Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Brat Pack kills Commies for Mommies

Back in 1984, three years before they dazzled us with their sizzling ballroom moves in 'Dirty Dancing,' the late Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey, along with other members of the 'brat pack' of the '80's (like Charlie Sheen, Lea Thompson and C. Thomas Howell) starred in this movie called 'Red Dawn,' which portrayed a scenario of America under siege, overrun by Russians, Cubans and their allies of the communist bloc.  'Red Dawn' went on to become a cult hit of sorts, not so much because it was a good movie but that it reflected American fears in a geopolitical climate of increasing tensions between the tough rhetoric of Ronald Reagan and Leonid Brezhnev.
So when it was announced over two years ago that they were remaking 'Red Dawn,' I could only scratch my head and say WTF???!!!  We're well into the 21st Century and the Cold War ended over 20 years ago!  After all, humanity should have evolved to a point where they don't settle their differences by killing each other, right?  All kidding aside, how were going to make this work?  Who is the enemy today that would rival the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact?  At first, they said China, but then China protested and, considering how much money they invest in Hollywood it became North Korea.  Yes, North Korea, with the '4th largest army in the world,' the country that couldn't even feed its own population and once every couple of years fires up its nuclear fuel processing facilities to extort money and aid from the rest of the world.  That North Korea.
Alas, I suspended my disbelief and entertained the notion that North Korea, which is doubtful of even capable of defeating its southern neighbor, can successfully launch an invasion of these United States and went to see this remake for 'old time's sake.'  Maybe they found a way to make it work, I hoped.  Well, I couldn't have been more wrong.  Despite all the rah rah patriotic talk of defending home and freedom, the movie lacked heart and soul.  This reboot of what was essentially an '80's propaganda B-movie was as ill-conceived and badly executed as just about every critic on Rotten Tomatoes tells us.  Even if we buy into the movie's premise and go along for the ride, the movie's numerous action scenes came out flat, uninspired and to put it plainly, a bore.
You can't fault 'Red Dawn' 2012 for trying to appeal to the young Twilight/Hunger Games crowd by casting Chris Hemsworth (Thor) and Josh Hutcherson (Hunger Games) just as the original did with the 'brat pack' of the '80s, but unless you know you're going to like this movie before you even go to see it (and I doubt even that because that was exactly my attitude going into this movie), you're better off watching something else (like 'Argo') or save yourself a good chunk of pocket change instead.
Grade: D

Argo frak yourself!

Okay I admit, Ben Affleck turned out to be a damn fine director.  Much ridiculed as an actor for such duds as 'Daredevil' (where he met his future wife) and 'Gigli' (where he almost but didn't), Mr. Affleck has turned his career around with three consecutive directorial efforts, two of which he starred in.  While 'Gone Baby Gone' showcased the potential he had and 'The Town' gave us a glimpse of his gritty Michael Mann side, 'Argo' proved beyond a doubt that he is here to stay and may actually net him a statue.  Ben Affleck and Oscar in the same sentence?  Has hell frozen over or what?  Alright, you can come out of Matt Damon's shadow now, Ben.

As you should know by now, 'Argo' is based on the true story of the 1980 CIA operation to smuggle six American diplomats holed up in the Canadian ambassador's home after they narrowly escaped from the US embassy when it was stormed by angry Iranian mobs in 1979.  I remember the incident, and the ill-fated Delta Force rescue attempt, well as a teenager at the time.  With the declassification of this operation in 1991 by then-President Clinton, this gripping story finally came to light. 

Affleck also plays Tony Mendez, the CIA's top 'exfiltration expert' tasked with extracting the six Americans in distress out of Iran.  No mean task, as Iran was gripped by waves of anti-American demonstrations and anti-Western sentiments.  As they rightly should be, since Shah Reza Pahlavi was one of the most corrupt and brutal dictators in the modern history of the Middle East.  So what did Mendez do?  He came up with a 'lame-brained' idea to use a movie as a front to get them out.  The faux-movie, named 'Argo,' is a B-movie rip-off of a popular George Lucas film that's not hard to guess.  In fact, the storyboards, posters, costumes, etc. mimic those of 'Star Wars' down to a "t," except 'Argo' is to be filmed in the exotic locale of the Middle East, of course.

Although 'Argo' lacks the testosterone-laden machismo of superspy movies such as James Bond or Jason Bourne, in many ways it is even more edge-of-your-seat riveting.  Ben Affleck, as the bearded Tony Mendez, was a believable and sympathetic hero, risking his life (if caught he'll be tortured and executed as a spy) even though he's a family man and knew the odds stacked against such a desperate mission.  Certainly, this was by far his best performance to date, leagues above his Jack Ryan in 'The Sum of All Fears,' Tom Clancy's CIA protagonist also previously played by Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford.  Filled with tension, suspense, and a good dose of humanity, 'Argo' is a well written, directed and acted tour de force, and should be a frontrunner in this year's Oscar race. it just me, or does Kerry Bishé (who played one of the six embassy staffers, Kathy Stafford) bear an uncanny resemblance to Leighton Meester?

Grade: A+


Wu Tang Clan goes Wushu, Shaw Brothers style

Question: What do you get when a member of '90s hip-hop group Wu Tang Clan and 'Hostel' director Eli Roth make a kung-fu/wushu movie?  Well, if you say something of a mess you won't be far off, but then you also have to give them props for making the attempt with such infectious fun.  'The Man with the Iron Fists' is every bit what you would expect of a collaboration between RZA and Roth, a somewhat messy yet fun spoof of the chop-socky '70s kung-fu/wushu films of the Shaw Brothers era.
TMWTIF is a parody of sorts, though not as dumb or obnoxious as Steve Oedekerk's low brow Bruce Lee tribute 'Kung Pow: Enter the Fist' back in 2002.  Set in 19th Century China, the movie tells the tale of a former slave who became a master blacksmith/weapon maker in China (RZA).  But no, it is also a story of good and evil, honor and betrayal, murder and revenge.  In other words, what any self-deserving kung-fu movie should be about, as long as they set us up for some cool kung-fu fightin'.
The movie is done in the tongue-in-cheek style of the popular spaghetti-westerns of Sergio Leone.  There's even an unlikely hero in the movie, played by Russell Crowe, who's a cowboy and wields a knife (hence his name 'Jack Knife') that looks like a six-shooter.  Much of the movie is set in the best little whorehouse in Texas, ahem, a popular hangout in Jungle Village (no kidding, that's the name of the movie's Chinese village setting) called the Pink Blossom Inn run by none other than Lucy Liu, aka Madam Blossom. 
True, the kung-fu/wushu purist in me rebels at the travesty that is TMWTIF, but it's made with such glee and abandon that I find it difficult not to fall for its charms.  It's a homage to the Golden Age of Shaw Brothers movies, and I can drink to that.
Grade: B+

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The 'Sky' is definitely not 'Fall'ing

‘Skyfall’ is the latest entry in the venerable James Bond franchise and the third starring Daniel Craig, after 'Casino Royale' and 'Quantum of Solace.'  The mother of all superspy series, like its titular hero, has just prevailed against a grave threat, not from any mastermind villain but MGM's financial troubles which cast its future in doubt.  Some even wondered if Bond has lost its place to other franchises like Jason Bourne or Ethan Hunt.  Well, considering Skyfall’s rave reviews and record-setting box office opening for a 007 movie, that theme song to 'The Spy Who Loved Me' sung by Carly Simon comes to mind.
'Skyfall' is different from the previous 22 installments in that we get to know this mysterious, tuxedo-wearing, martini (shaken not stirred) drinking womanizer a little more, and the nature of his relationship with his boss, the maternal 'M' (played by Judi Dench).  The layers are peeled back, if only a little, to reveal who James Bond really is (hint: a tortured soul).  Directed by Sam Mendes, best known for his Academy Award winning ‘American Beauty,’ ‘Skyfall’ represents an end but also a new beginning for Bond. John Cleese’s ‘Q’ is gone, replaced by a young geek who looks like one of the Jonas Brothers, and by the end of the movie, Judi Dench will yield her long-running role as 'M’ to Ralph Fiennes. In an interesting twist, 'Skyfall' also reinvented ‘Moneypenny,’ the secretary Sean Connery loved to flirt with during his stint as 007.
Fast cars, beautiful women, and Bond’s trademark unflappability in the face of danger are all present in 'Skyfall,' but Daniel Craig proved to be less gadget-dependent than any of his predecessors, a more human, flawed, and believable Bond.  Consider this: he failed to save more non-villanous Bond Girls  from an early demise (Eva Green in ‘Casino Royale,’ Gemma Arterton in ‘Quantum of Solace’ and Bérénice Marlohe in 'Skyfall') than any other 007 worthy of the name, be it Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan or even that Australian Lazenby fellow.
Javier Bardem shined in his role as the latest supervillain, Silva, a former MI6 agent who had an axe to grind with 'M' because she gave him up to the Chinese for the sake of political expediency. Like Sean Bean’s 006 in ‘GoldenEye,’ a villain with intimate knowledge of the workings of British Intelligence only made him that much more formidable a foe, and also evokes some sympathy from the audience because he too was a ‘victim.’
 Grade: A