Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Double Impact (1991)

Seen: On dvd on our projector set-up, part of a Van Damme 3-pack along with Cyborg and Death Warrant.

DID YOU KNOW that I love ridiculous movies with twins? Sorry, but I do. Especially when played by the same actor. I also love Jean-Claude Van Damme, naturally, so Double Impact is kind of the ultimate movie. He plays twins separated as babies: Alex, raised in a French orphanage in Hong Kong and mixed up with some criminal underworld, and Chad, raised in France/California and now an aerobics/Karate instructor. Their parents built a bridge in Hong Kong and then got killed for it (or something) so now that they're grown up they have to take revenge. Their dad's old bodyguard Frank (Geoffrey Lewis), who obviously did NOT do his job right, enlists them in a vengeance mission against a bunch of criminals in Hong Kong. Alex's girlfriend Danielle (Alonna Shaw) is there too, so that there can be a mostly made-up love triangle.

With a mostly unintelligible and honestly uninteresting plot, Double Impact coasts on the strengths of its leads, er, lead. Van Damme is hilarious (sometimes intentionally) in his dual role, playing the doofus and un-badass Chad with an alarming number of goofy faces, and the dangerous twin Alex as a convincing asshole. Their wardrobes are amazing, their dialogue is atrocious, and at one point they fight each other! The body double action is pretty good, actually, especially in that scene. The action in general is strong, though more gun-heavy than I like in a Van Damme movie. After wowing everyone in Bloodsport, Bolo Yeung returns as a terrifying juggernaut villain who CAN'T BE STOPPED! Oh my gosh! Corinna Everson was my favorite bad guy, though, she's BUILT and also definitely had a crush on the love interest lady. She wears sexy black spandex and can choke a man with her thighs, and it was good.

The silliest thing about the whole movie is the supposed love triangle between the twins and Danielle, because it's basically a nonentity. Alex is so jealous if Chad is even in the same room as her that he just flips his shit. There's this slow-motion sex scene in some steamy, windy, soft-glow nothingness that's completely in Alex's head, and it's just so over the top. That's your one place to see boobs, though. And a tiny bit of Van Damme butt, whose appearance is sadly lesser than in other movies I've seen. You do get this at the beginning though, so it's not a total loss.

Anyway, Double Impact is not gonna become my favorite Van Damme any time soon, but the twin action and healthy doses of early-90's cheese definitely kept me entertained.

3.5/5

Pair This Movie With: Well I was reminded of Maximum Risk, another JCVD flick that involves his character getting mistaken for his twin. There's only ever one of him onscreen at a time though, since his criminal twin dies at the beginning.

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Monday, April 29, 2013

Upstream Color (2013) at 366 Weird Movies

Seen: At the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge.

I have to admit, that while I've seen Primer and I remember really liking it, I barely remember it because I watched it in high school, once. I've been meaning to re-watch it ever since, but oops. I haven't. That didn't stop me from getting excited about writer/director/star's long-awaited followup, Upstream Color, though! It's a beautifully shot, strangely fragmented film with effective soundscapes and great core performances. The opening sequence made me extremely uncomfortable and seemed to go on forever so it took me a little while to get into it, but once it all clicked I really loved it. It's like this lovely/weird mix of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and David Lynch, sort of. It was also extremely hard to write about, but I tried.

For my full review of Upstream Color head over to 366 Weird Movies!


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Thursday, April 25, 2013

Evangerion shin gekijôban: Ha (Evangelion 2.0: You Can [Not] Advance) (2009)

Seen: On our projector set-up, streamed from Miles's harddrive.

About two years ago we decided to finally get into Neon Genesis Evangelion. As an anime fan it's hard not to hear about it all the time because it's one of the bigger series. We started with the new(ish) movie, part one of a tetralogy that condenses and somewhat re-writes the whole series. Then we started watching the actual show, but it turns out it's just ok and we got bored with the super annoying main character. AND SO we decided to just watch the movies. Whatever, you guys. Whatever. The second film in the tetralogy, Evangelion 2.0: You Can (Not) Advance, continues this inscrutable story of whiny teenagers who pilot huge semi-organic mechs in a fight against "Angels", who are huge monster things that attack Earth all the time. Everything is confusing but it's really pretty. And my favorite character arrives! Well, second-favorite, after the penguin roommate obviously.

Seriously, I never know what the fuck is going on in this series but that's part of what makes it so interesting. The greater world is weird and broken and complicated, and the larger story is only hinted at as the pieces gradually come together. The combination of Christian religious imagery and surreal military technology is bizarre but effective, and I really do love watching these robots fight. The animation is lovely, with bright colors and truly creative design, though the exploitative ladyparts factor is as high as most other anime that isn't made by Studio Ghibli. I also liked seeing the scope and general ramifications of this future expanded upon, since the films' overall narrative approach is more personal and at first there wasn't much focus on the politics surrounding the Eva pilots. The greater story slowly builds on itself and now I'm actually pretty excited for the next movie since it looks like it will have to be much grander in its storytelling.

As usual, protagonist Shinji is an annoying crybaby who doesn't really have much going on, personality-wise, but luckily he's surrounded by characters who are actually interesting. Rei continues to be a weird blank space and basically someone's sexy daydream, but she shows some guts toward the end. And Misato is still funny and cool and (mostly) in command. The best part is obviously newcomer Asuka, an extremely confident prodigy who doesn't really know how to interact with people. She's funny in her bluntness but also sympathetic in her lack of social understanding or experience. She's mean, but I like her as a character. Plus she's a really good pilot!

I don't have much else to say, I guess, and I know this is impossible for anyone who doesn't already know about Neon Genesis Evangelion. But yeah pretty good movie, definitely an improvement on the first one, and I look forward to the third film where the stakes are higher and different subplots will hopefully come together in a way that makes some kind of sense. Maybe?

4/5

Pair This Movie With: I mean it's part of a series so it kind of has to be the first one or the third one (which just came out in the US).

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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Room 237 (2013)

Seen: On our projector set-up, streamed from Miles's harddrive.

My boyfriend saw this at Fantastic Fest last year and was pretty enthusiastic about it, dropping in some little conspiracy tidbits when we re-watched The Shining for Halloween. Room 237 is a creatively assembled documentary that interviews several Kubrick conspiracy theorists with their take on The Shining, playing their voices over expertly assembled video footage from a range of films. Anything and everything is up for discussion and obsessive analysis, from the history of American conquest over Native American tribes to a veiled confession of faking the moon landing. Also: minotaurs.

I admit I like conspiracy theories, not that I believe in that kind of stuff but because I think it's fascinating how some people's minds can make these unexpected leaps, and pull together disparate pieces of information and fit them together in weird ways. A lot of the ideas put forth in Room 237 are ridiculous or paranoid, but a lot of them are very interesting as possible insights into Kubrick's way of working and the level of detail that he fit (intentionally or not) into every scene. Some of these people have made a living obsessing over the filmmaker, so it's not surprising that their passion and obsession runs deep, with some even creating maps and diagrams that attempt to re-create the reality (and illusion) of the Overlook Hotel. I mean the level of dedication is impressive, if nothing else. And I'll admit by the end I was basically believing everything I was hearing, since most of them make their cases pretty strongly!

My main criticism of the film is that all of the voiceovers and different theories ran together because there wasn't much to distinguish them from each other- except for the one female voice I couldn't tell anyone apart. I loved the clever compilation of footage from The Shining and other films to use as visuals, since it offered an alternative to the typical "talking head" documentary style, but some text naming the different figures each time they spoke might have been nice for added clarity. I guess that's a minimal complaint, though, really. Overall it's a fascinating and somewhat odd film that has me itching to over-analyze everything I come into contact with. Which as an art historian is totally what I should be doing anyway.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: Well OBVIOUSLY afterwards you have to watch The Shining one thousand times HELLOOOOO.

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Friday, April 19, 2013

Gimme the Loot (2013)

Seen: At the Kendall Square Landmark Cinema in Cambridge.

When I saw a trailer for a movie about young graffiti artists trying to bomb the home run apple at Shea Stadium, you know I was totally into it immediately. Luckily, Gimme the Loot came to Kendall for one week and I got to see it! Sofia (Tashiana Washington) and Malcolm (Ty Hickson) are two best friends and partners in tagging, living in the Bronx with little money but a lot of connections they hope to exploit to make it big. Malcolm thinks he has a way into Shea Stadium through his brother's boxing buddy, but they need $500 for a bribe. Most of the film tracks the duo's mission for cash over the course of two days, which mostly leads to various mishaps and an ever-growing (and totally called-for) hatred of Queens. And asshole rich people. Because fuck rich people, you know?

Smart, well-paced, emotionally engaging, and just generally charming, Gimme the Loot is a joy to watch despite the fact that bad things keep happening. Like seriously, nothing good happens in this movie, and yet you're left feeling strangely comforted at the end. The leads are so, so good in their roles, so fully embodying these characters, that it's just nice to spend time with them for an hour and twenty minutes. I especially loved Washington as the takes-no-shit Sofia, who is funny, super-tough, and sympathetic. Hickson's character, on the other hand, is endearingly goofy and dumb, and the two make a great pair. As an appropriately awful foil, Zoë Lescaze plays the entitled, aimless, and disgustingly rich Ginnie, who feels like she walked out of a Bret Easton Ellis novel. Her life seems far removed from the experiences of Sofia and Malcolm, and while they initially find some common ground, it's eventually made clear that she wants none of their company. And so we are reminded, rich people suck, making this a realistic movie.

It was clearly filmed on a small budget and that mostly works ok, the low-quality digital is a little distracting but it also gives the film this hazy buzz that works well with the overall aesthetic. This is a hot, sweaty summer movie that feels like it could be taking place in the 80's or 90's except for everyone's smartphones, so the slightly fuzzy, yellowed look is appropriate for that vibe. There's also a fun soundtrack and some interesting insights into graffiti culture within New York. At first I wanted more of the actual tagging stuff, but I became so absorbed by Sofia and Malcolm's struggles and relationship development that it didn't really matter. Overall I sincerely enjoyed Gimme the Loot, but have to say I was a little disappointed to see that a nerdy white dude had written and directed it. Not that a white person can't write about different types of people, it's just that when I see a film that's primarily black actors and apparently telling a realistic story of a mostly black community, I'd like to think that a promising black filmmaker is the one holding the reins, you know? Especially because white male directors get to tell everyone's stories, all the time.

4.5/5

Pair This Movie With: Hmm, I'm not sure. If you want a movie that's more involved with street art as a movement there's Beautiful Dreamers or Exit Through the Gift Shop. Or I guess Do the Right Thing is a summery New York movie with racial/class tensions...

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Thursday, April 18, 2013

Alex Makes Art #107

Whoa here I am with some art, what a surprise! I have been spending a lot of time researching these heavy papers I'm writing for my classes, but since I'm still unemployed (sigh) I actually have more free time in comparison to other semesters. SO I have made a few artsy things lately and here I am to share them with you. First is a commission from Ryan at The Matinee, who asked me to design a dvd case cover for Girl Walk//All Day, a feature-length dance video set to Girl Talk's All Day album. It's a fun, happy movie and I wanted to make something that conveyed dancer Anne Marsen's movement and general sense of joy. You can buy a downloadable file of the dvd cover if you need one, and you can also buy the dvd cover together with a high-quality art print. And of course you can buy the dvd itself at the official website!




Ok next here's a thing I made for a CustomMade customer, inspired by a Kid President video. I got to draw SPACE.

And finally, here's a portrait of Ellen Swallow Richards that I made for the current UFORGE Gallery show, which is Jamaica Plain-themed. She was a totally badass lady scientist from Jamaica Plain, who became the first woman to attend MIT, founded the field of home economics, pioneered methods of water sanitation in Massachusetts, wrote a bunch of books, had killer eyebrows, and was generally fucking awesome.

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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Friends With Kids (2012)

Seen: On my laptop, streamed from netflix instant.

I missed this in theaters and had wanted to check it out mainly for the great cast and because I always mean to pay more attention to Jennifer Westfeldt. The main premise centers around long-time best friends Jason (Adam Scott) and Julie (Jennifer Westfeldt), who love each other platonically and sadly watch as their married best friends Alex (Chris O'Dowd) and Leslie (Maya Rudolph) and Missy (Kristen Wiig) and Ben (Jon Hamm) struggle through the emotional strain of child-rearing. Jason and Julie both want a child but aren't in serious relationships, and so they decide to have a baby together as friends, with completely equal custody, finances, and time commitments but none of the romantic fallout. Their experiment works surprisingly well for several months, but their situation becomes more complicated when they each find their supposed "one" and their feelings for one another gradually change.

Remember that I'm weirdly a sucker for romantic comedies, and even though most of them suck I watch them more often than you'd probably think. The combination of actors I like and indie cred lent Friends With Kids a positive aura, even if I remember reading unfavorable reviews. For me it was an enjoyable, well-written film if hackneyed and drawn-out in its conclusion. The foundation of Julie and Jason's friendship is really strong, and I always enjoy stories about platonic friendships between men and women just because you don't see it too often where it isn't secretly about sex and/or love. Several of my closest friends have been dudes so I like seeing it represented, even if in this case I knew it would probably ultimately end in romance. Scott and Westfeldt are funny and believable in their friendship (though they're both naive and self-absorbed as people) and it was actually pretty interesting to see how their experimental baby-rearing worked out. I liked how the film wasn't really about children, but about how having children can affect adult relationships. It's shallow and ridiculous at times but it does try to grapple with these issues in a realistic way.

The dialogue is often hilarious and I liked most of the cast in their roles- though Wiig didn't get much to do, sadly, and Chris O'Dowd, while great, was not convincing me with that accent. And yes, Megan Fox is there as a sexy young person who doesn't like kids, which I can dig, but her character is kind of a non-entity. The real failing, for me, was how the story progressed. A lot of time passes over the course of 107 minutes, and the constant movement of years and months later made it drag and I just felt like the plot moves erratically. The ending is also pretty stupid. I mean, I knew this was all going to end in lovey-dovey cliches but jeez, the way it was done was just weird. And while Jason was a good friend, he seemed like a dick boyfriend, so I actually just wanted him and Julie to remain friend-parents and maybe forget the romantic stuff. Like they could realize that this great friendship was so strong they didn't really need to fret over serious romantic commitments, or something?

3.5/5

Pair This Movie With: Mmm I don't know, I would recommend Westfeldt's debut Kissing Jessica Stein which is also about the line between friendship and romance, but honestly I don't remember it very well so I can't say how good it is? For more Adam Scott being a lovable jerk there's always Party Down.

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Sunday, April 14, 2013

Something Wild (1986)

Seen: On dvd on our projector, borrowed from the Tisch Library at Tufts.

When dweeby, nondescript businessman Charles Driggs (Jeff Daniels) meets the unpredictable Lulu (Melanie Griffith), he finds himself thrown into a wild weekend road trip in which his outlook on life and his reasons for existence are called into question. They meet in a restaurant where he intentionally doesn't pay because petty crimes give him a thrill, and she calls him on it, and he accepts a ride from her back to the office for some reason. She essentially kidnaps him, wins him over with kinky sex and kleptomania, and then convinces him to pose as her husband for her high school reunion. When her dangerous ex Ray (Ray Liotta) enters the picture, their adventure turns sour.

I have to admit, for about the first half hour or so I was disappointed by Something Wild, seeing only a typical "Privileged White Guy Falls for Manic Pixie Dream Girl" type of movie, and also bummed there wasn't more of an actual road trip. Melanie Griffith's character seemed so one-dimensional, just a collection of impetuous quirks wrapped up in gaudy jewelry, while Jeff Daniels' character was insufferable- a timid super-square who seemed to be cheating on his wife for no reason. It all felt sort of cliched and boring, despite the talents of its leads and the great music (David Byrne, hello!). Luckily, as the film progresses, it reveals itself to be much more than I had initially thought.

Sure, Something Wild relies on a now-familiar formula to establish its central relationship, but as it moves from the story of a man who is assumed to be nothing more than he appears and a woman who has seemingly severed herself from all worldly cares and attachments, and becomes something more complicated, I became more and more engaged. These characters are not what they appear to be and it takes more than a few drunken joy rides and whimsical outfits to truly cut through their defenses. The addition of Ray Liotta's sinister criminal Ray is enough to completely twist the film from unconventional quirky-road-trip-romance into dark obsessive drama. The earlier commentary on the shallow yuppie lifestyle and flexibility of the law seems irrelevant in the face of the violence and uncertainty, but it all comes together through the developments of the lead characters, and by the end I was hooked. Plus I loved that closing musical performance from Sister Carol.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: Of course, the basic premise (nerdy dude helps wild damsel-in-distress) and director cameos reminded me of Into the Night. But I might instead go with a road movie romance, something like Wristcutters: A Love Story, The Go-Getter, or Fatih Akin's In July.

PS IMDb says that the two older ladies in the secondhand shop are the moms of Jonathan Demme and David Byrne and I really hope that's true because oh my gosh ADORABLE.

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Thursday, April 11, 2013

Big Ass Spider! (2013)

Seen: At the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, part of the Boston Underground Film Festival.

With a title like Big Ass Spider! it's hard not to giggle, and luckily it turns out this movie has a bit more to offer than just a silly name. Our story begins with exterminator extraordinaire Alex Mathis (Greg Grunberg), who lands in the emergency room after a spider bite and soon finds himself hired by the hospital to track down a gigantic spider that's attacked a coroner. He teams up with security guard Jose (Lombardo Boyar) to catch the beast but in short time the government steps in, led by Major Braxton Tanner (Ray Wise). Turns out the ever-growing spider is a secret science project gone wrong, and Alex lends his insider arachnid knowledge to the military as best he can, especially after falling for cute a Lieutenant named Karly (Clare Kramer). But the situation quickly turns desperate as the spider feeds on a number of unsuspecting civilians and starts tearing up Los Angeles.

Big Ass Spider! is as goofy and b-grade as the title suggests, but I think that's pretty much the point. With Greg Grunberg cracking jokes and becoming an unlikely hero, Ray Wise yelling at all these whippersnappers who can't deal with this crisis, and a giant spider just scuttling about being gross, it's an entertaining time. The script isn't anything radical, but the dialogue is funny and there are a lot of good digs at the mega-monster genre, like the protagonists being totally bored by the science-y expository speech of the monster's origin. Grunberg is strong in the lead role, but the stand-out performer is definitely Lombardo Boyer as the enthusiastic but terrified Jose, with his excellent comedic timing and adorable personality.

The effects- while awesomely gory- are bad but not bad enough to be funny or self-aware, and there's some weird casually racist remarks from Grunberg's character in his interactions with Jose- like, I get that these are silly, exaggerated exchanges but it was inappropriate for Alex to be commenting on Jose's Latino ethnicity almost immediately upon meeting him, I felt. BUT for the most part Big Ass Spider! is an enjoyable, fun film.

3.5/5

Pair This Movie With: BUFF compares it to Ghostbusters and I think that's a good pairing.

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Monday, April 8, 2013

Samurai Cop (1989)

Seen: At the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, as part of the Boston Underground Film Festival.

Wow, you guys. Just wow. So BUFF does this thing where they unearth tremendous 80s schlock to include with their newer genre offerings, and because of them Cambridge received the gift of Samurai Cop last week. It's a gift that keeps on giving, really, as I reflect on it. With production values cheaper than my rent and almost as many unnecessary sex scenes as The Room, the film follows titular police officer Joe Marshall (Matt Hannon) as he half-heartedly tries to cut down the yakuza dealing in Los Angeles. He supposedly trained in Japan for several years, though he seems unable to even pronounce simple Japanese names, but that's why they call him Samurai. Or something. Most of the time he just sleeps with some busty blondes and chills with his hilarious partner Frank (Mark Frazer). Over the course of their day they'll happen upon some bad guys and something resembling an action sequence will ensue.

Ah jeez, where to begin. For one thing it appears that about half of the movie was re-shot with a shittier camera, in different locations, and after Matt Hannon had cut his hair, resulting in a jarringly hilarious number of shots where Joe is wearing an obvious (and bouncy!) woman's wig and the scenery changes willy-nilly. And while endlessly funny to me, that's just a minor part of Samurai Cop's ridiculousness! The dialogue is full of over the top innuendo, stilted threats, and a couple of bizarre racial jokes, while the actors shout or over-enunciate every line. There is a plethora of goofy faces (including Robert Z'Dar's!) and goofier haircuts, and the threadbare plot hinges on the script's infantile understanding of Japanese culture. To top it all off, this movie is GORY. Like, heads and limbs are chopped off and stuff.

Sometimes the film is almost too bad to actually be enjoyable, trudging through all the weirdly extended sex scenes and a romantic subplot popping up halfway in that involves church-going and long walks on the beach. Luckily the audacity of Matt Hannon's awful acting (and uncanny resemblance to a hyper-tanned Sylvester Stallone) and, well, everything's general wackiness make for a pretty damned entertaining experience. And seriously, Mark Frazer as Joe's partner is the best! His reaction shots are AMAZING and also at one point he gets NAKED. But no butts, sadly. Just boobs. Anyway. Samurai Cop: Newest addition to my ever-expanding treasury of awesome bad movies. I'm so grateful that the 80s will always have more to offer me- I don't believe I will ever see every great movie made during that decade because somehow its production is never-ending!

As a movie: 1.5/5
As entertainment: 4/5

Pair This Movie With: All the boobs and gore and 80s haircuts had me reminiscing about Hard Ticket to Hawaii, which has the added bonus of a mutant snake. Or you could do a Bad Cop/Good Cop double feature with Samurai Cop and RoboCop!

PS Oh man and maybe actually the best part of this screening was that I got to see the newest short from Astron-6, Bio-Cop!!! It was a truly awesome surprise and of course equally gross and hilarious and my gosh, I just love those guys. They're so great.

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Sunday, April 7, 2013

GI Joe: Retaliation (2013)

Seen: At the Capitol Theatre in Arlington.

I have been seriously, excitedly anticipating this movie for what feels like forever, after it was stupidly moved from last summer to the end of March. Yes, the first GI Joe sucked, but GI Joe: Retaliation added Dwayne Johnson, Bruce Willis, Walton Goggins, and RZA, so I was pretty sure it was gonna be good. And I was mostly right! The story picks up with Channing Tatum in charge of the GI Joes and being best friends with The Rock, but then there's a traitor in the White House and most of the Joes get killed and everything goes to shit. So survivors The Rock (aka "Roadblock"), Jaye (Adrianne Palicki), and Flint (DJ Cotrona) are left to avenge their comrades' deaths and figure out what the heck is going on with the President (Jonathan Pryce). Surprise! It's Cobra! Drop-dead-sexy ninja Storm Shadow (Lee Byung-hun) busts Cobra Commander out of jail and now he's back to his old tricks: namely, world domination. Meanwhile, martial artists Snake Eyes (Ray Park) and Jinx (Elodie Yung) are kind of doing their own thing in Japan.

There's a lot going on and much of it doesn't make particular sense or is just off with the rest of the movie (what the hell was that opening scene in Korea? Like, literally just an excuse to have Channing Tatum be on screen? I'm assuming that's one of the bits they added later but it was weirdly out of context). BUT it looked like everyone was having a hell of a lot of fun, and it trickles out into the audience. Jonathan Pryce is giddy with evilness and it was so nice to see him in a big role, and as an American, no less. Walton Goggins gets to do his smarmy/adorable thing and even sees a little action, while Lee Byung-hun spends a lot of the time shirtless and wet for no apparent reason and NO ONE IS COMPLAINING. The Rock is The Rock, obviously, and here is another example of him stepping into a mediocre franchise and making it way better. I hope he does this for every movie series. Like, maybe he can be the next Superman if Zack Snyder's version sucks?

The action sequences are well-done, and a few are genuinely inventive (I especially dug the mountaineering chase scene- very exciting!). Everyone gets their own thing to do, whether it's driving around a tank or sword-fighting or shooting the hell out of every living thing. The story is all over the place, trying to connect too many characters across multiple locations to make it all fit together, but at least with so much happening it never drags. I liked the inclusion of Bruce Willis as the original "Joe" but I didn't get his weird sexism? Like he would make these nonsensical, inappropriate comments to Adrianne Palicki, whose character obviously didn't like it and she would say so, but then none of her teammates would say anything and there'd be this uncomfortable silence before they just changed subjects. I don't know. I understand if they're showing that his character is antiquated in his views on women in combat, but it was only partially discussed and just made him seem like a possibly senile jerk. Speaking of Adrianne Palicki, this is the first thing I've seen her in (mostly knowing her only as the lady who would have been Wonder Woman) and I liked her a lot, for the most part her character is handled just as another fighter who happens to be a lady and it's not really harped on except when Willis is around. The main thing that bothered me is that this movie falls into the same trap of SO many action movies featuring capable women: the "time to get sexy so she can sneak into a party/lair/evil headquarters" trick. Like first she's shown as totally competent and strong and independent, and that's great, and then they throw her into a revealing, skin-tight dress and push her into enemy territory where she has to use her feminine whiles to get information or plant a tracker or something. It's an annoying ploy that never happens with male action stars and I'm just bored of it.

Anyway. GI Joe: Retaliation is way better than you'd probably think it would be, and it does well to separate itself from its predecessor. I dug the action and loved most of the cast, but the script is too muddled and over-packed to really elevate the film.

3.5/5

Pair This Movie With: Not the first one, because that movie is shitty. I wanted more Lee Byung-hun being a superbabe, and was in the mood for The Good, The Bad, The Weird.

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Thursday, April 4, 2013

Ninotchka (1939)

Seen: On dvd on my tv, rented from Hollywood Express in Cambridge.

So you may or may not recall that I watched my first Greta Garbo film recently, and have been recommended several others since. I chose to hurry up with Ninotchka since I sadly missed a screening of it at a recent Ernst Lubitsch retrospective, and also because Corey was pretty adamant about it. Set in Paris before World War II fucked everything up, the film opens on a trio of bumbling Soviet diplomats who are easily swept up in the glamor and wealth of the French city. There to sell off confiscated royal jewels as a means of earning money to offset their country's food shortage, the guys fall prey to conniving playboy Leon (Melvyn Douglas), a count in league with the exiled Grand Duchess (Ina Claire) who owned the jewels originally and seeks to legally reclaim them. The USSR sends Ninotchka (Greta Garbo), a no-nonsense official, to investigate the sale's delay, but she eventually finds her cool single-minded heart melting for the smooth Leon.

So I've been thinking a lot about Communism lately because I'm taking a class on 20th century Chinese art and naturally Mao and other leaders have played a major role in the culture of the country. I think the overly stern, unfeeling stereotype of Soviets is kind of ridiculous but I guess it has its origins in the way the USSR presented itself. Besides, Garbo's Ninotchka is a goddamn badass and I loved her intense, logical demeanor. She just wanted to talk about architecture and logistics and show off her battle scars because she totally rules. At first I was bummed knowing she'd get all lovey-dovey with Melvyn Douglas, but then I realized that she's kind of the perfect woman so it made sense he'd want to be with her, and he's kind of a babe and she wants to get some, so that made sense too. Plus they're pretty funny together, as she tries to preach the end of capitalist civilization and he tries to sweep her off her feet. The dialogue is quippy and fun, featuring that clever bite I would expect from co-writer Billy Wilder. My favorite characters were the incompetent male envoys, though, who are constantly talking themselves into things they know are wrong- staying in a fancy hotel, entertaining sexy French maids, etc.

I had expected Ninotchka to be a bit more propaganda-y, but surprisingly it was fairly even-handed. Sure, the Soviet characters are exaggerated, but so are the frivolous French characters. It is when Ninotchka and Leon combine that they become more like real people, their over-the-top personalities and ideologies merging to create a well-rounded couple who can get drunk together. I also liked how she didn't want to sacrifice the well-being of her country, and her honest (but sadly naive) faith in its system, for her love. The film isn't really about showing a Soviet woman tempted away by capitalist luxuries (though that kind of happens, because hey, she's in Paris), it's more about a love that rises above national or political obligations. It is ultimately a very sweet romantic comedy, with a memorable performance from Greta Garbo and some snide satirical commentary on clashing political systems and universal human nature.

4.5/5

Pair This Movie With: I feel like there are a few ways you could go. For more Lubitsch romantic comedy you can't go wrong with The Shop Around the Corner. For another version of this story there's the Astaire/Charisse musical version Silk Stockings. For a more action-y tale of strong Soviets turning traitor abroad there's Red Scorpion. Or apparently Schwarzenegger studied Garbo in this for his role in Red Heat, which I haven't seen yet.

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Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Xia Nu (A Touch of Zen) (1971)

Seen: At the Harvard Film Archive in Cambridge.

I'll admit I usually avoid the Harvard Film Archive just because they're often far too hoighty toighty for me, and I have a prejudice against Harvard in general. BUT they had a King Hu series and I'd never seen any of his movies and A Touch of Zen looked awesome, so here we are. This epic (as in, a long tale featuring heroic adventures, not like "whoa that's totally epic!") film crosses the three-hour mark, but thanks to an interesting plot and lovely cinematography, it rarely drags in its storytelling. Seen mostly through the perspective of Ku (Shih Jun), a somewhat bumbling painter-scholar, it follows the intrigue surrounding a mysterious young woman, Miss Yang (Hsu Feng). Ku finds her reserved but beautiful, and tries to befriend her, but soon it is revealed that she is a fugitive from the law, and a stoic stranger recently arrived in town is a brute from the evil government branch of East Chamber guards sent to claim her. Luckily she and her fellow escaped prisoners are capable fighters, and with Ku's strategic aid they set up a trap to fight the various groups who've come to claim her. But the head of the East Chamber is unwilling to cede to Miss Yang, and their struggle seems never-ending.

Leisurely and thoughtful in its narrative, A Touch of Zen is both an exciting action film and an engaging period drama. At first I was intimidated by the film's length but so much happens and there are so many interesting characters that it wasn't much of an issue. The story is varied, though it does drag at parts and skip around strangely at others, and I loved most of the characters. There's a magical monk who's so fucking zen he can stare you down and force enlightenment upon you, and there's a hilariously naggy mother, and an awesome general played by Bai Ying who is kind of really bad at pretending to be blind but happens to be the most attractive dude in the movie (not that I regularly rate all castmembers in every movie according to looks or anything WHAT). But most importantly, there's Miss Yang, who is SO. COOL. She starts off as wonderfully cold and enigmatic and Ku thinks she's a poor woman who needs his help but WHOOPS turns out she's a totally kickass fighter and it's GREAT. She and General Shih just hop around the Taiwan countryside with swords clinking and throwing daggers gleaming. And I love them both.

King Hu is naturally preoccupied with the "zen" aspect of the English title, incorporating a group of Buddhist monks as small but key figures in the overall story, and focusing on their interactions with various heroes and villains. It's an interesting sub-theme to a tale otherwise concerned with political corruption, vengeance, and tepid romance. I think my favorite thing about the whole movie is that while there is a pregnancy involved, it's never a thing. Like the story doesn't take a break to deal with it, and the female character never becomes defined by her pregnancy or even burdened by it because it's just not shown. They skip it entirely so it's like here's a lady being awesome, and here's a lady being awesome and also there's a baby near her. I liked that because it felt atypical to how women and pregnancy are often handled, especially in action- or thriller-type films. So many writers seem to run out of ideas when they have a strong woman, and they throw a pregnancy at her because why not? And then that's the only part of her that matters anymore. And I hate that reduction of women to just baby-carriers, especially since there are so few great female characters in action movies as it is. But here's one! Yay!

4.5/5

Pair This Movie With: This film was an influence on Ang Lee when he was making Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (aka my new favorite movie, hello) so while that'd be a long day, it'd be a great, ass-kicking double feature! You'd get not one but TWO bamboo grove fights!

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