The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode XXI – A Star Wars Story

Once again, ordered by what I thought of them. The further down the list you go, the stronger I recommend. I wrote a bit more than the usual blurb about Rogue One because it’s Star Wars. And there weren’t any films this time I thought were awful. Everything’s got something worth checking out.

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Bamboozled (2000) is a satirical look at race as it is portrayed on American television. Directed by Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing) and starring Damon Wayans, this pairing may make it difficult to find the tone of the movie. There are serious themes worthy of unpacking here, but the tone feels off. Sometimes it’s silly and almost clever and then the sledgehammer comes down along with heavy emotions. Pierre Delacroix (Wayans) pitches a blackface minstrel variety show to the network as a joke, but they love the idea and run with it. The most effective moments, in my opinion, feature the actors in the show going through the conflicting process of donning the dehumanizing makeup. Despite a clever premise and what feels like great potential for scathing satire and serious conversation, the movie is a bit of a dud.
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That’s Not Funny (2014) is a documentary about comedy and taboo topics directed by Mike Celestino. It talks about what offends and why and why it may not even matter. It’s a dry examination that works mainly because it’s so straightforward. For people already entrenched in the comedy world, it doesn’t offer much new insight, but for the casual comic observer maybe there’s more value in it.
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Train to Busan (2016) is a Korean zombie movie directed by Sang-Ho Yeon. It’s more of a sleek action movie than a bleak horror thriller. It hits a lot of familiar zombie movie markers, but setting it on the KTX (a train I have taken many times) from Seoul to Busan gave it a dose of novelty. It’s not a great zombie flick, but it has some fun moments and for people who don’t like their horror too moody, scary, or bloody Train to Busan might be a decent alternative. Dong-seok Ma (The Good, the Bad, the Weird) is easily the best part.
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Sausage Party (2016) is the story of food discovering the horrible truth about their destiny. Directed by Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon and written by Seth Rogen and company, this unrelentingly crass smorgasbord of Pixar and piety skewering satire boasts more creativity than it probably needed. There’s a lot of juvenile jokes, but also a satisfying adventure arc as well as a cute social commentary (spoiler alert: religions are just evolved permutations of old stories to find reason and hope in a horrifying universe and living in a world where Rick and Morty exist makes the satire here seem amateurish and trite). A bit obnoxious, but still funny and the animation is quite good. The Stephen Hawking character in the third act elevated the whole shebang for me.
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Off Limits (1988) is a buddy cop movie directed by Christopher Crowe. What sets this police investigation action thriller apart is that it’s set in Saigon at the height of the Vietnam War. Willem Dafoe and Gregory Hines star as McGriff and Albaby, two loose cannon military cops trying to uncover who’s murdering all the prostitutes with mixed race kids. It’s a bit of a trashy premise and an underwhelming revelation in the finale, but the middle bits have enough suspense, tough-guy talk, and memorable standoffs that it feels good revisiting this mostly forgotten buddy flick. Co-starring Fred Ward, Amanda Pays, Keith David, Scott Glenn, and David Alan Grier.
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True Lies (1994) is a classic action movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and directed by James Cameron (Aliens). Although I had seen it on TV as a kid a few times, this was the first time I actually sat down to watch the whole thing. Harry Tasker (Schwarzenegger) is a secret agent married to Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis in one of her most fun roles), a bored wife who thinks he’s a computer salesman. After learning the truth of her husband’s identity and a truly provocative striptease, the couple both become mixed up in a terrorist plot (headed by Art Malik). While I personally prefer the more sincere Schwarzenegger action movies (Conan the Barbarian, Terminator, Predator, Total Recall, Commando) than the winking parodies, this is honestly a lot more fun than Last Action Hero. The action set pieces are fun (horse in the elevator?) the film never takes itself terribly seriously. Tom Arnold is obnoxious, but the presence of Tia Carrere makes up for that maybe.
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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) is a science fantasy adventure that takes place like 30 years after the events of Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005) and ends a few minutes before Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977) begins. But if you’re not a giant Star Wars nerd then I guess you could you say this is a wartime espionage adventure set in outer space.
OK. Because this is Star Wars and, like many of you, the original trilogy was a very important part of my formative years, I feel I should be slightly more in depth. I realize my tastes are fairly predictable. I love the original trilogy (Empire Strikes Back still being one of my favorite space movies), intensely dislike the prequels, and upon re-watching The Force Awakens sober, I’m not a fan (it looks great, but some of the awkward humor and acting choices along with the cloying nostalgia and the disquieting sense of the messy, convoluted script being composed by a committee checking off boxes sucks a lot of the fun out for me). That said, I basically enjoyed Rogue One. There’s stuff I hated too. Who knows what I’ll think if I see it again.
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Things I liked:
1. The cinematography and abundance of real props, sets, locations, etc. all serve to make the world feel real and lived in and steeped in a detailed and immense intergalactic history. The costumes and most of the puppets also look great (the squid guys are looking sillier and sillier though). This movie genuinely feels like an expansion of a familiar fictional universe.
2. It is different enough in tone and execution to make up for my qualms with Force Awakens being too similar. Even if not all of those choices work.
3. I liked the robot and the two Chinese guys. K-S20 (Alan Tudyk) gets the best lines and Chirrut Îmwe  (martial arts master, Donnie Yen, basically playing space Zatoichi) and Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) have a nice friendship (just about the only interesting relationship in the movie) and are kinda cool. Wish they had had more to do.
The story is reminiscent of WWII commando adventures. This ain’t exactly The Devil’s Brigade or Guns of Navarone, but it seems to come from that tradition. It’s just got great space battles too…which maybe makes up for a lot of the characters being rather tepid by comparison. Which brings me to my next segment.
Things I didn’t like:
1. The two main characters, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), look good but are rather flat in the personality department. This really killed the intended impact of the finale for me. The central figures should not be an emotional vacuum in a movie like this. The rest of the characters are sadly forgettable.
2. Some of the fan service nods to the other films are handled well, but there’s still a lot of awkward inclusions.
3. Possible spoiler: there are a couple characters from the original 1977 movie that make appearances, but due to old age or death they are performed by CG versions of the actors (or touched up original footage in the case of a few pilots). In each instance it is strikingly disorienting. The CG humans are finely rendered (we’ve come a long way since The Scorpion King), but their inclusion is dumfoundingly distracting and unnecessary. We’re still in Uncanny Valley territory, and it feels super weird. It does, however, make me want to watch The Congress again.
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Darth Vader’s in it too and they make him scary again. It’s a big improvement over the whiny, pathetic prequel Anakins and his descendant, Kylo Ren. I just couldn’t remove the image from my head of an 85 year old James Earl Jones reading lines into a microphone in a gray, squishy room. But I’m weird and this is just how my brain works.
All things considered, Rogue One, while not stellar, is a ballsy Star Wars movie in a lot of ways. I like some of the freshness that Gareth Edwards was allowed to bring to it and admire some of the risks Disney took (not all). There’s a lot that just doesn’t work in this movie and it’s pretty emotionally dead, but if you like Star Wars, you’ll probably enjoy it even with its imperfections. There’s a reason people hold this series to a high personal standard. Like them. Hate them. At this point, they are intrinsically designed to be over-analyzed and talked about forever. It’s annoying, but who doesn’t like to indulge just a little bit?
Also stars Riz Ahmed, Ben Mendelsohn, Mads Mikkelsen, Forest Whitaker, Genevieve O’Reilly, and Jimmy Smits.
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Swiss Army Man (2016) is a bromantic comedy about a hopeless misfit (Paul Dano) and a farting corpse with a penis that points north (Daniel Radcliffe). It was written and directed by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. Although savagely surreal and whimsical, the movie creates a weirdly touching relationship between the two characters. The curiosity and innocence of the corpse causes Hank (Dano) to relive a lot of experiences and emotions and see much of his own life from a new perspective. As a surreal adventure comedy it works and as a surprisingly thoughtful examination of the nature of identity, it also somehow works. Check this one out.
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Arrival (2016) is a minimalist science fiction drama directed by Denis Villeneuve (Sicario). Amy Adams stars as the American linguist who figures out how to communicate with the enigmatic alien squid monsters. If you want a movie about boring old diplomacy then this is it. The central theme of the story is that communication takes time but it is time that must be given if the quest for understanding is a pure one. It also examines how language structures understanding of the physical world (and potentially our understanding of time itself). Gorgeously shot and thoughtfully acted. A highly recommended film. Also stars Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, and Michael Stuhlbarg.
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A History of Violence (2005) is a modern noir directed by David Cronenberg (Dead Ringers). Viggo Mortensen (Return of the King) stars as a small town guy who becomes a local hero after he stops some bad dudes. This act, however, unleashes nothing but trouble for him and his family as aspects of his past are questioned and unearthed and more mob guys show up and begin harassing his family. Like all Cronenberg films, there’s a lot going on beneath the surface. The lead performances are quite good (Maria Bello is a standout as Mortensen’s wife). It’s a small, tightly told story with suspense and a few turns that genuinely surprised me. Also stars Ed Harris, William Hurt, and Stephen McHattie.
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True Romance (1993) is a crime drama about a comic store geek (Christian Slater) who marries a call girl (Patricia Arquette) and steals her pimp’s (Gary Oldman) cocaine. Written by Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction) and directed by Tony Scott (Enemy of the State), this star packed thriller crackles with exciting dialogue, unpredictable encounters, and stylish directorial flourishes. It’s violent, funny, flashy, unapologetic, and damn good fun. I feel dumb for having not seen this one before. Don’t make my mistake! Co-starring Dennis Hopper, Christopher Walken, Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Val Kilmer, David Rapaport, and Samuel L. Jackson.
So what did you see recently?
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Brad Pitt in True Romance (1993)

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