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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.

Martha Swope Tribute Video

I missed a photo exhibit that was at The New York Public Library last year, a retrospective of photographer Martha Swope, who photographed many artists in dance and theater. Since working for the Martha Graham Dance Company, I've learned more about her as I study the photo archives. This video has many stunning photographs that capture the beauty of the performing arts.