Archive for category Action

Assault on Precinct 13

Assault_on_Precinct_13_Mondo_Poster_2011

“Rio Bravo” via a gristly a 1970s crime thriller.

There is a moment more than halfway through this film, when the beleaguered survivors inside an understaffed police station are besieged by seemingly endless waves of a progressive multicultural youth gang, which exemplifies what is great about “Assault on Precinct 13.” The sequence is a cacophony of broken glass, bullets, and dead bodies, as the motley crew of police, administrators, and convicts desperately try to fend off their attackers, who at times almost leap into their line of fire. Suddenly, the invasion stops. The bodies disappear. This sudden quiet and stillness becomes deafening and oppressive, which more frightening than the siege itself. The film is a gnarly mixture of  frenetic, grimy, chaotic action and stunning moments of anticipatory, dread-building ambiance.

Like most successful action films, “Assault” strips its narrative of everything but the bare essentials, focusing instead on mood and visceral thrills. Essentially “Rio Bravo” placed in the decaying urban sprawl of 1976 Los Angeles, several people find themselves held-up in a nearly-defunct police precinct by a nebulous and expansive gang of hell-raisers called “Street Thunder” that are intent on murdering them all. Ostensibly the attack is retribution for the deaths of six of their brethren that were killed the previous night while robbing a shipment of automatic weapons, but their motivations are more amorphous and abstract than simple revenge. Their bizarre tactics suggestion something more symbolic.

“Assault” doesn’t waste much time on character study either. There is just enough screen-time invested in this rag-tag assortment of characters to give them basic definition and personality, without wasting it on frivolous backstory and nuance. There is the newly-promoted police lieutenant Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) who has been given the task of overseeing the final night of a soon-to-be-closed police precinct in the middle of a Los Angeles ghetto, a couple of secretaries played by Nancy Loomis and Laurie Zimmer, a prison warden named Starker (Charles Cyphers) transporting prisoners to a state correctional facility but who is forced to make an emergency pit stop when one of his charges gets sick, prisoner Wells (Tony Burton) and Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Josten,) and a man named Lawson who directs Street Thunder’s attention towards the precinct when he enters the building after killing one of their own members, which was itself a retaliatory killing on behalf of his daughter.

These are characters almost exclusively defined by their situation, because nothing creates tight emotional bonds like bullets being shot at you, but that doesn’t make the performances any less compelling. In particular, despite the fact that ones a cop and the other is a convicted murderer, the brilliantly named Bishop andNapoleon become the best of buddies and carry the film with their love of sardonic humor and mutual respect for one another. Collectively they are mystified by the strange behavior of the Street Thunder gang, which seems to have an infinite supply of members and supernatural abilities. When they aren’t attacking in droves like a zombie hoard, a thick ominous cloud of mystery and portentousness lingers in the air. There is probably a compelling metaphor to be had from this metaphysical take on a gang  problem(perhaps representing the insipid and incessant nature of the gang situation in L.A.) but for the purposes of this film, it is very effective.

“Assault” is John Carpenter’s second film as director, and at times it feels like it. The film is rough, raw, and unpolished, but I mean that in the best way possible. When ice cream truck drivers and little girls are getting shot in broad daylight by a gang that seems to have thousands of member, it isn’t the kind of film which should have airtight direction. This is a nasty, pulpy, 1970s action at its gritty finest.

4/5

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Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

Ghost Protocol

The Five Guys of the “Mission Impossible” movies.

With each film having a different director, the “Mission Impossible” series plays out like a burger chain constantly shifting management. Each one is attempting to deliver more or less the same thing, but each one tweaks the ingredients and the recipe ever so slightly. Like  the other films,”Ghost Protocol” is just a cheeseburger, but with Brad Bird manning the grill, you’re definitely getting one of those high-end fast food burgers, “with strength.”

The trick seems to lie in knowing just what people want from a “cheeseburger,” or to get away from this lame metaphor, an action-centered spy thriller. We want a cast of attractive stars to root for that are also capable of seeming to possess extreme competence when it comes to clandestine activities. We want an efficient plot which fluidly delivers exposition while giving us enough stakes to imbue the film with intirugue without getting bogged down in too much characterization or needless backstory. Most importantly, we want several well-executed, gadget-filled action scenes at a number of exotic locales. “Ghost Protocol” ticks all those boxes.

Leading the way is Tom Cruise, who frankly looks a bit bored and tired in his fourth appearance as IMF secret agent Ethan Hunt, with his face permanently stuck in an “I’m gettin’ too old for this shit” position. Cruise’s ambivalence is incorporated into the film nicely, though, particularly with the help of a running gag about the repeatedly failings of their top-of-the-technology and things not going as planned. Rounding out the team of IMF good guys are Simon Pegg as the resident computer geek and comic relief, Paula Patton as the lone woman on the team, and Jeremy Renner as a sort of Ethan Hunt-in-training, on the reay should Cruise ever feel the need to leave the franchise.

The narrative is an old Cold War standby. A nefarious figure code-named “Cobalt” is trying to instigate nuclear war. This involves framing the U.S. for a terrorist attack on the Kremlin and launching stolen nuclear missiles. The sticky political situations initiates “Ghost Protocol,” which just means Ethan Hunt’s team is left on their own to save the world, instead of getting the usual bang-up assistance they get from IMF headquarters. There are stolen launch codes which need to be found, assassins which need to be dealt with, and databases that need hacked into. All standard sorts of things.

The real star of this film is the fantastically directed and almost non-stop action. The film starts with a chaotic prison riot orchestrated by Hunt’s IMF team to break him out of a Moscow prison. Following that is a sequence in which the team breaks into the Kremlin, a breathtaking heist and switcheroo in and on top the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the infiltration of a server room at a fancy party in Mumbai, and a surprisingly exciting showdown in parking garage. Bird injects all these sequences with a compelling mixture of humor and tension, resulting in a string of grin-inducing spy antics.

Nothing about “Ghost Protocol” is transformative or groundbreaking, but it is satisfying nonetheless. Brad Bird knows how to entertain. With virtually no screen time wasted, it is a clinic in efficient storytelling with no ambiguity about what it hopes to accomplish. It is just a straight-forward, no frills spy thriller with quality ingredients and cooked to perfection.  If that sort of thing is the kind of  thing you are looking for, than this is the thing for you.

4/5

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Road House

Roadhouse

A weird, incomprehensible, idiotic, and wonderful mess of a film.

The “so bad its good” movie is one of the stranger phenomena in film. I’m not sure when exactly ironic love for movies began, but I’m even more perplexed by what that kind of love really means. It is sort of like watching an overweight, uncoordinated middle-aged guy attempt to dunk a basketball but fall flat on his face while missing the dunk. (All the better if a trampoline is involved.) It is mostly hilarious, watching that guy look so inept while falling short of his goals, but there is a bit of sadness mixed in with the laughter. It is a condescending kind of love, because we are sort of celebrating failure, but that love is nonetheless sincere. We are genuinely grateful that the guy attempted to dunk in the first place.

Like most metaphors, this one is imperfect. A bad film happens not by clumsiness but a series of deliberate, and poor choices. So in “Road House,” for example, someone chose to include a bit of dialogue explaining that Patrick Swayze’s character Dalton (no last name), despite being a careerist bar bouncer, went to N.Y.U. where he studied Philosophy. (“You know, the meaning of life and all that shit.”) Another line of dialogue in comes from a chief lackey for the bad guy who says to Dalton, “I used to fuck guys like you in prison.” Someone wrote or improvised that dialogue and someone else approved their inclusion in the final cut. I’ve probably never heard a more delightfully absurd character detail nor a more psychotic and insane combination of self-aggrandization and threat. (I mean that guy was proud of what he did in prison.) What measure of madness and brilliance prompted those choices? These snippets are some of the only scraps of information we get into these characters backstories, yet they hardly explain their bizarre decisions and the baffling situations they find themselves in.

This isn’t a film that is all that interested in its characters. Even “Zen and the Art of Nightclub Bouncing” Dalton is a facsimile of a more traditional action protagonist, with his painful past and vaguely-defined Eastern spirituality which medicates it. Taking shortcuts with characterization is an old standard with action films, but usually the payoff is…action. “Road House” has mostly a dearth of action, with the occasional brief and bloody confrontation thrown in to give us just a little taste. (Someone gets their throat ripped out in this movie. Their throat!) Even the final confrontation offers little of the thrills which the film relentlessly builds to.

Instead, it meanders into a mostly incoherent plot which I suppose can be construed as some sort of parable about the power of local cartels to defeat the aggressive business tactics of national chains. The aptly named Brad Weasley (Ben Gazzara) is the oppressive business magnate who injected economic life into a small Kansas town, but not without a spiritual cost. Weasley lords over the town like the king of a very small kingdom and extorts money from all the local businesses and dictates to everyone what is what. Normally, those at the top of the economic food chain try to placate the masses in order to keep them complicit in their own oppression, but not Weasley. He terrorizes the “little guys” who don’t bow down to his authority, going so far as to take a monster truck to a car lot owned by an independent-minded auto dealer. Eventually all this posturing escalates to lethal levels, cajoling Dalton out of his pacifism, who was really only in town to clean up a local road house anyway and had no reason to get involved. Weasley could have had it all if had simply minded his own business. Why not give Weasley a coherent worldview and reasonable motivation to do what he does?

There are more weird choices in this film to discuss, including a romance involving Kelly Lynch which is more contrived then something out of “The Bachelor” and Dalton’s mentorship by Sam Elliot, but why bother? I won’t come any closer to figuring out this film’s perspective. That is, I think, really where the love for bad films come from. There is something refreshing in a point-of-view you don’t really get. “So bad their good films” are like having a friend who constantly has baffling opinions like “Culture Club is one of the top 3 bands of all time, behind only Disturbed and Elvis Presley.” You honestly can’t tell if your friend is crazy or brilliant, but that friend believes what they are saying wholeheartedly. Having those people in your life is awesome, and so is “Road House.”

4/5

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Elysium

Elysium

 

A lot of cybernetics and robots signifying nothing.

There is an opaque, but very real difference between story and plot which “Elysium” doesn’t seem to acknowledge. Story requires things like emotional resonance, characters which feel “real”, and a sense that what is happening matters for some reason. Plot just requires that things happen to entities that are vaguely identifiable as people in a somewhat coherent order. Lots of things happen in “Elysium,” too much really, but despite the kinetic turns in the narrative and the vivid world-building, there isn’t really any storytelling happening in this film. Just a lot of well-constructed set pieces strewn together by a premise stretched razor-thin by an incessant stream of action sequences and cheap sentimentality.

“Elysium’s” setup portends an intriguing healthcare/immigration/99% metaphor, but this thought is quickly distilled into a standard “hero’s quest” which amount to little more than “screw the 1%.” A resource-ravaged Earth in 2154, centered on a particularly bleak looking Los Angeles, is home to an overpopulated and undernourished populace consumed by crime and squalor. Meanwhile, the super-rich have bailed on the mess, constructing an Eden-like utopia called Elysium, in which the weather is always perfect and nobody gets sick or ages. (Uh-oh, I see overpopulation issues in the future.) In particular, they have these sort of CAT Scan machines which are capable of curing any disease and performing any kind of surgery, including complex facial reconstruction. Yet the super-rich, perhaps because they are entitled, selfish and greedy, refuse to share this technology with the masses on Earth who so desperately need it, despite no discernable reason why everybody couldn’t all use this technology. (The questions I have about the economic relationship between Elysium and Earth are exhaustive. Some examples: Elysium is its own country, with its own government, but to what extent do they need an influx of resources from Earth to sustain themselves and if so, why aren’t people on Earth charging an exorbitant amount of money for those resources? How much does it cost to run one of those magical Cat-Scan machines? Is Elysium also the governing body of Earth? The lack of a compelling story exposes a ludicrous amount of logistical problems in this film.)

We know the super-rich aren’t willing to share because Elysium’s Secretary of Defense Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster) gives us a line of dialogue about protecting Elysium “for their children.” Jessica is a stone cold defender of her all-white gated-community-in-space, warding off would-be immigrants/those desperately seeking medical care with an incredibly dull ruthlessness. Others in the executive branch fail to appreciate her tactics, so she sets her sights on hacking her way into the Presidency. (Yes, the Presidency is something that can be hacked into.) Doing her dirty work is secret “agent” C.M. Kruger (Sharlto Cople,) who as a sadistic henchman plays far too integral a role in this film, and a manufacturer of robots John Carlyle (William Fichtner,) who is in the film too little.

Not be out-blanded, the film’s hero is Max Da Costa, a Latino character played by the decidedly non-Latino Matt Damon. Given the star power needed to make this film in the first place, it is probably forgivable to have a White man playing a character so clearly intended to be non-White, but that is no excuse for how boring he is. Aside from an emphatic desire to avoid dying, a respectable rap sheet, and a belief in his own significance, Max has no identifiable character traits. Max does has a love interest, Frey Santiago (Alice Brago) whose primary role in the universe as a nurse is to exemplify the sorely-lacking healthcare on Earth and to have little girl that is tragically dying of cancer. There is also a benevolent criminal overlord/hacker named Spider (Wagner Moura,) who dreams of bringing the wonders of Elysium to the masses.

To the film’s credit, “Elysium” looks fantastic. Grime seems to permeate the camera lens itself. Ceaselessly crowded shots of people on Earth give the impression that humanity is more an infestation than a boon to the planet, and oddly compelling technology suggest a society increasingly dependent on technology for its own survival. There are a couple of especially well-constructed scenes, including some working class terror as Max endures an influx of radiation due to an accident at work which sets the whole plot in motion, and a couple of moments with the literally automated bureaucracy, a nice metaphor for a dehumanized government. Yet all of this is for naught because the script is so infuriatingly bad that the entire film feels perfunctory.

“Elysium” expresses only the most inane ideas about healthcare, the super-wealthy, immigration, and an increasingly inept government that is beholden to its corporate overlords. Its characters are no less simplistic and shallow, and isn’t very good at delivering the simple pleasure of watching Max crush the would-be white-oppressors with his cybernetically enhanced fist. In a summer populated by largely unoriginal properties and mundane mass-destruction, it was nice to hope there was a science fiction film with a compelling idea fueling its story. Unfortunately, there just wasn’t any story to fuel.

2/5

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Captain Phillips

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Fear, anxiety, globalization and economic disparity on the high seas.

There is none better at drawing tension out of real-life terror than Paul Greengrass. Even when they aren’t used as glorified water guns that playfully squirt pretty red paint everywhere (a la’ Quentin Tarantino) or lazy phallic symbols for some beefcake to eviscerate, guns in films are usually very un-scary.  Rarely does it seem like they are being waived in front of, you know, actual people as opposed to bulletproof protagonists. Not so with “Captain Phillips,” a film wrought with suspense doing mainly to those automatic rifles being pointed at people who have absolutely no clue how to deal with it and pointed by people who seem to know even less what they are doing.

Based on the real-world hijacking of the U.S. commercial ship “Maersk Alabama” by four Somali teenagers, errr, pirates in 2009, Greengrass uses his prodigious hand-held shaky cam skills to wring every notch of anxiety out of this tightly-wound thriller. The film begins with Captain Richard Phillips (played by everyman extraordinaire Tom Hanks, as likable as ever) being driven to the airport by his wife to fly across the world to oversee the delivery of some medical supplies from Oman to Kenya via boat. Aside from letting us know that Captain Phillips hates that his work takes him away from his family, (which is vitally important information, because I assume every character played by Tom Hanks cannot stand his wife and kids,) this opening sequence provides the only respite from the constant sense of dread which gnaws at you throughout this film. I’d recommend some sort of acid reflux medication once the ship leaves the harbor.

Knowing how this film ends, which you all should, does little to ease the perpetual anxiety it generates, because it feels like anything could happen at any time. Looming over every moment is the sensation that it could all go wrong, not just for the Americans on the cargo ship, but the four Somali men trying to steal it. Led by Abduwali Muse (the unknown but perfectly cast Barkhad Abdi,) the film doesn’t skimp on them as characters. More or less forced to be pirates by a tyrannical warlord, the hijackers seem just as jittery as their captives, despite holding all the guns. Every exchange is riddled with brinkmanship, a sort of verbal game of chicken which could easily end in bloodshed.

Yet with Captain Phillips doing everything in his power to give the Somali pirates the runaround until the cavalry can arrive while being one wrong word from death, a sense of fatalism lingers over all the action. Both the Somalis and Phillips are acting on behalf of powerful entities more interested in the economic and political ramifications than the death totals. Phillips just has the overlord with the (much) better artillery. Phillips spends much of his time trying to tell Muse just how outmatched he and his men are. Going unspoken is the assertion that it is the U.S.’ excesses which has put the Somalis in the desperate position of having to steal ships in the first.

The standard disclaimer about Hollywood’s “true life” fictionalization process holds with this film, but I don’t doubt for a second that this is close to what the hijacking felt like. Every moment is horrifying, nobody relaxes and the film gets exceedingly claustrophobic by the end. Even the scenes in which Phillips attempts to bond with his captures are wrought with peril. Amidst all this tension, the film has more pity than scorn for the hijackers. After all, it wasn’t as if they passed up a career captaining cargo vessels to be pirates.

4/5

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Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

Nausicca

Yup, this one is just as great as the other ones.

I have become exceedingly useless when it comes to evaluating the works of Hayao Miyazaki, so much a fan have I become. I just sit there, watching his films with a mystified look on my face and an ever-increasing sense of wonder and awe. So deep runs the imagination, creativity, and story-telling of this, and nearly all of Miyazaki’s films that I find myself unable to do much else but gush about their brilliance like a myopic fanboy.

However, if I must attempt to deconstruct my joy for this film, I’ll start by expressing my incredulity (in a good way) at being thrown into a world for which I had utterly no bearing. Aside from telling us that this is Earth a thousand years after a world-wide war wiped out most of the planet and created an enormous mass of pollution called “The Toxic Sea,” the film careens head first into a bizarre world of jet gliders, gigantic insects, and mixture of ancient and “future” weapons. By way of an example, the first image we see is that of a nameless figure riding what looks like an ostrich and wearing a gas mask that was clearly inspired by Darth Vader.

This guy turns out to be legendary swordsman Master Yupa. While a master swordsman like Yupa might factor heavily into most fantastical adventures, he is really only a bit player here. As part of a settlement of people living in the “Valley of the Wind,” which features a hefty breeze which consistently keeps poisons and other nasty things from troubling them, Yupa was investigating the desolation caused by the recently-expanding Toxic Sea. With landmass dwindling, the few remaining populations of humans have taken to war-mongering and petty conflict.

Without looking it up, I couldn’t tell you the names of any of these population centers because: 1) They are Japanese names for which I lack a meaningful schema to help me remember them and 2) They don’t really matter. Despite the political conflict weighing heavily in the narrative, whatever historical and cultural differences between these quasi-nations exists is irrelevant, because these differences only serve to amplify mistrust and hasten the impending destruction of humanity. These cities resemble medieval kingdoms run by power-hungry tyrants squabbling over turf, albeit with tanks, funky armor, and airships at their disposals. Whatever salvation may be left for humanity, the film makes it clear it won’t come from any of these maneuverings.

So where will salvation come from? The title character, whom I have waited almost four hundred words to mention. Nausicaa is as Christ-like a figure as they come, a teenage princess with a bursting love for pretty much everything, including the enormous crab-like insects known as Ohmu which everybody else is afraid of, and an almost ignorant courage which makes her capable of accomplishing pretty much anything. She flies around on a wind-glider/jet-pack/thing with reckless abandon, hypnotizes Ohmu to send them back into the Toxic Sea, takes out several home invaders with a knife, tames a half-fox/half-squirrel creature, talks down tyrannical queens, all while growing a garden of toxin-free plants and otherwise providing the emotional center of the film. Amidst the legion of chipper heroines that Miyazaki has conjured up in his career, Nausicaa is probably my favorite. More than any of them, she best embodies the androgynous qualities of radiant positivity and fierce recklessness required of an unflawed hero.

There is quite a lot more that merits mention. The score, for one, is excellent. It is equal parts terrifying and wonderous, as though everything could slip into either oblivion or rapture at any moment. The animation is typically great, with thought and creativity behind every detail both big and small. Not least of all is the story, which combines pro-environment propaganda and a Christ parable while somehow avoiding any cliches, contrivances, and anything that might make the narrative feel less organic. (Maybe because the whole concept is so weird, you can’t figure out where this film is going, aside from assuming things won’t end terribly.) Really, if I’m being honest with you, this entire review is extraneous and the only thing I need to say is that watching “Nausicaa” is like being placed in an alternate dimension which consists entirely of Miyazaki’s imagination and that it is an awesome place to be.

4.5/5

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Spider-Man

spider-man-poster

A classic tale of “boy meets girl, boy gets bitten by radioactive spider, boy can’t get involved with girl.”

So much has changed since the halcyon days of 2002 in the land of superhero films. With only the first “X-Men” film and a series of “Batman” films which had run themselves straight into the ground to contend with, “Spider-Man” was free to blow away both nerds and normals alike with its inventive, eye-popping, state-of-the-art visual effects and endearing origin story about a goofy kid desperately trying to impress the girl next door. More than a decade later, superhero films have multiplied exponentially, with sharper visual effects and darker narratives, all of which applies to this now-rebooted franchise. Watching this film this film in all its campy and relatively innocent glory invokes a quaint, nostalgic feeling, as if this film were wrought in the 1950s.

A major part of the film’s hokiness stems from the cornball performance of Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker, the teenage boy who develops spider powers when bitten by a radioactive spider. (That spider is still out there.) For a teenager living in the greater New York City area circa 2002, he has absolutely no edge to his personality. He never swears and, social awkwardness aside, lacks anything resembling teen angst or attitude. He does yearn for girl next door Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) with a goofy shyness that more akin to geeks in 1980s teen comedies than a superhero.

The penultimate event in Peter’s existence is the murder of his Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson), who along with his Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) have raised him since he was little. The murderer is someone whom Peter might have stopped earlier, but for some pettiness on his part from a disagreement about money, Peter let him go. However, the resulting tragedy hammers home the film’s motif that “With great power comes great responsibility,” and thus Spider-Man is born.

The film has a perplexing villain in The Green Goblin, who is supposedly psychotic but is only marginally more menacing than the Adam West-era “Batman” villains. The Green Goblin comes about because of a self-experiment, performed by an over-ambitious Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe,) who injects himself with an experimental gas designed to create super-soldiers but which has a number of unpleasant side-effects, chiefly insanity. This result is Jekyll and Hyde split in Osborn’s, with the Green Goblin stealing a costume and bunch of weapons in order to do all of those terrible, PG-13 things Norman Osborn wants to do, but won’t

Why do people hate Norman Osborn? As the C.E.O of Oscorp, a weapons research company, people seem to despise him. There is a General in charge of weapons contracts who is just giddy at the prospect of cutting of Osborn’s funding. Oscorp’s Board of Directors, meanwhile, have just been waiting for the chance to sell his company and force him out. Yet the film only ever shows Norman acting like a generally nice guy, except when he is in Green Goblin-mode. Perhaps Dafoe is just too likeable for the role. The trouble with the Green Goblin as a villain is that he eliminates all of Osborn’s obstacles early in the film. So what does Osborn/Green Goblin have left to accomplish?

Apparently plenty, because he flies around on a glider talking about all the amazing things he plans to achieve, and fixating on the threat Spider-Man poses to his (non-)plans. Yet for someone that is supposed to be hyper-aggressive and deranged, he is decidedly well-behaved. Instead of using his cartoonishness to generate fear and unease a la Heath Ledger’s The Joker, Green Goblin just feels cartoonish. Like any respectful villain, he wants to give the hero a chance to join him, though again, to what end he never reveals. After finding out Spider-Man’s identity, the Green Goblin concludes in a decidedly Gollum/Smeagal monologue that in order to beat Spider-Man, he must first “break him.” So what does he do to “break him?” Something really sick like torture and kill Peter Parker’s loved ones? Nope. He scares Peter’s Aunt May, to the extent she required hospitalization. This is something  which decidedly doesn’t break him. The Green Goblin also possesses bombs which can disintegrate humans on impact, but like a good sport and doesn’t bring any to his fights with Spider-Man.

Aside from treading some relatively new ground in generating narrative strands which would serve as backstory in later films (a relatively novel concept at the time,) the film feels a lot less original than it did on its release. The visuals go for iconic imagery, like a slow-motion shot in which an explosion rips open parts of Spider-Man’s mask, but despite how “cool” they look, these shots lack emotional weight. Plus, with the dated visual effects, the weak narrative shines through more clearly. The exploration of duel identity and personal sacrifice involved in being a superhero was well-tread ground even in 2002. Yet that doesn’t stop the film from being silly, colorful throwback fun, even if it lacks the streamlined effectiveness or harder edges of the next generation of films it helped launch.

3/5

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Goldfinger

Goldfinger

The one where James Bond saves the U.S. economy with his prodigious sexual skills.

“Goldfinger” is my favorite of the James Bond films not so much because of the gadgets, the action, the glamorous locations, the grandiose absurdity of its titular villain or even the swagger of Sean Connery, but because of how little James Bond actually does in this film. (Not that that stops him from getting all of the credit.) Relying solely on his masculine charms, a belief in his own indestructibility, and acting opportunistically on an number of fantastically lucky breaks, Bond is like a poker player who somehow wins all the chips with nothing better than a pair of twos.

So, let’s tabulate the strategic back-and-forth between James Bond (Sean Connery) and Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe), the gold-coveting smuggler involved in a nefarious plot involving all the gold at Fort Knox:

(Spoilers down below!!!!!)

Round One: Goldfinger is playing a rigged game of Gin Rummy in which he is conning some schmuck at a hotel in Miami out of his money. Bond cajoles a maid to unlock the door to Goldfinger’s hotel room where a curvy blonde named Jill (Shirley Eaton) is using a telescope and a radio to tell Goldfinger all about his opponents hand. Bond seduces Jill, blackmails Goldfinger into losing, and naturally sleeps with Jill. Goldfinger’s creepy manservant Oddjob (Harold Sakata) sneaks into their hotel room, knocks Bond out but spares his life for reasons that are beyond me, while killing Jill in spectacular fashion by painting her in gold and causing her to “skin suffocate.”

Goldfinger/Bond Standings: Bond obtains no meaningful information on Goldfinger, gets a woman killed, but otherwise does an awesome favor for that rich moron gambling with Goldfinger.

Round Two: Goldfinger and Bond play a friendly golf match in which both cheat, but Bond cheats a little better, winning five thousand pounds and placing a homing device on Goldfinger’s car. (Where and when did Bond learn to play golf?????!!!!!!)

Goldfinger/Bond Standings: Some actual spy work is going on here. Nobody dies and Bond actually gives himself a chance to follow Goldfinger to Switzerland, though I daresay a major businessman’s movements wouldn’t have been that hard to track anyways, so only minor spy points there.

Round Three: Bond sneaks around metallurgy factory and discovers what he already knew: Goldfinger is an international gold smuggler and hears a vague mention of something called “Operation Grand Slam.” While leaving, Bond finds Jill’s sister Tilly (Tania Mallet) trying to assassinate Goldfinger, stops her and sets an alarm off in the process, which sends all sorts of cronies their direction. While being pursued in Bond’s fancy Aston Martin, he wastes some perfectly good gadgets before being captured and getting Tilly killed by Oddjob’s sometimes lethal/sometimes just annoying hat throw. Bond is almost killed himself by Goldfinger before Goldfinger ultimately changes his mind and decides, incorrectly, that “Bond is more useful to him alive.”

Goldfinger/Bond Standings: Bond is captured and once again spared, though he does get the name of the plan is discovered, but he manages to get a second woman from the same family killed.

Round Four: While unconscious, Bond is flown to Kentucky where he remains Goldfinger’s prisoner. In Bond’s finest hour, he tricks a mind-bogglingly idiotic guard into unlocking his cell and easily overpowers him. This affords him the temporary freedom to overhear Goldfinger explain “Operation Grand Slam” to a bunch of gangsters that he is planning on killing in a few moments anyway. Bond is promptly recaptured. Later, Bond hears Goldfinger’s real plan from Goldfinger himself, before seducing Pussy Galore (Honor Blackmon), a pilot who plays a pivotal role in Goldfinger’s plot, and convincing her to betray Goldfinger by telling the military about his plan.

Goldfinger/Bond Standings: Bond is still a prisoner, though he now knows the plan. Honestly, the real hero of the film is Pussy Galore, whose last-minute crisis of conscious pretty much single-handedly saves the day. I suppose we can also thank the ecstasy and guilt-inducing properties of Bond’s penis, though.

Round Five: At this point, Bond is marginally more useful than a tree stump. Goldfinger’s plan is to eliminate the military via a noxious gas that Pussy Galore and her cohorts will disperse via their stunt planes. (FYI, Pussy switches the gas after her change-of-heart), freeing his crew to detonate a nuclear device inside of Fort Knox, rendering the gold it houses useless for a half a century. Still a prisoner during the plan, Bond is handcuffed to the bomb and is only able to free himself because Oddjob happens to kill the man with the key by throwing him down several stories right near where Bond is handcuffed. Freed, Bond fights and eventually defeats Oddjob, just in time for the military to arrive and diffuse the bomb.

Goldfinger/Bond Standings: Goldfinger loses thanks to military intervention. Bond does defeats Oddjob, but this fight didn’t really matter, since the well-armed cavalry was coming in time to stop the bomb anyway.

By my estimation, the only meaningful actions Bond took to save the day was outsmart the world’s dumbest guard and convince Pussy Galore that she didn’t want to kill thousands of people in exchange for loads of money after all. Even that is generous on Bond’s part, I think the former probably wouldn’t have mattered because Goldfinger was clearly bursting to tell Bond everything anyway. Honestly, Bond literally saves the day by having sex. Did hippies ever have a better champion?

Despite the more hard-edged twist that the recent Bond films have taken, they remain the acme of male-escapist fantasy, and none have pulled that off better than Connery. It isn’t because he is tough or classy, but that he is both. Somehow he convinces you that he could beat the crap out of you just after he has given on wonderful lecture on the best 30-year-old-wine to drink with your meal. Roger Moore was too goofy to pull it off, George Lazenby too blaise, Timothy Dalton too sincere, Pierce Brosnan too regal, and Daniel Craig too intense. Connery perfected the balance, and no Bond since has been able to quite match it.

One of the nice things about “Goldfinger” is that you can see all the pieces of the Bond myth coalescing. The flamboyant, overconfident villains who are giddy with excitement to share the details of their malevolent plans. The barely coherent gadgets which are presented with just the right situation in which to make themselves useful. The creepy, nonsensical underlings who are far too loyal be anything less than the villain’s secret lover. “Goldfinger” even shows that James Bond’s semen is actually a homing beacon for death. (Seriously, it is. I bet after this film Pussy Galore is assaulted by the creepy rednecks from “Deliverance” while Bond went somewhere to take a leak.) This is one of the most Bond Bond films that ever was.

4.5/5 (Bond Scale)

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The World’s End

The_Worlds_End_7

Are some genres better left segregated, or am I an idiot? Only time will tell.

If earlier Pegg-Frost-Wright films are any indication, I’m going to need to follow up on this film after awhile. I didn’t have nearly as much affection for “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz” the first time I viewed them as I did watching a second or third time, when the machinations of those films really started to gel. The same might hold true for “The World’s End,” a film I admire but do not love. At least not yet.

The trouble with “The World’s End” is that much like its predecessors, it mashes together disparate genres in ways which are jarring, at least initially, as though your brain can’t quite process the different directions the film is going and views these different aspects of the film at odds with each other. With time, those aspects coalesce in ways that are not only effective, but exceedingly clever and compelling. I’m not there yet with “The World’s End,” a film which combines a drinking comedy about male friendship, regret, and growing old with a paranoia-infused technophobia science fiction film, On this viewing anyway, the science fiction elements completely subsumed all the dramatic elements.

The film starts out simply enough. Gary King (Simon Pegg trying desperately to make us forget that he is such a likable screen presence) is a middle-aged alcoholic who hasn’t quite gotten over high school (Secondary school?), the perfect environment in which his hedonistic rebelliousness can thrive. Back then, he was the leader of a band of lads in Newton Haven, whose rambunctiousness culminated in an attempt to complete the town’s “Golden Mile,” a pub crawl across twelve bars. Though they didn’t make it to the last bar, fittingly called The World’s End, it was the pinnacle of Gary’s existence. Gary has managed to accomplish very little with his life since then, and his failure to complete the Golden Mile rankles him so much that he assembles his old crew, whom he hasn’t talked to in years for reasons having to do with his awfulness as a human, back together to finish it.

While his former friends are less than thrilled by this prospect, Steve (Paddy Considine), Oliver (Martin Freeman), Peter (Eddie Marsan), and Andy (Nick Frost) are reluctantly persuaded to participate. For some, the night out is a much-needed respite from their lives as husbands and fathers. For others, it is an uncomfortable trip down a memory lane they’d rather not visit. Things proceed relatively innocuously at first. with lots of catching up, reminiscing and nostalgia-infused conversation. Eventually the group starts to fall into their old roles and realizes that Gary hasn’t changed at all, and old hurts and old injuries are brought to the surface.

As tension starts to mount within the group the film takes its science fiction turn, at which point most of the character dynamics are buried under a much bigger and more immediate issue than past injustices and old resentments. Without saying too much, an encounter in the bathroom reveals that things aren’t quite what they seem in Newton Haven. (It also gives us one of the best fight sequences that we have seen all year.) Underneath all the science fiction shenanigans, the human drama endures, but it is a lot harder to see.

This might sound like the science fiction elements of the film were somewhat of problem. They aren’t. Wright et al. love these kinds films and they know how to tweak genre conventions enough to honor them while making them feel original. The chaos that ensues after the crew’s discovery is one of the most captivating bits of joyful carnage from a film in 2013. It is just that the characters personalities don’t seem capable of surviving amidst the massive needs of the science-fiction plot, despite the brilliant setup of the first act.

This whole review is probably one big exercise in jumping the gun. In a few months, I may just be writing a correction to this review which addresses how wrong I am. So be it. I’m not there yet, and for now, “The World’s End” is comprised of two films, both very good, but which couldn’t quite live together in harmony. Frankly, there are much worse problems a film could have.

3/5

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Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

A film which suggests that ballet doesn’t have to be boring.”

The blending of martial arts with the elegance of dance was not a new concept in the year 2000. Indeed, most Kung Fu films acknowledge this if not in the metaphysical beliefs which they express via their inevitable training sequences, than in the very nature of the term fighting “choreography.” Fights are less about violence and destruction than they are about communication through movement. Yet nobody took these ideas and made them as explicit as Ang Lee did in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” There may be better martial arts films out there, but few look as superb as this one. Even on a paltry twenty-odd inch television, the film looked brilliant.

It starts with Lee’s wide open visual approach. There seems to be space everywhere in this film. Whether it is the Gobi desert, forest, plains or even the presumably crowded city of Peking, there is plenty of room for characters to glide, pirouette, and literally float across gorgeous landscapes with beautiful Chinese vistas watching solemnly in the background. When they need more room, they simply move the action upward onto rooftops and treetops. Using the famous wire work that was so fashionably parodied in the early oughts, the characters are able to pursue each other on the side of walls, across tree branches, and even through long stretches of air, in delicate action sequences that have an awkward physicality which is nevertheless strangely graceful.

As broad as the cinematography is, the characters are painted even more so. Based on an early 20th century novel, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” approaches what feels an ancient tragedy with a simplicity and inevitable sense of doom. There is Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat), a master of the Wudong martial arts who is unable to achieve transcendence due to his long standing repressed love for Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), whose own reciprocal feelings of love are smothered under a duty-first society which discourages the expression of emotion in favor of doing what is expected of you. This repressive culture embitters Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi,) who is forced to marry a man she despises for her father’s political gain, when she really loves a desert bandit named “Dark Cloud,” (Chang Chen.)

Secretly, Jen Yu has been learning Wudong martial arts under the training of Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-pei), the former lover of Li Mu Bai’s master who poisoned him and stole the Wudong manual when he refused to teach her himself. Turning her rage outward, Jen Yu steals Li Mu Bai’s famous Green Destiny sword and begins to ravage the countryside with her superior fighting skills. With her lack of hubris and resentment at the world threatening to transform her into a vengeful monster, much like Jade Fox.

The film resonates thematically on the complicated psychological relationships between teachers and students, and the manner in which negative emotions can slowly destroy a person’s humanity as surely as any poison. To be honest though, I didn’t really care. I was too busy being transfixed on the people drifting nimbly through the air and occasionally swiping at each other to get wrapped up in something as mundane as a narrative. If ever there was a “dance” film for non-believers, this is it.

4.5/5

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