Thursday, March 22, 2007

Farce of the Penguins (2006)

dir. Bob Saget
Viewed on: 2007-03-18
Rating: 4.5

Bob Saget, who's funny (and foul-mouthed) now dontcha know, saw March of the Penguins and decided he had to make a parody. So, with the help of lots of stock footage and lots of actor/comedian friends, he did. And although I thought March of the Penguins was good, it was certainly asking to be parodied once media and silly conservative types started praising the penguins' "family values."

Saget decided to run with the penguins-as-people concept by making a romantic comedy out of their weird mating ritual. It's a nice idea that's good for a few chuckles here and there, but the joke gets old. It should've been a 30-minute film at most, or better still, a succinct five minutes, like this:

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Huo Yuan Jia, aka Jet Li's Fearless (2006)

dir. Ronny Yu
Viewed on 2007-03-17
rating: 6

I could recount the plot, but what's the point? The only reason to watch this film is for the fight scenes, a few of which are quite good. The opening sequence pits wushu master Huo Yuanjia (played by Li) against a succession of western martial artists, an English boxer, a German lance/spear specialist dude, and a Spanish fencer, in some kind of tournament. (There's always either a tournament or a succession of revenge fights in kung fu movies, or sometimes both.) Before Yuanjia fights his final opponent, we're sent into a flashback--lasting most of the movie--depicting how the character got to this point.* Along the way, there is a pretty cool fight on top of an elaborate wooden structure. Later, Yuanjia battles a rival master in a gruesome, vengeful sword fight throughout a restaurant, culminating in the wine cellar. It wasn't merely a knock-down drag-out fight. To that point, Yuanjia had merely been a cocky prize fighter, but then he lets his pride lead him into a foolish revenge fight. By starting in the bright restaurant and descending into the dark cellar, it mirrors the character's own descent. It's clever, and I think it's a good example of what "they" say is "the language of film."

As you'd expect if you've seen Jet Li's movies, the martial arts action is of a high quality. However, the movie overall occupies kind of a middle space between the typical kung fu flick and the poetic/balletic martial arts epic dramas like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I felt like I had seen better of both types of movies from Jet Li--Fist of Legend on the "flick" end, and Hero at the arty end (both of which are highly recommended, btw).

* Am I just whining or does it seem like this type of narrative structure--start in the present; then flashback to past events that lead back to the present--is so played? It's like it's the method of choice for building an "unconventional" narrative, except that it's been used so often that it is now quite conventional, yet somehow more bland because the attempt to be unconventional is so transparent. Maybe I'm being too neurotic about it. Or perhaps I'm just worn out from having seen it on "Alias" So. Many. Times. often that you'd think it's the only way JJ Abrams knows how to tell a story. He even did it when he directed Mission: Impossible III.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

300 (2007)

dir. Zack Snyder
Viewed on 2007-03-09
Rating: 8

Okay, so I like historical epics. Some people like romantic comedies despite knowing the outcome before seeing the first frame. I like swords. Some people like costume dramas. I like gory battle scenes. And heroic victories and deaths. Those types of movies are my genre of choice for the times when I need to watch something on the big screen and don't want to think much about it. I say that, but when it happens that such a movie does make me think a little, I'm always pleased rather than annoyed.

No, there's nothing too cerebral about 300, a very faithful adaptation (both visually and dialog-wise) of Frank Miller's award-winning graphic novel depicting the 480 B.C. Battle of Thermopylae, where 300 Spartans, and several hundred other Greeks, significantly wounded the massive Persian army at the cost of all their lives.[1] Oh, it's an action movie through and through, and in its lesser moments it comes off as a recruitment ad for the Marines. Still, the film implicitly asks a couple of questions that are worth thinking about every once in a while: 1) What causes are worth sacrificing yourself for? 2) How would you acquit yourself when facing certain death? The answers as they relate to 300 are: 1) Liberty; 2) Fight till your last breath. Or you could look at the basic message more existentially: defend what you think is right; do whatever you can until you can't.

Nothing mind-bending in that, but worth reflecting on occasionally, I think. Combine it with some witty laconic dialog [2], a nearly religious attentiveness to the imagery created by Frank Miller (artist) and Lynn Varley (colorist) in the graphic novel, and some decent acting, and it makes for a satisfying spectacle.

[1] Do you think I gave away too much? Tough. There's no such thing as a spoiler for something that happened 2,500 years ago. Anyway, read the linked Wikipedia article. It's good for you. Another question that comes to mind after watching the movie and reading the article: how would Western Civilization have been different if the Greeks had simply been flattened at Thermopylae and the Persians were able to march right through? Would there even be a Western Civilization? Hey, and sure enough, Wikipedia has a separate article on battles of "macrohistorical" importance (macromawhatical?), listing Thermopylae as one.

[2] Pun intended. Also, an example: One of my favorite moments is at the beginning when the Persian envoy comes to Sparta asking King Leonidas to submit to the overwhelming might of the "god-king" Xerxes in exchange for power and riches. Leonidas of course refuses, which prompts the envoy's outrage: "This is blasphemy! This is madness!" Leonidas responds, "This is Sparta!"

Monday, March 12, 2007

Tenacious D in 'The Pick of Destiny' (2006)

dir. Liam Lynch
Viewed on 2007-03-09
Rating: 5.9

Ten minutes into this movie I was thinking it could be headed for legendary status. Those ten minutes led me to believe that the whole film would be a revelation: a rock opera featuring the music of Tenacious D, a duo that simultaneously honors and mocks rock music (particularly of the Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath ilk). Alas, after cameos by Meat Loaf and Dio, the movie played out like a 90-minute version of one of the episodes from The D's HBO series, or else like a mediocre retelling of The Blues Brothers. Some genuinely funny songs and scenes, but not enough to carry a whole movie unless you really enjoyed the series, or you love everything Jack Black does. Whether they didn't have the time, budget, will, studio approval, or whatever was needed to make a full-blown opera isn't really important--I don't blame anyone. But I can't help feeling an opportunity was missed here.