Operation Red Sea (Hong hai xing dong)


The Sea Dragons are here to kick ass and slurp noodles and they’re all out of noodles.

(2018) War (Well Go USA) Yi Zhang, Johnny Huang, Hai-Quing, Jiang Du, Luxia Xiang, Sanâa Alaoui, Fang Yin, Yutian Wang, Guo Yubin, Henry Mai, Yu Dawei, Fenfen Huang, Nisrine Adam, Faical Elkihel, Ren Dahua, Hanyu Zhang, Noureddine Aberdine, Cai Jie, Qiang Wang, Bing Bai, Siyan Huo. Directed by Dante Lam

For awhile there it felt like the good ol’ US of A had the market cornered on chest-thumping military action films. Well, move over Uncle Sam; China has earned themselves a seat at that particular table with this big budget modern day warfare look at an elite squad (not unlike Seal Team 6) in the Chinese Navy.

The movie starts out with them rescuing a Chinese merchant vessel from Somali pirates. Captain Phillips much? In any case, no sooner have they mopped up that operation when they are urgently diverted to the North African (fictional) country of Yewaire which is suffering through a revolution being orchestrated by a terrorist organization called Zaka. Sure they want to set up their own intolerant theocracy there but there is a much more sinister motive; they’re trying to get at a supply of yellowcake, a type of weapons-grade Uranium. With that, they would be able to make a terrifying number of dirty bombs that could potentially wipe dozens of cities from the face of the map.

But then they take some Chinese civilians hostage and anyone will tell you that’s a really bad idea. The squad – called Sea Dragons – is sent in and put to work rescuing their citizens, preventing the terrorists from getting the yellowcake and in general saving the day while looking pretty dang good at it.

Like Hollywood hits 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, American Sniper and Lone Survivor, Operation Red Sea is as much entertainment as it is recruitment video – some might say propaganda (and they wouldn’t be far wrong). The military, in this case the Chinese military, is portrayed in a totally badass light with plenty of macho testosterone-laden one-liners meant to portray just how badass they are although the dialogue “Tom Yi: Give ‘em Hell!” is as cringe-inducing as a similar line from a World War II war flick is today. Kind of makes you want to slap a dame on the butt and give the Krauts what for although the Krauts here are the 21st all-purpose villain Arab terrorists.

There is a significant difference between this film and American versions however; for one thing, the Sea Dragons aren’t really given much individual character. For them and apparently the Chinese military in general as well, it’s all about the team and not the individual. The snipers here aren’t getting into one-on-one battles with their opposites pretty much although there is a little bit of that; the whole “Army of One” campaign that the US Army ran a few years back would have never played in China. Individualism is Western weakness; sacrificing for the good of society is much more desirable and that really sums up our societies in a nutshell.

Consequently there really aren’t a lot of standout performances here although the Chinese actors on display here are much more restrained than we normally see from Chinese films. One place they’ve definitely improved are on the battle sequences; utilizing Korean effects houses (the best at these kinds of effects in the business) the battles look realistic and terrifying. There’s a boatload of gore and I’m talking about an aircraft carrier, not a dinghy. Fingers are blown off, jaws are unhinged, people are perforated, stabbed, shot, burned and eviscerated and from time to time, heads are lopped off. The carnage can be pretty intense so be mindful of that if you are sensitive to such things.

This is going to feel a lot like movies you’ve seen before if you’re an American although if you’re Chinese chances are this will be much more unfamiliar ground. If the flag-waving and chest-thumping may be a little bit too bizarre for you coming from a Chinese film, it might be understandable. Not that long ago a movie like this would never have been picked up for American distribution; the Chinese military would not carry much of a resonant rooting interest for American audiences – the fact that not one Chinese civilian gets killed in this film is no accident. The message is that Chinese citizens are perfectly safe while the military is around which is some powerful stuff if you’re a citizen of the People’s Republic.

The entertainment value is pretty strong though and even though it is a bit of a different attitude than similarly themed American films there’s still the visceral enjoyment. To quote the legendary Big Jim McBob and Billy Sol Hurok, a good many things get blowed up real good. This film, playing this week at the New York Asian Film Festival, had a limited theatrical release this past February and will be available on various streaming services as well as on home video effective July 24th. If you like your war movies with all the gore and none of the angst, this one is for you.

REASONS TO GO: The action sequences are well-plotted. The movie is entertaining throughout.
REASONS TO STAY: It may be a little too long for some American audiences. It feels like a fairly standard American military action B-movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as strong and often bloody violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is loosely based on the evacuation of Chinese citizens from the port town of Aden during the Yemen Civil War of March 2015.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/2/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Navy SEALs
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Respeto

Spectre


No vehicle is safe around James Bond.

No vehicle is safe around James Bond.

(2015) Spy Action (MGM/Columbia) Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux, Ralph Fiennes, Monica Bellucci, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Dave Bautista, Andrew Scott, Rory Kinnear, Jesper Christensen, Alessandro Cremona, Stephanie Sigman, Tenoch Huerta, Adriana Paz, Domenico Fortunato, Brigitte Millar, Lara Parmiani. Directed by Sam Mendes

The past has a way of surfacing when we least expect it. Sometimes, it’s just a pleasant memory we’d forgotten. Other times, our sins come back to haunt us in ways we could never possibly expect.

With the carnage of Skyfall behind him (there are spoilers here if you haven’t seen that movie so quick, go see it before reading on), James Bond (Craig) finds himself in Mexico City several months later during the Dia de los muertos celebration. He is after a terrorist who has plans to set off bombs somewhere in the city, but Bond has other plans. Before sending most of the men in the room making plans to end the lives of innocents to kingdom come, he overhears plans to meet with someone called the Pale King. As is the wont around James Bond, buildings are blown up, a chase takes place through the crowded streets of Mexico City and a fight ensues on a helicopter which narrowly avoids crashing into the crowd.

The trouble is, Bond wasn’t authorized to do any of this or even be in Mexico. The new M (Fiennes) is already having issues with C (Scott), the head of MI-5 who has recently merged with MI-6 and is now in charge, and who is threatening on dismantling the double 0 program and replacing it with the Nine Eyes directive – the combined surveillance material from the nine largest agencies in the world, including the intelligence communities of the United States, Russia, China and other nations. Only South Africa remains a holdout.

Given the ruthlessness of C, it isn’t any surprise when a terrorist attack in South Africa changes their vote. These events, Bond deduces, are related to his own chase of the Pale King. After seducing the widow (Bellucci) of the assassin, Bond tracks down an old nemesis whose daughter Madeleine Swann (Seydoux) holds the key to a sinister criminal organization known as SPECTRE – and it’s mysterious leader (Waltz) who has a connection with Bond’s past – in more than one sense.

This has every element that makes Bond films so entertaining; a debonair and cool as a cucumber spy, gorgeous women, mind-blowing gadgets, absolutely amazing action and stunt sequences and exotic locations. Well, it’s missing one element – a great theme song, but Sam Smith delivered an absolutely atrocious song that may go down as one of the worst of any Bond film ever – and there have been some absolute turkeys, although the vast majority of Bond themes have been fabulous.

Craig in his fourth film inhabits the role, and while he is contracted for a fifth film (which the ending sets up very nicely), he has said in interviews that he wouldn’t mind finishing out his run here. I think he may want to rethink that; this isn’t his best performance as Bond (Skyfall is) and he might want to go out on a higher note than this.

Part of the problem is similar to what plagued Quantum of Solace – it simply doesn’t measure up to the high bar set by the film before it. While this movie is much better than Quantum, it’s also no Skyfall and that isn’t a knock at all; Skyfall is in my opinion second only to Goldfinger in terms of great Bond movies. Sacrilege to some, I grant you, but that’s how I see it.

While Craig is ice cold through most of this, Waltz as the villain whose name I won’t reveal here is simply put the best villain of the Craig era and maybe the best other than Auric Goldfinger in the whole franchise. Waltz as…he who shall not be named….is as urbane as Bond, has a deadly edge to him and is certifiably insane, but not in a “Look at me I’m Napoleon” manner but in a quiet, serious “I’m going to do something spectacularly evil” way. You have no doubt that Waltz’ character is capable of conjuring up absolutely horrific mayhem and is quite willing to see it through.

We get to explore Bond’s relationships with his team, mainly Whishaw as Q, Harris as Moneypenny and Fiennes as M. There is a cameo by Judi Dench as the previous M whose posthumous message sends Bond careening off to Mexico, and we get a sense of Bond’s loyalty. He doesn’t trust anyone really, but one senses he trusted M – and not the new one, necessarily.

The stunts here are as good as ever – the Mexico City sequence is worth the price of admission alone – and while the gadgets aren’t as gee-whiz as in past years, the best line of the movie comes when Q hands Bond a watch and Bond asks “And what does this do?” Q responds with a droll “It tells the time.”

The movie feels like it’s cramming a little bit too much plot in; I don’t know that we needed to go all over the globe to finally end up in futuristic volcanic lair that we don’t really get to see much of but is apparently immense. They had to conjure up the largest explosion in movie history in order to…well, let’s just say that it doesn’t end He Who Shall Not Be Named’s nefarious plans.

Don’t get me wrong – this is thoroughly entertaining and certainly will keep Bond fans more than happy, although the critical reaction has been disappointing. I do hope Craig does do one more film and finishes his time in the franchise on a better note than this. It’s a good movie, but not a great one. I think Craig has one more great Bond film in him.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific action sequences. Waltz is the best villain of the Craig era. Continues the return to the iconic 60s Bond films.
REASONS TO STAY: A little on the busy side. Sam Smith’s song is terrible.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of action violence, some disturbing images, sexual innuendo and some mildly foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At age 50 during filming, Bellucci is the oldest Bond girl to appear in the franchise by twelve years (Honor Blackman was 38 when she filmed Goldfinger).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/15/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: You Only Live Twice
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Veteran

Hanna


Hanna

Soairse Ronan should get away from this movie as fast as she can.

(2011) Avant Action (Focus) Saoirse Ronan, Cate Blanchett, Eric Bana, Jason Flemyng, Tom Hollander, Olivia Williams, Jessica Barden, Martin Wuttke, Michelle Dockery, Tim Beckmann, Vicky Krieps, Mohamed Majd, Christian Malcolm. Directed by Joe Wright

Nature versus nurture, an age-old debate about the power of parenting. In some cases, a little bit of both can go a long way.

Hanna (Ronan) is a young girl who lives in Finland above the Arctic Circle with her father Erik (Bana), a former CIA operative who has a beard and talks with a German accent. He has taught her how to survive in nearly any situation – and how to kill in nearly every situation. She is an efficient little killing machine, whether out hunting for dinner or being hunted, which in fact is happening.

She needs to be efficient because there are some really bad, bad people after her. Chief among them is Marissa Viegler (Blanchett), a CIA operative slash ice queen who has a past with Erik. She is canny and paranoid – after capturing Hanna she sends in a look-alike (Dockery) whom Hanna proceeds to dispatch with almost comical ease. Once that’s done, Hanna goes on the run in Morocco and Europe.

She is also being chased by some outside contractors that Viegler has hired, led by the effeminate Isaacs (Hollander) who likes to whistle while he works. She also runs into a family of British hippies, whose father (Flemyng) is a bit of a curmudgeon and whose mother (Williams) has a case of terminal political correctness. The daughter Sophie (Barden) becomes Hanna’s friend, perhaps the first she’s ever had who didn’t have a beard and talk with a German accent. Not realizing Viegler isn’t dead, she heads for a rendezvous in Germany with her dad, unaware that those who want her dead are closing in on her.

There is a really good story in here. It’s a shame that the director, whose resume includes Atonement which netted Ronan an Oscar nomination, chose to do it like Baz Luhrmann might have. While it looks great visually, endless music video-style conceits constantly remind us that this is a movie being directed rather than a story being told. When that happens, it’s hard to get too involved in the story and the movie just becomes a collection of images. There are some nicely done sequences, such as a chase scene in a shipyard; however the climactic scenes, set in an abandoned Grimm’s Fairy Tales theme park, seems rubbing our faces in the allegory a little bit.

Ronan is actually very strong in the title role; she has to be very physical here and she looks quite lethal which is difficult enough for an adult actor to do let alone a teenage one. She can spout off facts memorized from her father about all kinds of esoterica but she has trouble negotiating even a basic conversation with ordinary people. It’s a winning performance, one that is sympathetic and kicks ass at once.

Blanchett is one of the best actresses of her generation, an Oscar winner who can be forceful and who can also be subtle. Here she plays Viegler wound so tight you half expect for her eyes to pop out of her head and her breasts to shoot out like missiles to detonate on target at the slightest touch of her red hair. There’s not a lot of humanity in the role – she’s ambitious and paranoid, someone well versed in both the high tension of field work as well as the politics of the agency bureaucracy. I’m still debating internally whether this was the right approach to the role and due to Miss Blanchett’s credentials, electing to give her the benefit of the doubt.

Bana is a leading man who is on the verge of being “A” list material. He has the charm and charisma to do it; what’s keeping him out of that rarefied air is the right role. He needs a blockbuster to cement his reputation and this is just frankly not it – and in any case his role is a supporting one to Ronan.

Something has to be said about the score by the British trip-hop band the Chemical Brothers. It’s intrusive, it’s abrasive and at the end of the day it detracts from the movie rather than enhance it. I’m fairly open-minded about alternative types of scores but I’m a bit old-fashioned in this regard – if you’re noticing the score to the point where you’re taken out of the movie by it, then it’s not a good score. This happens time and time again throughout the movie.

Critics have been falling all over themselves to praise this movie, including several that I respect a great deal. This is a case where the public actually gets one more correct than the critics; the box office has been tepid at best and quite frankly, deservedly so. I really wanted to like this movie too – the trailers were compelling and the story idea solid. Sadly, this is the type of film that belongs more projected on the wall of a European disco than on the screen of a multiplex.

REASONS TO GO: A fresh take on the cold war-style action espionage thriller.

REASONS TO STAY: Wright takes viewers out of the film far too often by reminding them he’s there. Worst. Score. Ever.

FAMILY VALUES: Quite a bit of sometimes intense violence, not to mention a bit of foul language and some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Seth Lockhead wrote the original script on spec back in 2006. It appeared on the Black List (the annual list of bet unproduced Hollywood screenplays) that year and again in 2009.

HOME OR THEATER: You won’t lose anything by seeing this at home.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: The Conspirator

Babel


 

Babel

The desolation of the Moroccan landscape is reflected in Cate Blanchett's eyes.

(2006) Ensemble Drama (Paramount Vantage) Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael Garcia Bernal, .Rinko Kikuchi, Adrianna Barraza, Michael Pena, Koji Yakusho, Elle Fanning, Clifton Collins Jr., Mohammed Akhzam, Boubker Ait El Caid, Said Tarchani, Mustapha Rachidi, Nathan Gamble, Satoshi Nikaido. Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.

In our multi-cultural society, conversation has become almost white noise as we try to make some sense out of what is being said. It is not by accident that “Babel” and “Babble” are homonyms.

Two young goatherds (Caid, Tarchani) in Morocco are testing their new rifle to see if the claims that it could shoot a bullet three kilometers is true by firing it at moving vehicles on a nearby road. Instead, they hit a tour bus and wind up shooting Susan, an American tourist (Blanchett). The wound is serious, and it forces the tour bus to divert to the village of the tour guide (Akhzam) which is where the nearest doctor is (the nearest hospital is far enough away that she might bleed to death before they get there). This causes an international incident when the United States government blames the act on terrorists. Her husband Richard (Pitt) is more concerned with getting her to a proper hospital but they are stuck in a small village in the interior of Morocco with no doctor, no medicine and a wound from which her lifeblood is slowly seeping away. The governments posture and issue press statements while the anxious passengers wonder if they aren’t vulnerable to another terrorist attack. Their desire to leave is met with Richard’s insistence that they stay until help arrives.

That’s not all. Her children (Fanning and Gamble) whom she thought were safe at home, were taken by their housekeeper/nanny Amelia (Barraza) and her unreliable nephew Santiago (Bernal) to the wedding of her son in Mexico, necessitated when she cannot find anyone to watch her charges while she’s gone. When they return home in the wee hours of the morning, an overzealous border guard (Collins) causes the inebriated Santiago to panic and run the border. Chased by the Border Patrol, he leaves the children and his aunt stranded in the desert, promising to lose the patrol and come back for them. Dawn comes and they are still alone in the heat of the desert with no water and little shade.

Meanwhile in Japan, Chieko, a young deaf-mute girl (Kikuchi) struggles to cope with the suicide of her mother and her own budding sexuality. She wanders around the crowded, pulsating streets of Tokyo, flirting with guys in J-Pop clubs, and gossiping with her teammates on the volleyball team. She shuts out her father (Yakusho) who is puzzled at his daughter’s hostility towards him. When a handsome detective (Nikaido) comes to their apartment while her father is at work, Chieko sees an opportunity. All of these stories are related in one way or another, and the effects of a single bullet will have repercussions in every one of their lives.

Like last year’s Oscar-winner Crash, the four main stories are told simultaneously with one another with characters from each story running like threads through the others. The stories aren’t told chronologically, so there is some overlap and information from one storyline is received in another, even though those events haven’t happened in the first storyline yet. That serves to lessen the dramatic tension some (for instance, a very important aspect of Susan’s medical condition is revealed very early on in the Mexican portion of the film, even though in the Moroccan portion she hasn’t been shot yet). While I admire Inarritu’s boldness in altering the paradigm of storytelling, it just isn’t executed as well as it could have been. 

There are some excellent acting performances here, particularly from Pitt who turns in the most complete performance of his career to date. As the anguished husband who is already having marital problems with his wife (they go to Morocco ostensibly to work out their problems alone, but as she acidly points out, they are with a tour group and consequently are almost never alone), Pitt displays frustration, despair and fear with much more emotional openness than we’re used to seeing from him. He looks much older in the movie than what he usually plays, which I think makes the role a bit more believable. 

Kikuchi also does a really fine job in a role in which she has no dialogue except for grunts and moans. She has to spend much of her performance naked and displaying her sexuality in ways that many actresses might find uncomfortable (although fans of Basic Instinct might find the performance intriguing). Inarritu has a tendency to use non-actors in some his movies (as he does here particularly in the Moroccan sequence) and they come through nicely.

I like the look into the various cultures that Inarritu provides, particularly the Moroccan and Japanese aspects (which are less familiar to those of us in the States, where the Mexican culture is much more prevalent). I was fascinated particularly by the desolation of Morocco and the North American desert; both are desolate and empty, which contrasts nicely with the lively crowds in Tokyo.

The problem here is that there is too much storyline going on. The Japanese sequence is not really necessary to the movie and quite frankly, the Mexican sequence probably isn’t either. The movie runs at 2 1/2 hours long and is a good half hour too long for my taste. This could have been trimmed without diluting the message or the power of the performance overly much. 

Inarritu is a real talent (he already has Amores Perros and 21 Grams under his belt) and will undoubtedly turn out movies that are going to be classics in the very near future. This, unfortunately, isn’t one of them, although it is good enough to recommend unreservedly. I can recommend it on the basis of some of the performances, and because of the glimpses into different cultures. However, if you’re going to do a movie based on how our lack of communication as a species leads to terrible problems, the least you can do is not keep talking so long that the listener tunes you out.

WHY RENT THIS: Well directed and beautifully filmed. Pitt turns in his finest performance to date. Blanchett and Kikuchi are also solid.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A good half hour too long, could have done without the Japanese and Mexican segments of the film.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is some violent content, graphic nudity and sexuality and a little bit of drug use. Definitely not for the kids.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: Nothing listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $135.3M on an unreported production budget; undoubtedly the movie was a blockbuster!

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: The Lincoln Lawyer