Monday, June 11, 2012

The (Not) Fantastic Four

I was sorely tempted to walk out on a few films I've seen over the past two months.

The Raid: Redemption starring Iko Uwais; directed by Gareth Evans; Indonesian with subtitles; (2011) - Official Website
The Philly Kid starring Wes Chatham; directed by Jason Connery; (2012) 
MIS Human Secret Weapon; directed by Junichi Suzuki; English & Japanese with subtitles; (2012) - Official Website
The Avengers starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson & Jeremy Renner; with Samuel L. Jackson; directed by Joss Whedon; (2012) - Official Website


I saw The Raid at the Century Daly City, Philly Kid & The Avengers at the Balboa and MIS at the Castro.

The Raid: Redemption was billed as a gritty action film about a SWAT team that try to take down a criminal kingpin.  To make the arrest, they have to work their way up an apartment building to the penthouse.  Most of the residents of the building are vicious criminals in the employ of the kingpin.  So they have to fight their way floor by floor.  Sounds like a decent plot but it gets a little tedious.  After most of the team is killed, it's up to Rama (Iko Uwais) to make the arrest.  It's one of those deals where the only way out is to capture the bad guy and use him as a shield to make his escape.  There was one fight scene between the enforcer of the gang vs. Rama and his brother which dragged for so long that I grew numb.  A little less action and a little more character development would have elevated this film tremendously.

The Philly Kid was a film about an NCAA championship wrestler (Wes Chatham) who is mistakenly convicted as part of an armed robbery that goes sideways.  When he gets out, he is forced to fight MMA matches to save his best friend who is in debt to the local gangster (who also runs the Friday night MMA bouts).  There are some crooked cops and love interest and you can probably guess the rest.

The Philly Kid was part of a five film marathon from After Dark Films which screened at the Balboa for 4 or 5 days.  The other films included Transit (with Jim Caviezel), Dragon Eyes (with Jean-Claude Van Damme), Stash House (with Dolph Lundgren) and El Gringo (with Christian Slater).  In a different era, these films would likely have been straight to DVD.  I chose The Philly Kid because I needed to use up the remaining films on my Balboa Discount Card.

Predictable to a fault, The Philly Kid at least kept a brisk pace at 94 minutes.  Neal McDonough, a character actor with a familiar face, shines as the Philly Kid's MMA trainer, LA Jim.  I'm not sure if his performance was really that good or it just shined in comparison to the plodding acting of his co-stars.

From the director of 442: Live with Honor, Die with Dignity (2010) and Toyo's Camera (2009), MIS Human Secret Weapon follows yet another story of Japanese Americans during WWII.  Junichi Suzuki has made a cottage industry by exploring the Japanese American experience.  With each successive film, he seems to lose some of his perspective.  Whereas Toyo's Camera was about one man in a Japanese American internment camp and 442 was about one combat regiment in the European Theater, MIS strays into areas far afield from its nominal topic.  MIS stands for Military Intelligence Service which decoded Japanese military material.  Separate from the famed Magic Project which deciphered coded Japanese messages and helped give the US the edge at the Battle of Midway, MIS translated military and personal material captured on the battlefield and provided translation services during interrogation of Japanese POWs.

That would have been a fine film.  For example, they explained how the Japanese Army published an officer listing which showed name, rank and unit.  That information by itself doesn't seem tremendously valuable, but consider how it was used by the US.  If a prisoner was captured, he would be asked to name his unit & commanding officer which would be cross-referenced against the officer list.  If confirmed, it gave the US valuable information about troop locations.

MIS went astray as a result of undisciplined editing.  Actress Tamlyn Tomita shows up for one talking head shot.  What she has to do with MIS is still a mystery to me.  In another interview, Senator Daniel Inoye discusses why he didn't join MIS.  Then the final portion of the film dealt with post-WWII use of MIS to fight communism in Japan.  To much expository narration and an annoying soundtrack doomed MIS.  That's too bad because the topic was more compelling than 442 and Toyo's Camera, in my opinion.

442 and Toyo's Camera, played at the Viz before it became the San Francisco Film Society Cinema.  That modest sized theater would have been a better venue.  The cavernous Castro only accentuated the sparse audience at the screening I attended.

There isn't much to be said about The Avengers, one of the highest grossing films of all time.  My favorite parts of the film occurred when the superheroes bicker with each other which is another way of saying Robert Downey Jr's snarky Tony Stark is the best thing about the film.  The fight scenes were in desperate need of editing.  The finale where half of Manhattan gets destroyed dragged on and on...and on.  I grew bored and distracted and went to the bathroom.

The Avengers showed everything that is wrong with action films - obvious and predictable characterizations, extended fight sequences and reliance on CGI.  At an interminable 143 minutes, I was glad for it to be over.  I stayed until the bitter end knowing there were two Easter eggs in the final credits.  The very final one where the superheroes share a falafel (or was it a gyro?) hint at what could have been.  Six superheroes in costume eating falafels in silence was the one of the best scenes in the film.  That pretty much summarizes my opinion of The Avengers. 

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