Monday, January 14, 2013

MRQ XII - Weird Mix-Pack Version

Oh my goodness, it's been such a long time since the last round of Movie Review Quickies. I didn't try to fix that, as I post much more frequently now. The MRQ before that was all horror, fitting for Halloween, but I wanted this one to be more... chaotic. Surprises let you know I care, right?

The length of each review is also a mix - a few are short, and one is a bit long. I'll probably try a truly quick run through another 7 films at the middle/end of Winter 2013. In fact, next time, I think it'll be a quick spin through 7 of my guilty pleasure films, or maybe movies I've changed my opinions about... I have individual links so you can just jump to any review you want (they'll be up by 11AM [UPDATE: 12:30PM, oops]), and I hope you enjoy what I'm covering: The Expendables, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, Showdown in Little Tokyo, Orgazmo, Foolproof, Blue Velvet, and Super Troopers.

The Expendables

Only the most extreme boredom and mind-draining labor could make me watch a movie that I expected to hate. Which is fortunate, because that's exactly the mood that I was in when I queued this up. The Expendables is a fairly fun picture that does somehow successfully recycle old 1980's action stars and tropes for a decent (if hollow) picture.

On the one hand, folks like Stallone and Statham have their careers because they have strong charisma and a physicality that lends itself nicely to violent films; both of them can also act just fine, even if they rarely seem to take on challenging projects. At the same time, folks like Eric Roberts, Dolph Lundgren, and Mickey Rourke are in this picture to give a massive callback to "the old days" of b-grade action pix. Looking at their IMDb pages says it all, really.

At the same time, though, we have Jet Li appearing as a callback to 90's action movies, which makes him incongruous. And it's in his casting that you can start to pull out some important threads from the sweater here. Li is there to kick people and make it look amazing - he's never developed to give him any real depth. Nor is Lundgren - he does nice work as the bad guy, but it's a very bare-bones sort of role and the script could've done more with him, easily.

As such, it's easy to realize that The Expendables has only part of the charm of its forebears (The Running Man, Predator, etc.), while also displaying many of their worst failings: the focus on the white/American male characters; a shallowness to the victims/persons to be rescued/heroes' mission; and a bloody sensibility that isn't validated by anything other than making the bad guys into cartoonish Villains.

To go into those points: there is some sense of the bad guys as folks who must be stopped. However, what we see is not as compelling or engaging as to really make the audience invested in this story. A lot of it relies on the bad guys saying bad things about the US and Americans. So, if you don't connect with Stallone and Statham enough, you have only the weakest reasons to want them to win.

The female lead gets a decent amount of screen - a rarity in both the past and modern eras - so the viewers do get (perhaps) enough material on hand to become invested in her. The plight of her people, however, isn't done much justice - it leaves you with the feeling that they're developing her in order to provide some traction for the overall "the country is going through hell let's save it" premise. At the same time, though, the focus is always clearly on Sylvester and Jason...

Those first two flaws also make the intense violence come off poorly, as modern audiences should need reasons for a story like this to really need the bad guys to get killed instead of merely shipped off to trial (and then jail). Honestly, it's kind of ridiculous to have so much "gritty" ultra-violence, and yet we keep coming back to one guy who always uses a revolver and one guy who always uses knives. If they're so hardcore and so skilled, they might as well send bad guys to contemplate their lifestyles behind bars, not to their graves...

To his credit, Sly did manage to direct a movie that looks good, has some nice action in it, and doesn't completely fail to give some time to characters and story. The "team" aspect of this pic was handled fairly well in a few moments, though again the focus is too strongly on the two leads; the team-mates are largely cardboard cutouts instead of people... The best comparison to make is that the new Ocean's Eleven did the perfect job of making me engaging me with the two leads (Clooney/Pitt) in a way that tE kind of tries for, but doesn't succeed at. In any case, it's hard to take The Expendables too seriously, or to get too upset about it...

Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog

The crippling SAG strike of 2007 caused a lot of problems: various tv series ended their seasons early, as no writer that was a SAG member was allowed to write for any major tv or film effort. The makers of The Daily Show resorted to "live dialogue" to get around it, but a lot of creative film and television work simply fell apart. But the best artists are truly inspired by adversity - or boredom - and so Joss Whedon decided to make Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog.

This work was composed of a set of clips that appeared online, and they were so popular that they were bound for a DVD release before the third and final installment had aired. I was on the sidelines, waiting for part 2 to come out before I even checked out part 1. Although I was a bit aloof, I knew that Whedon would probably deliver something amazing; what I watched exceeded all my expectations...

Whedon's DHSAB is a hyper-satyrical take on comic book films. The perspective of the work shifts between a fly-on-the-wall camera and the video blog of the titular Dr. Horrible, played by Neal Patrick Harris. This ridiculous villain is obsessed with two things: Penny (Felicia Day), the silly girl he loves but who doesn't notice him, and the incredibly-flawed Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion), the hero who defeats Horrible over and over again.

In the end, what we get is a lovely 42-minute film with great songs, incredible jokes, and insanely over-the-top characters. The use of the music is pure genius, the plot developments are hysterical, and the entire production never feels low-rent, even though it was all filmed without studio support. Whedon contributed $200k of his own money to fund the effort, and he might as well have spent 20 times as much for the result. Harris, Fillion, and Day are all exceptional, whether they're acting or singing, and this silly little tale is more fun than a lot of feature-length pictures. Dear god - any god - I wish there were more little gems like this out there, or that more work like this could be produced.

A friend, Tony B, actually had a Halloween party where he and his roommates lip-synched the entire production, and made their own air-bazooka (like the thing that shoots t-shirts at people) for the event. It was a great tribute to a grand experiment, and please please please, you writers and actors and producers: give us more of these...

Showdown in Little Tokyo

Right out of the gate, Showdown in Little Tokyo comes across as a quirky/ridiculous buddy-cop action film. It's almost like Lethal Weapon, in that we have one cop who's a tidy man of the world, while the other is a wild, macho nut. Since it came out in 1991, the leads were two actors that don't have much of a presence today: Brandon Lee and Dolph Lundgren.

In Showdown, Lee's role, Det. Johnny Murata has just been assigned a new partner, Sgt. Chris Jenner. They first meet when Chris is beating up some thugs - but Johnny thinks that Jenner is the aggressor. From the start, these two are at odds: Murata is pretty controlled, but Chris comes off as the cop who went over the edge a long time ago. Amazingly, they find they have some things in common: both of these LA cops are dedicated to doing the right thing, and both of them are after the crime boss, Funekei Yoshida (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa). The budding duo bounce off each other - and waves of bad guys - for 80 minutes of insane fun.

A lot of things about SiLT seem typical: Jenner's torn straight out of the Martin Riggs school of loner cops, while Lee is given the hysterical twist of being sort of an Asian-American cop version of Steve Urkel. What sets this film apart, pulling it from a c-action film to a b-action film, is its sense of humor and inventiveness. I miss the way that these minor pix used to have little quirks that elevated them and made them enjoyable - it's why I responded so strongly to Lockout. Perhaps here, I responded so strongly to Dolph's ludicrous headband.

Their is a lot of manly-man material here, but Johnny is given the chance to mock a lot of it, as well as his reckless partner. Showdown features a very funny torture scene, and gives Brandon Lee random-ass jokes that feel fun, not forced. It also benefits from both leads being expert martial artists, so the action is really engaging. I also truly love Yoshida's fate at the end - it's one of the most absurd and over-the-top scenes of all time. And, for anyone feeling immature right now: Tia Carrere's nude scene was done with a body double.


1997's Orgazmo is an ongoing testament to the comedic powers of Matt Stone and Trey Parker. It has the most off-the-wall premise, but mixes real characterization (arcs, themes - all that fancy stuff) with a wealth of jokes that are sometimes dirty and sometimes innocent genius.

The story: Joe Young is a well-intentioned, right-thinking Mormon who moves to LA so he can raise the money he needs to marry his sweetheart. He goes to preach at a house, but finds himself attacked by thugs. Since Joe knows martial arts, he beats the men easily - and this earns the interest of the home's owner, Clark (Ron Jeremy).

Clark is a part-time crook and full-time pornographer; Joe's combat skills would allow him to add real action scenes to his smut films. Although Joe finds the entire idea abhorrent, he realizes he can line his pockets if he just uses a stunt c--k to handle the sex scenes. And somehow, this leads Joe to not only portray an erotic movie hero called "Orgazmo," he meets a genius who lets him become a real-life superhero with all the powers of the role Joe's playing!

What's amazing about this is that many similar films would just be interested in using nudity and sex as a cheap draw for the audience. In Orgazmo, it's just an element of the movie that's handled with the same thematic purpose as if Darren Aronofsky had filmed it. And that's truly the crowning glory of a movie that's dead-funny.

Some of the jokes are filthy enough to make more innocent viewers squirm. Others are just great dead-pan lines, and no dirtier than anything in BASEketball. The movie uses a handful of actual adult film actors and actresses, but they're given a genuine chance to act and portray real people. Throughout, you also get some of Parker and Stone's exceptional songwriting abilities. "Now You're a Man" is as much a work of genius as any tune in the South Park movie...

Expectations are constantly subverted, and you will be surprised by how much respect is given to Joe's religious beliefs. Instead of purely mocking the Mormon faith, Joe Young is a salt-of-the-earth-type in a tough situation who tries to do the best that he can. You never doubt that he's a good person, and you never see him as a cardboard cut-out. He believes what he believes, does his best as a fish-out-water among the LA crowd, and you actually get a sense for who all these people are. Orgazmo is truly a fine - and completely unexpected - cult comedy.


Foolproof is a fine little heist movie with a great premise: three smart people have made a hobby out of planning and executing robberies that are brilliantly-planned. However, they don't actually steal anything - the pleasure (and stress-release) for them is all in the chase. When a real criminal accidently finds a copy of their plans, he decides to blackmail the trio into staging a real theft.

In a lot of ways, Foolproof is very much like The Usual Suspects - its mystery/thriller tone makes you feel that you can't really trust any of the characters, and you're never certain who is playing whom, or when they really mean what they're saying. The four leads are very charismatic and have great chemistry. This goes double for Ryan Reynolds. It's easy to mock a handsome actor who's done some really good and really bad films, but his work in this small pic really made me respect him more.

And I was also very impressed that a small picture like this would have such a tight story, and such a good script. The sole female here isn't used as a cheap damsel in distress or love interest, anymore than Ryan's role is a superhuman action star who never sweats. This picture is all about tension and fun, smart sequences. I was genuinely sucker-punched by the quality at hand here, and I'm very sorry that this picture was considered a massive flop. It deserved better, and you should watch it when you get the chance.

Maybe I'm just inclined toward smaller films, or movies that take the trouble give the audience a real story to follow. Or maybe I just like heist flicks. Whichever way, I'm telling you to check this out if you have a idle 93 minutes.

Blue Velvet

David Lynch had a big impact with his first feature films, Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, and Dune. It's odd, then, to call his fourth effort, Blue Velvet, an indie film - what with the $6M budget and the packed cast... But there's such a strong subversive vibe, and scenes that really push the audience to the limits of what they will tolerate (at least, for the US in 1986). Regardless, the De Laurentiis Entertainment Group supported it financially, letting Lynch craft this great story.

Beneath the quiet veneer of his simple home town, teenaged Jeffrey Beaumont finds a decadent core that gets under his skin. The Lynch mentality is seldom clearer here: David likes stories with a laidback 1950's vibe, but with characters and events that suggest heavy drug use and mild psychosis. The beginning of it says as much: a beautiful lawn in a nice suburb, but there's a rotting human ear hidden among the grass.

Blue Velvet is genuinely shocking, and it takes the viewers - as well a Jeffrey - through an Alice in Wonderland ride that's as malevolent and twisted as the original versions of the Grimm fairytales. People in the protagonist's small town are either very vanilla, or dark bordering on psychotic. None of the material is used cheaply, not even the sight of Isabella Rossellini's (beautiful) naked body; it's hard to draw a sexual pleasure from someone who is deeply broken.

Laura Dern is excellent (as usual) performance, as Kyle MacLachlan, Dennis Hopper, Isabella Rosselini, and Dean Stockwell all turn out some of the most impressive performances I've ever seen. Blue Velvet is well-regarded for many great reasons, and if you haven't seen it yet, you have to fix that very soon. Blue Velvet will certainly get a full-length review from me in the future...

Super Troopers

A comedy troupe called "Broken Lizard" wrote, directed, and starred in this picture about a group of Vermont State Troopers who spend their days clashing with the local police dept and playing (sometimes) clever fratboy pranks on everyone. Skits are basically broken up by an intermittent story of drug trafficking on their beat.

The problem with a movie like this is that the bulk of it is Animal House with cops instead of college kids. The gags can be clever, or stupid, or sly, or just icky - but the "silly, grown-up boys' club" angle is very strong. If you stick with it, you'll be satisfied. It helps if you notice how varied the humor actually is.

The beginning is really one of the funniest things I ever saw, especially considering that I knew nothing beyond Troopers was a stoner favorite. The transition from intro to story was neatly done, and I liked the writing and easy interplay between the leads. I was on the floor at the sight of two people chugging containers of maple syrup like they were beer.

The natural chemistry of the five leads is a given, but they wouldn't play as well without support from folks like Brian Cox and Daniel von Bargen (you know him, I swear). I was really surprised by Brian, as I couldn't imagine him doing this kind of a comedy; it's not like Ernest Borgnine in BASEketball...

There's a lot of creative and varied humor going on (who doesn't love the "meow" thing?), and it helps that we just have to adjust to how the characters treat everyone, because that's also how they treat each other. Sometimes there is no real set up for the joke you're hearing, unless you listen carefully and/or pretend you know these people. Unfortunately, some segments are just skits that drag or play badly.

And it's odd, what fires and what doesn't. A joke about a sex doll actually goes over much better than I thought it would - it certainly beats the scene in a fast food joint. The middle sags a bit, as the skits come fast-fire and dilute the story; also, the parts with the "Farva" character usually fall flat and/or go on too long. They're also kind of revolting.

Regardless, I had a good time watching this my friends that I can't just slag it off. I'm not doing it a huge favor, either, because there actually is a lot of quality on display. The way that the story resolves is excellent (a blackout-drunk brawl, the two closing scenes), there's some very smart writing, a lot of gags for the audience to notice or figure out. I think it helps that it ends on a very strong, clever beat.

Of course, maybe I just fell in love with the way that the local PD mocks Jay Chandrasekhar's "Officer Ramathorn," aka "Thorny." The cops keep mentioning tacos and burritos around him, mockingly, until the statie's confused partner asks Ramathorn why. With a sad, resigned look as if he's not offended because he kind of does look like it and he finds their stupidity demoralizing, Thorny just sighs, "They think I'm Mexican." It was, perhaps, my hardest laugh of 2001. It's not perfect, but it can be dead funny.


  1. My favorite thing about Showdown in LIttle Tokyo (other than the fireworks wheel of death) is that matched up against Lee's Japanese-American Urkel, Lundgren is the Hollywood trope of the white guy who's lived in Japan and is totally the highest living expert on everything Japanese. So Kenner is constantly explaining things to Johnny about his own culture, down to (IIRC) explaining what futon is and what a sushi is. This leads to one of my favorite lines in the movie:

    "Listen, will you do this right? Clean? Like a cop in the 20th century, not some samurai warrior? We're gonna nail this guy. And when we get done... we're gonna go eat fish off those naked chicks!"

    I miss Brandon Lee. I know that if he hadn't been cut down before his career really took off, by now he would've probably wound up co-starring in Expendables 2, but I'm still upset that we didn't get to see that career.

    1. Oh, man, the fireworks wheel of death is so completely insane! It's an amazing bit of cinema, and I would use the clip for a Great Moments In if I could find it easily. The sushi line is also hysterical.

      Yes, I miss what we could've seen from the guy, too. The Crow turned Brandon into a real star, and it would've done the same had he been alive. It also showed off his acting chops as much as his martial arts, so maybe he wouldn't've been relegated to Expendables 2 status (hey, does that have Jeff Speakman?).


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