Friday, 13 March 2009

Who Watches the Watchmen?

Do you think I'd tell you if there was any chance left you could stop me? I watched it 7 days ago. I wasn't going to write anything about it (does the internet need yet another unsolicited opinion on the movie?) but fuck it, I'm doing it anyway. Not a review, just a few opinions about the film.

The stuff I liked? The opening credits sequence was fantastic. A few of the historical references were a little on-the-nose and the music choice is a tad obvious but it does a good job of condensing decades of alternate history into a digestible format. Good job. I also liked how the costumes for the Minutemen were cheesy and simple, like the old TV serials of the 40s and 50s, while the modern costumes were more like modern super hero movies.

I loved Dr Manhattan's back story sequence. That was one part I didn't think would work on the big screen, but luckily Crudup brought his A game. Speaking of which, I thought most of the performances were great. Jackie Earle Haley and Patrick Dean Morgan were fantastic. The two weakest members of the cast were Matthew Goode and Malin Ackerman. Particularly Ackerman, she was terrible.

I know that the trailer calls Watchmen the "most celebrated graphic novel of all time", but that's just a term to make the neckbeards feel better about themselves. It's a comic book, it was released as twelve separate issues. Consequently, the movie seemed overstuffed, like a whole bunch of little sequences mashed together. Being a big fan of the book it's easy to spackle over any gaps, but I imagine someone coming in clean would be totally lost. Although I've heard people who have never even heard of the comic say they loved it. So I probably don't know what the fuck I'm talking about.

I didn't miss the vagina squid and I thought the changed ending worked just as well, but I can see why some people would disagree. Either way that plan doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but you buy it because Ozymandias is the smartest guy on Earth. Or you would buy it if Matthew Goode were a better actor. Still, it's hard not to imagine what might have been. Snyder's got pretty big balls to try this adaptation in the first place, but I'd definitely upgrade him to Enormous Monster Balls status if he'd kept the giant psychic space squid.

There's also the issue of the soundtrack, where it seems like they thought of the first relevant lyric that came into their head and then just plopped the song in without thinking about whether it sounds weird or cliched. I know that some of the songs were quoted in the comic book, but still, "99 Luftballons" at an intimate dinner? "The Sound of Silence" at a funeral? And that My Chemical Romance cover was fucking awful.

Snyder has a huge boner for stylised violence. I mean, it's cool bro, we all do, but I don't think it works here. In the context of the comic, violence is something grisly and awful. In the movie you can tell that Snyder think's it's totally sweet, no matter how many snapped limbs and CG blood sprays he puts in there. His nerd-boner is showing. He turns every minor confrontation into a huge slow-mo enhanced action setpiece. Still, if the price of getting this film into the multiplexes is some slightly obnoxious fight scenes, I'm not going to complain. It's way better than that shaky-cam The Dark Knight bullshit.

I know it sounds like I thought it sucked, but I actually liked it and I'm looking forward to the extended edition. It's way better than I thought it would or could be.

Monday, 9 March 2009

The Scorpion King 2: Rise of a Warrior (2008)

I don't know how effective it is in combat, but this Akkadian
armour is great at displaying rippling abs, boobs etc.

The Scorpion King 2: Rise of a Warrior is a prequel to The Scorpion King, which was a spin-off of The Mummy Returns, which was a sequel to 2000's The Mummy, which was a remake of 1932's The Mummy. So we're quite a ways down the food chain. Although it's Direct-to-Video, this is one of these heavily advertised and high-for-DTV budgeted releases that had me thinking it might be okay. I mean, it wouldn't be too much to hope for the lofty standards of the first movie, right?

When it was mentioned in The Scorpion King that Mathayas was an Akkadian, I figured they were simple barbarians, like Conan the Cimmerian, but it turns out they've got a whole civilisation going. There's even a group of super-elite soldiers called the Black Scorpions. Young Mathayas dreams of becoming a Black Scorpion like his father, but his dad doesn't want him following in his footsteps. Mathayas sneaks away to the initiation test anyway, during which he intervenes to save the life of his friend Layla from the asshole instructor Sargon. Then his dad intervenes to save him. Then the King intervenes to save his dad. In return, the King forces him to let Mathayas join the Black Scorpions. Sargon isn't happy, and he uses his black magic to kill Mathayas' dad with a black cloud that turns into magic scorpions.

After Mathayas montages his way through his training and into adulthood, he returns to the city to find that Sargon has killed the King and taken over rule of the kingdom. Sargon invites Mathayas to join his group of elite bodyguards, the one catch being that he has to kill his brother Noah for treason. Of course Mathayas releases Noah, kills Sargon's men (elite bodyguards, huh?) and escapes. Unfortunately Sargon shoots out some sort of magic heat seeking arrow which spears Noah in the back and kills him. Luckily he's got a spare brother Jesup, who survives long enough to die in the beginning of The Scorpion King. It's bad news to be this guy's sibling.

Mathayas vows revenge against Sargon, and along the way he picks up his now-grown childhood friend Layla (Karen David) and a Greek poet/comedy sidekick named Aristophanes (Simon Quarterman) who tells them of a mystical weapon he can use to defeat Sargon. Unfortunately it's not the awesome bow he uses in The Scorpion King, but the Sword of Damocles which, I believe, was never actually used in the Greek legend and was really more of a metaphor for the perilous and precarious position of the ruling class. But whatever, that's boring. Here it's a kickass sword that can float and cut through anything and burn off tattoos that spoil film continuity.

His quest for the sword takes him on many adventures, during which he picks up a host of poorly differentiated and highly disposable side characters. Ari also convinces a dude named Fong (Tom Wu who played General Jantapan in Belly of the Beast) into joining them by tricking him into thinking he's going home to China, which is a pretty dick move if you ask me. What follows are several excruciatingly long scenes of them walking slowly though spooky corridors, swamps etc. They also fight a minotaur, which is represented by an animatronic mouth and very short glimpses of CGI. Ari distracts the minotaur with a flute and says "Music hath charms to soothe a savage beast". The actual line is "breast" and as a poet he should know better, but to be fair the line he quotes wouldn't be written for at least a thousand years.

After battling their way through the Underworld, Mathayas disses Astarte, Goddess of Love and War, steals the Sword of Damocles (which she's got for some reason) and high-tails it back to the real world so he can use it to fight Sargon. Unfortunately it turns out that Sargon is actually working for Astarte, and that Aristophanes was in Sargon's employ the whole time. The whole thing was a trick to get Sargon the sword, which is pretty stupid because I think Astarte would have noticed when her missing sword suddenly showed up at his place. However Ari does end up tricking Sargon by giving him an identical fake sword, so I don't know. Maybe there are a few replicas floating around.

The production values are pretty impressive for Direct-to-Video, but they must have blown their load early on because in the end Sargon turns into a giant scorpion that is also invisible, which is probably the weakest special effects copout ever. Mathayas defeats him by splashing him with oil and then employing the old lying-back-with-the-spear-in-the-air-so-the-monster-falls-onto-it trick. You'd think movie monsters would have caught onto this by now, but not this one. While this is going on Layla and Fong foil Sargon's bizarre Rube Goldberg assassination plot, which involves leading hundreds of people into an arena and roasting them alive using needlessly complex ancient machinery.

If you just saw the original movie, you might have thought the title of Scorpion King came from the fact that Mathayas was poisoned by scorpion venom and therefore had the scorpion venom running in his veins for all eternity, or some such nonsense. Well here we've learned that he joins a group of elite warriors called the Black Scorpions, his dad is killed by a bunch of magic scorpions and at the end he fights a guy with a stupid-looking scorpion tattoo on his head, who transforms into a giant scorpion. That's a lot of scorpions. No wonder he's the Scorpion King.

There also seem to be some real ideas struggling underneath somewhere. At the beginning of the film his dad hints at some dark deeds in his past and urges his son not to become a warrior like him. Mathayas also teams up with an asshole mercenary who speaks highly of his father, and Astarte tells him "Scratch a hero and find a monster inside." All of this points pretty clearly to some deeper themes about his father, maybe questioning of the nature of being a hero. I guess all that stuff got cut out, though, because it never amounts to anything except a throwaway line at the very end.

Mathayas is played by Michael Copon, who has been in a bunch of TV shows I haven't seen. He looks the part but he doesn't have the natural charisma of Dwayne "He'll always be 'The Rock' to me even if he doesn't go by that name anymore" Johnson. Copon's attempt at Mr Rock's signature eyebrow-raise isn't great, but I figure he can work on it. Maybe put him to work in a few more Direct-to-Video prequels, give him some practice. Doom 2: Sarge's Story or The Rundown 2: The Early Years. Sargon is played by some UFC champ named Randy Couture. In wrestling you can pick a scary stage name to offset your goofy real name, I guess in Ultimate Fighting you're stuck with what you've got. As far as athletes-turned-actors go, he rates somewhere above Shaquille O'Neal but below Brian Bosworth.

This film is directed by Russel Malcahy who directed my favourite jaws rip-off of all time, Razorback and well as Highlander. He may have also directed Highlander II if we lived in a universe where that movie existed, which we don't and I won't be told otherwise. If this film had more giant mutant boars or decapitations or a song by Queen it would probably be a whole lot better, but unfortunately it plays things pretty safe and boring. It's more Kull the Conqueror than Conan the Barbarian.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Chocolate (2008)

Knee + skull = pain

You might be saying, "I saw that film and it was not from Thailand, it was set in France and it had dreamboat Johnny Depp playing a guitar". Well that's because that film is 2000's Chocolat directed by Lasse Hallström, that is not this film, that is a different film. This is from the same guy who did Ong Bak and Tom Yum Goong (Prachya Pankaew) so it may not have a woman learning about life and love as she deals with quirky characters in a small French village, but the fight scenes are incredible. They're the kind of unbelievable, meticulously choreographed fight scenes they don't make anymore, since they figured out the audience could be fooled into thinking a fight scene is awesome if you shoot a bunch of fists and feet in closeup and shake the camera around. Watching this film took me back to when I first saw a Jackie Chan film as a teenager. I actually said "wow" out loud a few times while watching this, which is something I haven't done during an action film for a long time. Loud noises and $50 million dollars of CGI-enhanced bullshit can be thrilling in a primordial way, but it doesn't make me say "wow". I wanna say "wow".

Wrapped around these fight scenes is a fairly serious, melodramatic story. Zin is an enforcer for a gang of Thai criminals, but decides to give up her life of crime when she falls in love with a rival Yakuza gangster. She gets knocked up but her baby, who she names Zen, turns out to be severely autistic. As she grows up, Zen spends her time watching guys train at the the kickboxing gym next door (can you imagine the noise?) and watches Ong Bak and Tom Yum Goong over and over. Ong Bak came out in 2003 so by my estimation it must be at least 2012, but there's no flying cars or anything. She absorbs all of the martial arts skills by autismosis (autism-osmosis) and becomes an unstoppable fighting machine. She can also catch stuff that is thrown at her, like those people in Awakenings.

All of this stuff comes in pretty handy when her mother develops cancer and can't afford the treatment. Her fat, comic-relief buddy Mangmoon (not Dirty Balls from Ong Bak, this time it's a younger actor Taphon Phopwandee, he's like Dirty Balls Junior) stumbles across a book that lists all the people that owe her mother money, so Zen uses her autism superpowers to beat the shit out of them until they pay up. Luckily they are all assholes and not some guy borrowing money to pay for his kid's heart transplant or something (wouldn't that be ironic?). This is a pretty good excuse for a series of fights at different locations such as an ice factory, a warehouse and a butcher shop. Flies are Zen's kryptonite, so it's pretty touch and go for a minute there at the butcher, but Mangmoom's got her back. Zen takes on dozens of guys at a time and beats them up with fists, feet, poles, chairs etc. Whatever's handy. They should've called this film "Where's my money, bitch?"

Each one of these fights would probably be the climatic fight in a lesser movie, but all of this leads to a showdown between Zen and her mum's old gang. This is a long fight, but it never gets boring because they mix it up with fists, swords and different numbers/types of opponents. She even fights a guy with Tourettes who uses his twitches and tics to throw off his opponent. He could've shouted "Fuck!" a few times, but still, pretty awesome. The only thing better would be a guy with multiple personality disorder who constantly switches between personalities/fighting styles during a battle. They can save that for the sequel.

Just when you think the movie is over and the bad guy is defeated, they bring out a stunt spectacular where Zen chases the bad guy up and down the side of a building. She jumps between ledges, climbs on signs and kicks guys off the side so they bounce like a pinball on their way down. No doubt there were a few wires used and the set looks pretty fake, but it's damned impressive nonetheless. A lot of these stunts will have you wondering how these stuntmen didn't kill themselves, and sure enough during the end credits they show a guy hurting his neck and getting loaded into an ambulance. The crew go and visit him in hospital, which I'm sure he appreciated.

Zen is played by Yanin Vismistananda (ie JeeJa Yanin), and this gal is something else. Impressive stuntwork, good fighting, she's the whole package. Plays the character well too, I like how she nudges the bad guys to make sure they're down and then just wanders off like it's nothing. Let's see a Tony Jaa and JeeJa Yanin team-up film Prachya, make it happen dude.

Of course, this film isn't perfect. The plot is pretty silly now that I think about it and the tone of the film is constantly changing gears. One minute you'll be grinning stupidly at a fight scene, then next minute it's cancer victims and death. Nothing new if you've seen a lot of Hong Kong films, but it's still pretty weird. Of course, to nitpick about that kind of stuff is to ignore the elephant in the room that is the incredible fights and stuntwork. Some people might be able to kill that elephant, serve it up to rich foreigners and put it's bones on display like those evil bastards in Tom Yum Goong, but not me. I love good fight scenes. And elephants.

If you like action films, especially if you liked Ong Bak or Tom Yum Goong, you have to check this out. There's no mystical Buddhist statues or bald musclemen suplexing baby elephants, but I think you'll like it anyway. Except if you're one of those guys who sits there complaining that the plot is stupid, the fighting is unrealistic and there's no way a girl could beat up all those dudes. But seriously, just between you and me, fuck those guys. Seeing this film made me lament the lost of art of the fight scene, but as long as Prachya delivers the magic every three years, I think I'll survive.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Punisher: War Zone (2008)

Jesus, enough with the neon.

So, after mentally preparing with the first two Punisher films a few months ago, I've finally got around to seeing the third Punisher film. The director, Lexi Alexander, promised that this is the one that finally gets it right, fo' reals this time. Third time's a charm. I don't know about that, I'd consider it the most flawed but also the most interesting of the three Punisher movies.

I've got to preface this by saying that as far as I'm concerned, the Punisher: MAX series is the definitive book on the Punisher. Some people prefer the humour of the Marvel Knights books but, from what I've read of it (and it's not much, mainly just Welcome Back Frank) I prefer Punisher: MAX which, while more serious, still has it's own brand of pitch black humour. Whichever series you prefer, Ennis' run on Punisher was consistently one of the best Marvel books on the stands, one that re-invented Frank Castle as an almost supernatural force of vengeance. A killing machine with no remorse, pity or capacity for self reflection. Most of the other Punisher books are shit on toast. And really bad toast, like moldy Wonderbread or something.

This time the Punisher is played by Ray Stevenson who played Titus Pullo in Rome. This is a bit of casting I never would have thought of in a million years, but it's pretty much perfect. He is a guy who looks big, tough and mean, but his eyes convey a lot of emotion. He doesn't say much, in fact it's a good twenty minutes into the film before he says a single word, unless you count crying in a graveyard. Don't let that crying fool you though, he's a tough bastard. I mean, have you ever reset your broken nose with a pencil? Frank Castle has. Don't mess with him.

He's introduced in a way similar to the '89 Punisher, busting into a crime boss's mansion and killing everybody. They don't waste time on the origin story because who gives a fuck? During this opening sequence you realise this movie is crazy violent. He shoves a chair leg through a guy's eye socket, cuts off heads, breaks a woman's neck and of course he shoots a whole lot of guys. During the rest of the movie a lot of people get their heads literally blown off, even a nice old lady. Some of the acts of extreme violence are taken directly from the comics, such as when The Punisher tosses a guy onto a spiked fence and then jumps down onto his head. Didn't think I'd ever see that on the big screen. He's like the Jason Voorhees of movie vigilantes.

A few other characters from the comics also make an appearance. Maginty, a black Irish dude with dreads, has inexplicably been made the leader of a gang of parkour meth-addicts. I thought there'd be an awesome parkour chase like in District B13 or Casino Royale but it didn't happen. Frank doesn't go in for that frilly shit. He's too weighed down with body armour and guns. His nerdy sidekick Micro also appears, played by Wayne Knight, and convinces the Punisher to continue his righteous work when he's ready to give up.

The villain of the piece is Billy Russo, a narcissistic mobster who gets tossed into a big open pit of broken glass during a gun fight in a recycling plant. Seems like a serious safety issue, but it's a mob-run plant so it's no surprise they've cut corners here and there. It's a pretty nasty way to go, and it's not like they cut away after a few seconds, it goes on for a while. He survives, but the surgeons do a pretty crappy job stitching his face together. I mean, I could probably do better. So he decides to go by the name Jigsaw, bust his annoying brother Loony Bin Jim out of a scary movie asylum and take over the city. Because that's what villains do.

During the battle in the recycling plant, Frank accidentally kills an undercover FBI agent. You'd think that kind of stuff would happen to him all the time, but he's pretty upset about it. He tries to apologise to the guy's wife (by giving her a bunch of money) but she pulls a gun on him. Right as she's about to shoot him the daughter comes out asking for her crayons. Talk about bad timing, is this kid stupid or what? Unsurprisingly the wife and daughter get targeted by Jigsaw and his goons (something about some hidden money, I don't know) and Frank has to try and save them.

There's also another FBI agent who teams up with the Punisher Task Force (one guy in the basement of the police station) to try and track Frank Castle down. The cops don't make it easy because they are more than happy to look the other way while Frank cleans up the streets. Even the solitary member of the Punisher Task Force (spoiler) is helping Frank. There's a pretty funny bit where a mobster surrenders to the FBI agent and out of nowhere the Punisher blows the guy's face clean off. I thought it was funny anyway. Kind of scary that we are supposed to root for this guy.

Jisaw is played by Dominic West, who played Detective McNulty in the former Official-Best-Show-on-Television The Wire. Throw a few more ex-HBO actors in there and we could have a re-union. I'm sure you could fit James Gandolfini and Ian McShane in there somewhere. West is a good actor on the show, but here he hams it up like he's a villain they cut from Batman Forever or something. There's a painful bit where he goose-steps around in dress whites, uniting the different gangs against the Punisher by giving a rousing militaristic speech in front of a waving American flag. Do we really need that goofy shit? I think the cartoony, exaggerated violence speaks for itself. I mean, the Punisher punches a big hole in a guy's face and blows up a guy with a bazooka while he's doing a cartwheel in mid-air. Now that's funny.

Lexi Alexander lends a suitably dark, gritty look to the film, but what the fuck is up with all the neon? Every single scene is bathed in it. Blue, yellow, purple, green... all the colours of the rainbow. Even when Frank visits a church it's got a big purple neon cross behind the altar, with green rope lighting running along the altar steps. A bit tacky for the house of God, I don't think he'd appreciate all that crap. Apparently it was an attempt to capture the look of the comics, but it looked more like a Vegas casino. There's also a lot of metal and thrash guitars that kick in during action sequences, I would have preferred some simple atmospheric John Carpenter style stuff but whatever.

So this is a film that gets some right (the Punisher himself, the outrageous violence) and some wrong (goofy villains, all the fucking neon). It looks like the perfect Punisher film is still some way off. I hope they make a sequel to this one (Barracuda as the villain, please) but I doubt it considering how badly it flopped. Maybe we'll have another reboot in a few years, and hopefully it will be based on Archie Meets the Punisher. Either way I'll keep watching them.