Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Blood Simple

I Saw the Devil [****]

I don't know why but the casting of two of Korea's premiere villainous actors Lee Byung-Hun and Choi Min-Sik as the respective hero and villain of Kim Ji-Woon's I Saw the Devil strikes me as utterly genius. I think it's rare for a movie to have a hero so dangerous you feel sorry for the villain, but that's exactly the case with I Saw the Devil. Don't misunderstand me, though, the villain doesn't deserve sympathy but I don't want to be on the wrong side of the line when Lee Byung-Hun's Korean Intelligence Officer with revenge on his mind is my number one adversary. Having prior experience with Lee's brand of villainy makes it easier to cut through the formalities of having the hero realize that operating outside of the law is the swiftest road to justice. All of our experience with movies tell us that's what he'll do, but all our experiences with him as an actor tell us that the bad guy(s) is(are) going to regret it.

The villain of the piece, however, is Choi Min-Sik and if ever there was a force capable of absorbing all that Byung-Hun can dish out it's him. Min-Sik has experience as a hero in Park Chan Wook's Old Boy but his hangdog, weather beaten face suggests a man who has spent his life falling short, being bad and getting back up to do it all over again. For all of his masochistic tendencies, we wonder how it is that Min-Sik can keep going. For ninety minutes of the film's one-hundred forty-five minute running time, Byung-Hun mercilessly engages Min-Sik in brutal fights and cat and mouse games and each time he emerges the victor. Min-Sik has endured more brutality than we believed to be humanly possible, but between each fight he brutalizes an innocent and seems to be completely rejuvenated. It is the chief reason that for as impossibly outmatched as Min-sik is he can't gain our sympathy even though we wonder if he'll be able to stand another punch.

When Min-Sik's character is first introduced in the film he is playing the good samaritan to a pregnant woman (we'll quickly learn the woman is the wife of our hero) who has already insisted that help is on the way. This causes her husband concern, but he figures that if he stays on the phone and comforts her it'll ease her mind and make up for the fact that he can't just skip out of work to help her. The introduction is also worth noting because Min-Sik is glimpsed only in shadows. First, we see his cold, unforgiving eyes and then his emotionless face and I'll admit that my first thought was that a mold of Min-Sik's face would make for an ideal Michael Meyers mask. Truthfully, Min-Sik's character more closely resembles the kind of character you'd end up with if Michael Meyers and Scorpio from Dirty Harry had a baby.

If Min-Sik is analogous to an unstoppable force of evil like Meyers then Lee Byung-Hun is the Wrath of God. This brings us to an interesting point. I Saw the Devil is clearly a reference to the most vile form of evil one can imagine, so why bring God into this? First, the old testament is all about vengeance. Second, if you go to enough sermons in a year you'll hear more than your fair share of talk about smiting enemies and, believe me, Byung-Hun is one of the best smiters of Ye Olde Motherfuckers that the movies have to offer. Plus, God is the Devil's opposite. I'm not treading new ground here, but I'm getting to the point that our natural inclinations towards vengeance cause us, at times, to see the Devil within ourselves more clearly than we see God.

It also works on another level because the hero and villain stand for different things but mirror each other in a lot of ways. Both have broken families; the hero's shattered by the villain obviously, but in his crusade the hero is certainly working on estranging his would be in-laws (at one point they ask him to stop, but he's not finished yet because he wants to make the guy suffer). The villain has a mother who can't stop loving and wanting to help her son, but his father thinks he's good for nothing. They both get a real charge from preying upon those that are weaker than them and in that way, Min-Sik and Byung-Hun are most alike. In their initial confrontation Min-Sik displays a level of arrogance that awakens the worst in Byung-Hun, but I would be loathe to say whether or not Byung-Hun's dogged pursuit constitutes an arrogance on his part or just righteous fury. A better question might be whether or not those two things are the same.

For all of the myriad ways that the film's title can be interpreted and how it informs the movie's content I like to imagine that the title, though never spoken in the film, is derived from the following scene: when Byung-hun confront his first suspect he chokes him with a phone cord, ties him to a chair, interrogates him then causes great trauma to his genitals. The suspect, utterly terrified, turns himself in to the police for all of his (unrelated) crimes and when they interrogate him he mumbles and the film doesn't bother to translate it. I like to imagine this guy told them that he saw the devil. But it works on a lot of levels because it's rich and layered and can encapsulate a whole mess of feelings and events. The title, for the first time in a long time, is not to be taken lightly.

I highly recommend this movie not only for it's expert cat and mouse games, but the stark, bloody poetry of the ending and the way it holds a mirror up to us so we can see the toll that revenge takes on us. Make no mistake the movie is too bold and bloody to preach, but it recognizes that we're only human.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Five Reasons you should buy Isaac Florentine's Ninja on Blu-Ray

Ninja [***]

I wrote a review for Isaac Florentine's Ninja about a year ago and it was done in a jokey, snarky, disdainful way. I liked it, but I wasn't quite being fair to it. I decided to give it a little more reverence since I bought it on Blu-Ray. The original review isn't going anywhere but I want what there is to appreciate about it to be brought to light.

1) Isaac Florentine, director of the two Undisputed sequels, numerous episodes of Power Rangers, is a fan of coherent action sequences that display the martial prowess of star Scott Adkins. It utilizes slow motion to great effect as well, there are numerous shots of Adkins doing a backflip and kicking some poor sap right on his noggin in mid-backflip. Slow motion is a tool I've noticed being employed to show people with the bulk of Adkins (and Chilean martial artist Marko Zaror) do something we might normally see a smaller martial artist do. Florentine doesn't believe in wasting the talents of his stunt team so we get clear, concise shots in every location.

2) The editing builds up the mayhem very precisely. From thirty-nine minutes on the action sequences gradually escalate from a subway train smackdown that culminates with one fighter being thrown through a window and obliterated by a train on the opposite track to a police station invasion in which a ninja cuts the power in a police station, and cuts a vicious swath through the police to get to his prey. The hero and villain even briefly find themselves on the same side as they take on the film's extraneous villains.

3) Scott Adkins shirtless in 1080p. This one is mainly for the ladies and some guys I suppose. Adkins is totally ripped, it's not a long shirtless scene but it's very Van Damme-ian in that it is as unnecessary as his splits in everything. Unlike the Undisputed sequels shirtless fighting is not the norm here, but the camera does like its star. On the flipside of the coin female lead Mika Hijii is tied up by the villain using some Japanese bondage knots if you're into that (Gyaku ebi or Reverse Shrimp Tie it looks like). She's also tied up using blue rope which denotes a serious crime.

4) The subway fight allows Mika Hijii to show off some of her fancy martial arts moves, but with a refreshing degree of plausibility. When Hijii gains the upper hand in a fight she only keeps it for about thirty seconds. Sometimes she's lucky enough to dispatch one bad guy but then another pops up to knock the wind out of her. If you're the type of viewer who prefers a woman to struggle admirably while still adhering to the general truism that women are smaller than men and their hits less powerful then Ninja has exactly what you're looking for as it doesn't get to carried away on the issue of women's competence. She's tough, but humble-able and always down for a good tying up.

5) Ninja is a comforting throwback to the action movies we spent our youth watching on HBO. It may not have the nostalgia factor of casting childhood ninja stalwart Sho Kosugi as the villain, but it does exude a competency in action scenes and a complete go-for-broke spirit without sacrificing any of the sheen of a bigger, budget film. Well, except the bad CGI during the film's rooftop fight. The villain also does a really nifty hang-glide/parachute type move that reminds me of Batman. It's awesome.

For eight dollars on Blu, Ninja is definitely worth the investment.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Harry Potter: The Beginning of the End

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 [****]

I admit it, I'm a blasphemer. I never read the Harry Potter books so my impressions may lack the necessary gravity. I like not being burdened with fan baggage and expectation. I like being surprised. I'm sure you Potters get surprised in different ways. When the results are like this I'm pretty sure we all win.

The more oppressive the atmosphere is the better I like the series. The movie drops us deep into the proverbial shit as Harry is spirited away by an army of friends-cum-impostors looking to protect him from an attack by Voldemort. The plan is to break off into groups disguised as Harry (with the exception of Mad-Eye Moody and Hagrid who go as themselves) in the hopes of splitting up and fooling Voldemort's search party of assassins, but of course they already know what's going on and Voldemort makes an unsuccessful attempt on the real Harry's life.

Harry soon decides that the risks being taken by his protectors is too much. He tries to go it alone, but Ron and Hermione aren't hearing that bullshit and decides to accompany him on wherever his journey takes him. He goes undercover in the Ministry, they destroy a horcrux, escape from a prison and other shit. It's pretty exciting and dark, slightly funny, too. The comedy is mostly just nervous titters to lift the mood a little.

I think it's really important to address the film in terms of performance. My choice might not be the most popular one in a large crowd of Pottery aficianados, but I saw it by myself so my choice was one hundred percent unanimous. Rupert Grint.

As the character with the big destiny weighing on his shoulders, Harry still comes across less developed than the others because in this film he's still young (16) and still being tracked. Everyone that he loves and cherishes has to protect him willingly and get him to safety. He's at the mercy of his destiny and if we never got the sense before that Harry has been powerlessly waiting for that defining moment in his life, we feel that pressure now as the film opens. We also feel it in the fleeting moments when he dances with Hermione. Is the dance to relieve the stress of the mission, say thanks, just to do something? It's all three but when Harry isn't making forward progress in his mission I can see how he might come across as inert.

Hermione is the unquestionably loyal friend, who gets the film's most loaded moments. She casts herself out of her family with a memory erasing spell and devotes herself to Harry's mission. She suffers having the words "mudblood" etched into her skin and suffers all manner of persecution. Hermione's always been a really lovable character who has suffered far too much for the inauspiciousness of her birth and I credit Watson with that, but here she suffers in silence. The moments are loaded, yes, but I wanted her to convey outwardly how she felt instead of being the logical Spock-type. She's not bad, but not exactly doing enough with her anguish for me.

Ron Weaselly has taken all the pent-up frustration of being the lovable goofball and in one nice moment he rails against feeling like a third-wheel in the Harry-Hermione crusade against Voldemort and gives it to Harry with both barrels. He doesn't believe that Harry understands what it is that those who love him are giving up. Ron is caught up in someone else's destiny-- he has a family to lose and he wonders, as anybody would, whether or not it's worth getting caught up in. Ron, of course, is loyal but he does the human thing and assesses the risk. He stares into the darkness and asks if the light that comes when the darkness passes will be enough. Stoicism is overrated. But Ron proves loyalty never will be.

Speaking of loyalty, my favorite most heroic house elf is back. Dobby. Or Harry Potter's Yoda. From the first moment I saw Dobby in Chamber of Secrets I was smitten. Dobby came into my life when I really needed him. It was November 2002 and just a few months earlier Yoda had become a green ball of fury in Star Wars Episode II and it was ridiculous and unbecoming. Dobby had similar giant ears and a propensity for fending off the bad guys with magical arts, but he was subtle and powerful. His English, better. What happens to him is the most wrenching moment of cinema this year. Sorry Kick Ass.

So far, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is shaping up to be everything you want the encroaching darkness and the fight of your life to be. Makes me wish I'd read the books, but allows me to appreciate the baited breath a little more. And a little differently.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Screeching fault

Unstoppable [**]

Unstoppable is the kind of movie I feel bad for not liking. The bare bones plot moves with forward momentum from frame one and the charisma of stars Denzel Washington and Chris Pine should go a long way towards making the film critic proof, but as I am wont to do I get hung up on a sequence of events so idiotic that it is probably fairly accurate and, thus, infuriating.

Be warned, here there be spoilers:

The film opens with two rail yard workers tasked with moving a thirty-nine car train from one section of track to the other, a simple enough job, but they're running a little behind. Rather than take time to connect the disconnected air brakes (that one guy said was pretty important not to overlook) they decide to move the train while leaving it in the idle position. They also have to give the train enough power that it creeps along at about ten miles an hour. In a perfect world the train would've remained in the idle position, but doesn't. When the engineer disembarks from the train to flip a switch, ghost like, the gears inside shift from idle to throttle, the engineer completely unaware of this, struts toward the switch. As the train picks up speed, one engineer races the train until he falls. Meanwhile, the guy standing the next to him, presumably unable to switch a flip or outrun the hundred pounds heavier guy, stands there and does nothing. I can only assume the fear of being sat on looms large. I don't know if it's supposed to soften the blows of their idiocy more when we realize these characters are played by Ethan Suplee of My Name is Earl and Chasing Amy fame and T.J. Miller of She's Out of My League, but I'll tell you that their incompetence is not charming if it's not a comedy.

More jaw dropping than their flat out stupidity and negligence is the idea that I'm asked to believe these guys don't know the content of the trains they're moving. I'm sure that training manuals and previous mistakes have underscored the importance of not cutting corners, but often times it still happens. I'm okay with someone choosing to do a piss poor job, but asking me to believe they remain completely ignorant of this day's thousands of pounds of explosive chemicals seems kind of insulting to me. I have a summer job that allows me to be massive amounts of lazy, but when someone tells me that we're being audited I try to bring my A-game. Explosive chemicals are A-game needing shit, too. I was pretty flummoxed by this, I can only accept laziness as the cause of this. I don't believe people would have been allowed to remain ignorant.

Spoilers pretty much end here.

Did I also mention that the guy in charge of all rail yard operations and the station master were all unaware of what was on that train? Maybe it's weird that they don't know about their cargo, but Denzel Washington's character seems to know everything about what he's hauling that day, the length of his train and everything else. I'm sure the other workers from the beginning weren't conductors or engineers, but clearly everyone on every level can make a costly mistake and they have to know that sometimes the consequences of those mistakes vary. In some ways I can sympathize with the CEOs, that the movie shows, who don't want to get screwed because of the negligence of a couple of idiots, but I also think it's their fault for keeping employees poorly apprised of shipping manifests and cargo read-outs. If this isn't the kind of thing that would normally happen, if these guys would know what was on their train then I blame the movie for resisting the temptation of giving us a human villain. It makes everyone look stupider, even if, only accidentally.

It's a shame too that this is such a persistent hang up because I think Chris Pine and Denzel Washington do some quality first-day-of-work-together bonding Yet my petty grievances are getting in the way of enjoying it. Chris Pine plays Will Colson, a kid from a well connected family whose part of the rail company's ongoing initiative to hire young turks to replace overpaid old timers. Denzel is one of the old-timers who we discover is not just a guy who loves doing the right thing, but a guy who is going to do something completely stupid and heroic because they're already going to push him out the door and he wants to exit in style. As the two of them embark on this impossible mission they bond over their marriages and Denzel tells Pine how much he likes him by saying how much he is annoyed by him. To be fair, Pine is a little cocky, but it's not hard to see that beneath that he's a guy who wants to do the right thing.

Kevin Corrigan and Rosario Dawson are not bad as a Railway Safety Inspector and the Station Master who are both incredibly quick on their toes and seem like exactly the kind of bureaucracy you want to deal with in such a dire situation. Their effectiveness stems from a reasonable level of concern and interest in the safety of people. In contrast, anyone concerned with the company's bottom line, as a result of this situation, is more prone to cook up an extravagant and stupid situational response. An effort to transport a Marine onto the runaway train ends with him being thrown through the locomotive's windshield in front of a television news chopper. It's fairly evocative of Bruce Willis' great line from Die Hard ("I'm not the one who just got butt-fucked on national television, DeWayne.") because, well, it just happened.

One of the things that Unstoppable does is filter every bad response through the prism of television news. I don't know if it was done on purpose, but it only makes the situation worse, we get to watch the trouble escalate, but a lot of times we get to watch people as they watch the situation escalate. I'm not talking about the good guys behind the scenes who aren't on the news but regular folks. Being removed from the action like that makes the story less intense, but also shows how disconnected people are from the decisions they make. Weirdly, though, it doesn't flatter the movie. Both the film's audience and the movie's audience get to see the wrong decisions play out on the news while the people actually coming up with the plan and doing it don't get seen at all or through news cameras that make them look like more idiots making bad decisions.

I guess what I'm saying in as long winded a way as possible is that the movie is more interested in screw-ups than heroics. Not even the fact that it's heroes are screw-ups, but it's interested in what people do wrong more than right. Again, I'm not talking about characters who have something to attone for but people who take unnecessary risks and/or are stupid. Even when the movie tries to take the time to explain the heroic decision by Pine and Washington it can't help but look like another misguided idea.

Perhaps it's unfair to get hung up on the actions of a guy who sets the plot in motion. Had this mistake not happened there wouldn't be a story here but this was neglect, not an accident. It's a big deal that no one actually reprimands the guy whose fault it is onscreen. Relegating his fate to a punch line in the end credits character post-script speaks poorly of the comically incompetent light the movie puts the character in and everyone else in the movie by association, except Washington and Kevin Corrigan (Corrigan deserves credit for actually making the plan Denzel proposes in the trailer a workable one).

One day I'm sure I'll get over this. You know how I get about mole hills.

Monday, November 1, 2010

All Hallow's Eve

Saw 3D [*], Paranormal Activity 2 [***]

This Halloween weekend I partook of a horrifying double feature. Last year, a short lived rivalry began between the Saw franchise and a "we didn't know it then but we do now" upstart young franchise called Paranormal Activity. The latter was the superior film last year and this year the competition yielded the same results.

After seven films the Saw franchise has finally managed to wear out its welcome, although it started to show serious fatigue with the fifth entry. Paranormal Activity, on the other hand, shows no real signs of fatigue. The scare ratio is about the same and the characters come across in equal portions of sympathetic and likable, but doubtful or sympathetic, likable and eventually terrified. If anybody seems like they're being an asshole it's not because we need a character to root against but because they think the leap people around them are making is a little ridiculous and they'd be right if it weren't so horrifyingly true.

For me the most effective aspects of Paranormal Activity have to do with the complete lack of reverence men have for the spiritual world and how this complete disregard for the things that go bump in the night seems to drive everything to a fever pitch. You can say it's about a demon looking for a soul until you're blue in the face but you still can't ignore the fact that its about man's ignorance and superiority if they think that certain handshake agreements don't exist between the worlds as well. Remember, a handshake or a promise (a word handshake) is the reason this started to begin with so of course they honor them.

All of this being said, both films are dependent on their predecessors to deepen or worsen (here's looking at you Saw 3D) the franchise's mythology. Paranormal expounds on something hinted at in the first film and while it contains some slightly redundant exposition it is ultimately comprised of new and satisfying information. Saw 3D asks us to believe in the mother of all fail safes in the form of an answer to an oft-asked question about the film(s) that no one really cares about the answer to. That being said, Saw 3D's efforts to bring the film's full circle goes so far over the rails into lunacy that it actually ends up being a little endearing. That's not to say that the film is actually good, but its wide eyed optimism and stupidity can't be ignored. Doesn't mean you have to like it.