The Green Hornet


The Green Hornet

Britt Reid and Kato are a bit early for Mardi Gras.

(2011) Pulp Hero Adventure Comedy (Columbia) Seth Rogen, Jay Chou, Cameron Diaz, Christoph Waltz, Tom Wilkinson, Edward James Olmos, David Harbour, Jamie Harris, Chad Coleman, Edward Furlong, Analeigh Tipton, James Franco. Directed by Michel Gondry

The Green Hornet emerged from the radio serial and the pulp fiction heroes that introduced us to masked characters such as The Shadow. It was a different era, to be sure, with a Japanese (and then, beginning with World War II, Korean) manservant and a millionaire playboy, scion of a newspaper publishing empire. These days, that seems like something of an anachronism.

It translated well to a 26-episode run in the late 60s on television, with Van Williams in the title role and the legendary Bruce Lee as Kato. While the show didn’t last long, it remained in the public consciousness due to the involvement of Lee. Dying too young will do that to your legacy.

How will such characters translate to the 21st century however? Britt Reid (Rogen) is the party-hearty son of James Reid (Wilkinson), the crusading publisher of the Los Angeles Sentinel, a newspaper that was one of the last family-owned holdouts in an era of corporate news and the growing incursion of the Internet on the traditional profession of newsgathering. 

When the father turns up dead, it is left to the son to pick up the pieces. He becomes the de facto publisher of the Sentinel, despite having absolutely no knowledge of the newspaper business nor any desire to learn. He relies on his dad’s right hand man Mike Axford (Olmos) for the day-to-day operation of the business.

When a cup of coffee isn’t to his liking, he discovers that the great coffee that he had enjoyed every morning had come from his father’s car mechanic, Kato (Chou) whom he had fired in a drunken rage (along with all of his father’s other personal employees). You see, Britt’s relationship with his dad was dicey, as his father was constantly belittling him with aphorisms like “Trying doesn’t matter if you always fail” with the understanding that Britt always failed. At least he could probably afford the battery of therapists he would probably need after emotional abuse like that from his dad. 

He rehires Kato and discovers something of a kindred spirit. Kato has an affinity for gadgets and a brilliant engineering mind (he’s also a bit of a perv with drawings of women amongst his engineering diagrams). As dear old dad had grown more paranoid that he might be the target of violence, he’d had Kato outfit a 1966 Chrysler Crown Imperial with bulletproof glass and a few weapons of mass distraction. 

Britt and Kato get drunk as men often do when they’re bonding and go out to deface a statue of Britt’s dad that stands guardian over his gravesite, which men often do when they’re bonding. After detaching the statue’s head, they come across a mugging in process. Britt drunkenly tries to prevent a rape from occurring but bungles it, only to be saved by Kato who is also a talented martial artist. 

The experience turns out to be an epiphany for Britt. It was such a blast helping others; why not do it as masked heroes? And in order to throw a twist into things, why not masquerade as villains so that they can topple them more easily from the inside?

Britt uses his newspaper to publicize the new villain who is dubbed the Green Hornet. This doesn’t please Chudnovsky (Waltz), the kingpin of all L.A. gangs. He’s the sort who walks into a nightclub, only to be insulted by the owner (Franco) for not being hip enough, not being frightening enough and for dressing poorly. Chudnovsky responds by blowing up the nightclub and everyone in it. He is worried that people will not perceive him as frightening. If a ganglord doesn’t have his rep, what does he have?

Britt’s increasing incursions into Chudnovsky’s business earn Britt and Kato the attention of the crime boss. Even though the Hornet and Kato are being helped by Britt’s executive secretary (and budding criminologist) Lenore Case (Diaz) and Kato’s not inconsiderable arsenal of gas guns and door-mounted machine guns, Britt not only has Chudnovsky’s army of goons chasing him but also the police and district attorney Scanlon (Harbour) on his back as well. Will the Green Hornet succumb to insecticide before he’s had a chance to sting anybody?

I am torn on this one. Director Gondry is an incredible visionary with such films as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (awesome) and The Science of Sleep (not so much) in his filmography, but this is his first really straightforward mainstream film. He adds some of his unique visual flair, like showing how Kato’s mind slows down when in a stressful situation. The pacing is nice and the action sequences are competently done. For someone who has mostly worked on smaller budget films, Gondry does a terrific job here.

So does Chou as Kato. Chou is a pop star in Asia although not so well known here. His English is problematic, but he has the martial arts chops and the likable charisma needed to entice American audiences. He no doubt will be a star here if he chooses to be – and he can lose the accent a little.

Rogen can be a terrific comic actor but this won’t be a role that I’ll rank among his best. His Britt Reid is obnoxious, arrogant and a bit of a screw-up. He’s not terribly likable and we wind up rooting for Kato more than we do for Reid, who is in dire need of an ass-kicking. It’s hard to root for Britt when he treats everyone around him like crap and comes off as an ignorant, spoiled brat who didn’t get spanked enough as a child. That Britt is so badly developed is certainly the fault of the writers – wait, Rogen co-wrote the script. Tsk tsk.  

Diaz is a beautiful woman who can be a pretty good comic actress when she’s given the right role, but she really isn’t given any role here. She’s eye candy, sure but she isn’t onscreen enough to really make any sort of impression. For my money, I would have liked to see more of her and less of Rogen.

The gadgets here are worthy of the Q Division, particularly the Black Beauty (the tricked-out Chrysler) which takes a licking and keeps on ticking. We didn’t need Britt to give us a “whoooa!” whenever a new gadget was introduced, but still, that’s part of the fun.

And it’s fun that’s the operative word here. This is a highly flawed action adventure comic book kind of movie – but it’s entertaining enough to be worth your time and money. Don’t expect much, just sit back in your stadium seat, munch on your popcorn and let the movie wash over you with its car chases, explosions, gas guns and quips. It’s a wild ride and that’s not a bad summary for any movie.

REASONS TO GO: Chou is a great deal of fun and Waltz has great fun as yet another cartoon villain. Gondry really plays up the cartoonish aspect of the genre. The Black Beauty is mofo cool!

REASONS TO STAY: Brett Reid is such a clueless douchebag that there are times you just want Kato to kick his ass. A few of the gags stretch credulity a bit too thin.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some cartoon violence and there are an awful lot of heavy things dropped on the skulls of an awful lot of people. There’s some foul language as well.  

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Seth Rogen’s first live-action movie that wasn’t rated “R.”  

HOME OR THEATER: Fun movies like this one should be seen in the theater.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Crazies

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Red (2010)


Red

Here's the real reason you want to see the movie.

(Summit) Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, Karl Urban, Mary-Louise Parker, Richard Dreyfuss, Brian Cox, Julian McMahon, Rebecca Pidgeon, Ernest Borgnine, James Remar, Emily Kuroda, Audrey Wasilewski. Directed by Robert Schwentke

It’s no secret that our society is extremely youth-oriented. Our elderly we have a tendency to marginalize and cast aside like a used DVD player when the Blu-Ray came out. However, we do so at the potential cost of underestimating the contributions that can still be made by senior citizens.

Frank Moses (Willis) is a retiree living in a small apartment in Cleveland. His life is a quiet one, the highlight of his day being regular phone conversations with Sarah Ross (Parker), a caseworker for the government pension plan who supplies Frank with a monthly check. It’s obvious Frank is attracted to her and she to him; she continues to talk about it while casting nervous glances around to avoid being detected by a disapproving supervisor. They make plans to meet in her home town of Kansas City.

Not long after that he shows up in her apartment, waiting for her there when she comes home after yet another epic fail of a date, babbling wildly about assassins that are after him and that they’re now after her because she’s been talking to him. When she doesn’t believe him, he duct tapes her mouth shut and kidnaps her, driving her to New Orleans. He stashes her in a hotel while he goes to visit Joe Matheson (Freeman), who lives in a rest home where he mainly ogles the nurses, and tries to find a dignified way to die from Stage Four liver cancer. They figure out that someone within the CIA has put a hit out on Frank, but nobody can really figure out why.

Neither can Cooper (Urban), a ramrod-straight CIA operative who has been tasked with taking out Frank. His boss (Pidgeon) sends him down to the archives where Henry the Records Keeper (Borgnine) holds sway. Cooper discovers the “analyst” he’s been told to take out is in reality an ex-field agent who was one of the best the CIA ever had, the kind of guy who toppled governments all by his lonesome once upon a time. Cooper, a family man, is none too pleased by this turn of events but he is, after all, a Company man.

In fact, there’s a conspiracy that goes back to a black ops mission in Guatemala in the 80s and a political situation that is a little more present-day. Frank assembles his old team including Joe, Marvin (Malkovich), a twitchy sort who developed extreme paranoia after being injected with LSD every day back in the 60s, and Victoria (Mirren), a deadly assassin who can best be described as Martha Stewart with a machine gun. There’s also Sarah, who’s now aboard with the program, and Ivan (Cox), an ex-KGB agent who once had a thing for Victoria, and an evil industrialist (Dreyfuss) who knows all the secrets behind the assassins on their tails.

The movie is based on a Warren Ellis comic book that DC published a few years back; it’s much in the vein of The Losers and The Expendables from earlier this year. Schwentke, who we last saw directing The Time Traveler’s Wife, rebounds with a movie that has much more of a fun side than that movie and is much more entertaining at its core. 

Part of that is the cast that would have made heads turn ten years ago. Willis always seems to be winking at the audience when he does these kinds of roles, kind of a John McLean/Jason Bourne love child who has Vin Diesel’s hair stylist. Parker, who of late has become best-known for her work in the Showtime series ”Weeds,” could use some “less is more” philosophy in her acting style but is solid as the romantic lead.

The supporting roles are mostly juicy and the outstanding cast makes full use of them. Freeman is wasted in a role that isn’t really drawn very completely, but Malkovich can chew scenery with the best of them and he does so here. Cox is a truly underrated actor who has become a dependable character actor, giving his character a bit of a twist on the KGB agent with a heart of gold that Robbie Coltrane nailed in the Bond movies and Mirren is…well, Helen Mirren. She can make even bad movies much better, and she takes an unlikely role and just about steals the movie.

The plot is paper thin and twists and turns, ultimately leading nowhere but it’s really meant to be a vehicle for the action sequences, which are solid although not outstanding. Red doesn’t really require a whole lot of thought and delivers a quite a lot of entertainment for the money. It may suffer from a few action movie clichés (like bad guy marksmanship disease, and plucky heroine syndrome, and perhaps a touch of dirty old man-itis) but all of that can be overlooked in the grand scheme of things. After all, nobody goes to an action movie for the plot.

REASONS TO GO: You do see the picture at the top of the blog, don’t you? Great cast, mindless action and a good deal of fun.

REASONS TO STAY: It’s a bit on the fluffy side and the action sequences really don’t add anything to the genre.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some violence and some bad language but probably nothing I wouldn’t hesitate to show most middle school-age kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: John C. Reilly was originally cast in the John Malkovich role.

HOME OR THEATER: There are a few scenes that probably work better on the big screen but overall I’d say this is more of a home video experience.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: The Spirit

Death Race


Death Race

Who was that masked man?

(Universal) Jason Statham, Joan Allen, Tyrese Gibson, Ian McShane, Natalie Martinez, Jason Clarke, Fred Koehler, Max Ryan, Robin Shou, Jacob Vargas, Robert LaSardo. Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson

The masses need bread and circuses to distract them when times are hard. The harder things are, the more violent the circus must be in order to keep the mob happy.

In the near future after the U.S. economy collapsed, crime skyrocketed, overwhelming the prison system. In order to cope, the federal government privatized the prison system, creating prisons for profit. In order to recoup their costs, one corporate prison, led by innovative (and bitchy) warden Hennessey (Allen) has come up with a unique concept; Death Race. A combination of gladiator games, chariot races and NASCAR, convicts drive souped-up cars that are heavily armed and armored. However in order to activate weapons, drivers have to drive over lighted shields and swords. They are aided by female navigators from a neighboring woman’s prison. The drivers get a full pardon and release if they win five races.

The most popular driver in Death Race is Frankenstein. He is a mysterious guy whose face is reputedly so disfigured by all the crashes he’s been in that he wears a mask. Unbeknownst to the world, Frankenstein has died after his most recent race and the ratings are sure to plummet once word gets out.

Jensen Ames (Statham) is an honest, hard-working guy who used to be a very good race driver. After getting laid off from his steel mill job, he comes home to find his wife murdered. He is, of course, blamed for the deed and sent to the tender mercy of Warden Hennessey’s care. She offers him a deal; he takes over the persona of Frankenstein and he will be given credit for the number of wins that Frankenstein has already achieved – four, so if he wins one more race, Ames will go free.

However, that’s not as easy as it sounds. Ames has already alienated Pachenko (Ryan), the local white supremacist and Frankenstein has a major rivalry going with Machine Gun Joe (Gibson), who means to take out Frankenstein. However, Ames has an excellent crew; the fatherly Coach (McShane), the nervous but brilliant Lists (Koehler) and the navigator Case (Martinez). However, all is not as kosher as it seems and Ames finds out that in order to survive the Death Race he may need to become more brutal than he can ever imagine.

Director Anderson, whose cinematic resume includes the Resident Evil series, the much-underrated Event Horizon and AVP: Alien vs. Predator, has remade the Roger Corman camp classic Death Race 2000. He has removed much of the humor from it and ratcheted up the gore and action quotient. The result is a satisfactory action movie that while is definitely on the visceral side certainly keeps your attention.

Statham is one of my favorite action heroes and while this isn’t one of his more interesting roles, he brings home the bacon here. Jensen Ames comes from a long line of falsely accused men forced to do reprehensible things in prison starting with movies like The Shawshank Redemption and moving on through movies like The Longest Yard. This won’t win any new converts to the Statham bandwagon but neither will it disappoint his fans.

Allen and McShane are two engaging actors and you wonder what they are doing in obvious B-Movie fodder like this one. Still, they are here and they elevate the movie quite a bit, particularly McShane who is rapidly becoming one of my favorite actors.

The stunts here are way over-the-top, with cars bouncing around like bumper cars and flying through the air like Frisbees. There are plenty of explosions and enough gunfire to fill up World War Two. I have to admit I didn’t care for the soundtrack; it wasn’t so much the heavy metal guitars, which are a bit on the cliché side, but that all the riffs sounded like rip-offs from other songs.

This is the kind of movie that easily gets overlooked. Critics tore it a new one when it was released but I think they were a bit harsh. Certainly this isn’t Oscar material but then it never aimed for that kind of bar. This was meant to be diverting, visceral entertainment that allows viewers to use as little of their brains as they wish to, and that is a perfectly fine ambition.

WHY RENT THIS: Mindless action movie fun that moves at a ridiculous pace.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Ultra-violent and too much mediocre metal on the score.

FAMILY VALUES: Over-the-top violence and a cornucopia of f-bombs and other harsh language make this a definite mature audience’s only feature.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The voice of the first Frankenstein was supplied by David Carradine, who played Frankenstein in Death Race 2000.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray version utilizes Universal’s U-Control interactive features which show race standings during the race sequences as well as an enormous amount of behind-the-scenes footage in picture-in-picture style. In addition, there is a feature which allows viewers to edit their own version of the second stage of the race from seven different angles.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Pandorum

You Only Live Twice


You Only Live Twice

Did someone call for a sociopathic megalomaniac?

(United Artists) Sean Connery, Donald Pleasance, Karin Dor, Akiko Wakabayashi, Tetsuro Tanba, Mie Hama, Teru Shimada, Charles Gray, Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell, Desmond Llewelyn. Directed by Lewis Gilbert

In the Bond pantheon, this movie usually doesn’t stand out among the movies considered Bond classics; Goldfinger, Dr. No and Live and Let Die, and to be sure, all of these are classic James Bond. However, I have always had a soft spot in my heart for this movie. It was the first one I saw in a movie theater – in a drive-in to be exact, where it was bloody hard to make out what was going on onscreen in the first scenes but my dad liked to smoke so we went to the drive-in where he could puff away to his hearts content.

I will be the first to admit that the plot is a bit on the ludicrous side, with SPECTRE intercepting American and Russian spacecraft with an automated unhinging missile that brings them to a rather impressive volcano lair in Japan (one which remains in many ways the quintessential villain’s lair and one which was spoofed nicely by Austin Powers). This of course brings the superpowers to the brink of mutual war and annihilation, which suited the Chinese just fine (they were funding much of the shenanigans) and more importantly, played perfectly into the megalomaniacal plans of none other than Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Pleasance), the previously faceless Number One of the SPECTRE organization.

The British, having detected the rogue craft coming down in the area around Japan (something which the American and Russian radar were unable to do because they were just, like, tracking) send their best man, James Bond (Connery) in to investigate and he runs into Osato (Shimada), a wealthy industrialist and his deadly assistant Helga (Dor), both secret operatives of SPECTRE. Bond is saved by Aki (Wakabayashi), the beautiful agent of the Japanese Secret Service, headed up by Tiger Tanaka (Tanba), with whom Bond becomes fast friends. With the help of Little Nellie, a gyrocopter, they investigate a remote island in the Sea of Japan. There they find a nearly impregnable lair built into a dormant volcano. Can Bond, the marvelous Japanese agent Kissy Suzuki (Hama) and an army of Japanese ninjas stop Blofeld from plunging the world into nuclear war?

While Auric Goldfinger remains the greatest Bond villain to date, it is Blofeld who is Bond’s nemesis, the Moriarty to Bond’s Sherlock Holmes. Pleasance gives the previously faceless villain not only a face, but a personality to match; urbane like Dr. No and vicious like Goldfinger. Dr. Evil of the Austin Powers movies is based on Pleasance’s take on the part, from the Nehru jacket to the somewhat noticeable scar to the quietly menacing speaking tone. All Dr. Evil is missing is the eurotrash accent.

I also found the Japanese locations beautiful and the insights to the Japanese culture interesting. Previously, the only Japan American audiences had seen in the movies was the one Godzilla trampled over. I have had a fascination for Japan ever since seeing this movie.

The volcano lair of Blofeld is one of the most spectacular ever built. The monorail you see scooting around the perimeter actually worked and the helipad arm that extends out was also a working helipad. Of course, the rocket launches were done with miniatures but this was one of the most expensive sets ever built at the time. It still holds up, looking sleek and menacing and exactly the kind of thing you’d see from a would-be world dictator.

The Bond girls for this movie, Hama and Wakabayashi, were cast mostly for their looks and their willingness to be filmed in a bikini, something that the Japanese were only beginning to embrace at the time. Unfortunately, the two actresses spoke little English and their performances are unconvincing.

That said, even given the implausible nature of the plot and that already by this point the Bond movies were relying more on familiar repetitive plot points rather than stretching the limits (and over-relying on gadgets) of the creativity of the writers, this still remains a film that resonates with me. Interestingly enough, the next Bond movie to be made would be On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which had perhaps the best script of all the Bond movies but Connery had left the series after You Only Live Twice, tired of the media attention and anxious not to be typecast as Bond any longer. I’ve always thought had Connery made that movie, it might have turned out to be the best in the series, even better than Goldfinger. But, that’s another review for another day.

WHY RENT THIS: An underrated Bond movie, with exotic locales and a great deal of insight into the Japanese culture. The volcano set is one of the most magnificent of the series, with a working monorail and helipad.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The kitsch and implausibility factors were beginning to become noticeable.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of sexuality and as usual with Bond films, plenty of violence and smoking. Still, it’s no worse than anything on network television these days so don’t feel that you need to restrict the kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: You Only Live Twice was the last James Bond novel published during Ian Fleming’s lifetime (there were posthumous publications). There were also two Blofelds in the cast; Pleasance who played him here, and Charles Gray who played Henderson here and Blofeld in Diamonds Are Forever.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Ultimate DVD Edition has a nice featurette on Maurice Binder, the main title designer for the Bond films up through the Timothy Dalton era. Although the Blu-Ray edition hasn’t been released yet, the Bond films released so far in the format have included the Ultimate Edition features along with a beautifully restored print, so look forward to that.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Date Night