Thursday, May 17, 2012

Avengers Unleashed

The 21st century has ushered in a golden era for superhero movies, thanks in large part to advances in computer graphics technology (CGI) which made such movies possible.  The ‘X-Men’ and ‘Spiderman’ trilogies paved the way, to be followed by ‘Batman’ and others too numerous to mention.  Nary a summer would go by without Hollywood shoving at least 2 or 3 superhero movies down our throats, to the point that many bemoaned that they suffered from ‘superhero fatigue.’  Then along came ‘The Avengers,’ directed by uber-geek director Joss Whedon, or ‘The Mighty Avengers’ to you comic purists.

Like the uncanny X-Men, the mighty Avengers is a team of super-powered individuals created by the legendary Stan Lee, founder of Marvel Comics (make mine Marvel!).  The challenge in making a superhero ensemble movie like ’The Avengers’ is that you lose focus on any one superhero because you have to give every member of the team his or her due.  The X-Men worked largely because of the charisma of its central characters, Charles Xavier and Logan (aka Wolverine), which provided the anchor point for the other characters.  By contrast, it didn’t work so well for ‘The Fantastic Four.‘  With a roster full of egos like Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and Hulk, how is Joss ever going to make this work?

As it turned out, our worries are unfounded because Joss proved to be the perfect director for a movie like this.  As he had shown us before with ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘ and ‘Firefly,’ he has a particular knack for dealing with group social dynamics.  He orchestrated the interpersonal conflicts among The Avengers like a true maestro, be it the world-weary cynicism of Iron Man versus the patriotic idealism of Captain America or the testosterone-charged, ‘king of the jungle’ pissing contest between the Son of Odin and the not-so-jolly green giant.  Nick Fury (played be Samuel L. Jackson) was the Xavier of this movie, tasked with the seemingly impossible job of knitting this group of disparate and egotistical heroes into a unified and well-honed fighting force to repel the evil machinations of the scheming Loki, who struck a deal with a nefarious alien race known as the Chitauri to invade earth and subjugate mankind. 

‘The Avengers’ puts the capital E in epic superhero movies, brimming with super-powered action and superhero kickassery.  Even at two and a half hours there’s never a dull moment, for when our heroes are not fighting Loki or his evil alien army (or among themselves), Joss Whedon sprinkles the movie with the witty quips and one-liners he’s so well known for.  You can’t help but smile when in one memorable scene Thor tried to reason with his adoptive brother Loki, and Tony Stark swoops in on their little chat with: “Shakespeare in the park?”

And what’s a Joss Whedon movie without a few femme fatales for the geeks who can’t get a date?  Scarlett Johansson was great reprising her role as the ‘Black Widow’ from Iron Man 2, but it was ‘How I Met Your Mother’ alum Colbie Smulders (and yes, her beauty does smolder) who IMO stole the few scenes she was in as S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Maria Hill, most notably the opener where she went after Loki making off with the Tesseract.

With such panache and oodles of flair, including an oh-so-cool flying aircraft carrier, The Avengers truly set a new standard in the superhero genre.  The extended, chaotic battle royale in New York City in which our intrepid heroes fought off legions of invading Chitauri (not to mention the ineptitude of our own politicians) is alone worth the price of admission.  This movie is not to be missed.

10 out of 10  (Joss goes 2 for 2!)


Monday, May 14, 2012

Losing "My Way" in World War II

Since 'Saving Private Ryan,' some of the best war movies to come out have been from South Korea, of all places.  Boasting big budgets (by Korean standards anyway), great CGI and high production values, movies such as 'Taegukgi:Brotherhood of War' and 'The Front Line' are loosening Hollywood's grip on war movies.  It is thus with great anticipation that I went to see South Korea's latest ambitious offering, the WWII-themed 'My Way.'

'My Way' is the story of two erstwhile friends who were swept into the maelstrom of war in 1939.  One, a Korean peasant named Kim Jun-Sik, was impressed into the service of the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) against his will.  The other, a Japanese aristocrat named Tatsuo Hasegawa, volunteered out of patriotism and a sense of duty.  Althogh the two were childhood friends, an unfortunate incident which resulted in the death of Tatsuo's beloved grandfather at a party led to a bitter rift which was further exacerbated by their competitiveness in the Olympic sport of marathon running.  Alas, when our two protagonists cross paths again at Nomonhan a year later it was under anything but ideal circumstances.

Tatsuo, now the youngest colonel (his rise must have been quite meteoric) in the IJA, had relieved the disgraced colonel who retreated against massed Soviet tanks rather than making suicidal charges and ordered his seppuku.  He soon found himself fighting for his very survival when his own well laid plans were thwarted by yet another well-timed massed Soviet armored attack, and ended up a prisoner-of-war of the Soviets along with Kim.  After serving some time in the frozen Siberian gulag, Germany invaded Russia in 1941 and they were given the choice of fighting for the Rodina against the invading Nazis or facing summary execution, so the former it is.  And guess what?  Once again, the side he's fighting on had no tanks and less firepower than the enemy!  Oh, why must our poor boys always end up with the short end of the stick when it comes to battles?

Whatever misfortune befell Tatsuo and Kim, however, were more than made up for the fact that they were the only two survivors in the suicidal charge against entrenched German defenders (so who said your 'ying' doesn't balance my 'yang?), even though Tatsuo was gravely wounded while fighting for the now tankless Soviets.  Soon afterward, they were captured by the invading Germans and became separated.  Flash forward three years later and voila!, Tatsuo is in German feldgrau preparing the defense of Normandy against the pending D-Day invasion.  And lo and behold, he saw his buddy Kim running along the beach!  Whaaaaaat???!!!  Supposedly this movie is based on a true story, but come on!  Fact can be stranger than fiction, no?

I must admit, the CGI battle scenes in 'My Way' are first-rate and spectacular, though it feels like I'm playing 'Medal of Honor:Allied Assault' or 'Call of Duty' on the Playstation at times.  The final battle scene at Normandy is truly something to behold, even if it wasn't quite the way it actually happened.  But then I had to ask myself: "Does this excuse the movie from having a semblance of a coherent and believable plot?"  This movie is little more than a series of battle scenes tied together with the flimsiest of storytelling, and is also overbloated with melodrama and sappiness in typical Korean fashion.  But other than the laughable plotlines, what really ruined it for me is the high 'implausibility factor.'  There is one scene in which a Chinese female sniper shot down a strafing Russian fighter plane with a single well aimed shot at a critical point on the plane.  This is just one of many unlikely coincidences and happenstances that stretched my belief beyond the breaking point and prevented me giving this movie a 'thumbs up.'  It may be 'inspired by true events,' but that doesn't mean director Kang Je-gyu (Taegukgi:Brotherhood of War) didn't play very fast and loose with the facts (and believe it or not, he was going to give the movie the narrow and unimaginative name 'D-Day').  Sorry, but all I can give 'My Way' is:

6 out of 10


Thursday, May 10, 2012

Counterinsurgency Warfare, early 20th Century Style

“Warriors of the Rainbow” is a John Woo-produced movie inspired by the Seediq rebellion of 1930 in Taiwan against Japanese imperialism.  It earned much acclaim in the international film circuit and has drawn comparison to such movies as Mel Gibson’s ‘Braveheart’ and Michael Mann’s ‘The Last of the Mohicans.’ 

The story is told through a warrior named Mona Rudao of the village Mahebu.  As a young warrior who had proven himself in battle against rival tribes over disputed hunting ground, Rudao’s only concerns in the world were hunting enough food with the other young braves from his village.  That is, before the Japanese encroachment thanks to the Treaty of Shimonoseki, which ceded Taiwan to the Japanese.  Despite their martial prowess and killing many Japanese soldiers, Rudao et al. were ultimately futile against Japanese arms and forced into an uneasy peace.  Flash forward 30 years into the future.  In strict accordance with the ‘British Manual of Colonial Rule,’ if such a thing ever existed, administrative apparatuses and schools were established throughout the region in order to civilize and educate the ‘barbarians.’  While Rudao (now the chief of his village) knew that defying the Japanese would mean suicide, he seethed within at his powerlessness to restore their traditions and way of life.  A fight between his eldest son and a local Japanese police official during the drunken revelry of a wedding, however, provided the spark for open mutiny.  Rudao, perhaps somewhat inebriated himself, saw an apparition of his deceased father by the river, who sang the songs of his youth with him and ‘convinced’ him to unite the disparate tribes in open revolt and mercilessly attack the Japanese during a local celebration.  An orgy of violence ensued which resulted in the slaughter of many Japanese, including women and children.
Having embarked upon his fateful act, Rudao scattered his warriors in anticipation of the reprisal that was to come.  Women and young children from the revolting tribes evacuated the villages and committed suicide so as to deny the Japanese targets for retaliation (Well I did say ‘fateful act’ didn’t I?).  With just some 300 braves including teenage boys, Rudao’s only option was to wage hit-and-run guerilla warfare to bleed the Japanese as much as possible before the inevitable end.  And of course, in typical colonial fashion, the Japanese underestimated the ’savages’ and paid for it dearly with their lives.  Eventually, they were humbled and became ‘wiser,’ employing a divide-and-conquer strategy by exploiting the longstanding blood feuds between the tribes against each other.

As much as I tried to, I couldn’t find much to like in this movie because I simply did not care for its key players.  Rudao lacked the depth and charisma of Mel Gibson’s William Wallace or Daniel Day-Lewis’s ‘Hawkeye,’ and I was put off by the macho ethos of the tribes, which demanded their young men to kill each other (often by decapitation) over hunting grounds and various other petty disputes of ’honor’ in order to prove themselves as warriors.  At two-and-a-half hours long, the movie dragged due to its sluggish and uneven pace, and there is a limit to the decapitations that even I can take in one sitting before succumbing to tedium (imagine my horror when I learned that there is an even longer, two-part version of this movie lasting 4 hours!).  And without the presence of the ‘fairer sex’ to humanize its key characters, like Braveheart's Sophie Marceau or The Last of the Mohicans's Madeline Stowe, it’s exceedingly difficult to sympathize with its main protagonist. 

5 out of 10