Friday, August 31, 2012

The Street Fighter

  Sonny Chiba is quite a character. His martial arts is brutal no doubt, but his personality is a cross between a mysterious ronin and a monkey on crack. This movie exhibits both sides, quite excellently. It has a good reputation for him just kicking ass and taking names. The plot muddles itself alot around the midway, but he never lets up with the ass kicking and strange chimp like karate yells. What can I say? The man's so badass, it's not one bit funny.
Well... maybe a little.

  The plot has something to do with the sole heiress to a now ownerless multi billion dollar oil company targeted to be kidnapped. No doubt to be forced to sign over her company. The film then somehow, maybe it said and I missed it, maybe it was lost in translation, or maybe I was just losing focus before the ass kicking started, but the film somehow brings our protagonist (Sonny Chiba. Duh.) into this as her protector. Which means lots of confusion and people thinking he's trying to kill this person when he's trying to kill the other person and then the other person thinks- you know what, it felt like a mess. But that doesn't mean that you can't follow the basics. Bad guy. Good guy. Damsel in distress. (even thats foggy at times) Fighting ensues. Pretty great formula.

  There's lots of quotable dialog and really unique clever shots that cement this flick as a cult FAVORITE. It's the kind of movie I love to recommend and the kind of movie I love watching with a bunch of friends. The scene where Sonny rips off a guys junk right through his pants is bound to get some reactions.
And if that doesn't, then you're watching the movie with a bunch of corpses. Despite being dated, and the fake blood being a tinge too bright, it still has impact and feels gritty all the same. There is a shlocky b-movie quality to it, a retro appeal, but the movie doesn't feel low budget or amateur at all.  The acting is mainly pretty good, but I mean, it's only as good as you can expect when the dialog's averaging stuff like "If I'm not your partner, let me be your slave!"
Yeah. It's that kind of movie.

  Sonny Chiba prowls from scene to scene with an undeniable cool and ease.  He knows he's the baddest guy on the scene, we know it, and everyone else just... can't get it through their thick skulls. But you know what never has a problem getting through their thick skulls? Chiba's fists of fury. Lots of bone crunching, skull cracking hits. Lots of blood sprays and gore galore. If this isn't the over the top kung-fu actioner you've been looking for, I don't know how to help you.  This doesn't feel like a rip-off of anything else. It may be muddled and such, but it's still pretty great. The last 40 minutes feel especially cohesive and easy to follow so the fights and action scenes are easier to enjoy that much more. Very cool movie all around. Not much to dislike here.

Overall it's a damn solid chop-sockey flick meant to be enjoyed with a switched off brain and a bowl of popcorn. (just make sure you're done by the testicle-rip...) It can hold it's own with alot of Bruce Lee flicks, and has a charm to it that alot of Martial Artists just can't pin down.I loved it and I'll own it the very first chance I get. It's a good, bloody, fast, fun, cheesy good time.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Cell

  The Cell is not a movie for the faint of heart. It's actually a pretty disturbing head trip. When so many movies nowadays use their antagonist merely as a neglected plot device to get the ball rolling, The Cell turns the camera directly on the bad guy here, the killer and the movie is all about what makes him tick. It's scary, it's original, it's amazing.

  Rather than being just a slow burn character study on the nature of a serial killer or something to that effect, director Tarsem Singh has produced a rapid fire thriller while managing to make it a character study at the same time. Its pacing is great and it juggles a few levels of the same story,  which is about a social worker (Jennifer Lopez) who's working at this institute place in this very science fiction-y procedure where they put her mind into the mind of a coma patient, and her consciousness can poke around in there to try and find the problem and get him to come out. The movie opens inside said coma patient's subconscious and its quite a set piece, quite the punch to open the movie with. You might think it sets the tone... but the tone isn't set until you start seeing dead bodies. And you ultimately know that she's sooner or later going to have to enter the killer's mind for some reason or another.

  The early scenes with the killer, played effectively by Vincent D'onofrio, serve as kind of a series of warnings saying, if you can't handle this stuff, get out now. Granted if you've seen films like Se7en, Videodrome, Jacob's Ladder and/or anything else by Tarsem Singh, you might be a little more well prepared for the inevitable horrors you'll see when Lopez's character must take the trip into his twisted mind. Now, all the actors here do a more than servicable job with their roles. However nobody exceptionally owns their part. Though to be honest, aside from D'onofrio's killer, "Stargher", the characters are pretty standard fare. The dedicated detective (Vince Vaughn) who's a cop because of some sad tragedy he witnessed in his past which he'll inevitably tell to the do gooder social worker who sees the good in everybody, which... inevitably will lead her to see "the good" in our serial killer, which is cleverly and accurately portrayed in his mind as his child self.

  We're introduced to the mechanics and look of the mind bending process immediately after the opening. It looks cool, and matches the odd and creepy tone of the movie. The two people who're getting their minds merged in a way, are wearing these stylized bodysuits that look like the human musculatory system, and they're suspended in midair by super thin, high tensile wires. It looks like they're floating. Which is a recurring theme in the movie. But what works exceptionally well is the fact, there is a ticking clock in this movie. Before the killer is captured he has a kidnapped woman trapped in a tank somewhere thats slowly filling with water. The whole contrapment is automated, and she'll drown if they don't get to her by a certain time. This brings us to J Lo's involvement. She must probe Stargher's mind and get him to divulge where he's hid the woman.

  Inside his mind, which is a veritable pandora's box of horrors and terrifying imagery, she has to find and chase around the scared and abused version of his childhood self,  hoping to appeal to his 'inner child'. In his head, she sees memories that he has of his horrifying childhood at the hands of a brutally abusive father. Its so terrible in fact, that it humanizes the killer. The notion that a movie's vicious villain may actually have trauma in his past that drove him to do the things he does may be severely unnerving to some, distasteful to others, and perhaps even outright offensive. People tend to like things clear cut in thrillers like this. The bad guy is bad and entirely unforgivable, lets hunt him down and murder him for his crimes. I get it. I get why that would be cathartic in a society like this. But seeing this poor boy brutalized at the hands of his father and subjected to horrible things... makes you wonder about the same judgemental society.

  The Cell doesn't point fingers or offer solutions. It simply illustrates that these horrible serial killers are actually people. Horribly messed up people who commit attrocities, but they are just people. And through Stargher, we see that often, these horrible people were actually victims themselves at one time. Their mind is broken, and something is wrong. Are they actually evil, or just capable of evil?  The line in this movie isn't blurred or even much addressed, but it's just one of the things you may find yourself thinking about when it's over. I didn't feel sorry for the grown man who would drown these women and turn them into his dolls so to speak, but I did feel sorry for the little boy who's father abused him so relentlessly and mercilessly. They are in fact the one and same person. More food for thought.

  I can imagine plenty of moviegoers hated this movie. They went for a simple somewhat scary summer sci-fi thriller, and got that- and a whole lot more too. They got deep social, ethical, moral and gravely serious questions raised right in their faces. Questions they weren't prepared to even think about. Let alone attempt to come up with an answer. It's full of images and scenes so disturbingly bloody, and unnervingly graphic, and confusing and fundamentally psychologically penetrating that people might not want to get that close to such a disturbing character.

  In fact, it's so psychologically penetrating it really feels like you're getting a peek into someone's mind. Sets and scenes flow like thoughts and sweeping macabre vistas host the darkest parts of his killer mind. It's so impressive. This stuff alone is worth seeing it for. It's truly scary and disturbing on a very deep level precisely because it desconstructs the villain on such an intimate level. In order to save a life, our do-gooder protagonist has to see the good in a man most would consider to be evil incarnate... and her playing field, is inside the darkest... most disorienting... most terrifying place imaginable...

his mind.

If your intrest is piqued and you can stand all the freakiness, than the Cell, is a 12 year old ride that holds up so well, its worth every second of your time and money to find and watch it. Even despite a disappointing final set piece, its still a massive scary thrill ride thats exceedingly unique. I give it a recommendation.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Sleeping Dogs

  I'm already a sucker for asian crime dramas. Something about the big Hong Kong John Woo thrillers just gets me all the time. From A Better Tomorrow to the iconic Hard Boiled and more, I can't resist them. And this game feels like you're behind the steering wheel of a classic drama like those. However the promotion that drew me to the game boasted more of its Fast & Furious attitude. And I must say its a wild ride.

  Those here for the story won't be disappointed. The phenomenal voice acting lends a real sense of gravity and believability to the proceedings in an amazing way. With the likes of Kelly Hu (X2: X-Men United), Tom Wilkinson (Batman Begins), Will Yun Lee (Elektra), and Emma Stone (The Amazing Spider-Man) its no wonder the dialog and such is delivered so damn well. Its great just listening to their conversations even. The story itself is very familiar to fans of the genre, and probably movie fans in general. It centers on an undercover cop, Wei Shen, who is tasked with taking down a faction of the triads from the inside. However, as he works to earn their trust and their loyalty he starts to get close to them... and the lines between right and wrong begin to blur.

   What's good about this story is that it lets you make up your own mind about who's good and bad in the story. As a cop, Shen is frequently given morally questionable orders, and at times forced by his commanding officer to do things that are downright unethical, and this would be easy to illustrate that the cops are crooked and he should be loyal to the Triads. However, the Triads ARE criminals. They run drugs, prostitution rings and protection rackets. All of that stuff. Hardcore criminals. Which you find yourself instantly in a very difficult middle ground. On one hand, he's a cop, tasked with upholding the law, and on the other... he's a Triad, who's bound to his 'brothers' with loyalty, honor, and a code.

  On that alone, Sleeping Dogs is most engaging while you're doing story missions. I neglected alot of side stuff to do for the sake of finding out what happens next. Its nothing wholly original, but due to the fact the characters feel fresh and have a level of gravitas, its incredibly engaging. The relationships the protagonist builds are endlessly interesting. You don't get to affect how they develop so much, this isn't like Mass Effect or anything. Story-wise, its like watching a movie in the sense that you're just along for the ride. But what a ride this is. From massive speeding car chases that would make Michael Bay green with envy to a climatic shootout in a hospital that feels like it pays homage to Hard Boiled, Sleeping Dogs is amazing from start to finish.

  The gameplay itself is really satisfying and really fun. Your martial arts skills being the shining gem of the bunch with shootouts and driving not far behind. The combat system will feel very familar to Batman: Arkham Asylum/City and Assassin's Creed veterans. Its largely a counterattack based melee setup, but if you know your stuff well, you can look just like a pro movie star, martial artist master and 'Jet Li' the shit out of about 30 or so guys who just keep coming at you.

  Aside from the story, there are endless side activities to do, like... fight clubs. Which have 6 rounds. In the biggest one I've been to, by round six I was fighting easily about thirty guys. But when you win everything you get cool outfits that nod to the greats like Tony Jaa, Bruce Lee and more. Very fun stuff. And speaking of outfits, you can customize Wei to a satisfying degree. The clothing deal is more akin to GTA IV than say... Saints Row 3. But the clothes you can buy for Wei actually look cool. Unlike the short end of the stick poor Niko Bellic got...

  While Sleeping Dogs may not encourage mass free reigning chaos, its still a vast open world sandbox in which you have plenty of diversions to keep you busy for hours. Whether you want to practice your Ezio-ish freerunning or jack a car and crash it all over town, theres also no shortage of transportation. So go roam about and find new shops and such. And you might run into little mini activities that employ some of Shen's more police-ish gadgets and techniques. From picking locks to planting bugs and hacking security cameras, you might be surprised how much effort you have to put into some of these. Its all fun though. All the diversions and such made readily available to you really do a great job of breaking up monotony. Not that there is much, but thats largely thanks to how engaging the story is and like I said, all the cool little diversions.

  If I have any complaints they're small, insignficant and summarily irrelevant. Sleeping Dogs deserves alot of praise. Its a slick polished roller coaster ride through the triad criminal underworld with all the big budget trappings of a fantastic big screen crime thriller. I loved every minute of it. Couldn't have asked for more. I whole heartedly recommend Sleeping Dogs. Even if you think you've seen it all in Saints Row 2, 3, and games like Just Cause 2 and GTA IV, here is a game that takes elements from all of those and manages to be so well put together, it feels like something fresh. A breath of fresh air. And a new must play in my book.
Sleeping Dogs, to put it simply...
simply just... kicks ass.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Avatar: The Last Airbender

  Reviewing a whole show, is a pretty big undertaking. But Avatar is not just any show, its good from part to part, great from one season to the next, and utterly epic as a whole. Its the kind of "chosen one", coming-of-age adventures that hollywood can't seem to get right anymore on the silver screen. Its powerful, and funny, and moving and action packed. Its worth sitting down and seeing the whole show as soon as possible.

  I don't address it so quickly as a "cartoon" because even though it IS animated, the term "cartoon" springs Tom and Jerry or the Looney Tunes to mind. Mindless silly animated bits with a punchline. They exist solely to make a joke, rarely ever to make a point. I'm not saying that Avatar is the only kid's show to ever be more than simply a cartoon, I'm just saying... this one knocks your socks off. From the way it handles its mature content, of which there is a lot, to the way it carefully develops archetypal characters into people who we grow to know and care about, the show feels less like a saturday morning cartoon, and more like a massive budget hollywood epic. It may sound crazy to those who have no desire to sit down and watch a "cartoon" as you may label it, but it IS worth it. This show IS awesome.

  A reviewer of another movie once said (and I paraphrase...) "It has the right combination of elements to put the magic back into saturday matinees..." I can't think of a better way to describe Avatar. It's layered and complex, never too much though. It never overwhelms or drops an indecipherable heap of backstory in your lap. It moves with the characters. We discover things as they do. Not only plot wise, but emotionally too. As the leads develop feelings for each other, its a subtle budding romance thats handled tactfully and paced out just right. In fact, just about everyone goes through the emotional ringer on this show. Theres friendships made, romances kindled, alliances formed, and betrayals suffered. The characters aren't perfect, morally idealistic, role models either. They make mistakes, they feel rage and want revenge. The thing is, they learn from their mistakes, and the characters are all the stronger for it. Its a really impressive thing to watch how they handle it.
  For those curious about what the Avatar actually is and the world in which the show takes place, here's some stuff from Wikipedia:

  Avatar: The Last Airbender takes place in a world home to humans, fantastic animals, and spirits. Human civilization is divided into four nations: the Water Tribes, the Earth Kingdom, the Fire Nation, and the Air Nomads. Each nation has a distinct society, wherein people known as Benders have the ability to manipulate the element of their nation using the physical motions of martial arts. The show's creators based each bending style on an existing martial art, leading to clear visual and physical differences in the techniques used by Waterbenders, Earthbenders, Firebenders and Airbenders.

  At any given time, there is only one person in the world capable of bending all four elements - the Avatar. The Avatar is the spirit of the world reincarnated in human form. When an Avatar dies, this spirit is reincarnated into the next nation in the Avatar Cycle, according to the implied correspondence of seasons to the nations' cultures (Winter/Water Tribe; Spring/Earth Kingdom; Summer/Fire Nation; and Autumn/Air Nomads) and must master each bending art in seasonal order, starting with their native element. Additionally, the Avatar possesses an ability called the Avatar State, which briefly endows them with the knowledge and abilities of all past Avatars as a self-triggering defense mechanism, which can be made subject to the will of the user by extensive trial and training. If an Avatar is killed in the Avatar State, the reincarnation cycle is broken, and the Avatar identity will cease to exist. Through the ages, the succeeding Avatars have served to keep a relative equality among the nations; whereas in the story's mythology, the Avatar connects the material to the spiritual world, and vice versa.

  The events 100 years before the beginning of the show are revealed gradually and out of order throughout the series.
  More than a century before the beginning of the series, the ruler of the Fire Nation, Fire Lord Sozin, planned a world war to expand his territory; but knowing that his friend, fellow firebender Avatar Roku would prevent him, arranged the latter's death, whereupon the Avatar was reincarnated as an Airbender named Aang. Aang was told the truth of his status while still a child, despite the protests of his mentor Monk Gyatso; whereupon Aang, fearful of his new responsibilities, and of separation from Gyatso, fled his home on his flying bison, Appa. The two were subsequently forced into the ocean by a storm, and Aang's protective Avatar State encased them in an iceberg, in suspended animation. In an attempt to kill the new avatar who would be an Air Nomad, Fire Lord Sozin carried out a genocide of the Air Nomads, leaving Aang as the eponymous "Last Airbender".

  The war Sozin started raged over a hundred years and is still going strong when a teenage waterbender girl named Katara, and her her brother find Aang frozen in the iceberg. They release him and unknowingly kick off a massive quest to help Aang learn and master the other three elements to overthrow the vicious Fire Nation and stop the tyrannical reign of the current Fire Lord. As with any epic quest, there are twists and turns and epic battles, and the characters become practically like family. From episode to episode, it retains a fantastic formula, there are your episodes that are more humorous and laid back, and these are like a rest stop almost, because Aang and co. are relentlessly hunted by the Fire Nation. Their lives are nearly perpetually in danger.

  Its intense and powerful, but the show is not without a lighter side. Theres lot of humor, and its all well timed and genuinely funny. As the show goes on, it develops inside jokes and a stronger sense of humor. Its this part of the show that will entertain the younger audiences, but theres also absolutely nothing keeping older viewers from really enjoying this rich and engaging show. The action is fantastic, the animation is excellent, the humor is actually funny, and the stories are incredibly well written. None of this feels like a little kid's show. Its thoughtful and really fun. I can't recommend it enough.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Small Soldiers

  Small Soldiers plays out less like a Dreamworks family film and more like a sci-fi war movie. Only, the combatants are about 10 inches tall and made of plastic. Don't let that fool you, the movie has these nasty little blue light specials not-so-accidentally outfitted with military grade microprocessor chips that can learn and adapt within the core programming...
well what happens when you program a bunch of toys to go to war with each other? God help whoever gets caught in the middle.

  Which is exactly what happens. The frustrated teenage son of a conservative toy store owner first stumbles across a few of the 'Commando Elite' (the bad ones) and the 'Gorgonites' (the peaceful aliens) action figures before they officially hit the stores. Within no time at all, the ruthless toy soldiers, once voice activated, rip out of their own packaging to literally go and dismember their rival toy line. Not only are they self aware, but they realize that their weapons are made of cheapie plastic. "Standard issue is insufficient!" their leader yells, voiced with much gusto by the pitch perfect Tommy Lee Jones.

  At this point, the gravity of the situation starts to don on the viewers once the trigger happy toys start acquiring actual knives and dangerous household objects. Its as cool as it is unnerving and kind of scary. For grown ups, they might sit back wondering "wow, what cool special effects" at first and then "I really have all that stuff in my house?". Everything from toasters to chainsaws, the tiny little soldiers turn everything into weapons of massive destruction. Kids however, might be frightened at how vicious and bloodthirsty the pint sized commandos get (can you tell I'm having fun with these nicknames?). Humans get physically harmed, even kids are assaulted and injured. This is no Toy Story, despite it being a perfect parallel, its legitimately violent and scary.

  Don't be put off, this is no horror movie. But its a far cry from something to market to little kids. Things get really intense towards the end, and some kids may not be able to handle it. Even though the good guys are cute, and the movie has a funnier, lighter side to it at times, I can see why the critics slammed it for being pushed so heavily towards the young youth demographic, but all they did was bury a good movie under loads of undue negativity. But I say let the power of the viewer prevail. People I know, like this movie. It's gotten around. Its a fun little action movie thats a grown up alternative to the tiny toys from Andy's bedroom with all their schmaltz and cuteness. This isn't Disney folks. And its all the stronger for it.

  Small Soldiers is witty, and sarcastic, its somewhat thought provoking, undeniably cool, visually interesting and full to the brim of gizmos, gadgets, and the latest in state of the art makeshift household weaponry and warfare. By the end of the movie, the neighborhood is a veritable battlefield with flaming wreckage, charred pieces of plastic, and all kinds of little weapons the baddies put together, strewn all over the lawns and streets. It escalates and escalates from its humble toy story beginnings to this block war thats pretty captivating to watch.
  I can't in good conscience say that the controversy over Small Soldiers itself is relevant anymore. No, now we have movies like The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises lining toy isles at Wal-Mart with miniature versions of Batman himself, and his psychotic villains. Those movies are far more violent and at times, sadistic.

  There is no longer reason to fret over this quaint little adventure when I'm seeing five year olds sitting in on a screening of Predators. This isn't progress to be proud of though. We're so desensitized as a society, that stuff like that is only going to keep getting worse. Sad as that may be, theres no reason to not go out and rent this solid little actioner. You might be pleasantly surprised. And unfortunately, I won't be surprised either - if you find it in the kid's section. But seeing as how I've seen some kids are clamoring for Freddy or Chris Nolan's Batman... Small Soldiers might be the tamest thing they'll see all year.

  Perfect family movie...? I'll let you decide.