Friday, 31 August 2012

Friday Night's A Great Night To Remember Tony Scott

RIP Tony. Image source

Every true movie fan across the planet was devastated to hear about the death of action auteur Tony Scott. His peers and fellow directors rushed to bring out their condolences and remember the good times. The old man used to mentor his younger colleagues, and gave a much needed crack at greatness or stardom with many collaborators, be they Tom Cruise or Quentin Tarantino. As sad it is, sometimes we recognize a great talent only when he's gone. So I'm certain Tony Scott's collaboration to particularly the action movie genre will be remembered years from now. Hell, he pushed the limit and brought out new things even in his most commercial work. The overall record of his filmography may be even better than his overrated brother's...

I'll take a look at three of my favorite Tony Scott films.

Beverly Hills Cop II (1987)

For a long time I held an inexplicable hatred for this blockbusting Eddie Murphy vehicle. I thought it was as bad as number III, or even worse, boring. Well, such misconceptions must have come from me falling asleep after the shooting range scene of this movie when I was a highschooler. Recently, I gave the movie another shot due to a friend's multiple year-long insistence. And as much as I hate to always admit it, I was wrong. Beverly Hills II is an uproaringly entertaining event movie, and holds up even when watched back-to-back with Beverly Hills Cop I. Indeed, it's everything that made the first one so good, but upped to the MAX. And with some extra Tony Scott craziness in between, especially in the grandiose and explosive action setpieces.

A hitman called "The Alphabet Killer" is on the loose in Los Angeles, and he severly wounds Captain Bogomil (Ronny Cox). Since Detroit cop Axel Foley became good friends with the Captain by the end of the first BHC, Axel F rushes from his job to another vacation in Malibu. Reunited with Detective Billy Rosewood (Judge Reinhold) and Sergeant John Taggart (John Ashton), Foley swears to capture the persons responsible for wounding Bogomil, and to protect his daughter Jan (Alice Adair). The investigation leads to weapons kingpin Maxwell Dent (Jürgen Prochonow), who is, of course, protected by the law. But that sort of thing hasn't stopped sneaky Axel before.

Smartly, even though Murphy had gone to be one of the biggest stars in the world since the first film, this isn't just his solo show. Quite the contrary, in fact, since Scott allows much of the supporting cast to shine this time. Reinhold's squeaky-clean Detective Billy Rosewood is seen to have some rather unsettling enthusiasms for plants and guns, and Gilbert R. Hill's pissed-off Police Chief's mad rant in the beginning goes up to be my very favorite. "Don't think, Foley! It makes my dick itch!"

That's not to say Murphy doesn't shine once again with his mad ad lib skills. Whether faking one's identity as a Caribbean psychic, cheating his way into Hugh Hefner's Playboy party, or getting info wrom a weasely accountant by threatening him with parking tickets, Murphy's o absolute roll here, at the top of his game and absolutely hilarious. I'm also long overdue a proper post to praise his talents anyway. Nudge me if you'd like to read it.

And I adore every scene with Foley hijacking a mansion that's supposedly renovated.

The film's casual misogynism is also endearing. This is a party strictly for the boys, not to scarily big bitches.

The Last Boy Scout (1991)

The late-80's to mid-90's were Scott's best time because he had the ability to pick just the right scripts to work with. With a good screenwriter on his side, Scott could rarely miss. And when he got the best action screenwriters of the game, he created classics. At that time, Shane Black, the talent behind the success of the first two Lethal Weapon movies, rose up in Hollywood's ranks and became more and more irresistible for any action movie director worth his salt. In their collaboration, Scott really understood Black's worth by not filtering out his words too much, nor ordering many rewrites. Thus, The Last Boy Scout is quite close to what Black managed to do while holding all the strings on Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang over a decade later. TLBS was said to be by Total Film Magazine "an endlessly rewatchable parade of good bits and great bits." And that pretty much nails on why I love this film so much.

Joe Hallenbeck is trying to save the life of the guy who ruined him to avenge the guy who screwed his wife.

Something fishy is going on in the world of pro league American football. A star quarterback takes a gun to the field and shoots his way to a touchdown, before offing himself by saying "Ain't life a bitch." A stripper named Cory (a very young Halle Berry) knows what's happening but fears for her life. She hires the private eye Mike Matthews (Bruce McGill) to investigate and to protect her. But this private eye is secretly having an affair with the wife of another private eye, Joe Hallenbeck (Bruce Willis), and offers him the job in case he would get killed. The plan backfires as Joe catches on to Mike and his wife, and Mike gets blown to bits by a car bomb. But Joe is a former secret service agent, who's so down on his luck that he needs the cash, so he investigates further. Along the way, Cory's boyfriend and former star quarterback Jimmy Dix (Damon Wayans) joins Joe as he also wants to get to the bottom of things.

Dix may be a great guy but he still can't spell worth shit.

So, from the plot synopsis the film's plot seems quite tangled, but actually it is a buddy cop movie much like Lethal Weapon. Again, we have a bum-like white asshole on the edge, who eventually redeems himself. His black partner's more down-to-earth and less violent, but when push comes to shove, does show he can handle things. Even the main villain's henchman is named formally, even though he only has a first name, Mr. Milo (as opposed to Mr. Joshua). But the rude and crude dialogue couldn't pass the mustard in a major studio film like LW. Thus, the film works almost like a parody of the films that put Shane Black on the map. Like in BHCII, everything is ramped up to be funnier, bigger, more violent, and considerably less comfrotable Hollywood-style corner-cutting.

"Awright, it's riddle time! Why did Mr. Milo cross the road? Because his dick was caught in the chicken!"

A good way to illustrate them is to look at the characters. Willis' Joe cracks jokes at every situation, and insults just about everyone he meets. He gets out of a tight jam TWICE by making dumb henchmen laugh at dick jokes, and uses the distraction to kill them. He doesn't seem like a very likeable character, but Willis' charm and comic timing do wonders. As does Black's ability to bring a dash of tragedy to his heroes. Willis' career has been ruined and his personality likewise. Even worse off is lovelorn Dix, whose story of his firstborn child is truly gut-wrenching and very unexpected at a film such as this.

But the real meat of the film is of course in the action, and boy does the film deliver. From trying to ward off bombs to many tight saves from flying bullets, Scott handles suspense well and at times it really does feel like Willis, Wayans, and Hallenbeck's 13-year-old daughter Darian (Danielle Harris) are in life-threatening jeopardy. But the bad guys get their bloody end, whether it's the inventors of Scrabble, or Mr. Milo, who gets a send-off so violent and crushing it could only happen in a 90's action movie.
In sum, the sky is blue, water is wet, this film is great. And then some.

★★★★ 1/2

True Romance (1993)

The most famous case of Scott supporting a fresh screenwriting talent is of course this film, based on the first script Quentin Tarantino ever sold. And it is undobtedly a Tarantino joint. The pop culture-obsession, the snazzy dialogue, the knack to write rather a collection of cool scsnes rather than a coherent story, it's all there. The main character is such an easily spottable alter ego to the screenwriter it is quite laughable how much of a badass Tarantino seems to think he is.

Clarence (Christian Slater) is a comic book shop employee, who has little luck with women. He tends to just blabber on about his love for Elvis which leaves any girl he meets in a bar cold. On his birthday, he's left alone to see a Sonny Chiba triple bill. But in the audience is also the beautiful but clumsy Alabama (Patricia Arquette), who finds his pop culture knowledge charming. After a night together, Alabama confesses she's really a call girl hired by Clarence's friends, but has really-real fallen in love with him. But she's scared since she fears her pimp, Drexl (Gary Oldman). Clarence has fallen for Alabama too, so he marches to Drexl's to demand Alabama's freedom. A shootout ensues that leaves only Clarence alive. He steals a suitcase full of drugs to fund a new life for Alabama and himself, in Hollywood, California!

The film does have a sort of a scattershot feeling to it, especially at the latter half. It seems originally True Romance's end half was to become Natural Born Killers. But the rights to that script had been purchased by Oliver Stone, who was about to rewrite it, much to the chagrin of Tarantino. So, the end half of TR had to be rewritten, and since at the time Tarantino only wrote about what he knew, he wrote about his experiences in Hollywood. It's quite easy to draw a parallel to coke-vacuuming Vietnam-movie directing has-been Lee Donowitz (Saul Rubinek) to Stone. Nevertheless, there's plenty of pure brilliance within the film and it's certainly never boring. For one, there's this scene which still ranks very high on the best scenes Tarantino has ever written.

Scott also deserves a lot of credit for the film, and even this scene to turn out so well. While the writer himself might have used an ironic 70's pop song on the soundtrack, Scott knows how to up the ante and to build tension in the way Tarantino really only learned recently. One important thing about this is that Scott shoots the film's violence as gut-wrenchingly brutal and painful. The scene where James Gandolfini's mobster beats Alabama is particularly hard to watch.

I bet Tarantino used to be more like this than Clarence.
Scott also has perfectly cast the film. the main couple are a little awkward and stiff, because Slater and Arquette usually are as actors. But it works great as two young people experiencing their first, great love. The casting of the bit parts is nothing short of brilliant. Scott must have seen that Brad Pitt would become the biggest star in the world in a few years so the joke concerning his non-role in the film would work. Almost as funny is Val Kilmer, whose face isn't once shown. Alongside that, we have the likes of Christopher Walken, Michael Rapaport, Bronson Pinchot, Tom Sizemore, all doing great to career-best work. And Dennis Hopper, man, I miss that guy. And Chris Penn, too. May the rest of the cast and crew of this film live long and prosper.


Much love and all the best to all of Scott's family, friends and fans. The world does seem a lot poorer without him. But the way I see it, the best way to remember him is to take a cold beer and pop a favorite film of his to the DVD player.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Espoo Ciné 2012

The restored version of Méliès's A Trip to the Moon was one of this year's highlights. Sadly, I missed the film.
There was a mighty fine film festival in Espoo this year. While the programme boasted less obvious picks, the overall quality of the festival was as high as ever. I, once again, saw some of the most interesting films from Europe and around and here's what I thought of them.

The Opening Film:
Amour (France/Austria)
Director: Michael Haneke

With this film, Haneke bacame one of the prestigious few who have won the Palm d'Or at Cannes twice. And it is a real corker. While Haneke remains faithful to his cold, sterile, analytic style, the film still revals surprisingly humane sides of the grumpy Austrian auteur. Like the title states, this is about love, but Haneke-style.

In the spotlight of the film are an elderly couple of wealthy music teachers, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva). They live together in a vast flat in the middle of Paris, where most of the film is also set. But then, their everyday routines are threatened when Anne has a stroke and her health starts to falter. Georges takes care of his bed-ridden wife as best he can. Their worried daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) comes to visit and suggest that Anne could get better treatment at a hospital. Georges is adamant that she'll be best off in their home, and makes effort to get the very best treatment and care for her as he can.

It seems odd that so few movies dare to deal with the Autumn years of peoples' lives. It is the time when lives may be changes in a flick of a wrist, and may hang by a thread. Watching Amour is utterly devastating and hard. One doesn't need flashy melodrama and luscious over-the-topness to tell about us as people. This is as honest and down-to-earth as one can get, never spoon-feeding the viewers with anything. As is often the case with Haneke, this is less a story, more a study of emotions and situations. The director's characterization is precise and is helped tremendously by the excellent cast. Also faithful to the director's style, he devastates upper-middle-class living, where the appearence of the situation may be the most important thing. As precious of his wife is to him, Georges can't stand the thought of humiliating her by allowing just anyone to treat her. All the possessions the rich pair owns eventually turn into empty relics at a tomb. We know from the beginning how the thing will play out, which adds to the hoplessness and emotional punch of the film. It's a near masterpiece, although I'm not quite sure what to make of the final scene that seems to be at odds with everything else on display here.

★★★★ 1/2

Brave (USA)
Directors: Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman

Is Pixar the victim of its own success? Everyone seemed to wait a sort of second coming or a cinematic masterpiece from the next film produced by the studio that last did Cars 2, and the reviews this little gem has got reflects those. But that's not how studios work, even though Pixar still works as a sign of quality. Had Brave been released as a Walt Disney Animated Classic (tm), it would've been hailed as that studio's best effort in ages. Brave does feel to have more in common with Disney's tradition of animated movies rather than Pixar's.

This is an old-fashioned fairytale, concerning a princess, this time in ye old Scotland. Merida (Kelly Macdonald) has been prepared her whole life by her mother Elinor (Emma Thompson) to choose a suitor and get married. Her father Fergus (Billy Connolly) would rather have scraps and feasts, but humors her wife and calls off the three biggest clan leaders of his kingdom to present their sons for Merida to pick a husband. But Merida opposes the plan, and runs away from home. In a forest, she stumbles upon an old witch, and persuades her to do a spell that would change her mother. But the spell changes more than she bargained for, and soon both the daughter and the mother have to fight for survival.

If the story seems to consist of familiar elements, it might be, but they are mixed so as to feel fresh. It is good to see a fairy tale animation after a long while that has almost none cute postmodernism, winking at the audience or anachronistic modern jokes. There is a little less humor than usually in Disney/Pixar films, although the comical scenes play well. One would've wanted some more of the bonkers carver witch and the three mute, red-headed rascal wee 'uns, which is always a good sign. 

Essentially, this is a story about a quarrelling family, and even more precisely, a relationship between a mother and her teenaged daughter with very different interests. The film argues that real bravery is not in any fight skills or archery, but in the care for others and willingness to put her- (or him-) self in jeopardy just to save those that one loves. Where does changing oneself go, is the film's real conflict. Such ideas are universal. It also helps that the film is easily Pixar's most gorgeous. The fog, the dark natural light, the elements at play. They help create an athmosphere akin to the one in early 1940's, a bit "darker", Disney fables, such as Pinocchio and Fantasia. It's also almost as exciting.


Hell (Germany/Switzerland)
Director: Tim Fehlbaum

While everyone knows how Roland Emmerrich loves to destroy the Earth in his own movies, he has for a change also produced a little more down-to-earth take on the Apocalypse in his native Germany. Hell seems like an intriguing concept, a cautionary tale about Global Warming, and an exciting tale of what happens when humanity is pushed to a corner. But sadly, the film plays it way too safe and takes whole pages on better realized post-apocalyptic films.

So Global Warming has raised the Earth's temperature by 10 degrees. Some developments in the sun have made the athmosphere even more scorching, so people can't survive outside any longer. Water has become scarce and the most valuable commodity. Two sisters, Marie (Hannah Herzsprung) and Leoni (Lisa Vicari) travel with Tom (Stipe Erceg) in his run-down car to mountains, where there is rumoured to still be sweet water. But along the way there are also other people who need to kill in order to survive themselves. When the group is ambushed, Marie will stop at nothing to save her sister.

So the road trip come study of a relationship with two blood relatives in a world-in-ashes undoubtedly brings in mind Cormac McCarthy's book and John Hillcoat's film The Road. Hell is almost a carbon-copy of the film's imagery and features a very similar hopeless mood. The most interesting dynamics come in the very beginning as the uneasy relationship between the sisters hint that Marie is only having an affair with Tom so they can ride with him and try to find safety. The unrelenting heat and constant peril also work well in the setting. Unfortunately the film forgets most of its rules as it goes along. The ending turns into just another backwoods survival story where people run away from inbred cannibals. And run away outside, where just a few moments ago was declared to be too hot to even go without wrapping oneself in blankets and moving very slowly. As the film also has very few original ideas, it is quite tedious and boring to watch. A pity.


Moonrise Kingdom (USA)
Director: Wes Anderson

One filmmaker that few dared to hope to grow up, is certainly the indie boy darling Wes Anderson. He's been held back by his trademark style of overwhelming quirkiness for about a decade. But while he still doesn't let go of his well-tested tropes, Moonrise Kingdom ranks among his very best films for one clear reason: In it, the characters come first, the quirks second. This is a love story between a misfit and a rebel, and everything else in the film is built to reflect on the fact.

In a small New England island in the 1960's, everyone knows each other. The orphaned Sam (Jared Kilman) has been let out of a correctional institute to join the Eagle Scouts, led by Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton). But in secret Sam has been planning to run away with a girl he met a year ago while sneaking into the dressing room of a church play, Suzy (Kara Hayward). Suzy is the daughter of two quarreling lawyers (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand). As she is starting to show signs of puberty her sudden mood swings go from violent to mellow and her parents are clueless as to how to handle her. But she finds a kindred spirit in Sam and they go off exploring the lesser-known parts of the island, finding a reclusive spot on the beach.

Anderson's nostalgic look at a tiny town in the 60's makes it seem like the film was somewhat based on actual childhood experiences. Indeed, Sam seems to be a sort of alter ego to the director. Two understanding father figures try to reach Sam, firstly Ward representing the authority-led community. The more important male character is the melancholic police officer Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), who is a loser in his life and love. His affair with Suzy's mother isn't going too good, but being fundamentally broken can help him build both Sam and himself from the ground up. The worst thing that can happen to Sam is being punished of the crime of being young and reckless by being taken away from the heartless (and namely, faceless) Child Services (Tilda Swinton). By contrast, the worst thing to happen to Suzy could be to stick with what her parents tell her, and wind up in a similarly unhappy marriage where the only thing to discuss with one's spouse is work matters. During the course of the film the erstwhile rebels start to awake sympathy from all around the cast, fed up with their rat race lives.

The Eagle Scouts are basically The Dirty Dozen or any other war movie unit.
As always, Anderson places a lot of attention to seemingly minute details. That era's record players, cheap romance novels, and scout supplies such as maps and swiss army knives play an important role, as does the will of exploration and to create art. Anderson's melancholic but absurdly silly take works perfectly for this bittersweet but hope-filled tale.


Crulic – The Path to Beyond (Crulic - drumul spre dincolo, Romania/Poland)
Director: Anca Damian

This innovative animated movie is fact-based, but not quite a documentary, since it has no actual interviews. Some archive material is intervowen with the animation, though. Claudio Crulic, a 33-year-old Romanian man withers away and dies of hunger in a Polish prison. The man starts to narrate his life story from beyond the grave. The Kafkaesque story has a missing wallet in the wrong country lead to ungrounded accusations of stealing credit cards. Crulic has to endure cruel mistreatment from authorities.

The innovative film runs with a quick pace. The animation makes photos and pictures (from crude sketches to beautiful watercolor- and pastelle paintings) come to life. The vivid, constantly switching style is smartly made to service the story as well. The gross injustice faced by a single Romanian may be told from only one perspective, but it still makes the viewer ponder whether the European justice system really works as well with everyone.

 ★★★ 1/2

Monsieur Lazhar (Canada)
Director: Philippe Falardeau

This drama in the French language was one of the Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Film. And rightly so. It is a uplifting tale of coping with loss, shock, and sadness. In a Montréal Elementary School, the teacher of a class of small children commits suicide during the break in the classroom. Afterwards, when the principal is trying to find a suitable substitute to teach the class, the Algerian immigrant Bachir Lazhar (Mohammed Fellag) arrives in her office and convinces her to hire him on the spot. Lazhar wants to help the little children cope with the death of a close person, but this enthusiasm also has other reasons not entirely altruistic. For Lazhar's own tragic past also features loss, and Lazhar needs the children to teach him as well as he will them.

The slowly progressing film manages to tell about inner turmoils very subtly. The film emphasizes how unpredictable life is without spoonfeeding the audience and stops to consider the emotions of it's characters. Fellag in particular is excellent in his multi-dimensional portrayal of a broken man, who nevertheless attempts to keep his sunny side up and dearly loves the children he's teaching. Almost as good are the child actors who range from the class clown to the troublemakers and the A+ scoring smart girls.


Anton Corbijn Inside Out (The Netherlands/Germany/UK/Italy/Sweden)
Director: Klaartje Quirijns

The documentary about the legendary Dutch portrait photographer-come film director takes us to the life of Anton Corbijn. The crew follows him around in his daily duties, from collecting a prestigious photo award, to doing a photoshoot with U2, to seeing how the photos are improved on a computer, to showing finished pictures to Lou Reed and Metallica, to popping by at the film shoot of The American, and later, the red carpet premiere. But considering how much glitz, glamour and Hollywood there is in that sentence, the film makes it clear that it is about a person rather than a star.

Corbijn may lay on his couch, trying to take a nap while chatting about his youth and family. Family members are also interviewed, including Corbijn's sister who gives a teary-eyed testimony while cooking for both of their families. Also some rock stars Corbijn has built his career shooting get a chance to talk about him, most notably Bono and Depeche Mode's Martin Gore. The film, however intimate it aims to be, only manages to scratch the surface when discussing Corbijn, and there's actually little new to learn about him. So rock stars think he does great work, big deal. Anyone can figure that without the film. Like any artist, however, it may be better not to explain too deeply about his past, inspirations and conception. The mystery is more interesting.


Lawless (a.k.a. The Wettest County, USA)
Director: John Hillcoat

John Hillcoat, particularly partnered with his screenwriter/composer Nick Cave, is a good filmmaker when depicting western-like films that take place in wide outbacks where the law is only practiced through individual's morality. That's why it was intriguing to see what the pair could do with a Prohibition-era gangster tale. It turns out, a fine-looking gangster tale that has plenty of good scenes, but as a whole feels lacking and pointless.

The Bondurant Brothers, Jack (Shia La Beouf), Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke) run a successful, and ever-widening, bootlegging operation in Franklin County, Virginia. The boys dream of a luxurious life and openly admire a notorious gangster, Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman). Forrest in particular has both the brains and the daring to get their moonshine to thirsty people, and bribing the police to do so. As they gain success, the boys also start romances, never taking the easy road in. Jack tries to woo a mormon girl Bertha (Mia Wasikowska) and Jack falls for the hard-luck waitress Maggie (Jessica Chastain). But while  the boys take more and more risks and get more and more successful, it all happens much to the chagrin of FBI agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce). The obsessed, unrelenting Fed wants to see The Bondurants dead and their operations wiped out off the face of the Earth. And he isn't afraid to to get brutal and kill a lot of people to achive this.

The biggest problem with the film may be that it's characters are so one note. Pearce in particular is so evil and seething with hatred all the time that his performance borders on comical, he's a true pantomime villain. Oldman is only in the film for two short scenes. Of the main cast members, Hardy does the best work, while La Beouf is as wood-faced as ever. There's still little to make the viewer care about the film's protagonists and their survival. The script of the film feels fractured and is laced with a poor representation of time passing. For the life of me, I couldn't tell whether the film takes place within one month, a year, a couple, or the whole prohibition. The period setting is carefully built, and looks absolutely fantastic. But just admiring the film's look doesn't quite cut it when it often is so boring to watch.

★★ 1/2

Several films I saw were also on the programme of Love & Anarchy so I will return to them when the time comes. Until then, Adios Amoebas!

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Old Old School Hip-Hop

On the streets of late 70's New York, poverty reigned and crime was at an all-time high. But the seedy athmosphere did create the whole hip hop culture, with rap, graffiti and breakdancing becoming different aspects of the urban culture. Even though it began as an underground, barely legal subculture, by the early 80's it became so popular that movie makers eager to catch on to the latest trend, started churning out movies. Of course this helped feed the culture even more and to turn the subculture into mainstream. But the fact that these movies present the post between these two parts of the phenomena, make them all the more interesting.

Wild Style (1983)
Director: Charlie Ahearn

The film which is most famous of first depicting hip hop culture to mainstream audiences, mixes documentary footage of the New York subculture in South Bronx with acted dramatic material. Real-life hip hop cultural icons play similar characters to themselves, and the film's plot is somewhat based on reality.  The underground rap gigs, the dancers and the taggers are to some extend filmed as they actually happened, on tiny underground clubs and behind fences events. There's also a whiff of hustling, such as illegal card flip games, in the film. Real social problems, such as alcohol, drugs or underage sex aren't dealt with, however. But in any case, it's a good period piece on how underground culture was in New York once everybody and their granny had heard of punk rock.

Zoro (Lee Quinones) is a graffiti artist, well known by reputation, but less so by appearance. He hangs around with a girl, Rose (Sandra Fabara), who he's secretly harboring a crush. He teaches her everything he knows, how to make good street art, where to strike, and how not to get caught. Zoro wants to express himself, but he also wants something more from his life. Not figuring out what it could be, he sort of drifts along, tormented. When Rose gets her shit better together, and gets acceptance from the New York art circles, their relationship becomes more strained. Most of the time, however, is spent on just depicting the culture as it unfolds.

You might be a famous and undeniably talented graffiti artist or rapper, but that doesn't make you a good actor. The dramatic parts of the film are ludicrously horribly acted. Luckily most of the time the movie plays it cool and keeps up with its authenticity. Not only the street art is impressive in this film, the rap scenes also feature mad improvisation skills and wicked mixing with old-school equipment. Ahearn's movie doesn't explain everything about the sub-culture from the ground up to anyone. You either get it going in or don't. It is what it is, which is why this is a clear cult movie. The soundtrack of this film is almost equally famous to the film, since it features rap artists the likes of Busy Bee, Fantastic Freaks, Fab 5 Freddie, and Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five.

It turned out there were more than plenty of eager-minded people who did get it. The movie proved to be successful enough to make movie producers take notice.


Beat Street (1984)
Director: Stan Lathan

The following year, there were two other hip hop movies aimed for bigger audiences. The other was a straight-out dramatization of the things presented in Wild Style, the other focused on Breakdancing and became the bigger hit. The former, which was the better film, also took into focus graffiti artists, yet also emphasized rap music more, and works more or less as a musical. The film's soundtrack, starring the likes of Grandmaster Melle Mel, Kool Moe Dee, Us Girls and Rock Steady Crew, is perhaps even better than Wild Style's.

Kenny "Double K" (Guy Davis) and Ramon (Jon Chadriet) are best friends, and graffiti artists living in the seedy parts of New York. Ramon is more down-to-earth of the duo, but respects his art more than anything and wants to spraypaint a train that would take his graffiti out for all of New York to see. Kenny has rap skills and dreams of becoming a famous MC, playing at the hottest clubs of NYC. He meets Tracy (Commando's Rae Dawn Chong), who comes from a better neighborhood and upper class, but still becomes interested in music and breakdancing. The two start to get interested in each other, which inspires Double K also to aim his ambitions high.

As musicals tend to be, this is quite a melodramatic story. But not so much concerning the love story, more on Double K's troubles with his background and ambitions, the conflict between his family and his hobbies, and his relationship with his friends. Still, there's a clear West Side Story vibe here, with dueling gangs and such. The main villain turns out to be a sort of vandal to the vandals, an asshole who messes huge artistic graffiti murals by spraypainting all over them. Whatever one's stance on street art is, I think we can all agree that that's not a nice thing to do.

Warning! While the rap performance in this clip kicks ass, it also contains major movie spoilers.

"If art is a crime, may God forgive me". - Ramo

★★★ 1/2

Breakin' (a.k.a. Breakdance, 1984)
Director: Joel Silberg

Whereas the two other hip hop films were still fresh and more or less authentic-feeling, it didn't take long before the first cash-in on the phenomenon appeared. And it came from Cannon Group of all production companies. Not known from their subtlety, this effort takes the largest page from the West Side Story book in that, it's basically a street fighting film with the fighting switched to dancing. It's a formula that can still be seen in films such as Step Up! or You Got Served. A big difference is also that Breakin' takes place in LA instead of NYC. Somehow, New York represents to me striving to rise from poverty and squalor, whereas LA only represents surface, fake smiles and proper image.

Ozone (Adolfo Quiñones) and Turbo (Michael Chambers) are talented breakdancers, who work at the local supermarket and dream of hitting it big. The dancers have a bitter rivalry with a competing group Electro Rock. The buddies usually display their moves for some tourist cash on the streets of Malibu. They meet a young and aspiring Jazz dancer Kelly (Lucinda Dickey), who becomes interested in the breakdance culture. She gets the name Special K and starts to practice with the boys. But her strict instructor doesn't like her hybrid style that starts to infuse moves she learned from the street. Special K will prove him wrong as she will lead the Dance trio to the top and bring breakdance to the mainstream at the same time.

Of course, the film is Super Cheesy. There's not a hint of authenticity in any of this, and particularly the overly 80's fashions in the film are over-the-top and hilarious. Even the movie's breakout star, Ice-T (playing a Club DJ) considers this to be wack. And knowing what kind of films Ice-T has made in his career, that's saying something. Alongside Mr. Ice, the Soundtrack includes the likes of Kraftwerk, Rufus and Chaka Khan, and The Bar-Keys. The film did capture something of the zeitgeist since it proved to be popular. But the producers already were certain of it. They were so sure of it's success it even advertized its direct sequel in the closing credits. Today, the movie series is probably best known for the ridiculous name of part II. But Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo is a story for another time.

★ or ★★★★★

Sunday, 19 August 2012

The Stars of The Expendables 2

Not long ago, I was browsing for DVD's at my local megamarket, when I happened to see two young boys, about 10-year-olds looking at Die Hard blu-rays. They were totally awe-struck by the plot synopsis at the back of the disc, which promised "one man against a whole skyscraper full of terrorists". The best action films of the 80's will endure for many generations to come, it seems. And for us older fans, the nostalgia trip back to the Golden Age of muscle-films is also upon us. The Expendables are back with a new film, so what better time to look at some of the best work the film's ensemble cast did back in the day? Arnold Schwarzenegger is out of this post because I have a whole series devoted to his films, which I really should continue one of these days.

I seriously think this should be the official theme song of the movie.

First Blood (1982)
Director: Ted Kotcheff

The Vietnam veteran John Rambo (Stallone) arrives to a small American town of Hope, Washington to say hi to an old war buddy. He hears his friend is dead due to cancer caused by inhaling Agent Orange back in the day. The saddened Rambo goes to get a bite to eat, but is stopped by the local sheriff, Teasle (Brian Dennehy). The sheriff doesn't like shaggy, long-haired veterans with five 'o clock shadows in his town. So Rambo is arrested for no reson and tried to shave. But seeing a razor blade gives Rambo a fit and he quickly attacks the entire police precinct and escapes into the woods. A battle of wills and wits begins, as the police start a campaign to catch him.

Would you allow this man to walk around freely at your peaceful town?

Stallone became a major star with Rocky films, and subsequently his adaptation of David Morell's novel was modified a bit to fit his star status. So in the movie, Rambo really doesn't kill anyone, just wounds. The two deaths of the film are more or less accidents, caused by the police's obsession to get Rambo (three deaths, if the officer Rambo throws out of a window didn't make it). Most notably, Rambo doesn't kill himself in the end, which undermines the tragic story of how Vietnam ruined a man's life. Indeed, Rambo's sequels also lessen the impact of the story of a man trying to struggle with his violent past. Since Rambo finds his will to live, he also finds his will to kill. And while the USA hasn't much use for the perfect killing machine home, they can always ship him abroad. All in all, First Blood's either too serious or not serious enough. If the lead role had been given to a real actor, or the director had a better vision, First Blood would be a classic. Now, it's more or less just the prequel, a curiosity piece to the much more Reaganist, in-your-face, violent, Rambo: First Blood Part II.


Crank: High Voltage (2009)
Directors: Mark Neveldine, Brian Taylor

Jason Statham is kind of an interesting case in The Expendables' casting, in that he still has an action career that doesn't just rely on repeating his past glories. He's sort of the last real action hero still standing (since John Cena has made far too few movies these past years). Given that, his most popular films, The Transporters and especially the Cranks, kind of rely on the action movie tradition to make even the slightest bit of sense. Like the name implies, Cranks parody action movie tropes by cranking everything up to 11; the speed, the violence, the boyish humor, the sexist view about women, the racism, and the ridiculousness. But even though the first one did this pretty perfectly, the problem and the foil of the sequel is that it has to be bigger and even more ridiculous. It becomes painfully obvious that even the makers don't take any of this seriously. While this sense was very thin in the first one, it was still there.

Crank 2 has a massage to the audiences.
Chev Chelios (Statham) was dropped from an exploding helicopter about a mile into the ground in the end of the first Crank. But since he's more or less indestructible, he of course survived. But the Chinese Triads still have a bone to pick with him so they steal the unconscious Chelios and steal his heart. For some reason they also replace it with a contraption that constantly needs electric shocks to operate. So this allows Chelios to go on a rampage to catch the culprits and exact his revenge. Along the way he must also get his girlfriend (Amy Smart) back, since during the hours he has been declared dead, she has taken on a career of stripping and forgotten all about him.

So director-writers Neveldine and Taylor indulge in every dumb idea they ever had. So the film features, for example, a 16-bit video game segment, a fight where Chelios and his opponent grow into giant Kaiju monsters (as blokes in suits, of course), and a cheesy talk show segment that deepens Chelios' character a bit. Such an attempt on a character that's essentially a cartoon is a bit pointless, but at least he isn't too thoroughly explained. We already know what makes him tick; shocks, murders, strippers, running around, fucking around (figuratively), and fucking around (literally). The sheer outrageousness of it all does cause a good laugh or two on the first viewing, but there's little reason to watch this again, since the shock value disappears so quickly.  But it is an admirably crazy movie, and Statham is an admirably crazy movie star.


The Legend (Fong Sai-Yuk, Hong Kong 1993)
Director: Corey Yuen

Jet Li should probably be on this list for his American action films, but I thought c'mon, I just reviewed Kiss of the Dragon, I'm not watching Romeo Must Die or anything for this post. For me, Li is the perennial wuxia character due to numerous 90's roles in Chinese martial arts movies, whether from Hong Kong or mainland China. Fong Sai-Yuk is a poster child for such films, as it is about an ancient Chinese legend, and it features romance, comedy, and epic fighting. Not always evenly mixed, mind you.

Fong Sai-Yuk (Li) is a martial arts master in a small Chinese village, yet chooses to keep his talents hidden from the rest. He falls in love with Ting-ting (Michelle Reis), the daughter of the gangster Tiger Lui (Sung Young Chen), who's looking to gain influence across the region. Thus, Lui arranges a contest to give his daughter's hand to the most skilled fighter, who can defeat his wife Miu Chui-Fa (Joephine Sia). But there's foul play afoot, and Fong Sai-Yuk forfeits, and gives his mother Siu-Fa (Sibelle Hu) a chance to compete disguised as a man. This makes Miu fall in love with her. But while all this farce of mistaken identities goes on, there is a secret society plotting to overrule the Emperor. The government's agents are hot on pursuit to find the list of names in the socety. As Fong Sai-Yuk's father is a member, it is up to him to keep the list safe.

So, the plot is quite complex as they tend to be in wuxia epics. If the Chinese legends are not familiar, one must keep on one's toes to keep up. But the action scenes are beautifully realized and the coreography is a marvel. The rural setting while fighting over national issues, also works quite well. The whole cast is good, and Li actually is a bit sidelined since his character has little personality, besides nobility, ambitiousness and love for Ting-ting. But the plot does need an anchor to revolve, and Li does that role in similar movies very well. That's why he's also a good choice in ensemble action films in America, rather than a movie star that drives his own stories as well.

★★★ 1/2

Showdown In Little Tokyo (1991)
Director: Mark L. Lester

Lundgren's films are often panned, since they are usually cheap straight-to-video stuff. The huge Swedish bodybuilder worked great as a villain in Rocky IV and Universal Soldier, but less so as a hero in his own films. But it's not really Lundgren's fault, for he has the necessary physique and the same twinkle in his eye as Arnold in his best roles. Dolph just chose his roles poorly, and made some flops that ruined his career, such as Masters of the Universe. But for a view of the Lundgren that could have been comes this classic action spectacle from the director of Commando that's just as hilariously awesome and good.

For instance, it has Lundgren dressed like this. But shirtless most of the time.
Detective Chris Kenner (Lundgren) is raising his own private war against the Japanese mafia, the Yakuza. He is partnered with the young, wisecracking Asian-American cop Johnny Murata (Brandon Lee) who doesn't know much about Japanese culture, but can kick some mean ass (and is probably also interested in Kenner's ass). Particulary in Kenner's aim is the ruthless boss Funekei Yoshida (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), who gets off on murdering call girls. The friend of one of Yoshida's victims, Minako Okeya (Tia Carrere) comes to Kenner and Murata for protection. But the vengeful Yoshida has his bones to pick with the whole lot of them and thus sends his boys over.

A buddy movie, or something more?
The film has everything a man could want; shoot-outs, tits, and bizarrely violent scenes courtesy of Yoshida's over-the-top nastiness. His death scene is also one for the ages. The film's blatant homoeroticism comes through in a lot of the banter between Kenner and Murata. The most famous example being Murata's would-be last words complimenting the size of Kenner's penis. Carrere is a good beard, even though all her nude scenes are obviously done by a body double. Lester isn't afraid of anything, not even breaking the laws of physics time and time again. For example, Kenner can survive a speeding car coming towards him by jumping over the car. He also flips a car over to craete a shield/huge explosion that allows him to escape from a gang with machine guns. This film is lean, mean and outrageously enjoyable. With 75 minutes of running time, ther isn't anything close of being boring in here. It's a film to be enjoyed over and over again whenever one has the time.


Lone Wolf McQuade (1983)
Director: Steve Carver

I might get a roundhouse kick in the face for this (I'd deserve it), but Chuck Norris is probably the worst action star on this list. The dude has no acting talents, no charisma, and what karate skills he may have had when he was young are rarely, if ever, presented in his later works. But he does have two settings, walk and kill. Also, Norris does love the Texas Rangers. This film features the first time he's played one, and his character here was later toned down for the TV series Walker, Texas Ranger. This is also one of the very few Chuck Norris films I've seen that's also kind of enjoyable to watch.

The opening also really tries to sell this as a modern western.

So "Lone Wolf" McQuade is the sort of Ranger that keeps peace with the use of his extended weaponry. The Mexican border doesn't leak any dirty Mexican drugs whenever McQuade is on the case. But his Lone Wolf abilities have estranged him from his ex-wife and daughter, even though he still loves both of them. At a carnival, McQuade sets his eyes on a new woman, Lola Richardson (Barbara Carrera). But she is also the object of affection to the rich plantation-owner Rawley Wilkes (David Carradine). And Wilkes also has some businesses that don't stand the light of day, so he orders a hit on McQuade. When the Ranger survives, he wages a war against the ruthless kingpin, and attempts to take him out before his loved one's lives are in jeopardy.

It's hard to think of Chuck Norris as an everyman, but that's the image the movie attempts to sell us. He lives in a dirty shack, where he practices his skills with a sawed-off shotgun in the background shooting gallery. In his refridgerator there's nothing but beer cans. Beer is actually a recurring motif in the movie. Richardson attempts to set McQuade straight by replacing his beers with vegetables, which drives him into anger. They have filthy, filthy make-up sex on the yard in a mud pit (seriously). Beer also saves McQuade's life later on, when he's buried alive. He regains consciousness and strength by pouring beer over his head (notice this, all you party people).

Chuck does get a chance to show his karate skills this time around, because he's battling David Carradine of all people. But the real beef of the movie is in the massive explosions, shootings and all-around weaponized carnage. Those scenes depicting it are so good, they make even the more boring scenes such as Chuck pining for his old family, somewhat tolerable.

★★★ 1/2

Van Damme:
Kickboxer (1989)
Directors: Mark DiSalle, David Worth

Talking of karate masters that DO know their shit around. Van Damme is an actual martial artist and he will show off his remarkable skills (and splits) in any given movie. I actually didn't see too many Van Damme movies growing up (unlike most of these other guy's movies), so I've only discovered his body of work in my adulthood. But I've got to say, many of his movies hold up good even today.

And he also knows how to PARTY!

One of his best works, this early effort shows Van Damme in his element; fighting in an underground fight tournament. In the beginning his character Alex Sloane is more or less just an observer, trying to talk his brother Eric (Dennis Alexio) from taking part in this tournament. Of course, Eric refuses since he clearly has a death wish. Then he gets killed in the ring by the tough and ruthless Tong Po (Michel Qissi) with his brutal Muay Thai moves. To avenge his brother, Alex travels the world to meet a martial arts master Xian Chow (Dennis Chan) in a Thai jungle and to learn the secrets of Muay Thai. But the bad guys also take notice in his development and decide to stop him from ever completing his training.

This movie is almost like the archetypal martial arts movie. A personal tragedy to fuel the want of vengeance as a motivation, lots of training scenes and faux eastern wisdom, and of course a spectacular final fight with some of the sickest moves you've seen. But being stripped to it's bear essentials really works for this movie. Given his star-making turn in Bloodsport, the aw-shicks, naive character of Van Damme is surprisingly believable and without a hint of pretentiousness. He does gain confidence and cockiness during the course of this movie, but since his expressions more or less vanish due to his training kicking in, it's hard to tell. There's a lot of similar films to this one, but there's some sort of a soul or heart in this that's hard to replicate. Or maybe it is just the violent, brutal fights, I don't know.

★★★ 1/2

Die Hard (1988)
Director: John McTiernan

We end this article as a full circle, coming back to the ultimate action film. There's no denying that Die Hard changed the face of action cinema altogether. It began the crumbling of unstopplable muscle-men and began the era of the everyman hero. It's beutifully executed plot, that runs exact like clockwork, was also so effective that about every action movie before the Matrix imitated it in some effect. But what most other action movies didn't succeed in doing, was have a script as razor-sharp, a cast as perfect, and social critique of 80's yuppie-and-other-suitmen-owned LA as bitter.

"Come out to the coast, we'll get together, have a few laughs."

I'm sure most of humankind knows the story of Die Hard. Well, actually no, because the younger generation may be interested in the film without having an older brother/cousin/friend's older brother show the film on VHS/DVD/Blu-ray, so I might as well recap. The blue-collar working Joe, and down-to-earth kind of guy John McClane (Bruce Willis) arrives to Los Angeles for Christmas. He's meeting his estranged wife Holly and kids after a long while and is hoping to patch things up with them. But his Holiday plans change as he's visiting the Yukatani corporation's Christmas party, and the whole skyscraper is raided by European terrorists. McClane tries to alert the police, but soon finds out he's the only one he can trust in such a tricky situation. But luckily he's a real cowboy and ready for straightforward action. Without outside help, McClane must face off against a super-group of fiendishly clever, cruel mercenaries led by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman).

AKA The Greatest villain of all Time

So like I've mentioned, McClane's enemy isn't really only the terrorists, but secondarily almost all of LA itself. From the media, to would-be yuppie negotiators, to the stiff police force authority figures, to dumb Vietnam-vet FBI agents, every one just makes the situation worse before it gets any better. The swarmy Euro-trash are ready for anything just to gain a few bucks, which might be a bitter parallel to the financial world of the time. They don't have any principles, but are willing to cheat they have some by ripping off articles from Time magazine. The by-the-numbers American authorities can't deal with that. The only kin McClane finds is another low-level police officer, Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson), who he contacts via a walkie talkie. But his most important ally is his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia), who somewhat drives the plot. Holly in particular is an interesting character since she is torn between the surface-level LA go-getting career missile life, and the role of a supportive and appreciated wife of a hotheaded, but loving husband. In the end, the final victory only comes when she lets go of an empty status symbol and give herself entirely into the other role.

Who wouldn't want to kiss this man?

But even though the film is open for such class-ponderings, at it's heart Die Hard is still a kickass  action film with superb setpieces, on-the-edge-of-your-seat excitement, and endlessly quotable oneliners. Welcome to the party, pal!



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