Kent’s Movie Diary: Machetes, Swords, Hammers and… Ghosts.

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That’s right folks! It’s time for another Movie Diary, filled with what I’ve had my eyeballs glued to over the last week or two.

MACHETE/MACHETE KILLS– How does one even begin to review Robert Rodriguez’s Machete films? In a way, they’re made to be critic proof, much like the Grindhouse double-feature they spun off of (especially Rodriguez’s Planet Terror half.) I’m not even sure what to call them. The first is essentially doing little more than grafting Mexican culture onto 70s-style blaxploitation films, especially the kind that promoted the “revolution.” It almost feels like the La Raza charter was simply put into a word processing program. Because really, who doesn’t want to end their film with a good, old-fashioned race war? And then the type of over-the-top, insane action sequences you see in Bollywood film clips on youtube were randomly inserted. It’s not a parody of blaxploitation. Not in the strict sense that Black Dynamite was. But there’s far too many winks at the audience to really qualify as straight homage, either. And as Drew McWeeny over at hitfix.com pointed out last week in his review of Pompeii, because they aren’t taking themselves seriously, they don’t really count as camp.

Really what they end up being are entertaining messes. Especially the second which, while still trying to make political points with the subtlety of a baseball bat to the coconut, is far more focused on simply being as insane as possible for 90 minutes. It holds up surprisingly well considering the first film suffers in comparison to the Grindhouse trailer that preceded it.

Danny Trejo is, of course, pretty much fantastic in his star turn. His acting is terrible and spot-on at the same time. And the inability of beautiful women to keep their hands off him despite his chainsaw sculpture face is a great recurring gag. Michele Rodriguez, meanwhile, does some of the best work of her career in the films, parading around in skimpy clothes and an eyepatch, yet somehow exuding more character than all of her appearances in the Fast and Furious films combined.

Machete KillsPosterIn a lot of the secondary roles, it almost seems like these films are serving as actor rehab. Lindsay Lohan shows up in a small part in the first film and when she’s replaced by an obvious double, it’s damned funny. Charlie Sheen as the president is just plain surreal. And while I know we all hate Mel Gibson now, he tears into his role as the bad guy in Machete Kills with gusto. He seems to have just decided to own the crazy thing. Given how bad Hangover II was, he should probably be thanking Zach Galifianakis for getting him booted from that production. This suits him better. (I was going to make a comment doing some compare/contrast with Roman Polanski, but I don’t need that kind of heat right now.)

I’m not sure why it is that these films didn’t completely connect with me. Sure, I enjoyed them a lot despite the flaws. Many of which I am sure were built in. But they are cinematic Taco Bell. In one end and nigh immediately out the other. But, like Iron Sky, I’m simply glad that they exist even if they didn’t manage to be home runs. I’m sure I’ll watch them again when I need to satiate my desire for goofy bloodshed.

ZatoichiPilgramagePosterZATOICHI’S PILGRAMMAGE/ZATOICHI’S CANE SWORD– I am now more than halfway through the Zatoichi films produced through the 60s. I think I’m getting to the end of the Daiei films, but I’m not sure, I’ll have to check the book that came with it. In any case, these are two excellent entries in the series.

In Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage, our eponymous hero seeks to repent for some of the blood that he’s spilled (last measured as enough to fill a killer whale tank at Sea World) by visiting 88 temples across Japan. Of course this plan immediately goes off the rails because he’s attacked and has to defend himself. He ends up with the assassin’s sister, who takes him in. In the process, he ends up in a classic High Noon situation in which a village won’t defend itself against a gang of criminal hoods making life miserable for them. Ichi is the only one that will take them on, albeit reluctantly. The farmers haven’t seen Seven Samurai, I guess.

The swordplay is good in this one, but not spectacular. The real reason to watch it is simply because it’s a great character piece for Ichi. He doesn’t want to be a hero, but at the same time his sense of honor will not allow him to back out without defending the person he sees himself as having wronged. Regardless of how much he may try to talk himself out of it.

ZatoichiCaneSwordZatoichi’s Cane Sword, the fifteenth film, is one of the best in the series thus far. It’s got a lot of wit and manages to balance the drama with humor. Something the series can struggle with at times as different films can veer wildly from dour to fluffy. Ichi remains fairly consistent in character through them, which is why even the most mediocre of the films tends to still work on at least a level of basic entertainment. But the best are the ones that manage to be well-rounded.

The story itself is admittedly something that has been done many times within the series. Gangsters and corrupt government officials conspire to oppress the people, they kill the wrong folks to gain power, they tick Zatoichi off and lots of people die. But the power is, as always, in the execution. (Execution often being a key word with these films.) And this one is really well made. It also goes a little bit into the history of his ever-present sword cane, part of what feeds into his iconic persona. Samurai movies often manage to fetishize blades and this one does a great job of showing it done right. It definitely comes across as more rewarding than finding out about Jack’s tattoo on Lost. This wouldn’t be the first Zatoichi film I showed people to get them into the films, but it would be on the short list for people that want to pick a handful of them rather than watch the entire series.

ConjuringPosterTHE CONJURING– Who knew James Wan had it in him? After slumming around in the Saw series, he’s put out what I would say is one of the best straight-up horror flicks in a really long time.

This isn’t just because the film is well-made, however. Though it is. The cinematography, despite being partially dependent on my usually hated documentary style, is great. Shots are given room to breath and while there are definitely jumpcuts, they’re not overused. Part of this is because the film wisely uses a slow-build to the more outrageous and showy stuff towards the end. It starts with creaks and whispers interrupting periods of silence. The sense of dread is palpable.

But one of the real reasons this film is a standout is the job that Patrick WIlson and Vera Farmiga do in portraying real life, married paranormal investigators, The Warrens. It’s hard to believe that using a couple of ghost hunters actually grounds a film, but their personalities are actually believable. They aren’t portrayed as kooks. They are religious and well versed in Catholicism. They are not looking for proof in life after death. They already believe in it because of their religious backgrounds. They don’t blindly accept that everything is caused by the supernatural. They look for proof. They start every case with a healthy dose of skepticism. And they provide heroes to root for against the evil presence haunting a family in 70s Rhode Island that serves as the focus of the film.

It’s supposedly based on a true story, but we all know how far that usually goes when it comes to movies. But because of its structure, it doesn’t immediately drop a bunch of CGI slime on you. And because of that, it feels more believable. (I found the first half scarier than the second, actually.) It’s too bad more films don’t follow this mantra. I mean, Ghostbusters didn’t drop the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in during the first fifteen minutes. The Conjuring takes its time.

I’m sure there will be people that consider themselves above this type of film. Many of them are snide folks that don’t allow themselves to be scared by films or let a story pull them in. I feel sorry for those folks.

I also think the film is a travesty of an R-rating. While I certainly wouldn’t want to show it to a child, the film has very little on-screen violence, minimal gore and almost no real swearing to speak of. It’s only rated R because the people viewing it felt it was too darn effective, which is ridiculous. I would say it is appropriate for any teen that is mature enough to handle it. There are 14-year-olds that will be able to handle the film better than some middle-aged people. It’s just one more example of the fact that the MPAA’s system is flawed with its rigidity and resultant decisions.

all-hail-the-kingTHOR: THE DARK WORLD/ALL HAIL THE KINGIt’s pretty easy for folks to see what I thought about the sequel to Thor and its post-Avengers leap into deeper mythology.

(To summarize, it’s an extremely fun and confident film, especially for a first time filmmaker, that does a great job expanding on the characters.)

I think I actually enjoyed the film more the second time around. It’s not perfect, but it’s got a great energy and I love some of the weird ideas presented. I do wish they’d managed to work the blue/black designs in for the dark elves, but we can’t get everything we want.

The real thing to point out though is that the video release includes the latest and most ambitious of Marvel Films’ “One-Shot” series and it’s the best one yet. All Hail the King is a sequel to Iron Man 3 and picks up during the incarceration of Trevor Slattery. (I’m kind of assuming the people reading this review have seen IM3 considering about a quarter of the planet was represented in its box-office figures. So you are warned.)

The faux Mandarin is actually enjoying more success behind bars than he ever did during his career and he’s taking full advantage. The fifteen minute short is pretty much hilarious and Ben Kingsley is in fine form. Not only that, but it actually addresses some of the butthurt that myself and other fans of The Mandarin felt when the film universe essentially pooped the bed in his use. While I found Iron Man 3 to be extremely entertaining, I’ll admit that the twist, while funny, meant switching from a very effective villain to little more than a retread of the first two films.

King manages to fix some of that damage. For some it may be too little, too late, but for me it was a welcome semi-apology. While most Marvel cinephiles will most likely already be buying the film to continue their collections, the inclusion of the short really does increase the value of the release. I applaud Marvel for putting so much effort into it and hope for the best in the future.

Kent’s Movie Diary: Netflix Roundup

I’ve been trying to catch up on some stuff in my Netflix queue. Finally. I had the same discs sitting in front of my TV for, like, four months. So let’s take stock of some things I’ve seen lately on blu ray.

OMFUG! CBGB: Those of us who are fans of old school punk (aka those of us who listen to The Ramones and don’t just wear their shirts) all know about CBGB, the club that gave rise to great punk and new wave bands when the rest of the country was awash in the horrors of disco and arena rock. Blondie (back before they went disco themselves), Talking Heads, Television and many other bands got their start on its stage, in front of floors packed with people that weren’t smart enough to run from the bankrupt, rat-infested 10th level of hell that was New York in the 70s.

Alan Rickman is probably one of my favorite actors. Hans Gruber? Snape? The Metatron? Take your pick. He tends to be great in most things he does. However, he typically isn’t trying to play a New Jersey Jew and, honestly, his American accent has gone a little downhill since he was in Die Hard. They try to make up for this by mostly giving him monosyllabic dialogue, but it’s still more a fun excursion than a great performance as CBGB’s owner, Hilly Kristal.

The film isn’t great, but I actually did find it a pretty solid bit of entertainment for a fellow with my interests. There are a surprising number of people that you may recognize in it. Rupert Grint plays one of The Dead Boys, a band known for their outrageous stage shows involving cutting, sex and asphyxiation. Stana Katic of Castle and Bradley Whitford are record execs. That annoying guy from Big Bang Theory is a manager. (I know what you’re thinking; could you be more specific?) Donal Logue wears a hardhad at all times. It’s pretty fun playing Where’s Waldo with them.

The aesthetics are too playful for some of the darker themes of the film, though. It makes better use of a comic book framing device than Ang Lee’s Hulk did (using Punk magazine as its basis for doing so) but the whole thing seems to suffer from a tonal problem. Still, for anyone that loves this kind of music, I say check it out. It’s worth a rental.

Jurassic Park it ain't. LAND OF THE LOST: I know the critical community took a dinosaur-sized crap on this film, based somewhat loosely on the Sid and Marty Krofft television series. And when I say loosely, it’s because most of the elements from the show are present: dinosaurs, time portals, Sleestaks, pylons… but it’s presented in a way that’s completely different. Instead of a family falling through a time portal to the Savage Land, what we have instead is a couple of scientists and a redneck. Will Ferrell is Dr. Rick Marshall, a professor that ruined his career by focusing on time travel and getting into a fight with a well known TV personality. Holly is recast as a British grad student that drags him back into research and looks good in some Daisy Dukes. And then there’s Will, a tourist trap owner played by Danny McBride. He’s pretty much just Danny McBride. Again.

And I can understand why this thing flopped at the box office and audiences stayed away in droves. It’s just plain weird. Like, cult film weird.

I have rattling around in my brain some particularly memorable bits and pieces of the show because they showed reruns on CBS Saturday mornings as I was growing up in the early 80s. And it really was pretty much an insane slice of psychedelia made on the cheap, mostly distinguishable from the Kroffts’ other works by its tone. And the tone was kind of creepy, honestly. As laughable as the effects and the production values may have been, for a kid, it was kind of nightmare fuel. And the movie goes hog wild with the complete bizarreness of the world they created. The plot really doesn’t make sense in a lot of cases, but it also doesn’t pretend to. It uses logic as toilet paper. I use that metaphor because the movie is also kind of filthy. I’m surprised at some of the jokes they got away with in a PG-13 film.

That said, I actually liked the movie. Quite a bit, in fact. There were definitely gags that did not land and a lot of the references to the original show are just plain too on the nose. Actually, so much so that I think they were purposely doing them that way. You can practically see Ferrell playing chicken with the audience when he pauses with drama prior to every use of the movie’s title in his lines. But I thought Ferrell was pretty damn funny doing his pompous idiot routine. I liked the psychedelic rock used in the soundtrack. I liked the grainy, washed out cinematography. I liked the great Sleestak costumes and the terrible CGI effects. And I just plain liked the balls out ridiculousness of the script. Maybe this is based too much on it being a deserved lampooning of my nostalgia, but I enjoyed the hell out of it.

Or don't. Totally up to you.SLEEPWALK WITH ME: Mike Birbiglia is a stand-up comedian who became well-known for a one-man show in which he talks about his experiences with a rare sleep disorder which causes him to act out his dreams. After performing on NPR’s English Major wankfest This American Life, he and show host Ira Glass decided to adapt his autobiographical comedy act into a film.

In some ways you could say that the film is an indie equivalent to Howard Stern’s Private Parts. (Albeit a PG-13 rated one.) He says it is about 70% accurate to his life with some events mixed around and some cinematic shorthand applied. See, Mike is a pretty regular guy working a crappy job and having a dream to make it in stand-up comedy. The problem is that he’s completely awful at it. Regardless, he begins pursuing gigs while his relationship to his long-term girlfriend starts to slowly disintegrate in large part due to his fears of marriage and children. The couple’s horrible friends certainly don’t help. This anxiety triggers his ever-increasingly dangerous and bizarre sleepwalking adventures.

Despite the depressing premise of a failing relationship, the film not only manages to be funny, but it hits on being genuinely sweet at times. He doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to saying that he did things wrong which actually works in his favor. “Remember that you’re supposed to be on my side,” he apologetically says to the audience. It could come across as cheesy, but instead seems genuine. I highly recommend spending seventy minutes with him. It is definitely an excellent film.

Furious 6! Vin smash! FAST AND FURIOUS 6: I have not seen all of the F&F movies. I took the strange move of seeing the first in the theater when it came out and then seeing the fifth in the theater due to interest drummed up from rave reviews. I did not see any of the others in-between. I’m thinking I need to go back and catch the ones in the middle. Maybe make it one of the series I catch up on since I’m switching between several of them. (Currently in the middle of the Zatoichi films and the Star Trek Next Gen films, which we’ll get back to.)

Like the last film, Justin Lin (who’s best work I still consider to be the paintball episode of Community) is at the helm and he creates one hell of a fun, stupid ride. The script is an absolute mess. It’s just dumb. Like, dumb as my sister-in-law’s mentally challenged Boston Terrier. It makes Fast Five seem downright Shakespearian. There are plot points that don’t make even the slightest bit of sense, twists that make you say, “Whaaaa?” and some serious problems with physics. But damn does he know how to do action scenes and do them well. He’s basically a very talented director in search of better material.

The reason to watch this film, like always, is to see some good, old fashioned chases and wrecks. Due to CGI there aren’t enough of them nowadays and it’s great that there’s at least one franchise that is keeping stuntmen employed. Plus, with some of the vintage vehicles they pull out, you’re getting some classic car porn. The actors are still really likable. Putting them all in the same film is what really kicked the franchise into new territory when most film series would have died. The problem is that my favorite two characters are gone by the end of film, which cuts into my interest in the upcoming seventh film (currently scrambling to recover from the death of Paul Walker).

It’s hard to believe that this franchise has become one of the most successful in Hollywood history. I suppose maybe part of it is because there’s been surprisingly little imitation of it. In my head, I’m assuming it is because it was a slow-growth success where most copycats go after things that are overnight sensations. Either way, despite my misgivings about the intelligence of the plotting, I am much less insulted by this series that quietly serves its fanbase than I am more aggressively stupid fare like the Transformers films. So I say keep making them as long as they’re entertaining.

Let's listen to the Picard song on repeat! STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT- And here’s the first film in these reviews that I did not get from Netflix. I’m very, very slowly making my way through the Star Trek movies. I love the original cast and I am a big fan of the JJ Abrams helmed films (more so the first than Into Darkness, though both are well made) but I’ve never been a great lover of Next Generation. I’m a Kirk man through and through.

That said, I am a big fan of this film for multiple reasons and it was nice to revisit it. Picard actually does things. The action is handled well, even if there isn’t that much of it. It manages to build on some squiggy plotpoints from Generations in a positive way. (Mostly Data’s emotion chip.) And it has a lot of humor involved.

I guess the way I would try to sum it all up succinctly is that it doesn’t succumb to shoving its head up its own butt as I’ve learned to expect from a lot of modern Trek with Berman and Braga. The blu ray looks pretty darn good and showcases the then cutting edge work ILM did on it (watch for the cameo by the Millenium Falcon fighting the Borg cube), even if there are some examples of the problems of early CGI.

I haven’t seen Treks 9 and 10, so the next couple of films will be new to me. I’ve heard that First Contact is the one excellent film they did with the characters, so it’ll be interesting to see if I agree with fan sentiment or if I’ll enjoy them more since I’m not particularly invested.

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: The Lego Movie and The Monuments Men

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Author’s Note: This review gets into the contrasting themes of these two films. Despite all attempts to the contrary, discussion of some of these themes may be looked at as spoilers, somewhat. For those that may be squeamish about such things, I would recommend seeing the films in question before reading the meat of this review. In service of this, I’ll go ahead and place my ratings at the beginning.

The Monuments Men- Three damns given out of five

The Lego Movie- Four and a half damns given out of five

Preservation vs. Creation

It’s an interesting dichotomy that arose from seeing The Monuments Men and The Lego Movie back to back.

With Monuments Men, you’ve got a (based on a true) story about a group tasked with saving art from the Third Reich in the waning days of the second world war. It is a film that asks, “What is art worth?” and answers with, “One whole heck of a lot.” Indeed, they are risking their very lives in an attempt to save landmarks and secure thousands upon thousands of pieces lifted by the Germans in their march across Europe.

Then along comes The Lego Movie which sticks its finger (or should I say clawed yellow hand?) in the very eye of the idea of preservation, even going so far as to call it a selfish and destructive concept because it can stifle the creative spirit. Granted, there is more to it than that, but the very idea that this comparison can be drawn is the Lego Movie’s own fault for actually exceeding expectations and being ABOUT something.

I suppose part of the split comes down to the medium. Paint, clay, bronze… these are traditional ways of creating works of art. Plastic bricks that are responsible for a lot of late night parental foot injuries are not. Between this and their origins, they are seen as toys. (I can hear a multitude of readers saying, “No crap.”) Of course, like clay vs. Play-Doh, crayons vs. pastels or a coloring book with a tray of hard watercolor paints, often what distinguishes an art supply from a toy boils down to what’s done with it.

In the case of the Lego movie, a lot is done with it and the movie itself is what I would consider to be art.

The Lego Movie involves a group of “master builders.” Figures in the literal sense (many of them small, yellow versions of characters from history or popular culture) that use their surroundings to create whatever comes to mind. Aside from well known characters like Batman (Will Arnett), it includes such originals as Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), Unikitty (Community’s Allison Brie) and Metal Beard the Pirate (Nick effing Offerman). Most importantly, it includes Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), who is helping lead the resistance against Lord Business (Will Ferrell) and his plan for perfection.

In many ways the builders look down on the “regular” members of their society that stick to the instructions. People like Emmet Brickowoski (voiced by Parks and Rec’s Chris Pratt), the everyman hero of the film. Like everyone around him, he likes to watch awful TV shows and listen to the same pop song over and over. And admittedly, I could see some of myself in the master builders. Those who know me are aware of my disdain for many of the things that are as close as we seem to get to mainstream culture these days of niche entertainment, usually skewing towards what I see as more creative, funnier and better made.

Perhaps ironically, this is exactly what drew me to The Lego Movie. When it was announced, I figured it to be a hollow merchandising tie-in; slapping the name of a children’s toy with no built-in narrative and counting on name recognition to sell it to children and the parents seeking to keep them quiet after their offspring are bombarded by ads during Spongebob. Battleship alone proves my point about how utterly insane the Hollywood machine has gotten in terms of what it will greenlight. But Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the same team that dragged me kicking and screaming into admitting that 21 Jump Street was hilarious, instead used that expectation as a springboard to create one of the most bizarre, smart, subversive and original film experiences I’ve ever seen. Not to mention funny. These guys are now the top name in turning horrible concepts on paper into well-thought out entertainment. I’d almost describe The Lego Movie as one of the most experimental mainstream films I’ve ever seen. However, a lot of it is built on not just nostalgia for Lego’s marketing or a working knowledge of the brand and its use of licensing. It is also built on a heavy base of pop-cultural riffing (the Batman jokes alone are worth seeing the film for) and functions as both a parody of these types of merchandising events and of the Joseph Campbell hero model that gets grafted onto so many stories, even ones that it is out of place for (like Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland.)

In short, the film is built on what came before. The movie more or less acknowledges this in that it becomes a huge part of its themes. As such, it comes back around to the types of speeches given in Monuments Men when that film espouses how without protecting our history and culture, there is nothing to build on and people are lost. If not for the preserved works of the old masters, what will the new masters learn from?

If only that film let the action do the talking instead of the multiple soliloquies that George Clooney unlooses upon the fellows in his task force (and the audience in general.) The Monuments Men has too good a subject and too great a cast to be a total wash and I actually found myself interested throughout. After all, having Bill Murray, John Goodman and Jean Dujardin (from that movie that won best picture at the Oscars and never seemingly was spoken of again) is enough to prop up a goodly amount of its running time. In fact, it starts out pleasantly enough, seeming like it may end up being a low-key type of Kelly’s Heroes or a twist on a military heist film. Instead, it finds itself being sucked down into a dour foxhole of World War II film clichÈs with moments of fun punctuating it.

Because of their personalities and their mission, it’s easy to root for the Men anyway. But after watching both of the films back-to-back, it did bring up the unasked question of who they were to decide what was worth saving. Many of them were well-known artists in their own right, but when it comes down to the critically acclaimed against the popular, what is worth saving more? The Lego Movie seems to feel nothing is worth saving per se, but (and this probably relates to the fact that the medium itself, like an Etch-a-Sketch, is viewed as a temporary one) that things exist only to be broken down and used to make new things. Perhaps it is a natural extension of the Remix Generation which often seeks to recycle others’ work into their own. (Of course as a cartoonist, I know this can be a crucial learning tool, but let’s not digress too far.) More importantly, Lego would argue that the great and the functionally mundane are of equal importance and you can’t necessarily even have one without the other. Of course in most cases the creative-types of the real world do not have to worry about preservation when they create new things. Art supplies are prevalent and the digital world offers an unlimited canvas. Not only do we not have to destroy the work of another to create, but we are lucky to be in a society where both are able to exist side-by-side at the moment. In Lego there is a bit of an artificial battle for resources, one that ultimately may not make total sense, but the metaphor is so clever and heartwarmingly delivered that I can’t possibly argue too much about it. The fact is, no matter how imaginative or dull a child may be, they need play.

In the end, The Monuments Men, despite the things that are right about it, almost feels like a dirge, carefully praising art while mourning what is lost. The Lego Movie is a joyous celebration of creation and destruction, seeing them as necessary yin and yang to each other. While my head veers towards the message of the former, my heart can’t help but applaud the latter.

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: Lone Survivor

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Peter Berg loves him some military. Battleship was widely regarded as a pretty rah rah film towards men in uniform, even as one wondered whether the military would want to be involved in or even praised by it, given it was… well, the Battleship movie.

Lone Survivor, his latest effort, is certainly a step-up from that insane movie that actually sold itself on being from the same toy manufacturer behind Transformers. It’s a far more serious-minded film based on the memoirs of Marcus Luttrell, a Navy Seal that barely made it out of an extremely one-sided skirmish in Afghanistan. (I don’t think that’s a very big spoiler given the title.)

Besides, I couldn’t do a worse job of ruining the ending than the movie itself does. Indeed, it starts with not just one, but two of my biggest pet peeves. First, an opening documentary montage that does not have anything to do with the narrative but is only supposed to show some of the tough training that Seals go through. Second, one of the now most overused narrative devices in hour-long television, the “drop you into the dramatic moment and then flash back in time to make you wait to see how we got there.”

In the lead role of Luttrell, we have Mark Wahlberg. I’m still not sure how he has managed to become a movie star. He’s starred in one heck of a lot of awful films. In this one he mostly veers towards the bland side of his personality instead of the “angry and confused” expression that usually plagues him. He’s surrounded by some likable actors as his team. Taylor Kitsch, who I liked a lot in John Carter, heads up the outfit on their mission to snag a couple of Taliban leaders that are responsible for killing a lot of Marines. Rounding things out are Emile Hirsch (aka Speed Racer) and Ben Foster, who I still mostly remember from that old Disney show with Jewel Staite. They’re all bearded up like hillbillies and ready to kick some ass. Under the leadership of Eric Bana, they are dropped off to march across mountainous terrain that leaves them on their own when comms drop off.

After compromising themselves, they end up on the run from far superior numbers. This is when the generic Christian rock score eases off and the action begins. Is it graphic? I won’t say no. It falls somewhere between the fake-looking CGI spatter of The Expendables and under the extraordinarily gory finale of Rambo. Lots of headshots. Decent amounts of blood. Actually pretty seemingly accurate. The chase goes by pretty quickly, taking up the last half of the movie and the damage the men take is believably brutal. There is more than one occasion that will likely make you cringe as they get shot up, scraped and broken.

One thing I can praise the film for is its editing. Compared to other modern war films I’ve seen, it was far better at following the layout of the battles and actually giving the viewer a sense of where danger is coming from. It is still certainly more rapid-fire than I prefer, but at least we know where everything is.

In the end, I didn’t feel attached enough to the characters to really find it to be a great film, but I can’t say it’s a bad one by any stretch. It’s just an unremarkable but solid film that will definitely serve as a step up for the type of moviegoer that enjoys films like Behind Enemy Lines or Act of Valor.

(Three damns given out of five)

Kent’s Movie Diary: Samurai, Santa and Scooby-Doo

The Criterion Zatoichi set is insane.

The Criterion Zatoichi set is insane.

ZATOICHI- I’m about halfway into the Zatoichi film series and man, is it a lot of fun.

After ordering the 25-film set from Criterion when it came out around November, I’ve been picking at it here and there, sometimes watching a couple of films in a row, sometimes going a couple of weeks between films, depending on how busy I am and whether I feel like breaking them up and watching other films inbetween.

I’d say the set is the best blu ray release of 2013 for a number of reasons. First, because of the sheer manpower that went into it. Each of the films has a short essay/description of the film, which is certainly not rare for the company, but what’s really great is that each is accompanied by an art piece inspired by the film by a different illustrator or comic artist. You’ve also got decent transfers for the films, despite being three films to a disc. (Unusual for Criterion, but they also had both versions of Godzilla/Gojira on the same disc.) And, despite my incredulity over the unnecessary size of the set due to the redundant inclusion of all the films on DVD (leading to a mammoth 27-discs), the box itself is gorgeous. Frankly the whole thing has had care lavished upon it. I highly recommend picking it up.

One of many Zatoichi films and one of my personal faves so far.

One of many Zatoichi films and one of my personal faves so far.

As for the films themselves, they start out very strong and have a surprising amount of continuity between them in the beginning, especially in the opening trilogy or so. After that, unfortunately, it peters away and only gets brought up as convenient exposition. At the point I am at, having just finished film twelve, Zatoichi and the Chess Expert, they’re starting to seem more like a well-made TV series. (In fact, the films would finally give way to a TV series starring the same actor in the role which would run for many episodes.) There are actors showing up in different roles and plots starting to feel recycled. Not to mention some more cliche story elements like the old “main character finds himself saddled with a baby” chestnut. In a way that is a bit hard to avoid though as, while Ichi isn’t a samurai per se, the films share the same DNA and there are a lot of them in the films. If America has the Western then samurai movies are the “Eastern.” The two have a lot in common, down to the samurai or the gunslinger being constantly challenged by rivals determined to prove they’re the best. Each is full of themes that repeat ad nauseum and the quality of the production often outweighs how original they are simply because the tropes loom so large.

And in that sense, the Zatoichi films fare well because they are full of great character moments and fantastic, if sometimes short and spread out, action sequences. Seeing him take down those that try to cheat him due to his blindness really never does get old. He is a classic rogue. He stands up for the rights of others, but he’s no angel. He gambles, he drinks and he loves to stuff his face like a glutton. I can’t wait to get to some of the great sounding chapters to come up, like the one in which he faces Tishiro Mifune’s character from Yojimbo.

Because what the world was waiting for was a tattooed Santa, ready for Coke cans.

Because what the world was waiting for was a tattooed Santa, ready for Coke cans.

RISE OF THE GUARDIANS- I remember this film doing reasonably well at the box office, but Dreamworks being very disappointed that it didn’t do better. Part of that may be because it has some things in common with The Avengers, putting together the most well known of children’s myths into a kind of super-team. Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, Sandman and, as a new member, Jack Frost comprise the Guardians. And as such, they have to fight the Boogeyman. It sounds good on paper, but I’ll admit that it just seemed to be missing something. Maybe part of it is that kids love to be scared and the Boogeyman could have been a great personification of Halloween instead of a really generic villain. Part of it may have been the fact that it represents one weird theology.

The Guardians are all creatures that have been created/appointed by the Man in the Moon, who is a stand-in for God, apparently. And he created the Boogeyman for a reason that is unclear. And he let him go off and scare people for a really long time before he changed his mind and had the Guardians take him out somewhere around the Enlightenment. So the Boogeyman is kind of Satan, I guess? Meanwhile, Santa is Russian. This despite the fact that the films says all the Guardians started as regular people, so one would assume that would be St. Nicholas, who was Turkish. And the Easter Bunny is Australian. There’s not really an explanation for that either, but he’s huge and uses boomerangs. Maybe it’s because Sony had already used the Easter Island gag for Hop. (Santa’s elves seem distractingly similar to the Minions from their Despicable Me movies as well.)

These weird ticks aren’t quite as damning as the awkward attempts to inject schmaltz though. Spoiler alert, at one point a kid, who has just spent the last 20 minutes hanging out with all of them asks what happens if he stops believing in the Guardians. Why would he? That’s like not believing in carrots even though you are currently in the middle of eating them. It made me think of that guy in the Stan Freberg Dragnet parody that doesn’t believe in Santa Claus or Columbus. (He hadn’t made up his mind about Toledo.) That’s one hell of a fragile belief system, kid. And this nonsensical moment is no doubt shoehorned into the story to make sure they can throw in an obligatory speech about the importance of “belief.” Not anything specific, mind you. Just believe in believing. Sort of the Unitarian Church of story morals.

Despite all the nitpicking (when did this turn into a Red Letter Media video?), it’s a solid enough effort with some decent visuals and a fun idea behind it. Those with kids should check it out.

Doo is right.

Doo is right.

SCOOBY-DOO/SCOOBY-DOO 2: MONSTERS UNLEASHED- Given my excitement over the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy (and my appreciation for Slither and Super), I decided to give Scooby Doo another chance. What does one have to do with the other you may ask? Well, if you were an IMDB obsessive, you may know that James Gunn, the director (and writer) of those films, wrote the screenplays for the two theatrical, live-action Scooby films.

Direct to video Velma. Jesus, she's adorable!

Direct to video Velma. Jesus, she’s adorable!

To be clear, as far as I know he had nothing to do with the other ones that have been made for the direct-to-video market. You know, the ones where Velma is suddenly Asian? (Which I am actually really OK with for obvious reasons.)

While I can say I didn’t hate Scooby Doo as much as I did back when I saw it after it first came out, I can say it’s still not very good. At all. Sure, a few things work. You’ve got Matthew Lilliard giving the performance of his career as Shaggy. It’s just too bad they give him so little of merit to do. By the time he and Scoob have their big fart-off, it’s obvious that he’s way better than the material here. Yeah, I said it. And then there’s Linda Cardelini from Freaks and Geeks as Velma. She’s also terrific. She manages to present one of the more likable versions of the character. Again, no thanks to Gunn’s script. And by the way, she’s by far the hottest of the group between her and Daphne.

Theatrical Velma in her Rob Liefeld designed outfit.

Theatrical Velma in her Rob Liefeld designed outfit.

And don’t get me wrong, I like Sarah Michelle Gellar. I’m a fan of Buffy from the way, way back and I had a not unreasonable crush on her at the time. She’s not even necessarily terribly cast in the role had it been written as the character on the original TV show. Sort of like how Arnold Schwartzenegger wasn’t a terrible choice for Mr. Freeze… if they’d treated him as the emotionless block of ice from the cartoon instead of the pun-spewing cinematic shrinkage he was written as in Batman and Robin, trying to ape the 60s show.

But that’s the biggest problem with both of the Scooby films. Neither of them treat the characters as they are in the cartoon. They act as poor sequels to the cartoon with the characters in a state of flux. These aren’t the characters we have seen for the last forty years. They’re completely different. It’s like doing a Little Rascals film in which Spanky and Alfalfa are grown-ups, talking about mortgages in their clubhouse. In the case of the first film, it’s trying far too hard to be both a Doo movie and a parody of the TV show based on countless bad stand-up routines from the 80s about Shaggy smoking weed or Velma being a lesbian. A far, far less clever version of what was cranked out in The Brady Bunch Movie. But while the Brady’s were celebrated, winning out over those that made fun of them for being out of time, the Scooby gang are twisted around into socially retarded dopes and neurotics. Not to mention that it abandons the basic tennents of the series by having the ultimate bad guy (yet another gag that sounds far more clever as an internet joke than a plot point) be supernaturally powered.

I suppose that might be why so many folks were pleasantly surprised by the second film. It carries over many, many problems of the first film, (like the fact that Scooby still looks like he was rendered on a graphics chip for a PS2) but it does manage to succeed in making its spastic tone settle the hell down. It’s far more a straight-up Doo movie without as many of the jokes that were far too blatant to be “wink wink” in the first film. And in the end, when Mystery Inc. gets the bad guy, it feels much more like it should. There may be “real monsters” now, but they were created by someone using the same kind of hackneyed science that allowed movie projectors and glow paint and air-powered jet packs to somehow create convincing ghosts in the first place.

It also has by far the funniest line in either film, delivered by Peter Boyle in reference to those damn bushes.

It’s not a great film. Hell, I’d struggle to call it a good one. But compared to the first it was definitely a step in the right direction. I wonder what would have happened if someone besides Raja Gosnell had directed them. Someone with some more style and an ability to create more atmosphere. That was what I really loved about the original cartoons. The look of the creepy houses. The music. Is it wierd I think about the Nolan Batman films when I think about how it’s been long enough since these came out that someone could take over and restart the franchise? I just think of someone like Guillermo Del Toro taking over and I get a little giddy. Or Alfonso Curon. (Before you give me the middle finger, remember that he did Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.)

I have to imagine that Gosnell was a large part of why these films failed if only because Gunn has a history of schizophrenic films that juggle ideas and when he has helmed his own projects, he’s been able to balance his crazy better. Then again, most of his other projects were balls-out R-rated meyhem. I guess we’ll just have to see how well he’s able to do with a PG-13 next summer.