Friday, May 29, 2009

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000)

Ziyi Zhang, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
I first saw Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in the campus theater at Trinity. It was the first time I'd seen an action movie like it, and it blew me away. It combined not only fast-paced martial arts and weaponry, but also breathtaking vistas of China. Though other movies that have been made sense have added to the cinematic beauty of martial arts films, this was my first experience and retains a soft spot in my heart.

In essence, the plot is driven by the characters inability to have what they desire. Yun-Fat Chow plays a warrior who attempts to give up violence to achieve enlightenment only to be drawn back into the world by his desire to avenge his master;s death, and a love for Michelle Yeoh that they are honor bound to deny. At the same time, Ziyi Zang plays the daughter of a governor who is restricted by her role in society from achieving the great adventurous life of a warrior that she not only desires but is highly capable of leading. She is also prevented from being with her great love, a noble thief, Chen Chang.

Michelle Yeoh, Yun-Fat Chow, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
With those restrictions in place, the story of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon unfolds beautifully with some amazing scenes of fast-paced martial arts. The drama of the story is excellently matched with the action, as director Ang Lee seems to have almost an innate understanding of making beautiful cinematic gems. Of course, the action was so fast paced that it made it difficult to make any screen caps of the action scenes. Instead I was forced to use largely stationary shots. Unfortunately these shots don't represent how awesomely powerful the women in the film were, with most on par to their male counterparts. In fact, Yun-Fat is the only martial artist capable of defeating any of the women.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon changed the way I viewed martial arts films. It became less about simply awesome action, though obviously this remained a concern, but also about the cinematics of the film. If I had never seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon I probably would not have seen other great films like Hero or House of Flying Daggers both of which took the impressive cinematic visuals to new heights. In a lot of ways, this movie is like The Matrix there are those movies which came before, and those movies which came after and which will always be judged against it.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Commando (1985)

Arnold Schwarzenegger, Commando
Commando is a quintessential Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. It involves a lot of explosions, a lot of violence, and a lot of stupid one liners after killing villains. In other words, it's exactly what one would want when seeing an Arnold1 movie, and exactly what made him famous.

The plot centers around a South American warlord who had been deposed by Arnold's platoon and seeks to use Arnold to return to power. In order to get Arnold to play along, he kidnaps his daughter,2 a rookie villain mistake. Arnold then unleashes his fury on all who laid a finger on his daughter. He single-handedly kills an entire compound of armed men.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, Commando
The movie relies on some hilarious action movie clichés. Our fist glimpses of Arnold show how he's created a quaint rustic life for himself, felling trees and feeding deer with his daughter. After kidnapping her, he goes balls out to get her back, but still finds the time to make snappy one liners after killing villains. Some choice lines include: After killing a guy and covering him with a blanket, "Don't wake my friend, he's dead tired." After impaling a guy with a pipe into a steam pipe, "Let off some steam." I don't know who writes this stuff, but he's a genius.

I wouldn't be a good feminist if I didn't point out that this movie does, unfortunately, rely on the trope of a woman who is basically kidnapped by the hero, is hysterical, but then, for some unknown reason, continues to follow him and seems to fall in love with him. The underlying message is that women shouldn't worry if a guy they've met is controlling and obviously violent. Even though he seems to have no respect for her personal property, the fact that he's doing it "for a good reason" absolves all guilt on his part. While action movies have done a lot to beef up the women in them, they still largely tend to follow this unfortunate path.

Vernon Wells, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Commando
1. As mentioned in previous posts, I shall use the common usage of "Arnold" rather than his last name of "Schwarznegger."
2. Played by a very young Alyssa Malano.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Conan the Destroyer (1984)

Arnold Schwarzenegger, Conan the Destroyer
Arnold Schwarzenegger's second romp as the mighty warrior Conan proved to be his last, though he does play a Conan-esque character in Red Sonja. Conan the Destroyer is rather different from its predecessor. For one, the character of Conan has already been established and this film marks only one journey on his path to becoming a King. This outing also contains a great deal more humor throughout, some from Conan, much from his thieving sidekick.1 Conan is also more of a team player in this film. While he had three allies in the first film, Conan spends much of this film with five other companions, many of whom are fine warriors in their own right.

The movie follows Conan as he escorts a princess to find a key then horn for a sorceress who hopes to bring her demon god to earth. He works to help her (ignorant of her final motives) as she has promised to return his love from the first movie should he help her. The film has much more of a quest feel to it than the first which was simply a revenge and origin story. In the end, Conan frees another kingdom from an evil despot and sets off on his own once more. Theoretically there would have been a third Conan film to finish his story, but it never happened.

Conan the Destroyer
I originally purchased both Conan films together. While the first was presented in anamorphic widescreen, this DVD was not. As a result, it appeared squished on my TV. While it remained widescreen, the black bars were matted on. In other words, it wasn't optimized for 16:9 televisions. This may not have been something I would have noticed had I not been watching so many movies together with each other. It's unfortunate that the production for the DVD was so low.

Conan the Destroyer is not a movie that one needs to see, however I own it because it came with Conan the Conqueror, I like to be complete in my series ownership, and I like Arnold movies. Check it out if you haven't seen it.

1. His thieving sidekick seems to have been replaced by a white guy. In Conan the Barbarian he was played by a Latino or possibly Filipino... Though it's not the same character, it is interesting they replaced him with a character who is almost entirely the same, but white.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Conan the Barbarian (1982)

Arnold Schwarzenegger, Conan the Barbarian
Though he'd starred in Hercules in New York over a decade earlier, Conan the Barbarian truly marked Arnold Schwarzenegger's arrival as an action star. As the titular hero, Arnold1 delivered his ridiculous lines with great conviction sold largely by his muscled physique.

The story follows the legendary Conan from his childhood through his first great adventure. The audience knows that one day Conan will become a great king, but this is not that story. In other words, if this movie is a box-office smash, be prepared for sequels. Of course, only one sequel was made, but that's another entry.

The primary crux of the story is that Conan, upon achieving freedom from his days as a slave and gladiator set off in the world to seek revenge upon the evil sorcerer and snake-cult leader (James Earl Jones) who destroyed his village as a child. Along the way he falls in love, meets a comic sidekick, and a shamanistic protector of his own (who also happens to be the narrator of this epic tale).

Both Conan the Barbarian and The Beastmaster were released in 1982.2 I mention this only because both have surprisingly similar plots involving muscled nearly naked men fighting against an evil sorcerer to restore some sort of balance in the world. Conan fared much better than Beastmaster in theaters, and the latter probably owes its eventual success to repeated cable showings.

In the end, this movie is a classic sword and sorcerer action flick that truly marked the start of Arnold's career as an actor. It helps to have a camp sensibility when watching it, as the utter ridiculousness could wear on those without one. Either way, it remains a classic for a reason.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, Conan the Barbarian
Mongolian: Conan, what is best in life?
Conan: To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of their women.

1. While I normally use last to refer to actors in films, Arnold is almost always referred to by his first name in the media. Though he hasn't forsaken his last name as Roseanne or Cher did, he is undoubtedly the most famous Arnold alive today. This may all stem from the fact that "Schwarzenegger" was too difficult for people to say and spell, but I shall abide by the common convention and refer to him as Arnold.
2. Also the year of my birth.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Clash of the Titans (1981)

Harry Hamlin, Burgess Meredith, Clash of the Titans
Though technically the story of Perseus and not of any Titans, Clash of the Titans is a fun romp through Greek mythology. It follows the life of Perseus (Harry Hamlin), son of Zeus (Sir Laurence Olivier), throughout his life up to his marriage to Andromeda (Judi Bowker). Throughout his life he befriends Pegasus, gets a pet mechanical owl, and kills Calibos,1 the Grogan Medusa, and the Kraken.2

One of the crazy things about Clash of the Titans is the casting. In addition to Hamlin3 and Olivier, the cast includes Dame Maggie Smith as the goddess Thetis, Ursula Andress as Aphrodite, Burgess Meredith as the poet Ammon. The movie also contains special effects by Ray Harryhausen who did the effects for many of the classic Greek legend films (notably the Sinbad and Jason films). With Harryhausen's special effects, as well as its legendary casting, it almost feels like a film out of the 50s and 60s rather than the 80s.

Ursula Andress, Claire Bloom, Maggie Smith, Susan Fleetwood, Clash of the Titans
The pacing of the film also feels a bit slower than a film from the 80s, so watching Clash of the Titans feels like watching a classic epic film. Perhaps not as Cecille B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments or Stanley Kubrik's Spartacus, but a classic film nevertheless. The movie does incorporate some humorous elements that remove the classic epic element, the most obvious example being the mechanical owl sent to help Perseus, and Meredith's frequent mugging for the camera.

This movie is good for when you want something with some light action, and some epic qualities. I'm not sure that I would use it as an instructional video on Greek mythology, as it's not entirely accurate to the Perseus myth. Despite this, it's still fun to watch. If you haven't seen it, check it out. If you have seen it, watch it again.

Harry Hamlin, Clash of the Titans
1. I believe Calibos may be a creation of the film makers. He is the son of a real Goddess, but one that I was largely unfamiliar with.
2. The Kraken is the only Titan in the film, but I believe Kraken are part of Norse mythology, not Greek... So close!
3. Though, this was his first big movie.

Friday, May 22, 2009

A Chorus Line (1985)

A Chorus Line
A Chorus Line is the film that derailed this project/blog in October. That, and school getting back into full swing. That said, A Chorus Line is a musical that I tend to enjoy the songs from much more than the actual plot itself. This could largely be because the plot is fairly basic: a bunch of nobody's are hoping to be somebody by auditioning for the chorus line (i.e., background players) in a Broadway musical. There's a subplot where a former star is hoping to get her life back on track by auditioning again, but her former relationship with the director causes some drama. The plot though is really just a mechanism for each character to sing about how they hope they can make it, why they haven't made it, and why they love what they do, and really that's the only reason to see the movie.

Michael Douglas, A Chorus Line
There are quite a few really good songs in this movie that I enjoy more than others. My favorite songs are probably "Sing!" about a woman who can't sing, "Nothing" about a woman who can't act like her acting coach wants, and "Dance: Ten; Looks: Three" about a woman who has many doors opened to her after getting plastic surgery. These songs are really about failure, but contain a good deal of humor and speak to the indomitable spirit of the performers in their quest for fame.

This movie found a place in my DVD library because it came in a pack of other musicals. I recommend it for those who enjoy the songs, but the plot created to move through the songs leaves something to be desired.

A Chorus Line, One

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968)

Dick Van Dyke, Sally Ann Howes, Doll on a Music Box, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
One of my favorite musicals as a child was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Besides its great song, the movie also stars Dick Van Dyke, who makes any movie with his slap-stick antics and wacky facial expressions.

The film follows Van Dyke as inventor Caractacus Potts.1 His children implore him to purchase an old junk racer and fix it up. Thus Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (the car) is born. The children's wild antics lead him to a adversarial/loving relationship with the wealthy Truly Scrumptious.2 The car however draws the attention of Baron Bomburst, ruler of the barony of Vulgaria.3 The Baron mistakenly kidnaps Grandpa Potts, and the quartet of heroes is forced to rescue him.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Roses of Success
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is largely successful because of its songs. The only unfortunate songs in the film are its ballads "Hushabye Mountain" and "Lovely Lonely Man." These songs contain the sort of saccharine sweetness of songs like "Feed the Birds (Tuppence a Bag)" from Mary Poppins and, in my opinion, have no place in a fun musical. However, songs like "Chu-Chi Face" wherein the Baron tries to kill his Baroness, "Toot Sweets," and "The Roses of Success" work to cover the mistake of those two songs.

Though the Baroness is clearly a villain in the film, her only real crime is desiring a land without children, a position with which I can sympathize. Of course, her desire to be rid of children may be due to the childish antics of her husband, who she loves dearly anyway.4 The comical nature of the villains and the cheery songs makes Chitty Chitty Bang Bang an overall enjoyable film from my childhood that I still enjoy today.

Gert Fröbe, Anna Quayle, Chu-chi Face, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
1. It's a pun you see, Caratacus Potts --> Crack Pot... Very clever naming in this film.
2. Played by Sally Ann Howes. Of course, this name is another pun. Truly Scrumptious in addition to being an absolute delight is also the daughter of a confectioner.
3. Yet another pun! Vulgaria --> Vulgar. Oh what piquant wit. Bomburst is either a reference to bombs bursting, as the Baron has an explosive temper, or a pun on "bombastic" which also fits with his personality. The Baron is superbly portrayed by Gert Fröbe.
4. The Baron and Baroness Bomburst almost have a Al and Peg Bundy type relationship, where she is a relatively attractive woman whose plain husband has no desire for her.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A Christmas Story (1983)

When it's not playing for 24 hours on TNT, A Christmas Story holds a place in my heart as one of my favorite all time Christmas movies. Though filmed in 1983, it somehow captures a spirit of the mythical golden era that the narrator recalls.1 While it follows the story of young Ralphie played by Peter Billingsley, in my mind the real star is the narrator and writer Jean Shepherd. Without Shepherds narration and colorful voice, the movie may have fallen flat, but he's able to convincingly portray the earnest drama of a child's life with the gravitas of a National Geographic narrator and the humor of a puppeteer. Of course, Darren McGavin also has to be commended for his creative and humorous fake swearing throughout the film.

The main crux of the plot is Ralphie's attempt to receive a "Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model air rifle" for Christmas only to be thwarted by his mother, his teacher, and the department store Santa, all who warn him that he'll shoot his eye out. His childish ploys to get the BB gun are implemented with the fiendish cunning that only a child would employ.

In the end, my joy over A Christmas Story may be its quotability. My sister and I (among others) could quote this movie forever. It has a number of lines that are both funny in themselves and funny for the scenes they recall. And as quotable as the movie is, it also draws on many humorous visual elements that one simply cannot repeat as quotes.2

A Christmas Story is the kind of film that can be enjoyed by all ages. Its humor works for kids and adults, and is a terrific family film for the Christmas season, rightfully deserving its prominent place on the Turner networks.

Narrator: Only I didn't say "Fudge." I said the word. The big one. The queen-mother of dirty words. The "F-dash-dash-dash" word!

1. I think the movie takes place in the 40s, though it seems to draw on cultural elements from the 30s, and a post-war ethic/culture of the 50s.
2. e.g., dressing burglars in stripped suits and placing X's on their eyes with tongues hanging out upon their deaths, and the leg lamp

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Bad Santa (2003)

Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Cox, Bad Santa
Bad Santa is one of those few movies I've seen in theaters that much of the humor came from how shocking it was at the time.1 Watching it now, it's not nearly as shocking, though it still is amazing some of the things they get away with.

Billy Bob Thornton stars as the titular bad Santa, a alcoholic, foul-mouthed, safe cracker who is hired by department stores along with Tony Cox as the brains behind the outfit. Bernie Mac, John Ritter, Lauren Graham, Lauren Tom, and Brett Kelly round out the rest of the cast, all turning in uniquely comedic performances when placed opposite Thornton.

Part of the success of Bad Santa is how dirty the childhood figure of Santa Claus becomes when occupied by an "an eating, drinking, shitting, fucking" man. Many films have had the drunk-in-Santa outfit as a passing scene2 but I can think of none that placed that character center stage. The movie also moves this Santa to Phoenix, AZ even further divorcing Santa from the snowy winter scenes in which we're used to seeing him.

Brett Kelly, Bad Santa
Thornton's performance is really complimented by the others in this film. While he is in fact terrible, he is surrounded by other terrible people. The only person who is entirely evil is the child he befriends/takes advantage of, Thurman Merman (Kelly). Unfortunately, his lack of evil is complicated by a complete lack of intellect. Thornton's extreme inappropriateness around Kelly almost seems acceptable as it's almost like cursing around a wall: it won't understand what you're saying anyway.

I own a copy of Badder Santa, which is longer than the theatrical version of Bad Santa. According to Wikipedia,3 the directors cut is actually shorter than the theatrical version and paints Thornton as a much less sympathetic character in the end. It's difficult to imagine, but it's something I would enjoy seeing.

Bernie Mac, Bad Santa
1. American Pie and Reno 911!: Miami had similar feelings throughout. Coincidentally I saw both American Pie and Bad Santa in theaters with my friend Corey.
2. e.g., Trading Places.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Buying the Cow (2002)

Bill Bellamy, Jerry O'Connell, Ryan Reynolds, Buying the Cow
Buying the Cow is one of those movies I'm not entirely certain how it ended up in my movie library. The only explanation I can think if of is that it must have been inexpensive. It is enjoyable though. The film follows Jerry O'Connell whose girlfriend of five years1 has given him the ultimatum to propose or end the relationship in two months. O'Connell is guided in his decision by his friends: lothario Ryan Reynolds and general nice-guy Bill Bellamy.2 O'Connell is hampered by concerns that a girl he'd met in his distant past might in fact have been "the one."

The movie attempts various philosophical conversations about the nature of relationships. "Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?" Is one question the movie attempts to unpack, largely placing it as a stupid saying, though still one the film found important enough to base its title on. Additionally, the film tries to unpack whether or not love at first sight and true love exist in our modern world.

Jerry O'Connell, Buying the Cow
O'Connell spends a good deal of time in the movie chasing after a mystery woman he saw in a restaurant who gave him the same tingly feeling he got when he met his mystery girl in his past. His major decision throughout the film seems to be whether to keep the relationship he's devoted five years of his life to, or to ab abandon everything in exchange for an unknown destined love. Being an American film, we can imagine which he might choose.

The A-plot of Buying the Cow is focused on O'Connell and his search for true love, the B-Plot follows Ryan Reynolds and provides most of the humor of the film. While we're introduced to Reynolds as a narcissistic lothario, he begins to question this lifestyle choice as meaningless sex doesn't seem to make him happy. In a moment of mistaken identity, he comes to believe he actually spent the night with a man. While initially disgusted, he eventually tries to force not only himself but his friends to accept it. In the end, his mistaken homosexuality doesn't last, but his journey to discovering his inner gay man provides a good deal of comedic relief.

While Buying the Cow is good lighthearted fun, it's certainly not a movie that anyone needs to rush out to see or own, but it's good mindless entertainment for when you want to watch something without having to think too hard.

Ryan Reynolds, Buying the Cow
1. Bridgette Wilson.
2. Bellamy, by the way, is one of the least funny "comedians" I have ever seen. He's also a terrible host for reality programming.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Returning Soon

I will soon be returning to this blog, so stay tuned next week for all new posts from my DVD journey.