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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My Favorite Movies of 2013

I didn't go out to the movies much this year, due to being busy a lot with work and school, and watching films on Netflix a lot. So these are my favorite films of 2013, in no particular order:

Don Jon - an interesting romantic comedy that explored unrealistic expectations in relationships, both with a guy's views on sex shaped by pornography and a girl's views on love shaped by romantic movies. I really liked the script and performances by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, and Julianne Moore, and found the film fascinating, talking about it with my boyfriend afterwards.

Prisoners - an incredible thriller. Even if I figured out who the culprit was midway through the film, it was still a well-paced and lengthy film that was focused on police investigative work rather than torture scenes (though there were a few grisly ones) and shock horror. Jake Gyllenhaal always continues to amaze me with his acting, and his dedication to portraying realistic and thoughtful characters, and Hugh Jackman is as versatile and talented as ever. I want to watch it again, just to get invested in the story because the performances were so good.

Now You See Me - such a fun and twisty movie, with a talented cast of comedic actors. I was surprised by where the story went, and how my expectations didn't go where I thought they would. I loved seeing the magic scenes and how the magicians pulled off their heist, it reminded me of my childhood memories of watching magic shows on TV and being amazed.

Pacific Rim - While I felt this film was lacking in some areas plot-wise and with the lead performances, I thought the CGI was fantastic, the battle scenes were fun, and Charlie Day was a major highlight of the film. There is a good reason that he is the breakout star of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, because, though he often plays crazy and loud characters, he has a sweet humility to him that makes him likable. I appreciated seeing him play an intelligent character after playing variations on "Charlie" in movies like Going the Distanceand Horrible Bosses.

Homefront - It's not a great movie, but I liked the classic story of revenge, and it felt like an old B-movie, like something Charles Bronson would have been in. Jason Statham did really well playing a dad, and I was impressed by the little girl playing his daughter. She portrayed a character that was intelligent and resourceful, was clearly her father's girl (in terms of smarts and self-defense tactics), and the actors had a sweet chemistry together onscreen. It was also one of the few times I've seen a bully being portrayed in a three-dimensional way, and the audience gets to see why he is a bully due to a crappy home life, and how he has the potential to be a good kid. James Franco and Winona Ryder were ridiculously fun to watch as meth head criminals, especially Ryder's character's ineptitude. This movie is good for a rental for any action movie/Jason Statham fans.

Man of Tai Chi - Keanu Reeves' directorial debut about a Tai Chi expert who joins an underground fight club. The fight scenes are incredible, with so many amazing martial artists, and the best part is that there are few jump cuts. The camera holds on the fight scenes so the audience can see everything in action, like how old-school action movies did it, and not jumbled up. This was a strong directorial debut for Reeves, featuring his friend Tiger Chen (stuntman from The Matrix films), and was a fantastic action film to see this year.

Fast & Furious 6 - I didn't realize until recently that I am a fan of this franchise. I've seen all the movies except for the fourth one, and my favorites have been the fifth and sixth films. The cast has such a great chemistry together, and the audience really gets the sense of them being a family, despite all being criminals who pull off crazy heists. I appreciate that it's a very racially diverse cast without calling attention or making a big deal out of it (the cast is made up of actors who are White, Black, biracial, Asian, and Hispanic), that they don't overload on CGI and use real car stunts and stuntpeople for incredible scenes. The fight scene between Michelle Rodriguez and Gina Carano was brutal, in a good way. They fought hard, and were more like guys having a brawl than women going for hits and kicks from a distance. Their scene was easily one of my favorites of the film. I am looking forward to seeing the 7th film, though it will be hard for the filmmakers to work around the death of Paul Walker, since he plays one of the main characters and has close relationships with the leads played by Vin Diesel and Jordana Brewster. Plus, Jason Statham plays a villain in it, and I'd love to see that when it comes out. 

I'm sure there were many other great movies, I just didn't go out to the movies much this year. For honorable mentions, I enjoyed This is the End, and thought it was hilarious, but it's not my favorite. And The Hunger Games: Catching Fire had some really good performances by Jena Malone and Elizabeth Banks, and improved on the first film.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Some of My Favorite Action Movies of All Time

I have developed into being a big fan of action movies. I love seeing well-choreographed fight scenes, intelligent and interesting characters, great timing with comedy, music, drama, and action, and seeing how a genre that has been considered dumb or brainless can elevate above those stereotypes into something great. I will go through a mix of obscure and well-known movies.

Die Hard (1988): Arguably the best action movie ever. This movie is nearly two and a half hours long, and I will watch it whenever it is on TV.  Not only is the story well-paced with great acting, but I love that almost everyone in the film, no matter the size of their role, is memorable, and gets a good moment. From the very beginning, with the man on the plane telling John McClane a method of relaxing after a trip, to the very end, where a dirtbag reporter who blew Holly’s cover gets righteously punched out by her, everyone stands out in some way. You have Ellis the obnoxious yuppie; the two Johnson FBI agents; the black computer whiz; Argyle the limo driver; Sgt. Al Powell as the only cop on John’s side; the Asian henchman who steals a candy bar; the loudmouth police chief who can’t make a right move; the German henchmen with long hair and kickboxing moves; John's wife Holly, who takes charge as leader of the hostages; Mr. Takagi, and many others. Alan Rickman’s screen career was solidified with his debut film role as Hans Gruber, and is one of the best villains of all time. He doesn’t even have a high body count (he only kills two people himself, and his henchmen kill two others), but he is intelligent, cool under pressure, and is funny in an incidental way.

I love the little moments of comedy sprinkled around. John in the air vent, mocking his wife “Come out to the coast, we’ll get together, have a few laughs . . .”; Alan Rickman saying “Ho Ho Ho”; the exchange about Vietnam between the two Johnson FBI agents; "He could be a fucking bartender for all we know!”; Ellis’annoying laugh; in relation to a body that fell out of the window: “Who knows, probably some stockbroker, got depressed”; John being denied on his 911 call and being told the line is only for emergencies: “No fucking shit lady, do I sound like I’m ordering a pizza?!” “Oh my God, the quarterback is TOAST!”; and so much more.

The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996): Such an excellent action film, written by Shane Black of Lethal Weapon fame and directed by Renny Harlin. Geena Davis starred as Charly Baltimore, an assassin who suffered amnesia, and who previously thought she was Samantha Caine, all-American housewife and mother. While she lives her life, she had hired private investigators to find out who she was before had amnesia, with little success. Enter Samuel L. Jackson, a down on his luck private investigator who helps her uncover her past as she, due to another accident, finds out she has incredible skills in weaponry and hand-to-hand combat. From then on, it’s insane action scenes as she squares off against her former lover, who is plotting with the C.I.A. to stage a bombing and blame it on Islamic terrorists.  While Davis had starred in the bomb Cutthroat Island (also directed by her then-husband Renny Harlin) as a heroic pirate, in this film she showed more depth in playing an action heroine and did some incredible scenes, mainly a pivotal one where she holds her breath underwater during a water torture scene and remembers more of her past.  

Davis played her dual role convincingly as the sweet housewife and the cold and ruthless fighter. Jackson did well playing against type as a nervous sidekick who is way in over his head with all of this. Craig Bierko was also fantastic as the villain. The film has had an influence in hip-hop, mainly being the name of a song by The Notorious B.I.G. for his album Life After Death, and rapper Tiffany Lane uses the moniker Charli Baltimore after the heroine.

Since this film, Geena Davis hasn’t acted as much, working to promote gender equality in children’s entertainment and promote positive female characters. I’m happy that she is acting as a hero for young girls, as she was in The Long Kiss Goodnight.

Showdown in Little Tokyo (1991): Brandon Lee and Dolph Lundgren were martial artists who showed a lot of charisma and intelligence in their action films. I have already reviewed Brandon Lee’s Rapid Fire and Dolph Lundgren’s I Come in Peace, so I won’t repeat it. They teamed up together for this buddy cop/martial arts action movie where they fight to bust the Yakuza in the Little Tokyo part of Los Angeles. Directed by Mark E. Lester, the cops, as usual, clash with each other from the beginning. Chris Kenner (Lundgren) was raised in Japan, where he has a lifelong respect for ancient Japanese culture and conducts himself as thus, disliking American culture. Johnny Murata (Brandon Lee) is of Japanese and white ancestry, and was raised in America, and he doesn’t have any interest in Japanese culture. They are paired to fight the Yakuza due to Kenner being fluent in Japanese and both being skilled fighters. The Yakuza chapter is led by Funekei Yoshida (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), who is a ruthless kingpin that is also very reverent of ancient Japanese culture, using his sword to execute victims.  He rules Little Tokyo, terrorizing other gangs, and forcing control of small Japanese-owned stores. Kenner and Murata, however, are very street-smart, and often find a way around Yoshida’s plans to attack him and his crew.

The film is clich├ęd and predictable, but so much fun to watch. It’s best to watch it for the charismatic leads, the awesome fight scenes, and the relish in which Tagawa plays the villain (he has made a career out of playing villains, in Mortal Kombat, Kickboxer 2: The Road Back, Picture Bride, and many others). Other recognizable actors include Tia Carrere as the love interest for Kenner, and Toshishiro Obata, who many would recognize as the leader of the Foot Clan in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie. I highly recommend this film to watch, if only for one of the most “what the hell?” moments I’ve ever seen in a movie:

Face/Off (1997): Like Die Hard, I will watch this movie whenever it is on. For anyone who doesn’t know the plot, the movie is about FBI agent Sean Archer (John Travolta) and terrorist Castor Troy (Nicholas Cage), who are sworn enemies after Troy killed Archer’s son, aiming for him. Archer captures and nearly kills Troy in a fight, leaving him in a coma. But Troy had planned a bombing somewhere in a major public space in L.A., and Archer has to find out where the bomb is. So, due to some scientists’ experiment, Archer undergoes a face transplant operation with Troy, including changing his voice, to get instated into the prison where Troy’s brother Pollux is at, in order to learn the location of the bomb. So now Nicholas Cage is playing Sean Archer, and after Castor Troy wakes up, has his face replaced with Sean Archer’s, and kills the scientists. John Travolta is now playing Castor Troy. Both actors give excellent performances playing dual roles, and being completely convincing in both.

The film is staged magnificently, thanks to the talent of John Woo as director. The film features many of his well-known trademarks: gun fu, doves, Mexican standoffs, long dark trench coats waving in the wind, and battles in a church. The film shares a resemble to Woo's 1992 action masterpiece Hard Boiled, in which Chow Yun-Fat and Tony Leung play cop and criminal who share a love/hate relationship. A memorable scene in the film was the hospital shootout scene, both for storyline, technical flair (pacing between slow motion and regular speed, all shot in one take, the room being re-arranged by crew members to appear as a different floor while the heroes are in an elevator ), and dangerous stunt work. In Face/Off, try to count how many times the full names of Castor Troy or Sean Archer are said. If you try a drinking game, you'll be passed out before the film ends. On another note, whenever I take a plane and have to walk out to the plane, I always wanted to enter like this (skip to 1:20)

Unleashed (2005) In 2005, I felt like seeing an action movie, and figured this would be dumb fun. I was completely wrong. Jet Li was fantastic in this film, not just as a martial artist, but as a dramatic actor as well. This film surprised me at how touching it was, and how it used martial arts not just as a weapon of defense, but as the evolution of a character. Directed by Louis Leterrier, Unleashed is about a young man named Danny who is literally treated like an attack dog by a British loan shark (Bob Hoskins) He was raised by them, and has the mentality of both a child and an abused dog.  He wears a collar, and only when it is taken off does he uses his violent fighting skills against men who owe the gangster money. He cannot think far beyond what he is trained to do. But when the collar is on, Danny is subservient and quiet. Through circumstances, Danny meets a blind piano tuner named Sam (Morgan Freeman) who treats him with kindness and invites him to live with him and his stepdaughter Victoria. Danny learns how to socialize and to live as a human in the regular world, and Jet Li played this role with a lot of tenderness and sensitivity. The scenes of him confusing words like “sweet” to describe ice cream or a kiss are nice, and while I had heard of Jet Li casually from Lethal Weapon 4, this was the first time I’d ever seen one of his movies. Morgan Freeman is relaxed in his role, and brings a lot of warmth to Sam. Naturally, the gangsters want Danny back, and it is a battle between staying with this safe family and avoiding capture to be turned into an attack dog again. I don’t even watch this film for the fight scenes, because they aren’t heroic fight scenes, they’re more like dog fight scenes, more brutal and exploitative, which was the point. I watch it for the scenes of Danny with his new family, and re-discovering the world in all of its joys and splendors. I highly recommend this film.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie (1990) I saw this when I was seven years old in the theater, and I thought it was amazing. I loved how the film made New York City look so dirty and grimy, how rough around the edges it was, how obviously low-budget it was (despite having the talents of the Muppet Workshop for the turtle heads), and how it was a kids’ movie that wasn’t afraid to put violence and mild cursing into it. I had a serious crush on Elias Koteas on this film, he was the first movie actor I ever found sexy/attractive. I won’t go over the plot, almost everyone knows who the Turtles are. It also had my other future movie crush in it, too, Sam Rockwell, as a young punk leading kids around the underground playground where delinquent teens hang out at, with video arcades, billiards, cigarettes, beer, and ninja training. It was just an excellent movie to see as a kid, and once every few years, I will still watch it and enjoy my nostalgia.

Blade (1998) Blade has been credited in popularizing the comic-to-movie boom of the 2000s, and I definitely agree. What is great about it is that Blade was an obscure character, who looked more like a pimp circa the blaxploitation era, and the film turned him into an intelligent and stoic fighter. A lot of credit goes to the writer David S. Goyer, who wanted to make Blade a serious character, not a spoof like how New Line Cinema wanted. He turned Blade into a respectable action hero, and brought to the screen one of the few black comic book superheroes that has been seen in mainstream films. Credit also goes to Wesley Snipes. Not only for his iconic performance, but because Blade is very close to his heart, and a lot of the instincts and characterizations of the role are from him. Snipes is a highly trained martial artist, with black belts in Shotokan karate and Hapkido, and is skilled in kung fu, weaponry, capoeira, and Brazilian ju-jitsu. The film itself, while dated in some parts due to special effects and 1990s techno music, still stands out as a masterpiece. I love Kris Kristofferson as Whistler. He has a great sense of humor, treats Blade like his son, has great hair and a killer look, and can hold his own in a fight. Similarly, I liked N’Bushe Wright as Dr. Karen Jenson, an intelligent woman who acts as the audience’s POV, and is never turned into a romantic interest for Blade. And I was surprised by how well Stephen Dorff did in this film. Normally he looks like a spoiled punk to me, but that worked great for him in this film. Deacon Frost, in this film, is a annoying little ass who wants to control the vampires, and has a preposterous plan for doing so (See Daywalkers if you’d like to see how Frost’s plan would have worked in reality). He has some really funny moments, especially one where he mocks Blade’s fighting style with his swords and turns and such. Donal Logue was excellent as Quinn, one of Frost’s minions. He constantly gets maimed in the movie, and his growing frustration was hilarious.

I also recommend Blade II, and it’s a toss-up as to which film I think is better. I am a big fan of both films. Blade is a great introduction, has memorable characters, and awesome fight scenes. Blade II umps the ante, with having super-vampires who feed on both humans and vampires, and Blade needing to work with a team instead of alone. That film's strong cast included Leonor Varela, Ron Perlman, and Donnie Yen, and was directed by Guillermo del Toro, who has a nerdy passion for comic books and horror stories. For Blade Trinity, I like to pretend it never happened, though Ryan Reynolds had some good comic moments in it. It was just a mess that needed a better director and a more interesting storyline. I don’t blame Wesley Snipes for refusing to participate fairly on-set or only appearing for his close-ups, it really didn’t do the series justice. Hopefully now that he’s released from prison and will be in the next Expendables movie, the audience will get to see him return to fine form.

Death Proof (2007): This film was directed by Quentin Tarantino, and was one half of the film Grindhouse, Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror being the other half. A tribute to low-budget grindhouse movies of the 1970s, Death Proof has gorgeous women, fast cars, shootouts, great music, and is a fun throwback to the old B-movies that Tarantino obviously loves (and in some cases, rips off of). The plot focuses on a serial killer named Stuntman Mike (an excellent Kurt Russell), who gets off on killing women with his stunt car, in which he is protected from damage. He does this to a group of women who had been partying in a bar for hours, and their deaths are blamed on their alcohol intake, while Mike, being sober, gets off scot-free. But he meets his match when he tries the same thing on a group of much stronger women, two of which are trained stuntwomen who can handle guns, cars, and fights. Tarantino specifically wrote one role for a stuntwoman he worked with, Zoe Bell, who doubled for Uma Thurman in Kill Bill (and for Lucy Lawless in Xena: Warrior Princess). He had her play herself, and she is incredibly natural and fun to watch. The car chase scene, which goes on for nearly 20 minutes, is incredible to watch, both in Bell’s fearlessness in riding on top of the car hood, and the amount of terror the scene generates.  The film’s second half is incredibly satisfying to watch Stuntman Mike get his comeuppance and be out-matched by these steely women.

Maniac Cop 2 (1990): I caught this movie on TV last year, and was blown away by how dark and gritty this low-budget action movie is. Directed by William Lustig and written by Larry Cohen (who wrote the awesome 80’s horror comedy The Stuff), Maniac Cop 2 continues on the story of a serial killer who poses as a police officer, and survived his death at the end of the first movie. This film stars Robert Davi as Det. Sean McKinney, and his partner Susan Riley, played by Claudia Christian of Babylon 5 fame. They go through the dark and mean streets of New York to catch this killer, but keep missing him as he strikes again and again. The film, from its title and premise, would seem like an awful film, but it is very well-written, genuinely scary in a realistic way (especially given the time when New York was at its heights of crime) and Davi and Christian are excellent leads in the film. One of the standout scenes in the film is where Susan is handcuffed to the steering wheel of a runaway car, outside of the car door, and is being dragged alongside the car as it veers out of control on a highway. She must get herself inside the car to control it, but could easily be dragged  for miles and be killed. It is one of the most inventive action scenes I’ve ever seen, and kudos to the stunt coordinator, stuntwoman, and Claudia Christian for pulling this scene off:

Blood and Bone (2009) This martial arts film, directed by Ben Ramsey and written by Michael Andrews, is a low-budget direct-to-DVD action movie starring Michael Jai White as an ex-convict named Bone who does organized street fights in order to get money for revenge for a fellow inmate’s incarceration and death. The film has echoes of Hard Times and Lionheart regarding a drifter doing organized street fights for cash, and while the plotline isn’t original, the fight scenes are fantastic. What is great about them is that the scenes are shown in all their glory, with the camera pulled back, shot in one take, and no special effects or camera tricks. White is an exceptional martial artist, and the scenes highlight his talents, especially a set-up for him to fight several guys in a role as the camera pulls back, finishing in a quadruple kick, and landing right in front of the camera, at 1:25.

The acting is good from White, who has the talent and looks for a leading man action star, but I was also pleasantly surprised by Eamonn Walker, who played the villain James, an eloquent crime boss who is an expert swordsman, and a fearful individual. As the film progresses, James’ debonair attitude slowly disintegrates as he becomes more angry and unhinged, and it becomes his downfall. He lets anger get the best of him, whereas Bone is more calm and composed throughout the fights. There are some faults with the film. The music can sound very cheap at times, the audience never finds out why Bone was in prison, and Dante Basco can be a little annoying as a loud-mouth sidekick of Bone’s. But otherwise, it is a fantastic martial arts film, one which can easily be found on Youtube or Netflix.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

My Favorite Guilty Pleasure Movies to Watch

I can sometimes feel embarrassed that I like some pretty low-brow movies. Stuff that is panned by critics, or seen as trashy humor, or doesn't have the coolness or cult popularity that many other films have. But I just happen to like some silly or C-level movies, and I wanted to list them and my reasons why.

The Perfect Man: Hilary Duff plays a teen girl who is sick of seeing her mom (Heather Locklear) be in bad relationships and moving her family after each split, so she invents a secret admirer for her mom, basing her ideas about love and romance from her friend's uncle, the handsome chef played by Chris Noth. She writes love letters from "Ben," makes a mix CD, sends flowers, uses her guy friend to pose as him on a phone call, etc. The problem gets to be when she knows she is setting her mom up for disappointment, and that the chef turns out to be the right guy for her, but the girl can't introduce them without revealing her ruse. It is a messed-up plotline (daughter pretends to be secret admirer to her mom), and the girl should be focused more on school and her hobbies than obsessing over her mom's love life. But I like it because the movie looks very pretty, the set decoration of Brooklyn looks great, and Heather Locklear and Hilary Duff really play very well off of each other as mother and daughter, especially in sharing a resemblance. Whenever it is on TV, I will watch it, more for the pretty look of the movie and the mother-daughter relationship.

Joe Dirt: Normally, I don't like David Spade. I don't mind if he's in a supporting role, but not if he's the lead, as his nasally voice can be irritating. But Joe Dirt I really like. It's a movie about a mulleted Southern rock-loving country guy who got lost from his family as a kid during a trip to the Grand Canyon, and he's been trying to find them ever since, while working odd jobs and living in various places. He works as a janitor at a radio station, where Dennis Miller as the DJ discovers his story and interviews him on air about it. The movie is really fun to watch for a few reasons. Joe Dirt himself is very sympathetic, has straightforward goals, and isn't a pushover, nor does he feel sorry for himself for being abandoned. He just continues through life and makes friends with a lot of unique and interesting people. The film has a great supporting cast, including Brittany Daniel, Christopher Walken, Joe Don Baker, Adam Beach, Rosanna Arquette, and Jaime Pressly, and they all fit great into their roles as country folk. Even Kid Rock appears in a couple of scenes, and he fits right in there, too, being a Southern rock country guy himself. The movie is just very enjoyable to watch, and I feel happy seeing that Joe Dirt ends up making his own family without realizing it, and being surrounded by love and support. I highly recommend it. Plus, it's got a great soundtrack of 70's Southern rock music.

Sugar & Spice: This is one of my favorite low-brow, "bad" movies ever. The basic plot is that a group of high school cheerleaders rob a bank to finance one of their pregnancies. The movie's strength comes from its cast, and adding a lot of bizarre touches to seemingly "perfect"-looking teen girls. One girl has an obsessive crush on Conan O'Brien. One has a mom in jail and lives with her weird grandmother. One is a devout Christian and acts very childlike to the point of annoyance to all. The lead cheerleader got pregnant by her quarterback star boyfriend, and they live in a small apartment where his enthusiastic but immature personality easily gets on her nerves. The humor can be very messed-up, and the girls get their ideas for the bank robbery by watching movies (Heat, Point Break, Dog Day Afternoon). The cast of this movie is made up of actresses who are often in "hot girl" parts, or seen as B-level talent, but they are a lot of fun to watch in this movie. Mena Suvari was great at being a tough bitch, Melissa George was hilarious as she keeps daydreaming about Conan, Sara Marsh was funny in a frustrating way as she acted annoyingly pious, and Rachel Blanchard was good. Marley Shelton was really great in the lead role (as she mostly has had supporting roles throughout her career). She has a very innocent, chipper-looking face, which made it even funnier as she grew more pissed off at her pregnancy, her boyfriend's childishness, and dealing with economic realities and having to be an adult at 16. 

But one of my favorites of the cast, and the biggest surprise to me, was James Marsden. He was fantastic at playing the dopey, sweet, innocent boyfriend who goes through life with this hopeful optimism. I liked that while he could be misguided, he wasn't entirely dumb, and Marsden played a teenage jock so, so well. I was surprised that a guy with conventional good looks could be so good with comedy, and this was much earlier in his career. Now his comedic skills are better realized (30 RockEnchanted, the upcoming sequel toAnchorman), so I'm happy he's found a better place in his career than just playing a pretty guy (who often gets dumped).

The New Guy: I watched this on TV, thinking it would be a forgettable piece of crap starring the skinny nerdy guy from Road Trip. What I got was one of the best teen movies I've ever seen, and such a good subversion of teen movie cliches and expectations. The basic plot is that Dizzy Gillespie Harrison (DJ Qualls) is a huge dork at his high school who constantly gets picked on, and ends up getting arrested over a misunderstanding. He goes to jail, where he meets Luther (Eddie Griffin), who teaches him how to be a badass who nobody will mess with. When Dizzy gets out, he gets himself expelled from school, hangs out with Luther and his crew in jail, and goes to a new high school, re-made in a cool, loner image as "the new guy." The results are completely hilarious, as Dizzy becomes popular in an incidental way thanks to his new skills (and his dorky friends helping him out from afar).

What I love about this movie is how it cuts through the BS of other teen movies that focus on misunderstandings and betrayals as the main drama. When Dizzy sees his dorky friends while trying to impress a hot cheerleader (Eliza Dushku), he blows them off. Barely two scenes later, Dizzy goes to see them and apologizes, admits he was an ass, and they accept his apology and move on. No "you've changed, you're not the same person anymore" drama. And Dizzy uses his mistake to realize that the school needs unity between the cool kids and the dorks, and he brings everyone together, blending cliques, raising the school spirit, and leading the football team to win games. And as Dizzy becomes more relaxed, he drops the loner, badass image without realizing it, and is much more confident in his own skin. The movie really shines as it is about a dorky kid who learns to be confident and accept himself, and everyone genuinely likes him. Even when an old bully comes by to reveal Dizzy as a dork, the plan doesn't work. Partially because he gets foiled twice before he can do anything, but him being a dork isn't an embarrassment anymore, nor does anyone really care. It really makes me happy to watch, but I think that message got lost amidst a lot of the immature, lowbrow humor that populates the movie. Another high point is that this film has tons of cameos from a lot of musicians and actors and pop culture stars, and it is pretty fun to watch Vanilla Ice act like a bouncer in the record store he works at, Jerry and Charlie O'Connell trying to out-bro each other out, and Tony Hawk constantly being trashed on. Plus, Zooey Deschanel is in it as one of Dizzy's friends, and it's an early role of hers that she is barely recognizable in. I really recommend this movie.

I am sure I will have other favorite low-brow movies, but those are a few I will write about for now.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

My Favorite Sci-Fi Romantic Comedies

This is an odd mixed genre, but it is one of my favorite kind of genre mixes, like sci-fi westerns or horror comedies. I like creativity in stories, and going beyond the expected, and these stories really turn it up in great ways. I haven't watched them too often, because I don't want them to lose their magic. But I highly recommend these films for anyone who is a fan of romantic comedies but would like to see something a little flipped.

TiMER (2009) takes the idea of matchmaking and puts in the form of a corporation called TiMER, finding a unique and nearly foolproof way of finding one's true love. The corporation gives people the opportunity to have an electronic timer surgically implanted into their wrist, so that they would know how many years, months, days, and minutes it will take them until they happen to meet their soul mate, where the two TiMERs will beep and true love will be found. It removes the idea of trusting fate and leaving love to chance, and turns love more into an electronic convenience purchased for a monthly fee.

The film centers on Oona (Emma Caulfield), a young woman whose TiMER is blank, meaning that her soulmate has not been equipped with one. She brings her boyfriends to the corporation, but each time they have the TiMER implanted, they never beep together, meaning they're not meant as soulmates. She is worried about her fate, feeling she will never find her soulmate, and overly relies on this computer in her wrist rather than trusting her instincts when it comes to love. She happens to meet a relaxed young grocer whose TiMER shows he is meant to meet his soul mate in a few months, and after some hesitation, Oona decides to take a chance on dating him. But outside appearances are not what they seem, and this challenges Oona to figure out whether love should be pre-determined or not.

Meanwhile, her stepsister Steph (Michelle Borth), whose TiMER states she will find true love at age 43, uses her time as an opportunity to sleep with men whose TiMERs are about to expire, enjoying their last time of singledom before they fall in love with someone else. She is relaxed and at ease about this, but thinks otherwise where she does start a relationship with a man who doesn't have a TiMER.

This was one of the most relatable romantic comedies I've ever seen, and one that was very realistic, as I can see people wearing TiMERs and it becoming a convenience, as seen as with parents who have their teen kids wear it in hopes of a loving marriage. Oona is neurotic and overthinking, but is still quite sweet and likable, and I felt supportive of her, even if I wanted her to lose the TiMER and enjoy life without it. I found the film via Netflix, and it is a wonderful film that has gotten plenty of positive attention amongst indie film fans.

Happy Accidents (2000) stars Marisa Tomei and Vincent D'Onofrio, and is a fantastic and odd little movie that plays with the audience's expectations of what is and isn't real. The main actors share a sweet and quirky chemistry together, and though I've only seen it twice, I still get stunned at how great it is and how little it's known.

Ruby (Marisa Tomei) is a sweet woman who has had a bad string of relationships (The Narcissist, the Drummer, etc.), due to her habit of taking care of insecure and immature men. Her friends and her therapist keep telling her she has to take care of herself, and not trying to fix her boyfriends in her doomed-to-fail relationships. But she is still optimistic about love. In the park, she happens to meet Sam Deed (Vincent D'Onofrio), a charming yet odd man who is immediately enraptured by her. They fall in love, and afterwards, Ruby notices more of his idiosyncrasies, like his fear of dogs, his constant headaches, his obsession with a woman named "Chrystie Delancey," and his spells where he just blanks out and stares at nothing in particular. Ruby doesn't want him to be a freak like all the other men she has dated, and continues to hold onto hope that he will be "the one."

But when Sam tells her that he is really a time traveler from the year 2470, it is just another entry into her box of Exes, of strange and immature men that she has been with. Ruby has a hard time understanding the story, going between thinking it is a sick delusion and enjoying the fantasy of his involved stories about life in the future. The movie has its charm in that the audience is right there with Ruby as she learns more, and Marisa Tomei's performance is just wonderful. She has the versatility to play characters that can be normal, average women, as well as very sexy and mysterious and intriguing, and make both of them very true to life. She always comes off as completely genuine and open onscreen, and grounds this film whenever it seems to get too strange. And while I am not always a fan of Vincent D'Onofrio, he is very good in this film, with a awkward shyness that fits the character perfectly. The audience wants to believe him, to see the future through his eyes, while still trying to stay rational with their doubts.

There are more twists in the story that leave confusion as to whether Sam is for real or not. A comparison to this could be Don Juan DeMarco, where the audience is unsure if the Johnny Depp character is mentally ill or truly the romantic hero he says he is. It is best to just let your reality go, and enjoy the film.

Heart and Souls (1993) isn't really a romantic comedy, more of a fantasy/comedy film, but it is one of my favorite science-fiction films. It stars Robert Downey, Jr. as a man who has four ghosts (Charles Grodin, Tom Sizemore, Alfre Woodward, Kyra Sedgwick) who have been with him all of his life. The ghosts died in a bus crash in 1959 just as he was born, and through only completing their unfinished business through Downey's body can they ascend to heaven.

The ghosts come from all walks of life. Penny (Woodward) was a single mom with three kids who worked the night shift to support her family. Julia (Sedgwick) was a waitress who was unsure about whether or not to marry her boyfriend, and was on her way to accept his proposal. Harrison (Grodin) was a singer whose stage fright kept him from succeeding further. And Milo (Sizemore) was a petty thief who stole priceless stamps from a kid for a wealthy boss. They all need to not only use Thomas Reilly (Downey, Jr.)'s body to fulfill their last business, but also to convince him to not value his yuppie lifestyle over his loving girlfriend and to become a more compassionate individual, so he doesn't make the same mistakes some of them made.

This is truly a wonderful film, and everyone shines in it. Downey, Jr. is fantastic at physical comedy, and whenever one of the ghosts enters his body, the audience really believes him as that person, with voice, body, and all. This, Chaplin, and Home for the Holidays were the first films I noticed him in, and he has an incredible ability to lose himself in these roles, becoming nearly unrecognizable.

The cast as ghosts were at some of their best work ever in this film. Grodin, normally cast as a bitter miser at this time (Clifford, Beethoven), is great as the hesitant coward, someone with talent who holds himself back. Sizemore, who I normally cannot stand because he seems a little too good at playing psychopathic killers, brings a softer edge to his performance as the perverted yet likable Milo, who grows in humility as he befriends the other ghosts and gets a chance to redeem himself. Sedgwick as Julia brings such a warm and sweet personality to her role, infusing her with a kindness that makes her character very touching and tragic. And Woodward was incredible as Penny, the nurturing mother who is on a search to find her children that were split up by social services after her death, and her story arc resulted in one of my favorite scenes of the film. I will not give it away, but it always makes me want to cry with happiness whenever I see it, a testament to Woodward's stunning talent as an actress.

Frankie and Johnny: A Film Review

What better place to set a romantic drama in than in a bustling Greek diner nestled in Manhattan? The customers are elderly folks who want their eggs runny in just the right way, the waitresses have a system for dealing with grabby male customers (“You pour, I’ll bump), and despite difficult pasts, a Shakespeare-quoting line cook and a guarded waitress from Altoona can find a love that develops in little flirty moments in between serving up tuna melts. Frankie and Johnny (1991), starring Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer, doesn’t just excel in giving the audience a complex couple that aren’t in the prime of their lives, but from where the original play by Terence McNally had the action all in Frankie’s apartment, Garry Marshall’s direction sets most of it in the diner where they work, illustrating the film with a cast of wonderful, homegrown characters that make the film feel like home whenever I watch it.

Frankie, a waitress who comes to NYC after an abusive relationship, and Johnny, an ex-con who works as a short-order cook, have this crackling sexiness between them, this slow-burning attraction that keeps getting thwarted due to Johnny’s intense pursuit of Frankie and her refusal to let another man into the intimate spaces of her life. And through it all, their romance is egged on by the diner staff, as if they are the film audience wanting to see these two repair their broken selves and have a mature and loving relationship, complications and all.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

A Round-Up of my Recent Action Movie-Watching Series

Lately, I have gotten into the fun habit of watching a lot of cheesy action movies with my good friend Tommy. We are both martial arts fans, and love watching action movies that are either really good or hilariously bad. It's been our routine now to watch one movie each from every well-known action movie star, and we've been doing this about once a week for the past month and a half or so. So, here is what we've been watching so far, and what I think of the films.

Project A 2 (1987) starring Jackie Chan.

This movie is a lot of fun to watch, but has surprisingly a lot of complex plots going on, which can seem unnecessarily confusing for a movie that has scenes as excuses to set-up fight sequences. It is a sequel to Chan's movie Project A, which I haven't seen, and from reviews, I learned that the sequel was seen as more light and silly than the first film. I can see what they mean, as this film is very influenced by The Marx Brothers and Buster Keaton, including Chan imitating a famous scene of Keaton's towards the end. I won't go into too much detail of the plot, but basically Chan is a cop named Dragon Ma in 1910s Hong Kong, dealing with British rulers, pirates who want revenge on Ma for killing their captain, Chinese revolutionaries who want to overthrow the British rule, and an inept Hong Kong police force. As you can see, he has a lot to deal with at once, in addition to classic Chan fight sequences that utilize comedy with props and the environment, and a lot of stunt scenes that you know probably took about 15-20 takes to get right, including a high fall that looked as if it could have seriously paralyzed the stuntman if it went wrong. 

We watched the film on Netflix, where it was dubbed in English, and that added a lot of unintentional humor, particularly with very regional white British accents dubbed in for Chinese and Hong Kong characters, including one voice that sounded a lot like Bob Hoskins. Also, while the film does take place in the 1910s, not everyone looks dressed of the period. One female revolutionary looks like a 1980s businesswoman, with bobbed coiffed hair and a power suit, and the other men have 80's-looking hair, like they are in a contemporary 80's action movie. Tommy pointed out that the younger Chinese women were in Victorian dress, with corsets and English-looking clothes, noting that they had adopted the style of the British people to be more fashionable and modern, rather than wearing traditional Chinese clothing that may have felt dated to them.

Probably my favorite scenes in the film were the sequence where Yesan (Maggie Cheung) is trying to keep various people who enter her home from finding each other, like cops, kidnappers, escaped prisoners, revolutionaries, etc., all hiding in closets, behind doors, under beds, and in small nooks and crannies. It is inspired by The Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera, goes on for a good 15 minutes or so, and is well worth seeing. I also really enjoyed the fight sequence at the end, for its creativity and spirit of fun. And while I know Maggie Cheung has had a very long career, it was funny to see her in a light and goofy role, as I associate her with dramas like In the Mood for Love and Clean, being a star of independent art-house films. The film is available on Netflix and Youtube, so definitely check it out.

Lionheart (1990), starring Jean-Claude Van Damme

This one is pretty entertaining, though it follows the standard action/thriller trope of "You killed my brother/father/wife, now you die." The film is co-written by Van Damme, and it really shows in some scenes, especially when characters comment on how pretty Van Damme is or how much they want to have sex with him. It only happens a few times, but the ego-stroking is obvious.

The plot of Lionheart goes like this: Van Damme's brother is burned alive during a drug deal gone wrong, and leaves behind a wife and daughter. Van Damme, named Lyon Gaultier, is in the French Foreign Legion and cannot leave to go see his brother's family. But, as we know, that doesn't stop him from roundhouse kicking soldiers in the face and stealing a Jeep to make his getaway. He makes his way through the desert and works on a steamboat to make his way to the U.S. Since he is broke, with no visa or passport, he just lives under the radar until he meets Joshua, a street-smart man who runs underground fights for money, where rich people bet on poor fighters trying to make a buck. Lyon, nicknamed "Lionheart" by a rich patron named Cynthia, wins the fights. Since he cannot avenge his brother's murder since his brother failed to identify his killers before he died, Lyon decides he is going to fight to earn money to send to his brother's family instead.

The film itself goes from there, with Lyon trying to make amends with his brother's widow over some past issues, and Lyon trying to make his life straight while doing underground fights for the money. There isn't that much more to it than can already be expected, especially knowing he will have a fight at the end with a more intimidating fighter (much like Bloodsport and Kickboxer). Harrison Page, who played Joshua, brings a lot of light to this movie as a comedic sidekick, and Ashley Johnson, a well-known former child actress from Growing Pains and tons of movies (most recently in The Help, The Avengers, and Joss Whedon's version of Much Ado About Nothing) plays Lyon's niece in her film debut.

It isn't one of Van Damme's best movies (Timecop is my favorite of his that I've seen so far, followed by JCVD), but it's nice to watch, and Van Damme plays a pretty quiet character in this. Check it out if you're interested.

Against the Dark (2009), starring Steven Seagal

This movie is very boring, and not even funny-bad, just dull. It rips off of Resident Evil, and the plot being constrained by its budget is painfully obvious. Worse, Steven Seagal is barely in it. I know that he isn't a good actor, but he spends most of this movie walking around, leading a group of zombie hunters, slashing zombies with his sword, and always showing up at the right time to save someone. And he's in about less than a quarter of the film, while it is dominated by terrible no-name actors who walk around an abandoned hospital, trying to avoid zombies and find their way out. It gets obvious that from their constant walking, that the film only had a few hallways to shoot in and just re-arranged sets to make it look like different places. The walking gets to be a drag to watch, and the zombies keep leaping out of nowhere, as if they are perched somewhere ready to attack. At some point, it is revealed that the zombies have "evolved" into thinking and rational individuals, becoming "a new race," while it is the humans who need to die out. That plot point is not only ripped off from Land of the Dead, but what is worse is that the zombies aren't even actually zombies. They are just infected with a disease, making them into both vampires and zombies (the film cannot seem to make up its mind about what they are), and ripping off 28 Days Later as well. 

It is a really dull movie, and the only good thing about it is the actor Tanoai Reed, who plays one of the zombie hunters. He is more known for being Dwayne Johnson's cousin, and stunt doubling for him in a lot of his movies. He handles the fight scenes with finesse, and, like Film Brain said, has a quarter of his cousin's charisma. I couldn't find any of his fight scenes from Against the Dark online, so this is a stunt reel of him.

Miami Connection (1987), starring Y.K Kim

This was one of the best bad movies I've ever seen: Miami Connection. It's an 80's movie about a rock band of martial artists who fight drug dealers and ninjas in Miami (really made in Orlando). These are the highlights (or lowlights) of the film:

  • The acting is terrible (either people speak in flat, emotionless voices or overact to the 10th degree)
  • Only about three people in this movie are good at martial arts (mainly the star, Y.K. Kim, a Korean taekwondo martial artist who has trouble with speaking lines in English)
  • Pointless subplots (mainly the one about an absentee father and his son)
  • Random ragtag groups of thugs who looked like they were picked out of construction crews or local Florida bars 
  • The John Oates-looking member of the band
  • The homoeroticism of the band that isn't fully addressed
  • Confusing editing (this movie makes you appreciate the talent of a good editor)
  • Ninjas being seen as an everyday annoyance instead of something bizarre
  • The plot at times sounds like something a five-year-old would make up as they went along
For positives, it does have some fun action scenes, and a few of the guys are legitimately good martial artists. And the band has some catchy songs, however bad they may be (and they don't hide their martial arts alter-egos at all). I appreciate the work and effort that went into the movie, especially since the extras looked so happy and excited to be in a movie, but the final result was an unintentionally hilarious mess. The film has gotten more attention because Alamo Drafthouse has their own film distribution company, and gave the film new life. We found this film through Torrent, so I don't know where else it can be found besides that.

The 6th Day (2000), starring Arnold Schwarzenegger

This is definitely an example of the downturn in the films Arnold Schwarzenegger did shortly before he became the governor of California. I like sci-fi thrillers, but this one felt like a mess, and at times, imitating Total Recall with the dual identity theme and futuristic world. I lost interest in this film towards the last half hour, just getting confused by the plotline as more clones were introduced and killed off and introduced again and so forth.

The basic plot: Schwarzenegger plays Adam Gibson, a charter pilot in the year 2015. He lives a happy suburban life with his wife and daughter. In this world, cloning animals is legal (hence the popularity of a company called Re-Pet, which makes exact clones of dead pets so families never have to deal with the reality of death and keep their cute pets around), but cloning humans is illegal because the results can be damaging. Gibson is hired to be the pilot for a rich businessman and his friends for a ski trip, but before he goes, he must have his blood and eyes checked. On his birthday the next day, he decides to let his friend take over his pilot duties, so he can get a cloned version of his family's recently deceased dog, despite his objections. When he comes home the next day (while buying one of the creepiest dolls for a little girl ever), he sees that his family is inside celebrating his birthday with a clone version of him. From then on, the businessman's cronies are hunting Gibson down to kill him, while he runs around to find out why he was cloned and how he can get his life back.

It's an OK movie, but fairly forgettable. The special effects are decent, but not memorable, the cycle of people dying, getting cloned, then dying and being cloned again gets to be old and tired, and the villain is dull, too. I couldn't stay too invested in it. Go for The Running Man, Terminator 1 or 2, or Total Recall for a better Schwarzenegger sci-fi movie.

I Come in Peace (1990), starring Dolph Lundgren

I just watched this film on my own this week, and I really liked it a lot. It is very much a B-movie, with that late 80's/early 90's dark tonal music, hinting at crime and grittiness in the city, and I love that stuff in films like this. I only heard of Dolph Lundgren in the past few years, since, while he was a big star, he's been more below the radar than trying to be like Van Damme or Seagal. Most likely due to him having a higher I.Q. than most action stars, and not taking himself that seriously. I heard of this film through an awesome montage of famous movie one-liners followed by the villain's death, and wanted to know where it came from. The film reminded me of Maniac Cop 2, another B-movie that is dark and gritty, with some great action sequences and a menacing vibe.

In this film, Dolph Lundgren plays a cop named Jack Caine, who is a cop who follows his own rules and follows his instincts. He is driven in his mission to get rid of The White Boys, a gang of white-collar drug dealers who look like flashy yuppies, but are very dangerous in their operations. And they killed his partner too, so an extra side of vengeance there.

Caine's boss is tired of him doing what he wants (even if he gets results), so he makes him partner with a straitlaced FBI agent (Brian Benben), who is uptight and by the book. The contrast is made even more obvious by the fact that Jack is tall and intimidating-looking and doesn't dress like a cop, whereas the FBI agent is smaller, more meek-looking, and is always in a suit. The FBI agent relies on reasoning and practicing what he learned from books, while Caine is all about trusting his instincts and improvising. They begin to notice a strange string of murders where the bodies have heroin in them, but their deaths aren't from drug overdoses. Because, an space alien drug dealer who looks like Raiden from Mortal Kombat has come to Earth, hissing "I come in peace," right before stabbing someone with a tiny spear to drug them up and kill them. He also uses a tiny spinning flying blade that nearly decapitates anyone who comes in its way.

So Caine and the FBI agent are on the case, hunting down both the White Boys and this strange murderer. The film gets a little more twisted from then, but I won't spoil anymore. I really think it's a good movie. Lundgren plays his role with a lot of dry humor, the relationship between Caine and the FBI agent is cliched but entertaining to watch, and the villain truly is creepy as hell. It's available on Youtube, and I highly recommend it.