted upon the world by producers Tomas Tang and Joseph Lai, and directors like Godfrey Ho and whoever was working behind the name "Bruce Lambert" at any given time, is that not only are their ninja in the new footage, but the original film featured ninja as well.

Yes, for reasons that we may never know, since Tomas Tang died in 1996 and "Bruce Lambert" is a anonymous and shadowy figure--people like to claim he's Godfrey Ho, but Ho has stated categorically that he was never credited under that named... dozens of others, but not that one--the good people at Filmark Productions tacked additional ninja scenes onto a film that already featured ninja!

While it's a mystery why this ninja movie needed more ninja, there's no question that the Blue Ninja sequences are integrated a little better into this picture than is often the case in patchwork films like this. For example, Mr. Warren (a character in the new footage) has phone conversations with characters in the old footage, showing that a bit more care was taken in trying to make the pieces fit together here than is often the case. The Blue Ninja material is also hilarious, both unintentionally and intentionally. Absolutely intentional humor revolves around "ninja beans"--magical devices that apparently are only safe when used by ninja--and the general level of stupidity of the average ninja, while there is tons of unintentional humor every time anyone in the Blue Ninja sections opens their mouths and dialogue comes out.

As for the bulk of the film--the original Thai gangster/ninja movie, what it lacks in coherence it makes up for in random violence and mayhem. Fights are constantly breaking out and the audience only knows why about 25% of the time. If these were interesting fights, this might be a good thing, but they are for the most part badly staged, amateurishly filmed, and often marred by bad effects. But one can't help but have a small degree of respect for the attempt to make up for the lack of quality by providing a huge quantity of violence.

If you're looking for one of the better examples of the uniquely 1980s art of Ninja Movie Quilting, "Golden Ninja Invasion" might fit the bill. It might also work nicely for a Bad Movie Night, although the ratio of "just bad" to "so bad its good" is a little on the low side for optimum effectiveness.

The deadliest of blogathons....

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Machine gun weilding girl vs bullies and ninjas!

The Machine Girl (2007)
Starring: Minase Yashiro, Asami, Honoka, Kentaro Shimazu, and Nobuhiro Nishihara
Director: Noboru Iguchi
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

When her brother and his best friend are murdered by the spoiled sons of corrupt cops and the local Ninja and Yakuza clans, a high school girl (Yashiro) goes on a gory, revenge-driven murder-spree. After the Yakuza hacks off her left arm, a creative mechanic/gunsmith replace it with a custom-made machinegun, and the mother the brother's friend (Asami) joins her for a final, bloody showdown against Ninja, blood-crazed agents of the Yakuza, and ultimately the queen of the ninja clan and her bully son (Honoka and Nishihara).

"The Machine Girl" has all the prevelant elements of Japanse action films and cartoons crammed into this movie: cute high school girls kicking butt in their school uniforms, Yakuza, Ninja, a quest for righteous revenge, lots of dramatic posing and speechifying before fights can begin... but then it adds almost unimaginable moral bankruptcy, depravity, dismemberment, murder and enough geysers of blood and gore that it will sate the need of even the most hungry gore hound. And it combines all these elements into the funniest send-up of Jap-sploitation films you'll ever see.

This is an insanely gory film. Think "Dead Alive" except with Ninjas and a Japanese high school girl with a machine gun instead of zombies and a nerd with a lawnmower. That's the level of gore this film displays, as well as the level of cartoony-ness. (In fact, this film goes even further than "Dead Alive", as I don't think anything there really compares to the drill-bra mastectomy near the end of this film.)

Yes, this is an incredibly violent movie, but only the most ill socialized adults will mistake anything that happens in this film for reality. There's one scene where our heroines hammer several nails into the head of a Yakuza agent in order to get him to talk, yet he is up and walking around in the next scene. Ami's arm is deep-fried in tempura batter, yet she suffers no burns. Ami gets her arm chopped off, yet she doesn't bleed to death, despite a complete lack of medical attention. (In this movie, loss of blood and limbs only leads to shock and/or death when it's dramatically appropriate.)

This is definitely not a movie to let the younger kids see. It is also not a movie that you should watch if you're at all squeamish when it comes to movie blood or violence on-screen. You might also stay away from nihilism upsets you. I almost stopped the film before it kicked into high gear--just after Ami is almost killed by a crooked cop and his wife for seeking help with bringing her brother's killer to justice--because I found myself thinking, "Wow. What a twisted world this movie exists in... I'm not in the mood for a film with an outlook THIS horrible."

But then Ami went on her first killing spree and once the severed head bobbed to the top in the stew-pot, I was onboard for the rest of the ride.

There's a line between depressing nihilism and stirring (if gory) black comedy. Once "The Machine Girl" crossed that line, it had me laughing and going "eeew!" at the same time. (The only other moment where director/screenwriter Noboru Iguchi almost lost me again was with the final fate of Ami's best friend from school. It's a shocking scene--so I won't go into details and ruin it in case you decide to see the movie--but he went just a little too far for my sensibilities. I think most viewers will feel that way, too.)

If you're looking for a revenge flick with a serious message about an expanding cycle of violence, social responsibility and man's alienation from what makes him human, you need to look elsewhere. While "The Machine Girl" has that, it sort of turns the message inside out and pokes hilarious fun at those sorts of movies. The "expanding cycle of violence" in this movie leads to the creation of the Yakuza-funded, Power Rangers-like Super Mourner Revenge Squad made up of the parents of the Ninja and bullies that Ami and Miki kill. and Ami's alienation from her kinder self gets her an ally in Miki AND a machine gun that shoots enough rounds in a second to cause a human body to evaporate into a fine red mist.

For what is perhaps the goriest movie of the decade just past, as well as a hilarious send-up of Japanese action flicks, check out "The Machine Girl"! Just don't expect to eat dinner while watching it.

The deadliest of blogathons....

Friday, November 5, 2010

Tough guy vs. bratty kids and deadly Ninja!

The Pacifier (2005)
Starring Vin Diesel and Lauren Graham
Director: Adam Shankman
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Vin Diesel stars as Shane Wolfe, the toughest SEAL team commander on active duty. After a botched mission to rescue a scientist who has developed some important new military technoiogy, Lt. Wolfe is assigned to protect the now-dead scientist's five young children from enemy agents still seeking to acquire the missing prototype. What follows is an amusing fish-out-of-water story, as the career SpecOps officer learns about family life, and in turn helps the children through their grief and teaches them alot about discipline and personal responsibility.

This type of story has been told in movies and in Afterschool Specials a hundred times, and "The Pacifier" is an average example of it. It avoids a couple of the most typical cliches of this type of comedy, but it dishes up the rest while even working in typical action movie tropes. (Diesel's fight with the ninjas [yes... the film not only has Navy SEALs, it has ninjas!] and the mini-van car-chase sequences are particularly amusing.)

If you're the overly cynical type, or if you suffer from diabetes, you might want to avoid this film--it will send you into insulin shock. I enjoyed its sweetness, even if there are a couple of plot-holes that bothered me.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Fear is a Ninja Named Bruce!

Ninja the Protector (1986) (aka "Ninja Daredevils")
Starring: Richard Harrison, Warren Chan, and David Bowles
Director: Godfrey Ho
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

Interpol officer Jason Hart (Harrison), who is secretly a Ninja Master, brings all his wits, Ninja Magic, and dimwitted fellow Interpol officers to bear against a counterfeiting ring and modeling school that is being operated a cult of Evil Ninjas and their leader, Bruce (Bowles)!

"Ninja the Protector" starts showing its sad low- to no-budget origins early on when snapshots of the actors are used to simulate the "hi-tech" retinal scan the Evil Ninjas must pass before enteriing the Lair of Bruce. They become further evident when a room full of Interpol agents have to pass the same Kodak snapshot of a wanted criminal around the table. (With a budget like that, it's amazing Interpol ever catches anyone!)

This film is another "Frankenninja" movie, where some movie that has nothing to do with ninjas and their nefariousness--and in "Ninja the Protector", they're especially nefarious, as not only are the ninja tricking aspiring models to sign up for overpriced classes, but they're also spreading around counterfeit US dollars--that has been redubbed and intercut with new ninja footage in an attempt to make a unified whole with a new storyline.

This is the best of these kinds of movies I've seen so far. While the plotline about the Interpol agent undercover at the ninja-backed modeling school/counterfeiting ring and his family and romance trouble seemed oddly disconnected from the business with the underfunded and not-too-bright Interpol agents and their ninja leader, there was every indication that the two stories would merge, as it appeared (through some clever dubbing and editing) that all the footage truly had been intended to be part of the same movie from the very beginning.

The illusion starts to fall apart as the film builds toward its climax, however. As the film moves toward its climax, what had appeared to be progressing plot and subplots suddenly fractures into two totally different plots, each which has its own rather sudden and unsatisfying resolutions. Yes, the Evil Ninja Cult and its funny-money distributing modeling school is put out of business for good, but how about Warren and his relationship with Interpol? What about Jason, now that his staff knows he's the Ninja Champion? The film makes no effort to close any of the movies story arcs. It just ends.

Before the film reaches its abrupt ending, it does offer up much unintended hilarity. When I said this was the best of this kind of movie I've seen so far, I'm measuring it against some pretty awful stuff, and I'm not implying it's good, despite its slightly more coherent nature. It's not just the Ninja hijinx that make this movie funny... it's also the completely awful dialogue like, "I like people who are honest and you lied to me earlier, but now you're telling me the truth, so I'll hire you."

(On a sidenote, this film really made me wonder who the intended audience for it was. The story is so lame that no adult can be expected to take it seriously, but I suspect a ten-year-old would love the Ninja Action and would buy into the whole counterfeiter/modeling/ninja thing. Hie might even like the ending. But the film is NOT suitable for ten-year-olds due to sexual content and a particularly unsexy sex-on-the-beach scene. Those elements are completely gratuitous, but they make certain the one group who would love this film won't get to see it. Or are fans of ninjas movies as undescriminating as I'm starting to fear? It seems like a higher percentage of crap was shoveled their way than any other niche audience.)

As far as the Ninja battles go... they're suitably goofy with plenty of pointless acrobatics and posturing. What's even goofier is the camoflage outfit that the Good Ninja wears. (I think this must be some sort of ancient Ninja Rule... I've now seen this ludicrous camo suit in two different movies.) What the battles lack is any sense of excitement, as they're poorly choreographed.

The goofiest Ninja Battle is also the only one that's interesting. It sees the Good Ninja (Jason of Interpol) battle the Evil Ninja (Bruce of the Kewl Underground Lair and the Counterfeiting Modeling School) engage in something like a joust while riding motorcyles. The only thing that would have made that scene better would have been if they'd been riding Kawasaki Ninjas.

(By the way, aspiring screenwriters: I know Bruce Lee was a bad ass. Bruce Campbell is pretty cool, too. But it's always a Bad Thing to name your main villain "Bruce." No one is ever going to take a bad guy named Bruce seriously... particularly not when he's running a modeling school that's a front for a counterfeiting ring that's a front for an Evil Ninja Cult.)

"Ninja the Protector" is not a good movie by any measure, but it is full of unintentional hilarious moments. It will be right at home as part of the line-up for a Bad Movie Night. But that's about all it's good for.

The deadliest of blogathons....