Thursday, 30 June 2011

The Action 00's

The Best Action Films of the 2000s - Part 12 in our ongoing series.

Rambo (c) 2008 Lionsgate
It has been a big challenge for me to write about the best action films of the last decade. There are two main reasons. One, most of my favorites actually fall into the Superhero category, which I've already covered. Two, the action film as I know and love it, is dead. Yes, they did try to revive its corpse a couple of times this decade, but as The Expendables proves, you really can't go home again. It's a different time now. And what formed this time more than one certain event nearly 10 years ago, in September.

After 9/11, action film fans were anxious whether it would ever be passable to blow shit up on the screen since. Well, as the entire career of Michael Bay proves, you can, and it really didn't take more than two years for the explosions to be as big as before. But 9/11 also changed our perception of the explosions. Hand-held camera footage by bystanders of terrorist acts became more common in the news, and thus the films in turn turned more hectic in editing, and utilizing a strong feeling of "being there".

Another thing that had already began to change in the 90's was the action heroes. Arnie and Sly were getting old, and their careers almost dead by the turning point. JCVD and Seagal resorted (and still do) to tons of straight-to-DVD dreck shot in Romania. The 90's belonged to actors more common to everymen in their physique, such as Bruce Willis, Nicolas Cage or Keanu Reeves. In fact the latter's role in The Matrix (1999), turning from a pencil-necked nerd into a superhuman, was the most influental action film character for the upcoming decade. Spider-Man (2002) of course took it to an even more extreme position, making a feeble nerd an action hero. And it went hand-to-hand with the events of that fateful day. After all, what more were the passengers of United 93 than a group of ordinary people, who seemed superhuman in their sacrifice in deciding to fight the ultimate evil.

But this was not supposed to be an essay why action films suck nowadays. There are some good ones, but one must look for them harder. These are my favorites:

Bad Boys II (2003)
Director: Michael Bay

I'll never, ever get tired of this facial expression.
This is only one of the films that needed considering, whether they belong in the upcoming "guilty pleasures" list, that ended up in the real one. For even though it is as stupid as they come, BBII does deliver. Heck, ask Edgar Wright if you don't believe me.

The detectives Mike Lowry (Will Smith) and Marcus Barnett (Martin Lawrence) begin the film by inflirtating the Ku Klux Klan. They end the film by blowing up a drug lord's mansion in Cuba, and trashing a shanty town to boot. Afterwards, they relax laughing at the pool. There's supposed to be some sort of a plot in between all this, but I don't care and neither does Michael Bay. He's too busy bringing us an outrageous set-piece after another. Some, like the climatic blow-up, are stolen from old films (like Police Story, for example), but Bay's big budget and ridiculously colonialistic attitude and infant sense of humour make it all the more endearing. His trademark scenes of military types looking at a radar in a carrier and gearing up to go to battle are also intact.

As for Bay's sense of humour, it starts to go absurdly off the rails in this one. Thus, we get to witness rats humping in the missionary position and of course one character consumes drugs by accident. It's so bad it's pretty funny here, but later turned tragic with Transformers. Considering that, Peter Stormare gets off relatively easy, even though he plays a crook here. I'll never understand why Bay likes to humiliate Coen movie regulars so. Yes, the film is quite long at 2,5 hours, but unlike with Bay's subsequent work, the pace of the film keeps it interesting. Haters should get a body dumped in the hood of their car mid-drive. One of the last great action films to watch while drinking beer with friends, and the brightest moment in Bay's ADD-riddled decade.

The Bourne Trilogy:
The Bourne Identity (2002)
Director: Doug Liman

The Bourne Supremacy (2004)
The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
Director: Paul Greengrass

The Bourne saga is the second-best trilogy of the 21st century, so I'll handle all the films at once here. It was a true underdog of a film series, with each part managing to surprise the audiences with its innovativeness, smoothness, approach on actual issues and of course, kick-ass action. The first film begins with a former US agent (Matt Damon) found near death floating in an ocean. He can't remember anything, but sets out to find out about his past when he gets a lead or few. The government had wished to keep Bourne's existence wiped out, so they set to kill him. In every part while finding out about his past, Bourne finds out secret government operatives bordering on a conspiracy. He is determined to bring down the organizations that are responsible for the wiping out of his life.

The first Bourne movie proved to be more than just your basic summer action fest. Instead of copying James Bond, it actually inspired the Bond producers to take a true new, more realistic and natural direction for their long-running series. Identity is my favorite of the Bourne trilogy, with its smooth, easy-to-figure action. The Mini car chase is a favorite set-piece of mine. Liman also creates a strong European feel in its European-set scenes, and the adventure moves along with a true-seeming on-the-run feel to it. But it is also the most conventional of the films, with Bourne gaining a love interest (Franka Potente) along the way. Supremacy, the second one, is a lot darker. New director Paul greengrass also brought in his unique action-shooting style, which utilizes a lot of hand-held cameras. The plot is a bit muddier here, but it gets resolved a bit further by the last part. Ultimatum is a worthy ending to the trilogy, giving Bourne a chance to blow the government's plots wide open in the press. But what is it he really wants?

So the Bournes are not merely action films, but they are also some of the most exciting political thrillers of the last few years. When one remembers that journalists are still assasinated, private telephone conversations listened to and goverments are involved in straight-out murdering, they becomes even more chilling. A little less shaky, flashy editing in the latter parts couldn't hurt, though.

Casino Royale (2006)
Director: Martin Campbell

Casino Royale (c) 2006 Eon Productions/United Artists
I didn’t have much hopes for before I saw this film. I the more childish and cartoonish Bond movies were, the more I loved them.  I thought Connery’s "serious" Bonds were boring, and I preferred evil geniuses bent on world domination, comically monsterrific henchmen and silly gadgets to anything realistic. Going to a "dark and brooding" Bond reboot with copying the best ideas from Bourne didn't seem like would work. But I, as well as the whole rest of the world, was proven wrong with this.
The film sees MI6's new 00 Agent, James Bond (Daniel Craig), on a mission to Montenegro to enter a high stakes poker tournament. A banker who is funding terrorist organizations, known as Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) is also entering the tournament to win back the money he's lost previously. MI6's leader M also sends a female agent called Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) to keep an eye on Bond, and to pose as his wife. Bond also gains a few other allies along the way, but learns that in the spy business, one must not trust too much on anyone. After a long while, Bond finally got a real sense of danger, balls and actually multi-dimensional vunerable characters from Bond to the Bond Girl Lynd to Le Chiffre himself. Even the action is cool and not as preposterous as we've used to see.

It is perhaps a tad overrated movie, seeing as the positive surprise got the best response from people. The film is overlong and in the end doesn't walk that far from the path of the conventional Bond film. We were waiting for the sequel to improve, but it turned out to be a really bad Bourne-clone. While most of the time everything does work and well, here, it should be savoured as the decade's definitive Bond film. (Before you ask: 60's: Goldfinger, 70's: The Spy Who Loved Me, 80's: The Living Daylights, 90's: Goldeneye)

Crank (2006)
Directors: Mark Neveldine, Brian Taylor

Crank is another one of those hyperactive action films that might cause a headache to some, but personally I dig a lot out of. You'll see that some of others on the subsequent Guilty Pleasure list are about as or even less ridiculous as this, but I genuinely feel that the film plays its premise well, is creative with it, and never, ever slows down. That's what good action flicks are made of, people.

The high-concept plot can be summarized pretty shortly: The assassin Chev Chelios (Jason Statham) has been poisoned, so if his heart beat drops, he will die. It's Speed in a person's body! So, the film is basically Statham running around, looking for his would-be murderers to get revenge. To keep his adrenaline high, he has to do various stunts. Most memorable of these is of course his run-in with his girlfriend Eve (Amy Smart).

It's a very brief film, that almost leaves the viewer himself out of breath. It is also very un-PC and more than a little chauvinistic. But when it's all for a lark, who cares, right lads? The best thing about Crank is that in all its ridiculousness, it is played laughably straight. It is clear that the directors have their tongue firmly in cheek, but there's no need to over-emphasize it. The sequel, while containing several great ideas, forgot this important rule.

The Elite Squad (Tropa de Elite, 2007)
Director: José Padilha

As you might know, the slums in Rio de Janeiro are some of the most dangerous places on Earth. They are widely ruled by various criminal gangs, and shootings and violent crimes are an everyday occurence. The police don't like to go to the slums, but there are times when this must be done. For such a case, there exists an Elite Squad to do the dirty work. José Padilha's film, which won the Main Prize at the Berlin Film Festival, takes on such events and looks at different moralities of armed police activity at the same time.

The year is 1997 and Captain Nascamento (Wagner Moura) is leading a Special Police Operations Unit BOPA to uphold the law in a part of the slum on the hill where the Pope will come to visit. Nascamento is also scouting for a possible replacement for himself, as he's thinking of quitting his dangerous job as his wife is currently pregnant. He wants to find an incorruptible heir, and eventually narrows the choice to two candidates, both young cadets fed up with the corruption in the police: Neto Gouveia (Caio Junquiera) and André Matias (André Ramiro). While André is an idealistic and smart young man hoping for peace, Neto is hotheaded, a little thicker and prone to violence.

The film does promote violence to solve the horrid crime rates in the favelas. However, what makes it such a powerful piece, is that it does not accomplish this as straight-forward as in your basic right-wing Hollywood gun fantasy. The power of the Elite Squad is that it shows the entire system as complicated and difficult as it is in real life. And to get to the powerful position in the BOPA, you must suffer through brainwashing and endless misery in the boot camp. There's a strong underlying theme about how long are we to be human when upholding the law.

Fulltime Killer (Chuen jik sat sau, 2001)
Director: Johnnie To

Johnnie To has almost single-handedly produced all the worthy films from Hong Kong from the last decade. If you don't know your To, as good a place as any to start is Fulltime Killer. Here he takes a pretty basic hongkongese action film idea - two rival assassins competing and an overworked policeman out to stop them from murdering any more people. But To can manage to give his own unique twist to it all.

So competing from the title of no. 1 Assassin are the flamboyant Tok (Andy Lau) and the quiet Japanese O (Takashi Sorimachi). O has been the top man of his game for years and years with careful planning and without leaving any trace of his precence. He's become a legend, which the hotheaded young Tok wishes to challenge. Rather than from the silent dignity of the work, Tok gets his inspiration from various movies. So O has to fend off his hotheaded rival, try to save the life of his trusted cleaning lady and avoid being spotted by the police. He is also an epileptic, who will get a seizure from flashing lights and such.

The film is a true postmodern piece as it owes a lot to John Woo, Luc Besson and even to the Wachowski brothers. Tarantino-like, these debts are reflected in the lines and acts of film fanatic Tok. This becomes tiring after a while, but To compensates by having a knack for shooting action and a superb visual style to boot. There are plenty of good set pieces all around this film. The characters have plenty of dimensions to them, and the story goes to an unexpected route in the third act. I'm still not quite sure what to make of this change, but I must admit that it is a bold move and serves to bring the film into a satisfying conclusion.

Mission: Impossible III (2006)
Director: J.J. Abrams

One of the most underrated blockbusters of the decade has got to be this (and of course Ang Lee's Hulk). For as M:I:II was abonimable, I think people are turned off by its sequel more easily. That, and it came out at a time when Tom Cruise was really starting to lose his marbles. But unlike its predecessors, this isn't solely a Tom Cruise vehicle, but is in fact, about a team of spies on a mission. To put a rising talent as director and take a darker grip on the story both do wonders.

Special Agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise) has left field operations to get married to beautiful doctor named Julia (Michelle Monaghan). However, when Hunt's friend and former student gets caught during a mission, Hunt must return to the spying business. And then something goes terribly wrong, etc. The film starts like a standard spy film, but it has some real surprises later on up its sleeve. The story twists don't get too big to be a distraction like in the series' first movie.

M:i:III is is actually exciting. A couple of scenes in the beginning really make you believe that these characters are in mortal peril. You relate to the characters just enough to care what will happen to them. Even Ethan Hunt is a human being with emotions this time around. The action is, of course great and the familiar M:i-clichés, such as self-destructing tapes, real-like rubber masks and drops on a wire, make appearences. The best thing in the movie is Philip Seymour Hoffman as the main villain. His weapons dealer character is cool as ice, ruthless and totally merciless. He would give even Le Chiffre a run for his money.

M:I:III does the same for its franchise as Batman Begins did for Batman. It is far from perfect, but it is a very satisfying action movie and a positive surprise. I'm secretly a little exited about Brad Bird's part IV.

Rambo (2008)
Director: Sylvester Stallone

Initially I didn't think much of Stallone's magnum opus for this decade. It is very violent, very brutal, and very cynical. People literally get blown to pieces in a graphic way. No one is saved from the raw violence, not even women, children and animals. So it's not at all like the kind of fun action film one wishes to see, right? But this time around, Stallone has a point. It is a film about how war is hell, how one man can make a difference and how you should face your demons. The movie of course also encourages to use violence to do so.  

Vietnam veteran John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) has settled in Thailand. He's developed his killing into an art, but is recluctant to use it. But when a group of Christian missionaries ask him nice enough, he agrees to ship them to the war-ridden Burma, ruled by the ruthless Militia. The humanitarian mission to a rural village is interrupted when the soldiers of Major Tint attack the village, sadistically murdering, torturing, raping an pillaging everything in their sight. So, Rambo must return for the missionaries and put his skill set into use.

Stallone is often equalled to Rambo, and there is a tragedy to the character for the first time since his first appearance in First Blood. There were rumours of increasingly ridiculous sequels (Rambo vs. a werewolf, anyone?), but it would undermine the rather fine ending that allows Rambo to finally move on from warring.

Shoot 'Em Up (2007)
Director: Michael Davis

I'm prepared to take on most of the hate for this post for adding this film, but no matter. Whatever else I might've tried, I just couldn't do the list without this. It is a guilty pleasure, but such a pleasure that i wish to share it here and now. It is a film about shooting. Lots and lots of shooting. Pew pew!

A man named Smith (Clive Owen) becomes involved when he sees a thug mistreating a pregnant lady. This leads to a shootout while the woman gives birth to a baby. When the woman dies in the battle, Smith takes the baby and tries to keep it safe from a surprising number of criminals out to kill it. Leading the crooks is the sinister Mr. Hertz (Paul Giamatti), who's told his wife he's out on a business trip.

As the film is nothing but silly ideas on where a shootout might break out, one's enjoyment relies solely on how amusing one finds various shooting-based jokes. There's shooting while falling from an aeroplane, shooting without a gun and of course, shooting while having sex and saying double entendres. There is also, ridiculously, an gun restriction message shoehorned into a 90-minute glorification of carnage. I might be really stupid, but I dig this. There's no intellectual reasons, I just like to see guns go bang.

Sin City (2005)
Directors: Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller

When it was first released, Sin City was something never seen before. It was a film set in a computer-generated environment that really felt like a real one, how ever twisted and ditorted it might be. Computer tricks and whanot were brilliantly used to bring Frank Miller's graphic novel on screen more faithfully than any comic book movie before (or since).

The film tells three different stories of hard-boiled men caught between a powerful criminal element and a beautiful woman. First up is Hartigan (Bruce Willis), the only unbribed cop in town, who decides to get rid of a pedophile son of the senator once and for all. He develops a protective relationship to a little girl called Nancy. Then a tough-as-nails thug Marv (Mickey Rourke) falls in love with a beautiful girl called Goldie (Jaime King), who comes to him to ask for protection. When Goldie is killed, Marv goes to a quest to avenge her death. In the third story, Dwight (Clive Owen) kills a man harrassing a prostitute, and the guy turns out to be a corrupt cop. He must hide the evidence before a war breaks out with the prostitute ring and the criminals. The movie concludes with a return to the first story. Hartigan gets out from jail to see that Nancy (now played by Jessica Alba) is once again in trouble from the resurrected pedophile, now a real Yellow Bastard (Nick Stahl).

What really makes the film work is finding real hard-boiled Film Noir acting from some of Hollywood's finest. Especially Mickey Rourke and Bruce Willis do fantastic work. There is maybe a little too much of runtime and similar themes in the stories. Never mind that most of the men speak in similar gravelly Bat-voice. But it's an innovative film, and subsequent films have proved that both directors Rodriguez and Miller have had trouble trying to top. We are certainly due a sequel by now, and one that should focus on one or two bigger stories!

Bubbling under:

12 Rounds - the only good Renny Harlin film of the decade. It is simply dumb, loud fun.
Man On Fire - Tony Scott should also learn to keep his editing at bay, but this is a worthy revenge flick with a great cast
Vantage Point - A quite fun 24 knockoff, that sees the US President's assassination from different characters point of view.

To Be Seen:
Death Sentence
The Punisher: War Zone

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Peter Falk - An Angel Got His Wings

The sad news about the passing of the legendary Peter Falk broke last week. I feel I should remember the great man, but don't have the time to do a larger-scale post mortem post like I did with Leslie Nielsen. So, I'm just going to reminisce two films that are among his most beloved, and happen to be in my recent memory. So here's to Peter Michael Falk, born September 16, 1927, passed away June 23, 2011.

The Princess Bride (1987)
Director: Rob Reiner

Generally speaking, good films don't need a narrator, let alone one that's a character narrating the story within the story. But Falk's role as the Grandfather is really essential in this one. It's a story about how stories can make us feel better, and that of course needs its storyteller. And any story is better if the storyteller is sly and smart. The Grandfather here is a dead-on performance at that, mocking his grandson for wanting different solutions than the ones available, but still having the necessary warmth and love in his narration. He also crucially sells a story with "Princess" in the title to a little boy, which is no small feat. There is perhaps a tad too many meta-level gags in the film, but Falk always manages to sell them just as good to us viewers.

The story he tells is filled with the basic ingredients of fairy tales. The titular princess, Buttercup (Robin Wright), is kidnapped by a trio of well-meaning thieves. She is rescued by a dashing masked swashbuckler, who turns out to be her long-lost childhood love Westley (Cary Elwes). But the princess's obnoxious fianceé Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon) needs to have her back. He's plotting to use her death as an excuse to start a war with a neighboring country and Westley stands in the way. Inconcievable!

Altough Reiner is clearly working on a tight budget here (it looks more like a sunday afternoon BBC historical drama than LotR), the wonderful script by William Goldman and the perfect casting more than make up for it. It is one of those films that has a character gallery to die for and one that can be quoted at almost any circumstance ("Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die!" being the most favoured one). Even though it uses fairy tale conventions, it rarely feels clichéd and it rolls along nicely for its brief runtime. And even though it is a film of the '80s, it feels like a timeless one, rather than something forever bound to its period. No wonder it is beloved by many adults. Oh, and it's referenced even in Troll 2.


Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin, 1987)
Director: Wim Wenders

Wow, I never realized that these two movies were actually made on the same year. Falk was on a roll here. To balance the more entertaining values of PB, WoD (or The Heaven Over Berlin as I like to call it) is an art film about the last days of the divided Berlin and the careful optimism and melancholia caused by it. Falk's character (Peter Falk) neatly falls to the optimism side.

The angel Damiel (Bruno Ganz) is a guardian of the city of Berlin. He gives comfort to those that are lonely and helps along their path even if they can't see him or know that he is there. When Damiel sees a beatiful circus trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin), he immediately falls for her. Now Damiel must decide whether to give up being an angel and turn into a mortal man to meet his beloved one.

The star actor Peter Falk (Peter Falk) surprisingly spots Damiel. Falk reveals that he himself used to be an angel and knows just how Damiel feels. He wanted to experience the world rather than to just watch and thus turned himself into a mortal. Now he's in Berlin to shoot a period film about the city's Nazi past, which he's also writing. He's having a writer's block, with which Damiel helps him. Falk has some world-weariness to him, but he is so damn lovable that the essence of his character shines through. And he takes his Columbo-reminding profile with good humour to boot. It isn't easy to be human but for the chance to live, love and experience, one couldn't want for nothing more. Falk's ex-angel finds particular joy in eating frankenfurters and drawing other people.

Wender's film is a love letter to Berlin, and has gone on to be beloved by friends of the city (myself included of course). It has historical value as well, as it shows the wall still standing and how the country looked just before the fall of Communism. The black-and-white photography for the majority of the film is gorgeously beatiful, but once Damiel earns his humanity, the switches to color. The warm earthly tones emphasize the film's humane message pretty well. The film shares PB's theme of the need for a storyteller, which it seems, angels are particularly good at. As is Falk.

★★★★ 1/2

Image courtesy of
Oh, and one more thing. We shouldn't of course forget that Falk was also perhaps the essential and the best original TV detective. Lt. Columbo was harmless-seeming crime solver, but actually a razor sharp mind. The structure of the show actually had the villains be the anti-heroes of the show, as we followed how inevitably their antagonist Columbo would catch them for lying or to slip a confession. Columbo was very down-to earth and friendly, the kind of police one wouldn't mind having a beer with. Rest in Peace, Philip (or was it Frank? L.T.?). You may be gone, but your foolproof detectiving style will live on in the works of cheap imitations. We still know that there could only be one such as you.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Midsummer with Coffin Joe

Image from Soiled Sinema

We Finns celebrate the brightest time of the year by having the Midsummer's eve (this Friday) off from work to go to our summer cottages to get drunk. All sorts of mysticism is connected to this magical evening, yet to my knowledge no horror movies are based on this date. But there's one character that lurks around midnight to possess your soul and would enjoy the free love and bright nights of Summery Finland: Coffin Joe!

Coffin Joe is the trademark horror character of brazilian director/actor José Mojica Marins, originally known in the Portuguese-speaking world as Zé do Caixão. The long-nailed bearded undertaker usually wants to secure his bloodline and thus seeks to impregnate girls and sadistically kill their husbands. And is dressed stylishly in a black cloak and a top hat doing so. The "official" Coffin Joe canon consists of a trilogy of movies written, directed and starring Marins. Like many popular characters tend to, Coffin Joe too lent himself to do a little unofficial moonlighting. The surprising thing is that Marins himself appeared in several of these and even directed some off-canon work. The final part of the Coffin Joe saga, Embodiment of Evil only recognizes the first two films as canon. As I happened to have access to one of the rip-offs, I'll include it here, too.

At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul (Á Meia-Noite Levarei Sua Alma)
Director: José Mojica Marins, 1964

Coffin Joe is the sort of character that can only come from a devotedly Catholic country, such as Brazil in the psychedelic '60s. His first appearance is a sort of cautionary tale of renouncing the fundementals of Christianity. Joe (or Zé) is still a mortal man, albeit being nasty, violent, and a total misogynist pig. And a sort of anti-hero too, of course, as Marins seems to have a blast playing him.

Zé is the undertaker of a brazilian village. One Sabbath he demands to eat meat, altough his wife insists it's a sin. Zé gets his will, but his murderous disdain for his wife grows. It is revealed that Zé is obsessed of having a son, yet his wife can't bear one. Zé starts to court Terezinha, the wife of his friend Antinio, but is refused. Thus, he comes up with several fiendish plans to concieve a son, and is not afraid to kill people to achieve this.

I dig that at the beginning of the film, Zé is a respected entrepeneur in his village. As he acts like a total evil bastard right from the start, it's a wonder that Antonio is his friend in the first place or that the villagers haven't chased Zé down with pitchforks and torches years ago. Yet in Marins's world the supernatural is commonplace and prophecies and such tend to come true. This creates a nice aura of mystery over the whole film. Coffin Joe gets what he desrves by the end, but that won't keep him from coming back.

★★★ 1/2

Tonight I Will Possess Your Body (Esta Noite Encarnanei no Teu Cadáver)
Director: José Mojica Marins, 1967

Like a good horror sequel should, the second installment in the saga of Coffin Joe forgets Joe's fate in the previous movie quick (but not entirely) and soon returns to the status quo. The citizens of Zé's village are quite forgiving for his murder spree, I must say. Zé exploits some basic horror clichés and acquires a hunchbacked henchman, Bruno, to do his bidding. Zé is still looking for a bride to concieve a son with. That's why he kidnaps six women and runs various tests on them to see which one of them is worthy. Kind of like the horror film version of The Bachelor reality series, but less scary, more funny. (What timely jokester I am!)

Zé gets pretty close to achieving his goal, with having a suitable woman fall for him, but the men in the village of course interfere. Murder and mayhem soon follows. I think the sequel is more sure-handedly made for Marins to fully experiment on his crazy ideas. And they are entertainingly cool all the same. The eye-popping colored section in an otherwise black-and-white film, where Hell comes to Earth, is unforgettable in all its psychedelia. Zé, or Joe, himself acts more like a classic horror monster than a total asshole that's enounced Christianity now. The punishment of his crimes is much harsher this time around, so much so that Marins actually has him become a born-again Christian in his final moments. Many see this as a needless turnaround for such an evil character, but I see that Joe actually is such a slimy rogue, that he's willing to jump the ship when all chips are down. This spinelessness just makes Joe all the more endearing to me.


The Bloody Exorcism of Coffin Joe (O Exorcismo Negro)
Director: José Mojica Marins, 1974

The Exorcist was a huge hit in 1973, and one of the most blatantly imitated films ever made. The following year José Mojica Marins himself came to feed on the carcass and reserructed Coffin Joe in the process. Quite interestingly Marins actually has a double role in the film: he plays himself as well as Coffin Joe. If this meta-level story twist sounds familiar, one must be thinking about 1994's New Nightmare, where Robert Englund played himself as well as his signature horror character, Freddy Krueger. Truly, Marins was a pioneer in the postmodern horror filmmaking field.

It's a pity the rest of the movie isn't up to the idea. In the story, Marins, the famous movie star, arrives to his friend Alvaro's house to spend Christmas with his family. Marins doesn't initially believe in Coffin Joe's existence, but his arrival triggers a series of weird phenomena in the house. First, Alvaro's father becomes possessed for a while and proclaims he's out to collect the whole family. Lamps explode, books fly at Marins and, hilariously, the Christmas Tree decorations turn to a python and some spiders. This prompts a truly terrible child actor to stand in her place, point at the tree and cry: "An Animal!" It turns out the family's eldest daughter Vilma, is adopted and actually the daughter of an evil witch. The with is triggering the events and tries to get the family's mother to give her older daughter back to be wed to Coffin Joe himself.

Image courtesy of Cinema of the Worlds
Joe isn't his old self in the film. He barely speaks, let alone has a single maniacal monologue he's so famous for in the previous films. Here he simply represents the ultimate evil, and is merely Marin's way of exploiting his previous reputation. The film has a few good moments, but mostly it just drags, is shoddily acted and poorly staged. It is clear vintage b-movie stuff, so if one likes that, there are far worse films to spend some time with. but of course, with the original Coffin Joe trilogy, there are better ones as well.


The Embodiment of Evil (Encarnação do Demônio)
Director: José Mojica Marins, 2008

After years of imprisonment (!) Coffin Joe is released to the world. The years haven't changed Joe one bit, so he still seeks a woman to be a mother to his unborn son. At long last everyone knows what Joe is up to and he is a feared character. He gains a following of cultists in the film, and at the same time two vengeful policemen on the edge are out to stop him. The police are also being assisted in their pursuit of Joe by a fanatic Christian priest.

This is what Evil looks these days. Image courtesy of Coffin Joe Wiki.
It's to see that the nearly-octogenerian Marins hasn't watered the character of Joe down one bit, even if his beard is grey and has some extra baggage. Au contraire, Joe answers the trends of modern horror films by doing a lot more torturing this time around. In one memorable scene he cuts of a woman's buttock and feeds it to her. Marins must have been reading Voltaire.

But for all his sadism, the sins of the past come back to haunt Joe (and nicely recall the events from earlier movies to newcomers). Marin's knack for visual style is well served by having black-and-white clips serve as ghosts in a colored background. The further exploits of Joe aren't exactly as black and white as before in theory, too, as Joe opposes corrupt police forces and religious fanatics. However, the modern age of cinematic wonders have made the whole deal seem far less impressive, and the film does repeat itself at times. For a sequel 40 years after the previous movies, it is still a fine piece of work.


So a good Midsummer's night to all my readres. Remember, Coffin Joe is just a legend, but what ever you do, don't say the name of Candle Jac-

Thursday, 16 June 2011

The Directors: Ethan Coen (Part 2/2)

Ethan Coen - not pictured: Joel
Read the first part of my epic Coen brothers retrospective here.

I don't know what it is about these Director posts, but I love to plan them but when it comes the time to write them, it feels like a chore. So that might explain why this installment is so late (like all its predecessors).

Ethan Jesse Coen (1957-) is the younger of the two brothers. He first got the credit for his directing from The Ladykillers, but in fact he's been behind the camera as much as Joel from Blood Simple on. Because of SWG regulations, he's had to suffice to a mere Producer credit before. One would expect brothers to have quarrels over their projects, but surprisingly no actor working with the Coens has ever seen them argue. It seems the Bros. almost always agree on how things are to be done to create their brand of films. Perhaps it's this hive-mindedness that makes the Coens so great. After all, if there would be another one of you, it would be easier to notice the mistakes you're about to make and to enforce the strengths in your work.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
The State: Mississippi

Like they did with Fargo, the Coens messed again with audience expectations by declaring right off the bat that this film, set in the Deep South around the days of the great depression, was based of Homer's Odyssey. And the film's title, of course was borrowed from a Preston Sturges film, also set to the same area and period but having little more to do with the resulting film.

The Coens actually didn't base the film's plot to the Odyssey any more than any other film that features some sort of a quest for the protagonists. Of course, they can't resist throwing in a couple of jokes about the matter into the film, with both character names and having such things as a one-eyed villain and some alluring ladies by the water, that allude to the mythical creatures such as cyclopses and sirens.

Ulysses S. Everett (George Clooney), Pete (John Turturro) and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) are three fugitives on the run from the chain gang. They seek way back to Everett's wife, Penny (Holly Hunter) and to recover the stolen booty they hid before their capture. Along the way they have a wide array of misadventures, that sees them for instance become hit bluegrass artists. Like an old prophet warns them, however "the treasure they find is not the treasure they seek".

The basis of the movie is to have a sort of road film to places where there are no roads. The Coens are visibly having fun with everything old-time-Americana and with the stupidity of their protagonists. The film does have great jokes and set pieces, and with many other directors, this would bring the film to their greatest accomplishments. The Coens, however, are special, and it still does feel like something important is missing. Maybe the problem is the ending, which is a little too Hollywoody for its own good. The film had an important impact, as it brought the world its fine soundtrack full of old-timey bluegrass and folk music. The record went on to become a huge seller, particularly in the US, and brought the music to a whole new generation.
"Damn, we're in a tight spot!"


The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)
The State: California

The Coens then started their three-film and six-year slide, which made all film fans nervous about their career. None of the films from this perios were bad per se, but previously the Coens had never had two underwhelming films in a row, let alone three. And all of them are from genres they should excel in. The first was film noir. The Coens actually shot the film in black and white (and my DVD is for some strange reason re-colorized).

In Santa Rosa, a barber called Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) grows weary of his work, as he doesn't talk much and the job requires him to be chatty. He ventures on a business deal with one of his customers, who is looking for a partner in his dry cleaning business. Ed decides to get the starting money by blackmailing his friend Big Dave (James Gandolfini) who he suspects is sleeping with Ed's wife Doris (Frances McDormand). But this small act snowballs its way into Ed's life and wrecks everything in its path. The laconic Ed still only shrugs.

The Man has a feeling of being a sort of testing ground for the brothers. The Coens have done so fast-paced films in the past that this one is positively snail-like in its slow storytelling. Even the dialogue has long, awkward pauses. The film is also mixed with some pulp mystery material of the time, which, I think, is another way of fucking with audience expectations. They suspect a traditional noir, where the hapless hero slings one-liners and is in control, and the dames are clever and dangerous, but really all of them aren't that smart by a long shot. It's all well and good, but The Man has actually boring parts altough the storytelling doesn't actually drag at any part. The whole movie is just too laconic.


Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
The State: California (yes, again!)

The Coens had never done two sequetive films that were set in the same state, but California seemed to be as good a place for any for the story. It is, after all, a modern romantic screwball comedy featuring beautiful women and handsome men embarking on some witty word exchange. But somehow, the end result may be the most tired of the Coens whole resumee. It's still not exactly a bad film, just disappointing.

Miles Massey (George Clooney) is a famed divorce attorney, that gets a job to handle the divorce of a wealthy real estate developer Rex Rexroth. But the soon-to-be ex-Mrs Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones) proves to be more than a match for him. The pair embarks on a flirtatious affair, where each of them can betray the other with a beat of an eyelash.

Oddly, with this comedy it seems that the Coen's funnybone is out of date. They can create good characters, but don't really find enough to do with them (Geoffrey Rush is particularly wasted). The banter between Clooney and Zeta-Jones isn't that interesting and it's only up to the final minutes to salvage the film with some truly unimitable plot turns. But the time before that mostly drags and doesn't really get one's hopes up, which is why it comes as such a pleasant surprise. As it seems that not even the Coen brothers can truly save the traditional romantic comedy, it just feels like another nail to the coffin of the genre.


The Ladykillers (2004)
The State: Mississippi

Many would argue The Ladykillers is the worst Coen film. I myself understand this view, but I've had an affection for the film ever since I saw it, even though I recognize it's flaws. For The Ladykillers made me laugh, and once I'm amused, it's hard for me to turn my back on the film that succeeded in doing so. It's an update of a classic British comedy, and the Coens turn it so Americanized, it's almost a parody of American comedies. There are plenty of fart jokes in this one.

An innocent-seeming professor Higginson Dorr (Tom Hanks) rents a flat from an elderly woman (Irma P. Hall) and asks, whether he could use the space for his band's practice. In reality, the professor and his accomplishes are planning to break into a Casino vault. But it seems that a feisty old southern lady
is more than a match for even a gallery of rogues, and their plans keep backfiring.

By far the best thing about the film is character actor J.K. Simmons, who really should be in more of Coen brothers' films. His character has the ridiculous name of Pancake, and he suffers from an irritable bowel syndrome, thus providing the aforementioned fart jokes. He also quarrels a lot with the gang's inside man, former casino worker Gawain (Marlon Wayans of all people). I did see the original British film after this one, and it certainly has more dry humour as well as it's darker in tone. In the Coens' film, as you'd guess, all the robbers are huge idiots and thus partially responsible for their fates. It's not as clear in the British one, as even clever people who turn their skills to the wrong antics tend to get unlucky. But as Irma P. Hall's granny is highly religious, loud-mouthed and not that likeable, the Coens do thread a lot of grey area and it's not as clear, who's good and who's bad. That may be a problem with mass audiences (at least in comedy) and the film was a flop.

No Country For Old Men (2007)
The State: Texas

The Coens took a few leap years (in which they only did a segment in the episodic film Paris, je t'aime) and came back with a bang. And sweeped the table from Oscars from their trouble in perhaps the best big gong winner of the last decade. It's a wonder the usually conservative Academy voters were so keen on such a dark and multilayered film about the decline of America. Texas somehow always brings the darkest to surface from the Coens.

Hunter Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) comes across a number of dead mexican drug dealers. Among all the bodies he finds a briefcase with millions of dollars contained. Convinced no one saw him took it, he runs off with the money. But actually the case contained a homing device and a freshly escaped hitman Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) starts to relentlessly hunt the hunter down. Chigurh believes only in chance, and has no value for human life save for the chance one might survive an encounter with him. An elderly sherrif Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) follows the trail of blood well behind the pair, horrified of such disregard for any old-fashioned decent values.

Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, the midwestern Texas is depicted almost like a postapocalyptic field of war. And in this field Chigurh is the Terminator, tirelessly and unstoppably hunting down his target. He isn't in the game for the money, he's in because he is fascinated how human life is so frail it could end in a fraction of a second by chance. And his job provides him with plenty of chances to test this idea. He's cunning enough to preserve his own life, too, so the question eventually becomes whether he could be stopped even by chance? The ending of the film doesn't give much hope, and the plague-like trail of death is sure to go on. The only decent people left are at the end of their journey for sure, and already have dreams of leaving the hellish realm of the living. Maybe in the afterlife one could get another chance.

★★★★ 1/2

Burn After Reading (2008)
The State: Washington D.C./Virginia

After their Oscar success, the Coens returned to the comedy genre they had so lacklustre success with earlier the same decade. The film is still wobbly, and perhaps suffers from having too well-known cast, but is still a marked improvement and very funny to boot.

Gym workers Linda (Frances McDormand) and Chad (Brad Pitt) come across a disc containing the memoirs of a disgrunteled ex-CIA worker Osborne Cox (John Malkovich). They intend to blackmail him for the money, but as Cox was a mere pencil-pusher, he refuses. The gym workers also try to get the Russian embassy to buy out the secrets, but as they too refuse, they realize they need to dig up more dirt on Cox to have a prayer. At the same time Cox's wife is having an affair with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a State Departement Marshall, who gets tangled up to the blackmail plot in several ways.

The film is initially about a bunch of middle-aged people dissatisfied with their lives and waiting for something turn them around. They see their opportunity in blackmail, cheating on their spouses, drinking heavily and excercising. Unfortunately, the only thing driving their "grand adventure" is their own and other peoples' stupidity. The film also lightly mocks the modern foreign affairs, that have become so complicated, they need excessive bureaucracy and have no secrets worth keeping. A simple layman doesn't have any idea of the actual power structures. The great characters (the hilarious Brad Pitt especially) and unexpected plot turns keep the film fun for a while, but there's actually not that much to return to. 

★★★ 1/2

A Serious Man (2009)
State: Minnesota

To underline their middle-aged crisis, the Coens made next a lot more ponderous film about the same age period, but this time kept it in a strictly Jewish point-of-view. It's one of their most brain-twisting films, but I feel the mysteries are just another way of them to hoax the viewers. The questions they present don't really need elaborate answers (altough they probably have them), one only needs to focus to the central ideas of the film.

Physics lecturer Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) has a miserable life that goes from one ordeal to another. He's a serious man and a devout jew, but still his children are no-good, his wife wants a divorce and his troublesome brother stays over indefinately. He is also confronted with the problem when one of his student's father offers him a bribe to give him a better grade. The Coen's smart and layered writing works like a charm with no famous Hollywood actors around. Their humour is a lot more dry this time around, and nearly as black as in No Country.

Larry tries to search for a meaning for all of this from mathematic impropabilities and religion, seeking multiple times to consult a God-like all-knowing Rabbi. He is refused, and only his son gets to hear words of wisdom from him on his bar mitzvah day. The Coens also suggest that all of this may be due to a family curse by having a weird prelude about a jewish monster that may have taken the form of a Rabbi. But, once again, I would see this as playing with the audience expectations, and the real aswer being somewhere within "bad luck" and Larry's own behaviour. It's not a coincidence that the film is set on the eve of the Vietnam war.
“I think, really, the Jolly Roger is the appropriate course of action.”


True Grit (2010)
The State: Choctaw territory (Mississippi, Florida, Alabama and Louisiana)

Hats off to the Coens by not playing too postmodern games with their first true western. Indeed, True Grit is pretty traditional for its genre, but it is a feisty one and not to be swallowed too easily. For this is a film about memories, as is presented in the very first scene. We shouldn't take our narrator's point of view for granted. The film is also a story of feistiness and guts that don't ask for an age or gender. But the film had the poor chance of coming out the same year as an arguably even better film about the same qualities and a similar central character in an even harder situation, Winter's Bone.

The 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a farmer's daughter, loses his father to a drunken farmhand Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Seeking vengeance, Mattie comes to town to hire the toughest available sherrif to lead her to an expedition to find Cheney, who's joined a gang of outlaws led by the notorious Ned Pepper. She settles for Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), an old drunk, who has a habit of delivering wanted men to the judge more dead than alive. But things get complicated as also a Texas Ranger LeBoeuf (Matt Damon) wants to capture Pepper, and is willing to work with Cogburn but not with Mattie.

The film does have it's share of clichés, and not everything about the storytelling flow of the source novel (by Charles Portis) has trangressed smoothly. In fact, the basic Hollywood structure of quarrel and redemption at a crucial moment reminds of the films of Executive Producer Steven Spielberg. But the Coens do a great job in bringing the novel's down-to-earth and character-based humour as well as grittiness to the big screen. I suspected the Coens would be the perfect directors for the source material and was certainly not wrong. The bittersweet ending of pining and realizing the cost of living one's life with true grit as guidance is a billion times better than the one in the previous adaptation.

Joel and Ethan Coen score 3,93.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

EKEK 2011

So I closed my festival season (it's all year, baby) by visiting an underground festival which promised a full night of seven movies. The catch was that these movies were not announced to the audience before they were screened, so you had a chance see anything. I have heard rumours that films such as Enter the Void and Antichrist actually got their finnish premieres in this festival in years past. Sadly, no big must-see films were around this time around, but the  festival was at least as surprising as I had hoped.

Karamoja! (1955)
Director: William B. Treutle

Back in the days of exploitation, mondo documentaries were a way of showing nudity and violence on screen. In the everyday life of certain foreign peoples and tribes there are more than enough and thus low-brow tastes could be camoflagued under the cover of doing a documentary about a native tribe. In actuality these films are colonialistic and treat their subject with racist contempt.

Karamoja is a sort of forebearer to this sleazy phenomenon, but at the very least it is much nicer towards its subject, almost uncharacteristically for its time period. The film merely comments of what is on screen, not how it seems compared to the western point of view, yet has a little patronizing attitude. It does have a flimsy plot of a sort, about a dentist dying from cancer  and seeking to travel during his final months. Telling the audience this has no real purpose as the film is solely about the lives and habits of the people of the Karamoja tribe in Africa. Thus it is shown how they hunt, farm, play, dance and have a wedding. It's the kind of film one wouldn't make any more from the same kind of viewpont at least, but the subject is interesting and it does not feel streched.

Fun fact: The film is also known as Wang, Wang. Not to be confused, of course, to Weng Weng.


Otley (1968)
Director: Dick Clement

I've started to suspect that I may actually have something against London in the swinging '60s. People kepp telling me how great the films based to that time and place are, yet I still find them mostly boring. Aside from the shagadelic birds in mini skirts, of course. But at the very least what doesn't get to me is the sense of humour of that time period.

Gerard Arthur Otley (Tom Courtenay) is a swinger that stumbles drunk to stay over at his friend's house one night. When he wakes up in the morning, he finds out his friend has been murdered and he's wanted by the police for that. This publicity, in turn gets him mixed up in the affairs of international espionage, criminal organizations and defence organizations. Otley always manages to escape from a close shave to another trouble. Yet the film really doesn't have too big ups and downs, it's all played at the same flat intensity. The main character is unlikeable and the comedy isn't the least bit funny (although a wonderfully weary 8-year-old has one good scene in the beginning). Really, actually the swinging set of '60s is the best thing about this. Who says I hate that period now, when I'm willing to give this film a whole extra star just for that?


Virus (Fukkatsu no hi, 1980)
Director: Kinji Fukasaku

The first really good film of the night came from the director of Battle Royale. Virus is supposed to be an US-centric catastrohy film about the spread of a deadly virus across the globe. Yet only a Japanese director would approach the subject with as crazy solutions as these! The film manages to surprise me a time and time again, and it certainly doesn't tread on the same tired plot formula of most catastrophy movies. I'm going to discuss the exquisit plot in the next two paragraphs, so if you wish to remain unspoiled, feel free to skip them.

The fast-moving story begins in West Germany as an espionage thriller. A vat of deadly, artificially made virus enhancer gets stolen. Then, the spies crash their plane in the Alps. Come next summer, in Italy there are flocks of dead cows. The disease as well as panic soon spreads to Japan and to the United States. In the latter, the president of the United States (Glenn Ford) is trying to figure what to do to save his country, as one of his generals (Henry Silva) wants to just nuke other countries, to be on the safe side. This goes on until the president and the general are the last people alive in the US. When the president dies, the general arms the nuclear weapons to be active for use.

The only surviving people live in the research stations in the Antarctic. They have a submarine but are afraid to go back to other continents for fear of getting the disease. But since there's nothing else to do, they solve all of science's biggest problems in months. These include the knowledge of how to predict earthquakes precisely, how to develop an antidote for the virus which earlier in the film had no possible antidote, and how to get women to put out (elect them each to do a duty of 100 men a year by unanimous male vote). But as they learn of a nuclear threat, they must journey to stop it to Washington DC itself!

The film is cheesier than a ploughman's sandwich (to paraphrase the brits) and it's hilariously large plotholes are big enough to drive a submarine through. Many scenes don't seem to have anything to do with the main plot, the Japanese scenes being the prime example. The action scenes excessively use stock footage and the precence of George Kennedy as the leader of the Antarctic UN does make this feel almost like a ZAZ movie where laughs come non-stop. Just like catastrophy movies should, it is also littered with big stars in small roles (Edward James Olmos! Bo Svenson! Sonny Chiba!). This instantly became one of my favorites of the genre.


Clown (Klovn: The Movie, 2010)
Director: Mikkel Nørgaard

In Denmark there is a popular Office-like single-camera sitcom about the hapless Frank and his rude friend Casper called Clown. I have only seen one episode of the series, but it seems that much of the comedy comes from the shared sense of shame as the viewers symphatize themselves with the protagonist Frank who tends to screw up royally again and again. Well, the movie version has some of that, but mostly it goes completely off the rails. As a result, I laughed harder at this than in years watching an actual comedy in a movie theatre.

Frank (Frank Hvam) hears at a party that his girlfriend is pregnant. She hasn't told him yet because she's not sure whether he's ready to be a responsible father. If the child doesn't get that, she's willing to have an abortion. Frank sets out to prove he's a good father candidate by agreeing to take care of his 12-year-old nephew Bo (Marcuz Jess Petersen) for a week. As the first night goes badly when Frank leaves Bo at the mercy of burglars, he decides to take Bo with him to a canoing trip with his friend Casper (Casper Christiansen). The problem is, Casper was trying to just get away from his wife to visit a famous brothel and to score with teenaged girls at a music festival. Tour de Fis!

Road trips are a popular source of comedy, and Clown does steal many of its cues from more popular American comedies. Yet if the Nordic cinema has one advantage over that is that we are not in the least bit shy about nudity and sex unlike the Americans. So in terms of obscenity, the film actually goes past The Hangover and such gross-out comedies by miles. Honestly, I'm surprised that the climatic slide-show ever got past any sort of film boards. The main characters aren't really that likeable as their stupidity borders on insanity, but the unreal and outrageous solutions which they have for their problems makes it all the more funny. And really, who doesn't love a good sleazebag moron like Casper?


He-Man and She-Ra in: The Secret of the Sword (1985)
Directors: Friedman, Kachivas, Lamore, Reed & Wetzle

For many, the harderst film to watch during the whole night was this 1,5 hour toy commercial.  I myself got through it by help from a tactical bathroom break. The "film" is more or less five totally similar episodes of Masters of the Universe smashed together. They all involve someone getting kidnapped by bad guys and He-Man and She-Ra teaming up to rescue them. They probably got a five-year-old to write this just by giving him the same toys.

For those that don't know, He-Man is a swordsman and a superhero living in the land of Eternia. For adults, the funniest thing about him is the blatant homosexuality of his pink-dressing alter ego Prince Adam. In the film he sure likes to shake hands with moustached musclemen who have a picture of a heart on their chest, and then ride behind them on the same horse to their forest hideout. When Adam raises his sword and shouts: BY THE POWER OF GREYSKULL! I HAVE THE POWER!, his clothes swith to bondage gear and a fur diaper, and he adapts the name of He-man. Yet no one (save She-Ra) ever knows or guesses who he is. There's also a lot of bad guys that He-man must fight to keep Eternia free. She-Ra is He-Man's sister from another dimension who has pretty much the same qualities as well as problems. She is also a pretty blatant attempt to sell MotU toys to girls, as she rides a unicorn pegasus, lives in a land where everything is of rainbow colors and is friends with a goofy team of witches who resemble Smurfs in their appearance.

The film's plot really consists on just new characters popping up all the time to stand around, and after explaining what they are about to do, and finally using their special fight powers. You know, like presenting what a new toy can do. The toy family seems to have quite a few branches. The film's animation is as cheap as possible as every sort of animated movement is used multiple times, and usually the only thing moving is the character's mouths. The best thing in the whole He-Man franchise, his nemesis Skeletor, comes in way too late to completely save this, but at least his misogynism and diary-writing habits keep things funnier for the about 70 different endings this has.


Death Smiles on a Murderer (La morte ha sorriso all'assassino, 1973)Director: Joe D'Amato

I slept through most of this and thus am not qualified to give a proper review. If I find it, however, I'll promise to return to it in the second part of my Giallo post.

Marked for Death (1990)
Director: Dwight H. Little

These festivals have a reputation of saving a really kick-ass action flick for last. Marked for Death is certainly one of Steven Seagal's finest films, and brutal enough for the title as well. For in the 90's, movie audiences didn't feel catharsis at the end of action films unless the villain was murdered several times in a row, every time a bit more violently.

It was also the time that Seagal didn't need to play an "ex" anything. He plays a current DEA agent that is just on a vacation to visit his sister's family and his old friends. His fight against drugs in Colombia, however, has earned him a reputation which is like a target on his masisve forehead for ruthless Jamaican drug dealer Screwface (Basil Wallace). This is emphasized when Seagal kills some of his men on his spare time. When his family is in danger, of course it calls for drastic measures on behalf of Seagal.

The film builds itself up for a final showdown, and Seagal isn't even superhumanly invincible this time around and Screwface does get a blow or two in. But as we know, nothing can really break his spirit and make him make another face. Seagal gets his vengeance by first decapitating Screwhead's twin brother. When Screwface finally appears again later on,  Seagal first presses his eyes to his sockets, then kicks him through a wall to an elevator shaft and finally drops him to be impaled on a a bar on the roof of the lift. Now THAT'S Justice, as Charles Bronson says in Kinjite.

★★★ 1/2

Thursday, 2 June 2011

A Tale of Three Thors

Verily, I say at thee mortals in the realm of Midgard. Aye, today it beyeth Thursday, the day we honor the Son of Odin, Thor! Some Christian villains would have you celebrate Ascension of their sole god on this day, but I say thee Nay! The industry of moving images has served Asgard well, producing fine filmic evidence of the God of Thunder himself. Have at thee!

Thor (2011)
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Thor played by Chris Hemsworth

In the land of America, far beyond the seas the mightiest viking warriors have traveled, the Marvel comics version of Thor is far more well-known than the actual Scandinavian legend. The character is one of Marvel's finest, being both one of the universe's most powerful heroes, being a quite hilariously a viking in a world devoted to high-tech industry, and of course being a really pompous Shakespearean trash-talker and swashbuckler. That being said, it was by no means a given that this outlandish premise would translate well for the big screen.

I most eagerly awaited how Shakespearean director Kenneth Branagh would play the dialect and the betrayals within the family of gods on the big screen. I should've known that it usually matter, who's behind the camera in a big summer blockbuster. For my money, Thor could've just as easily been directed by Jon Favreau or Louis LeTerrier, who did the previous official Marvel Universe films. The strengths in the film lie far beyond directing, in the action scenes, actor choices and set design.

The world of Asgard doesn't stem from the viking legends, but rather from the pen of Jack Kirby. It does look awesome on screen (although I would imagine 3D doesn't add anything), even if it is a bit barren, distant and cold. I would like to see Asgardian extras in other scenes than with banquets and coronations and such. But the main charceters are mostly well-realized. Chris Hemsworth has the charisma and strength of a god, but is also more quick-tempered than his comics counterpart, which is a good choice for the story. I was happily surprised to find that Thor's friends Lady Sif and the Warriors Three made it to the movie. I would gladly cough up more money to see the further adventures of just these four. "Xena, Jackie Chan, Robin Hood..." The most awesome of all characters would be Idris Elba's Heimdall, who is huge and otherwordly and thus threatening-seeming, but actually honorable, noble and willing to fight for what's right.

Thor is a fish-out-of-water story that mostlt deals with a god cast in a regular American small town. I found the film's humour to work pretty fine, on par with the Iron Man films. It's good that these films don't take themselves way too seriously, even though films like The Dark Knight might tempt them to do so. But in real world, I would like to see a couple of more strong scenes for Natalie Portman, who does little more than swoons for Thor's abs in the film. Kat Denning's Darcy is a lot more endearing version of the same female horniness, but with better one-liners and none of the awkwardness.

The action is huge and one gets plenty of bang for one's buck. Thor also isn't portrayed as too invunerable to work as a character the audience can emphasize with. He mostly does struggle without his powers, but when hammertime arrives, it does so with a bang. The film's biggest fault is the main villain, Tom Hiddleston's Loki, who's too much of a sniveling bastard child than a mischievous master planner. I think I went too far when comparing him with other failed on-screen Marvel villains such as Dr. Doom, Venom and Elektra, as he does have an arc and his motives are somewheat believable. But his powers aren't that well-realized and his final plan is heisty and borderline stupid, something I wouldn't expect from the God of Mischief. But as Thor will be back next summer in The Avengers, I hear Loki will too, and this time it seems he has a much grander plan, according to the after-credit scene at least.

★★★ 1/2

Almighty Thor (2011)
Director: Christopher Ray
Thor played by: Cody Deal

The happy thing about Thor the ancient god of thunder is that he's a public domain character and thus anyone can make their own movie based on him. Particularly happy about this must've been the schlock-company Asylum, that makes its money by conviniently bringing out similarly-named low-budget films with every release of a major blockbuster. This time Thor at least got an "Almighty" adjective in front of it (Sherlock Holmes in 2009 wasn't so lucky). I was intrigued by this as I had heard Thor wields a machine gun in this. I was less intrigued as I heard it was produced by the SyFy channel, who have a knack of making films that seem awesome in theory (Mammoth - a film about a zombie mammoth with a soul-sucking trunk, anyone?) but simply make them so bad that such promising ideas are utterly demolished.

Luckily, Almighty Thor isn't at that level. One would exprct that such a film would over-emphasize the beginning and then run out of steam, but actually Almighty wisely saves its biggest bangs to the final reel. In this film Thor is but a youngling, not yet a true warrior. The evil wizard Loki attacks Asgard with his army of giant space coyotes and later dinosaurs, which makes the Allfather Odin launch an all-out attack against him. But even though Odin has The Hammer of Invincibility at his use, Loki manages to trick him to kill his other warriors and subsequently, Odin himself.  But Odin manages to cast the hammer to Midgard before his death, and Thor promises to retrieve it to defeat Loki. But then things get confusing as Loki suddenly seeks to destroy the Tree of Life, but still goes after Thor and his latino valkyrie sidekick. What follows is a small training period and then a never-ending parade of different fight scenes between Loki and Thor.

But the legends are still true.
The film does get boring, but it still has a few good ideas up its sleeve, which grow interest in the film all over again. The big-budgeted Thor movie could take notes for the sequel from this. At the beginning I thought Almighty's action was limited first to a forest and then to an unnamed city's back alleys because they were cheap shooting locations. I think I'm right to a certain extent, as the money is spent elsewhere. Almighty has to have a tiny CGI-budget but it still manages to throw in almost Emmerich-sized scenes of destruction in the city as Thor and Loki fight late in the film. In the other Thor, the Destroyer merely destroyed a small New Mexican town, and it never really seemed like ordinary people or our world was in any serious threat. It's handled better here. The best thing about the film is that altough the acting is often porn- or underground movie- level bad, the actors more often than not just scream their short sentences. LOKI! ODIN! THOR! I SEE YOU! And as the screamers include wrestler Kevin Nash as Odin and every A Night At The Roxbury fan's favorite Richard Grieco, we're at good hands here. And it does contain a scene where Thor pounds his own hammer in hell with his fists. AWESOME.


Thor - The Rock Opera (2011)
Director: John Cody Fasano
Thor played by Jon Mikl Thor

Finally, we have the most testosterone-filled epic of them all. Little more than a streched music video for the Canadian hair metal band Thor (or T.H.O.R. as it's spelled in the credits), the film is about 40 minutes of pure ass-kicking. I've heard rumours that there would be a lot longer director's cut available on DVD, so I might check that out at some later point too. The film itself is a combination of old music videos, live gig footage and new digicam footage that seems to be shot in a nearby park. The props are all visibly made from rubber. The film's story is told by a narrator, as the images alone only confuse the audience trying to get the plot of this thing.

The film is directed and written by the son of the director of Rock 'n Roll Nightmare, John Cody Fasano and Thor band frontman Jon Mikl Thor. It's based on the Thor band comic book, which I haven't read but if I had, it probably would've cleared a thing or two for me about the very confusing plot. What I understood from it is this: The film starts as young Thor descends to Earth from a spaceship. He battles some evil dudes running toward him in a hallway, wielding his magic hammer. After his victory, Thor decides to spred the message of Rock 'n Roll for years. METAL! But then, a cult worshipping a hilarious deep-voiced giant snake god kidnaps Thor's wife (Police Academy and Devil's Rejects star Leslie Easterbrook) and turns her into a superpowered witch. Thor can change her back but then for some reason he has to kill her. It was her dying wish, you see. Then Thor goes and beats up one of the servants of the serpent and the movie ends there. Huh?!

The most kickass thing about this would be the closeups on 70's Thor' muscles. They are best emphasized on a scene where he punches through a concrete wall and flexes his biceps through the crack. Also, the rubber snake in one point shouts "SILENCE!" to his annoying Australian accomplice and bites his head.

The film works perfectly as the opening act for Thor's gigs as it's completely cheesy but at the same time oddly honest. Plus, it contains more than its fair share of scenes where the viewing rock warriors can hoot and cheer together. You just know watching this that the main event is yet to come. And you get just the right shot of adrenaline to prepare for it.

★★★★★ (or if you're Loki or some other motherfucker, ★)


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