Wednesday, January 25, 2012


Directed by Prachya Pinkaew.
2003. Rated R, 105 minutes.
Tony Jaa
Petchtai Wongkamlao
Pumwaree Yodkamol
Suchao Pongwilai
Chumphorn Thepphithak
Cheathavuth Watcharakhun
Wannakit Sirioput

A country boy goes to the big city and kicks a whole lotta ass. By the way, I mean that literally. He doesn’t often kick, like with his foot or punch, like with his hand. He’s hitting guys with elbows, knees, even his entire torso. By guys, I mean lots of guys. Make that lots and lots of guys. There’s so many guys that he has to escape from time to time to catch his breath. By escape, I mean flipping over guys, walking on their heads, climbing a will and hopping a fence without using his hands, etc. Then he gets back to kickin’ ass. When it’s all over I’ve lost track of just how many asses he’s kicked. Yes, I mean that literally.

Um, plot? There is one, I guess. Our hero’s name is Ting (Jaa). He’s from a small village where they worship a Buddha-like figure called Ong-Bak. Heeeyyyyy, I wonder if that’s where they got the idea for the title. Duh. Anyhoo, Ong-Bak is symbolized by a statue they keep in their sanctuary. One of the young guys who left the village, moved to the big city and became a hoodlum steals the statue’s head in hopes of selling it for big bucks. Besides this, two things let us know there’s going to be a lof of fightin’. First, Ting volunteers to bring back Ong-Bak, by himself of course. More importantly, Ting’s master tells him that even though he taught him everything there is to know about Muay Thai, he doesn’t want him to ever use it. Hot diggity dang! As soon as I heard that I knew it was on. I hit pause, went and popped some popcorn, poured myself a tall glass of the beverage of my choice and spilled it all over the place as I ran back to the couch, picked up the remote and pressed play.

I’ve already spent too much time on the plot. Truthfully, the movie does this also. We mosey along at a pace that’s a little too slow as we’re introduced to new characters and the dynamics between them are set up. None of them warrants any mention as particularly interesting. What is interesting is when we get beyond all that and our hero gets down to business. Once he gets going, Ong-Bak becomes a special movie. Tony Jaa makes it so. The things he does are simply amazing. And yes, these are all organic stunts performed by Mr. Jaa himself. By organic I mean it really is all him, no cgi and no wires. It’s a stunning display of athleticism reminiscent of a young Jackie Chan, but without the comedic overtones.

For fans of martial arts flicks, this is a must-see. It’s more than worth the time it takes to wade through the less than thrilling first act to get to the non-stop fighting portion of the movie. Don’t come into this with any notions of a well-crafted scripted, character development, good acting or any other high saditty ideas. This is all about high-flyin’, bone-crunchin’ action. It’s all about amazing feats of human physicality. It’s all about a country boy going to the big city and kickin’ a whole lotta ass. Literally.

MY SCORE: 6/10


Monday, January 23, 2012


Directed by Clint Eastwood.
2009. Rated PG-13, 133 minutes.
Morgan Freeman
Matt Damon
Tony Kgoroge
Patrick Mofokeng
Matt Stern
Julian Lewis Jones
Marguerite Wheatley
Patrick Lyster
McNeil Hendricks

Newly elected South African president Nelson Mandela (Freeman) attempts to use the country’s rugby team to forge national unity in the days shortly after apartheid has ended; based on a true story.

Once again, Clint Eastwood proves you don’t need extensive fireworks to keep the audience engaged. He gives us his normal patient storytelling. Though nothing much happens in the way of action until the big game at the end, we don’t get bored. Instead, we’re fascinated by the picture being painted before us. It helps that Morgan Freeman turns in a splendid performance as Mandela. In him, we see a leader doing what he thinks is best for his country despite the fact he’s alone in his thinking.

There is no shortage of sports movie clichés. Long story short, and I don’t think I’m really spoiling anything here: an underdog team gets their act together. Think of all the movies you’ve already seen with that theme and you get the idea. It also gets to be repetitive. The typical cycle goes something like this: we see some dissention or doubt cast on what Mandela’s doing. Somehow word gets back to him and he pops up wherever the problem is and says a few magic words and everyone falls in line.

It’s a movie that manages to be good in spite of itself. Genre clichés and Mandela’s almost mystical presence threatens to overwhelm, but they never quite ruin things. It just becomes precisely what it wants to be, a feel good movie. This means that while there are reasons to knock it, it eventually wins you over.

MY SCORE: 7/10

Friday, January 20, 2012

Crazy, Stupid, Love

Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa.
2011. Rated PG-13, 118 minutes.
Steve Carell
Julianne Moore
Ryan Gosling
Emma Stone
Analeigh Tipton
Jonah Bobo
Marisa Tomei
John Carroll Lynch
Kevin Bacon
Liza Lapira
Josh Groban

Cal’s (Carell) life is sent spiraling out of control practically the moment we met him. Emily (Moore), his wife of 25 years abruptly informs him over dinner that she wants a divorce. With that, he packs up, moves into an apartment and tries to get on with his life. By get on, I mean spend nights at the local bar griping about his failed marriage. While there, he meets Jacob (Gosling), the local ladies man. Jacob takes pity on our hero and wants to help out by imparting his carnal knowledge upon Cal. Meanwhile, Cal’s 13 year old son Robbie (Bobo) is having his own love problems. Robbie is in love with Jessica (Tipton), his 17 year old baby-sitter. Aside from the obvious age difference there is another issue. Unbeknownst to either guy, Jessica has a crush on Cal. Finally, there’s Hannah (Stone) who’s studying for the bar exam. She’s in a serious relationship with Richard (Groban), but appears to be settling, much to the chagrin of her pal Liz (Lapira). A bunch of people pursuing love, or sex, while simultaneously wondering if it’s even worth the effort ensues.

Our plot moves along nicely, but in a fairly straight forward manner, for most of its runtime. However, things pick up towards the end with a fabulous twist. It’s the type of thing you don’t see coming, at least I didn’t, but once it happens you’ll wonder how you didn’t. Best of all, it absolutely works. It’s not some M. Night Shamalamadingdong idiotic turn of events flying in from very deep left field. The movie doesn’t end with this occurrence, either. Instead, it crystallizes things for the people involved.

The common theme running through Crazy, Stupid, Love is people romanticizing the person they desire so much as to deify them. With that in mind, it’s easy to see why it’s so painful for the jilted parties. However, this is no mopey affair. Like most of us, these people do ridiculous things while dealing with their emotions. It’s a ridiculousness we can relate to. We’ve been there. Maybe, we’re there now. At the very least, we’ve known a few people who are, or have been there. We laugh because we see our own silliness in the people on the screen.

At the end of the day, CSL is a romantic comedy. It actually does go through many of the machinations of other rom-coms. However, the numbers aren’t quite as visible here as they are in many of it’s kind. It’s well crafted, all the way around. We get wonderful performances across the board. The scene-stealers here are Bobo as Robbie and Marisa Tomei in a very interesting and hilarious role. It also helps that the ending is a bit ambiguous. When the credits roll nothing has definitively happened to say for sure whether it’s a happy ending or not. We can guess either way we like. Still, we cannot say for certain how things will turn out, much like our own lives.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Slumdog Millionaire

Slumdog Millionaire
Directed by Danny Boyle.
2008. Rated R, 116 minutes.
Dev Patel
Freida Pinto
Madhur Mittal
Anil Kapoor

Jamal (Patel) is one question away from winning it all on Mumbai's version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" He's also uneducated and poor so the police are questioning him to find out if he's been cheating.

The screenplay is exceptionally written. It weaves the gameshow, the interrogation and Jamal's life together beautifully. Each flashback is a harrowing adventure for us to get caught up in. The movie also causes us a bit of a moral dilemma as we try to decide how we feel about Jamal's brother, Salim. Director Danny Boyle does a masterful job of pulling things together, and went on to win Best Director at this year's Oscars. It's right there with Trainspotting as my favorite movie of his. And his lead actor is a charmer.

The ending is ultimately predictable and a little too fairytale. Also, since the movie covers most of our hero's life there are three sets of actors playing him, his brother and Latika, the love of his life. Visually, it works splendidly but it robs us of any real chemistry between the actors that play them during the present.

That we can predict the ending is only a small drawback to our enjoyment. This movie is much more about the journey than the destination, and what a wonderful journey it is. By the time we realize we've been tricked into a chick flick, we're totally immersed in the storytelling and thoroughly enjoying the ride. And yes, I did call the winner of the Academy's Best Picture award (and 7 other Oscars) for 2008 a chick flick.

MY SCORE: 8.5/10

Monday, January 16, 2012

Best Friends

Directed by Noel Nesseck.
1975. Rated R, 83 minutes.
Richard Hatch
Doug Chapin
Susanne Benton
Anne Noland

Pat (Chapin) has just gotten out of the military. He’s reunited with his best friend Jesse (Hatch). They immediately buy a Winnebago and hit the road on a cross-country trip their girlfriends in tow. Things are all hunky dory at first. When it becomes clear Jesse is ready to settle down and marry Kathy (Benton) Pat has such a hissy fit it terrorizes the others, including his own girl Jo Ella (Noland). We spend the rest of the movie watching Pat be a class A jerk. By the way, the Native Americans on the poster shown above have absolutely nothing to do with anything.

Honestly, the crap Pat pulls is only mildly interesting. What keeps things somewhat fascinating is the unintentional humore brought on by mostly bad acting and a good deal of bad writing. Even within that writing there are a few possible subtexts that may keep us somewhat involved. The first is the easiest to see. Pat’s deathly afraid of growing up. The second is a little less implied but certainly plausible given the era in which Best Friends was made. To oversimplify: going through the Vietnam War has made him a psycho. They don’t really make any allusions to the war, but I’m putting two and two together here.

There is one other possible subtext. This might be a serious reach on my part, but it would also seem that Pat is a latent homosexual. Watching him do anything he can think of to get Jesse to ditch his girl just so the two fo them can hit the open road together has a distinct Little Caesar feel. Obviously, this is nowhere near as good as the gangster movie classic but it is an intriguing similarity. Much like Rico seems to be in love with Joe in that film so does Pat appear to be with Jesse. Nothing ever happens with this making it seem more like an unintended consequence of a low quality script than any type of actual effort.

Another interesting similarity is with a pop song that was recorded six years after BF was released. It’s in the way Pat’s actions are explained away. I’ll just say google the lyrics to the Rick Springfield classic “Jessie’s Girl” and leave it at that. After seeing this movie it looks to be impossible that it didn’t inspire this song. For the record, Springfield has maintained that he wrote the song based on an experience he had in high school. That’s his story and he’s sticking to it.

Some viewers will get another minor jolt very early in the movie. Richard Hatch is the guy that plays Jesse. He’s recognizable because he went on the bigger and better things. Most notably, he would play Captain Apollo in the original Battlestar Galactica television series and Tom Zarek years later in the remake. Strange that the only person in the cast to have a viable acting career plays second fiddle here.

As a whole BF is just bad. It feels much more like a made-for-TV melodrama than a feature except for the nudity. We’re never completely bored with it, but we’re not enamored with it like we are some of our favorite cult movies, either. It loiters in purgatory, not so bad it’s awesome but just interesting enough to watch all the way through.

MY SCORE: 4/10

Friday, January 13, 2012

Kung Fu Panda 2

Directed by Jennifer Yuh.
2011. Rated PG, 91 minutes.
Jack Black
Angelina Jolie
Dustin Hoffman
Gary Oldman
Jackie Chan
Seth Rogen
Lucy Liu
David Cross
James Hong
Michelle Yeoh
Danny McBride
Dennis Haybert
Jean-Claude Van Damme
Victor Garber

Since becoming the Dragon Warrior, Po (Black) is enjoying life and dispatching the occasional bad guy. Of course, we wouldn’t get a new movie without a newer, greater threat on the horizon. That threat comes in the form of shunned peacock Shen (Oldman). He was banished from the city he calls home long ago for being a very bad boy. Now he’s back with plans to take over all of China, starting with his hometown. Though he’s pretty darn good at martial arts, fighting isn’t his main tactic. Instead, he has created something that seems to symbolize the death of kung fu itself. Not only is it up to Po and the rest of the Furious Five to stop him, but Po is also dealing with an identity crisis. Having never met another panda, he wants to figure out where he came from and what happened to his parents.

Like he was in the original, our hero is still a goofball and very much like most other characters played by Jack Black. By the way, his schtick works better here than in his live-action roles. There are also fun interactions between Po, Master Shifu (Hoffman) and the rest of the Furious Five. In particular, his moments with Tigress (Jolie) provides a huge chunk of the movie’s most tender moments. Another large chunk comes from Po’s time with the only dad he’s known. There is also plenty of action, even more than in the original since we don’t have to spend so much time on Po learning to fight.

Alas, more action does not necessarily make a good movie. This is a good movie because it maintains its predecessor’s most important trait. Aside from the fighting, the plot functions as much like a true martial arts film as it does a kiddie flick. Other than using human beings not many changes, if any, would be needed. It would be right at home amongst a group of Shaw Brothers productions.

It also helps that Gary Oldman gives us a wonderful heel in Shen. He’s more menacing than Tai Lung from the first movie because instead of wanting to be more than he is, Shen embraces his villainy. His one true care is about vengeance. What he has to do to achieve it is not important to him, only that it is done. Oldman conveys this in that just over the top, maniacal bad guy. Even as just a voice actor, he continues to show he is one of the most versatile performers in Hollywood.

When speaking of sequels, I don’t like saying that if you liked the first, you’ll like the second. In this case, that’s a true statement. The follow-up maintains the original’s magic and expands enough to still feel fresh. It pulls the trick of making us feel like we know these characters and that their adventure is bigger because they’ve grown – not just because. I’d be naïve to say it definitely isn’t, but it doesn’t feel like a cash-grab. It feels like the continuation of a saga.

MY SCORE: 8/10

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Chinese Hercules

Directed by Choy Tak.
1973. Rated R, 90 minutes.
Chen Hui Min
Bolo Yeung
Liang Tin
Wang Chung Tsung
Yeh Fang
Yuan Feng
Fan Chiang

As a child of the seventies and eighties, I’ve learned some interesting things. One of them is if I ever see Bolo Yeung coming towards me I should run screaming in the other direction. If I somehow wind up in a position where I have no choice but to engage him I’ll simply scan the area for any sign of Bruce Lee or John Saxson before resigning myself to a bloody and painful fate. Not the machismo of my full-blown masculinity nor the passage of time has quelled my cowardice in regards to Mr. Yeung.

Such fear, rational or otherwise is what brought me to Chinese Hercules. The brief blurb on the back of the DVD doesn’t say much but seems to suggest something I’ve never seen: Bolo as the hero. That and the slum-friendly $1 price tag were too much to resist. Buying this movie wasn’t a choice, but the fulfilling of a destiny.

Alas, such a lofty buildup can only lead to disappointment. For starters, Bolo is not the hero. Once again, he plays the monosyllabic hulk of a henchman. Given that, I have no problem with anything he does. Do you hear that Mr. Yeung? If you’re reading this I want the record to show I think this and every other performance you’ve ever given is perfect. As for the rest of you, don’t judge me.

The movie’s problems really are elsewhere. As low-budget kung-fu flicks go the story is solid. Our hero Kang (Chan) is dedicated to studying kung-fu. He also subscribes to the action of living the disciplined, honorable life of a martial artist. However, when trouble finds him he makes the mistake of killing the man he’s fighting. So distraught is he over his failure as a person he leaves town without his girl, vows never to fight again and takes a job by a pier, loading and unloading ships. To make a long story short, Bolo’s boss takes over the pier, has all the workers fired and bada-boom, bada-bing Kang’s gotta do some fighting.

Sadly, this is that odd martial arts movie in which the action is the problem. This includes the way things are shot and/or were transferred from their previous format onto DVD. The fight choreography is often bland and poorly filmed. Too many missed blows are clearly visible and the camera is often too close and at bad angles. It becomes a chore to watch. Again, at least a portion of that is due to the shoddy manner in which it was transferred. It looks haphazardly done and subtracts from what may have been somewhat enjoyable. Was it worth my dollar? Well…if you’re reading this Mr. Yeung, it was indeed worth all 100 of those pennies. In fact, I tried to give the clerk two dollars but he wouldn’t hear of it. Wink.

MY SCORE: 2/10

Monday, January 9, 2012

Hobo with a Shotgun

Directed by Jason Eisener.
2011. Not Rated, 86 minutes.
Rutger Hauer
Molly Dunsworth
Brian Downey
Gregory Smith
Nick Bateman
Pasha Ebrahimi
Robb Wells
Timothy Dunn

This is for gore-freaks. Yeah, I’ll start there. After all, that’s where the movie starts. Almost no time is wasted before we get the first decapitation and subsequent geyser of blood splattering the screen. A damp cloth clears it nicely. Keep it handy, along with a poncho to wear over your clothing. That stuff is tough to get out of cotton. Throughout Hobo with a Shotgun we’re treated to all sorts of messy deaths and dismemberments. All of it is rendered in glorious, but not seen in quite some time, Technicolor. At least that’s what the opening credits say.

Technicolor is an appropriate choice for this movie. Everything about it feels like it’s from a bygone era. This includes the film’s star, Rutger Hauer. True, this is a more weathered version but he seems to have pulled this from the same pile of scripts he regularly drew from back in the 1980s. I mean that in a literal sense. The movie appears to be set back then, but it’s not something we’re told. The one possible exception is the guy that films bum fights, an internet era thing. However, even that guy uses VHS tapes and an old school camcorder.

What we are told is the town where our hobo (Hauer) finds himself is a very bad place. If you saw Sin City, think that and multiply it a few times. Local gangster The Drake (Downey) runs thins along with the two goons he calls his sons. The Drake starts things off by cutting his own brother’s head off in broad daylight and in public where he makes dozens of bystanders watch. Why? Mostly just so you know what kind of movie you’re getting into. Soon enough, the hobo is at odds with the bad guys over Abby (Dunsworth), the prostitute he’s taken a shine to in a fatherly sort of way. With that, he acquires a shotgun from the town pawn shop while stopping a robbery attempt. He then sets out trying to clean up the streets “one shell at a time.”

From beginning to end “Hobo” is a smorgasbord of ridiculousness. The story itself is rather simple. To say the acting is over the top is a massive understatement. Aside from Hauer’s relative subtlety, everyone is in full-ham mode. It helps they’re spouting lines ranging from hilariously bad to cringe inducing. To their credit, they say them with all the gusto they could possibly muster. Most important to this production though is the human body. It is destroyed and/or mutilated repeatedly in extremely graphic fashion. This is where it will either grab you or lose you. I can see plenty of people giving up after ten or twenty minutes. If we’re being honest, it’s disgusting. For us twisted folks who eagerly devour Saw movies, it’s so bad it’s awesome!

MY SCORE: -10/10

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

What Doesn't Kill You

Directed by Brian Goodman.
2008. Rated R, 100 minutes.
Mark Ruffalo
Ethan Hawke
Amanda Peet
Will Lyman
Brian Goodman
Donnie Wahlberg
Angela Featherstone
Edward Lynch

Two lifelong best friends, Brian (Ruffalo) and Paulie (Hawke), and career criminals deal with the trials and tribulations of the life they’ve chosen.

Though neither is a likeable guy, their frustration with where they’ve found themselves draws us in. To facilitate this we get excellent performances from both Ruffal and Hawke. Ruffalo, in particular, is outstanding. It’s an unfortunately overlooked portrayal of a man with many demons. The city of Boston is also a menacing character. Refreshingly, it’s subtly so. Unlike a lot of other movies set there, this one never puts it in your face. There are no extended scenes scored by blaring Irish music, no ridiculously bad New England accents, no shamrocks and no references to the Celtics or Red Sox. Instead, the city either mirrors the bleakness or hope of our heroes, depending on what’s going on, or enforces its own will upon them. It not only helps set the mood, but to change it, as well.

Our two (anti) heroes work for Sully (Lyman). We know they’re frustrated with their position in his organization and have an idea of the type of relationship he has with them, but it could’ve been much more fleshed out. How what transpires affect him might’ve added even more depth. I would also like to have seen more Detective Moran (Wahlberg). The subplot involving his character and Brian could’ve developed into an intriguing cat-and-mouse but instead, it’s a wasted opportunity.

This is definitely for those of us into gritty, urban drama. It gives us great acting and a story that keeps us locked in throughout. Interesting tidbit: apparently, this is inspired by the director’s real life.

MY SCORE: 7.5/10