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Robot Movies

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Entertainment Weekly polled its readers for their Favorite Robot Movie.  Shockingly, I have an opinion on the results.  Instead of listing them by percentage, I will put them in order: #1 Wall-E, #2 tie between T2 & Star Wars, #4 Transformers, #5 Blade Runner, #6 The Iron Giant, #7 I, Robot and #8 Short Circuit.

I have not seen Wall-E yet, but I’m sure that it’s excellent.  Will it be the most popular robot movie in ten years?  Will people remember it?  I don’t know how memorable Pixar’s films are.  Before Toy Story 3 came out, I did not remember that I had never seen Toy Story 2—I still haven’t, actually.  What bothers me is that as many people like a terminator movie as like the original Star Wars.  At first I thought, where the hell is the best Star War, The Empire Strikes Back, but then I remembered that only Star Wars showed the world through those droids’ eyes.  Even worse than that, Trans-fucking-formers is the 4th most popular?  In front of Blade Runner?  I get that people go to see in Transformers and do not netflix Blade Runner, but one is a classic example of science fiction, noir, and philosophy.  The other hates humanity. Instead of dwelling on the negative, I am going to make a list of my favorite robot movies. They used favorite, so instead of “best” I will rank them by how much I like to watch them.

My Super Robot Movie Favorite List For America:
1. Star Wars, a duh.  To understand how fully this is a droid’s story, just watch Hidden Fortress by Akira Kurosawa.
2. Ghost in The Shell. Still great 16 years later.
3. Blade Runner – Ridley Scott’s finest film, yes, even better than Robin Hood.
4. Alien – more movies need robots played by (Sir) Ian Holm.
5. Artificial Intelligence: AI – if Kubrick had done this movie, or Spielberg had done it without people knowing that Kubrick had prepared to make this it would be considered a classic.  I know that I did not see it in theaters and have only watched it once since, but it is a great movie.
6. Star Trek: First Contact – how much of a robot movie is this?  Are cyborgs robots?  What makes a person a person? Ghost in the Shell deals with this issue, particularly in the mangas, but the anime is still amazing and always worth a watch.
7. The Fifth Element – oh, Ian Holm is in this one with a crazy Gary Oldman and a young Milla Jovovich?  Since Luc Besson wrote and directed this, I’m sure that he was able to keep Bruce Willis under control.  You know, since he’s French.
8. I, Robot – very well done genre movie.  The robot gets voiced by Alan Tudyk, who is amazing in everything he is in.
9. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – I understand that this was not the book, but the book was not the audio recording, so stop complaining and enjoy it on its own merits.  I’m tempted to list the cast at you.
10. The Terminator/The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) tie. These are basically the same film, so it’s a toss up.

Are they robot movies? The Matrix, The Empire Strikes Back, Akira. If they were, they would be on the list.

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Robin Hood

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**½

Then the fates have smiled upon me.

This 2010 Robin Hood story picks up where Robin Hood Men in Tights left off. Okay, so that was a lie. Instead, like its spiritual predecessor–Conan the Barbarian–it had Max von Sydow who wanted a burly guy, here Russell Crowe’s Robin Longstride instead of Conan, to take care of his daughter. von Sydow was not the only wasted talent in this film, Danny Huston  dominated as King Richard the Lionheart. Unfortunately his character does not last long.

His death gave rise to an example of the average cleverness of this film, “I’ve killed the king!” Simon McBurney (Father Tancred) was not given much to say, or work with, but was wonderful as usual–I loved him in The Reckoning and on Midsomer Murders. Mark Strong gets many more lines and is currently IN EVERYTHING. Obviously he’s not as good as in Sherlock Holmes nor in The Guard. William Hurt is always good.

It might interest you to know that I watched the Director’s Cut. Normally I opt for the theatrical release the first time I watch something, but I trusted that Ridley Scott would have a better version than the studio and MPAA made him release. In this case, I would have preferred whichever version was shorter. I guess one advantage to having such a long movie is getting to include great actresses too, like Eileen Atkins, whom I could not recognize as the queen mother—she was Mrs. Croft in Gosford Park.

Thus the actors in the movies were very talented and the music was good good. It was Marc Streitenfeld instead of Hans Zimmer, but I would have believed that Zimmer did this one too, since he has collaborated with Scott many times before. What doomed this movie to mediocrity was that the script was just not well written. It was unsubtle, repetitive and belabored its points. I was shocked when Lady Eowyn showed up with her visor down again, but oh well. Fighting on a beach has its own beauty, even if there was no Minas Tirith in England. This was obviously a prequel to a series of films, unfortunately I do not think it made enough money so it has failed to serve the purpose of setting up a better second film. Honestly, if they do make a sequel, I will probably go see it and I expect that it will be better than this one was.

Once Upon a Time in China

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Wong Fei Hung

****

Aunt Yee, is the West so wonderful?  Why must be learn from them?

Recently I referenced the importance of Wong Fei Hung in my review of Ip Man. To appreciate that film, I said that you had to understand its context. That is even more true for Once Upon a Time in China, which does not have the benefit of being a modern film, nor of having an experienced Jet Li. But we would not have “our” Jet Li, but for the success of this film.

Once Upon a Time in China takes place before the turn of the 20th century.  It has traditional Chinese values losing to the influx of foreign power.  Dangerous guns, ugly prostitutes, affectionate aunts, and corrupt politicians all present challenges to Wong Fei Hung specifically, and China as a whole.

The challenges range in subtlety, but none are particularly subtle. A traditional Chinese band tries to drown out missionaries singing hallelujah, which was pretty funny; English mistakes abound like, “Say thank you” – “I kill you! I kill you!”; the flash from a camera explodes killing a bird; foreign troops opening fire on unarmed Chinese civilians. The affectionate aunt is Aunt 13/Yee, whose name signifies her relationship to Wong Fei Hung. That is to say, her name is not 13, nor should everyone even call her Aunt 13, just him. And as she says…they’re not blood related. Ooooooh! Despite the cheesiness of that relationship, I did enjoy how Fei Hung is not in every scene. Another master level martial artist named Iron Vest Yim–Shi-Kwan Yen–comes to Fa Shan, but cannot find work because of the times. His story matters because it shows another problem in China at the time, and more importantly, presents a worthy challenge to Fei Hung. As importantly, the character bouncing between the two is Foon–Biao Yuen–although his martial arts do not raise to their level.

With all of that in mind, what makes this a classic are the fight scenes.  They are as follows: “stop fighting,” umbrella (broke rule #2), theater fight, flaming tower, log fight in the rain, Foon v. Iron Vest, ladder fight (broke rule #1), and the end fight. Two of those, umbrella and ladder go down in kung fu history. The ladder fight between Fei Hung and Yim blew my mind, and I have seen it at least four times now. Thus this film gives you all you want—suspense, kung fu action, more kung fu action—as well as something you probably did not expect—an insight into how 1990’s China viewed its past. This is like a propaganda film for watching more kung fu movies, thankfully, there is also a Once Upon a Time in China II.

No, thank you

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Reading through the massive Fall Movie Preview in Entertainment Weekly, I found lots of movies that I will watch in theaters and on DVD.  Most of them I will watch intentionally, and others I will watch because of happenstance, or to please others.  That said, there have always been movies that I refuse to see.  As a kid I wanted to see Ghost Dad, but instead my Dad took me to Ghost by accident.  It scared and scarred me for several years, so that I would refuse to watch movies like Beetlejuice.  In high school I refused to go with my friends to see Batman and Robin, a film for which George Clooney has publicly apologized.  Two of my friends wanted to see it to laugh at it, but Warner-Bros does not separate its ticket revenues into piles labeled “genuinely interested” and “ironically purchased.”  If I want fewer shitty movies, then I have to vote with my wallet.

That brings me back to EW and its preview.  Since it is long and I tend to read EW in the bathroom, I read with a purpose—to identify the films that I do not want to miss.  One such time I decided to make a list of the names that instantly caused me to stop reading.  Literally, if I saw any of these names I would not bother reading whatever came next—unless the name was used to say, “thankfully Dane Cook is *not* in this movie.”  Of course, I forgot the idea within a couple of minutes, but having had this thought a few more times I have managed to open my laptop and get to it.  The only rules are that the cause must be a person, not some other element, like Spielberg’s Warhorse being about a fucking horse, and that I must actually stop reading when I see the name.  Here is an example from EW with my thoughts in parentheses:

ANONYMOUS (ooh, I never watched Primary Colors, or even finished the book, I wonder if this is about that author…oh wait, that’s absurd)  STARRING: Rhys Ifans (ooh, Danny Deckchair, glad to see him in another starring role), Vanessa Redgrave (hmm, she’s not very young), David Thewlis (he is such a good actor, I wish I had enjoyed Naked more, but I’m glad he wound up playing Professor Lupin.  This looks like a very interesting cast, I bet this will get good reviews). DIRECTED BY Roland Emmerich (next!).

So my list should start with Roland Emmerich, and now it does:
1. Roland Emmerich – have not enjoyed one of his films since ID4, which, by the way, no longer holds up.
2. Sandra Bullock – her face has moved into Michael Jackson territory, last time I intentionally saw her in a movie was The Net.  I still want a refund for the $4 of my parents’ money I spent on it.
3. Taylor Lautner – too young, too Twilight.
Not Sarah Jessica Parker – weird, right?  I do not blame her for getting paid millions to play variations on the same character whom I loathe.
4. Clint Eastwood (the director) – I love  Clint Eastwood the actor, especially in westerns (For a Few Dollars More & Unforgiven both made their 10 best of the decade lists).  I have even enjoyed a few of the films he directed, Unforgiven again, Letters From Iwo Jima, but the more I hear about him and the little effort he puts into his films, the more turned off I get.  He puts out 2-3 films a year and does not bother with more than 1 take.  I still watch his movies, I am getting Invictus from Netflix soon, but his name at director makes me think there’s something better out there to watch.
5. Miss Piggy – the Muppets are sooo 1988 to me.
6. Ashton Kutcher/Josh Duhamel – I mean, take your pick, but there’s a movie coming out with both of them in it.  The chances of a movie being good with either of them in it are very, very poor.  Multiply these two together and you’re getting the next Last Airbender.

And that’s the list for now.  Next list:  either when the title kills it or when some element turns me off to the movie.

United 93

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I have not reviewed any films that appear on my star lists.  But watching United 93 on the 10th anniversary of 9/11/2001 is an exception to my self-imposed rule.  According to my top 10 of the decade, this is the third best film behind The Proposition and Fellowship of the Ring, but it was impossible to compare it with them because it is a unique film.  It has some people playing themselves and it covers the defining moment of my lifetime.  I watch Fellowship once every few months, but this I have only seen three times.  It took me years to get myself to watch it, and that is why I wanted to write this.  Watch the movie.  Force yourself to sit down and watch it.  Steven Spielberg can make you cry, because he is a master story teller.  Paul Greengass, the director/writer of this film just presents what happened.   He presents the pre-9/11 world without judgment or without cynicism.  It is an amazing film and I honestly believe that every American should watch it.  I think that people from other countries should watch it too.  I practically talk over every film I see, but this one shuts me up and sucks me in.  If you only take my advice once, let it be to watch this film. *****

The Night of the Hunter

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***½

 Ah, little lad, you’re staring at my fingers. Would you like me to tell you the little story of right-hand/left-hand? The story of good and evil? H-A-T-E! It was with this left hand that old brother Cain struck the blow that laid his brother low. L-O-V-E! You see these fingers, dear hearts? These fingers has veins that run straight to the soul of man. The right hand, friends, the hand of love. Now watch, and I’ll show you the story of life.

Directed by Charles Laughton, the film opens with a Hitchcock feel to it.  Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum)—preacher, infamous finger tattoos: love and hate, and in for theft—winds up a cellmate of Ben Harper (Peter Graves)—a young, crappy dad, sentenced to death for killing two people in a bank robbery.  Harper talks in his sleep before he’s hanged, so Powell has some information that he will hope to use to find where Harper hid his ill-gotten loot.

The first relatable character we meet is Willa Harper (Shelley Winters).  Willa is Harper’s widow and she is as ignorant of the money’s whereabouts as anyone except the late Harper, the Lord, and their son John.  This leads to one of the scariest villains of all time.  Powell is Evil.  On the side of good?  Perhaps old Uncle Birdie (James Gleason) will save the day?  Maybe Mrs. Cooper (Lillian Gish) the protector of orphans comes through?

The only disappointing part of this film stems from something that I lied about above.  This is not a movie about a frightening preacher—would that it were!  Instead it turns out that this is a movie about two children, the Harpers’ kids.  In fact, Mrs. Cooper almost ends the movie with a soliloquy about the strength of children.  Well, Mrs. Cooper, I am not a child, and putting up with children takes more strength than I have.  Hopefully when* Hollywood remakes this starring Christoph Waltz the children will not co-opt the film.

*Let’s be honest, somewhere, at some time, a movie executive will remember that this movie made money and think that some update of it will again.  I mean, Footloose is about to come out in theaters, how does that make any sense?

Paul

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***½

I doubt we’ll be seeing them again!

Written by and starring Nick Frost and Simon Pegg, Paul is a family friendly movie with a lot of laughs.  The alien, Paul, is played by Seth Rogen.  The government agent sent after Paul is played by Jason Bateman.   They all meet up through a UFO hotspot tour that follows up a trip to ComiCon.  Not always very subtle, but it’s light and fun.  I laughed a lot!  In all fairness there are some subtle moments of comedy—like a country bar playing the Cantina Band Song from Star Wars—and they add some depth to the broad comedy that provides most of the laughs.  It’s references to Star Wars, Jaws, Blues Brothers, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., etc…

In addition to the great collection of references, there was a great collection of actors.  It was so nice to see Jeffery Tambor, Jane Lynch, David Koechner, Bill Hader, Jo Lo Truglio, and Kristen Wiig.  The feel good tone of the movie reminds me that Hollywood can do something right…especially when its screenplay is written by two Brits.  Even though this got a •••½, I do highly recommend this.

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