Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Recent Watches: 22 Jump Street (2014)

Nobody expected “21 Jump Street” to be good. I think part of its enthusiastic response, both critically and commercially, had to do with nobody expecting it to be good. It was a big part of the Channing Tatum Redemption Tour, which is still on-going, I guess? It helped establish Phil Lord and Christopher Miller as miracle workers and new nerd favorite auteur. When a sequel was announced, expectations were actually running high. And then the most unexpected thing happened. Lord and Miller bested the odds twice. “22 Jump Street” was as well-received as its predecessor and an even bigger commercial hit.

After the successful bust at the end of the first movie, Schmidt and Jenko have a disastrous run as undercover cops. Hoping to cover their losses, the guys are put on a mission that’s extremely similar to their previous one. Instead of going undercover at a high school, they go undercover at a college. They are investigating the death of a student from a new fad drug sweeping the nation. Both get in too deep with their cover identities… Again. Their friendship is tested… Again. They uncover a deeper conspiracy around the drug plot… Again. And they comment on the similarities along the way.

I’ll be up-front: “22 Jump Street” is way, way better then the first. The first was an indecisive parody of action flicks. “22 Jump Street,” instead, is an incredibly focused parody of sequels. The story is a retrend of the original. This is pointed out repeatedly, by everyone from (a hilarious) Nick Offerman, to the main duo, to everyone in-between. They are stationed in a church across the street from the one in the first. It’s bigger on the inside because the police budget is bigger. When money suddenly runs out half-way through, the characters try to avoid costly collateral damage. While in college, Schmidt and Jenko’s friendship is tested when one becomes more popular then the other. Except, this time, it happens to the other guy. They revisit the first film’s villains in prison in a hilariously ribald scene. The movie’s constant acknowledgement of its cash-in sequel status climaxes with the extended credit sequence, which shows us clips from the next thirty “21 Jump Street” movies, including the tie-in cartoon, video game, and toy line.

While the first movie riffed on high school movies, the sequel riffs on college movies. Channing Tatum is quickly accepted by the football team. He has an immediate relationship with a fellow jock named Zook. The movie plays the football games for ultimate hilarity, via deadpan narration and a reoccurring gag about the goal post. This climaxes with a chase scene involving a football helmet shaped car and parkour, which is riotous. Schmidt, meanwhile, gets involved with the art scene and meets an adorable new girlfriend. This aspect allows for some brilliantly surreal bits, like the identical twin stoners or the harsh roommate who throws age-related barbs at Schmidt. There are so many jokes that it’s hard to keep track of them. What about Patton Oswalt’s cameo as a baffling professor? Or Schmidt learning about sexuality equality for the first time, which plays out fantastically? Or a room decorating montage? Or the utterly surreal drug trip? Or frat initiation montage? I could go on.

The movie’s dual purpose, to spoof sequels and college movies, meets in the last act. Set at spring break, the characters uncover the true villain. There are unexpected cameos from characters from the first movie. Channing Tatum learns how much he hates spring break while simultaneously using a drunken college girl as a weapon. Jonah Hill has an extended fight scene which builds amazingly. There is a pay-off on a running gag involving Lambroginis, grenades, and diving for bullets. All the while, the movie actually finds a satisfying emotional pay-off for our two leads.

And, hey, how about that supporting cast? Has Ice Cube ever been better used? His mid-movie freak-out is amazing, especially once he goes to town on that chicken. Another impressive thing about the film is that Jonah Hill and Amber Stevens, as love interest Maya, have genuinely good romantic chemistry. The amazingly dead-pan Jillian Bell has a special way with her vicious one-liners. And then the movie somehow got Peter Stormare as the main baddie, who plays it entirely straight.

Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum have finally won me over. They are consistently very funny in this very funny movie. The writing is brilliant and clever but never looses sight of packing in some impressive gags. It’s a big ol’ goofy comedy and one of the best I’ve seen in a while. Am I uncertain about Sony’s plans to build a whole franchise around it? Well, yeah, but all of Sony’s franchise plans are terrible. I don’t think that will diminishes the hilarity of “22 Jump Street.” [8/10]

Recent Watches: 21 Jump Street (2012)

In today’s movie world, there’s no dirtier word then “reboot.” Despite sequels and prequels making huge money at the box office, remaking something (which is what “reboot” has basically come to mean) is seen as an act of creative bankruptcy. Remaking an old TV show with little cultural recognition or relevance is seen as especially bankrupt. So when a movie reboot of “21 Jump Street” was announced, people didn’t expect much. When it was announced that the movie was going to a comical take on the series, people weren’t exactly excited about that either, considering recent examples of such attempts were less then stellar. Maybe such lowered expectations is why “21 Jump Street” became a sleeper commercial and critical hit. The film, along with “The Lego Movie,” has turned Phil Lord and Christopher Miller into the guys who can make surprisingly funny, subversive things from dubious ideas. After hearing everyone, friends and critics alike, rave about the movie for three years, I finally decided to watch it.

In high school, Schmidt and Jenko were at opposite ends of the popularity pool. Schmidt was a chubby, awkward nerd. Jenko was a confident jock. A few years later, the two meet in police academy and become unexpected friends. Largely incompetent as cops, Schmidt and Jenko get assigned to a revived undercover program from the eighties. In order to track down the distributor of a new drug that is ravaging the street, Schmidt and Jenko will go undercover as high school students. Once inside, the two get carried away with their mission, make a mess of things, and discover that high school is different then either remember.

“21 Jump Street” is an oddball hybrid. It’s a goof on the original TV show, a parody of buddy cop action movies, a rowdy R-rated comedy, and a riff on high school hierarchies. One of the film’s main jokes revolves around the changing attitudes of high school students. In 2005, Schmidt was the dweeb and Jenko was the cool kid. In 2012, the sensitive, funny, book-smart Schmidt becomes part of the popular crowd. Meanwhile, the boorish, bullying, jockish Jenko becomes the social outcast. Part of this is because their cover identities being switched up but, even if that hadn’t happened, the results would be the same. Anybody who was an awkward dork in high school has probably had fantasies of going back, with the knowledge they have now, and doing it better. The movie plays this idea as much for comedy as it does wish fulfillment. At first, the two are baffled by the changing fashions. After a while, Schmidt gets invited to parties, befriends the cool kids, and has the attention of a cute girl. Jenko, meanwhile, is hanging out with the science nerd. The movie only engages with this idea to a degree and instead goes for the easy joke. They’re funny easy jokes such as the science teacher having the hots for Jenko, other people noticing these guys are way too old, and their awkward attempts to navigate the social classes of modern high school. However, I can imagine a much funnier, more insightful film being made from the “return to high school” premise.

Part of the problem is that “21 Jump Street” is trying to be multiple things. In addition to being a high school comedy, the movie is also looking to parody the explosion-heavy content of action flicks. A low-stakes bicycle chase through the park is filmed like a Michael Bay-lensed chase scene. When the actual car chases happens later, the movie tosses amusing subversion at the characters. Because of traffic on the freeway, they frequently have to stop and change vehicles. Twice, a car looks like it’s about to explode. It doesn’t and when an explosion does happen, it’s under the least expected, most ridiculous circumstances. The bloody finale features the characters’ incompetence getting them in deep shit, a limousine chase, a fairly ironic massive explosion, a smartly deployed one-liner, and castration via bullet. As a goof on over-the-top action flicks, “21 Jump Street” is smarter and more consistently funny.

“21 Jump Street” also roughly fits within the parameters of the buddy movie. Despite being so different in high school, Schmidt and Jenko become fast friends in the real world. Probably because they are both largely doofuses and their brainy/jocky attributes compliment each other. The chemistry between Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, and their quick way with circular, absurd dialogue, provides plenty of amusement. Unfortunately, the movie has to follow the tiresome story arc of every buddy flick. When Jonah becomes more popular at school, it isolates Tatum, who feels left out and abandoned. The two buddies come to blows, getting expelled from school. This sets them up for their last act chance to redeem themselves. Considering “21 Jump Street” is so self-aware, I’m surprised that it would employ such a stodgy plot development.

So is “21 Jump Street” funny? Yeah, sure. The movie has a meta, self-aware edge that is used smartly. Nick Offerman plays the cop that reassigns Schmidt and Jenko, talking about how the bosses are out of ideas if they’re recycling ideas from eighties. A surprise appearance from Johnny Depp is a hilarious reveal. The supporting cast is great, including a delightfully silly Rob Riggle and an out-of-control Ice Cube. The movie has several inspired and surreal gags. A sudden fight at a party ends with a funny surprise. A scuffle during a performance of “Peter Pan” escalates nicely. A reoccurring gag about Korean Jesus got me to chuckle. There’s lots of belly laugh-inducing dialogue. However, some bigger gags fall flat. An extended drug trip is oddly laughless, even with cat heads and ice cream cones. The movie is full of vulgar-for-vulgar’s sake jokes. There’s references to balls, dicks, assholes, fucking, gay panic, so on and so forth. The movie finds a lot of this juvenile stuff far more amusing then the viewer does. In the spirit of any laugh-fests, there are hundreds of jokes that land and a few more that don’t.

Judging “21 Jump Street” as a revival of a half-forgotten TV show, it’s far more self-aware, clever, and amusing then it has to be. Judging it by the “modern day comedy classic” reputation it’s quickly acquired, it falls short. Yeah, it’s funny but not in a way that’s especially biting or memorable. Too often it falls back on shouting and dick jokes. I still have yet to be sold on Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum. Both are affable enough but neither has displayed the charm required to carry a whole movie. I laughed enough to justify a [7/10] but I doubt I’ll be revisiting this one anytime soon. *

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Recent Watches: The Other Guys (2010)

The buddy cop movie has been such an established part of the action genre for so long and so consistently that parodies must now exist. There have been a few over a years. When “The Other Guys” was announced, I wasn’t super excited. I’ve always found Adam McKay to be slightly overrated as a filmmaker. Will Ferrell is an inconsistent talent to say the least, who too frequently has fallen back on his usual, scream-y schtick. Mark Wahlberg, meanwhile, makes as many bad films as he does good film. “The Other Guys,” defying all these expectations, turned out to be a really interesting, multi-layered satire. It didn’t connect with audiences but quickly developed a following.

In a New York City police precinct, two cops rule: Highsmith and Danson. When the hero cops die unexpectedly though, the precinct is left looking for a new hero. That duo emerges from the office’s most disrespected members. Allen Gamble is a tightly-strung pencil pusher of questionable masculinity. Terry Hoitz, meanwhile, is probably demented and infamous for shooting a baseball player. The two form an unlikely partnership and uncover a corrupt corporate plot that nobody else can see.

On the surface, “The Other Guys” takes shot at typical action movie excess. This is evident in the beginning, when Samuel L. Jackson and the Rock play hyper-destructive supercops who are, despite the millions of dollars in damage they reap while pursuing common crime, are beloved by all. Eventually though, reality ensues when they attempt to leap from a twenty-story building into the bushes below. Thus, the movie’s main joke: That the heroes aren’t the superstar cops but the accountants and desk jockeys. This does not turn out to be the movie’s main target but, occasionally, it returns to these roots. Giant car chases erupt suddenly but shoot-outs do not go the way they are suppose to. The movie never stops showing how narrow-minded, disgustingly macho, and plain gross these attitudes would be in real life. Mostly, the movie really enjoys subverting traditional action movie expectations.

Another example of this: The movie’s villains are not indistinctly European bad guys with some evil plot. Instead, it’s something much closer to home: Big business. “The Other Guys” is actually a goofy, broad comedy about the wild abuse of power in the world of Wall Street. The villain is a billionaire who lost billions to an investor and has now cooked up a wildly illegal plot to pay that money back. There are shady Chechen and Nigerian investors he owes money too, a plot involving a robbery and the lottery, but his ultimate scheme boils down to this: Rip off the working class. It’s hard to laugh about this, and “The Other Guys” is surprisingly downbeat at times, but the film manages to engineer some solid chuckles from bleak material.

Some of the funniest things that happen in the film are odd-ball gags that don’t connect to either thematic concept. For example: Will Ferrell’s character is married to Eva Mendes, widely recognized as a very attractive woman. He fails to see this, to the bafflement of everyone around him. It becomes a reoccurring joke that the average looking Ferrell attracts disproportionately attractive woman. What is a funny nugget of an idea is built into the movie’s most gut-busting reoccurring gag. This involves extended flashbacks to college days, a dating service, an alter ego known as Gator, poison ivy, and a pimp’s inability to cry. To explain much more would ruin what is a really weird but inspired story turn.

How self-aware is Mark Wahlberg? It’s sometimes hard to tell. In “The Other Guys” at least, he seems amazingly in tune with his abilities. The character is a self-obsessed tough guy who is unsatisfied with his life. He sees everything through the lens of cop movie clichés. (Nice, subtle gag: He has a framed poster of “Cobra” on his apartment wall.) He makes bizarre, confused metaphors, frequently involving peacocks. He shows surprising knowledge of dance, art, and music, all of which he learn ironically. He’s also obsessed with an ex-girlfriend, who really has her shit together but he can’t see that. All he sees are drugs and whores. I don’t know if Wahlberg is truly funny or if the script was perfectly written to use his pre-established screen persona to maximum comedic effect.

Then there’s stuff in the movie that is just weird and brilliant. Exhibit A: Michael Keaton as the police chief. He has a part time gig at Bed Bath & Beyond and sometimes gets the paperwork mixed up. He makes frequent references to his bisexual son. He peppers his dialogue with references to TLC songs but doesn’t realize he’s referencing something. What about the repeated skits involving homeless people having orgies in Will Ferrell’s Prius? Or the two cops being bribed with tickets to Broadway shows? Or the theft of shoes? Or a slow motion night of debauchery? Or an old lady being forced to say really naughty things? I could go on and on. There’s so much weird, funny, brilliant stuff in “The Other Guys.”

Which is maybe why it’s odd that there aren’t more laughs in “The Other Guys.” The movie is sometimes so cluttered, and the material so razor-sharp in its mean-spiritedness, that the audience isn’t sure when to laugh. However, I can’t help but admire this bug-nuts movie that throws in so many brilliant, amazing ideas and executes them with complete confidence. It’s a ballsy movie, a satire about corporate greed wrapped in an action movie parody served with a liberal topping of absurdity. [8/10]

Recent Watches: The Hard Way (1991)

Michael J. Fox is an unusual case of an iconic actor with few truly memorable roles. The “Back to the Future” trilogy is rightfully beloved and famous. But beyond that? His movies are mostly forgotten. Kids don’t even know what “Family Ties” is these days. One such forgotten movie is “The Hard Way,” a buddy cop flick Fox co-headlined with James Wood. When I first saw the movie as a really young kid, I thought it was actually a very edgy, violent role for Fox. Because kids don’t understand irony. “The Hard Way” is actually something of a parody of buddy cop flicks, an intentionally outrageous stab at the genre.

Nick Lang is a Hollywood superstar, the face of the hugely successful “Smoking Gunn” franchise, movies suspiciously similar to the Indiana Jones series. Lang, however, is not satisfied with the wildly popular popcorn movies he’s doing and wants a serious role, like in a cop movie. Meanwhile, ultra-hardboiled detective John Moss is on the trail of demented serial killer the Party Crasher. After catching an especially abrasive interview with Moss, Lang is inspired. He works out a deal with the police captain that puts him on an extended ride-along with Moss, as research for the role. Moss is really not happy about that, afraid that Lang’s actorly bullshit will interrupt his search for the killer.

“The Hard Way” was directed by John Badham. The guy behind “Saturday Night Fever,” the Frank Langella version of “Dracula” and, uh, “Short Circuit,” has a pretty distinctive style. Badham tends to exaggerate stuff in pursuit of a particular aesthetic. “The Hard Way,” from its opening minutes, clearly takes place in a very ridiculous world. A silly, robotic billboard stands above Time's Square. The Party Crasher – just the fact that movie calls the serial killer that attacks parties the Party Crasher is a sign of its goofiness – shoots up a very silly party. What follows is a highly exaggerated car chase and concludes with someone thrown into a giant cigarette. One sequence takes place in a part of Manhattan that appears post-apocalyptic and features a ridiculous all-Asian gang. One scene has the two leads driving in bright white pimp-mobile. Even the hot dog stand is ridiculous. The point is: “The Hard Way” is a very silly movie.

And James Woods is right on that wave length. Woods is an actor of great hammy abilities and, when allowed to run rampant, can be wildly entertaining. From the beginning, Woods is swearing, cussing, throwing things, and generally being the biggest, most abrasive asshole in the world. It’s glorious to watch. Woods takes the hard boiled detective thing as far as possible, making a cartoonish cop. What’s also great is the movie is willing to play this ridiculous character in the opposite direction. See, Moss has a love interest, a girlfriend he’s trying to keep interested, with a kid that doesn’t like him. So we get to see Woods be an exaggerated super-cop, at full Woods, as well as underplay it as a nice, normal-seeming guy. Sometimes in the same scene! The best of both words! I still don’t know if “The Hard Way” is a good movie but it is a great James Woods movie.

One thing about my childhood assumption of the movie is correct. “The Hard Way” is a grittier part for Michael J. Fox. He yells and swears and gets shot. He makes fun of himself, playing a swallow, self-obsessed Hollywood actor very trapped in his perfect Hollywood bubble. Fox has fun in the role, showing more range then his usual comic chops. Two moments stand out: When couching Woods on what he should do with his girlfriend, Fox acts out the part of the girlfriend, unsettling Woods and confusing the bartender. Another moment has Fox, in character as the cop, being cornered in the subway by a real criminal that he’s totally unprepared to deal with. Moreover, the comedic chemistry Woods shares with Fox keeps the whole, silly movie afloat.

One part of “The Hard Way” that made an impression on me was Stephen Lang as the Party Crasher. Lang is as unhinged as the villain as Woods is as the hero. His apartment is full of board games. He records the TV interviews with the detective, playing them back on a loop. He edits his face into a video game where he runs through a maze, shooting cop. He sings silly songs to himself while stealing a car. Lang mugs, grimaces, and grins maniacally. It’s a totally out-of-control performance, of Nic Cage-ian levels, and a blast to watch.

So the actors are pretty great. So how does “The Hard Way” actually function as a movie? Sometimes better then others. The scenes of Woods interrogating some thugs in a sleazy apartment goes on way too long. The movie basically ends after Moss chases the Party Crasher into a theater showing one of Lang’s movies. But then it goes on for an extra act, the villain kidnapping the hero’s girlfriend and forcing a final confrontation. The action elements are indeed kind of rough, with more blood then you’d expect. As an action/comedy hybrid, “The Hard Way” is kind of unbalanced, favoring the comedy over the action.

“The Hard Way” was a mediocre money maker when released and absolutely no one talks about it anymore. That’s not entirely fair. Yeah, as a movie, it doesn’t stick in the memory very long. But if you want to see James Woods and Stephen Lang completely tear it up, and a pretty fun Michael J. Fox performance too, I would say definitely check it out. [7/10]

Friday, May 29, 2015

Recent Watches: Rush Hour 3 (2007)

So they made a “Rush Hour 3.” Because of the overwhelming box office success of the second one, a sequel was birthed all by itself. However, it took six years for the third film to emerge. I have no idea why it took that long to cobble a movie together, seeing as how these films are clearly written in a weekend. In that time frame, Brett Ratner became a superstar director, Jackie Chan started to separate himself form the action genre, and Chris Tucker thankfully faded from public conscious. By the time “Rush Hour 3” was willed into being in 2007, the series was far past its expiration date. And yet, here we are, watching Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker yell at each other for a third time.

In the years since the events of “Rush Hour 2,” Lee has become the body guard of Consul Han. Carter, meanwhile, has been reduced to traffic duty. Their friendship has been strained, since Carter accidentally shot Lee’s girlfriend in the neck. However, an attempted assassination on Han brings the two back together. Soo-Yung, the little girl from the original, is now a teenager. Her life threatened, Lee and Carter have to get to the bottom of this. Heading to Paris, they discover a conspiracy involving the Triads, a secret list tattooed on the back of someone’s head, and Lee’s long-lost adopted brother.

The humor in the “Rush Hour” series has never exactly been sophisticated. “Rush Hour 3,” however, goes for the easiest jokes possible. An early sequence that contributes very little to the plot has Lee and Carter visiting a kung-fu dojo. There, Carter gets in a shouting match with an old man named, sigh, “Yu.” Before it’s over, we find out that a student’s name is “Mi.” Behold, the least sophisticated variation on “Who’s on First?” I’ve ever seen! Next, a seven foot tall Asian man appears and tosses a disbelieving Chris Tucker across the room. Later, there’s an extended joke about a nun and swearing being in the same room together. When Lee is fighting in a room with a woman, Carter hears the slamming and grunts and assumes they’re having sex. (This is obviously dumb but also sort of creepy.) Once in France, Lee and Carter are probed by an overly touchy Paris police officer. And, hey, let’s cast Roman Polanski as a guy who penetrates someone against their will! That’s classy. Most embarrassingly tone-deaf, the film even throws in a trans-panic joke, when Carter develops the totally unfounded suspicion that his love interest may be a man. Really? That old chest nut? In 2007? You’re really not helping your case here, Brett Ratner.

But the jokes in the “Rush Hour” movies have always been lame. The saving grace of the series has always been Jackie Chan’s stunts. Unfortunately, in the years between parts two and three, Chan suddenly got old. There’s no somersaulting, flipping, jump-kicks, or dives through windows this time. Chan’s most impressive stunt here has him sliding around a hospital hallway or climbing up a doorway, avoiding throwing knives. Chan’s age has visibly caught up with him. Worst yet, Jackie is even replaced with a CGI stunt double on several occasions. The awful final fight between Chan and bad guy Hiroyuki Sanada has them bouncing up and down the Eiffel Tower. Even more pathetic is Tucker and Chan diving off the tower, using a French flag as a parachute. Jackie was too old for this shit and he knew it. The result is embarrassing for any long time fan of the performer.

The one mildly clever thing “Rush Hour 3” does is acknowledge the simmering gay subtext beneath every buddy cop movie. Yes, Carter is preoccupied with getting laid. He spends large portions of the movie pursuing Noemie Lenoir, his love interest. There’s also the entirely pointless scene where he makes a dressing room full of showgirls stripe nude. However, the movie is more then willing to play Lee and Carter’s strained relationship as a break-up. When the two argue and leave in a huff, Elton John’s “Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word” plays on the soundtrack. The two are gleefully reunited on the dance stage together, Lee swooping in on a zip-line, singing along to the music. Could this just be another gay panic joke from Brett Ratner’s sophisticated bag of tricks? Probably. In a movie as lazy as “Rush Hour 3,” it ends up being the cleverest gag the script offers.

The plot is equal parts predictable and ridiculous. The film boldly recycles the first movie’s plot twist. The stately old guy who seems like he’s on the heroes' side is revealed to be the mastermind behind the villainous plot. This one was even easier to guess based on Max Von Sydow’s casting. The evil brother plot between Chan and Sanada is especially contrived. The film has to go to absurd lengths to justify casting a Japanese man as a Chinese man’s brother. The plot’s MacGuffin turns out to be a person, the love interest randomly having an important list tattooed on her head. If it was explained how this person who enters the plot on a whim has a connection to an ancient conspiracy, I can’t remember. The most promising thing the movie does early on is bring back Soo-Yung, now as an ass-kicking young woman. By the end, she’s a damsel in distress, dangling off the Eiffel Tower, in need of rescuing. So it goes.

Okay, there’s a mildly diverting car chase, featuring one clever gag when a motorcycle crashes into a van. The character of the French cab driver who goes from hating Americans to embracing a life-style of violence was also sort funny. However, “Rush Hour 3” is mostly as lazy as can be. The movie ends abruptly, reaching the minimum run time of eighty some minutes and calling it a day. A fourth film has been teased but, considering part three made even less then the first, seems unlikely. And thank god for that. The modest, puffy bubblegum joys of the first two are long gone, leaving a long-in-the-tooth action franchise that can barely be bothered to offer anything. [4/10]

Recent Watches: Rush Hour 2 (2001)

Here’s a really rambling anecdote I have that’s barely related to “Rush Hour 2.” Relatively early in my internet-surfing history, I discovered a comedy website called SpackleCube Inc. It was run by two guys named Cyrus and Jackson. The site went through many variation before it finally vanished from the internet. In the earliest days, it was just a home for the funny things Cyrus and Jackson would write. One of Cyrus’ favorite movies, one he would reference repeatedly, was “Rush Hour 2,” which he considered the crowning achievement of cinema. As a dumb kid, I didn’t recognize what was probably a great deal of irony on his end. As a dumb kid, I also really liked the original “Rush Hour” and was a bit underwhelmed by the sequel. As a slightly less dumb adult, who found the first one mildly dire, I went into the sequel with mixed expectations.

Picking up where the first one left off, “Rush Hour 2” has Carter and Lee headed to Hong Kong. Though there to vacation, Lee is quickly involved in a mission to uncover who bombed the US Embassy. The plot leads him to Ricky Tan, the Triad gangster involved with his father’s murder. Carter and Lee follow the conspiracy back to the US where they discover a counterfeiting plot, the origin of world renown fake bills, and a sexy Secret Service agent with ambiguous loyalties.

What is it with buddy cop movie sequels that essentially repeat the formula of the first movie in their sequel? The first half of “Rush Hour 2” is set in Hong Kong. While the first movie had Jackie Chan as a fish out of water in L.A., the sequel has Chris Tucker as a fish-out-of-water in Hong Kong. This is about as embarrassing as you’d expect. He wanders the streets in a silk shirt and haggles with a chicken vendor. He yells at a Chinese cab driver. And, typically, there are a lot of jokes about massage parlors. In fact, there’s an entire sequence set in one! This is lazy writing but it’s not the laziest thing the movie does. It flat out repeats jokes from the first film. The Beach Boys on the radio, “Do you understand the words that are coming out of mouth?,” and jokes about Asians all looking the same are reprised. It feels less like a friendly call-back to beloved aspects of the original and more like a lame re-trend of what came before.

Of course, one element “Rush Hour 2” has that the first also had is Jackie Chan. Chan’s acrobatics remain the most entertaining thing about the series. The film puts him in unlikely situations that allow the actor to test out his skills. Thus, we have Jackie on a scaffolding outside a building, ducking and diving around attacking foes. We have a punch-fest in the massage parlor, involving lots of flipping and leaping. Jackie ninjas his way onto a boat, jumps through a tiny window, scales the wall, and has a funny, close-quarters scuffle with one of Tucker’s relatives. Chan’s comedic chops are even given more to do. A small moment of him bopping his head to the radio gets one of the biggest laughs in the whole movie. Chan remains a fantastically entertaining performer and his abilities easily transcends even lesser material like this.

The dire trip to China in the first half of the movie is basically an extended set-up for the rest of the plot and has little effect on the overall movie. When Lee and Carter get back to the states, the story actually starts to build. There’s a sexy Secret Service agent, who both guys have the hots for, who explains the counterfeiting plot the movie is technically about. There’s a rich white guy and a casino and none of its horribly important. Story wise, this is all fairly tedious. However, around the halfway point, “Rush Hour 2” begins to develop into a slightly better buddy cop movie then its predecessor. The banter between Chan and Tucker is less shrill and genuinely amusing at times. This is best displayed when the two emerge from a sewer hole. A trip to a clothing store to try on some flashier cloths got a laugh from me, even if the flaming gay store clerk looks horribly dated.

Chris Tucker, obnoxious as he can be, gets a laugh or two. His improvised tribute to Michael Jackson is sort of funny. So is the enthusiastic session he has at the craps table. The casino setting actually adds a lot of color and perks things up a bit. The main villain is totally lame and a complete non-entity. However, his main henchwoman is played by a mostly silent Zhang Ziyi. Ziyi, an up-and-comer at the time, is a formidable opponent, far more memorable then the movie’s actual threat. She’s so impressive that her show-down with Tucker, where he copies a few of Jackie’s trick, is frankly unbelievable.

Like the first “Rush Hour,” the sequel has the good sense to wrap things up really quickly. We’re in and out and done in slightly over ninety minutes. These movies are the lightest of light-weight popcorn flicks. Like some sort of cinematic cotton candy, we watch it, have a chuckle or two, and forgot about it the second we leave the theater. Being so inoffensive, I can’t really hate it. I even sort of like it at times. Yet the movie is incredibly, completely brainless. It’s a one-time watch if there ever was one. Naturally, it was even more successful then the first, keeping the undead ghoul that is Chris Tucker’s career alive for a little bit longer. [6/10]

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Recent Watches: Rush Hour (1998)

In the mid-to-late nineties, Jackie Chan was at the peak of his popularity. Not world-wide. In his native China and Hong Kong, Chan has remained an evergreen superstar. Stateside though, Chan’s acrobatic, stunt-filled action flicks were mostly an underground phenomena throughout the eighties. In the nineties, Chan finally broke through to the mainstream, with dubbed version of “Supercop” and “Rumble in the Bronx” making him a pop culture fad. It was time for Jackie to make a big Hollywood movie. His theatrics were already well accepted, even among suburban white kids, but the eventual Hollywood project he ended up in was as safe as can be. “Rush Hour” was the stodgiest of material: A buddy cop movie about cops from different cultures clashing and learning to work together.

Lee is a Hong Kong supercop, hunting down Juntao, the country’s most notorious illegal smuggler. On the eve of Hong Kong falling back into Chinese hands, Lee’s partner is killed by the bad guy. The villain flies to America and kidnaps the daughter of the Chinese consul. Meanwhile, obnoxious L.A. cop Carter is tracking illegal explosive being imported into the city. After an especially bad fuck-up, Carter is assigned by the FBI to keep Lee out of the case. Naturally, the streetwise cop and the Hong Kong acrobat eventually form a partnership and poke their noses into the trouble that’s brewing.

The main selling point of “Rush Hour,” whether or not the studio realized it, was Jackie Chan doing awesome shit. Say what you will about the movie but it certainly delivers that. Early on, Chan leaps out between two giant shipping crates. He climbs onto a traffic light, leaping across moving vehicles. A fight in a bar makes great use of stools, pool cues, and lamp lights. A scuffle in the back of a restaurant involves lots of impressive flipping, diving, and kicking. Maybe the highlight is the final showdown in the museum, where Chan has to balance protecting priceless sculptures with beating the crap out of the baddies. It’s all pretty awesome. Meanwhile, Chan maintains his breezy comic persona, always delivering an outrageous stunt with a smile and a silly expression.

But “Rush Hour” isn’t a one-man show for Jackie Chan. That probably would have been really entertaining but this a buddy cop movie. Lee’s better half is Carter, played by Chris Tucker. That Tucker would become successful enough to co-headline a flick with a legit superstar like Jackie Chan shows that the late nineties were a… Strange time. Tucker’s schtick features a lot of shouting and shrieking, some of it spoke so quickly you can barely understand him. He frequently baits his co-stars by doing something sort of annoying and incredibly broad. Tucker is not the most appealing performer. However, “Rush Hour” at least uses him decently. His funniest moment is actually when he confronts a gangster that turns out to be his friendly cousin. Yeah, his attempts at being an action star may vary. He doesn’t carry the movie on his own and the film balances Tucker’s scream-y comedy with Chan’s great stunts.

How does “Rush Hour” operate as a buddy cop movie? Chan is a smart enough comedic performer to temper Tucker’s more irritating qualities. The two do not exactly have firecracker chemistry. Most of their early scenes together, where Carter treats Lee like an idiot foreigner and belittles him and his culture, are reductive, to say the least. When Tucker makes cracks about egg rolls, the Great Wall, and being unable to tell the difference between China and Japan, that’s horribly embarrassing. Some of their quieter scenes, where the two compare their fathers over dinner, dance on the sidewalk, or debate badge-flashing techniques, are genuinely amusing. Some of the culture clash humor will make you laugh but in a dumb, obvious way. As soon as Chan enters a bar full of tough black guys, you can predict the results.

It’s a good thing that Chan’s stunts are great and the comedy is mildly amusing because “Rush Hour” has a totally generic plot. The bad guys kidnapping somebody’s daughter is about as generic an action movie plot as you can imagine. There’s a reveal surrounding the movie’s main villain. It’s not hard to figure out, if you know how to play “Spot the sinister British guy!” Tucker’s love interest is played by an overqualified Elizabeth Pena. Her character is a bomb disposal expert, a skill which obviously comes in handy at the end. At least the film cast an intimidating actor, Ken Leung, as the villain’s main henchman, Sang. Despite setting the two up as enemies, the movie doesn’t have the good sense to give Jackie Chan a big showdown with the guy.

“Rush Hour” is as stock-parts a crowd pleaser as you could expect. with a pretty dumb script and workman-like execution. (Say what you will about Brett Ratner but the guy at least knows how to frame an action scene.) Chan brings his A-game though. The movie is over quickly enough that it leaves you with a big grin. It’s only a few minutes after watching it that you realize how really stupid “Rush Hour” is. Naturally, it would go on to become an enormous hit and spawn a franchise. The good part?: It made Jackie Chan an even star. The bad part?: It kept Chris Tucker relevant. [6/10]

Recent Watches: Another 48 Hrs. (1990)

The original “48 Hrs.” was actually a big hit in its day, becoming the 7th highest grossing film of 1982. Not surprisingly, a sequel would eventually be made. However, it took eight whole years for that to happen. By 1990, when “Another 48 Hrs.” came out, there had been a lot of other movies like it, the action genre growing simultaneously more violent and more joke-filled. Though also a financial success, the sequel was trashed by critics and a “Further 48 Hrs.” did not get made. While I do not think the sequel is quite as bad as is frequently stated, the studio and all involved were obviously desperate to recapture lightening in a bottle.

Jack Cates, still as grizzled a cop as ever, is on the trail of the Iceman, a legendary and elusive drug dealer. An attempt to grab him results in a violent shoot-out, Cates finding a burnt picture of Reggie Hammond in the flames. This gets Jack in trouble with his superior, who are taking him to court for manslaughter in 48 hours. Cates gets Reggie out of jail again and the two are, typically, antagonistic towards each other. The mysterious Iceman has hired a pair of psychotic bikers to take Reggie and Cates out, one of the bikers being the vengeful brother of the first film’s dead baddie. Soon, the convict and the cop are thrown together, trying to locate the villain, clear Jack’s name, and survive the next two days.

“Another 48 Hrs.” is widely accused of being a rehash of the first movie. There’s definitely some truth to that. Instead of building on the main characters’ personalities, the film puts them back at zero. At the beginning of the film, Reggie is back in jail. Instead of being fond friends like at the first movie’s end, Hammond is pissed at Jack, reinstating their antagonistic relationship. Instead of doing a different premise, the film lazily flips the first movie’s set-up. Now Cates is the one with the 48 hour time limit. Further evidence that very little work was put into the movie’s script is the reveal that one of the main villains is the vengeful brother of the first movie’s dead bad guy, the hackiest of easy bad guy motivations. Both movies have the antagonist being cornered while with a woman. “Another 48 Hrs.” even boldly repeats jokes from the first movie. When Reggie puts his headphones on, he resumes the off-key rendition of “Roxane.” This was a sequel that was obviously content to simply give the audience more of what they liked the first time.

Despite that, there’s still some decent laughs to be had here. Murphy remains in top form, even with lesser material like this. A notable early joke has Reggie trying to call in some favors, each of his phone calls ending in awkward, sudden silence. When he learns a woman is undressed in the other room, he gleefully whispers to himself, “She’s nekkid!” His reaction to the destruction of his beloved car is worth a laugh. Nolte also gets some funny moments to himself, such as how he convinces the police to let him have Hammond for the weekend. The sequel attempts to top the redneck bar sequence from the first movie, with a similar fight in a different bar. It’s not as good but does feature a funny bit when Cates smashes a beer bottle over someone’s head. The laughs aren’t as fresh but they are there.

The first movie was funny. Yet the humor was contained within a gritty crime story. “Another 48 Hrs.” is more outwardly comedic, perhaps in response to the more comedy-oriented buddy films made in the space between the two films. However, the sequel also tries to be a bigger action film then the first. The mixture is awkward, the film whip-lashing between sarcastic quips and hyper-violent set-pieces. It doesn’t help that the action scenes are pushed as far as possible, into the realm of ridiculous over-the-top-ness. Someone is shot so hard their body flies backwards through a window. This gag is repeated two more times, most notably at the end. Keep in mind, these are not shotguns or assault weapons tossing people through the air. Just regular hand guns. A gas pump explodes in a massive fireball. The wheels of a bus are shot out, causing the vehicle to spin vertically through the air seven times. The motorcycle riding baddies tear through a porno theater, sailing through the screen, through the center of the bounding, naked woman’s chest. Many scenes stick with this overzealous style, like when the camera spins around a band singing in a bar. It’s off-putting and frequently unintentionally hilarious.

For what it’s worth, Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte still have solid chemistry together. A scene of them yapping about Nolte’s car is one of the flick’s most natural, funny moments. Nolte actually seems a little more at ease with the part and Murphy’s screen persona was more established, more fine-tuned by this point. Also returning from the first movie is Brion James, in a far more expanded part, which is nicely appreciated. Frequent cinematic bad guy Andrew Divoff – whose career of playing goons, psychos, and henchman would climax with his starring role in the “Wishmaster” franchise – plays Ganz’ even-more-psychotic brother. Divoff is certainly convincing as a leather-wearing, gun-totting nut case. Bernie Casey is also decent in a bit part, as the movie’s faux-villain.

So “Another 48 Hrs.” is slightly better then its reputation implies. Yes, it’s a fairly lazy rehash of many of the first film’s parts and bits. The absurd action is wildly at odds with the movie’s humorous scenes. However, Murphy and Nolte are still decent together. Reportedly, Walter Hill’s director’s cut ran over two hours and the film was hastily cut down to 95 minutes, one minute longer then the first, a few days before release. Hill’s version has never been publicly released so there’s no way to know if it’s better. The weakest aspect of the film is its repetitive screenplay and I imagine that’s more-or-less the same, regardless of length. Though not awful, I can see why this wasn’t expanded into a trilogy. [6/10]

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Recent Watches: 48 Hrs. (1982)

When I think of the “buddy cop” genre, my brain always immediately goes to “Lethal Weapon.” I grew up around the time when that series was still very popular. The first three films were frequently featured in my parents’ VCR. However, that film had a popular predecessor. In the canon of eighties action flicks, “48 Hrs.” is important for a couple of reasons. It was directed by Walter Hill, who wrote arguably the first buddy cop flick, “Hickey and Boggs,” a decade earlier. It launched Eddie Murphy’s film career, establishing the red hot stand-up as a leading man. It was also the first film for producer Joel Silver, who would go on to create many more iconic action flicks. For these reasons and more, I’m a bit sheepish to admit I’ve never seen it before.

Of course, “48 Hrs.” isn’t technically a buddy cop flick. One half of the duo, Nick Nolte’s Jack Cates, is a cop. The other half, Murphy’s Reggie Hammond, is a convict, on loan from jail for the titular two days in order to track down his former comrades. That being the psychotic Ganz and the Indian Billy Bear. The two escape a chain gang, kill some cops, and end up murdering Cates’ partner with his own gun. The cop and the convict have an argumentative relationship, impeding their journey to bring the crooks to justice. In-between fighting each other, they track down Ganz’ and Billy’s girlfriends, former associates, and the criminals themselves.

“48 Hrs.” is probably best remembered as an Eddie Murphy movie. This overlooks that Murphy doesn’t appear until a half-hour into the movie. Instead, Nick Nolte’s Jack Cates is the main character for most of the run time. The film focuses plenty on Cates’ tumultuous relationship with his girlfriend. As with any hard boiled cop, his job gets in the way of romance. A funny but pointed moment has him nearly missing a phone call from the woman due to getting a call from Hammond. As a cop, Cates is a rough fellow, barking orders and marching around with Frankenstein-stiff shoulders. Nick Nolte, who sounds like he’s been gargling gravel and whiskey all night and has a slate-stone face to match, is well suited to the role. The script was first offered to Clint Eastwood and it’s easy to imagine Cates as a slightly more obedient variation on Dirty Harry. (Though Cates still gets chewed out by his police chief, played by Frank McRae. McRae was so associated with the part that he would parody it twice, in “Last Action Hero” and “Loaded Weapon 1,” both released in 1993.)

The part of Cates plays to Nolte’s strengths but it’s not hard to see why Murphy would overshadow him. Reggie Hammond is introduced in his jail cell, tunelessly singing along to the Police’s “Roxanne.” This characterizes Murphy’s irrelevant comic persona, one he would wear throughout much of his early career. There’s no doubt that Murphy is funny, cracking numerous snippy asides and smart-ass comebacks. His constant preoccupation with getting laid is probably the movie’s best running gag. What’s also interesting is that Murphy doesn’t just coast on his gift for comedy. Hammond is a tough street hood and frequently stands up against both Cates and the movie’s other authority figures. The two elements come together nicely in a lengthy middle sequence where Hammond enters a redneck bar and systematically fucks with the patrons. Eddie flashing that shit-eating grin is funny but tossing badges into mirrors is pretty serious. Murphy’s status as a future superstar was already well secured. He’s fabulously entertaining.

The interaction between the two characters is truly where the meat of “48 Hrs.” is. The film laid down the story arc that countless imitators would follow. At first, the two hate each other. Cates shoots casually racist epithets in Hammond’s direction, who returns them in kind. Their sniping escalates until the two actually come to blows, beating the shit out of each in a back alley. But remember when I mentioned the buddy cop formula? In time, Cates and Hammond learn to respect each other. Hammond helps Cates get the bad guy, the two eventually developing into a good team. By the end, they not only respect each other… They like each other, both bidding a fond farewell in the final reel. The chemistry between Nolte and Murphy is very good and their evolution from hostile co-workers to good friends is natural.

While most of its imitators would focus on the comedy, “48 Hrs.” is darker and more violent then the buddy cop movies that would follow. Most of this is thanks to its villains. James Remar is a stone cold psychopath as Ganz. His facial expressions switches between emotionless disregard for others and sadistic glee. Remar is a fine bad guy, a believable threat to the heroes and the victims. The physically imposing Sonny Landham is even better as Ganz’ sidekick. Billy Bear is no less violent then his partner but Landham is more likely to strong-arm his enemies then taking pleasure in threatening them. The film also has no shortage of big, bloody squibs, with plenty of weeping gunshot wounds. Despite the yuks, the movie remains grounded in the crime genre.

“48 Hrs.” is pretty damn entertaining. It’s nicely balances both sides of the buddy cop formula, being successful as a comedy and a gritty crime film. In Reggie Hammond, you can see the prototype of Axel Foley and countless other Eddie Murphy smart-asses. Walter Hill would return to similar territory with “Red Heat” and "Bullet to the Head." And Nick Nolte played plenty more stiff-jawed hard-asses. I guess what I’m saying is: I probably should have seen it sooner. [7/10]

Monday, May 25, 2015

Director Report Card: Sergio Leone (1984)

7. Once Upon a Time in America

All throughout the sixties and seventies, Sergio Leone had been dreaming about an adaption of Harry Grey’s book, “The Hoods,” a quasi-autobiographical story of Jewish gangsters in the twenties and thirties. Leone was so determined to bring this story to the screen that he even turned down the chance to direct “The Godfather,” fearing the two projects were too similar. “Once Upon a Time in America,” the eventual movie, had a protracted pre-production. Production began as early as 1975, with Gerard Depardieu and Richard Dreyfus being considered for the lead roles. The movie went through many forms before finally being made in 1984. Though its release was troubled at the time, eventually the film would be recognized as Sergio Leone’s final masterpiece.

“Once Upon a Time in America” covers fifty years of history. It follows Noodles and Max, two Jewish kids growing up in 1920s New York. They desire to break into the local criminal scene. The rising empire is interrupted when Noodles ends up in jail. After being released, he and his friends resume their rise to power in the underworld. However, the good times only last so long. On the last day of Prohibition, Noodles betrays his friends and leaves the city. Thirty years later, now as an old man, Noodles receives a mysterious invitation back to New York. Haunted by guilt and his memories, he finds himself confronting his past.

Before discussing “Once Upon a Time in America,” you must discuss which version of the movie you saw. Leone’s original cut ran six hours long, with the intention of releasing the movie in two parts. The version that screened at Cannes in 1984, and received a fifteen minute standing ovation, ran 229 minutes, nearly four hours long. The American distributors founds this run time too daunting. The movie was re-edited and drastically cut down to 139 minutes when originally released in American theaters. (Thankfully, this butchered version is becoming increasingly difficult to find.) Just last year, a 269 minute cut was assembled by Leone’s children and released on Blu-Ray. But I’m a purist. Though the newest variation claims to be as close to the director’s original vision as possible, Leone isn’t around anymore to verify that. The director did approve the widely available four hour version. So that’s the one reviewed here.

Something the notorious 139 minute version discarded was the movie’s unconventional, nonlinear story construction. In its proper cut, “Once Upon a Time in America” crosses back and forth from Noodles’ exile in the thirties, his childhood in the twenties, and his sad return in the sixties. Leone’s use of flashbacks peaks here, as most of the movie is an extended flashback. By jumping back and forth through the eras, the film becomes a meditation on the nature of memory. In the opening scene, the ringing of a phone crosses over several hours and days, showing the malleability of recollection. Returning to New York, Noodles thinks about his past, about his childhood and when things went wrong. He reflects and the audience reflects with him, casting a nostalgic and melancholic mood over the entire story. The movie’s non-linear structure has it beginning and ending in an opium den, leading some to believe the entire movie is a memory fraught opium dream. This is as valid an interpretation as any. The movie intentionally creates a dream-like, moody tone of memories, lost friendships, and lifelong regrets.

Nearly all of Leone’s films deal with the bonds formed between tough men during hard times. “Once Upon a Time in America” is no different and indeed focuses on friendship over anything else. Growing up as Jews in 1920s New York, Noodles and his friends are outcasts from the start. Relying on each other, they form a bond that is impossible to break. The death of one of their own, and Noodles’ subsequent incarceration, does nothing but strengthen their brotherhood. The friendship between Noodles and Max is especially strong. Yet the wages of friendship is not always easy and Noodles and Max’s commitment to each other falters over time. That soured union is what drives the emotional heart of “Once Upon a Time in America.

As it focuses on the guys in their youth, “Once Upon a Time in America” is also a coming of age story of sorts. As teenagers, Noodles and his friends have their first, awkward encounters with sex. Polly, a local girl, is a budding prostitute. She sells her body in exchange for fancy deserts. Noodles runs into her in the bathroom and is so overcome with lust, he dry-humps her and paws her up then and there. With nothing to give her in exchange, she pushes him away. Patsy, the most sensitive member of the crew, buys a dessert to give her in exchange for sex. But he looses his composure and eats the dessert in the hallway. Not long afterwards, Noodles and Max take turns with Polly, loosing their virginity in rushed, awkward sessions. Though he fucks Polly, Noodles longs for Deborah, the pure, virginal sister of another friend. This impossible love stands in contrast with the ugly rutting he gives Polly. Yes, the movie embraces the Madonna/Whore complex without irony. Yet this is the mindset of a teenage boy in the twenties and influences his decision throughout his life.

Not long after their first encounters with sex, the boys have their earliest experiences with violence. As they ply their trade, attempting to get in good with the local mob, they face the wrath of Bugsy, the tough guy who formerly employed them. The boys are brutally beaten in the streets, heads and legs battered with clubs and a wagon wheel rolled over Max’s throat. Not long afterwards, the youngest kid in the group, Dominic, is killed by Bugsy. As he dies in Noodles arms, plaintively mumbling that “he slipped,” Noodles is driven into a rage, brutally stabbing Bugsy and a police officer to death. Leone doesn’t soften the violence even when dealing with children. The bright red squibs flow freely. The impact is immediate and strongly felt.

After his twelve year sentence in prison is up, Noodles returns to his friends, now played by Robert DeNiro. Leone highly respected DeNiro, calling him a real actor. DeNiro seems haunted throughout the whole film. During the sequences set in the 1960s, he wears convincing old age make-up, playing up the lifetime of regrets he has. However, even in the earlier scenes, Noodles’ past hangs over him. DeNiro’s great subtlety as an actor is well employed in the part. It’s not just the character’s pain that simmers beneath the surface. His anger, lust, and quiet humor shine through without breaking the man’s stoic exterior.

James Woods plays Max, Noodles’ closest friend. The fiery rage Woods displays, and overplays for camp in many other movies, is kept in-check here. Max is a man of reckless ambition, always pushing for more power. His companionship with his friends keep him grounded and, when he looses them, he looses part of his soul. Woods’ imbues the character’s anger and outrage with a sensitive humanity. Also among the supporting cast is Elizabeth McGovern as the adult Deborah, who gives an amazingly emotional performance. Jennifer Connolly, in her first screen role, plays the character as a teenager. I also really like Burt Young as Fat Joe.

The romance between Noodles and Deborah is the most important subplot in the film. As a boy, he spies on her dancing through a hole in a wall. He thinks of her as an angel, untouchable, perfect, and pure. She waits for him when he’s in prison, seemingly confirming her feelings for him. But when Noodles discovers she plans to leave him, he is consumed by rage, lost, and lust. The rape scene that follows is horrible, extended, and lingered upon. It’s the ultimate betrayal and destroys their relationship. It’s another example of the film’s unflinching portrayal of violence and the effects it has on people’s psyche. It’s also, arguably, not the only romance in the film. Max’s eyes stare soulfully at Noodles. When he has his first visit with Polly, he can’t maintain an erection… Until he looks over at his friend. During a back robbery, Noodles forces himself on a female bank patron, a move that baffles Max. Though he has relationships with women, Max is indifferent to them, preferring the company of his male friends. Is Max a repressed homosexual? Maybe. If he is, it seemingly confirms the homoerotic subtext beneath many of Leone’s films.

In the opening scenes of “Once Upon a Time in America,” Fat Joe is beaten to a bright red, bloody pulp. DeNiro blows the attacker’s brains out, splattering blood over the front of his face. The violence in the film is brutal, sudden, and uncompromising. A head shot later in the film comes out of nowhere, the body jerking back violently. A drive-by shooting tears through a phone booth, peppering a man’s legs with countless, tiny red holes. A similar scene later on reduces a car to a hole-filled piece of metal. There’s little of the style Leone brought to his earlier westerns here. This is not “fun” or “cool” violence. It’s direct and resolute. Leone is making a point, about the loss of life, suddenness of death, and the wastefulness of murder.

As a historical epic, “Once Upon a Time in America’ shows the rise of organized crime in America and its’ frequently unmentioned effects on politics. Throughout their adventures, Noodles’ gang begins working with the budding union movement. They intimidate police officers and business owners in order to push union boss Jimmy O’Donnell’s plan through. Their most elaborate method has them reorganizing a nursery, misplacing Police Chief Aiello’s only son. Max smartly realizes that power and money is intertwined. The movie draws a direct parallel between the greed of the gangsters and the greed of the politicians. By the last act, in a rather literal move, the gangsters and the politicians become one and the same.

The last act of “Once Upon a Time in America” is the most haunting part of the film. Noodles is reunited with Deborah. Despite thirty years having passed, her appearances remains unchanged. This is further evidence for those who support the opium dream theory. However, you can also interpret this as how Noodles sees Deborah as the perfect, unaging, ideal woman. She introduces him to the man who is heavily implied to her son. The man is named for Noodles, after his birth name of David, and seems to partially resemble DeNiro. Did Noodles’ act of rape impregnate Deborah? Is this his long-lost child? In the final minutes of the film, Noodles and Max confront one another. A convoluted turn of events explains how and why but it’s mostly unimportant. What’s important is the old friends, each burdened with regrets, resolving years of bitterness and pain. What follows still raises questions to this day. Noodles leaves, passing a trash truck. A man that might be Max walks out to the truck. As the trash truck drives off, the camera lingers on the spinning augers in the back. What does this mean? Was the truck filled with hitmen Max had sent for Noodles? Does, as I’ve always assumed, Max throw himself into the back of the truck in an elaborate suicide? The film provides no easy answers. Instead, it creates a dreamy tone of uncertainty and mystery, like a half-forgotten memory.

“Once Upon a Time in America” has Sergio Leone’s direction evolving in some interesting ways. The long-takes are maintained but in far fewer numbers. The lingering close-ups on his men’s faces is down-played. Instead, he captures as much of the scenery as possible. The streets of New York are painted in broad, bright colors, like a painting. Frequently, the characters seem small among the big city. One iconic, poster-lending moment focuses on the boys, looking tiny, running across the streets, a bridge overpass in the distance. My favorite shot is from Noodles’ eyes as he’s carted off to jail, his friends looking small against a huge, stone wall. This cuts suddenly, dramatically to the tomb where their bodies are kept, thirty years later. Another notable moment is when Leone’s camera spins above the nursery, as the guys switch out the babies. Leone’s direction is more muted, to go with the lower-key material, yet no less classical and stylish.

Ennio Morricone’s score is typically excellent. He incorporates a lot of music from the period, creating a frequently jazzy, exciting feel. A rather on-the-nose cut has the Beatles’ “Yesterday” playing as DeNiro considers his past. However, the best music in the film fits the story’s quiet, introspective tone. The main theme is both sweeping and nostalgic, backed-up by quivering instruments and rising vocals. The chirping piano is solitary and sad, aligning itself with the men’s childhoods in poverty. The most beautiful piece of music is Deborah’s Theme, which trembles and ques with the angelic beauty Noodles associates with his childhood crush, arriving to a full, gorgeous sung melody.

“Once Upon a Time in America” is a singular achievement in cinema, a massive, impressive masterpiece that has rarely been matched before and after. Leone spent most of his career as a genre specialist, putting clever variations on well-worn formulas. As his career evolved, his films maintains their unique style while becoming more emotional, powerful, and lyrical. “Once Upon a Time in America” is the peak of this. It’s a movie the director spent a decade making and the skill and detail is evident in the final product. Leone later regretted turning down “The Godfather” to make this movie instead. I think he made the right decision. [Grade: A]

The mishandling of "Once Upon a Time in America" broke Sergio Leone's heart. He died five years later. While the gangster epic was destined to be his final film, it was not the last movie he attempted to make. He wrote the screenplay for an American-style western called "A Place Only Mary Knows" that might have starred Mickey Rourke and Richard Gere. In the years leading up to his death, he had begun work on a war epic about the siege of Leningrad, which would have been called "The 900 Days." Two days before officially signing on to the projects, Leone had a massive heart attack, dying suddenly. Though its tempting to fantasize about these unrealized project, Leone left behind a staggering legacy. The man created five genuine masterpieces in a row, that continue to influence and enhance films today. He was truly one of the masters of cinema.

Recent Watches: My Name is Nobody (1974)

From 1964 until sometimes in the mid-seventies, the spaghetti western dominated Italian cinema. During that decade, the genre went through some interesting mutations. As the cinematic trend started to peter out, the westerns became more farcical. The movie that started this trend was “They Call Me Trinity,” a goofy take on the western starring Terence Hill. That movie would make Hill an immediate star and he would headline plenty of similar films, many of them buddy flicks with Bud Spencer. Just as Sergio Leone put his stamp on the Zapata western subgenre, he also had to have his say about the comedy-western. “My Name is Nobody,” which paired Hill with Leone’s “Once Upon in the West” star Henry Fonda, was not truly made by the Italian master. He came up with the concept and contributed some uncredited direction. Yet the movie, in its own silly way, is a reaction to the director’s own film, the ones that launched the genre in the first place.

Jack Beauregard is a legend of the Wild West, a gun fighter that has made himself a name with his lightening-fast trigger finger. His reputation precedes him and many newcomers want to test themselves against the master. While seeking the man responsible for his friend’s death, Beauregard comes upon an eccentric gunslinger of equal quickness that goes by Nobody. Slowly, Beauregard and Nobody take a liking to each other. The two’s adventure puts them in the path of the Wild Bunch, a hundred strong league of riders coming their way.

One of the main joys of "My Name is Nobody" is the contrasting personae of Henry Fonda and Terence Hill. Fonda is an iconic, classical hero of the western genre. He carries that weight to the role of Beauregard, a similarly legendary figure. He’s serious but not grim, good-hearted though silent and strong. Hill, meanwhile, wears a goofy grin throughout the entire film. He is continuously good-natured, always laid-back and casual. He thinks nothing of danger and treats the entire idea of shoot-outs as a game. Fonda’s serious demeanor and Hill’s goofball charm provide plenty of entertainment. Fonda is antagonistic towards Nobody at first, shooting holes in his hat. Yet Hill always has complete respect for Beauregard, admiring the man. The contrast in attitudes is the most entertaining aspect of “My Name is Nobody.”

Well, one of the most entertaining aspects of “My Name is Nobody.” The film is a full-blown farce. Its comedy is loud, fast-paced, and very silly. An early scene has Hill casually disposing of a ticking bomb. When entering a town that’s having a carnival, he’s confronted by a man on stilts. After shooting the stilts apart, the man turns out to be a squeaky-voiced midget. Nobody tends to defend himself with sped-up slapstick comedy. He slaps attackers away, grabbing their pistols out of their holsters. Later on, a rotating mannequin in the middle of the town is similarly used to fend off some baddies. The film speeds up during these moments, turning “My Name is Nobody” into a live action cartoon. Hill’s toothy grin keeps it silly and fun. His way with absurd dialogue and rambling, nonsensical metaphors are also worth a laugh or two.

Being so focused on humor, “My Name is Nobody” does not feature a lot of fancy shoot-outs. The movie makes the action that it has count though. A stand-off between Beauregard and Nobody explodes into the town, the two gunning down or defeating a horde of attackers. The final act of the film features a huge set-piece. Beauregard faces off against the Wild Bunch, a hundred riders crossing the desert. With his pin-point accurate firing, he explodes bombs on the rider’s horses, tossing the bad guys to their deaths. It’s an extended, exciting sequence that goes on nicely. It would come off as too much in a straight-laced western but in a comedy like this, the over-the-top action adds pleasantly to the material.

Tonino Valerii actually directed the film but Sergio Leone’s influence is obvious. There’s a few lingering close-up on actor’s face or wide-screen shots of men riding the desert. Ennio Morricone’s score quotes his music from “Once Upon a Time in the West” and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” Morricone’s main score is clownish, silly, but obviously his work. However, the main influence Leone had on the film is its themes. Despite the light-hearted material, “My Name is Nobody” still concerns the end of the west. Fonda’s Beauregard is a symbol of the old west, the time of shoot-outs and white hat heroes. Hill’s Nobody represents the future, a whimsical hero for a changing world. In the final minutes, the two create a scheme to allow Fonda to retire gracefully. His voice-over explicitly high-lights the movie’s theme, of the west evolving into a bigger, crowded, safer place. (In addition to providing a relatively valid explanation for one of Nobody's earlier, rambling anecdotes.) For bonus points, the movie references Sam Peckinpah, both by name and by calling the villains the Wild Bunch.

“My Name is Nobody” was another hit for rising star Terence Hill. The movie was popular enough to even receive a sort-of sequel, called “A Genius, Two Friends and an Idiot.” Leone did some uncredited work on that one too. The two Nobody films would be the last westerns Sergio worked on, near the end of the genre’s life-span. A sunny, easy-to-watch comedy that leaves the viewer with a smile, “My Name is Nobody” is an easy recommendation for viewers looking for a different type of spaghetti westerns. [7/10]

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Director Report Card: Sergio Leone (1971)

6. Duck, You Sucker!
Giù la testa / A Fistful of Dynamite

Ever since the conclusion of the Dollars Trilogy, Sergio Leone had been working on his dream project, an adaptation of “The Hoods” by Harry Grey. Other projects kept him busy though. After “Once Upon a Time in the West,” Leone was presented with a script about revolution in turn-of-the-century Mexico. He liked it, wanted to see it made, but didn’t want to direct it. Peter Bogdanovich, Sam Peckinpah, and Leone’s assistant Giancarlo Santi were all considered but each realized that Leone just wanted to make the movie himself. The resulting film, “Duck, You Sucker!,” is the director’s most overlooked. Though a decent hit in Europe, in America the film was badly marketed, released under the non-representative title “A Fistful of Dynamite,” and basically forgotten for decades. After a series of quality home video releases, the film is finally getting its dues as one of Leone’s most evocative and powerful works.

In 1913, Mexico is a country besieged by political unrest, with a tyrannical government repressing a burgeoning revolution. Juan and his family of bandits have no need for revolution. His only need for the rich is when he steals from them. Chance circumstances has him meeting John Mallory, a former member of the Irish Republican Army and an explosive experts. Juan drafts Mallory in his quest to rob a near-by bank. A series of unexpected events has Juan and John working with the revolution, fighting for the people and fighting to survive.

Through his career, Sergio Leone’s films became increasingly political. The first two films in the Dollars Trilogy were totally apolitical before “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” introduced an anti-war element. “Once Upon a Time in the West,” meanwhile, dealt with the balance of power and money that makes things happen. “Duck, You Sucker!” is his most political movie yet. It allies itself with the peasants. An early scene has Juan brought onto a stagecoach full of rich folks. He’s presented like a circus freak. The passenger berate the poor as disgusting, impure, dumb, and like animals, with some old fashion racism thrown in too. The camera focuses on their mouths as they shovel more food in, their opinions filling the air like an ugly cacophony. The film makes it clear that the poor benefit neither from tyranny nor from war. In a scene that is both touching and funny, Juan says the people who benefit from revolution aren’t the ones that fight and end up dead.

The film declares its political alliance from its opening minute with a quote from Mao Tse-tung about how “the revolution is an act of violence.” “Duck, You Sucker!” was made in reaction to the growing population of Zapata Westerns. A late period variation on the spaghetti westerns, the Zapata western had heavy political slants that they engage in fully. “Run, Man, Run!” and its sequels are probably the best known example of this type of film. During the political upheaval in Europe during the late sixties and seventies, the films became popular. Leone, however, was not impressed with the way these movies glorified revolution. The director was determined to make a movie that showed revolution as the ugly act is that leaves many, many people dead.

Not everyone involved in the war effort is especially passionate about the political cause either. The first character we meet in “Duck, You Sucker!” is Juan. Played by Rod Steiger, Juan is bandit who does not take his new status as a hero of the revolution well. Juan is a scoundrel. He has no problem killing, as long as it makes him money. After robbing the stagecoach at the beginning, he effectively forces himself on the sole female passenger. (Though her reaction is somewhat difficult to read.) The character shares roots with Tuco and Cheyenne, as a dirty thief with an odd sense of honor. Greed motivates him but it’s not the only thing that matter. His family means the world to him, his six sons from six mothers and his elderly father. They are his crew, helping him pull off heists, and their bond throws them together. How an amoral seeker of gold, albeit one with a lot of love for his family, accidentally becomes a revolutionary is the vein of the film that powers the whole thing. Steiger doesn’t entirely master the Mexican accent but his performance is committed and powerful, with plenty of humor and pathos.

The other half of the central duo is James Coburn as John. As with Henry Fonda in “Once Upon a Time in the West,” Leone had wanted to work with Coburn for some time. He had been approached for both the Man with No Name and Harmonica. Mallory is better suited to Coburn’s talents then either of those parts. John is a bit of a rogue. He has an almost fetishic love of explosives and sure likes to blow shit up. As a revolutionary himself, he sympathizes with the struggling rebels of Mexico. Like Steiger, Coburn does not entirely nail the character’s Irish accent. Coburn’s impish smile fits the character’s mischievous sense of humor. However, his deep eyes suggests John’s inner pain and meloncholey memories. Coburn is ideally cast in the part and it might be my favorite performance of his.

There are other actors and characters in “Duck, You Sucker!” but Steiger and Coburn are the stars of their show. The entire story is built around their relationship. When released in America as “A Fistful of Dynamite,” the movie was oddly sold as comedic. Calling the movie a comedy is more then a little disingenuous but “Duck, You Sucker!” is funny in spots. Upon realizing John’s skill with explosives, Juan imagines a religious banner over his head, reading “the Bank of Mesa Verde.” The back-and-forth the guys have is worth plenty of chuckles, especially when Juan finds John after missing his train. (Also funny: Mallory’s title-lending catch phrase. He frequently shouts “Duck, you sucker!” whenever a bomb is about to go off. What makes this is funny is, apparently, Sergio Leone believed this to be a common English phrase.) The friendship the two form is fraught at first, one solely of convenience. As their adventure goes on, they begin to rely on each other, liking each other’s humor. Both men realize the other is worth more then their appearance suggests.

In time, John is all Juan has. Though it starts off fairly light-hearted, the movie becomes darker in tone as it goes on. The turning point comes after Juan returns to his lair following a gun fight. The camera focus on Steiger’s face as he walks through the cave, his eyes watering. He mentions to John that he had never counted his family before. As the camera pulls back, we realize what has happened. John’s family is dead, executed by the military while he was away. Leone allows the scene to go on. He looks into the actors’ eyes, on the losses and sadness they’re feeling. The effect on the audience is immediate. From this point on, “Duck, You Sucker!” becomes darker, sadder and more violent. The men keep on fighting. Each other and the cause is the only thing keeping them going.

Surging beneath the film and powering it is Ennio Morricone’s score. As in previous collaborations, Morricone composes a different theme for each of the main characters. Juan is associated with plucking strings. Strange vocalizations, a toad-like croaking, also identifies with the character. John, meanwhile, has a more sweeping, romantic theme. An odd vocalization greets him as well. Halfway between a word and a sound, the chorus sings the name “Sean” repeatedly until it looses it meaning. (Sean is seemingly Mallory’s real name, if you’re wondering what the significance is.) Morricone’s music builds into a grand, melancholic theme. It’s perhaps my favorite score the composer has ever written.

As a war movie and a western, “Duck, You Sucker!” doesn’t lack action. As the alternate title of “A Fistful of Dynamite” suggests, the movie is filled with explosions. Coburn is introduced with a massive, dusty explosion that blows a hole in the mountain side. Later on, a church, a bank vault, a bridge, and a line of executioners all fall to John’s dynamite. The film concludes with a massive train crash, an impressive display of destruction. As for shoot-outs, the movie has got that too. Steiger’s break-in into the bank vault features some great sliding, sneaking, and shooting. An exciting moment has the two men pouring machine gun fire down on a bridge full of soldiers. By the finale, the film explodes into full-on war. Though less focused on chaos and gunfights then Leone’s other movies, “Duck, You Sucker!” is still likely to entertain action fans.

Another Leone trademark present in “Duck, You Sucker!” is the use of flashbacks. Throughout the film, we catch glimpses of John’s past. We see him frolicking with his best friend and his girlfriend, riding together and laughing. Morricone’s powerful, sad music plays over each scene, the flashbacks being otherwise silent. Through this device, and with zero exposition, we learn everything we need to know about the character. How he became involved with the revolution, why he left Ireland, and what those he lost meant to him. The final flashback even adds an interesting layer of ambiguity to the relationship John had with his best friend and the girl. It’s a poetic, beguiling choice and something that endlessly intrigues me about the film.

Lastly, “Duck, You Sucker!” looks gorgeous. As always, the director fills his movie with as many wide-screen shots as possible. A notable one is when a crowd of people swarm on Juan as he leaves a train. The epic action, with its crashing trains and explosions, are perfectly captured by Leone’s camera. The use of close-ups have never felt this intimate and personal before, the characters’ struggles and feelings being clear on their faces. As always, the contrast between the sweeping landscapes and the lingering close-ups marks the film as both a historical epic and a movie of great emotion.

The film ends tragically, suddenly, with a huge explosion. In the following silence, the survivor asks what he should do next. The title then flashes on-screen, answering his question. “Duck, you sucker!” Unappreciated for years, the film has quickly become recognized as one of the director’s many masterpieces. One of its several alternate tittles is “Once Upon a Time… the Revolution.” This neatly fits the film into the center of another trilogy, a trio of movies set during important historical events about hard men and the bonds they share. It's probably my favorite Leone film. [Grade: A]