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Fei yue wei qiang (1989)
Very low-budget, but some fantastic fights!
Two main reasons to see "Close Escape": Dick Wei and Yukari Oshima. If you're a fan of either one, this is a must-see.
Dick Wei, cast in his usual bad guy role, actually brings a considerable amount of charm to his ruthless businessman character; there are a few brief glimpses of the nice guy Wei reportedly was offscreen. Of course, it wouldn't be a Dick Wei performance without some astonishingly great kicks. The makers of "Close Escape" clearly realized this too, and they give Wei ample opportunity to be the badass we all know and love.
Yukari Oshima, meanwhile, very nearly matches Wei kick for kick; I dare say their brutal showdown at the end betters Cynthia Rothrock's fight with Wei in "Yes, Madam!"(Sorry Cynthia!) There's a brief sparring match set in a harbor, between Wei and Oshima, that is simply beautiful to watch. On the acting front, she brings a good amount of charm and even some depth to her role as the film's femme fatale. Watching this film, it is easy to understand why Oshima inspires the fanatical devotion she does.
As for the rest of the film, it is primarily a silly revenge plot involving some stolen diamonds. "Close Escape" won't win any awards for screenplay, but the plot is fairly basic and easy to follow, and serviceably gets us from Fight A to Fight B. Max Mok and Philip Kwok, portraying the two main characters, are better actors than you might expect from such low-budget fare. They too get their share of cool moves during the film's final anarchic showdown.
Having said all this, "Close Escape" was quite visibly made on the cheap; it lacks the polish of a good Corey Yuen or Sammo Hung film. Nevertheless the talent of its performers, both as fighters and actors, does make the film quite enjoyable. Additionally, although "Close Escape" is cheap, I am happy to report that it avoids the sleaze and exploitation that so often accompany low-budget films.
Bottom line: If you're not into fight scenes, skip this one. But if you're like me and you love a good kickfest - particularly involving Wei or Oshima - "Close Escape" is a forgotten gem.
Sweet and Lowdown (1999)
A slow, rich movie. Though it lags in places, the three lead performances are indelibly written in my memory. And the great jazz soundtrack and warm colors made this movie go down like a glass of bourbon.
Embodying the archetypal difficult genius, Emmet Ray is an almost cartoonishly dislikable guy. But Sean Penn keeps him just this side of sympathetic; we loathe his actions, we curse his self-destructiveness, and yet we're compelled to keep watching in the increasingly futile hope he'll turn himself around. His last scenes are heartrending.
As Hattie, Samantha Morton strikes a perfect, almost Chaplinesque, balance of comedy and tragedy. The line separating the two is razor-thin; she dances gracefully upon it. I could say more, but perhaps appropriately, it's difficult to find words that capture the beauty of her silent performance. Half the joy is in watching her reactions naturally unfold anyway.
Like Penn, Uma Thurman portrays a pretty unlikeable character. Her Blanche is overly intellectual, questions incessantly and is in some ways just as emotionally alienated as Emmett. Though her character is grating at first (particularly in contrast to Morton), Thurman does not shrink from the less flattering aspects of her character. It's a brave performance in a thankless role.
Woody Allen has constructed a thoughtful meditation on the nature of artistry. Not on celebrity -- we all know how that film turned out -- but on the rights and responsibilities of the true artist. Emmett, Hattie and Blanche represent the axis of artists, fans and critics respectively. As their relationships play out -- naturally, inexorably and poignantly -- the viewer gets a rare treat: a film that plucks at the mind and at the heart as gracefully as Emmett picking his guitar strings.
K-19: The Widowmaker (2002)
K-19: The Widowmaker could have been so much more. Still, it's a respectable effort.
Watching "K-19: The Widowmaker" was a frustrating experience. Despite some extremely chilling moments, a neat look at propaganda and concepts of loyalty, the movie drags too much to be considered a complete success. Nonetheless, it's a lot smarter than your average "blockbuster," and Bigelow does succeed in capturing a sense of panicked claustrophobia (one of the hallmarks of the submarine movie, and it's done very well here).
Ironically, the "Mutiny on the Bounty" plot -- with Neeson and Ford vying for control -- is probably the least exciting part of the film, probably because we've seen it in so many other films. These are two powerful, interesting and authoritative actors, but their conflict feels stale. There's no sense of cat-and-mouse or one-upmanship; rather, it's like watching two elk butt heads. We're ready to move on a lot sooner than the film does.
The nuclear core meltdown plot is easily the more interesting story. If you can sit through the first act, this sequence is well worth the wait. It recalls "The Red Badge of Courage" in its exploration of cowardice and bravery. Peter Sarsgaard almost steals the movie as the young, untested officer suddenly confronted with the prospect of a horrible death. His reaction will probably ring far more true than most viewers would care to admit.
It is in these moments that K-19 flirts with greatness. Unfortunately, it's as if the screenwriter and director didn't trust the nuclear reactor story to carry the film, and added in the battle-of-the-wills subplot -- which in turn torpedoes the film, no pun intended.
The cast also struggles with on-and-off Russian accents, which deals another blow to the film. I wish they'd handled the language concept better because the accents are seriously distracting. The collective weakness of the accents recalls Costner in "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves," a charge it pains me to make. Nonetheless, the accents are not the worst problem of the film and you tend to forget about them by the time the great stuff starts happening in the second half.
As for the performances, Ford is a good presence, and I have to admire him for taking on such an atypical role for him. Vostikov is a strict taskmaster, but Ford keeps him from slipping into caricature. Neeson is a good counterpoint, with a face that seems made for humanistic characters, and his interactions with the crew bespeak a paternal tenderness (indeed, he provides much of the film's humanity). Sarsgaard, nearly unrecognizable from his roles in "Boys Don't Cry" and "Garden State," performs yet another great disappearing act.
Overall, it seems the filmmakers' hearts (and minds) were in the right place, but the execution just wasn't as great as it could have been. Still, the film's got a brain and some claustrophobically intense sequences. It's worth checking out.
The Clonus Horror (1979)
The intent was admirable; the execution was not.
Like most other people, I saw this movie on "Mystery Science Theater 3000." Although it received some well-deserved barbs, it's one of the better films to be featured on that show.
The premise is better than even your average Hollywood blockbuster these days; it poses some interesting moral dilemmas. Although the score is sometimes obtrusive, it also provides a few lovely moments when Richard is walking by the river. Watching the movie, you can see where a lot of plot developments probably looked very good on paper. Richard's discomfort in modern society is an interesting problem to ponder, and the ending probably would have been a nice '70s-style mindfuck if the preceding affairs hadn't been so goofy.
Unfortunately, the movie is visibly cheap, making the flaws all the more obvious. The "clone farm" is very obviously a college campus, and a beer can serves as a major plot point. Lena and Richard have zero chemistry -- we are supposed to believe this is a meeting of kindred minds, but there doesn't seem to be a brain cell between them. The "cranky old couple" schtick also gets real old, real fast. There are also some mistakes that can be blamed on bad directorial choices, such as the decision to hold a climactic conversation out of reach of any audio equipment whatsoever.
In all, a noble effort, but is nonetheless best viewed on MST3K.
Anna Karenina (1997)
Somewhere inside this lukewarm movie, there's a very good movie struggling to get out.
"Anna Karenina" isn't quite a terrible movie. The scenery is pretty; the score, courtesy of Tchaikovsky, is great; and the attempt to balance the two types of relationships is a noble one. Unfortunately, "Anna Karenina" is a severely hobbled movie.
The biggest problem, it pains me to say, is the miscasting of Sophie Marceau in the central role. She is never passionate enough to make us understand why she gives up everything for Vronsky (Sean Bean). Even during some of the more passionate scenes, she is still too composed and collected (Bean suffers from a similar problem, although not as severely as Marceau). Moreover, her French accent is seriously distracting. I admire anybody who can speak multiple languages, but it's all wrong for this movie. The wildly different accents destroy the rhythm of Anna and Vronksy's conversations, and it sometimes feels as though they're not even in the same scene. This, in turn, disastrously torpedoes their chemistry -- a fatal flaw when your entire movie is based on a hot, illicit love affair.
Ironically, both Bean and Marceau have their best moments after the affair goes sour. Vronsky's impatience is the first time we see true sparks from the character; Anna's hallucinations, and the separation from her living son, are genuinely disturbing.
The filmmakers try to juxtapose Anna and Vronsky's whirlwind affair with the slow-but-steady love that develops between rich Levin (Alfred Molina) and Princess Kitty (Mia Kirshner). Although the effort is noble, it has the same effect as the smorgasbord of accents, that of entirely destroying the movie's pace. It feels rushed and superficial in some places, but ploddingly slow in others.
Taken on its own, however, Levin's story is far more compelling than the main plot's lukewarm attempts at passion. Wringing every last drop of psychological depth out of the script, Molina gives a wonderful glimpse into the character's loneliness, melancholy, and eventual peace -- you almost found yourself wishing the movie were just about this guy. As his love interest, Mia Kirschner is a total lightweight and her Canadian accent is as jarring as Marceau's French one; fortunately, Molina has enough gravitas for both of them. If the script had been better, he would have brought the entire movie into warm focus.
As it is, the movie feels disjointed and rambling. Had it been better organized -- and perhaps differently cast -- we might have seen an interesting meditation on the various kinds of love. As it is, we see only a few bright spots amid a sea of disappointment.
Not Without My Daughter (1991)
I can't believe this wasn't a Lifetime movie!
A hamfisted plot, lame lines and unbelievable characterization all conspire to sink this ridiculous movie.
I'm not Iranian, but even I had a sneaking suspicion that Not Without My Daughter wasn't exactly cinema verite. The filmmakers don't portray Iran in a very positive light, to say the least, and this unflinchingly negative depiction just gets way too extreme. In other words, I can believe the basic premise - a woman escaping her abusive husband in a repressive country - but I certainly can't believe it as it's handled in Not Without My Daughter. The movie is simply too illogical to resonate emotionally. Moody's abrupt reversals, Mahtob's strategically placed pleas, Betty's American friend who's also in a heinous marriage... it's all too much, and too cheesy. Not to mention the completely over-the-top depictions of Moody's family. It's like "My Big Fat Iranian Family."
Speaking of over-the-top, Sally Field *does* try her best, but she is ultimately betrayed by a heinously manipulative script. Alfred Molina does what he can with a cardboard character, but he gets even less to work with than Field. Nobody's motivations make any sense! Why would Betty marry Moody, only to condemn his culture as "primitive and backwards" later on in the movie? How stupid is she? How does Moody transform from a slightly grumpy doctor into a wifebeating maniac? How does Mahtob stay so placid through all of these traumatic events? Etc., etc.
The funny thing is, although this movie is infuriatingly stupid, I find myself glued to it every time it comes on television. This is mainly thanks to Molina's charisma (even at his most abusive, he brings a certain spark to his character), as well as the general "train wreck" quality of this movie. File it under "guilty pleasure" -- at best.
Prick Up Your Ears (1987)
An intimate, carefully crafted biopic with uniformly superb performances.
I don't usually enjoy biopics, but PRICK UP YOUR EARS is a glorious exception. Many biopics don't have strong narrative arcs (simply because people's lives generally don't), but this one does -- primarily because it focuses on the rapid deterioration of the relationship between playwright Joe Orton and failed novelist Kenneth Halliwell. With the obvious exception of the horrific conclusion, the issues faced by these two London writers will probably ring painfully true for many members of the audience. Who hasn't felt like Halliwell at some point -- or even Orton, dealing with a Halliwell-esquire partner?
This is where PRICK UP YOUR EARS succeeds while so many other biopics fail: while it does not shy away from the sensationalistic aspects of Orton's life, it never neglects the complex relationship beating at the center of the narrative. I can safely say it's one of the rare cases where I found myself relating on a human level to the biographical subjects, instead of dryly watching them from afar.
Director Stephen Frears deserves kudos for his warm, understated approach. It's almost hard to praise his directing because it's so unobtrusive; but this is exactly his strong point. He is confident in the story's inherent power, so he wisely gets out of the way and lets it unfold naturally.
And he is helped marvelously by the uniformly great performances; there simply isn't a wrong note struck by the cast. Even supporting roles, like those of Orton's sister and brother-in-law, feel like real human beings. Of course, the real standouts are Oldman, Molina and Redgrave.
Though his physical appearance isn't dramatically altered, Gary Oldman still seems unrecognizable compared to his previous work; this is how strongly he becomes Orton. His carefree swagger is by turns charming and infuriating. You understand why Halliwell is both entranced and insanely frustrated with him. He also looks a little bit like Dana Carvey - just by the by.
Molina is no less astonishing. Bald at 25, frustrated, neurotic, sexually incapable... the character is a hulking mass of awkwardness, but somehow he evokes tremendous sympathy. You alternately want to hug this guy and shake him silly. (The scene in which Orton is informed of his mother's death is heartbreaking - for both men's reactions.)
Meanwhile, Redgrave is a delight. Her line readings are exquisite and she gives the movie a crisp cleverness without crossing the line into self-indulgence.
For all the tragic and uncomfortable elements of Orton and Halliwell's relationship, the movie still features some hilarious scenes. The cheeky title, Orton and Halliwell's divergent accounts of their lifestyle together, the conversation with Brian Epstein, and Halliwell's "we were having a conversation" gave the movie a gleeful edge of naughtiness -- one the viewer suspects was strongly inspired by Orton's own approach to life and work.
In short, I highly recommend this movie. Though its description may seem sensationalistic -- a gay man brutally murders his successful young lover -- PRICK UP YOUR EARS triumphs as both a simple human drama and as a biography in which its subjects are made more intimate rather than more remote.
Jie tou sha shou (1996)
A silly movie that bears little connection to the original Iron Monkey, but it has its bright spots.
*Some Minor Spoilers*
I rented "Iron Monkey 2" with a fair bit of skepticism. I'd heard it was a poor follow-up to the amazing "Iron Monkey," and unfortunately, those rumours turned out to be correct. IM2 is a seriously flawed movie, especially with the terrible dubbing.
Other than the intermittent presence of Donnie Yen, "Iron Monkey 2" doesn't even seem connected to the original. I'm sure the backstory is established somewhere, but the movie as a whole is so disjointed and unfocused that it's hard to tell what's going on.
In fact, it's this lack of focus which is precisely the movie's worst flaw. There are way too many subplots going on. Wu Ma is searching for his long-lost father (the identity of whom I guessed within about 5 seconds), a pair of orphans are swindling the bad guys, and Donnie Yen is kind of wandering in and out of the movie, alternately going to church and raiding arms shipments. I have to wonder about Yen's commitment to the movie, given that his Iron Monkey only seems to sporadically appear when needed (in many other cases, Wu Ma takes on the burden of fighting evil).
None of these plots tie together very well at all. At times, I found myself asking if I was still watching the same movie. The orphans' story, while charming in its own way, seriously distracted from the rest of the story. The villains' aims were never particularly well-defined (the guy wanted guns, that's about all I could tell), and as a result, the Iron Monkey himself didn't have a very well-defined enemy to fight against. In some ways I found myself questioning the relevance of the Iron Monkey, and wondering why this was even considered a sequel to the original.
The fights are definitely quite good and have their moments, although again, I don't think they compare to the original "Iron Monkey." I'd rather watch the Donnie Yen/Yu Rongguang fight from the original than the tepid fight between Yen and Wu Ma in the second. On the other hand, I got a real thrill when Donnie pulled out the "cloth stick" -- the same weapon he famously wielded against Jet Li in "Once Upon a Time in China II." He certainly didn't disappoint -- when he was on screen, anyway.
Overall, "Iron Monkey 2" is a disjointed mess of a movie, with a few bright fight scenes scattered throughout. Those fights are definitely interesting, but they lack the same heart of the original. Taken on its own terms, IM2 isn't awful; when compared to the original, it's a big disappointment. Overall, I'd give this movie a 4 out of 10.
Lip pau hang tung (1992)
Standard Hong Kong gunplay cheapie livened up by Donnie Yen's presence
*Mild Plot Spoilers*
Quite frankly, I found the plot of "Cheetah on Fire" pretty confusing. Whether this is a fault in the movie itself or an indication of how bad the dubbing was, I'm not sure. In either case, the dubbing is horrible. Of course, given the general quality of dubbing, that shouldn't come as a big shock to anyone.
From what I could glean of the story, the Hong Kong police are chasing a man named Tom Yang, who has stolen a valuable microchip. The CIA is also after him, and they send some of their people after the baddies as well. There's an inevitable culture clash between the Hong Kong police and Donnie Yen's character, a hotheaded American police officer who doesn't play by the rules (TM). Eventually, there's a showdown in the jungles of Thailand, which is somewhat confusing given that both armies are wearing dark green and at times it's difficult to tell who's who.
It's not a particularly inspired movie, but it's certainly not terrible either. There's a rather uncomfortable sex scene towards the beginning which, well, wasn't my cup of tea, but maybe other viewers will feel differently. The usual cop-buddy "witty banter" isn't great, but thankfully, it's kept to a minimum. Donnie Yen gets his own theme music, which is funny in that it is reminiscent of softcore porn music. With regard to Yen, his acting is reasonably good, and yes, he definitely looks good in this one too.
The fights themselves are good, but rare. There's quite a bit of gunplay, and actual martial arts is given short shrift in its favor. Almost everyone gets to show off their skills a little, though. Other than Donnie Yen, Man "Peggy" Cheung gets some of the better beatdown opportunities. Of course, it's no surprise that the best fight scenes in the movie belong to martial arts master Yen. His climactic fight sequence is an incredible display of his talent and speed, and Donnie seems to barely break a sweat as he lays it down.
One fight scene in particular is very disappointing because it takes place in a forest at night. The lighting is terrible and it's difficult to see what's going on. From what I could see, it actually looks like it was a very good fight sequence. You could TELL that people were kicking ass, but you couldn't really SEE it. I hope if they ever remaster this movie they somehow fix that problem, because it looked like a real gem of a fight, with several of the main characters involved.
Overall, "Cheetah on Fire" was fairly unremarkable. If you're a Donnie Yen aficionado, if you have a thing for gunplay movies, or if you just want to kill some time, there are a lot of worse ways you could do it. I'd give this movie a 4.5 out of 10.
A funny, heartwarming look at one of the biggest television fandoms in the world.
When I rented "Trekkies", I expected mostly to laugh at the weird and wild extremes to which Star Trek fans will go. (I myself a Trek fan, so I was also prepared to do a bit of laughing at myself as well!) But "Trekkies" also surprised me with its warm-hearted, caring look at Trek's most ardent devotees. It managed to tell both a funny story about Trek fans and pay gleeful tribute to their obsession of choice.
Humor-wise, "Trekkies" scores big. The Klingons eating Big Macs, the Borg from New Jersey, and the Voyager sex scripts received by the Trek producers were all riotously funny. The Trek cast members all had funny stories to tell as well, from DeForest Kelley's ardent female fan to Kate Mulgrew's marriage proposal.
But there were also some genuinely touching moments in "Trekkies" as well. James "Scotty" Doohan's story about the suicidal fan brought tears to my eyes. I know people who are fortunate enough to have met Mr. Doohan, and from all accounts he is a truly kind, compassionate individual. That really shows through in all of his comments about the Trek fandom. LeVar Burton tells how Gene Roddenberry named his character, Geordi LaForge, after a terminally ill Star Trek fan who passed away; John de Lancie (Q) speaks of another paralyzed patient who finds solace in Star Trek.
Although "Trekkies" seems to poke fun at its subject, it's clear that the spirit of the film shares the same love for Star Trek that motivates the fans. It pays tribute to the groundbreaking nature of the original Trek, and praises the spirit of progressiveness and harmony of the Star Trek universe as a whole. Trekkies never questions whether or not Star Trek was a good show. It only questions how far people will go to express their appreciation for it.