Monday, March 03, 2014

EVERYTHING ELSE:

FILMS

47 Ronin: More than anything else, this rather dour fantasy version of an oft-adapted Japanese national legend made me eager to read the upcoming graphic novel collection of Mike Richardson and Stan Sakai's 47 Ronin comic, which I assumed would be more accurate of a consensus version of the story, so I could see how dramatically, and in which ways, the expensive blockbuster-baiting production by first-time director Carl Rinsch and a writer of Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift (one of three assigned writing credits for the final film) might have deviated.

I'm assuming Keanu Reeves was the biggest deviation. He plays a mysteriously taciturn character referred to in Japanese-accented English as a mongerel and half-breed throughout. He is Kai, the inserted-into-the-existing-narrative protagonist and point-of-view character thought to be half-Japanese and half-English, but raised by demons. He is adopted by Min Tanaka's Lord Asano, and raised alongside Asano's daughter Ko Shibasaki and Hiroyuki Sanada's Oishi, who would grow up to be Asano's lead retainer, and the usual protagonist of the story.

There are a few problems here. First, Reeve's dull, quiet character rarely speaks at all, and thus makes a poor point-of-view character. Treated as an outcast by almost everyone, he is nevertheless completely ingrained in their culture, and falls somewhere between a character offering supernatural aid to the other heroes and a sympathetic figure an American viewer will be trained to wait to rise up and rebel at some point, showing up those who mistreat him and whole screwed up their weird caste system that made him a fourth-class citizen actually is.

Secondly, it casts Oishi as a real asshole, a jealous, petty racist so obsessed with status and the peculiarities of the rituals of feudal Japan that he can't see the good or worth in Kai...until he learns better, of course, and follows Kai's example of perfectly living up to the codes of conduct of the era and the society, perfect fidelity to which is why he seems like such an asshole for the first act of the film in the first place and, well...semi-redeemed asshole realizes the code that called on him to be an asshole is super-awesome is kind of a weird story arc for a protagonist, even if the protagonist is here relegated to sidekick to the magical American actor (I'm trying to think of a good example of how weird Reeves' Kai's role is in this film; I guess it would be a little like if a Japanese film studio made their own Batman movie, called Batman, and the Batman character followed the lead and example of a Japanese character created especially for the film.)

Anyway, they keep the basic structure of the basic version of the story. Lord Asano is somehow cajoled into insulting Lord Kira (here played as a nasty pretty boy by Tadanobu Asano, of all the names for the actor playing the guy who gets Lord Asano killed to have), who is sentenced by The Shogun to commit seppuku. Oishi disbands all of Asano's loyal retainers, asking them to bide their time. They eventually reunite and kill the hell out of Kira, avenging their master. They then turn themselves over to The Shogun for punishment, and he allows them all to commit seppuku, giving them an honorable version of the death sentence.

The main deviations, or decorations, I guess, beyond those already discussed are the Lord of the Ring-ing of the film. At the opening, there's a hunt of an awesome-looking Asiatic monster of some sort. During an official tournament, Kira has an armored giant fight as his champion...a giant that turns out to be some sort of 18th century robot. During their time off, the disgraced Kai goes to some weird pirate fight club, where Oishi finds him fighting a ogre (One that looks more inspired by New Zealand fantasy films then the ogres of Japanese art, by the way). Kai leads the ronin to The Tengu* who raised him, and taught him a secret but boring kung fu technique he only uses once. And then there's Rinko Kinkuchi's unnamed witch character, who turns into a large, white dragon near the climax.

Kinkuchi's character is sort of emblematic of the movie's approach to its material. A powerful sorcerous able to change shape from a white fox to a white dragon, she generally appears as an attractive woman whose hair moves in independent tentacles. For reasons never really explained, she serves Kira, and maneuvers Asano—the Lord in the movie, not the actor in the movie—into attacking him and dooming himself.

These all serve as bright bursts of imagination and eye-candy, breaking up the otherwise slow march from a society the film starts by criticizing as sort of fucked-up toward a conclusion that celebrates its fucked-up-ed-ness.

I was sorely disappointed. Not only because it is an overall poor film, which it is, but because it fared so incredibly badly at the box office that I'm afraid it will make future attempts to put monsters of Japanese myth and legend on the big screen somewhat radioactive in the imagination of studio finance people. And I'd really like to see some kappa some day, dammit.

The Lego Movie: So I guess I fall somewhere between Andrew Wheeler and Abhay Kholsa on the Lego Movie Appreciation Scale, which I don't think I'd put down to my personal Lego experience. I was into the castle/Medieval-themed sets as I moved into double-digit age; they were probably the last toys I actively played with, although that was back when the figures, which I guess are now commonly known as mini-figs, all just had plain, yellow, featureless faces, without all the painted-on details like expressions and beards and suchlike. (Affection for Batman did play a large role, though...at least in my  interest in the film; it was upon learning that Batman played a large role in the ensemble cast, coupled with all the praise I was hearing that first week or so of release, that I decided to go see this movie, which I previously had zero interest in).

There is a weird, strange tension to the film, as it offers a sharp, pointed critique of a conformist culture, where everyone likes the same song and the same TV show because they're told to, and yet it is the sort of major studio film based on a product that has reached a sort of boiling point of multi-market synergy, subsuming any pop culture licensed brand worth a damn, the sort of film that they're selling cups at McDonald's to support.

I don't know if that makes one of the film's messages—there's also a great deal about the value of imagination and play in here as well, of the Toy Story sort that should appeal to both kids and adults—the least bit insincere, or the filmmakers hypocritical, but it does make digesting the message feel a little uncomfortable, given the messenger.

I was really surprised by the film though. Not just in what a big role they gave Batman—he's like the fourth lead, and part of a love triangle involving the hero and heroine—but also its surprising (to me) climax, and the amount of rapid fire gags, many of which were pretty effective. The core plot, which is basically a Matrix parody, is buttressed by plenty of cameos from the many Lego licensed brands, which is how Batman ends up here, and we get glimpses of other DC heroes, at least one Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle (Hey, why is Michaelangelo a Master Builder, but Donatello isn't? Other than the fact that it allowed for a Michelangelo/Michaelangelo gag), Shaquille O'Neil, Dumbledore, Gandalf, the gang from Star Wars and so on. Wheeler's review compared it to the cameos in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and that's an appropriate comparison—as with Roger Rabbit, I wanted to see more of these characters from various, never-meant-to-meet pop culture franchises mashed-up. (I suppose there could and likely will be a sequel, but I can't imagine a high-quality, worth-seeing sequel, given the premise of this one...but then, I couldn't imagine a high-quality, worth-seeing Lego Movie, so what do I know).

The jokes come in such volume that it hardly matters if one or three or ten fail to land, given their frequency. The animation is top-notch, and I was pleased to see that the figures obey the strictures of figures in the way that the other Lego movies I've seen (just Lego Batman: The Movie—DC Super Heroes Unite and Lego Star Wars: The Empire Strikes out) don't, adding bends in the knees, for example). So too was all of the voice acting. And that song. That goddam "Everything is Awesome" song. That's been stuck in my head off and on for almost a full month now...


DVDs

Frankenstein Conquers The World (1965): The more prominent of this film’s two titles is wildly inaccurate, as Frankenstein doesn’t even visit, let along conquer, the world; in fact, he spends the entirety of the movie and his life within Japan, where he doesn’t conquer so much as evade authorities and eat livestock for a while. What the other title, Frankenstein Vs. Baragon, lacks in poetry, it makes up for in accuracy: Frankenstein does indeed fight a monster that one of the scientist protagonists randomly decides to start calling Baragon upon first laying eyes on it (I’m not up to date on how new animal species are described and named, but I don’t think that’s how it works; at the very least, there should be a Latin word in there somewhere, right?).

The second title is closer to the original Japanese title, Furankenshutain Tai Chitei Kaij┼ź Baragon, which the Internet tells me is Frankenstein Vs. Subterranean Monster Baragon.

A Toho movie with a real-world backstory just as, if not more, interesting as the actual proceedings, Frankenstein opens in 1945 Germany, where the Nazis confiscate the life’s work of a doctor one might reasonably assume to be named Dr. Frankenstein. Those guys are such jerks!

In a cheap-looking footlocker, the scientist keeps the still-beating, never-dying heart of Frankenstein, which the Nazis ship to some Japanese scientists in Hiroshima. Just as they are about to conduct some experiments, in the hopes of producing nigh-unkillable soldiers, the atomic bomb is dropped.

Fifteen years later, American doctor Nick Adams—moved to relocate to Hiroshima in order to research radiation and try to cure those affected by the bomb—and his Japanese colleagues Kumi Mizuno and Tadao Takashima discover a radiation-proof “waif” (as the sub-titles of the Japanese version designate him), with a costume forehead and prominent gapped teeth.

This is Frankenstein’s monster, usually referred to simply as Frankenstein, which sounds funny in a Japanese accent (“Fu-RONK-en-SHUtayn”), as in the title. How Frankenstein’s lost and irradiated heart ended up inside a boy, or if the boy somehow grew around the heart, is never explained (In the English cut of the film, which is the same save for excising as much Japanese cultural content as possible, the dialogue makes it clear that the heart grew the boy around it). Once taken in by the scientists for proper care and cellular research, the boy continues to grow at an incredible rate, his shirt, short and shoes somehow also growing with him.

He eventually outgrows his chains and cage though and, annoyed by bright lights and the flash photography of the media, he breaks loose and goes on the run (When will photographers ever learn not to turn off their flash when photographing monsters?). Coincidentally, another monster emerges from the earth, and, unlike Frankenstein, it has no compunctions against flattening villages and killing and even eating dozens of human beings.

This is Baragon. A dinosaur-like quadraped—except when the man in the rubber suit needs to stand to better grapple with Frankenstein at the climax, of course—it has big, boggly, un-blinking eyes, a single, glowing horn on its snout, and big, flappy ears. It can burrow with incredible speed, fling itself across the screen like an enormous frog, and it also has a red-light breath weapon.

He’s actually a pretty accomplished-looking monster, given the film’s obvious, visible limitations, and there’s some beauty in his climactic battle with Frankenstein, atop a heavily forested mountain which has been set ablaze during their battle (This Frankenstein, unlike Boris Karloff’s, doesn’t mind fire one bit, and even goes after Baragon with trees-turned-torches). Their battle aside, most of the special effects are accomplished via toys and miniatures, never more amusingly then when a wild boar and a horse are used.

Looking online for more information about the movie, I learned there were multiple cuts of the movie including ones without the strangest, non-sequiitir of a scene that is included in the Japanese version of the film on this DVD (It's absent in the U.S. cut included).

No sooner has Frankenstein (spoiler alert!) vanquished Baragon at the climax, then one of the characters shouts, “What’s that?” Another answers, matter-of-factly, “It’s a giant octopus!”

And, indeed it is. For reasons even more mysterious then how the heart became a giant feral child or where Frankenstein got all the shaggy fur to make the caveman-like outfit he changes into for the film’s final scenes, a giant octopus crawls up the side of the mountain and starts fighting with Frankenstein.

It is an awesome-looking octopus. It is really an incredibly designed, rendered and even acted octopus puppet-costume-thing. I don’t blame the filmmakers for wanting to use it in the film in some capacity. But holy shit, they don’t foreshadow it or explain it at all. With a few minutes left, it just crawls onto screen, wrestles Frankenstein, and the pair fall into the sea. Its inclusion makes as much sense as it would at the climax of, say, The Great Gatsby (“They're a rotten crowd. You’re worth the whole damn—What’s that?” “Why, it’s a giant octopus, old sport!”) or The Wizard of Oz (“And you were there…and you…and, what’s that?” “It’s a giant octopus, Dorothy! Everyone back tot he storm cellar!”) or any other film in all existence, really.

Godzilla Raids Again (1955/1959): Having recently read all the IDW Godzilla comics I could get my hands on, I thought maybe I'd set about rewatching Godzilla movies in a more organized fashion, since my initial viewings of them were mostly confined to seeing whatever might be playing on television on a Saturday afternoon during my childhood (With the exception of the original, which I saw a few years back when it was theatrically re-released, and Godzilla Vs. King Kong, which I've watched a couple of times as an adult, during my occasional bouts of reoccurring obsession with King Kong).

I started with the first sequel, 1955's Gojira no Gyakushu, which was released in the U.S. in 1959 as Gigantis, The Fire Monster. The DVD copy I found had both the Japanese and American versions of the movie on it.

The American version is quite short, so short, in fact, I was genuinely surprised at how quickly Godzilla's foe Anguirus, the first giant monster he ever fought, was killed off (rather permanently, too; his throat torn open and his body set ablaze by Godzilla's fire). It opens with an American narrator talking about humanity's recent achievements in creating metallic monsters in the form of weapons of war over stock footage, and then that narrator turns the film over to a second, Japanese narrator, protagonist Shoichi Tsukioka.

Tsukioka never shuts ups. At least, not in his narration. He literally narrates the entire movie, explaining everything on the screen at all times, even when it is extremely obvious what is happening and no narration is required ("I flew my plane over the ocean," he might say for example, while the screen shows an image of Tsukioka flying his plane over the ocean).

Tsukioka works at a fishing company along with his best friend Kobayashi, his girlfriend and his girlfriend's dad. Tsukioka and Kobayashi are both pilots who fly planes above the ocean seeking large schools of fish, which they then report back to headquarters, so that they can send the fishing boats out to those areas.

When the two become temporarily stranded on an island, they see Godzilla and Anguirus locked in combat—within the first fifteen minutes or so. No Jaws or Alien—style teasing of the monsters in this movie. Upon returning home, they are given a child's book of dinosaurs, and readily identify the creatures. For some reason, they seem ignorant of Godzilla's rampage on Tokyo not long ago. In fact, a scientist comes in and shows them all clips from the first Godzilla movie—I guess a gigantic monster destroying your nation's capital city isn't something that stays with you for long.
Do you know what movie this is from? Because I want to see it.
The origins of the monsters are explained thusly, amid recycled imagery from other, weirder movies I'd like to know more about, particularly the source of what looks like three guys in unconvincing theropod costumes milling sadly about, like bummed-out Tyrannosaurs who just lost a big game or something (see image above).

I am not a paleontologist but I'm pretty sure this is 100% bullshit:
One of these animals is a Gigantus, born millions of years ago...A new book came out, and we learned so much. And it is called Anguilasaurus: Killer of the Living...Anguilasaurus, a monster commonly known as the Anguirus. A specimen of giant reptile who roamed the earth millions of years ago. Murderers, original plundering murderers who killed everything in their way. These creatures ruled the earth at one time. Then disappeared suddenly. I'll read you what it says: "Enormous in its size, tremendous in its strength. Somewhere, although it is not known when, these creatures may come alive after years of hibernation due to radioactive fall-out. He has brains in several parts of his body, including the head, abdomen and the chest. He is a member of the Anguirus family of fire monsters and can wipe out the human race."
If you can't count on 1950s monster movies to get basic scientific facts straight, who can you count on? No wonder so many Americans still believe man and dinosaur co-existed!

So Anguirus and Godzilla/Gigantus fight, a battle that completely levels Osaka (following Tokyo in Gojira, that's two Japanese cities down!). Some pretty basic film trickery is used, but it has a weird, almost unsettling feel when viewed after seeing so many years worth of computer special effects. It looks like puppet or animatronic heads are used for the two kaiju at various points, and their cries are unlike those one usually hears emanating from Toho monsters; they sound more like plucked and scraped out-of-tune string instruments.

Godzilla, who no one ever actually calls anything other than "Gigantus," makes short work of Anguirus, in a series of strange fight scenes. In close up, the two monsters fight like animals, trying to clamp their jaws around one another's necks, but in longer shots they fight like high school wrestlers, and the film is sped up when they do. This gives them an unnatural, even unsettling herky jerky movement in small doses...but the longer it goes on, the more comical it seems.

After killing Anguirus and Osaka, Godzilla takes off. Our heroes eventually find him just sort of standing around in a valley, surrounded by huge, ice-topped mountains. Kobayashi sacrifices his life by flying too close to Godzilla, but, in so doing, points the way to defeating the monster. Rather than firing their bombs and missiles at Godzilla, the Japanese planes attack the mountains surrounding him, causing a massive avalanche that buries Godzilla. Good thing he was obliging enough to hang out in that valley for so long!

The Japanese version is—surprise!—a much better movie, excising all of the stock footage the U.S. version used at the beginning, during the doctor's presentation on the scientific origins of fire monsters and other scenes. It doesn't have any narration, and thus allows the film to speak for itself, and the dialogue is far less nonsensical (The U.S. version attempted to re-write the dialogue to match the shapes of the characters' mouths, which didn't work out so well anyway).

The doctor's presentation about the origins of the monsters isn't as insane, Kobayashi is a more straight character than the goofy sidekick he's presented as in the American version (and his death is a more noble sacrifice, as it's clear he's trying to lure a fleeing Godzilla deeper into the valley, rather than just buzzing him), and there's no attempt to obfuscate the fact that the monster is Godzilla. It is, in fact, a second Godzilla, as the original did indeed die in the first film (And, from what I understand, the first film marked the only death of Godzilla in the original Showa series, so the remaining films must all star this second Godzilla from this film).

It should go without saying that the imagery, some of it truly haunting and beautiful in luminous black and white, works a lot better when its allowed to stand on its own, without a narrator telling you what you're looking at and what the characters are thinking or feeling at all times.

The Grandmaster (2013): Visionary filmmaker Wong Kar Wai’s beautiful, elegant biopic of Ip Man—best known in the West as the man who trained Bruce Lee, and the current subject of several martial arts projects, including a pair of films starring Donnie Yen. This is the only Ip Man film I’ve seen, and it was the filmmaker that attracted me to it more than the film’s subject.

Relying greatly—too greatly, proably—on narration and text, it tracks Ip’s life from the point he ascends to the station the film is entitled through his death, but the focus through the tumultuous events of his life is on learning, mastering and keeping various forms of martial arts and, especially, in attempting to learn The 64 Hands of a particular school, which Zhang Ziyi’s character Gong Er becomes the final caretaker of.

Ip, or “Yip” as my sub-titles refer to him, is played by Wong Kar Wai regular Donnie Yen, in the same, quiet, careful style he has brought to past collaborations with the director. The fights are equal parts creative and exciting in the way one would expect to find in a good martial arts movie, but as beautifully staged and filmed as one might expect from an expensive prestige film by a first-rate director (And that is what The Grandmaster is, a sort of prestige biopic of a martial artists, thus requiring several extended martial arts scenes).

These sequences are so good that, as soon as I finished the film, I went back and watched each of the fight scenes again. The two most notable are Leung and Ziyi's fierce but flirtatious battle, which caps a style-by-style journey through martial arts by the various masters of each school, administered to Ip as he walks through the opulent brothel that serves as the unofficial meeting place of the heads of China's various kung fu schools, and a fight to the death battle before a departing train at a snowy station between Ziyi's character and a renegade student of her father's played by hang Jin (There’s also a nice contrast in style’s and temperment between Ip and Jin, as both fight an entire mob of assailaints in the rain at night, with Ip’s elegantly, effortlessly defeating them, he needing pushed into bone-breaking, whereas brutally destroys his opponents).

Daisy Schmaisy; I am now Team Jordan.
The Great Gatsby (2013): Judged purely as a movie, this Baz Luhrman film is probably a pretty great one. It's full of the sorts of eye candy the auter director now has a reputation for, including not only the many beautiful and interesting-looking extras, elaborate costumes and sets, and not only a zooming point-of-view flying over bodies of water and roads, soaring up one side and down the other of a New York skyscraper, but also the careful, fun, unusual manipulation of colorized stock footage, blended almost seamlessly into the film narrative, the film dancing from the Luhrman-created fantasy to a bit of Luhrman-ized stock footage and then back.

It's got big, meaty, actorly roles for its main players—Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, lovely newcomer Elizabeth Debicki and, of course, Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role, getting to play one of the all-time great characters in American literature. All do admirably in conveying their characters and those characters' emotions, and over-acting where called for, which is really rather often.

And it's got Luhrman's now almost-expected idinosyncratic, anachronistic soundtrack, mixing period-appropriate music with Jay-Z and period-style covers of modern songs (The film spawned at least two soundtracks, both which I really rather liked, having heard multiple times before actually watching the movie).

But The Great Gatsby isn't just a movie of course;  it's an adaptation of a novel, and one that has been adapted to film repeatedly, making it difficult to judge the film as just a film, without also simultaneously judging it as an adaptation. On that front, perhaps Luhrman's most amusing deviation is to create a framing sequence, in which the first-person novel is given a new premise—F. Scott Fitgerald's book, which bears the conceit of being written by Nick Carraway in the book, is now begun as a therapy journal by Maguire's unshaven Carraway, from a sanitarium in what looks like Tim Burton's Gotham City. Luhrmann's Carraway is there suffering from alocholism, anxiety and fits of rage after his experiences in the book, which, while emotionally draining and perhaps world-view altering, don't exactly seem like the sorts of things that would put a World War I vet in a sanitarium.

This is amusing to me only in that the source material, already too big to dramatize in a visually satisfying way as is, gets altered in such a way at all: The balls it takes for Luhmran and co-writer Craig Pearce to take a perennial contender for The Great American Novel and think, "You know what? Let's zazz it up a bit at the beginning and end" makes me smile.

Otherwise, most of the alterations are simply for the sake of space, with the denoument rather dramatically truncated** and many conversations trimmed to their bare essentials, or to make obvious and literal anything that was merely hinted at, alluded to or knowingly left unsaid in the novel itself. Perhaps the book was written in such a way due to the mores of the day, and Luhrman is just removing the subtlety Fitzgerald himself was forced into, or perhaps Luhrman's just dumbing it down. In either case, there's little mystery here as to where and how Gatsby got his money, or exactly how physical his previous and renewed relationship with Mulligan's Daisy was and is. When Edgerton's Tom Buchanan is pontificating about the inferior races, he does so in front of a row of stone-faced black servants, even tapping one emphatically on the tuxedo.

While all of the performances were fine, I found myself second-guessing some of the casting, particularly that of the women. Mulligan is certainly an attractive actress, but instead of the golden goddess the film would seem to call for, she seemed overshadowed by tall, angular Debecki, whose height and presence made her something of the alpha-flapper in all their scenes together, and casting Isla Fisher as Tom's mistress Myrtle seemed egregious even for Hollywood, as she didn't seem to fit the book's description of an unattractive but sensual and earthy woman very well.

Jason Wilson's Clarke was likewise not the wan pushover of the book, but a big, dirty, muscular man who seemed ready, willing and able to murder someone upon our first glimpse of him. Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan's Wolfsheim is obviously pretty far from the sinister Jewish stereotype that Fitzgerald wrote the character as—and Tom's use of the K-word in reference to him late in the movie thus scans as a little head-scratching—but that's probably for the best. It's easy to note Buchanan's racism in 2013, but Fitzgerald's book had its problems too, as evidenced by the negative stereotype of Wolfsheim, with an predatory animal right there in the character's name.

I'm not sure quite how successful Luhrman was in drawing connections between the pre-Depression roaring twenties and 21st Century America, soundtrack aside, but it's a valiant attempt, at any rate, and if any director seemed prime to tackle scenes set at Gatsby's decadent party palace, it was naturally Luhrman. I'm glad he got the shot, and that I got to see what he came up with.

The Hollow (2004): This direct-to-DVD movie kinda sorta attempts to be a kinda sorta modern retelling of Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, complete with a newcomer to the town played by Kevin Zegers, a fetching local blond played by a then-19 Kaley Cuoco (who has since gone on to co-star in a terrible sitcom of some popularity), and a dim-witted bully played by Backstreet Boy Nick Carter (His character is by far the strongest, perfectly filling the blond asshole character from every high school movie made in the 1980s).

Unlike Ichabod Crane, however, his descendant Ian Cranston, the character played by Zegers, is crazy handsome-looking: Touseled, slightly longish hair, dimples, bright smile, built physique. He's brought to town by his football coach dad Judge Reinhold, who is disappointed in his son's interests in acting and fencing instead of football (Fencing, huh? I wonder if that will come in handy should he have to engage in any swordplay with an undead Hessian calvary officer at some point in the near future...?)

Ian's arrival in town is one of the signs that makes graveyard caretaker and local character Stacy Keach suspect the Horseman will appear on Halloween Night to kill a descendent of Crane's and, during a haunted hay ride, that's exactly what happens. The Horseman is about as convincing and scary as one might expect in a direct-to-DVD film with a barely-there budget. He wears a head-shaped pumpkin atop his shoulders, which occasionally self-lights, and gallops around on his not very scary horse, reminding one that maybe Tim Burton's 1999 Sleepy Hollow wasn't really so bad after all.

There's an awful lot of plot gobbledygook seemingly invented on the spot—the Horseman can only be killed by something from his own time! He has an age-old enmity with the Crane family, since Ichabod got away! Et cetera—but there's a script under it all that could have made a half-way decent horror movie of the post-Scream variety, had it studio backing and a budget (I've certainly seen many, many far worse slasher and horror movies of the last 20 years or so that didn't have the excuse of low or no budgets for their terrible-ness).

It's also rather remarkably family-friendly, particularly given the sub-plot involving Ian and his father working through their issues and becoming close after being attacked by a headless horror, and the sword-related gore is all pretty light, as is the language. I'm assuming the R-rating comes only from a scene where a girl dressed as a naughty nurse has her boyfriend go down on her, and the horseman sneaks up and severs the young lover's head while he's engaged the act, so that the young woman opens her eyes to find herself clutching the head of her suddenly dead boyfriend. Fleeing, there's a split-second glimpse of part of a nipple. I guess that's all it takes to get an R-rating? Weird. If they cut that scene, it wouldn't be hard to imagine this on ABC Family every October.

Ice Road Terror (2011): This appears to be a dramatic recreation of the reality television series Ice Road Truckers (which I've never seen) with a prehistoric monster grafted on, which is so inspired and obvious an idea that I'm surprised it hasn't become a whole genre of shitty, made-for-TV monster movies: Bullockornis Dynasty (I would also accept Duck Dino-Travesty),  Actual River Monsters, The Jersey Gorgosaurus, Project: Runaway!, Basilosaurus Wars, Giant Snake Boss, Being Found By Gigantopithecus and, of course, Toddlers, Tyrannosaurs and Tiaras.

Two ice road truckers—protagonist Ty Olsson and "funny" sidekick Dylan Neal—have to deliver two trailers full of explosives to a mining location along a dangerous ice road that is currently melting, making the journey more dangerous still. And they have to take with them a passenger, a beautiful enviornmental scientist played by Brea Grant.

The trip there turns out to be a breeze compared to the trip home, as the miners had unknowingly released a large, deadly, quadrapedal, dinosaur-like monster from the ice. It's not a Rhedosaurus, the fictional species name assigned to the similar predator that went about in all fours and emerged from arctic ice in 1953's The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms...nor, sadly, does it look anywhere nearly as convincing or realistic as that stop-motion monster from some 60 years ago.

Rather, it's existence is justified by Grant's character by noting that it is likely a relic version of the creature responsible for producing the "Predator X" skull, although that has since been described as belonging to a Pliosaur, which, notably, is a sea-going monster, with flippers rather than the lizard-like legs the creature in Ice Road Terror runs about on (They also assign a name from Inuit folklore to it, but  I didn't catch that name). The creature is actually smaller than both the Rhedeosaurus and the Predator X pliosaur, and has the unlikely ability of being able to kill by impaling victims on the sharp point of its long tail.

It's rendered in what appears to be Sega Genesis level-graphics, and there seems to have been a pretty strict rule to never, ever let it appear on screen at the same time a human actor does, so the film is edited so that when the Terror on-screen, its victims and prey are always off-screen, or it's off-screen when the humans being shown. This reaches the point of ridiculousness in a scene where the Terror apparently has a character by the leg, and the character is trying to flee up the stairs, but ee just have to take his word for it that the creature has its leg in its jaws.

The only two exceptions to this rule appear to have been created through some sort of Patty Duke Show-like trickery, when a human is on the left half of the screen and the monster's head is on the right half, and they face one another for a second or two.

In the monster's initial rampage, in which it slaughters dozens of men, we just see an image of it running around, then see a bloody bit of gore thrown up against a wall or a piece of construction equipment. Cut to the monster, cut to a fake severed limb, cut to the monster, cut to a severed head, and so on.

It's shoddily made and remarkably terrible—a composite image on the DVD cover shows a giant version of the monster in the movie looming above a semi-truck, while a composite image on the back of the DVD shows the love interest and the sidekick fleeing from a Tyrannosaurus-like theropod that doesn't actually appear anywhere in the movie.

I remain confounded by how these movies keep getting made, and why their special effects and, indeed, almost everything about them, are so damn terrible. Any single episode of Primeval, original or New World, features better, more convincing prehistoric monsters able to interact with the human characters on various levels; is the budget of a single episode of those shows really so much higher than whatever was spent on this movie?

The Lifeguard (2013): I previously joked about this movie on my tumblr blog (Did you know I have one of those? I have one of those), but I’m an easy mark for such things: Kristen Bell in a bathing suit is precisely the reason I brought this DVD home from the library one night.

The back cover promises “Kristen Bell as you’ve never seen her!”, which might be construed to mean not only wearing a bathing suit, but also not wearing it, but for me, “Kristen Bell as you’ve never seen her!” is some pretty wide territory, covering anything other than as a high schooler solving mysteries, as a girl with a crush on Jay Baruchel, as a girl breaking up with Jason Segel to bang Russell Brand instead or as the brightly smiling face on various women’s magazines.

This is, indeed, not Kristen Bell as I’ve seen her before, and probably not as you have before, although it is not Kristin Bell nude a lot; her characters does have lots of sex with a 16-year-old boy, smokes tobacoo and pot, drinks and swears a lot (“I’m the fucking lifeguard, motherfucker!”, most memorably).

That character is a 29-year-old, New York City-based writer for the Associated Press having an affair with her about-to-be-engaged boss. When it all gets to be a bit much for her, she retreats to her small Connetcticut hometown for the summer, moving back in with her parents, re-securing her high school job as a lifeguard and reconnecting with her two high school best friends, one of whom hasn’t moved one (Martin Starras a still pretty hard-partying deeply closeted art gallery employee) and one who has (Mamie Gummer as former wild child turned assistant principal of their alma mater, currently trying to get pregnant with her super-square husband).

Bell’s character’s not-yet-mid-life crisis and retreat into adolesencse brings her adult friends into extended contact with the sorts of local teenagers they used to be, which makes for some consistently amusing character clashes. Writer/director Liz W. Garcia's script is often quite funny, and the drama is generally well-played and well-acted, although perhaps a little too full of obvious symbolism and a little too pat in its resolution.

The May/December March/October relationship between David Lambert's 16-year-old character Little Jason and Bell’s character is presented as super-shocking, and given the fact that she’s best friends with the boy’s principal, it is at least super-unethical, but according to Connecticut state law, it seems perfectly legal (I asked a reference librarian to look up the age of consent in Connecticut, which sounds like a pretty reliable source of information, but she did look it up on Wikipedia, which does not). I found myself a little more troubled by a third-act tragedy that triggers the conclusion (and contextualizes down the negativity of the child/grown-up love affair). None of the characters are really responsible for it, but at least two of the should-know-better adults make decisions or mistakes that are influential enough that it’s surprising the character’s don’t blame themselves at all (ditto for one of the teenage characters).

The montages are pretty beautiful, and I liked the overall elegiac tone of the film, which hits the precise “Oh God, I’m a grown-up now and I’ll never be young again!” emotional beat I can relate to more strongly than I wish I could. I really liked several of the songs on the soundtrack a lot too, to the point I was disappointed to find that it doesn’t look like anyone has released the soundtrack, making finding out what songs were on it and who was responsible for them challenging.

Little Big Soldier (2010): This period action comedy has a nice little anti-war message, delivered after quite a few clever fight scenes, a lot of chasing and a sort of unusual, forced-by-circumstances buddy comedy. Set during China's warring states period, it opens with a massive battle in which thousands are killed, and only three men survive. One of these is an older, poor farmer pressed into fighting, who plays possum  until all is quiet, played by Chan. Another is the young general of the opposing army, played by Leeholm Wang, who, despite severe wounds, rises to fight the third survivor, a soldier of Chan's army, whom he dispatches.

Chan's character decides to capture Wang's, and return home with him in the hope of claiming a reward befitting of the capture of a warrior. It's a somewhat risky plan, of course, as there's no guarantee Chan's character will be believed by his own masters, but he proceeds anyway, with the wounded general in a cart.

Along the way, they face many challenges, including a woman who poisons and robs them, a small army of colorful bandits working the forested mountain where the entire movie seems set, and a powerful rival of the general's, intent on killing him before he can leave the forest with Chan's character.

I was actually quite surprised at how good this was, as despite its comedic elements—which are more organic, stemming from Chan's character having a sense of humor, mostly—it's a pretty serious, sincere film.

Lovelace (2013): Too bad the title Sucker Punch was already taken, as it would have been a pretty perfect one to describe this ambitious biopic of “Linda Lovelace,” the young woman who had a meteoric rise to fame and infamy as the star of the first mainstream pornographic film in history, later telling her own story in books like Ordeal.

Almost two movies in one, Lovelace has its cake and eats it too by presenting Linda’s meeting of her boyfriend(a barely recognizable under period hair Peter Sarsgaard, so thoroughly inhabiting this hissable villain that I worry about my ability to watch in the future without thinking about this movie), the making of Deep Throat, its reception and her incredible fame. There’s clearly a lot very wrong going on in the background, off-camera and between the scenes of the first pass through the story, but the film deliberately ignores them, completely hiding the most horrific moments.

Then, on a second pass, we see Linda taking a polygraph test, insisted on before the publication of her autobiography, and we see all the stuff withheld from before, including terrible psychological and physical abuse by her own husband, being whored out by her husband, threatened with a gun and, most stomach-churningly, the events of the night of a special screening of Deep Throat, where she watches the film with Hugh Hefner (played by James Franco) and radiantally takes a triumphant bow in front of an applauding and cheering audience. On the second time through, we see that Franco’s Hefner not only sweetly told her how special she was and about her star quality, he then pressured her to go down on him during the movie. And, afterwards, as some sort of sadistic recompense for her having such a good night,Sarsgaard's Chuck Traynor arranges to have her gang-raped for money in a hotel room.

It’s a rough, tough movie to watch, to the extent that Christopher Noth’s violent mobster character comes across as one of the best and most virtuous character’s in the film—even Linda’s mother, played by an unrecognizable Sharon Stone, blames Linda for the abuse she suffers from Traynor—and while I generally find torture of any kind nauseatingly repulsive, I actually found myself cheering for Noth and his goons when they hold down Traynor and beat him.

That was just one of the several points in the film in which they made me feel complicit in all the nastiness. Not simply for being happy to see a man being tortured, but for ever being excited to see the lovely Amanda Seyfried’s exposed flesh in the movie in the first place. While there are certainly some sexy moments in the film, particularly near the beginning, the filmmakers will certainly make you regret liking anything about them.

It’s not quite the searing indictment of pornography that Olivier Assayas' 2002 Demonlover was—Jeez, don’t watch that movie if you ever want to look at pornography on the Internet with a clean conscience again—but it quite effectively invites viewers to ogle and leer, and then pokes them right in their fucking eyes.

I’m not well-versed enough in films any more to have any opinions at all about who acted the “best” or who should be honored with what—of the five 2013 releases whose stars were nominated in the best actress category of the Academy Awards, I have seen…let me check…yes, zero of them so far—I’m rather surprised Seyfried wasn’t nominated, given that this is exactly the kind of role and film the Academy generally likes: Biopic, crying, nudity, emotional turmoil, etc.

The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis Season 1 (2013): I talked about this a lot on Twitter as I was watching it, so I don’t really have much to say about it now, I’m just including it here out of compulsion to make these posts as rigorous as possible. I am really glad this series is finally on DVD, as I went looking for it a few years back, after finally reading a collection of creator Max Shulman's original Dobie Gillis short stories—which I highly recommend, by the way—and was surprised that in this age of instant availability of everything, no one had released the series yet (seems to be sticking with it too, as I still had one disc left to go on this set when season 2 showed up at the library).

I was also extremely pleased to find that the series was still really quite good. I used to watch it as 13-year-old, when my parents bought me a television set for my bedroom for my birthday, and I would watch Nick at Nite before retiring for the evening. I loved this series about a teenager at the time, when I was just becoming a teenager, and was fascinated by the Maynard G. Krebs character (this is the same time I started reading Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg), as well as Dobie’s almost maniacal romanticism.

I was afraid that the years would not be kind, and that 20+ years of life experience, media consumption and cyniscism would spoil those childhood memories, that the show couldn’t possibly be as good as I remembered it being.

At the very least, I was afraid the laugh track would make it impossible for me to watch (I missed out on Seinfeld, since I didn’t really watch TV in the years that it was airing, and tried to watch it between DVD releases of Curb Your Enthusiasm a few years back, but couldn’t get past the first few episodes, the laugh tracks were so annoying).

Well, I had nothing to worry about. The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis is still a great television comedy, and my being older, wiser and having consumed more media and culture have only lead to me appreciating the show more, rather than liking it less.

Reccommended!

Not sure what’s up with its weird, generally negative fascination with Cleveland, though…

The Myth (2005): The opening credits for this film render its title as Jackie Chan’s The Myth, and Chan gets individual credits for executive producing and starring. They really wanted to make sure viewers knew this was a Jackie Chan movie, I guess.

Chan plays a dual role in two very different time periods. In one, he is General Meng Yi, a somber, sober, loyal general of an Emperor of ancient China, charged with protecting and delivering an incoming Korean concubine at all costs, which he faithfully does after a pretty incredible journey, despite falling in love with her along the way (and she with him, despite the almost incredible age difference between then 51-year-old Chan and then 28-year-old actress Hee-seon Kim). In the present, he is Jack, a more typical Jackie Chan character—Noble, optimistic, competent, light-hearted—although his particular profession here is that of a world-class archeologist (and amateur artist and writer).

The title refers to the ancient storyline, which is really more of a legend than a myth. The Jack character is haunted by dreams of the General character’s past, and he begins to find telling clues regarding its reality as he reluctantly joins his friend William on a quest to discover an anti-gravity metal.

They investigate a temple tomb with a levitating guru in India, where they become separated, and Jack meets a Kalaripayattu guru (I totally had to look that up) and his almost ridiculously beautiful niece, played by the ridiculously beautiful Mallika Sherawat. In the film, she’s a yoga expert, dancer and martial artist, and they share a city-set chase and battle that culminates in a particularly elaborate scene set on a conveyor belt in a glue trap factory, in which the combatants must remove articles of clothing as they get stuck on the paper, and try to stick one another to the paper.

Sadly, that’s the lat appearance of Sherawat, after which point Jack reunites with William and faces a villain in a spectacular hidden tomb where everybody and everything is suspended in air, able to defy gravity. That modern-day climax is contrasted with one in the ancient setting, in which the wounded general tries to hold off an entire army, like a one-man reenactment of 300, until the general is posed atop a mountain of dead opponents.

It’s obviously a bit schizophrenic, and some bits of action are silly in concept and staging—particularly the instances of the general’s horses performing acts of kung fu. But it features several top-notch scenes of Chan in action, and an unusual opportunity for him to play his more-or-less default persona and a more serious, epic movie style character, in the very same film. We therefore get to see Chan stretch and experiment a little, while never straying too far from an area of strength.
Also, it has Sherawat in it, which is I think, ought to be a new and compelling criteria to determine whether a movie is worth watching or not. Oh, is Mallika Sherawat in it? Then yes, this is a movie that should be watched.

The Old Dark House (1963): I got this unimaginatively entitled haunted house movie by accident, not realizing the movie called The Old Dark House that William Castle directed and The Old Dark House that was a very old horror movie are actually two very different movies. The original, based on a novel named Benighted, which isn't quite as obvious a title as Old Dark House, was made in by director James Whale and featured Boris Karloff. This version, the Castle version, is a comedic remake of that original one.

Tom Poston plays an American car salesman living in London who is suddenly asked to deliver a new car to his kinda sorta flatmate Peter Bull (Bull's character lives in the flat during the day, but is away at night, which is when Poston's character lives there), at the mysterious, ancestral home of Femm Manor (which probably sounded different in 1932 or 1963). He arrives in the middle of a terrible rain storm, promptly renders the car undrivable, finds Bull's character dead and finds himself in the middle of the weird mystery of the house and its diluted Addams Family style inhabitants (Charles Addams, by the way, apparently designed the film's opening credits sequence featuring a semi-animated haunted house, and, near the sequence's end, a hairy, monstrous hand holding a pen signs Addams' signature across the screen, shortly before he is credited with "backgrounds").

Poston's character tries to stay alive when the Femm collection of kooks start dropping like flies: There's the old lady who knits nothing in particular, just knits miles and miles of, um, knitting; the uncle building a ark in the backyard and stocking it with two of every species in preparation for another great deluge; the sinister-seeming gun collector; the sexually aggressive young woman with the brutish, super-strong, apparently mute father; an identical twin to one of the deceased characters; and the perfectly normal, good-looking young woman.

As to the whys of the killings, an eccentric ancestor's will mandated they must all live together in the house, returning to spend the night every night at midnight, until only one of them is left, at which point the survivor inherits the entirety of the pirate treasure. Aspects of it reminded me of House on Haunted Hill, but Castle seems to have had a much bigger budget for this one, and while there's nothing terribly hilarious in the humor, I enjoyed the Scooby-Doo-ishness of some of it.

Mr. Sardonicus (1961): A viewer stumbling across this film today would be forgiven for thinking it much older than it actually is, as the black-and-white, gothic horror movie shares so much in common with the classic horror films of Universal Studios in the 1930s and early 1940s (James Whales' Frankenstein movies, Dracula, etc).

It opens in 1890 London, involves a journey by coach to a remote castle in an eastern European countryside, wherein resides a mysterious and feared eccentric nobleman, attended to by a loyal and disfigured servant. In content and storytelling, it quite consciously evokes classic horror, but it's of a relatively more recent vintage: The film was based on a "novella" originally published in Playboy, adapted into a film screenplay by its author Ray Russell. While Castle the filmmaker keeps up the film-length homage to stately horror films throughout, Castle the showman bookends the film with trademark gimmickry.

He appears onscreen, cursing the London fog and how it makes lighting a cigar so difficult, to introduce the film—strangely titled, given that "Mr" Sardonicus is actually a baron, and is never referred to as anything other than "Baron," "Sardonicus" or "Master".

Castle then reappears at the end to take a "punishment poll." During its original theater run, movie-goers were given little cards with glow-in-the-dark thumbs on them. Hold it thumbs-up, and the villainous Sardonicus receives mercy. Hold it thumbs down, and he does not. It's a rigged game, of course, as there was only one ending, and Castle cajoles the audience into choosing thumbs-down before pretending to take a count of the votes in the theater, addressing the woman in the ninth row and the little boy in the back, and muttering to himself as he writes a tally on the back of his own punishment card.
Castle appearing in the film to ask the audience how to end it.
That is the aspect that the film is probably best remembered for today, if it's remembered at all, but there are a great deal of mysteries in Sardonicus' castle—a padlocked room no one has ever entered, a lack of mirrors, the title character's mysterious condition, vague "experiments" and mysterious goings-on with local peasant girls that are suggested but not shown—and these are revealed one by one, with Castle withholding that of the locked room as a sort of trump card almost to the very end.

There's also a series of extremely creepy imagery applied to Guy Rolfe who, when we first see him, is wearing a creepy mask of a human face over his own face, the only movement associated with the frozen visage being that of his eyelids moving beneath the shaded eye-holes, and his jaw quivering below the edge of the mask when he talks. When the reason he wears a mask is revealed, we see another mask, this one a more elaborate Hollywood job (a less scary, less accomplished version of The Joker-inspiring face in The Man Who Laughs).  And, near the climax, when his condition is cured, Rolfe's face returns to normal, except now his mouth his frozen shut, so that Rolfe plays his real face as if that too is a mask. Really rather potent visuals, and surprisingly so, given the film (and filmmaker's) reputation for schlocky fare.

Robin-B-Hood (2006): Jackie Chan plays against type as a cat burglar named Thongs who pulls off heists with his partner Octopus (Louis Koo) at the behest of their boss and mentor (and landlord) Landlord (Michael Hui). Despite their skills, our two anti-heroes are plagued with personal problems that keep them perpetually broke (Thongs is a compulsive gambler, Octopus a womanizer who ignores wife Charlene Choi), and, at a particularly low point, they are given the opportunity to pull off a seven-million-dollar (or maybe seven-million-yen?) job: They have to kidnap a baby and deliver it to its estranged grandfather, who wants to do a blood test on it.

Reluctantly—they're thieves with hearts of gold, after all—they do so, but when things go wrong and Landlord gets pinched, the pair find themselves having to temporarily care for the baby, a task they are wildly unsuited to. After several montages and broad, Old Hollywood comedy-complex scenes, the pair develop a strong bond with the baby they've come to think of as their own son, and when they finally deliver it to the deranged grandfather, they turn down their payday and fight to save the baby.

Technically an action-comedy, the film goes through several phases, from the sort of film one normally associates with Chan, to a weird domestic baby endangerment comedy, then to a sort of Hong Kong Three Men and a Baby (with only two men), to a big, set-piece action film, to an over-the-top melodrama...before its inevitable, happy-ish ending.

The climax includes a fight scene in an amusement park, leading to one in a room full of toys, leading to another one in a Lenin-like freezer/tomb, but the most memorable scenes are probably one set in the robbers' small apartment, where various players in various conflicts gradually, coincidentally convene...until a pretty spectacular small-spaces fight occurs, and then a cartoonish car chase in which a baby stroller—filled with the baby—gets stuck on the bumper of an armored car.

There's a Frankenstein quality of the grafting of various genres and tones into the same narrative, but despite never quite coalescing into a seamless whole, those individual parts are all work fine on their own.

Shadows and Lies (2010): This is one of those films I watched simply because of the crush I had on an actress appearing in it, in this case Julianne Nicholson (probably most familiar as one of the detectives to appear in Law and Order: Criminal Intent, by far my favorite Law and Order). She plays the femme fatale character in this strange, extremely under-stated, remarkably poetic take on a modern, noir-ish film narrative.

The protagonist is good old James Franco, who plays an extremely strange man who moves to New York City under extremely strange, explained (but never rigorously or realistically so) circumstances to being a weird, new life as a man who edits nature videos on a laptop in a dark storefront property and, when he’s not doing that, wander the streets, picking pockets and fucking with people in bars as a very weird hobby.

His willingness to commit crimes without any real interest in profiting from them brings him to the attention of a similarly taciturn and opaque crime boss, played quite effectively by Josh Lucas. His criminal empire, or what little we see of it, consists of a very polite, very quiet henchman named Victor (Martin Donovan) and a prostitute named Anne (Nicholson), who, like the other non-Francos in the film, bears signifiers of her illicit profession, but coyly talks around what she actually does, so that we see it visually, but no one ever says words like “prostitute” and she doesn’t ever get handed money for sex.

There’s an awkward four-year jump near the climax of the film, returning viewers to the present, but then, the whole film is rather awkward; it’s awkwardness is part of its quirky charm. It’s a very beautifully shot film, which makes use of Franco’s character’s profession to juxtapose gorgeous nature film imagery with shots of the city and the principals walking around, staring into the distance and coyly talking to one another without betraying too much information (In fact, that seems to be the only reason Franco’s character has that profession).

The Vampire Effect (2003): This Dante Lam/Donnie Yen film was originally entitled The Twins Effect, after stars Charlene Choi and Gillian Chung of the pop group Twins (Actually, it was originally entitled Chin gei bin, but I'm pretty sure that means "Twins Effect" in Chinese). "Vampire" replaced "Twins" in the title for the American release, since a) Most Americans don't know who the hell Twins are, and b) It's a vampire movie, so why bury the lede?

Vampire hunter Reeve (Ekin Chung) is a part of a worldwide vampire-hunting organization, that slays the monsters using metal tubes that contain telescoping swords in one end and grappling hooks in the other, plus a little potion that gives them temporary vampire strength, plus bad-ass kung fu skills. A sudden influx of European vampires leads to the death of his partner, and so he's assigned replacement Gypsy (Chung).

She doesn't get along well at all with Reeve's little sister Helen (bandmate Choi), who, this being China, also knows kung fu, and their first meeting involves a kung fu battle with poles atop the roof of Reeve's apartment.

Complicating the plot is the fact that Helen has just fallen in love with an eccentric young man named Kazaf who, it turns out, is a prince of vampire royalty, recently arrived in the city. He's being hunted by a European duke of vampires, who, in some all-too-common supernatural movie gobbledygook, is killing all the vampire princes, extracting their essences (which look like polished stones) and, once he has all those particular Dragonballs, he can open some magic vampire book that grants him...super-duper vampire powers. Or something.

So it's teen slayers and the men, alive and undead, in their lives versus evil caucasian vampires for the fate of the world. The special effects lean towards cheap and cheesy, but the action is quite accomplished, involving an great deal of acrobatic grappling on the part of the vampires, who have a sort of natural fighting prowess based on speed, strength, and trying to scurry around the bodies of the hunters in order to get their mouths or claws near their would-be-victimcs' throats.

Jackie Chan and Karen Mok have small roles, credited as "guest appearances." Chan plays "Jackie," whom Helen and Kazaf meet on his wedding day, to the drunkard played by Mok. Jackie Chan's Jackie isn't Jackie Chan, though, but a humble ambulance driver who, again, this being China, is also quite adept at kung fu.

He only gets two real scenes, but the second one is a pretty good fight scene, which should satisfy the curiosity of anyone who ever wondered what a Jackie Chan vs. vampire fight might look like (you may find yourself retroactively curious, as I did, finding myself happy to see a Chan vs. vampire fight...even if the conclusion was less than satisfying).

The film seems set-up for a sequel, in which Helen and Gypsy have put aside their differences and become a formidable vampire-slaying team, but when Twins Effect II came out, it found Choi and Chung playing completely different roles in a completely different story line: You can find it in the U.S. on DVD under the title Blade of Kings.

Speaking of which...

Blade of Kings (2004): That's the original, Chinese poster for this film followed by the image on the DVD cover, the differences between which are quite striking. The former is certainly more colorful, and looks like a bigger, brighter, more interesting film, while the latter looks pretty much indistinguishable from any of the many other action movies available in the US (It also only features three of the four leads, and I didn't even recognize Jackie Chan or Donnie Yen). I've shelved this in the media section at my library dozens of times over the last few years, and never had any desire to see it...until after I watched Vampire Effect/Twins Effect and started to look into just who these "twins" were.

The Internet tells me the film's original title is Chin gei bin 2: Fa tou tai kam, and I have no idea what the part after the colon translates into (I'm still assuming "Chin gei bin" is "Twins Effect"). A trailer for the English dub, which appears on the DVD, refers to it as The Huadu Chronicles: Blade of the Rose, but the final, English title was, obviously, Blade of Kings (Huadu is apparently the name of the mythical land the movie is set in...although it's not mentioned in the actual movie).

It's a much bigger film than Vampire Effect, with a bigger scope and cast and stakes, while it retains the two leads, the "guest appearance by" Jackie Chan and a similar mix of comedy, romance and action...although here, all three are bigger and broader than in the previous film.

It's set in the land of the Amazons, near China, where women rule and men aren't just treated as second-class citizens, but actually sold as slaves. The origin of this state of affairs, it is later revealed, has to do with the sorcerous queen (model-turned-actress Ying Qu) being betrayed by her lover (Daniel Wu) as a young woman; the self-castrated (and also magic) former lover now serves as her high priest, and together they scheme to stop a prophecy from being fulfilled. One day, The Star of Rex (a dude) will rise, and, when he gets his hands on The Excalibur, he will overthrow the queen and return the world to its natural state.

Our heroines Charlene Choi and Gillian Chung play Thirteenth Young Master, an impish young slave trader struggling to get out of debt to a military official, and Blue Bird, a dour warrior that serves the queen, respectively. They have their meet-fight in the market square, until its interrupted by Binbing Fan's beautiful assassin character.

Choi and Chung both pursue a map to the Excalibur and fall-in with two dim-witted but loyal young men in an acting troupe named Blockhead (Wilson Chen) and Charocoal Head (Jaycee Chan, son of Jackie). Together the quartet follow the map to the Excalibur, facing a variety of complications—like Donnie Yen's rebel leader character, named Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon—while the two girls gradually become friends, and each gradually falls in love with one of the boys they're traveling with.

The kung fu is a sometimes jarring mix of wire fu and CGI, with the actors—especially Choi and Chung—rather unconvincingly being replaced by computer-generated dopplegangers in certain scenes, but, as artificial as the effect is, there's some great fight scenes in the movie, and some that are actually beautiful. Their initial fight, involving lengths of fabric, is pretty great, but I imagine the most noteworthy battle is that between Donnie Yen and Jackie Chan. Chan's brief, practically line-less role (he had a lot more to do in the first Twins Effect) is that of Lord of Armor Wei Ching, a man encased inside a stone statue that stands guard at a hidden forge where the magic sword of destiny, "The Excalibur," is hidden. Yen awakens him for a brief but pretty spectacular battle, in which Yen's character uses his spear and Chan's character uses whatever of the many swords and other weapons are at hand, as they fight among the red-hot metal, pools of water and racks and racks of swords, some of which glow red hot.

There are a lot of special effects, not just in the fighting, but also in the magical spells, and much of it looks pretty shoddy, and the movie shifts gears so fast that you can practically hear them grinding at times (Right before the climactic battle, in which the possessed girls fight their would-be boyfriends, for example, the evil queen casts a spell on an invading army of men, the result of which is that they grow breasts).

I really like Choi's manic pixie dream girl persona, especially given the bratty, petty edge it gets in this role, and enjoy her onscreen chemistry with the equally lovely Chung. The fights are all pretty strong, and while not all of the jokes land for me (some of which may be cultural, much of which has more to do with taste), I do like the way the film attempts to be all things—action, fantasy, comedy, romantic comedy, romantic melodrama—at once.

The World's End (2013): Like previous Edgar Wright/Simon Pegg collaboration Shaun of The Dead, World's End manages to succeed not only as a serviceable action movie, a more-than-serviceable comedy and a surprisingly effective character drama, it also uses its silly premise as a bit of obvious but sharp commentary. If Shaun explored the ways in which modern Western society gradually renders us into such anti-social zombies that it might take one a while to even notice an actual zombie apocalypse, World's End more ambitiously tackles subjects like growing older, changing and refusing to change from the person you were as a teenager to the adult you've become and one's inability to go home again, eventually rotating its comic premise 180-degrees along the axis of the source of comedy for the first act of the film, subverting that source by more-or-less proving the guy who is always wrong absolutely right.

Hell, I think there's even a bit about alcoholism in there, and what makes human beings truly human.

As teenagers, Gary King and his four best friends attempted an epic, 12-stop pub crawl along "The Golden Mile" of their hometown Newton Haven that turned out to be the best night of his life, as he recounts to a therapy group as an adult at the film's opening, where he's now played by star and co-writer Pegg. Then another member of the small circle of recovering addicts asks Gary if he was disappointed that he didn't finish the crawl, which would have ended at the titular pub.***

That, of course, gives Gary a wonderful, terrible idea: To round-up his old, now middle-aged gang—featuring Pegg's perennial castmate Nick Frost, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine and Eddy Barsan—many of whom haven't seen him in years (and with good reason), and somehow convince them all into returning to finish what they started all those years again, drinking their way to the end of the Golden Mile.

The other four reluctantly agree, and, for the first 45 minutes, the film is an uncomfortable comedy in which the four adult friends wince, grimace and fret over their clearly troubled friend, who has refused to get a real job or form a real relationship or even move on, even when it comes to the music he listens to or the clothes he dresses in, from the time he was 17. Pegg's Gary seems to be the only one of them to have even notice how thoroughly changed the city is, or surprised that no one remembers them, as change is, to everyone else, a normal fact of life.

So effective at telling this story are Wright and Pegg that at somewhere around the 45-minute mark, when Pegg's character accidentally tears the head off of a teenage boy, blue liquid pouring all over the pub bathroom in which the scene takes place, that I finally remembered this movie was actually about robots or something. From there, the film plunges into Shaun territory, with the five mates trying to finish their pub crawl under the auspices of acting normal and like they don't know what's up, although that often involves battling the robotic, Invasion of The Body Snatchers-style replacement people—which our heroes ultimatelysettle on referring to as Blanks, after quite a bit of argument among themselves and even with the robots themselves.

The closer our heroes get to the end of The Golden Mile, and the closer we get to the end of the film, the more pitched the battle becomes, until they are no longer pretending so much as engaged in an all-out war with the invaders, which, despite their numbers, seem pretty beat-up-able, their limbs and quite smashable heads attached to their torsos like those of plastic dolls, easily twisted on and off.

As it goes on, it also gets bigger, and how well-planned the film is becomes clearer and clearer. I don't know if it's my favorite Pegg/Wright movie, but it's certainly their best. And good God, is Wright good at action scenes. There are several scenes involving four or more protagonists fighting crowds of Blanks in the same room, with the camera panning from one action scene-within-the-action scene to the next that was as good or better than anything I've seen in any "serious" action movie in a long time (There's even a pretty great scene where the by-then quite drunk—one of the protagonists' challenges is that they must continue to drink and get drunker and drunker the longer they try to make it through the Golden Mile alive—where Pegg's character is trying to have a pint, and must fight off Blanks while trying to get it to his lips, making for a really nice Drunken Master homage; I didn't even know there was even such a thing as drunken-style British pub brawling).


CDs

Yo Gabba Gabba!: Music Is...Awesome Vols. 1-4: I have never in my life watched the children's program Yo Gabba Gabba!, although I have naturally heard of it and seen DVD collections of it around the library, and I've always appreciated how completely insane it looks.

What I did not realize is how good the music on the show is, nor did I realize that the show attracts as many musical acts as Saturday Night Live or any of the late-night network talk shows, although Yo Gabba Gabba!'s guests tend to be cooler and better.

I discovered this only after looking for Belle and Sebastian music at my local library. It doesn't own any Belle and Sebastian albums, and a search brings up only a few soundtracks...including Yo Gabba Gabba! Music Is...Awesome! Vol. 4. I read the track list, and from there I was down the rabbit hole.

In addition to Caleb-favorite bands like Belle and Sebastian, The Flaming Lips and Apples In Stereo, they also include contributions from bands I rather like, including the Ting Tings, Metric, Devo, The Bird and The Bee, The Shins, Peter Bjorn and John and Weezer ("'All My Friends are Insects' is their best song in years," a co-worker and the biggest Weezer fan I know said of their song; the video for it is particularly awesome...if I had a praying mantis suit like that, I would wear it all the time). It also introduced me to bands I want to hear more of, like The Salteens and YMCK.

And Biz Markie. So much Biz Markie.

As far as I can tell from the liner notes, all of the songs seem to be written by the same core of songwriters who work on the show, and the artists all perform kid-friendly songs with nice morals to them, like Metric's "Everybody Has A Talent" and I'm From Barcelonna's "Just Because Its Different Doesn't Mean Its Scary" or Of Montreal's song about teeth brushing, "Brush Brush Brush." Others are play-related, odes to dinosaurs and super-spies and so forth.

The number of artists I already liked were the reason I picked these up, but some of my favorite songs were from artists I didn't expect, like Rocket From The Crypt's "He's a Chef," about a, um, chef.

More surprising still was just how damn good all of the songs are, even the ones performed by the YGG cast. Catchy pop songs set to upbeat electronic beats with sing-songy lyrics, there are so many goddam mindworms on these things that I found myself singing "Follow the Oskie Bugs" to myself in the grocery store parking lot, or "Let's Be Awesome While We Wait," about how to behave in restaurants, while washing dishes. The only downside is how annoying the high-pitched, child-friendly voices of the YGG characters are.

Some songs, I'm afraid, may be permanently embedded in my heads. I haven't been able to go out to breakfast without singing Biz Markie's "Pancakes & Syrup" on the drive there or do any housework without singing the chorus to GOGO 13's "Pick It Up."

In short, Music Is...Awesome is awesome.

*The Tengu in the film are a live-action realization of the traditional Japanese version of the creatures (as opposed to, say, those that appear in Dungeons & Dragons, I guess). I'm not terribly fond of the designs, which look a little like a television sci-fic show's alien. They have big avian eyes and a beak-like nose, but are otherwise human-looking. They profess to be people persecuted by humans for their beliefs, but they don't really get into it. 

**Which is too bad, as that is the point in the book that really drives home the point of exactly how blase and careless the non-Nick characters are,with The Buchanans coming off so much worse than even the notorious gangster, who will at least take Nick's calls and make excuses.

***Yeah, I couldn't stop thinking about Neil Gaiman and company's Sandman arc "World's End," a modern fantasy Canterbury Tales arc in which various travellerrs gather at an inn called to tell stories about Dream and The Endless, until I actually sat down and started watching the film, either. It's certainly an appropriate title, but its usage here makes me feel weird, especially given how long ago Gaiman's use of the same reference is. I sort of wish they would have retitled the movie, but I can't think of a better one myself at the moment (Except, perhaps, Kristen Bell In A Bathing Suit, as inaccurate as that may have been).

3 comments:

Eric Lee said...

I have to agree with your assessment of the Lego Movie. The message of the movie is weird since we all know that it is a product of corporate synergy at it's best. I think the jokes had a high funny to groaner ratio, and the sheer volume of them made it a fun time throughout the entire movie.

Rev'd '76 said...

Glad you enjoyed World's End. It and Hot Fuzz are sure to keep me giggling for years to come. There should be more comedies as overreaching as these.

Never exactly a fan of 'Gatsby' or Fitzgerald, I didn't dig on the film adaptation at. all. Luhrman spends too much time zipping & zooming & demanding I focus attention on the technical gimmickry of the film, all at the general expense of the story's emotional content. I also thought McGuire would have made a better Jay Gatsby than Leo, which is funny considering how many homeruns DiCaprio's banged out these last two years, performance-wise. My biggest problem was I didn't think Leo played a particularly credible liar.

Waiting to judge 47 Ronin for myself. I dug the devil out of 'Man of Tai Chi', which was a major surprise. You might want to give it a go. It's less about big spectacle than 47R, and Keanu does quite admirably as the Darth Vader of the martial arts world.

Evan Dawson-Baglien said...

The movie that dinosaur stock footage is from is "Unknown Island" (1948).