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Face/Off

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**½

OK, then… plan B, why don’t we just kill each other?

face-off-cage-travolta.jpgJohn Woo is a great director. I can understand how American moviegoers from 1996 – 2003 might not have realized this, but I assure you that he is great. His American run for me started with Broken Arrow, a movie that reinvigorated Christian Slater’s career, by attaching himself to John Travolta’s reinvigorated career. A year later Woo teamed up again with John Travolta to make this movie. Three years after this he got hired to make Mission: Impossible II. Then came Paycheck in 2003. To describe these movies as critically panned would be accurate. But financially they all crushed it, except for Paycheck which was poorly marketed—how else can a John Woo adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story starring Ben Affleck, Aaron Eckhart, Uma Thurman and Paul Giamatti, with a score from John Powell not make money?

This is a long way of saying that I think that although Face/Off is over the top, self-seriously cheesy, and just plain ridiculous, I think it was well directed. There were so many stunts and so many action shots. Internationally this film made more than it did domestically, which makes sense considering how a functional understanding of English probably detracted from the enjoyment of the film. So if you want an exciting action movie directed by John Woo…you should probably watch Hard Boiled, but if that is not available, this one would do the trick.

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Ladybugs

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**

What’d you do? A girl doesn’t give the opposing team the finger and tell their coach, “Up yours!” A girl doesn’t refer to the referee a blind bastard. A girl doesn’t slap another girl on the ass and say, “You’re hot stuff!” And a girl doesn’t say “I gotta take a leak so bad I can taste it!”

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First off, let me say that “How Did This Get Made” deserves all the credit for getting me to watch this movie again. It is unlikely that anything I say here will be half as funny as what they said. So just click that link and be shocked at how disturbing and offensive this Rodney Dangerfield soccer comedy really is.

One thing their review touched on, but I do not think they connected it, was that the inappropriately sexualized teenage girl in this film was played by Vinessa Shaw, who was 17 when this was filmed. She was 16 when she was inappropriately sexualized in Hocus Pocus. Even under these conditions she seems like a solid actress, but it is still so gross to watch as an adult. As the podcast repeatedly hammers home — if this story were told from the point of view of the teenagers, this could have been different, but it was not, and that makes it far creepier. But hey, when I was 11 I thought this was funny, so if it were not full of awful life lessons and offensive stereotypes, I would say it’s just a movie for kids. But it is not. It definitely is not.

Yeah, but…Amadeus

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When I first started tracking my movies I had 22 years of film viewing to find five star movies to rewatch and rate. Within the first year I had given 12 movies 5 stars. In the 13 years since then I have rated 32 more movies 5 stars, this being 1 of them. 8 years ago I ranked Amadeus the 2nd best movie from 1980–1984, behind only The Empire Strikes Back. Now I look at it again to see how holds up.

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The things I loved about it then I love about it now: Three main characters who are not black & white. The music, oh that music. Some consider the music to be a main character in and of itself (thanks Mario for pointing this out). The music might be the best thing about this great movie, although F. Murray Abraham’s voiceover and performance as Salieri in general are amazing. Jeffrey Jones is a polarizing figure because of his legal troubles, but his performance as the emperor has always captivated me—I still like to say “well, there it is” as his character does and nobody ever gets it. The movie sucks me in so deeply. That Salieri’s old person makeup does not look entirely convincing doesn’t matter, or it wouldn’t really matter to me in a play. And a play could not go so many places for quick scenes, although on Broadway the costumes may have been on par with these Oscar award winning designs (I assume, I am not even checking to see if this is true). Truly everything about this movie is excellent, but what makes it excellent is not always as readily visible as the beauty of the costumes.

For instance, which character are you? Who is the audience? Put another way, through whose eyes are we meant to see things? Milos Forman, or Peter Shaffer adapting his own play, adds a priest who seeks Salieri’s confession in the insane asylum. Salieri’s story takes almost 24 hours to tell and basically rumples the priest before our eyes. So are we then rumpled and crushed by the film? Despite it having Mozart’s death and Salieri’s life in an asylum the film ends on a very high note as Salieri acts the part of a priest and pardons his fellow mediocrities. He labels himself their patron saint. In his mind G-d tormented him by giving him enough talent and skill to fully appreciate Mozart’s superiority over him. This ties into a fundamental problem that many films dealing with geniuses face—how do you demonstrate genius? One way is by having a lot of stuff on chalkboards and Russell Crowe acting weird, which was the A Beautiful Mind route, which works for some people. Amadeus presents a much more refined and elegant way. The prodigy montage was pretty standard, but even before that the film defines Salieri as well above average, but somehow forgotten; he was a fallible person who rose to astonishing heights, respected by seemingly everyone around him. In the first scene with the priest he plays two songs that he claims were very popular, which elicit no recollection from the younger priest. But when he plays Mozart the priest can recognize it and actually finish the song, calling it “charming”. Just like that Mozart’s work is timeless while Salieri’s is not. No offense, but most people are not doing timeless work, I certainly am not. Would I consider my work better than average? I would like to think so, which means I should relate far better to Salieri than Mozart. Next take this secretly relatable character and show him seem slow; have him show shock when confronted with Mozart. Even as Mozart seems hours from death, his mind can still work faster than Salieri’s brain or fingers. Lastly they reinforce this message with an incredible score. Jeffrey Jones’s emperor, who is very mediocre at everything avoids becoming the relatable character by virtue of him being a freaking emperor and thus out of touch with reality.

That was a lot for a review of this size. I did not include how Mozart’s wife Constanze fits into this, but I feel that her character does not see enough to be that anchor. Fortunately she is presented, as Mozart is as well, as human and flawed. She is neither an opportunistic gold digger, nor is she Virgin Mary meets pre-prison Martha Stewart.

While the movie is called Amadeus, as was the play it was based on, the artistic source for the Salieri-killed-Mozart theory comes from Pushkin, who almost certainly took a popular rumor and turned it into a much less subtle short play—Salieri openly poisons Mozart. But one thing that I have taken for granted, as most audiences have been trained to do, is that what I am being shown is true. Well, true within the confines of the world established by the film. For instance, when you feel annoyed at James Caan for not believing in Santa Claus in Elf that is because the movie presents Santa as factual. With that setup notice that 98% of this film is a presentation of Salieri’s memory. Or at least the way he chooses to relay this memory to a priest asking him to confess if he truly was responsible for Mozart’s death. Salieri is a man who thought G-d killed his father as a gift so he could make heavenly music. Why would you trust Salieri? Salieri is a man who maligned Mozart behind his back to the Emperor, and maligned the court behind their back to Mozart. Why would you trust Salieri?? Is the film even trying to posit what is being shown was factual by having such an unreliable and untrustworthy narrator? The film is historical FICTION, but as with Santa, in its world there must be some truth, but is Salieri’s version true even in those terms?

Lastly, you might wonder, why does a rich man like Salieri wind up in an asylum? The reason for this is that he had tried to commit suicide, which under Catholicism is a mortal sin and if successful lands you in hell. Only a crazy person would try to go to hell. And when I say crazy it is important to note that in the 18th century (and well into the 19th century) the prevailing theory of insanity and mental illness was that it was a choice. Thus the key to curing insanity was to present sanity as tolerable and insanity as intolerable. That is why you see someone in a tiny metal box and someone collared to a wall so that he could not sit. It is a small part of this movie, but I thought it was an interesting touch.

 

Bright

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***

We are not in a prophecy. We are in a stolen Toyota Corolla.

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People dislike this movie a lot. A lot lot. The reactions to it are such that I considered lowering my score to fit in. But honestly I thought it was pretty good. It wants to be part of a much larger saga, but it’s not. Not in the elves and orcs kind of way; it is a part of the L.A. saga that David Ayer has created and it continues to deal with the racial and class tensions of his other films. Even on cruise control Will Smith is a fine actor and Joel Edgerton’s performance as the only Orc police officer was nuanced in its simplicity. I could go on longer about how okay, but not great, this movie is, but I think my point has been made.

Defending Your Life

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**½

I said “pretty much” never lied. I didn’t say I never, ever lied. You have to lie sometimes… in an emergency. But, ah, it doesn’t mean the bond is affected. If you’ve got the bond the bond is always there, and if you have to lie occasionally you’re not going to interfere with the bond. You know, the bond can wait for a little lie and… in the end it’s there for you. You know, sometimes in the middle of a lie I found that the bond would kick in… maybe squeeze a little truth out.

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This Albert Brooks movie is very Albert Brooksian. He wants to have his cake and eat it too. As writer/director/lead actor he can really, really tell a story about himself. The premise for this story seems like it would be harrowing — Judgment City, with one week to defend your life. But this is a comedy, so the stakes are actually extremely low. If you win, you get to evolve. If you lose, you get sent back to earth to be reincarnated as a human again with no memory of this experience. Even evolving does not seem objectively better than being a new human. The basis for this determination is that two “Big Brains” provide snippets from the decedent’s life before two judges. The basis for their judgment? Fear. During life did the decedent overcome fear? Not maturity, kindness, bravery, empathy, but fear. Note, they do not look for bravery directly, more a lack of fear. Bravery involves facing your fears, not failing to have fears in the first place.

Presented in even lower stakes than the nebbish-y Brooks, is Brooks’s love interest, Meryl Streep. Her story is totally subordinate to Brooks’s. She is a slam dunk for evolving, so you never need to worry for her. She died leaving behind her kids and husband on earth, but she is presented as totally available to Brooks. She is presented as the perfect woman, which her prodigious acting skill allows her to portray despite Brooks’s self-centered view.

Fear is the driving force on determining your…value? maturity? worth? Why not if you’re a good person? Streep is so completely fine in this situation, she wasn’t a real character. Her acting covered up a lot (bad writing), but what do you expect from such a narcissistic project. And since it was so self-centered the film fails to ask why is this angel at all attracted to this putz? The second best performance in the film goes to Rip Torn’s Bob Diamond. The best part of the film was the look and creation of Judgment City.

As I wrap up this review, I think it is important to include that I did not buy the ending. But this film was not made for me to watch, it was made for Albert Brooks to watch and to make his friends watch with him.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

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**½

Any show of resistance would be futile, Captain.

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For a long time people have criticized this movie for being plodding. I see that criticism and I agree with it. The story could have fit into a double episode of Star Trek (90~ minutes). If they chopped off the unnecessary first thirty minutes where they are finishing building the Enterprise (refit) and had Kirk just start out as Captain, this could have fit into a single episode of Star Trek!

The story itself is pretty good and the new ship looks cool. The special effects hold up okay for a film from 1979. I love/hate the uniforms they created for this film. They are quite form fitting! The best thing about this movie, besides the new cool looking ship, is that it made enough money to make more Star Trek movies.

Deadly China Hero

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I seldom drink wine, because I always killed others after drunk. OR I seldom drink wine, because I can’t stop giving heavy punches when drunk.

The best translation has to be somewhere between those two statements. Hopefully from the small image I chose, you can already tell that this movie does not take itself very seriously. If you search for large images “Jet Li chicken vs centipede” you only get 1 result! And it’s of the secondary/tertiary villain who gets killed by Wong Fei Hung’s disciples, one of whom is Ah So with cinema’s largest fake buck teeth.

At this point I have no idea what to give this movie. The opening was so jarringly awful that I texted a college buddy, with whom I am sure I watched this movie, “Deadly China Hero (Jet Li) is not good. I don’t understand why this movie exists. I want to know why we enjoyed it at the time.” I decided to continue watching so I could review it anyways. The subtitles were not great, the acting over the top, which some people can pull off, and others cannot. For some context Deadly China Hero (aka Last Hero in China) is Jet Li in 1993 portraying China’s greatest folk hero, Wong Fei-Hung. Jet Li is my favorite Wong Fei Hung, and when I say that, I am choosing him over Jackie Chan as the Drunken Master! Master Wong gets called the Chinese Robin Hood, probably because he stood up for the peasants against the British in late 19th century China. In real life he was a doctor too.

Two years before this film, Jet Li became a major Chinese star with Once Upon a Time in China (Wong Fei-Hung was the Chinese name of the film). It was a serious, if propagandistic, movie. He followed it up with an awesome sequel, and a less awesome sequel. And then, he did this parody. It felt like blasphemy to hear the Wong Fei-Hung theme appropriated for parody—it’s actually a version of On General’s Orders, which I just learned. But somewhere I started to get invested in the kidnapping story, probably a little more with each awesome Jet Li fight scene. We are talking Yuen Woo-Ping here! The guy they hired to choreograph the fight scenes in The Matrix.

Jet Li did not disgrace Wong Fei-Hung here, it was more like zany people were around him. The film never turned some corner that made it fully serious, but the villain and his cackle actually became more menacing as it became more and more clear how deadly he could be. So, sure, the penultimate fight scene is chicken costume Jet Li vs deadly centipede, but the final scene gave me chills. When he grabs a jug of wine that could have been in Drunken Master, and that theme hits, I was 100% behind this film and felt the prior 78 minutes had been totally worth it to get to this scene. At 84 minutes, it comes it below the crap barrier, and in many ways, this is a crappy movie, but it has some truly wonderful moments. I would not have written this long of a review of a 1993 Jet Li movie if I hadn’t really enjoyed it.

***

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