Review: Leon: The Professional (1994)

An old classic that everyone must see at least five times (says me).

This masterpiece of action and drama from almighty director Luc Besson is a picture that I try to get back and watch at least once every year or so.  To any who have not seen this picture, I highly recommend it.  In fact, I would even go so far as to say that if you haven’t seen it, you are missing out on one of the best films of all time.  Not only does Besson provide a simple yet compelling story that ranges across the genres of action and drama, Leon: The Professional feature some of the most outstanding performances you’ll ever see from a very young Natalie Portman and a very evil Gary Oldman.

The story is a simple one.  Oldman plays Stansfield, a corrupt narcotics officer who ends up killing off an entire family in his quest to find his drugs.  Portman is Matilda, the one daughter of the family who manages to survive this purge.  And Jean Reno plays the part of Leon, a simple immigrant who also happens to be an amazingly effective hit man.  After the death of her family, Matilda makes her way to a neighbor’s house and that neighbor happens to be Leon.  He lets her in despite misgivings and then spends the rest of the movie trying to keep her from harm at the hands of the crazy Stansfield.  This eventually leads to some confrontations and not everything ends well for Leon and his charge.

The glory of Leon is by far the performances put on by Portman and Oldman.  Portman plays a dark role at a young age and pulls it off beautifully, setting her career up for future complicated and dark roles, such as in V for Vendetta or Black Swan.  Even in her youth she displayed a remarkable talent for the melancholy and this movie shows it off.  Oldman’s portrayal of Stansfield is nothing less than epic evil.  His villain is one for the record books and has become iconic among those familiar with the greatest villains of all time.  There has rarely been a character as wrong in the head and vicious as Stansfield and Oldman is one of the few who could have even tried to play this role.  Reno is, well, Reno.  He’s never been the most versatile actor but he does a great job as an ignorant immigrant with a penchant for killing.  The scenes of him trying to relate to the young Matilda are particularly heartwarming and funny.

Altogether, I would consider Leon: The Professional as one of the greatest action movies of all time.  It is a complex story with plenty of gunfire and no want of talented actors.  Again, if you haven’t seen it yet, take some time out to give it a watch.  I advise the director’s cut if you want to get the full effect.

Review: ‘Sherlock’ Season 2

It just keeps getting better and better.

Being as how I don’t have a proper television connection, I rely on Netflix for most of my TV exposure.  Early this year someone convinced me to take a shot at watching Steven Moffat’s non-Doctor Who project, Sherlock.  When I heard the premise (Sherlock Holmes in the present?) I was a bit skeptical.  They’ve tried to update shows and movies before and it usually just turns into one giant mess.  Not to mention that I hate crime-dramas with a passion.  With Sherlock, however, Moffat has created something truly amazing.

Imagine my happy feelings when I was browsing through Netflix the other day only to find that season 2 of the show had finally made it somewhere that I could access it.  I immediately sat down and indulged by need for intelligent British programming.  And I was almost as immediately blown away that the new season proved to be just as awesome as the first.

All the complex story writing is still there, looping its way through the action on the screen and trying to fool the viewer long enough for Mr. Holmes (the brilliant Benedict Cumberbatch) to make his reveal and either spell out what we suspected all along or prove to us exactly how much we missed.  In addition, they really go into developing and exploring the characters in a realistic sense.  This season in particular brings to life both Holmes and Watson as real people with real problems.  Sherlock has his issues with being completely unsociable and Watson’s problems all seem to stem from his relationship with Holmes.

Specifically, they explored the love life of both characters, twisted as it is.  But it’s not a heavy-handed drama like one normally expects to find on television.  The character development is done is a clever and witty way and though the series does partake of some silliness every now and then, you’re never left feeling like it’s just a campy, self-indulgent attempt to exploit the name of Sherlock Holmes and make some money.

The only thing I was disappointed with was the fact that the series runs in 3-episode seasons!  At least each episode is an hour-and-a-half long.  Still, that doesn’t take more than one night to go through, leaving me desperate for another fix of Moffat’s genius.  If you haven’t seen Sherlock yet, do yourself a favor and check it out.  Like I said, it’s on Netflix right now, all six episodes of both seasons.  If you’re looking for some intelligent British crime-drama, you will not be disappointed in the least.

Review: Strigoi (2009)

A British-Romanian vampire film that’s way too convoluted for its own good

My latest watch was a happenstance film chosen from Netflix (yet again).  I like to see what foreign films have to offer in the way of vampire stories, so when I saw Strigoi, a Romanian-based vampire tale, I had to give it a chance.  It’s a Romanian film, shot in Romania with Romanian actors, but it was put together by a British company, so the film is all done in English.  As it turns out, the ease of understanding the language did nothing to help with understanding the point of the film.  In fact, I’m beginning to wonder if there was a point to this movie at all.

The basic story is pretty simple at first.  It’s set in modern times in a small Romanian village.  The opening scene has a group of villagers killing a rich couple and burying them in an unmarked grave by the railroad tracks.  This is followed by a thorough looting of the couple’s home, complete with musical accompaniment.

Enter the main character, Vlad.  He’s a former medical student who went off to Italy and came back after a brief career in fast food.  He discovers that someone has died and everyone is acting suspicious about it.  The dead man is not one of the couple from the first scene, but presumably someone that was murdered by them, thus giving rise to the execution.  To make matters even more suspicious, the dead man has marks on his neck that suggest strangulation.  And so our hero, Vlad, decides to look into what happened.

He eventually uncovers some real estate scams that have been going on, runs into dead people who have returned as strigoi (vampires) and discovers some interesting things about his own family.  There are other things going on in the background, mostly concerning characters whose motivations seem almost nonexistent at times.

It felt like the movie was trying to follow three separate storylines with no intention of brining any of them to a close.  They overlap as a necessity of the movie, but each is only incidental to the others.  I was left wondering whether I had just watched one movie or three shorts that accidently got edited together.

There are some fun moments and clever humor in the film.  Also, the director and the cast do an excellent job with what they have to work with.  But in the end, it was more confusing than anything else.  Even the interesting characters couldn’t keep this one from wandering all over the place.

Strigoi is one of those films that people who like to figure out the meaning of films might want to watch.  If you happen to be one of those types, give this movie a shot.  And if you figure out what the thing was about, please let me know, because I’ve given up on trying to understand it.

Review: Riki-Oh (1991)

This week I decided I would revisit an old classic of foreign cinema.  Actually, classic may not be the best word for it.  It is however, a brilliant piece of Hong Kong camp cinema coming out of the early 90s.  Based on a Japanese manga, Riki-Oh (The Story of Ricky) is guaranteed to satisfy any B-movie fan who likes his bad films to be both ridiculous and gory.

Though the overall plot of the film is completely secondary to the fun within, but as a matter of course I should probably relate the general outline.  It is the “distant” future of 2001 and the prison system has become privatized.  Ricky, our hero, gets thrown into jail for the murder of the crime lord that killed his girlfriend.  While in prison, Ricky manages to make enemies of pretty much everyone.  The main bad guy, the Warden, tries to get rid of Ricky by pitting him against various enemies and death traps, all of which the hero manages to defeat in one way or another.

The fun of Riki-Oh doesn’t really come from the plot.  The best reason to watch this film is to see the ludicrous ultra-violence that permeates it as Ricky fights the bad guys and avoids death.  At one point, Ricky gets attacked by someone using his own intestines as a weapon.  He also has a tendency to knock body parts off of people when he hits them.  And, of course, there is the infamous exploding head scene that made its viral rounds some time ago.

If you’re a fan of the camp and goofy, unrealistic gore, Riki-Oh is a win.  Be prepared for some seriously bad dubbing though.  There’s really no point in trying to watch this one with subtitles, since it will distract you from the action on-screen.  Also, I find that the bad dubbing adds to the film’s unique “charm”.

Here’s a video with some of the best bits from the movie.  If after seeing this you’re not convinced that this is one of the coolest B-movies in the world, you should probably avoid it, cause it’s just an hour-plus more of the same.

The Best of Riki-OH

Review: Metropia (2009)

"Visually, aside from the characters it’s very pretty."

I am a big fan of dystopian future movies.  I try to watch pretty much every one that I can find.  Some are good and some fall flat on their faces and some, like Metropia, sit lukewarm in the middle and offer little in the way of either satisfaction or disappointment.  This Swedish film (done in English) uses an interesting technique for its animation that takes real photos and alters them to be stylized and thus creates a feel to the film that matches its theme.  In Metropia, this almost works, but you’re left wondering why everyone has such a ridiculously large head.

In addition to the distracting animation, the plot runs pretty thin.  There are some fun dystopian elements, such as the voices in the main character’s head, but these never quite go anywhere exciting.  The voice acting is somewhat uninspired and made worse by the limited expressiveness of the animated characters.  This could have leeched the excitement out of the film without me knowing it, though I’m unwilling to go back and watch the movie again just to find out.

The best thing about the movie is all the small elements of atmosphere.  There are some very good ideas floating around, but it feels like they never make full use of them.  One cause of this seems to stem from the focused theme of the movie that is rarely allowed to go off track and take a look around at the rest of the dystopian world.  Essentially, what is happening in the plot overrides all the cool stuff that could be happening in the plot.

Visually, aside from the characters it’s very pretty.  The world is complete and intriguing.  Unfortunately, I never quite care what’s happening to any of the characters and can never get on board with any of the suspense that the producers try to create.  It is mediocre to the core, the good helping to prop up the bad.

I was very bummed out about this one, because there is such promise from the beginning.  If they could have brought up the tension levels and given more life to the characters, it might have been pretty amazing.  As it stands, however, it’s worth a watch for fans of the genre but would probably bore most others enough to make them jump over to a different film.

Review: Valhalla Rising (2009)

This one I watched a while back, but was drawn by its strange style into a repeat viewing.  It is a Viking/Christian Crusader flick that is nothing like what you might think it to be.  The first time I watched this film, I was completely thrown off track, expecting something a little more straightforward, with swordplay and violent acts of Viking-ness.  As it turns out, Valhalla Rising is really more of a thinking man’s film, reminding me at times of the unique style portrayed by famous Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky.

Valhalla Rising’s main star is the rising (no pun intended) talent of Mads Mikkelsen.  Some may know him as the guy who almost took on the role of main-bad-guy in the Thor sequel.  Others may know him from the many other projects he has taken part in, including the Clash of the Titans remake and his current tackling of the role of Hannibal in the upcoming TV series.  But whether you know him or not, he will impress with his moody dramatic abilities.

To get back to the movie… Mikkelsen plays a character known only as One Eye.  He is a Norse prisoner who is used as a gladiator of sorts, being put into combat against one or more opponents as people place bets on the outcome.  He manages to kill and escape from his captors, taking along with him a young boy who is one of the only survivors of his prison-breaking rampage.  He ends up on a boat journey with some Christian Crusaders who are heading to Jerusalem in the year 1000 A.D.  The boat, however, ends up someplace far more mysterious and dangerous than the Holy Land.

The movie is divided into 6 acts, each titled upon the theme of that particular bit.  The overall story follows the group as they get lost, end up in a strange land and must then figure out where they are as well as cope with some pertinent questions.  Their faith is tested as is their sanity and they begin to wonder whether they are indeed lost or actually dead and in some sort of hell.  When they try to get back aboard the boat and leave, attacks from the trees prevent them.

By the end of the film, I was quite lost as to what had just happened.  Though there are many themes throughout the movie and the director does a good job of conveying the emotions and philosophical/theological questions, the answers are for the viewer to interpret.  It’s a bit of an art film and, as I mentioned before, reminds me somewhat of Tarkovsky.  A rudimentary knowledge of Norse mythology is helpful to have before viewing the film if you really want to delve into all its layers.

Valhalla Rising is definitely not for everyone.  People that want a straightforward film will quickly find themselves lost, bored or both.  For those of us that enjoy a story that forces you to think, Valhalla Rising does that in spades.  I recommend it eagerly to all who want to watch something that goes against the grain of modern-day filmmaking.

Review: Let the Bullets Fly (2010)

Let the Bullets Fly is a piece of Chinese cinema that will leave you laughing, thoroughly confused or, more likely, both.  It stars Chow Yun-Fat as a rich opium-lord gangster, Jiang Wen (who also wrote the script) as the leader of a notorious bandit gang and Ge You as a would-be governor who gets caught up with Wen in his quest for riches.  The story begins as the bandit leader hijacks a train and from just the first scene, viewers will get a pretty good idea of the craziness that is to come.

After blowing the train through the air and killing pretty much everyone on board, the bandit finds that there are no riches to be had.  The governor (in disguise) and his wife manage to survive and convince the bandit that he should take the new post of governor in Goose Town.  From there, everyone can make lots of money.

When the bandit gets to Goose Town, he discovers that the local gangster is in charge.  He pledges to take as much money as he can from the rich families in town, including the gangster.  It’s at this point that things in the film start to get really hectic, as the two plot furiously against each other.  They try to expose each other’s secrets, kill off each other’s men and get richer in the process.  All the while, they hold to the pretense that they are really allies.  The whole thing boils down with some actions scenes that are more ridiculous than anything else. 

The highlights of this film really revolve around all the plotting that the three main characters do.  The script is convoluted and complex and it’s often difficult to keep up, but that’s what makes it so entertaining.  Also, the performances from the three leads and the supporting cast are excellent.  Each portrays a unique facet of the intriguing group - the bandit being straightforward, the gangster a cold-blooded, greedy killer and the governor a true political player with nothing on his mind but profit.

Let the Bullets Fly is a fun film, but it doesn’t seem to be able to decide if it should be a Shakespearian intrigue film or a wild, action-flick farce.  The presence of the ludicrous detracts from the tension of the plotting and distracts the viewer from being able to follow what’s going on at times.  I was definitely entertained, but left feeling like I was watching two or three different films (and genres) that got rolled into one, producing something less than it could have been.  I’d say it’s worth a watch, but don’t expect anything more than two hours of casual fun.

Adapting foreign stories to American cinema

AKA: Making movies white for no good reason

It has been a trend in American cinema ever since the first film hit the screen - using white actors to portray the roles of ethnically diverse people.  At first the reasons were blatantly discriminatory.  Those in Hollywood didn’t want to hire actors and actresses who were black, Native American, Mexican or any other race they felt was “inappropriate” to allow in a movie.  But even years after this stigma has been broken down and people of all ethnicities are making their names as exceptional performers, the trend of “whitening” movies still continues.

A few recent Japanese adaptations really set me off on this one.  One is Akira.  Once a great Japanese cartoon, now the boys in Hollywood want to make it a live-action film.  I’m all for this.  Go ahead and bring this amazing story to a full U.S. audience and show them the glory that is Akira.  Then I heard about the casting.  Kristen Stewart being cast as Kei?  Other white folks who I’ve never heard of in the other roles?  Luckily, it appears as if this one has been side-lined.  Maybe they can fix it, but I somehow doubt it.

Another blatantly annoying adaptation is All You Need is Kill.  The lead role of Keiji Kiriya has been mutated and Tom Cruise (???) will be filling it.  I never thought of a young Japanese soldier being quite the right role for a 50-year-old Cruise.  And to keep with the whiteness, Emily Blunt will be playing the other lead.

These two examples are just the tip of the iceberg.  There are plenty of other films that choose not to use the correct ethnicity (or anything even close) to fill roles.  For some reason they feel that butchering the story is the best (easiest?) way to get from point A to point B.  I just don’t see the reason for making all these changes, especially when they serve no purpose other than to get some big-named money-maker into the lead.

Please, America, stop screwing these things up.  If you can’t adapt a movie or book properly, then leave them alone.  Let the fond memories of these excellent tales remain, unshattered by a dollar-hungry Hollywood.  Stop deciding that white is better and that audiences won’t understand something unless you make it more culturally specific.  Leave the discrimination and racist BS in the past and try to make a good film that is true to the culture from which it originates.

Review: Vampires (2010)

This one was sort of a random watch on the Netflix.  Normally, I don’t go in for vampire flicks unless they are exceptional or very different in their approach.  This one actually fulfilled both requirements.  Vampires is a French-language film that approaches the subject of the blood-sucking fiends from a documentary point-of-view.  It revolves around a camera crew that takes up with a family of vampires who live in French-speaking Belgium.  The main cast consists of the family, their basement ‘roommates’ and a variety of side-characters that appear to flesh out the world of vampiric society.

The father is a traditionalist of sorts, the mother completely crazy, the daughter wishes to be human and keeps trying to kill herself in various ways and the brother is a hyper-aggressive screw-up.  The neighbors are more genteel, approaching their vampiric lives with more refinement and abhorring their necessary living arrangements with the dysfunctional family that lives above them.

The movie ranges from dark and morbid to light-hearted and absurd.  Some aspects seem almost shock-horror in nature, such as when they talk about feeding off of babies, or one particular scene that involves the torture of a mentally handicapped person.  But just when it gets to be a little too intense, the movie switches to ridiculous aspects of vampiric society, such as vampire school, where they teach new “children” how to bite their victims properly.

The end result is a film that addresses the subject of vampire legends with both intelligence and humor.  There are looks into the darker aspects of life as an undead blood-sucker and mocking commentary on the way the current vampire craze depicts them.  Despite its sometimes ludicrous situations, it comes across as just realistic enough to make it feel like a documentary.

I’m not going to give away how the film progresses, but let’s just say it switches gears and gives a nice, strange contrast at the end.  If you’re a vampire obsessionist or just wonder at the way people have become so engrossed with them lately, then Vampires might be for you.  Since it’s only just over one-and-a-half hours, it’s pretty easy to get through, even if it doesn’t impress you as much as it did me.

Review: Moss (2010)

The movie that caught my attention this week is a nearly three-hour Korean flick called Moss that was spawned from a webcomic.  Although the reviews I’ve read on the webcomic paint it as a dark look into the face of corruption, the movie, unfortunately, fell short of these praises.  Even before I started the film, I dreaded the two hours and 42 minutes that it promised, as once you’ve started into such a long venture it can end up being a trial to make it all the way through to the end.  Indeed, I had to take a couple of breaks from the film since it just wasn’t compelling enough to keep my interest for the entire run.

The basic premise comes in two stages.  At first we get a look at the past, though that’s not spelled out to the audience immediately.  There’s a corrupt, vigilante-like cop and a religious leader who meet under criminal circumstances and end up forming a partnership of a sort.  After this brief introduction, the main movie commences, revolving around the religious leader’s son who goes off to a small town following the death of his father.

The village is filled with strange people who seem to want the main character to leave.  They all defer to the words of a white-haired old chief of the village.  Main guy decides to stay, discoveries clues that don’t add up and has village people trying to kill him along the way.  What the movie tries to keep secret but really works to the detriment of the film is that the old white-haired chief is the vigilante cop from the first scene.  The director even tries to hide the fact that the religious leader is the main character’s father for a while.  The past is separated from the main bulk of the film and related in flashbacks only when the information is needed.

While this technique is useful in some movies, here it just fails.  The mysteries that the director chooses to reveal are the more interesting ones.  The question of whether these crazy villagers actually murdered the main character’s father is secondary to what’s going on around him.  Still, that bit of information is held til the end of the film, and by that time I just didn’t care anymore.

Moss attempts to be a lot cleverer than it is and fails.  The pacing is way off and honestly it felt more like I was watching some made-for-TV movie in the vein of a bad cop show.  The climax of the film takes a long, drawn-out 20 minutes of stand-off and flashbacks and by the end of the scene you’ve almost forgotten what the point was.   If the film could have been an hour shorter, it might have worked as a piece of cinematic filler.  As it stands, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone but the most diehard of cop/mystery/thriller fans.