Machete Kills by Robert Rodriguez

Machete Kills by Robert Rodriguez

The U.S. government recruits Machete to battle his way through Mexico in order to take down an arms dealer who looks to launch a weapon into space.

Every new additional reiteration of Machete is becoming less funnier than its predecessor. Machete was funny when it was first a trailer in Grindhouse. It was mildly amusing when it was made into a feature film. The sequel, Machete Kills, is now just a bland joke that has been worn out by its many retellings. Robert Rodriguez, the joke teller, can’t seem to get enough of his own joke. Furthermore, he doesn’t seem to care how much we like the joke at all.

This film went right through me. As soon as it was finished, it was forgotten. Danny Trejo is an unique onscreen presence and I’m glad he is still working at age 69. Trejo has shown range in many of his supporting roles. Unfortunately, Rodriguez uses Trejo blandly as the film’s straight man, having react deadpan to the supporting cast of crazy cartoon characters surrounding him. Much of the film’s gags feel cheap, and it has nothing to do with b-movie irony. The most noteworthy example being the El Chameleón character, an assassin who is a literal shapeshifter, is a cheap excuse to open up guest star spots to help market the film. See? This all seems funnier to Robert Rodriguez than it is to the audience.

Robert Rodriguez claims to like his characters, and proceeds to populate his film with a cast of supporting characters that are on the surface visually interesting, but doesn’t do anything with them. It’s as if Rodriguez is perpetually trying to sculpt the perfect action icon, but never delivers the pathos to fully sell the character. Instead, the characters are all handled in a throwaway fashion, tossed aside once their iconography is fully formed.

The saving grace of Machete Kills is Mel Gibson, who really devotes himself to the role, milking his dialogue and sells his Bond villian-like character as if he were playing Macbeth. Gibson’s performance matches with the film’s ridiculous tone, but adds that missing pathos that Rodriguez is unable to provide, making every other actor slapdash by comparison. But when Gibson’s Luther Voz claimed to be a Star Wars fan who decorates his evil fortress with Star Wars memorabilia, I gave myself a light face palm. Evoking Star Wars as a source of humor is just about the lamest joke in the book.

That’s how this film slashes itself (pun intended). It is lazy and half-assed; it doesn’t know what to do with its own talent and has expended all of its irony. It’s sad to see Robert Rodriguez fall to this level. He is a very capable and multi-talented filmmaker who can shoot, score and edit, but maybe he just shouldn’t write his own scripts. I do not care about the upcoming Machete Kills Again… In Space. Please wow me with Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.

Looper by Rian Johnson

Looper by Rian Johnson

Time travel is invented by the year 2074 and, though immediately outlawed, is used by criminal organizations to send those they want killed 30 years into the past where they are killed by “loopers”, assassins paid with silver bars strapped to their targets. Joe (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a looper, encounters himself when his older self (Bruce Willis) is sent back in time to be killed.

First, to get this out of the way… the Bruce Willis make-up on Joseph Gordon-Levitt did not bother me. I stared at it for a while and eventually my eyes tuned to it. I can understand people being distracted by this but it ultimately works as a story device.

In short, Looper is a well-made science fiction actioner that asks its big questions while retaining its fun factor. The best thing it has going for it is that the film is hyper aware of movie genre conventions and chooses to play with them.

Ten minutes into the film, I was suddenly becoming very aware of the film’s influences, including Blade Runner, Terminator, and a Twilight Zone episode called It’s a Good Life. (There probably are more I haven’t named. I invite you to name more.) By the second shift, I was aware that this is part of the film’s design. Most movie-going audiences are pretty familiar with film genres at this point. Looper is aware that your mind is thinking back to another film you have seen, and the film uses that thought train to surprise you. Every time I had an idea of where the story was going, the film would mutate it’s genome, tonally shifting into a completely new territory of genre.

I have read that the genre shifting has been the major reason why a lot of people dislike the movie. It didn’t bother me because what really won me over ultimately was the film’s energy. Yes, the film a crackling independent film feel to it that was visceral and fresh in how the story was told and paced. Every time the story made its tonal shifts, I was renewed with excitement and found myself going along with it again and again. I even found myself excited by the camera movements during an action scene, particularly what they choose to show on and off camera.

The common time paradox issue in time travel stories is addressed by literally having a scene where its two leads sit down, discuss the science of it and arrive to the agreement that it does not make a lot of sense, but ask the audience to go along with it anyways. And that’s the key point to whether audiences will enjoy Looper: whether you choose to go along with it.

In the end, the pacing never lets its big existential questions settle in to ever let you really ponder deep thoughts about them, but that’s the point. It’s delivering a fun ride. And it’s plenty fun!

Oh, and by the way, Jeff Daniels was a great villain.

The Expendables 2 by Simon West

The Expendables 2 by Simon West

The Expendables undertake a seemingly simple mission that evolves into a quest for revenge against Jean Vilain, a rival mercenary who has murdered one of their own, and who threatens the world with a deadly weapon.

I enjoyed the first Expendables movie. It was great fun. It was very thin on story terms but the fact that all those action stars grouped together made it a fun guilty pleasure. When it wasn’t delivering action scenes, it was giving male banter, which I have a very big soft spot for. Even though I liked it, I would never recommend The Expendables to somebody else. I assume other people excited for the first Expendables movie would already rushed to see it. People going to see The Expendables coming out disappointed complaining about mindless action only have themselves to blame, right?

No, I have been proven wrong.

The Expendables 2 is bigger in scale and budget, but it’s not a better movie than the first.  The writing is fairly lazy, much lazier than the first movie. It relies too heavily that the audience is coming in with pre-existing knowledge of the 80’s and 90’s action era. There’s too much of a void that the audience needs to fill in their own heads. There’s no sense of who these characters are, instead we are meant to supplant them with their action hero personas.

One thing that really took me out was I was becoming very aware of the production schedule of the movie from seeing which actor was onscreen at different points throughout the story. I was disappointed how little Jet Li was in it, he may as well have just said no to reprising his part. I knew they shot his portion of the film in Hong Kong. The film was not interesting enough to take me away from that thought.

There’s some really key about henchmen in action movies that I was always want to bring up. There’s this one gag in the first Austin Powers movie where a henchman in Dr. Evil’s lair dies, and then we got a cut scene where there’s a birthday party in a suburban house where the family members of that henchman are told that the henchman is dead. Suffice to say, the family’s day is ruined. In The Expendables 2, as little as there already is that clearly establishes the enemy, we’re never really clearly see visually who these henchmen are. In the action scenes, the camera is focused on showing the heroes delivering the blows. This shifts how the audience experiences the fight because we’re watching the action movie star firing a huge weapon as opposed to the character in the movie shooting a henchmen to get over an obstacle in the story. There’s a pornographic sensibility within that hurts the film. At the finale, it gets to a Last Action Hero level of ridiculous self-parody, as there is a “line-o-rama” sequence where the heroes take turns sputtering their famous action catchphrases in a row. I laughed, but it was a cheap one-off laugh.

The fight between Jean-Claude Van Damme and Sylvester Stallone was pretty disappointing. It wouldn’t even have been hard to do. Only if there were more kicks… there’s really no excuse for this. That’s what I learned from watching The Expendables 2: there’s “dumb fun” ,which I would define as the first Expendables movie, and then there’s “way-too-dumb”, which is its sequel.

On a side note, Arnold Schwarzenegger can still deliver lines. Watching Schwarzenegger on screen really made me think about what a movie star he was and how odd that he is a movie star. It was a combination of the kitschy taste of the 80’s combined with the audience loving the presence of this hulking Austrian muscle man. Think about it, we do not think of him as a trained thespian and in his 80’s films we’re never really asked to buy him as anything but Arnold Schwarzenegger. Usually the things that are happening in his films are pretty far-fetched and insane, whether it’s him playing a machine, shooting an alligator in the face or teaching kindergarten. But whatever it was, we let it slide as an audience, he ultimately remains a very watchable screen presence. He’s also hilarious because he’s given these crazy lines to say and part of the fun is watching him deliver them with his thick Austrian accent.

Call me crazy, but I do not see a new action star rising to stardom the same way in 2012. That thought alone makes me miss the 80’s action era more than what The Expendables 2 managed to evoke. I really look forward to Schwarzenegger’s cinematic return.

NOTE: I’ve been away for a while. The movie I worked on is now officially in the can. It’s in post-production now and my part is currently over. I’ve drafted a lot of reviews that I intend to finish. So bear with me as I catch up.

Red State by Kevin Smith

Red State by Kevin Smith

A group of teens receive an online invitation for sex, though they soon encounter fundamentalists with a much more sinister agenda.

I used to be a Kevin Smith fan. I liked all his work up till Clerks 2. I would look up funny clips of his speeches and occasionally read his blog. Zack and Miri Make A Porno made me laugh but it was not something I could recommend to somebody else. I thought Cop Out was one big juicy raspberry but it was not the reason why I do not care for his work anymore. The real reason is because he’s gotten so whiny these couple of years it’s just a turn-off listening to him talk about anything these days. As someone who wants to work in the film in industry, I could not empathize with his view of film critics and/or Hollywood politics. I purely see those as good problems to have at this point. I totally understand and respect that he is probably in a different stage in life than me but I just cannot help it. Sorry.  On with the review…

Michael Parks is really good and brings a muted creepiness as Reverend Abin Cooper, but he needs subtitles. I understood Jeff Bridges in True Grit word for word and still found Parks’ drawl scratchy delivery difficult at times. Melissa Leo goes over-the-top. That’s all I have to say about the acting.

Red State titters between being a satire, a horror film and a late night B action movie. All three genres end up competing against each other. The horror was not horrific enough; it’s watered down once the action kicks in. That’s a problem because it’s satiric metaphors are never fully physicalized and they end up being stated through dialogue. The violence is meant to be taken seriously but there’s a scene involving a cop receiving a head shot outside Abin Cooper’s house that looked  too funny to be shocking. At the final dialogue set piece with Agent Joseph Keenan (played by John Goodman), it seems like the film is giving you permission to laugh at what’s going on, but I was not sure if I was supposed to. What floats to the surface after all this genre clashing is the message of the film, which seems too on-the-nose. After watching Red State, I could not recall a specific scene or any characters (besides Michael Parks) that were memorable. What I can tell you is what Smith thinks is wrong with America.

It’s nice to see Kevin Smith write in a different voice and it’s too bad he claims to have only one more movie in him before quitting as a filmmaker (I do not believe this at all). I assume his cinematographer Dave Klein must be thrilled to finally be able to pan the camera, do handheld and use a crane shot. As he admits, he’s not the strongest director in the world. Horror is a visual medium and he would probably benefit in a genre that is more based on writing. But you know what? It’s a new direction! It’s something new from him. So again, I must go back to … I don’t know what the hell he is being so whiny about!

The Viral Factor by Dante Lam

The Viral Factor by Dante Lam

I had plans to see this in January when it came out in Hong Kong. Due to being busy with my work, I did not get around to it till now. So hence this late review.

The direction of Chinese cinema is uncertain right now. Many Hong Kong directors and talent have been making movies in the mainland and there is a conundrum of how to balance the content of these co-productions. It has gotten quite experimental in trying to find a genre that can meet both Mainland and Hong Kong expectations. Comedy and romantic comedy so far rather difficult to cater to audiences as humor is vastly different between Hong Kong and Mainland China Mainland romantic comedies like If You Are The One or Love is Not Blind proves successful in Mainland but not Hong Kong. Making a comedy that balances both tastes such as Derek Yee’s The Great Magician have been attempted as well and failed. So far, only action movie and historical or wuxia epics have proven successful. So now about The Viral Factor

Okay, a plot summary… On a mission to protect a scientist who has stolen a copy of the smallpox virus in Jordan on an International Defence Commission escort mission, Sean (played by Andy On) betrays his IDC team in order to get the virus so he can mutate it into a biological weapon, develop a vaccine and sell it to a corrupt pharmaceutical company via an arms dealer. The failed mission leaves IDC member Jon Man (played by Jay Chou) injured with a headshot wound and his girlfriend Ice (played by Bai Bing) dead. With two weeks left to live, Jon Man decides to spend his remaining days with his mother (played by Elaine Jin) who reveals that he has a long lost brother, Man Yeung (played by Nicholas Tse) whom she left behind with his father, Man Tin (played by Liu Kai Chi). Jon decides to track Yeung down in Malaysia but upon arrival, he discovers that Yeung has become a wanted felon and is part of the plot orchestrated by Sean. Jon is drawn into the conflict, not only to protect his family but to ensure his brother does not go further down the road of unrighteousness and to take down Sean’s operation for good.

The story at times seem a little too coincidental and convenient for the sake of story (The bad guy Sean, who betrayed Jon Man, happens to employ Man Yeung, who is Jon Man’s long lost criminal brother?). It does work though because the plot moves quickly enough where you do not notice these flaws. This is the first time I saw Jay Chou in a more serious light. He has dropped a lot of his “pop star-isms” as Jon Man and brings something more human to his role of which the audience can root for. I’m pretty sure it’s not just the acting beard he is sporting. Ask me again later and I may give you another answer. That or it’s the fact that I cannot grow an acting beard. I do not know what to say about Nicholas Tse because it seems like he’s played this character before. Suffice to say, Tse delivers. It’s always great to see Liu Kai Chi employed. He looks ridiculous but adds a lot of the dramatic tension between the Jay Chou and Nicholas Tse characters.

With it’s foreign locales and big action set pieces,  The Viral Factor is almost reminiscent of Hong Kong productions in the mid-90s like Downtown Torpedoes (starring Jordan Chan and Takeshi Kaneshiro) or Enter The Eagles (starring Shannon Lee and the bilingual atrocity Michael Wong). What makes the movie vastly different from those previous movies is with an investment of $200 million Hong Kong dollars, The Viral Factor has Hollywood-level production values. And yes, the money is all on the screen: there are foot chases, car chases, a helicopter sequence in the sky and boat sequences in the ocean. They do not chicken out with lame shaky camera and there is no struggle to track what’s going on. They use tracking crane shots to cover the action appropriately. The opening action sequence in Jordan felt like a Hollywood war movie. I was both impressed and pondering how the film’s action was going to top itself with such a big opening battle. And boy, they do manage to top it.

The action set pieces do go on a bit long by the finale. Nicholas Tse’s character Man Yeung has this clumsy chaotic way of fighting and ends up brawling and rolling around with each and every henchmen and it drags the pacing a bit. That is a nitpick. I’m glad there was no pop song from either of the stars playing at any point during the movie which seems more refreshing. That’s the thing, it’s still a very fun action movie.

Dante Lam is a filmmaker that has dabbled in different genres through his career. Some have worked better than others. I liked Jiang Hu: The Triad Zone (a film not without it’s flaws but ultimately saved by good performances by Tony Leung Ka Fai) and Beast Cops. He’s found his place with the urban crime genre with films like The Beast Stalker and The Stool Pigeon. Now it seems like he’s found his niche. The Viral Factor felt fresh even though it shouldn’t have. I would like to see more action movies made with this level of budget using international locations. After all, we have seen enough of Hong Kong.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale by Jalmari Helander

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale by Jalmari Helander

Days before Christmas, a child Pietari (played by Onni Tommila), the son of a reindeer herder Rauno (played by Jorma Tommila), stumbles across a supposed archeological excavation located on a mountain near his remote rural home. Strange things begin to occur: large herds of reindeer are found dead and children start disappearing across the town. The reindeer herders begin an investigation and unravels the shocking, ugly truth about Santa Claus.

It’s an original spin on the Santa Claus myth. The idea that Santa Claus was a supernatural being who’s duty was to punish naughty children. It put me on the edge of my seat as it was so fresh to see everything we know about Santa Claus turned into a dark evil thing. I was wondering which direction the story was going to go. The story knows exactly how much information to give you at certain points to keep you engaged and guessing. Rare Exports manages to build up its mystery up with discipline and competently builds to a worthy action-packed finale.

They manage to create some genuine dark creepy moments as well. There’s a great scene where a captured Santa Claus figure sits naked and totally unresponsive in a room. The adult reindeer herders scratch their heads over what to do with him. As a child (who has done something “naughty”) enters and the Santa figure springs to life, slowly setting his eyes locked onto the child, ready to pounce on him. The audience is ahead of the characters on what’s going on, but only so slightly. We become afraid for what will happen to these children if the parents cannot protect them from dark forces. It does touch to some cautionary tale-like themes about the safety of children (though it’s too scary for kids under 12).

The thing I loved most was how they crafted the Santa Claus conspiracy, it titters between a fictionalized conspiracy, myth and reality that makes you almost think,”Hey, this could happen.” And that balance alone makes it a fresh viewing experience.

Funny enough, I did see this during Christmas and I do recommend it as a Christmas movie if you ever get sick of watching Love Actually or any of the Die Hard movies over and over again. But in all seriousness, I wouldn’t wait till next December.