Friday, July 3, 2015

Worth Mentioning - Stories About Americans

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

Three "American" movies for the Fourth of July weekend.


I've intended to watch The American ever since I first saw the trailer. George Clooney is one of my favorite actors, and a thriller in which he plays an assassin looked to be right up my alley. And yet, somehow it took me five years to finally get around to watching it. It's hard to believe it's already been five years since it came out.

The film opened over Labor Day in September of 2010, the same weekend the Grindhouse spin-off Machete hit theatres. That weekend, I saw Machete instead, choosing the movie from Clooney's From Dusk Till Dawn director Robert Rodriguez over the new Clooney movie. More people in North America chose The American - it opened at #1, Machete was #2. However, I can only imagine just how many people who helped The American reach #1 left the theatre disappointed. It got a D- CinemaScore from audience members. The trailer had played up the moments of action, including lots of shots of people with guns and a glimpse at a vehicular chase. Those things are in the movie, but it's not an action movie. It's almost surprising that The American got a wide theatrical release, because its pacing, tone, and style are much more suited for the arthouse than the multiplex.

Clooney plays a contract killer named Jack whose career is in its final days, as evident from the fact that when we first see him he's lounging in Sweden with a woman he has fallen for. Hitmen soon invade Jack's romantic retreat, though, and to properly cover his tracks while escaping, he is forced to murder his girlfriend.

Jack's handler sends him out into the Italian countryside to lay low, and Jack goes through his days in a heightened state of paranoia. That's understandable, because it's very clear that it's only a matter of time before things go wrong again. Not only does Jack think he's being followed, and not only does his handler send another assassin to the town where he's supposed to be hiding so he can modify a rifle for her, but Jack is also soon making the same mistake he made in Sweden - falling in love. This time the object of his affection is a prostitute named Clara.

Violence flares up from time to time, but the movie largely consists of very quiet scenes just showing Jack going about his life and being suspicious of things.

The American is a very European picture, and if a viewer doesn't soak in the atmosphere, admire the cinematography, and marvel at the gorgeous Italian locations, they're going to be bored out of their minds. Personally, I went along with it and found The American to be a pleasant viewing experience. It's a lovely movie to look at, I wish I had seen it on the big screen back in the day.


American Mary is the second feature from the "Twisted Twins", Jen and Sylvia Soska, following their micro-budgeted ($2500) debut Dead Hooker in a Trunk. This film's larger budget was at least partially obtained through their parents re-mortgaging their house.

Despite the title, it is a Canadian-shot production, made by Canadian filmmakers, starring a Canadian actress in the lead role. But the titular Mary, med school student Mary Mason, is dealing with an issue many young Americans are facing these days: she's drowning in student loan fees.

In an attempt to earn some cash, Mary breaks down and goes in for an interview at a strip club. Instead of having to strip, her med school experience gets her roped into treating a man the club's owner has been having roughed up in the basement. She does such a good job that her name gets circulated through the undergound, and soon Mary is getting contacted by people who want her to perform some very unusual body modification surgeries on them. For the money, she does.

Body parts are willingly amputated, transplanted, split, you name it. There are characters whose appearances have been drastically altered, most notably a woman who has tried to make herself look like cartoon character Betty Boop. Throw in some rape revenge along the way, and you have the makings of a very dark, unnerving, and yes, twisted movie.

As Mary herself is Katharine Isabelle, who has been one of my favorite actresses ever since I first saw her in the awesome werewolf movie Ginger Snaps fifteen years ago. Mary is a tough character to connect to, especially since she gets less and less outwardly emotional over the course of the film. Isabelle plays her in a very deadpan way most of the time, but also provides her with depth. You can tell she's often struggling with her conscience.

American Mary wasn't quite what I expected it to be and I had trouble keeping my focus on it, but it is very well made. It wasn't really for me, but I can see why it has a fan base. It's definitely worth checking out.


American Ninja 4 is the Avengers of the American Ninja franchise, the film in which characters collide. Michael Dudikoff, star of the first two films, had opted to skip American Ninja 3: Blood Hunt, and thus that film introduced a replacement for his titular character Joe Armstrong, "the next American Ninja" Sean Davidson, as played by David Bradley. Bradley and Blood Hunt director Cedric Sundstrom return for part 4, but this time so does Dudikoff. American Ninja, meet American Ninja.

The Annihilation drops us right into the action with a sequence showing a Delta Force team making a desperate, and ill-fated, attempt to escape from a remote area crawling with villainous ninjas. Some of them are killed, the others captured and held for ransom. If their captors don't receive $50 million within a week, the men will be executed.

Behind this threat is a terrorist group, called God's Executioners, that's working in association with an America and England-hating British man named Mulgrew and the Red Faction ninja army while seeking to carry out an attack with a suitcase nuke.

The terrorists and ninjas need to be stopped, and Sean Davidson is just the man for the job, having joined the C.I.A. since the events of Blood Hunt. Unfortunately, he's not given the backup and resources he needs to accomplish his objective, being expected to succeed where Delta Force failed accompanied only by a fellow agent who has no field experience. The mission falls apart immediately. Local contacts are murdered, others are captured along with Davidson's partner. Davidson himself ends up in the villains' clutches, overcome while trying to take on an army of ninjas alone.

Now another rescue mission is in order, and to pull it off Joe Armstrong, who is now a teacher in the Peace Corps, has to be convinced to go into battle one more time.

44 minutes, nearly half of the movie's running time, have gone by before Joe Armstrong ever appears on the screen, but the second half of the movie makes up for lost time as Armstrong embarks on the mission and has much better luck, quickly recruiting a group of local resistance fighters (who look like they came out of a Mad Max rip-off) to be his own personal army.

Everything builds up to an extended climactic conflict. Army vs. army, ninjas vs. ninjas, Armstrong and Davidson fighting together. Thanks to a bad guy wearing a Mission: Impossible style mask, there's even a scene where we get to see Dudikoff and Bradley fight each other.

The film really takes off once it's riding on Dudikoff's shoulders, it's good to have him back in action after being introduced to the lackluster Davidson in part 3. To be fair, though, Davidson does come off much better here than he did in the previous entry. Annihilation is a big improvement over Blood Hunt in nearly every area.

One actor/character who is dearly missed is Steve James as Curtis Jackson. I'm not quite sure why James didn't make it into this one, if he had gone on the rescue mission with Armstrong it would have made this movie immeasurably better.

I was a ninja nut as a kid, and I still remember the day when I watched American Ninja 4 for the first time, already an established fan of the franchise. As neat as it was that this movie had both American Ninjas in it, I remember what most impressed me was a scene where the ninja army is seen training, divided into four groups wearing different color gis. Black ninjas, blue ninjas, yellow ninjas, and red ninjas. I love color-coded ninjas!

American Ninja 4 isn't a great movie, but it fulfills the requirements of an American Ninja 4 just fine.

1 comment:

  1. The American is a very underrated movie. I really enjoyed it. I also enjoyed the twisted odyssey that is American Mary. Looking forward to more from the Soska sisters. And, just wow on American Ninja 4. Haven't seen that since I was a kid. Can't remember much, though.