Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Patriot Act(ion)

Yuen Woo-Ping's True Legend is a certifiably grand entertainment that traffics in ridiculously over-the-top fights, unrequited love and hate, vengeance and patriotism. In short, it's everything I've come to expect from every martial arts movie I've seen since Donnie Yen's phenomenal starring vehicleIp Man. Vincent Zhao essays the lead role of Su, a fearless warrior who wants to settle into family life and teach wushu, so he refuses a promotion. This means good things for two colleagues, Ma and Yuan, but Yuan resents Su for always being given the things he turns down. Yuan's jealousy comes to a head when he loses the woman he loves to Su. He murders their adoptive father and, using the five venom fist, vanquishes Su into what should be a lonely, watery grave.

However, the woman he did this for forsakes her child and plunges in after Su. This really angers Yuan who has to put up with Su's little brat in the hopes that the kid's mother will one day come to reclaim him. Maybe in the meantime he can come up with a better plan to woo Mommy or, assuming they didn't have such things at the time, invent a foundation that will make him look not so deathly gray.

At this point, I should comment on a couple of the film's really nifty touches: the villain has a super lightweight armor fused to his skin and his deathly gray pallor comes from the poisons injected in him by various scorpions and spiders. He sticks his hands into a box full of them, much like Tong Po did with glass in Kickboxer or Charlie Sheen did with caramel and gummy bears in Hot Shots Part Deux! The second things is that when Su begins rehabilitating his hair is grown long and he's punching a tree to build up his strength. The heart warms at this unexpected homage to Hard to Kill and why shouldn't it? Because if there's one thing Su proves by the end of his crazy journey it's that he's hard to kill.

Another point of Su's rehab is his training with the Old Sage (Gordon Liu) and the God of Wushu (Jay Chou). The sage cackles maniacally and strokes his long white beard while the God of Wushu handily deflects Su's every strike and knocks him from countless precipices. The "training sequence" and a showdown with another drunken boxer compromise the two worst sequences of the film. The training is full of horrendous computer generated images of mountains that make the film look like a sub Monkey King adventure film. The sequence with the other drunken boxer isn't too bad, but it's marred by what looks like breakdancing moves and a desire to speed the competitors up via CG so that it looks like they're trying to drill holes into the floor. They're pretty ugly mistakes in a film that doesn't make many at all.

Besides the above mentioned sequences the fights in the film are pretty exceptional. The first being Su's showdown with Venom Fist Master, Yuan, which is the kind of righteously angry battle you should expect from a guy whose come to claim his wife and son from his most mortal enemy. There's a particularly impressive sequence in a snake pit where both men make exceptional use of the confined space, doing the splits to hold themselves in place while just wailing on each other or shimmying past each other to avoid attacking snakes. A real person couldn't get that much mileage out of confined spaces, but it seems like a surprisingly normal and plausible person in a confined space type of fight for a wuxia movie.

The film has a third act that's entirely different from what I expected. Su's showdown with Yuan happens with about forty minutes left in the film and when it's over there's a whole other direction for the film's last half hour. It moves in a cycle of Fall, Revenge, Redemption and Redemption is inarguably the most crowd pleasing-est part.

Haunted by the failure to save his wife Su is a raging drunk and a beggar. In one scene his son barters to buy a sweet potato and when he goes to split it with his father (they don't show what I'm about to tell you in its entirety) it seems like the guy eats the whole potato when his kid's back is turned. But he receives charity from Ma, one of his fortunate buddies from the beginning, who is the head of the Wushu federation. Su decides to pay Ma back by defending the country's honor in a free for all against fighters of other disciplines. But Ma failed to defend his country's honor first, so it's more like he's getting a redemptive revenge to make up for not saving his wife, which is slightly less honorable, but not much because the stakes are higher than they were previously. Su fights a trio of wrestlers played by mammoth seven footers. The mammoth seven footers angle is typical of films like Jet Li's Fearless in that they are non-Asian, but that isn't always the case. However, the specimen in films meant to please the crowd is always ostensibly physically superior. With the exception of Ip Man it's hard to know for sure if the hero will survive if their opponent is non-Asian. I guess you can gauge whether it is truly the country's honor at stake or personal honor to determine the hero surviving, but this is usually a metaphor for national Chinese honor all the same.*

The finale is brutal, with wrestling moves like tombstones and power bombs contributing to the requisite head trauma induced by a small guy being attached to wires and doing impossible things to impossibly big guys who beat him impossibly bad before realizing his spirit and body cannot be broken. It's a tense fight because people fighting for their country's honor in exhibition matches tend to receive Apollo Creed inRocky IV levels of brokenness. And the film's final fight gloriously milks that tension and patriotism. The tension is also sold by the bond Su shares with his on-screen son who shows a genuine concern for his father and can cry like nobody's business. The scene where he declares that he won't leave his father despite it being his best option is genuinely touching. He was pretty much abandoned by one parent once before and his other parent is a mess because of what happened to the other parent. This kid knows his parents love each other and him, but he openly and directly suffers as a result of it twice. But he is wonderful and selfless about it. It gives the excitement of the fights an extra layer of emotional resonance.

Despite an unfortunate act two setback, True Legend is thrilling and appropriately warmhearted with only a couple of regrettable details to be found. On that note, I'll leave you with a final detail to ponder. On the set of Kill Bill it was rumored that David Carradine and Woo-Ping were not big fans of one another. I don't know if that's true or if they share a stubborn old martial artists animosity that results in the occasional blow up that seems like a big deal to everyone but them, but Woo-Ping has dedicated this film to Carradine's memory and cast him as an unabashedly cartoonish asshole of a villain who dopes up his wrestlers to ensure the destruction of the "Chinaman." Is this a fun tribute to your a-hole buddy or a final middle finger? I don't know. But I like it.

Note: Objections to my use of the phrase Chinese honor are expected. Sometimes I also say things like "not rape, but date rape." It's not a distinction I make for any reason other than it was an accident and I said it in later conversations almost reflexively. It is, however, a hilarious language gaffe.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Three And Out

Brooklyn's Finest [***1/2]

Brooklyn's Finest tells three different stories involving a police officer at a cross roads: First, we have Sal (Ethan Hawke) a morally compromised cop who may or may not have been a bad guy before his wife's sickness and ever expanding family caused the sudden need to move to a bigger place. A need that can only be met with cold, hard (and ultimately dirty) cash. Next is Doogan (Richard Gere), a hair's breadth away from retirement who wakes every morning and puts an unloaded gun in his mouth and squeezes the trigger. Doogan is reluctantly assigned as a training officer his final week on the job and we see that his style of policing (for the most part) matches his one foot out the door approach to life. Finally, we have Tango (Don Cheadle) an undercover detective working as a drug kingpin in a particularly violent Brooklyn apartment complex. He's close to getting the desk job that he always wanted, but his last assignment requires betraying his only real friend in the life, Casanova Philips (Wesley Snipes), who saved his life during his job related stint in prison. The three stories never really connect on a deeper level, characters cameo in each other's stories in mostly superficial ways, but they all end up in the same crime ridden apartment complex on a fateful night and pretty much remain strangers.

Director Antoine Fuqua is no stranger to stories of police corruption, he and Hawke navigated similar terrain in 2001's Training Day, where Hawke's character only dabbled in ways of villainy. Here Hawke is a full-on bad guy with a badge, not necessarily a bad man in general, but in close proximity to drug money he is the worst morally compromised sort. He's got a pregnant, sick wife, the doctor keeps telling him to move out of his mold infested house and just when you think you've met his entire brood there comes another child. Six including the twins his wife is carrying. No wonder Sal is seen in a church not asking for forgiveness, but chastising God for his dire straits and asking for help. If your God won't let you have birth control maybe he owes it to you to help get a bigger house.

Ethan Hawke is always good at playing The Guy with a Choice, sometimes like in Daybreakers there's a clear right way to go and there's no moralizing to it while in other film's he's just a born criminal (Before The Devil Knows You're Dead, What Doesn't Kill You), but Brooklyn's Finest gives Hawke the fertile middle ground that allows him to justifiably seethe with righteous anger and kick himself for saving a friend instead of taking the money and running.

I've always liked the films of Antoine Fuqua they're swift and entertaining and occasionally they deliver larger than life characters, but until this film there hasn't actually been a legitimately great dramatic moment in any of his previous works. Gere's Doogan lives a burnout's life. Other younger cops harass him and call him a coward, his only friends are apparently fish and the prostitute he visits on a weekly basis. Doogan's proposition to the prostitute to run away with him (wherein he serenades her with "Sea of Love") is a sweet emotionally naked moment for Doogan and it really backfires on him. Or does it? He makes the proposal to her because she buys him a watch as a retirement present, she rejects him and it's sad. Maybe he even contemplates killing himself, but he bought his fishing gear already. He knows he's a born loner, but maybe he needs to see if he has a chance of retiring with someone at his side. So he tried it, and the thought of suicide that he entertains every morning, is faux suicide. Doogan's way of saying, it could be worse, now let's get going. It's like having back pain and taking twelve Aleve in the morning just to get up. You're old, you're broken but you're not dead.

Until this third viewing I never realized that Doogan could just be being overdramatic at being a man defeated by life. He's done with the job, sure, but his last week is also threatening to get pretty interesting and he doesn't want that either. He's so uninterested in accolades or work that he refuses to fabricate a story that could save a rookie's career and earn him a citation, but more importantly he's ready to go home.

It's nice to see, if also brutal and horrifying, that before he can walk into the sunset Doogan has to go renegade to save a missing girl. The sense of purpose infused within Doogan in the film's final moments is a lot like reading George Pelecanos' novel "The Night Gardener" without the bitter irony of what happened to the ex-cop in that book. In general, I think Brooklyn's Finest is capable of doling out humanity and irony and valiant violence in a way that is evocative of Pelecanos.

Don Cheadle and Ethan Hawke's stories come the closest to fully intersecting, but the character played by Cheadle is never mentioned by Hawke even though it is his lackeys that Hawke and other cops are constantly busting and/or murdering. Cheadle's character struggles with the idea of whether or not to descend fully into his street persona and he confides this much in his boss (Will Patton), but what keeps him from doing exactly that is his loyalty to Philips' moreso than the job. He doesn't have anything to prove to fellow gangster Red (Michael K. Williams) by not wanting to beat a snitch to death, but any indulgence of his undercover persona makes Philip's harder to help out and it's Tango's desire to have it both ways that fuels the story. I like the chemistry between Cheadle and Snipes, a roof top scene between the two is similarly evocative of the final scene between Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale. Men on top of an empire, the betrayal of one, by another, inevitable. You get a sense of their history in the way they interact with each other and talk about their hopes and dreams and even plan a final score. Had it gone that far, the scene of confession between Cheadle and Snipes probably would've been heartbreaking.

What the film does give us, introspection from another action stalwart of a bygone era, is pretty good stuff. This might be the last time a movie allows Wesley Snipes to be this good. I'd like to be wrong, though. Cheadle is really good, too, wielding the righteous anger and calling Ellen Barkin a dude. The situation is tense and the choice yet another unenviable one. Somehow this feels like the weakest section of the film, maybe because it traffics too much in familiarity from a pop culture standpoint with vets from TVs The Wire and Brotherhood but also countless other films. It's tough to say, after all, the Gere segment did elicit a Pelecanos' comparison. Maybe, and probably, it's as simple as "I can't betray him he's my friend" isn't as compelling as "I will buy my family's new house with your blood" and "all I'm trying to do is live my life unnoticed and I can't" are much more compelling dilemmas to be faced with.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Neither Vital Nor Necessary

The Expendables [**]

Of course it was too good to be true. All these stalwarts of action in one place. Stallone working once again under the Millenium Films/ Nu Image banner that brought the glorious bloodbath Rambo to the masses a couple of years ago. Everything about this film should ostensibly speak to the action lover in all of us, but it doesn't really, except, as a roster of names, a wish in one hand and a pile of shit in the other.

The Expendables such as it is, is the story of a team of freelance mercenaries led by Barney Ross (Stallone leading et al) hired by Bruce Willis to take down the General (David Zayas) who overthrew the government of a fictitious Latin American country. A lengthy bit of surveillance and one action scene later Barney and his best buddy Lee (Jason Statham) discover that the real target is a former company man (Eric Roberts) who has teamed with the general to profit from the country's drug trade. We also learn that Barney and his men are more expendable than even the fact that Stallone has a tattoo that says 'expendable' implies.

In the action department, the film is a more miss than hit affair. Perhaps we should've known that we were going to be letdown in the first action scene. After Terry Crews' Hale Cesar blows a Somali pirate in half the film switches to night vision so the rest of the Somali pirates can be decimated in shades of pink and yellow, robbing me of the blood I have so rightly come to expect from films under this banner and from Stallone's brand of choreographed chaos. If this only happened once perhaps I could forgive it, but every action scene boasts a failing of one sort or another. Except a great car chase where Stallone and Jet Li are pursued by gunmen. It's exciting in a way that none of the one on one duals are. Perhaps the idea of having so many good fighters in one place is such a daunting task that the only sensible thing to do is to give the best tiny understated action scene to the prettiest guy in the cast, Jason Statham. Everyone from this film except Couture and Crews has been in a better action film at some point or another during their careers. I'll be fair here and say The Expendables is undoubtedly crushed by the weight of expectations, but it's not like the film only misses the mark by a little sometimes.

The one element of Stallone's pictures that remains present and accounted for since Rocky Balboa is the introspective nature of the lifelong bruiser who realizes he has one last good fight left in him. Perhaps, The Expendables lacks the finality of this realization (as evidenced by sequel talk after the film's strong opening weekend), but is certainly capable of observing finality in some way. Rourke delivers a stunning monologue about his final moments in the mercenary life while the camera zooms in on Stallone who looks haunted and saddened but for unfathomable reasons hasn't been broken yet. To be fair, if this were Stallone's monologue I think it would close the book on this character as well, but he's not ignorant to the way a certain kind of life wears on you and he feels the need to address it. So he gives moments such as this to his most seasoned heroes (Rourke, Lundgren) and they wear the moments that break them so very well. It should also be noted that David Zayas of Dexter fame plays the General and he looks so incapable of doing bad without a heavy heart that he endears in surprising ways.

I could probably say a little more about the failings of The Exepndables, how any attempt at humor falls as hard and unceremoniously as mythical figures often do, how if this film were a steak then Dolph Lundgren is the steak sauce it could use a little more of, but instead I'll take the performances of Rourke and Lundgren as an acknowledgment that sometimes when the war is over we're only left with shadows of our former selves.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Killer (Performance) Inside of Him

The Killer Inside Me [***1/2]

In reality Casey Affleck is probably as nice and charming as the day is long (recent accusations of sexual harassment not withstanding) and one of my favorite performances of his is as the titular, amiable loser Lonesome Jim, but he's more famous for roles like Patrick Kenzie in Gone Baby Gone and Robert Ford, the coward, from The Assassination of Jesse James ad nauseum. In both of those film's Affleck is compelled to draw his gun because no one takes him quite seriously enough. Compared to other cowboys and other tough talking Bostonians he's tall, lanky, polite and slight so it's easy to misjudge him. It's also dangerous. Michael Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Me is the first film of his career to effectively exploit that aspect of his screen persona.

Affleck plays Lou Ford, the polite, amiable, and closeted psychopath of a deputy sheriff to a small Texas town. In voiceover, Ford extols the virtues of being well mannered and folksy while he drives to the edge of town to encourage a suspected prostitute (Jessica Alba) to get out of town. The exchange is brief and polite up to the point where the prostitute strikes the sheriff. Repeatedly. He strikes her back, too. Delivering the same kind of "justice" Ned received in Unforgiven but only to the meat of her buttocks. Eventually, this little fracas leads to rough sex and a plot to swindle the dipshit son of the richest man in town out of ten thousand dollars.

Such plotting awakens in Lou the desire to settle old scores and as with all plotting of this nature things go horribly, horribly wrong. The reason film's like this work is not in seeing how it all goes wrong, although that certainly helps, it's in watching the man caught in the eye of the storm fray and fall apart at the seams. Casey Affleck does his fraying and falling apart with a perfect poker face. He listens, he attacks only the weakest people and only at their most vulnerable moments. Because of his position and his trustworthy face he enjoys the benefits of being a silver tongued devil. The viewer only gets to see the madness take root through use of flashback. Lou kills a girl as a teenager and his stepbrother takes the fall, his propensity for tenderizing female backside is given an origin story and his dalliances with the prostitute from the beginning also occupy a place in his mind. The flashbacks pop up a couple of times throughout the film showing that Lou's vices have taken root and festered like a virus. The dormant monster begins to consume him.

There are some other nice touches to Affleck's performance. He's a real charmer, but like I said before he's a good talker. He can make anything that comes out of his mouth sound pretty believable, so naturally he's pretty good with '50s style hard boiled dialogue like this movie has. Then again Affleck is a good everyman type so it stands to reason that he can slide into the role like a chameleon and pull it off. One of the nice little touches Affleck brings to his character is that when he assaults his two female victims he either dons gloves or takes off his dress shirt. It's either vanity regarding his hands and his clothing or it's something that you shed from yourself or burrow into to distance yourself from the crime. It's either smarm or the only sign that Ford is losing it and can't keep a safe distance from his own worst nature.

It must also be said that the entire cast of The Killer Inside Me is game, but the best moments belong to Affleck and Elias Koteas as a suspiciously well informed union man who knows the information he supplied Ford is part of the reason the son of the town's construction magnate is dead. Most everyone in town is smarter than they look, but some are burdened with a gender or an age curse that makes them blind to who Ford really is and what he's capable of, only Koteas' character has the audacity to come at him full throttle time and time again.

I suspect that The Killer Inside Me would be a really good film no matter who was in it, but with Affleck in the lead role it becomes yet another case of the difficulty in imaging that the actor can exist without the character or vice versa. Casey Affleck rises to the occasion and sears himself into our memory yet again.

Note: In regards to Casey Affleck's alleged sexual harassment I say the fact that he asked the plaintiff her age before asking her if she thought it was about time she got pregnant clearly speaks to his concern for her unfulfilled wish of being a mother. Had he simply asked her if she wanted to get pregnant without asking her age then it would be crass and unacceptable.

The Blank Identity

Salt [**]

If there's one thing the Philip Noyce directed- Angelina Jolie starring vehicle Salt can't be faulted for it's wasting time getting down to business. The film opens with Jolie being tortured (off-screen) in North Korea and her husband and some of her CIA fellows arriving in tow to spring her. Next thing you know it's a year later and Salt is preparing to celebrate her anniversary with her husband until some Russian ex-pat shows up and tells her she's a Russian spy who is supposed to assassinate the visiting Russian president at our vice president's funeral. Call it the worst anniversary ever.

Salt is essentially a feature length chase scene in which Jolie spends fifty minutes running away from the CIA proclaiming that she isn't a Russian spy whilst doing all the things a suspected Russian spy does in between bouts of pleading for her co-workers to find her husband. Then she tells the Russians that she's actually pretty fucking American (by murdering all of her handlers) and spends the next portion of the movie running towards them. To be fair they have another traitor in their midst just not Salt. Salt, it should be noted, is and always was an American but she spent some time under Russian interpolation when her parents died there and she was taken in to be trained as the perfect spy in the "mythical" KA program.

For a movie so boldly concerned with the identity and loyalties of a single spy, am I with the Russians or Americans? Did my time in a Korean prison break me in a way Dolph Lundgren from Rocky IV never could? Salt never manages to distinguish itself in any discernible way. The film was written for Tom Cruise but when he jumped ship it became a vehicle for Angelina Jolie. It's also the one film Jolie's been in that never manages to objectify or sexualize her in any way. It was admirable when I thought it was done on purpose, but less so when I discovered they'd just traded one star in for another. Perhaps you could play the "this movie needs a star" card, but really it doesn't. The charisma of Liev Schreiber and Chiwetel Ejiofor is dialed down a great deal, although in the spirit of honesty they are character actors with leading men looks who can't help being badasses, but in this film they just need to be faces. Andre Braugher's inclusion in a blink and you miss it role speaks as much to the idea that we need those who can blend in more than we need stars as the scenes in which Jolie is buried under latex so that she goes unrecognized at the start of the film's climax. What I'm trying to say is, in this case, the star makes not one iota of difference because they bring no sense of identity to the role even though they bring movie star baggage with them. This casting switcheroo effectively kills the tension and negates the crux of the film.

The action scenes in the film are not bad. I'm a sucker for a good car jump and the climax has a well staged close quarters shootout and the shaky cam doesn't take away much at all from the coherence of the action but it happens to someone we never know at all. When you're movie begs the question "Who is Salt?" Make sure the answer matters.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Royal Shit

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time [1/2*]

Prince of Persia directed by Mike Newell and costing a couple hundred million dollars threatens for a couple of minutes not to be as bad as I was expecting. To be fair it gets down to business pretty quickly, but it ebbs and flows pretty often. Exciting for about two minutes then boring for about five or so. It stretches just under two hours to the point where it feels about four hours. The film's length and the dearth of excitement are just where the problems begin.

I like swords and I like looking at Gemma Arterton, but if there's two things in this world that don't work in the same movie it's her and swords (see also: Clash of the Titans). Arterton also serves the same purpose here that she did in Titans to infuriate me with her prettiness and to be a gift bestowed on humanity by the gods. In Titans she was an immortal, here she's just been spared by the Gods to be the protector of a magical dagger that allows its holder to travel back in time. I'll expound more on the dagger thing momentarily, but I guess what I'm trying to say is if you can see Gemma Arterton in The Disappearance of Alice Creed you should. She can hold her own as an actress, she's given stuff to do and you finally have a reason to look at her that doesn't require you to sit through the interminable for a change.

Speaking of interminable, the plot of Sands of Time involves Young Dasdan (Jake Gyllenhall) being plucked from the streets as a resourceful young beggar by the king and growing up to be loved and a great warrior. Dasdan grows up to lead the attack on an ancient peaceful neighboring Persian city called Alamut (also resided over by Arterton's Tamina). Alamut is alleged to be providing weapons to enemies of Persia and are set to be overtaken by the Persians. Dasdan comes to realize after a lengthy battle, the bestowing of Tamina to his person and the subsequent assassination of his father that the reason he was sent to Alamut was for a dagger (a dagger that holds magical sand in the hourglass on its handle and allows the possessor to travel back in time thirty seconds whenever they push a button) and the ruse to get him there was a lie. Dasdan teams up with Tamina to get rid of the dagger before his power mad uncle (Ben Kingsley) can get a hold of it and change the course of his life as the less favored son. Also, Dasdan is on the run for "killing" his father (spoiler: not him). Lots of bloodless battles are fought, times is traveled back in so that our hero can erase his own surprising ineptitude (near death by snakes, girl, brother).

I'll give you a moment to pick your jaw up from the floor while you process that Dasdan has been manipulated by someone he trusts, sent on a wild goose chase for weapons that don't exist and essentially Matt Damon-ed all to hell in this movie. That's right people, Green Zone has been re-imagined as a swashbuckling summer fantasy no one will think twice about going to see. They literally didn't think twice as the film only made ninety million dollars in America.

Fear not, Prince of Persia still manages to be as bracingly irrelevant as Green Zone but with a few added bonuses: Arterton as stated before does a rehash of her Clash of the Titans schtick, there's time travel in it and Ben Kingsley as the treacherous brother. Also, none of these are good things and at least two of them are things from movies that came out earlier this year that no one gives a shit about and they've been crammed into another that no one gives a shit about. And when I say "no one" I mean me, but I'll gladly have anyone who feels the same as my company.

I'm glad that I don't have a family I'd have had to take to see this piffle. Its an extravagant waste of money that's safe, bloodless, boobless and almost certainly a predator that stalks your family for easy prey with its attendant Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer logos. I'm saying that families looking to be entertained are an infinitely stupider unit than the individual looking to be entertained and as such Bruckheimer and Disney continue the trend of forsaking them every step of the way. Perhaps, I'm just so mad because no one else will be and they should. You paid to see specific elements of it at least once this year and now you're just paying to be insulted and duped.

As they say in the soaps, like sands through the hourglass, these are the wastes of our lives.