The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode VI – Stop Me!

Kill yourself:

We should quit while we're ahead.

We should quit while we’re ahead.

I already wrote at length about The Lone Ranger (2013). Read why it sucks HERE and save ten bucks.

Like the ladykillers themselves masquerading as musicians so too the Coens seem to have been masquerading as the Farrellys.

Like the ladykillers themselves masquerading as musicians so too the Coens seem to have been masquerading as the Farrellys.

It’s weird to see a film by the Coen Bros. (Fargo, No Country for Old Men) so far down on a list like this, but their version of The Ladykillers (2004) is just terrible. A decent cast, colorful setting, and great cinematography can’t make this garbage barge float. It looks pretty and some fun, goofy faces but the comedy and tone is so off. Sorry, Coens, but you don’t get to take one of my favorite British comedies and remake it dumber and with fart jokes. You are better than that. Stars Tom Hanks, Marlon Wayans, J.K. Simmons, and Irma P. Hall.

Meh:

Still. Better than a Bert I. Gordon movie.

Still. Better than a Bert I. Gordon movie.

Bryan Singer’s Jack the Giant Slayer (2013) is almost a lot of fun. I watched it because Stanley Tucci was in it and Ewan McGregor’s mustache and hair looked cool. I really did appreciate this film’s levity and that it managed to have scary monster fights in sunny daylight (unlike Pacific Rim) It’s light and weightless and anodyne. The special effects aren’t great and the story is fairly simple, but you could do worse.

Remember "Badlands"?

Remember “Badlands”?

Terrence Malick is responsible for several interesting and visually stunning movies (Tree of Life) and while his latest, To the Wonder (2012), is indeed beautifully shot, but its murky, elliptical plot comes off as a little pretentious. Looks good, but don’t really connect with the aimless story, which is a shame, because I feel like he was touching upon some important issues about love, faith, and feeling culturally isolated. Stars Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Javier Bardem, and Rachel McAdams.

That might make you a vegetarian.

This might make you a vegetarian.

I wish John Dies at the End (2012) was a better movie. It has so much wonderfully sick, inspired lunacy going for it and many of the zany twists are pulled off nicely. Dropouts have to save the world from a metaphysical alien drug that could destroy everything. The stuff Don Coscarelli (Bubba Ho-tep) tries to pull off here is crazy. Only he could pull it off. Or maybe Sam Raimi. Alas, much of the finished product feels disjointed and half-baked. It has made me want to read the book though. Paul Giamatti has a supporting role.

You can fly? That's weirdly charming.

You can fly? That’s weirdly charming.

Woody Allen only makes two kinds of movies: masterpieces and mediocres. I might be the only person in the world who was not smitten by the musical comedy, Everyone Says I Love You (1996). Some of the songs are cute and fun and it does have a couple funny moments, but ultimately it feels like a Hallmark card. It’s corny and harmless, but maybe Woody Allen doesn’t do ‘sweet’ as well as other things. Features Woody, Goldie Hawn, Alan Alda, Eward Norton, Julia Roberts, Natalie Portman, Drew Barrymore, and more.

Getting More Interesting:

I kid you not, the worst review I saw of this film was a long, angry rant about how the Sicilian accents were not accurate enough.

I kid you not, the worst review I saw of this film was a long, angry rant about how the Sicilian accents were not accurate enough.

It Was the Son (2012) is an Italian movie about paying debts to the mob following the unfortunate death of a young girl. The film looks great and has some interesting characters and a killer final two minutes. It’s not higher up because my brain wasn’t sure whether it was watching a comedy or a drama. I think it’s a bit of both, but I don’t know if it all congeals the way it should. I also probably shoould watch it when I’m not on a plane.

Is the lighting gonna be like this the whole movie? ---Yeah, pretty much.

Is the lighting gonna be like this the whole movie? —Yeah, pretty much.

There was nothing but praise for Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012) so my lukewarm feelings were met with some hostility. It’s a fine film with some fine performances and shows one of the most important acts of legislation in American history. It looks normal and has a few of those scenes where a side character says something important at just the right time and a few scenes wrought with sudden emotional weight or a perfectly timed monologue. I guess it all felt a little safe and simple. Maybe that’s what was needed, but I be curious to see what a different director might have done with it.

Godzilla could still kick it's ass.

Godzilla could still kick it’s ass.

Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth) was the perfect guy to direct the kaiju-homage flick, Pacific Rim (2013). I wish I liked this one more. The first few monster fights were fun, but they become repetitive. The robot suits are great, but they kill off the Russian and Chinese guys too soon. I thought it was going to be a fun all-the-countries-band-together-to-fight-the-monsters type thing. Most of the main characters are boring and tool-ish and the “drifting” thing is weird and ill-explained. I like the old kaiju movies for their cheesiness, and it was fun to see awesome special effects realize them with affection and detail, if only the story and characters had gotten a similar upgrade.

Here we go:

Choke me.

Choke me.

If you like sado-masochism, Japanese nudity, and genitalia-severence then this is the movie for you. Nagisa Ôshima’s controversial In the Realm of the Senses (1976) is based on the true story of a steamy romance that requires increasing amounts of pain incorporated into the act of sex until their mounting obsession results in tragedy. It’s got a lot of sex, but it ain’t always sexy and that’s part of the point, I think.

Deja vu!

Déjà vu!

Peter Lorre and Syndey Greenstreet star in this film noir based on an Eric Ambler novel. Jean Negulesco’s The Mask of Dimitrios (1944) is a bit of a poor man’s The Third Man, but it’s not bad. A pulp novelist becomes mixed up in a real-life European double-cross. It’s got a few decent twists and is a lot of fun if you like your noir.

It wasn't the planes. It was naïveté killed the beast.

It wasn’t the planes. It was naïveté killed the beast.

Jack Black gives a strangely nuanced performance in Richard Linklater’s Bernie (2011). Based on a true story, this little pseudo-mockumentary chronicles the events leading up to the murder of a nasty spinster (Shirley MacLaine) by the ineffably good-natured Bernie (Black). Justice isn’t all black & white and behind every small town tragedy is a hundred smaller stories.

Animals!

There's a predatory animal behind me. It's symbolism.

There’s a predatory animal behind me. It’s symbolism.

I’ll admit there’s not a whole lot terribly special about Murders in the Zoo (1933), but the finale really got me. Lionel Atwill stars as another nefarious ne’er-do-well in another crime melodrama. The lecherous zoo keeper isn’t exactly the most menacing of screen villains and maybe he doesn’t use his animals as much as we might like, but it’s a light romp through the pulpy shadows. It’s a typical genre piece from the period, but the ending is worth it.

Our movie's tiger than your movie's tiger and it's not even real. Pity about the bankruptcy.

Our movie’s tiger is better than your movie’s tiger and it’s not even real. Pity about the bankruptcy.

Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) paints a sumptuous adventure-survival tale with sweeping CG strokes in Life of Pi (2012). The colors and effects and music are great. The story is engaging and exciting. The guy who plays the Canadian author is terrible. It also suffers (or perhaps gains) from an ambiguous ending—that I say was handled slightly better in the book. All in all, it’s a worthy screen adaptation of the fun story of a young boy adrift at sea with a tiger.

Stop taking things so seriously and enjoy life:

You see that Andrzej Wajda movie? "Man of Iron." Yeah, it was terrible. I wasn't in it.

You see that Andrzej Wajda movie? “Man of Iron.” Yeah, it was terrible. I wasn’t in it.

I was somewhat dismissive of the first two Iron Man movies, but Iron Man 3 (2013) was a lot of fun. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang director, Shane Black, gives us more laughs and more exciting action. Robert Downey, Jr. is as snarky as ever and Sir Ben Kingsley provides one of the more interesting twist-foils in any superhero movie. Iron Man might be kind of fun, but wandering Mechanic of Tennessee is more interesting.

beauty is embarrassing

Throw down that strongbox and answer the question.

Beauty is Embarrassing (2012) is a pleasing documentary about kooky, renegade media artist Wayne White. After working on several TV shows (including Pee Wee’s Playhouse, Beakman’s World, and Shining Time Station) he turned his attentions to painting offensive and humorous slogans on top of thrift-shop landscape paintings. Puppet-maker, painter, sculptor, whatever, he’s eccentric and he can’t stop.

Seriously. Recast this whole movie---minus Salma and Harvey. It's so close.

Seriously. Recast this whole movie—minus Salma and Harvey. It’s so close.

Here’s the thing: I might actually hate 30-40% of this movie, but I love the rest. From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) is a wild, genre-bending grindhouse splatterfest from director Robert Rodriguez and writer Quentin Tarantino. Some bad guys kidnap a family to escape across the border and hide out at a rowdy desert bar that is run by…demon vampires! It’s ridiculous fun and the final matte painting composite shot is awesome. It’s a lot of over-the-top, ridiculous fun but it seriously needs to be almost entirely recast (with the exceptions of Harvey Keitel and Salma Hayek).  Also features George Clooney, Quentin Tarantino, Juliette Lewis, John Saxon, Cheech Marin (he can stay), Danny Trejo (he needs to do more cool stuff), Tom Savini (he can stay too), and Fred Williamson (he needs to do more cool stuff too).

Three parts greatness:

Tune in again in 9 years for "Before Brunch."

Tune in again in 9 years for “Before Brunch.”

The third installment of Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke’s romantic series, Before Midnight (2013) sees the characters aging more and more. Before Sunrise and Before Sunset comes to a close…maybe? Taking place on one day at the end of a family vacation in Greece, we witness how they deal with their relationships, careers, divorce, children, and each other. While it might be sad that they seem more at each other’s throats than ever, perhaps it is the only logical place these two headstrong characters can go. Perhaps not quite as sublime as the first two films, this latest chapter is rewarding for those of us who love these characters already and want to see what will happen next.

These aren't the state secrets you're looking for.

These aren’t the state secrets you’re looking for.

Carol Reed (The Third Man) directs Sir Alec Guinness (The Bridge on the River Kwai) in an adaptation of Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana (1959). A milquetoast expat vacuum salesman living in Cuba with his daughter gets commissioned by the British government to be a spy. A slight embellishment gets blown out of proportion in this Cold War comedy and tensions and fears run high as the impromptu spy desperately tries to hide his fib and keep people from getting killed. Also stars Burl Ives, Maureen O’Hara, Ernie Kovacs, Sir Ralph Richardson, and Noel Coward.

Buscemi freak-out in 3-2-1...

Buscemi freak-out in 3-2-1…

Living in Oblivion (1995) is a must-watch for any aspiring filmmaker. Yes, even moreso than Ed Wood. It’s a dark comedy about the struggles and trials of making a low budget independent movie. The mounting tensions, increasingly short fuses, and unraveling strings of sanity are catalogued in three parts, each taking a different perspective. Anyone who has ever worked on a set will recognize every single crisis showcased here and anyone who has not might wonder why anyone would ever want to make a movie if it takes so many headaches. Steve Buschemi, Katherine Keener, Dermot Mulroney, James LeGros, and Peter Dinklage star.

Ever stalwart:

The classic riches to rags to riches story.

The classic riches to rags to riches story.

French comedian and filmmaker, Pierre Étaix, keeps pantomime alive (like Jacques Tati) in Yo Yo (1965). It’s a quaint, cute, and visually inventive comedy about a billionaire who loses everything and joins the circus to find love. The sets and sight gags are wonderful and the story is sweet and complete.

It's been a few scenes since I saran-wrapped a cat.

It’s been a few scenes since I saran-wrapped a cat.

The perverse Australian cult hit Bad Boy Bubby (1993) is sick and twisted and abrasive and strangely pensive, cutting, and eloquent. Bubby (Nicholas Hope) is locked in his sadistic and abusive mother’s basement for 30 years before he escapes only to be confronted by a harsh, terrible, beautiful, tragic, funny, demented world he could never be prepared for. Like Being There and The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, we learn much about society by watching these obtuse yet perceptive innocents interact with a world we have just learned to accept. Bubby has to learn everything all over again. It’s a deranged and graphic satire full of horrors and heart.

Apex twins:

Love is hard sometimes.

Love is hard sometimes.

In the Mood for Love (2000) is a sad romance about isolation, longing, and missed opportunities. Wong Kar Wai (Chungking Express) directs Tony Leung (Lust, Caution) and Maggie Cheung (2046) as two lonely souls in 1960s Hong Kong. Both feel disconnected from their never-present spouses and seek to enjoy the company of each other, but gradually develop deeper feelings. Through simple interactions and quiet conversations their love grows, but their situation, their culture, and the disaffected sands of time continue to erect barriers. It’s a beautiful film full of regret.

At the time of his death, if he were on Jupiter, Elvis would've weighed six-hundred and forty-eight pounds.

At the time of his death, if he were on Jupiter, Elvis would’ve weighed six-hundred and forty-eight pounds.

Mystery Train (1989) is easily my favorite Jim Jarmusch (Coffee and Cigarettes) film. There are three mostly unrelated stories set in Memphis on the same day. There is a yuppie Japanese couple straining to see their romanticized image of a fabulous musical metropolis rich in blues history. There is a stranded Italian widow (Nicoletta Braschi) who must share a hotel room with a vacuous American chatterbox. And then there is the story of the chatterbox’s unemployed and irascible English boyfriend and his friends (including Steve Buschemi) who try to keep him from hurting himself and others until the sober dawn. All the characters must spend the night at a dilapidated city hotel run by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Cinqué Lee.

What did you see? Anything good?

Everyone Was Kung Fu Fighting: the Story of Ip Man

For all the serious, highfalutin movies I watch, I do confess I have a weakness for the kung-fu flick. Action is fun to watch and as a guy it’s sometimes hard not to be fascinated by violence and destruction in movies. Watching a building collapse or a high speed car chase or dinosaurs fighting each other or Bruce Willis jumping off a roof with a fire-hose bungee cord is fun and exciting. Naturally the martial arts epic must enter one’s peripheries at some point. Ever since I saw a Jackie Chan marathon on TV as a kid I was hooked. The kung-fu movie gets a lot of flack sometimes for being fairly thin when it comes to plot, but the incredible athletes and personalities that have emerged from it are what draws us. Every move Bruce Lee does is astonishing to watch and there’s something eternally fascinating about using only your body as a weapon.

Still one of the best.

Still one of the best.

Recently, it seems, there has been a rebirth of kung-fu (for the west anyway). Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) reminded everybody that you could have a good mythical storyline alongside ballet-like violence. Then we got Jet Li in Zhang Yimou’s  Hero (2002) and Stephen Chow gave us an incredibly zany Looney Tunes-esque action comedy in Kun Fu Hustle (2004). These films were all wonderful (maybe more wuxia than traditional martial arts) and had great action and stories, but they were more stylistic and employed more wire-fu and special effects than the traditional martial arts films from the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Out of Thailand came action star Tony Jaa in Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior (2003). The stunts were real and gritty once more and the action was great, but the story was now missing again. I am happy to report that another martial arts epic has come about and puts back good old-fashioned fights with a really decent story. Wilson Yip’s Ip Man (2008) stars Donnie Yen (The Iron Monkey,  Shanghai Knights) as the legendary grandmaster of the Chinese martial arts technique known as Wing Chun, Yip Kai-man (1893-1972), and the man who would eventually train Bruce Lee and many others.

Donnie Yen.

Donnie Yen.

I confess that as a westerner my actual knowledge of the history and meanings behind all the various styles of kung-fu is pretty minute, and admittedly I do not recall actually hearing of Ip Man before this movie, but it definitely filled me in…even if the movie is a rather loose treatment on the real man’s life. It’s also insanely nationalistic, but you can’t have everything.

The film takes place in Foshan, China in the 1930s during the Japanese occupation. Ip Man (Yen) is a leisured aristocrat and well respected member of the community. He has a loving wife (who does not exactly support his martial arts practice) and a young son who he realizes he must spend more time with. The citizens of Foshan regard Ip Man as a quiet but deadly master of Wing Chun, but he would honestly rather not fight anybody (reminded me of John Wayne in The Quiet Man). A foreign bully from the north (played by Fan Siu-wong  of Riki-Oh: the Story of Ricky fame) arrives in town and, desiring to set up a martial arts club in Foshan, he viciously beats up every master in town save for Ip Man. The fight that follows is indeed wildly entertaining.

How embarrassing.

How embarrassing.

The story jumps ahead a few years after the town of Foshan is oppressed by Japanese occupation in the Second Sino-Japanese War. Ip Man has lost all of his possessions but maintains his dignity and lives in a rundown shack while his dedicated wife pawns everything to buy rice (kinda reminded me of Omar Sharif in Dr. Zhivago). To support his starving family he gets a job as a coolie shoveling coal in a filthy quarry. It is not long before a former Chinese friend has returned as the mouthpiece for the Japanese army and announces that the quarry workers can earn a bag of rice if they defeat Japanese karatekas for the amusement of General Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi), who is an obsessed karate master. Ip Man initially refuses but when a friend who volunteers never returns, he decides to go to defend the honor of his fallen brothers, avenge the death of countless Chinese, and reclaim the honor of Chinese martial arts.

Before entering the tournament, Ip Man witnesses another friend and kung-fu master doing battle on the mat surrounded by Japanese karatekas awaiting their turn to fight the Chinese workers. General Miura watches menacingly from the platform above. Ip Man then watches helplessly as his friend is shot through the head following the match (against Miura’s command). Ip Man requests to go next and further requests that he face not one but ten black-belts at once. If this fight does not pull you into the movie then nothing will. His prowess in Wing-Chun, although a bit rusty, is no match for the attacks of his enemies and he glides between them with grace and deadly accuracy as he systemically annihilates them all. He departs enraged and stoically defiant to the General’s questions (although the fearful translator disguises this fact).

The whole movie might be worth it if this was the only fight.

The whole movie might still be worth it if this was the only fight.

Back in the wounded town, Ip Man is asked to defend an old friend’s cotton mill from bandits (led by the northern bully whom Ip Man defeated in battle earlier in the movie) who are stealing their product and demanding money and threatening violence. He graciously agrees to teach the workers Wing-Chun and the audience gets a kung-fu training montage (yep, they still do ‘em). When the bandits return a big battle is ignited as the workers fight back and the bandits up the ante by bringing out axes, but Ip Man shows up and throws down real good with the thugs and chases them off.

Ip Man’s incredible abilities have earned him respect and fascination in the mind of General Miura. Miura seeks to bring Ip Man back for more tournaments, but Ip Man is forced to take his family and hide when he beats up the Japanese soldiers who come for him and attempt to rape his wife. Desperate to find him, the soldiers attack the cotton mill and force Ip Man to show himself. With the soldier he beat up ready to shoot him and General Miura threatening to allow him to be shot unless he trains his Japanese soldiers, Ip Man challenges the General to a public match: a challenge the General’s ego will not allow him to decline. For the final battle all of the stakes are raised to the umpteenth level. A nasty Japanese soldier threatens to kill Ip Man if he wins and his wife and child are forced to flee and all of the town is gathered for the public spectacle…you could not ask for more suspense. All of China’s morale and pride rest in the fists of Ip Man. It is assured to be a match to remember and it will ultimately bring national shame to the losing party.

And people wonder why all the Asian countries still harbor animosity toward Japan.

And people wonder why all the Asian countries still harbor animosity toward Japan.

Ip Man has all of the classic moves a good kung-fu movie should have and the fight scenes (choreographed by Spooky Encounters star Sammo Hung) are fantastic. The story builds and continues to create urgency, suspense, and danger up until the last scene.  It’s a compelling plot about a man who has had his world torn apart and the only thing left to do is stuff his peaceful demeanor and kick butt. Donnie Yen and the rest of the cast give fine performances and the cinematography is also top notch. The story takes its liberties with the real Ip Man’s life, but it is perfectly forgivable when you consider how much fun the movie is as a whole. The kung-fu action movie is back, folks.

The sequel, Ip Man 2 (2010), brings the cast back and features Sammo Hung as a cantankerous martial arts master in Hong Kong and sees Ip Man fighting a cocky, belligerent (and rather obnoxious) British boxer (reminded of Mr. T in Rocky III). Although the stakes are never quite as high, more fights seem bloated or forced, there’s an influx of what appears to be some wire-fu, and the western boxing is never as interesting to watch as the kung-fu business, it is a fun sequel about restoring national pride through the unifying power of martial arts. For fans of the martial arts epic, Ip Man might be exactly what you’ve been waiting for.

The real guy alongside his student, Bruce Lee.

The real guy alongside his student, Bruce Lee.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Jan 12, 2011