Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Blade of Kings (2004)

According to legend, the Star of Rex will someday defeat the beautiful Evil Queen Ya Ge (Qu Ying), whose lover, High Priest Wei Liao (Daniel Wu) had betrayed her. Men have been turned into slaves for women; Star of Rex is destined to restore order to Flower Capitol, the Land of Huadu.

In the opening sequence, 13th Young Master Spring (the beautiful Charlene Choi) accuses Blue Bird (the beautiful Gillian Chung) of stealing her dumb bells (male slaves for sale), who have been freed by master swordsman Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (Donnie Yen).

An exciting, high-jumpy athletic martial arts fight ensues, ending when a beautiful enforcer, Red Vulture (Fan Bingbing), shows up. Then, the cutely obese Marshall Edo Bowman (Xie Jing-Jing) also arrives and makes Spring a proposition: Find this particular actor for her, and she'll forgive the debt Spring owes her.

Meanwhile, Crouching Tiger has commissioned Peachy (Edison Chen) to steal a plaque from the queen's palace, a plaque that in the right hands, will lead to the real Star of Rex.

Spring and Blue Bird set out on quests: One to find the actor for Marshall Edo, and the other to find the stone plaque. They come across street performers Charcoal Head, aka "Char" (Jaycee Chan), and Blockhead, aka "Leaf" (Bolin Chen), who are under the tutelage of their adoptive father, Master Blackwood (Tony Leung Ka-fai).

Peachy turns the plaque over to Char and Leaf, with directions to deliver it to Crouching Tiger. They think it's a treasure map. Spring and Blue Bird join up with them, both claiming to be Crouching Tiger. The guys are clumsy, dorky and not too smart; the girls are graceful, articulate and smart.

Crouching Tiger shows up and reveals one of the boys is destined to be king. But first, they must get through Red Vulture, the weird cave people, and finally, Gen. Wai Shing, Lord of Armour (Jackie Chan), who guards the way to the Excalibur sword. An epic battle between Wai Shing and Crouching Tiger ensues, culminating in the revelation of the real Star of Rex.

Jaycee Chan is Jackie Chan's son, his only child with Taiwanese actress Lin Feng-jiao (aka Joan Lin). This was Jaycee's acting debut; he has since worked in 19 more films.

Originally released in Hong Kong as Chin gei bin 2: Fa tou tai kam (The Twins Effect II), Blade of Kings (the DVD title) is a sequel to The Twins Effect, which was released in 2003.

The best part of Blade of Kings is the beautiful women. My lord, they're attractive. The acting is not so great, except for a few high points (Edo Bowman is hilarious).

Grade: B-

Monday, September 15, 2014

After the Dark (2013)

Teen lovers Petra (Sophie Lowe) and James (Rhys Wakefield) attend an international school in Jakarta, Indonesia, and are classmates in Eric Zimit's (James D'Arcy), philosophy class.

On the last day of class, Zimit poses an experiment: There's a nuclear cataclysm, and there's a reinforced bunker with supplies for only ten people, now enough for the 20 students and the teacher. Who gets to stay? Who gets to procreate and save the human race?

Georgina (Bonnie Wright – Ginny Weasely in the Harry Potter series), declines participation, until the horrors of nuclear death change her mind. Petra also wants out, but decides to remain when it's made clear James' grade would drop from a B- to a C+.

Descriptive cards assign specific skill sets to each student. Making the cut requires skills that will help humanity. Georgina (orthopedic surgeon) is in. James (organic farmer), Petra (structural engineer), and a carpenter are also in. A poet, a harpist, and others (including Zimit) are rejected.

In the fantasy scenario, they are in there for a year. Then, they can't get out. The result is despair, suicide and cannibalism. Depressing.

Reboot, second scenario ... with the addition of volcanos, and new revelations about each of the participants. For example, James is now gay, Georgina was exposed to Ebola, the carpenter is sterile. Suddenly, mere logic doesn't cut it. A hedge fund manager, who was rejected before, is filthy rich, and is selected this time. Zimit murders to secure the last spot.

So the group of ten has changed, and things get more complicated with further revelations. Ten weeks later, six males, four females, no pregnancies. Something is wrong. The results are highly problematic.

Which brings us to a third scenario, a desert island with the bunker. But first, a revelation, which I'm not going to tell you about.

Filming for After the Dark, (formerly known as The Philosophers), took 11 weeks and took place throughout Indonesia.

When I saw the DVD on sale at Target, I was intrigued. Plus, it was relatively inexpensive ($9.99), and I thought it was going to be realistic, not a philosophical mind game. After all, After the Dark got good reviews from the critics. But it did not appeal to me. Provocative, yes, but too unexciting and too philosophical (yeah, I know, I know).

After the Dark is beautifully filmed and fairly interesting but I admit that I dozed off a couple of times and had to rewind.

Grade: C-

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Pawnbroker (1964)

The Pawnbroker is based on Edward Lewis Wallant's 1961 novel about 45-year-old German-Jewish University of Krakow professor Sol Nazerman (Rod Steiger), a survivor of the Nazi holocaust during World War II. Sol spends his days in his East Harlem pawnshop, an embittered old soul who's just going through the motions.

Twenty-five years after his wife died, Sol lives with and supports his sister and her family. And, he has a continuing affair with his best friend's widow, whom he also supports, along with her dying father.

The pawnshop is actually a front funded by a racketeer, Rodriguez (Brock Peters), and Sol is obliged to raise his standard $2 offer to a fence's price when Rodriguez sends someone to him.

A new neighborhood social worker, Marilyn Birchfield (Geraldine Fitzgerald), is determined to break through his seemingly disinterested and often-gruff facade. It’s a difficult goal, because of Sol's daily observations that trigger flashbacks of similar situations he experienced in the concentration camps during the war.

Jesus Ortiz (Jaime Sánchez), Nazerman’s shop assistant, is anxious to learn, and is encouraged by his black prostitute girlfriend, (Thelma Oliver). He's conscientious and a hard worker, but he has a big mouth and it gets him (and Sol) in trouble. Big trouble.

Interesting trivia: 27-year- old Morgan Freeman has an uncredited role as a man on the street (I looked hard, but couldn't identify him). They used chocolate syrup for blood (black and white movie). Rod Steiger's silent scream at film's end was based on Picasso's "Guernica."

The Pawnbroker was filmed on a $930,000 budget, earning $2.5 million in rentals. The film thrust Rod Steiger into the spotlight as a credible, serious actor; he received an Oscar nomination (Best Actor in a Leading Role).

The Pawnbroker was not without controversy: (1) It had nude scenes (breasts) that were condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency, (2) Jewish groups wanted to boycott the film, saying a Jewish pawnbroker encouraged anti-Semitism, and (3) Black groups objected to racial stereotypes showing inner city people as undesirables (i.e., pimps, prostitutes, drug addicts).

I didn't particularly like The Pawnbroker when I first saw it when it was released. But what did I know? I was just a recent high-school graduate and thought it was too depressing. I liked it more with each successive viewing, and when it showed on Turner Classic Movies recently, I was vastly impressed at Rod Steiger's performance.

Grade: A-

Movie Quotations 144

"You know what 'apocalypse' actually means? To uncover what you haven't seen before – the way out of the dark." – Eric Zimit (James D'Arcy), in After the Dark

"Child bearing becomes job number one after the apocalypse." – Eric Zimit (James D'Arcy), in After the Dark

"We don't travel the same road." – Spring (Charlene Choi), in Blade of Kings

"Now I'm neither man nor woman. If you keep sitting and doing nothing, the next freak may be you! You! You! Or you!" – Master Blackwood (Tony Leung Ka-fai), in Blade of Kings

“I always say, when you got a job to do, get somebody else to do it.” – George Hally (Humphrey Bogart), in The Roaring Twenties

“I think you're a pretty decent guy. I like to talk to decent guys. They're hard to find.” – Panama Smith (Gladys George), in The Roaring Twenties

"He used to be a big shot." – Panama Smith (Gladys George), in The Roaring Twenties

“I caught the blackjack right behind my ear. A black pool opened up at my feet. I dived in. It had no bottom. I felt pretty good – like an amputated leg.” – Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell), in Murder, My Sweet

“She was a charming middle-aged lady with a face like a bucket of mud. I gave her a drink. She was a gal who'd take a drink, if she had to knock you down to get the bottle.” – Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell), in Murder, My Sweet

"You should know by now that men play rough. They soften you up, throw you off guard, and belt you one." – Helen Grayle (Claire Trevor), in Murder, My Sweet

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Ender’s Game (2013)

Fifty earlier, an alien species of ant-like beings called Formics attacked Earth. Only through a heroic sacrifice by heroic Maori Commander Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley), was total annihilation avoided.

Ever since, the International Fleet has been hanging its hopes on the world's smartest children, who have been raised on video war games and have developed intuitive decision-making skills.

One of those recruits, Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), is closely watched by Col. Hurum Graff (Harrison Ford) and Maj. Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis). He is able to hold his own against older, larger, bully recruits, and receives moral support from his sister, Valentine (Abigail Breslin).

His parents understand the difficulty of the training and try to maintain a "normal" family life, especially when it appears Ender has washed out of the program. So it's a surprise to all when he's offered a spot in the program because of his strategic thinking.

He's sent to Battle School where he and his fellow "launchees" (cadets) learn about Mazer Rackham's self-sacrifice that brought the Formica mother ship down, and jump to the commands of Sgt. Dap (Nonso Anozie). First on the agenda – zero-G training, where Ender and his classmate, Bean (Aramis Knight), test their weapons against each other.

Ender earns his group's respect and is turning into a leader. For example, he demurs answering a question in class and sends launchee Alai (Suraj Parthasarathy), who vomited on the flight up, in his place. Soon his fellow launchees are lunching with him, and avoiding bully Bernard (Conor Carroll).

When he bends the rules in a rigged video game, he's promoted to the Salamander Army, which is headed by the tough "I hate to lose" Bonzo (Moises Arias). Ender is helped in battle practice by Salamander Petra Arkanian (Hailee Steinfield). Ordered to hang back in a mock battle with Leopard Army, he disobeys and joins the fight when things go bad. His audacity helps win the fight.

Bender is given command of his own army of misfits – Dragon Army. Dragon does well; good thing, because the Formics are rebuilding. But something goes wrong and Ender returns home. War is inevitable. Will Ender return to Battle School? Or is Earth doomed?

Guess. Because this is where it starts to get really good. The question is, where does the game end and reality step in?

Interesting trivia: The characters' name tags are also in braille. Battle School cadet actors went to Space Camp to train for zero gravity sequences. Many of the film’s props were created using 3D printers. The film’s battle room has a diameter of three football fields.

Ender’s Game is based on Orson Scott Card’s 1985 novel of the same name. The U.S. Marine Corps recommends the book for officers’ reading, to learn about training, leadership and ethics. Produced on a $110-million budget, Ender’s Game earned $125.5 million at the box office.

I liked the movie, and can't figure out how it didn't perform better at the box office.

Grade: A-

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Raintree County (1957)

High school sweethearts John Wickliff Shawnessy (Montgomery Clift) and Nell Gaither (Eva Marie Saint) are 1859 graduates in Freehaven, Raintree County, Indiana, looking forward to a fruitful and peaceful life.

His parents, Dr. T.D. and Ellen (Walter Abel and Agnes Moorehead), and his teacher, Prof. Jerusalem Webster Stiles (Nigel Patrick), wax philosophical at every opportunity, passing on their wisdom and experience, each in his/her inimitable style.

Obnoxious bigmouth classmate Garwood B. Jones (Rod Taylor) is forever making a play for Nell whenever John goes off on one of his idealist searched for the legendary Golden Raintree planted by Johnny Appleseed. Braggart Orville “Flash” Perkins (Lee Marvin) claims to be a fast runner, as does John, and challenges him to a race on the Fourth of July.

And then, there's Susanna Drake (Elizabeth Taylor), recently moved from New Orleans, where her family owned plantations. She's enamored of John and flirts with him, angering Nell no end, especially when he wins the race. John falls for Susanna; I mean really falls for her (who can blame him), and gets her pregnant, breaking Nell's heart.

John and Susanna are married, moving to New Orleans. Her mind starts going; she admits faking pregnancy, and that her father had an affair with a slave she believes is her mother. They move back to Raintree County (the sparks fly between Suzanna and Nell), and they have a son before the Civil War breaks out.

Nell's got problems. Big problems, mostly mental, and it all goes back to a house fire when she was 9 years old. John joins the Union Army to search for Nell and his son, who have fled to New Orleans. They return to Raintree County and try to work everything out there.

Production was not without problems: Montgomery Clift was in a serious automobile accident that occurred when, tired and hung over, he drove into a telephone pole. His performances suffered (immobile left side of face, changed nose and chin) after weeks in surgery and recovery. Elizabeth Taylor had problems with hyperventilation and tachycardia.

DeForest Kelley, destined for immortality as the USS Enterprise’s “Bones” McCoy in the 1966-1969 Star Trek television series, has a small part as a Southern officer who's captured by John Shawnessy and Flash Perkins.

Raintree County was based on Ross Lockridge Jr.’s 1948 novel. Produced on a $5.474-million budget, it had a box office of early $9.1 million. At the time of its release, Raintree County was the most expensive film ever made.

The 3+-hour movie continues to be panned by critics and viewers alike. I don't know why. Raintree County is a pretty sumptuous film with beautiful cinematography and scenic shots. The performances of the lead cast aren't bad either, despite Clift’s and Taylor’s health problems. I rather enjoyed the movie.

The movie received four Academy Award nominations, including Elizabeth Taylor for Best Actress, Best Art Direction-Set, Best Costume Design, and Best Music Scoring. Nat "King" Cole sings the title song over the opening credits.

There are a couple of "Oops, too early!" music faux pas: “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” sung after Lincoln’s 1860 election, was not written until a year later; “Rally ‘Round the Flag,” performed by the band celebrating the election, was not written until 1862.

Grade: B

Monday, September 8, 2014

Little Big Soldier (2010)

Released as Dà Bīng Xiǎo Jiàng in China, and touted as one of Jackie Chan’s best films, Little Big Soldier is set in the Warring States period of China (475-221 B.C.).  The warring states are Qin, The Three Jins (Han, Wei, and Zhao), Qi, Chu, and Yan.

When Wei forces are ambushed at Phoenix Hill by Liang troops, a ruthless battle ensues and all 3,000 on both sides are annihilated – except for an old and somewhat reluctant Liang foot soldier (Jackie Chan) and a young enemy general (Leehom Wang).

Old Soldier takes Young General prisoner, expecting to be rewarded for this heroic act, with perhaps, say, five acres of land. Seeking shelter, they come across a seductive Songstress (Lin Peng), who plies them with wine and soft talk, putting the soldier to sleep.

Meanwhile, Wei Prince Wen's (Steve Yoo) men arrive and survey the battlefield, looking for the Young General.

When he awakens, Old Soldier finds Young General free of his bonds and engages him in a well-choreographed dance of sword-takeaway that ends with a beheading. But instead of a reward, he's sentenced to be beheaded. Oh wait, it's just a dream.

What really happens is the girl steals his horse while he was sleeping, so he has to pull his wagon by himself, protecting Young General when need be. Some forest people steal the wagon. No horse, no wagon ... big black bear appears. Yikes.

Like an older brother and a younger sibling, the two are always fighting; no tactic is considered unfair – e.g., poking a finger in a wound. Their fighting scenes had me laughing continuously.

Meanwhile, Prince Wen's group continues to search for Young General, killing a few people along the way. Young General escapes and Old Soldier falls into the prince's hands. He whacks Deputy General Yu (Yu Rongguang) in the crotch, resulting in a hilarious attempt by Yu to walk straight, then escapes.

Separated, the two nonetheless end up prisoners of barbarian bandits before they reach their ultimate destinies. The enigmatic Songstress re-enters the picture. Then disappears again. Perhaps she just represents the fleeting presence of a hopeful life.

So ... why is Prince Wen looking for Young General? My lips are sealed.

Filmed in the Mandarin language, Little Big Soldier is Jackie Chan’s 99th film. His Old Soldier characterization is pretty funny – his tough facade tempered by private suffering for the tiniest of injuries. Plus, as usual, his facial expressions are priceless.

(Outtakes are screened during the closing credits.)

The film may be seen either with dubbed-in English, or with subtitles. I prefer subtitles myself.

Grade: B+