Wednesday, October 30, 2013

I Saw This!!

I Saw This (double exclamation point) is a new feature wherein either Graig or David attempts to write about a bunch of movies they watched some time ago and meant to write about, but just never got around to doing so and now they they have to strain to say anything meaningful lest they just not say anything at all.  And they can't do that, can they?

In this inaugural edition of "I Saw This!!" Graig covers:
Headhunters (Netflix)
Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins (TV)
Tai Chi Zero (netflix)
Match Point (DVD)
iSteve (Netflix)
Upstream Color (Netflix)
The Lincoln Lawyer (TV)


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Right, here we go.  Headhunters (2011), we must have watched this during the TV dead zone in late-December/early-January...that's how far behind I am on talking about movies... this first came to my attention shortly after the first season of Game of Thrones ended and it was hitting the rep theatres around Toronto to favorable reviews.  It's a Danish film that co-stars Game of Thrones Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jamie Lannister) which is how it came to stick in my mind.  Its star is Aksel Hennie as a corporate recruiter (or headhunter) who steals valuable paintings as a side job.  He does this in order to supplement his income so as to ply his leggy, blonde, model-gorgeous wife with the finest everything.  He does this as overcompensation for his lack in height, and the inferiority complex he suffers when he's with her.  He also cheats on her, which I'm sure makes sense somewhere, but I forget the particulars.

Anyway, Hennie is recruiting for a high-profile position when he's introduced to Coster-Waldau at his wife's art gallery (ah, right, she's how he sources the fine art he steals), and he realizes he's found the perfect man for the job.  Stuff happens, like Hennie discovers that his wife is having an affair with Coster-Waldau, and then Coster-Waldau attempts to kill him, multiple times over.  Again, I don't remember the particulars, but Hennie thinks he's in mortal jeopardy for one reason, but then it turns out it's for something completely else, and it's quite smart actually.

I remember it being a fun movie but a bit inconsistent in tone, but certainly entertaining and yeah, maybe worth watching again, now that I think of it.

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All I ever knew about Remo Williams, I knew from comic book ads for the movie.  It starred Fred Ward, and it had him hanging off the Statue of Liberty at one point.  Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins (1985) was so obviously planned as a new franchise starter, as a new action hero in the Indiana Jones vein for kids to urge their parents to go see [update, apparently he was based off the Destroyer men's adventure novels).  With superhero movies still rather impossible to make at the time (noting the diminishing returns of the Superman franchise), Remo Williams was a superhero for the Reagan era, a street cop who is adopted by a Chinese sensei to hone his body to physical perfection and pristine fighting condition to foil the nefarious plots that plague the world.  This is his origin story, a painstaking run through how Remo is recruited and then thoroughly developed so that he can sit cross-legged, held aloft by only his two pointer fingers, or navigate an obstacle course in the dark, backwards.

Most of this film is taken up by Remo's training under Chiun (the great character actor Joel Grey in yellowface), with a few action pieces along the way.  The cast is loads of fun, including the never-not-awesome Kate Mulgrew, Wilford Brimley as a computer expert, and J.A. Preston.  The most memorable element, as highlighted by the film's poster, is the Statue of Liberty sequence, which was undergoing reconstruction at the time, and was surrounded by scaffolding.  It was a once-in-a-lifetime action sequence and they did a pretty fantastic job coordinating it.

The film, from my first impression, seemed like a modest-budget movie, like an upscale, feature-length Television pilot.  It's corny in that 1980s way PG movies were, with a whimsical soundtrack, and bright, open camerawork.  Director Guy Hamilton was a veteran Bond director so he handles all the action well enough but it never feels like a proper motion picture... always like a TV show.  But at the same time, I thought it was cute...it was a cute action-adventure movie that is relatively harmless, even with it's slight stereotyping peeking through.  I wonder what was in the hopper for later films?

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Like many my age, I was introduced to kung-fu films in conjunction with the release of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  A few students at my university took to having kung-fu nights where I got introduced to some of the best action films like Wing Chun, Iron Monkey and Drunken Master.  For the next dozen years, I took a keen interest in Asian cinema, marveling not just at the amazing wuxia films coming from across the pacific, but the masterful samurai and anime and comedy and drama and horror and crime and monster and romance and and and....  China and Japan both have a rich, deep history of quality cinema, and Korea has in more recent years developed a very formidable industry of its own.  A plethora of genuine auteurs, working across genres find their way to our shores.

Throughout the late-90's and early-aughts, the best of the best of Asian cinema would wash up on our shores, vetted by distributors and festival programmers, the skewed appearance was that the East only produced quality cinema.  But in the past half-decade, it seems that there is a market in North America for all Asian cinema, and films just crossover regardless of how well they did in their homeland, or whether they gel with western tastes.  Enter Tai Chi Zero (2012) the first of a planned trilogy (its sequel, Tai Chi Hero came out the same year, much like how Back To The Future II and III were released only 6 months apart), a direly mediocre martial arts film that aims to have all the weirdness of a Stephen Chow movie but none of the inspiration.

Tai Chi Zero is supremely forgettable.  I think the main reason I didn't write a review of it after watching it is I couldn't really remember much about it.  There were a couple of really cute girls in it, I do recall, (Mandy Lieu especially, but also Qi Shu) and they tried to incorporate a bit of a steampunk element, but they half-assed it to the point of ineffectiveness.  The central character of the film never seems like the main character, and the resolution of the film is a non-ending that allows the next film to pick up directly after it.  Beyond that, the weird power the main character has, as well as its dire side effect are a total Chechov's Gun that never pay off, in this film at least.  It felt incomplete, muddling and generally a waste of time...

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I discussed my "year of Woody" in my Midnight in Paris review, but to recap, in 2010 I ploughed through about 1/3 of Woody Allen's then oeuvre (given the man's prolificness, it's probably only a quarter now) making it to the late-1980's before calling it quits.  There were still a few of the big ones, like Mighty Aphrodite, Bullets Over Broadway and Husbands and Wives to get to, but I had to tap out.  I've caught only one other Allen film from more recent years, the enjoyable but average (at this stage, expected?) May-December romantic comedy Whatever Works.  Midnight in Paris was terrific, and the general consensus about Allen in recent years is that he's found a new groove, batting at least .500 in his 2-films-a-year output after a supposed dire run at the turn of the millennium.  The critical community points to Match Point  (2005) as the start of his new creative groove, citing the auteur's tonal diversion as its greatest asset.

But Match Point, for me, fails because Allen is so uncomfortable and unfamiliar with the genre he's playing in that it never comes across as an assured effort.  Allen dives into the world of romantic entanglements, not anything he hasn't dealt with before, but this time he puts a suspenseful spin on it, adding a level of severity to the characters' actions that can only spell the downfall of the film's protagonist.  The second act ends in murder, turning the suspense into a crime drama, and if I didn't know better I would think Allen was attempting a Hitchcock homage, but, again, it's not his forte.

I can't say why it didn't work for me, because I'm more than a few months' detached from viewing now, but if I had to guess it was that I didn't buy into the characters or their motivations , and that it felt that the script was pulling the characters forward, that their behavior only makes sense in the context of what the plot needs out of them.  Frankly, by the time the film ends I loathed the picture... (SPOILER) It ends with Jonathan Rhys Meyers' getting rid of the last bit of evidence by tossing it into the Thames, only to have it not "make it over the net" (a tennis metaphor), but that "unlucky break" was actually a lucky break when the ring winds up on a criminal and the murder gets pinned on someone else.  Are we supposed to feel victory for Rhys Meyers when he triumphantly struts out of the police station?  Ugh.  Next Allen: Blue Jasmine, then maybe Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

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I shouldn't poop on Ashton Kutcher's casting as Steve Jobs, for all I know he did a fine job (no pun intended), but the guy cannot be taken seriously as an actor.  He's a punchline and it's going to take years before the critical masses show him any sort of respect (I'd wager about 35 or 40... a Shatnerpath, if he's lucky).  Meanwhile, Funny or Die, the sketch comedy website founded by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, made iSteve (2013) an incredibly low-budget feature to get out ahead of Kutcher's interpretation of Jobs' life, and releasing it for free online.

I don't know shit about Steve Jobs' life, but I'm going to come out and say that iSteve is a weirdly faithful adaptation of Steve's life, though it obviously takes many, many, many...many...many, many liberties to make the film as bizarre as possible.  There's not a lot of outright jokes or gags in the film, just an ever building sense of oddness.  Jobs is played by Apple pitch man Justin Long, which naturally comes into play when they hit the early 2000s and gets ridiculously meta.  Jobs' partner, Steve Wozniak is played beautifully by Lost's Jorge Garcia as a demure, oft-forgotten, lingering-in-the-background figure.  You always want him to break out in a scene, but he never does.  And then there's Dr. Venture himself, James Urbaniak who plays Bill Gates, who forges an undying BFF bond with Jobs upon their first meeting that gets reaffirmed and reiterated to such lengths as to be ill fated.  Jobs' affair with Melinda Gates (Michaela Watkins) plays off the early 90's trend of virtual reality sex with brutally crude digital animation that allow it to go to extremes without ever feeling graphic.

My favourite scene involves a party for Jobs that ends with a Robert Palmer performance, and the wonderfully reductive and nonsensical pseudo Addicted To Love riff and the terrible-yet-effective Robert Palmer impersonation just kills me.  The film is slow to start but the weirdness builds so subtlely and continues to do so that it just catches you off guard.  I would find it hard to recommend it, but those who like their comedy extremely dry, subtle and weird, they will (maybe) find the same gangly gem I did.

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Primer was one of those low-budget, hard sci-fi films that I loved in concept more than in execution, but I also liked the execution a lot.  I waited a long time for Shane Carruth to make another film, and Upstream Color (2013) seemed to arrive under the radar (well, under my radar, at least).  I completely missed any news or rumours that Carruth was working on a new film, I don't recall reading any reviews, the screenings in local theatres bypassed me completely, and any kind of online reaction towards it must have been scarce.  I think it was actually David who told me about the film, and shortly thereafter it cropped up on Netflix... welcome to the modern age of cinema.

I wish I had caught Upstream Color in cinema, as, well, it's a slow moving, meditative picture that requires undivided attention, and it doesn't necessarily provide much clarity on its events or meaning until it's deep into the picture.  And frankly, I don't recall much at all about it.  I'm not certain that I liked it, I'm not certain that I didn't.

Let's be perfectly honest, I've fallen asleep every single time I've tried to watch Primer on DVD.  Doesn't mean I don't like it, but I think Carruth's pictures need my complete focus in order for me to invest in them fully.  I believe even after watching the film I still had to read the Wikipedia entry on it to figure out what I just watched.

Looking for a picture to post alongside this, I actually started to recall the events of the film a little better...it's about connectedness, a group of disparate people whose lives start crumbling after being kidnapped and experimented on, and something to do with pigs, and a weird flower...and...jesus, I dunno.  It was a trip, beautifully shot, but the puzzle of what's going on should be revealed to the audience (if not the characters) far earlier than it is, in order for us to have something to formulate a theory around what's happening.

It probably deserves a re-watch, but I'm not sure it earned it.

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And there's the Lincoln Lawyer (2011).  David wrote about this a while back and his spin on it kind of stuck with me, or perhaps it was his spin on McConaughey, an actor whom I guess I had written off in a semi-Ashton Kutcher fashion as being kind of a shirtless, drawling punchline, having forgotten the guy can actually act and is fairly charming (a couple things Kutcher doesn't pull off quite so well). I love the concept of the Lincoln Lawyer (based off a book and a real guy too maybe?) about a super-capable defense attorney who operates out of the back of his Lincoln towncar, defends a lot of unsavory characters, which has established him quite a reputation.  I had assumed incorrectly that the film was going to be more vignette-style, showing the different sides of what he does, and you do get a taste of that, but like most 1980's Hollywood dramas, it works everything around a central plot.  In this case it's an upscale real estate brat played by Ryan Phillippe accused of a brutal assault.  It's a case that spins out of control threatening to take the whole movie with it.

It's a decent but conventional potboiler, the kind that sits comfortably next to The Pelican Brief and The Firm.  The nuanced elements of the script, like McConaughey's love-hate relationship with his ex-wife (the resurgent Marisa Tomei) and his less-in-focus business dealings are the more interesting meat of the movie and, I think David had the same feeling, that it was a missed opportunity to do something both unique and really special.

If anything came out of watching this, it's that even though I like McConaughey, I don't want to watch his films because I don't want to have to write about them because I don't want to have to butcher spelling his name anymore and then correct it.