Saturday, March 02, 2013

Movie Night II

 Movie Night II

On July 31st, 2010 I posted Movie Night, a review of 4 movies which has revolutionized movie criticism (in a parallel universe centered around my blog). The four movies covered were Casablanca, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Groundhog Day and  Love, Actually.  
I was planning on covering more movies that day but due to my usual blah, blah, blahness my last line had to be,  "[a]nd, now, as usual, I’ve exhausted everyone’s ability to keep reading, and must finish this another day." Oh, I'm sure that there are people who would happily read dozens of pages (in a parallel universe where Borders did not go out of business and a popular idiom is "sex, drugs, rock n' roll and reading") but generally speaking, in this universe I try to be at least minimally conscious of modern day internet impatience.

In retrospect, I can't believe I managed to fit in four movies the first time. Today I wanted to do four and can managed two (having now written the entire post and come back to clean up the beginning.) This time I even have a theme across all four - Super heroes with no super powers. Perhaps while I continue to dawdle on my Jefferson post, I will do the other two next week. That's the plan, anyway. You know what they say about plans. Anyway, I probably should give a spoiler alert, if you haven't seen these before, but they are not exactly knew movies, and having seen both several times, knowing what is going to happen didn't make any difference. In fact, it was pretty obvious the first time. But, it's not the plot that matters and I try and just give you the flavor with some dialogue.
The Punisher (2004)

Suppose you are on vacation with your family after deciding to retire from a special forces followed by a sterling FBI career, when your entire family is slaughtered by a thug  right before your eyes and you are yourself presumed dead. You might want vengeance. It's certainly motive for murder. Suppose you also had the means and the opportunity. Would you take it? In our imagination, yes, we would pick up the gun, surprise the villain and shoot repeatedly. What if it was a gang that killed your family or mobsters? Would you dare wreak havoc among them, slaughtering them one by one? In the safety of our imagination, we think we would  ---  if we could. That is, if they left themselves unprotected, did things like leave their club guarded by only one watchman and no cameras. The heroes of revenge movies have not only our motive, but nerves of still, superhuman stamina, incredible competence and last, a lot of luck.
Frank Castle, played by actor Thomas Jane, has all those thing. Castle -- The Punisher -- is a Marvel super-hero. Not one that flies or has super-strength, but one highly trained and so focused on killing his enemies that little can stop him. Fortunately, in 2004 Mr. Jane also had some really strong writers and direction unlike Dolph Lundgren had in an attempt at bringing the character to the screen just a few years earlier.

There are lots of revenge movies. There is something about this one that makes me watch it whenever it is in on.
It was, in some senses, a movie about families. Frank Castle's first family is killed off - wife, kid and father. There's the bad guy, Howard Saint's family and last Castle's second "family," who made the movie for me, particularly in one long dramatic scene.

After Castle's real family is destroyed, he sets himself up in a slummy apartment out in the boonies which is also inhabited by a few losers. Actor John Pinette,  a stand up comedian some people mistake for Louie Anderson, also had something of a tv and movie career. I can't find any great successes in it - he appeared on Alf and Seinfeld, for example, and The Punisher was probably the high point. There he played the charming if hapless Bumpo -- a sort of Oliver Hardy like character a somewhat more successful actor, Ben Foster's Stan Laurelish Spacker Dave - a tortured soul whose face is bejeweled by jewelry. The third family member is Joan (a Rebecca Romijn I could not even recognize), a beautiful if sad woman who almost gets to be Castle's love interest, if his testosterone was not completely directed to killing and perhaps some bad timing.
No doubt when Castle selected this run down tenement to live in, he thought he was getting isolation from anyone, that he would have little if any contact with the other outcasts who live there. He can't and ends up rescuing Joan from a bullying boyfriend. Somewhat reluctantly, he finds himself the father of a family seemingly more dysfunctional, but actually more intact and closer than many real ones. I am not guessing, I know. When Dave, a frightened loser, faces torture rather than give up Castle, he shows unbelievable courage in order to protect him despite Castle's former standoffishness. When Castle asks him "why?" he answers, still in agony - "You're one of us. You're family."

At one point when Castle was off to what Joan thought was his own death at the hands of the bad guys, she had asked him "What makes you any different from them?" He answered, "They have something to lose." It reminds me more than a little of Kristofferson's classic lyric from Me and Bobby McGee -  "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose"? Maybe it's supposed to. But when The Punisher says he has nothing left to lose, you knew some bad guys were going to die.
And then there is John Travolta, who has an uncanny ability to make every movie he is in fun. No doubt his Howard Saint is much like his other villains although you suspect all through that Saint is not quite as competent as some other ones. ). Frankly, in the last big fight scene, Saint's security is so lax that one wonders how long he's been a mobster. Castle remaining unseen by them so long as he approaches them in the end is a little unbelievable even for a comic book character. Did he ever hear of video surveillance?

Whatever the similarity among Travolta characters, they are meant to bear his own manic stamp. It's what we want to see and a little difference is enough. Oddly, this Travolta character reminds me of lyrics from another Kristofferson song:
Hey, little girl, don't you know he's the devil.
He's everything that I ain't.
Hiding intentions of evil,
Under the smile of a saint.
All he's good for is getting in trouble,
And shiftin' his share of the blame.
And some people swear he's my double:
And some even say we're the same.
But the silver-tongued devil's got nothing to lose,
I'll only live 'til I die.
We take our own chances and pay our own dues,
The silver tongued devil and I.

I would not be surprised to find that one of the writers listened to those words at one time or another, although more likely the similarities just struck me and I'm stretching. Anyway, this Saint is everything The Punisher isn't. He's charming, smiley, smarmey and usually relies on everyone else to do his dirty work. A silver-tongued devil. He's ethically challenged, of course. He wants what he wants and he takes it by force or guile. But, he also wants to be a family man and even describes his number one henchman as his brother. His wife is played by the radiantly sexual Laura Harring (if you haven't seen her in David Lynch's psychological melodrama, Mulholland Drive, which had me thinking for days -- let me just give a Bob Hopish "Grrrrr" and move on). She seems not to be a natural candidate for The Punisher's vengeance until you remember that having suffered the loss of her son at Castle's hands, she was the one who insisted that his whole family be killed. She and Saint had twin sons (who were conveniently played by one actor), one of whom Frank Castle kills in his last mission before retiring. It is this act of revenge by Saint's family upon Castle's that makes him The Punisher.
Where Travolta plays Saint in his usual electric way, Thomas Jane plays a stoic, Eastwoodish, avenging angel, like a blunt sap on the back of the head. He is not Saint's double - as in the Kristofferson song, but rather his negative image. Where Saint is sunny, garrulous and excitable, Castle is sullen, silent and outwardly stoic with a heart empty but for revenge and punishment:

A fisherman: Vaya con Dios, Castle. Go with God.
 God's going to sit this one out.

Saint: How is he still alive? I don't know, Quentin, I wasn't there. Why is he still alive? Now that's an interesting question. Maybe he's still alive because he was meant to suffer more, I don't know. But how can we make him suffer if we can't find him?
No. 1 Henchman: He's daring us.
: No, no. He misses his family and he wants to die. He's asking for help. So, let's help him.

In the best scene in the movie - really two scenes merged together - Castle is tricked into dinner by his outcast neighbors and it is a little awkward, thanks to his reticence. After they eat, Joan asks them all to say what it is they are thankful for. Castle, seated at the head of the table, had said nothing during dinner and when it is his turn, he merely mumbles words so plain and obvious that his companions cannot help but realize that life has left him with nothing to offer than his skills. They know. They do not have those skill but only an unvanquished spirit -- well, in Joan's case, she's also hot.  After dinner, trying to reach Castle (she should have just jumped him) she tries to relate and promises him a better tomorrow: "I know what it's like. I know what it's like to make your memories go away. You can make new memories; good ones. Good memories can save your life." You think it is going the way of most movies, but he merely says, "I'm not what you're lookin' for" and walks off.  Later, after he has killed off Saint, his family, friends and crew, shooting, blowing up and incinerating them in a Biblical send off in a memorable final fight scene, he sees Joan and says "You were right. Good memories can save your life." Short but effective. He also tells her "I have work to do. Read your newspaper everyday and you'll understand." She asks him the set up - "Which section?" to which, if you've seen a few movies, you could probably mouth the one word answer - "Obituaries."
But, having earlier failed to kill off Castle with a Johnny Cash like assassin, Harry Heck, who performs a really cool song for Castle on his guitar that he tells him he will sing at his funeral, Saint then sends someone after him named The Russian. After Joan fails to seduce Castle he goes back to his room and she goes to the kitchen where Bumpo and Dave are making dessert. They put on some opera (from Rigoletto - you'll know it) and the two begin dancing and miming the words to the music in order to make her laugh and feel better. Meanwhile, Castle is back in his room and hears a knock at his door. He puts his gun away and fixes his hair. It seems as if he may have had second thoughts about Joan. I'll let you find out in the movie what happens between them. But, when he answers the door, The Russian, played by huge Kevin Nash, a professional wrestler wearing a horizontal red striped white t-shirt oddly reminiscent of Bluto, is there ready to rip his head off -- literally. This is not your typical fight scene, although the Bond movies have been here before. The Punisher throws everything he can at this comic book monster, but to no avail.  At the same time, an apartment away, sometimes in sight of the mayhem through the window, the boys are entertaining Joan. Slowly the two scenes sets merge until . . . (okay, that would be a spoiler -- you'll see). But I will tell you that like Castle, the fight is blunt, funny and brutal all at the same time and we know him better after it.

As often is the case, it is more than one thing that makes a movie special. Roy Scheider and Will Patton are in it, but Scheider, who plays Castle's dad, isn't that significant; Patton's character has a more important role, and he was pretty good, particularly when Saint turns his wrath upon him. It wasn't the music, though that was good too or the fight scenes, which were also good, but not that much different than many in other movies (the fight with The Russian and perhaps the denouement standing out). There's a good guy you'd want to be in the same situation, characters you care about, a bad guy you love to hate and cool dialogue. That works for me.
But they also succeeded in letting us feel Castle's dark heart empty heart save for his purpose:

Castle: [I]n certain extreme situations, the law is inadequate. In order to shame its inadequacy, it is necessary to act outside the law. To pursue... natural justice. This is not vengeance. Revenge is not a valid motive, it's an emotional response. No, not vengeance. Punishment.
I'm not even sure that makes sense, but it gives us what we want. This is a fantasy and we know it rarely if ever plays out this way in real life in an age and place where we are trained to respect authority and let it take its long, painful and often unjust course. Justice is a part of this movie, but not societal justice - natural justice, which we may politely cringe from in public but recognize and want desperately in our minds. If only in real life those who have suffered having loved ones ripped violently away from them could know the object of their wrath with such clarity and avenge their deaths so certainly. You can't hope but wish, were you to suffer in that way, that you would have the determination, the opportunity and the means to destroy your enemies in this fashion.  We know that we are not Frank Castle. We do not have his skills or luck (though perhaps like me you possess awe inspiring basement mirror martial arts skills).  It wouldn't work out for us the way it did for him. But we can wish it would and that is what movies are for:

Those who do evil to others - the killers, the rapists, psychos, sadists - you will come to know me well. Frank Castle is dead. Call me... The Punisher.
The Last Dragon (1985)

Where I can see anyone but art film buffs (my brother once tricked me into seeing a movie in which animals suffered intensely; I will never trust him with picking a movie again) or stuffy film critics liking The Punisher, I admit that The Last Dragon ("TLD"), made by Motown producer Berry Gordy, is not for everyone. Yet it is even more fun than The Punisher. Though not based on a comic book, it is even more surreal and comic bookish than many action movies. I don't even know how to characterize it safely - a comic bookish, kung fuey, hip hopish comedic love story perhaps.

Start with the star, a fledgling one named actor -- Taimak. It was his first role and he supposedly learned on the job. What he was, was an actual martial artist and -- don't take this the wrong way - handsome. Maybe beautiful is more accurate. He was a beautiful young man who looked like a bi-racial god back when Obama was still in school.

His character is Leroy Green, but he is known as Bruce Leroy for his admiration of Bruce Lee. He is the oldest of three kids born to two black parents who own a Harlem pizzeria with the motto, "Just direct-a your feet-za to Daddy Green's pizza." He runs a local karate school for the kids in their Harlem neighborhood and is obsessed with the Chinese martial arts and philosophy. Naturally, this makes him a little odd. Both he and his little brother, Richie Green, played by a charming black teenage actor with the interesting name of Leo O'Brien* -- the jive comic relief, are in love with the same woman, a singer/entertainer named Laura Charles, played by an actress beautiful enough to match her co-star, a fox and a half former girlfriend of Prince also bearing one name -- Vanity.

*O'Brien had a very sporadic film career and went through some bad times, including getting shot multiple times a few years ago. Taimak and he re-united for a movie in 2011 which I don't think was ever released. Then he went and died last Fall, though I cannot find online of what. Perhaps being shot earlier had taken a toll on him.  I don't know enough about him to know where he got the unusual name for a black man of Leo O'Brien. He does not look bi-racial, but for all I know he is adopted. His older brother -- and I did not know this until I started checking facts for this post - was Master Gee, one of The Sugarhill Gang, who made the first commercial hip-hop recording.  Of course, Taimak's name isn't very typical either. It is Guarriello. But, his father is Italian, so we can understand how he got it.

Vanity, real name Denise Matthews, had her 15 minutes but of fame, but however "vain" she was, she has had some life and is not the same person now. She is of Polish, Jewish, African, Hawaiian and Native American descent and has been a successful model, tv and movie star. She painted surreal and erotic art as a hobby and could make her own outfits for appearances. Prince dubbed her Vanity and is certainly responsible for a lot of her success. But, looking as she does, she "hooked up" (I can't write that stupid phrase without putting it in quotes) with a few rockers and entered into a destructive drug life. Then in 1994 she almost died from her longtime crack cocaine usage and while waiting out the three days to live they told her she had, found Jesus. She has since claimed to have cut off every tie to the entertainment world she had and thrown out everything she that connected her to it. Then she met and married an Oakland Raider, Anthony Smith, and divorced him the next year. I have no idea why they divorced, but it was probably a good thing for her. I swear I'm not making this up but he is now awaiting trial for being a serial killer. Weird, right? In the meantime, no longer wowing us with her looks and sexuality, she tours the world evangelizing and getting dialysis 5 times a day (thanks to all those drugs). Don't think I knew any of that except for the fact that she was pretty and had something to do with Prince before I read it all on Wikipedia (so it must be true) yesterday. I did double check her ex-husband's criminal status so I didn't slander some poor guy, but, he's accused of not only 4 counts of murder, but also torturing and killing three of them before he offed them. I'd say add excellent taste in men to her talents but she had already dated (engaged to, according to her) Nikki Sixx and that might be worse.
There were some other more interesting actors in TLD including Christopher Murney, a strange looking little fellow -- sort of the poor man's Wallace Shawn -- as one of the two villains. Mike Starr, who you probably think you don't know but has made a career playing dumb but loveable heavies who you would know if you saw him, played, well, a dumb but loveable heavy. There's also Ernie Reyes, Jr., who played a young student of Leroy's, claiming that he has mastered the art of fighting without knowing how to fight, but grows under under Bruce Leroy's tutelage. Reyes still doesn't look very old, but he has had a very kung-fuey acting and stunt man career, having roles in Red Sonja (with Arnold), Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles (stunt double for Donatello in I and his own character in II) and the last and only bad Indiana Jones film, as well as other stunt work and roles. He also had a short kickboxing career and actually knocked out a world champion in his first fight. It was a real kickboxing league and the guy was a real champion, so who knows. Anyway, you'd know him if you saw him too. Chazz Palmintieri and William H. Macy had small roles. Keshia Knight Pulliam, who played Bruce Leroy's little sister in TLD, also played the little sister on The Cosby Show and, coincidentally, Carl Anthony Payne II who was the Huxtable family friend, Cockroach, also was in TLD.

But the best of the supporting actors was one of my favorites - Julius Carry -- actually, Julius J. Carry III - who played the karate master villain, Sho'nuff, the Shogun of Harlem. I knew him originally as the eccentric but fearsome bounty hunter, Lord Bowler, in one of my favorite all time television shows, The Adventures of Briscoe County, Jr. (starring Bruce Campbell - aka The Chin). Somehow Carry could play an over the top snarling tough guy in a very comical way without coming off like a Keystone Kop.  It's hard to describe Sho'nuff, but perhaps that is typical of the film. He's a sort of a hip hop, jive, karate guy whose is so powerful that his hands sometimes glow when he fights and he can the kick the ever living &*^%$ out of anyone but a true master. There are a few threads in the story, but his is the most fun. Unfortunately, Carry died a few years ago of pancreatic cancer in his late 50s. He could sing a bit too.
So, let's see if I can sum this strange movie up. On the one hand, young Richie loves Laura Charles, the singer, and she loves his older brother, the corny Bruce Leroy - "I'm tellin' you, pop. The boy's an awkward. Stupid old clothes, won't mess with no babes... People talk, you know." A filthy rich bad guy, Eddie Arkadian, wants Laura to promote his girlfriend as a new star, but, though a nightmarish version of Cyndi Lauper (whose Girls Just Want to Have Fun came out a couple of years earlier), she's just terrible.  Bruce Leroy ends up rescuing Laura a few times and she falls for him. He'd actually like to respond, but he has no "moves," which drives his little brother, already jealous, batty. At the same time Sho'nuff wants to fight Bruce Leroy just to humiliate him and be Harlem's toughest guy, and it sure looks like he can do it. Throughout it all, Bruce Leroy is on a quest from his kung fu teacher to find "The Master." Eventually, Eddie Arkadian kidnaps Laura Charles and Richie, forcing Bruce Leroy to face an unusual assortment of wannabe exotic martial artists (including one behemoth who pretty much kicks his ass before he is rescued; I never quite understood why they put that in) perhaps a little reminiscent of the bad guys who invade Rock Ridge in Blazing Saddles, in order to rescue them. When he thinks he has gotten through them all and can safely take apart Arkadian, he must face Sho'nuff in a factory. On the verge of defeat, Sho'nuff's hands start glowing and he wipes the floor with Bruce Leroy like . . . like . . . well, like The Russian wiped the floor with The Punisher. He starts dunking Leroy's head in a big vat filled with liquid, pulling him out repeatedly like a wet rat and asking him "Who's the master?" You can figure out the answer to that one (don't strain yourself; it's a movie and it's not hard). Kooky as it is, it's an inspiring scene and still gets me fired up when I think of it. And, it's not quite over. A few more goodies I'll leave for you.

I actually have my very own personal TLD related anecdote, which I may have told here before (as if you would remember). Going back about four years I was in the middle of a very bitter arbitration trial, and I expected that one of my clients was going to lose his temper when he testified. Unfortunately, my co-counsel may have inadvertently hinted that doing so might be a good idea at the right time (and perhaps sometimes it might be, but it is rare and you can't plan it). It was an emotional enough case that it could have happened. Before we parted on the day before he was to testify, he asked me how he could best prepare. He was a smart guy and already knew his testimony cold. I told him the only thing I wanted him to do was go to the video store, pick up a copy of TLD and watch it. He did. The next day, while he was being cross-examined by one of the most evil and crazy attorneys I have ever met, I could see that he was, in fact, about to lose it. I leaned over and whispered to him "Who's the master?" And, you know what? He hit it out of the park. See the movie and you will understand.

70s Karate Master and blaxpoitation film star Ron van Clief (who had the courage to get into the ring with Royce Gracie when he was in his 50s) choreographed the fight scenes and did a great job. Not that they looked real. They looked cool.

Good soundtrack. Fun movie. See it and find out who's the master.
Two more reviews coming soon in Movie Night III. And then Jefferson (some day, anyway).  


  1. Punisher - GREAT movie. I agree, agree, agree.... The Last Dragon, fun, fun, fun, but your review was so gay, gay, gay. "Don't take this the wrong way... he's beautiful..." there is NO wrong way to take that, only ONE way, you old woman.Yecch.

    1. Some of us are confident enough in our masculinity that we can recognize beauty in men without feeling emasculated. I have notified the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation about you though. Good luck with that.

      Holy cow, there apparently really is a Gay and . . . now GLAAD. I just read it on Wikipedia. And they are so, so, so going to sue you.

  2. Anonymous3:10 AM

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About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .