March 15th, 2014

DIRECTOR SPOTLIGHT: SPIKE LEE

OLDBOY (2013) ***

Most people hate on remakes of recently-released foreign language films on general principles. Lord knows, I’m guilty of it from time to time. People ask why would Hollywood do such a thing? The most common answer would be that most people don’t want to read the subtitles. And this seems to get everyone’s panties in a bunch, but the fact is, this practice is really nothing new. I mean ever since the ‘30s there have been talkie remakes of silent movies so people wouldn’t have to read. So that argument doesn’t hold a whole lot of water.

Which brings me to Spike Lee’s remake of Chan-Wook Park’s Oldboy. During the press rounds for the film, Lee was adamant about not calling it a “remake”, but a “companion piece”. Because of Lee’s handling of the material, and the film’s uniquely American sentiments (like the scene where Josh Brolin laments the disappearance of pay phones), it doesn’t play like your typical studio cash-in. Because of that, and the earnest performances by Brolin and Elizabeth Olsen, Oldboy ’13 earns it’s “companion piece” status.

Josh Brolin is a drunk who gets locked in a hotel room and given only Chinese food to eat and vodka to drink. While he is locked away, he is framed for the murder of his wife. There’s so escape, so the only thing he’s able to do is watch exercise programs and Kung Fu movies on TV. Twenty years later, he finally gets out, and armed with a cell phone and the Kung Fu he learned on TV, he sets out to find who imprisoned him and why.

Spike Lee has his ups and downs, just like any filmmaker. When he hits, it’s often very powerful. (I think Summer of Sam is a masterpiece.) But sometimes, he has the ability to get so self-indulgent that it usurps the entire film. (Like Girl 6, for instance.) But Oldboy is a case where he checks his ego and is content on just telling a good story. Since this is Spike Lee we’re talking about, he still puts in his little political jabs in there (like Brolin watching Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech and scenes of Hurricane Katrina on television), but they don’t get in the way of the film. In fact, his style is fairly invisible here (save for the crazy camerawork during Brolin’s drunken stupor), which services the story quite well.

I like the original Oldboy. I don’t necessarily think it was a classic or anything like some people do. Because of that, there’s definitely room for interpretation. Some fans may be disappointed that there’s no octopus scene, but some of the more Americanized aspects of the film ring true more often than not. And Lee’s version of the hammer fight is pretty great too (for a studio movie anyway).

Lee also does a solid job of keeping things moving. Only in the third act when some of the major revelations come to light does the flick falter somewhat. But the final moments of the film are just as powerful as its predecessor if you ask me. The fact that this scene still works, even when you already know the outcome is a testament to both the actors and Lee’s craftsmanship.

And if the movie works, it’s because of Josh Brolin. He’s at his all-time best here. He runs the gamut of emotions from seething rage, to lowly self-pity and he’s pretty terrific. He’s really good in the scenes with Elizabeth Olsen too. Sharlto Copely is a bit of a letdown as the snide villain though. He’s a bit too smarmy for his own good, but he plays his final scene decently enough.

No matter what your feelings are about remakes, if you’re a fan of Josh Brolin, you should pretty much drop what you’re doing and check this flick out.

DIRECTOR SPOTLIGHT: ALFRED HITCHCOCK

UNDER CAPRICORN (1949) **

Under Capricorn was an atypical film for director Alfred Hitchcock. It’s a period costume drama rather than the thriller you’d normally associate with The Master of Suspense. And it’s not a particularly good costume drama either.

Set in Australia in the early 19th century, Under Capricorn tells the story of an Irish guy named Charles (Michael Wilding) trying to make a fresh start in a new country. He gets wrangled by Flusky (Joseph Cotten) into coming around to his old mansion for dinner. His sick and frail wife (Ingrid Bergman) winds up taking a shine to Charles, which causes severe complications with Flusky. When a long kept family secret comes to light, it threatens Flusky’s marriage.

The subject matter isn’t Hitch’s usual forte and as to be expected, there is little of his personality in the film. (Only one scene involving a shrunken head shows off The Master’s macabre touch.) Although his heart doesn’t seem to be in this one, he does get to show off a bit on the technical side of things. Like Rope, he does these long, unbroken takes (although they’re not nearly as long and elaborate as the ones in Rope), but that might only be a minor point of interest for most viewers.

Under Capricorn has a sort of Rebecca vibe to it as most of the action takes place in a gothic mansion. Plus, there’s a manipulative servant woman stirring the pot. Too bad the soap opera-level melodramatics overwhelm the film and bring things screeching to a halt.

The stuffy performances don’t help either. Wilding and Cotten are kinda dull in the leads. Bergman is OK as the out-of-it lady of the house though. But overall, the great cinematography by the legendary Jack Cardiff is the only thing of note in an otherwise dreary and lackluster picture.

DIRECTOR SPOTLIGHT: BRIAN DE PALMA

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1996) ****

Movie adaptations of old television shows are a tricky thing. On one hand, you have to update the material faithfully to fit the present day. On the other, if you change the rules too much you run the risk of alienating fans of the show. Director Brian De Palma previously did a slam-bang job on the big screen adaptation of The Untouchables. And as good as that flick was, his version of Mission: Impossible is even better.

The fact that Mission: Impossible commits out and out blasphemy to the show's roots and STILL manages to be awesome is a true testament to De Palma’s crackerjack direction; as well as the fun and inventive script by David Koepp, Steven Zaillian, and Robert Towne. (Spoilers for an 18 year old movie ahead.) I mean the hero of the original series Jim Phelps (played by Jon Voight) is the damn villain! Most fans of the series would be demanding the filmmakers’ heads for that one. But the clever way the filmmakers constantly pull the rug out from under you at every turn is a lot of fun to watch.

Basically, Impossible Missionary Ethan Hunt (Tom Hunt) and his team are sold out while trying to find a nock list that will expose the real names of all agents working undercover. Everyone on the team except for Hunt is killed, and Hunt is blamed. He then goes on the run and tries to clear his name, all the while trying to get his hands on the real nock list.

The opening scenes of the flick update the espionage of the original series nicely and Rob Bottin’s face mask appliances are brilliantly done. And the way the whole thing goes awry and Hunt is blamed crackles, and the subsequent scenes of Hunt on the run are very well done. It’s just a terrific piece of popcorn filmmaking.

Ethan Hunt is another great addition in Cruise’s repertoire of iconic action heroes. Cruise might’ve become a star with Top Gun, but it was really this role that cemented him as a summer blockbuster fixture. And he is simply awesome in this flick.

The action is top notch. De Palma was a great choice to direct this because he skillfully infuses what could’ve been a throwaway summer movie with his own unique sensibilities. The sequence where Cruise breaks in to CIA headquarters while dangling perilously from a wire is one of the most memorable set pieces of the ‘90s, as is the finale involving a speeding train and an exploding helicopter.

Of all the movies based on old TV shows, this is definitely one of the best.

CHALLENGE OF THE MASTER KILLER (1989) **

Gordon Liu stars as a cop on the trail of a mad bomber. His police captain chews him out about his methods and saddles him with a new partner. Eventually, Lui learns to respect his partner and with a little help from the captain’s sexy daughter, they crack the case.

Challenge of the Master Killer is a pretty routine Buddy Cop Movie. The problem is; the tone is all out of whack. There’s some pretty violent fight scenes mixed in with a lot of gratuitous comic relief, and none of it really works. The scene where Liu plays a prank on his captain is OK, but the part where he and his partner have to dress up in drag seems especially off.

There are a couple of solid action scenes here, although they aren’t quite enough to make it worthwhile. We get a pretty cool fight in a pool hall and the fight inside a roller disco is rather fun. There’s also one nutty scene where a midget pool shark hustles Liu’s partner while a disco version of The William Tell Overture plays that is just too goofy for words. In the end, it doesn’t add up to much, but if you’re a Gordon Lui fan who can’t wait to see him in a Buddy Cop Movie, then you’ll probably enjoy Challenge of the Master Killer.

AKA: Fury of a Tiger.

DIRECTOR SPOTLIGHT: MARTIN SCORSESE TRIPLE FEATURE

THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988) ****

Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ caused quite an outrage at the time of release. Critics and religious leaders condemned the film mostly because it dared to depict Jesus Christ as a man full of fear and doubt. The final scene where Jesus is tempted down from the cross and lives as a man; not a Messiah, taking multiple wives and having several children offended them too. But whatever your religious convictions are, the film is undeniably daring and powerful.

The first half hour of the film follows Jesus (Willem Dafoe) being tortured by the voice of God. He’s afraid of accepting the responsibly of being the Son of God and tells his friend Judas (Harvey Keitel) his feelings of doubt. His relationship with Judas is probably the most interesting thing about the movie. Judas loves Jesus and challenges him. His long, introspective talks about God are some of the best scenes in the film.

For the next two hours, The Last Temptation of Christ follows the usual Biblical plotline. We see Jesus gaining followers, healing the sick and the blind, and turning water into wine. These scenes although familiar, benefit from Scorsese’s trademark camerawork and visual pizazz.

The last half hour of the film follows the temptation of Jesus. Thinking he’s served his purpose, he comes down off the cross and sets about living a normal life; something he’s been deprived of, being the Messiah and all. These scenes are kinda pokey, but the payoff when Jesus’ apostles come back to see him on his deathbed are very powerful.

The cast is excellent. Dafoe is not the first person you would think of to play Jesus. However, he is awesome in the scenes where he is filled with self-doubt. And in his Messianic scenes, he is quite wonderful too.

Barbara Hershey is really great as Mary Magdalene too. She has some pretty good nude scenes (not something you’d expect to hear in a Biblical epic) as well. David Bowie also offers what is probably the definitive Pontius Pilate performance and Harry Dean Stanton is a lot of fun to watch as Saul.

But it is Harvey Keitel who steals the movie as Judas. He is by far Jesus’ most critical follower, but also his most beloved. Many critics dismissed him as the weak link (mostly because of his accent), but to me, he’s the glue that holds the movie together. It’s definitely an underrated performance that’s among his best.

CAPE FEAR (1991) **

After 14 years in prison, psychopath rapist Max Cady (Robert De Niro) gets out of jail. He then relocates to a small town where Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte), the lawyer who put him away lives with his family. Of course, when Cady goes after his wife (Jessica Lange) and daughter (Juliette Lewis), but he does so in a way that the law can’t touch him. It’s then up to Sam to fight back and save his family.

Cape Fear is a slick, but empty remake of the J. Lee Thompson original. Director Martin Scorsese’s style is cranked up to 11 here. The film is filled with lots of zooming camerawork, negative scenes, and flashy editing, but it’s all so overdone that it sometimes borders on parody. If anything, it’s Martin Scorsese doing his version of a big budget Hollywood thriller as a stylistic exercise. And ultimately, that’s what Cape Fear is; an exercise. And one that’s full of empty calories to boot.

The way Cady pesters the family while staying just out of arm’s length of the law probably inspired all of those “From Hell” movies of the ‘90s. And the scenes of Cady playing cat-and-mouse are fun for a while. But Scorsese allows these scenes to go on for far too long and the film winds up treading too much water. Speaking of water, the climax aboard a boat during a storm is needlessly overblown and feels out of step with the rest of the picture.

De Niro is pretty good as Cady. He gets a couple of memorable moments (like the “Come out, come out, wherever you are!” scene), but his overdone southern accent becomes cartoonish after a while. Nolte is solid as the uptight hero and I enjoyed seeing Joe Don Baker as a sleazy private eye. There is also good supporting turns by the original stars Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum too, but none of them really make or break the movie.

THE AVIATOR (2004) *** ½

Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) takes his giant fortune and bankrolls a motion picture, Hell’s Angels with it. Along the way he winds up translating his aerodynamic knowhow into an empire. Meanwhile, he romances Hollywood starlets like Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale) and has to deal with the MPAA ratings board, who try to censor his film, The Outlaw. Hughes also has to tangle with a greedy Senator (Alan Alda), but his worst villain winds up being himself; as his chronic OCD turns him into an eccentric recluse.

Martin Scorsese is really good at showing the obsessive nature of Hughes. And I’m not even talking about his Obsessive Compulsive Disorder either. Everything Hughes did was done obsessively. I especially liked the scene where Hughes put a halt to filming his airplane sequences until there were just the right kinds of clouds in the sky. And yes, the scenes where Hughes’ OCD nearly cripples him are fairly brutal. I mean who knew that washing your hands in a public restroom could be so harrowing?

Leonardo DiCaprio is excellent as Hughes. He’s a natural as the young and slick Hughes. I expected that. But as his character grows older and becomes more and more controlled by his Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, you really feel for him. And that’s hard to admit, especially when you’re talking about a guy that fills up milk jars full of his own urine and meticulously lines his room with them.

As far as the modern day actors playing old time Hollywood stars, the film is a bit of a mixed bag. Jude Law is great as Errol Flynn and I thought Kate Beckinsale was fine as Ava Gardner. But while Cate Blanchett won an Oscar for playing Katharine Hepburn, I thought her performance was a little uneven. She sorta sounds halfway between a caricature of Hepburn and the real thing.

The rest of the supporting players are very good. Alda makes for a slimy villain and Alec Baldwin does a solid job as Hughes’ competition. And I thought John C. Reilly was really good as Hughes’ right hand man.

Despite a few spellbinding sequences, the flick runs on a bit too long. And it sorta peters out at the end. But overall, The Aviator is a strong second-tier Scorsese flick.

SEVEN STEPS OF KUNG FU (1979) ***

Young Tiger is taking a break from learning Kung Fu from his Master when he finds out that the deadly Five Hands Gang is in town. His Master has a score to settle with the gang, and Young Tiger joins him in his quest. When the gang brutally murders Young Tiger’s girlfriend, he goes out for revenge.

Seven Steps of Kung Fu is light on plot, which works out quite well considering there’s an intricately choreographed Kung Fu fight scene about every five minutes or so. Seriously, who needs a “plot” when your movie is like wall to wall action? Sure, a few of the fights go on a tad too long, and some are weaker than others. But since Seven Steps of Kung Fu honors The Video Vacuum Motto of “Quantity Over Quality”, I can’t really complain; especially since the film is filled with non-stop Kung Fu.

Most of the action (particularly early on in the film) is of the humorous Jackie Chan-style variety. These scenes work the best. However, I do have to say that the Master/Student scenes feel pretty rushed. (The Master hurries through the “Seven Steps” way too quickly.) But other than that, Seven Steps of Kung Fu is a lot of fun and should please most chopsocky fanatics.

AKA: Kung Fu of Seven Steps. AKA: Shaolin Raiders of Death.