Friday, March 22, 2019

Worth Mentioning - What Makes a Hero

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.

Marvel, Bloodsport, Van Damme, and time travel.


I've been a fan of Brie Larson's ever since I watched her play the daughter of a woman with multiple personalities on three seasons of the Showtime series United States of Tara, and I've been happy to see where her career has gone since then - Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Rampart, 21 Jump Street, The Spectacular Now, Don Jon, Short Term 12, winning an Academy Award for her performance in Room, starting to go up for roles in high profile projects. I was rooting for her when she was in the running to play Sarah Connor in Terminator: Genisys... and while she didn't get the part, it turns out that was a lucky break. She did end up getting cast in Kong: Skull Island, and now comes her breakthrough to a whole new level. She has joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe as the most powerful character in that universe. A character who shares a name with the universe. Captain Marvel.

I had zero familiarity with Captain Marvel going into this film, but I was looking forward to being introduced to the character, especially after seeing producer/MCU mastermind Kevin Feige say that she was the most powerful character yet and knowing that she's going to be using those powers to help the surviving Avengers take on Thanos in the follow-up to Avengers: Infinity War.

The Captain Marvel movie warmed my heart and made me get teary-eyed within the first minute with its tribute to Stan Lee, the Marvel Comics writer/editor/publisher who passed away at the end of the 2018. It's a great tribute, and it took me a few minutes to get past the emotional effect it had on me. Lee made a cameo in all of the MCU movies, and he has one in Captain Marvel as well, one which I enjoyed even more than usual because it also has ties to Kevin Smith.

The title character is just as much a mystery to herself at the beginning of this film as she was to me. Going by the name Vers, she's serving in the Starforce of the Kree Empire on a distant planet called Hala, fighting an invasion of shapeshifters called Skrulls. She has no memory of her past beyond the six years she's been in the Starforce, serving under her mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), although glimpses of her past life come through in the nightmares she has regularly.

During a confrontation with a group of Skrulls headed up by one called Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), Vers ends up dropped onto the planet Earth. She soon begins to realize that this is the place she came from, and her past has something to do with the Air Force and a woman named Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening), who the Skrulls believe created lightspeed technology they would like to use for themselves.

While Vers searches for information on both Lawson's invention and her own history as an Earthling pilot named Carol Danvers, fighting off Skrulls along the way, she gets assistance from S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury - Samuel L. Jackson reprising the role he has played in several previous MCU movies. Fury plays an important part here, it's the most hands-on he's been in any of these movies, and he's in it more than he has been in any other MCU movie... which makes it all the more incredible that the filmmakers were able to make Jackson look twenty-four years younger than his current self for every moment he's on the screen. The events of Captain Marvel take place in 1995, and it's '90s era Samuel L. Jackson who is on the screen for the duration. The de-aging that was done to him is jaw-dropping in how flawless it is. Marvel has done this to actors in previous movies, like Michael Douglas in Ant-Man, Robert Downey Jr. in Captain America: Civil War, and Kurt Russell in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, but it was never as convincing before as it is here. They really had confidence in the process, giving '95 Fury such a major role, and they weren't let down. My late father did not understand how the de-aging of Douglas and Downey was done, and actually thought this had somehow been accomplished solely through makeup rather than CGI trickery. His mind would have been completely blown by how much younger Jackson looks in this movie.

The '90s setting brings some fun elements like scenes in which characters deal with outdated computers, Vers/Carol's grungy Earth disguise, and the soundtrack. TLC, Nirvana, Hole, Garbage - this movie features songs that were getting heavy play on MTV back when the channel mostly showed music videos and my own MTV watching was at its peak. The standout needle drop comes when a fight scene is set to "Just a Girl" by No Doubt.

For the most part, Captain Marvel was more low-key than I expected it to be. The directing duo of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Geneva Robertson-Dworet, working from a story Nicole Perlman and Meg LeFauve contributed to) were drawing inspiration from '90s action movies for the bulk of the movie's scenes, and for a stretch this does feel like something that could have been in the multiplex alongside 1995 releases like GoldenEye, Desperado, Under Siege 2, Sudden Death, and Die Hard with a Vengeance (co-starring Samuel L. Jackson!) Things get big in the climax, though, and when Carol fully embraces her superhuman abilities - which come from one of the Infinity Stones that Thanos collected - she does prove to be extremely powerful.

I thought Larson did great work in her superhero debut, making Carol Danvers come off as a character who has a lot of internal strength even before we see the scope of her external powers. She's tough and confident in what she can do, but she also has fun along the way, and is shown to be quite caring. She discovers she had a good friend before she disappeared in 1989, fellow pilot Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), and she has nice interactions with Maria's young daughter Monica (Akira Akbar).

My favorite "inspirational hero" moment in the movie comes in a sequence that brings together flashbacks to failures Carol has experienced and times that have knocked her to the ground throughout her life, and then shows us what happened immediately after those times she hit the ground.

All this and I haven't even mentioned one of the most fun elements of the film, a special co-star called Goose, who was played by four different felines. Who knew Nick Fury loved kitty cats so much? While they don't have a lot to do, it was also cool that Captain Marvel features a couple characters, played by Djimon Hounsou and Lee Pace, that we first met in Guardians of the Galaxy.

I thoroughly enjoyed Captain Marvel. It provided 2 hours of cinematic fun at a time when that's exactly what I was in desperate need of. It delivered some '90s flashbacks, and the story had twists and turns that I was not expecting at all, since I didn't know the characters. Now I've met Captain Marvel, I liked her, and I can't wait to see her battle Thanos.


Jean-Claude Van Damme's breakthrough films were Bloodsport and Kickboxer, which were released in 1988 and '89, respectively, and both films went on to have several sequels - without Van Damme in the lead role. I kept up with the release of Kickboxer sequels over the years (except Kickboxer 5, which didn't make it to video stores in my area), but the Bloodsport sequels left me behind. Maybe this is because Bloodsport II didn't come along until eight years after its predecessor, by which time there were already five Kickboxer movies, and in 1996 low budget action movies had dipped off my radar. It also helped that I don't recall ever seeing any of the Van Damme-less Bloodsport sequels on the shelves of any of the video stores in my town. So maybe, like Kickboxer 5, they just didn't get released in my neck of the woods for some reason.

The star of Bloodsport II is Daniel Bernhardt, whose character Alex Cardo is introduced stealing a sword from the mansion of David Leung (Pat Morita of The Karate Kid). When guards and police officers try to stop him from pulling off his heist, Alex displays some of the martial arts skills that are going to come in handy as the rest of the film plays out. They don't save him from getting arrested and serving time in a Thailand prison, though. While behind bars, Alex meets a fellow called Master Sun (James Hong), who proceeds to teach him how to improve his martial arts skills - and we get training montages of these two prisoners practicing martial arts at the master's private cell without being bothered by anybody.

Master Sun endeavors to teach Alex the Iron Hand technique, which makes a person's hand so powerful that it apparently even sends out vibrations of power. When Master Sun holds his hand above a bowl of water, the water ripples like a Jurassic Park T. rex is stomping around nearby. The master also hopes that Alex will have the chance to compete in the Kumite, a fighting tournament Master Sun competed in twenty-five years earlier. Especially since one of the prison guards, a guy so pleasant that he's called Demon (Ong Soo Han), will be competing this year.

As the first movie taught us, Kumite tournaments are brutal fights that can result in serious injury or death. The winner receives a ceremonial sword... the one Alex was stealing when we met him, and which was taken away by his partner in crime when he was arrested. Leung eventually has Alex released from prison, but there's a price: he has to find his pal John (Philip Tan) so he can get the sword returned to the Leung and the tournament. At the same time, he also has to try to get accepted into the Kumite, and once he's in he has to defeat the competition because a deal has been made saying that Master Sun will be released from prison if Alex wins the Kumite. There is no moral quandary here, because Master Sun was imprisoned for killing a homicidal rapist who happened to be the son of a politician.

While taking part in the Kumite, Alex makes friends with the only returning character from the first movie, Donald Gibb as fighter Ray "Tiny" Jackson. Well, if they weren't going to bring Van Damme back, at least they brought back his character's buddy. It's always great to see Gibb in any film. Unfortunately, that doesn't happen often these days. It's been eleven years since Gibb appeared in anything at all.

Bloodsport II was the feature directorial debut of producer Alan Mehrez, who was working from a script by first-timer Jeff Schechter. It's kind of a sloppy film in the storytelling department, making the odd choice to have the events presented as a story that a free, elderly Master Sun is telling to a group of young students in a martial arts class. A way to teach them of morals and honor. That's a lesson Alex seemed to learn very quickly, as it doesn't take much to turn him from a thief to a hero who's determined to make up for his crimes.

Bernhardt wasn't given much to work with and Alex isn't someone I ever felt any sort of connection to, but there's nothing off-putting about him. He's just there. Whether or not I care about the main character is less important here than it would be in other films, because the main draw is the fighting, and the majority of the running time is filled with fight scenes. Of course, the final fight is between Alex and Demon, who behaves like a demon during the tournament, acting like a scumbag toward the sole female fighter and clearly enjoying himself when he kills an opponent. After all that, the final fight is shockingly lackluster.

I don't feel like I was missing much by not watching Bloodsport II until it had been out for over twenty years, but I'm glad to find that it wasn't terrible.

CYBORG (1989)

Director Albert Pyun's Cyborg is a film that exists because two other film projects fell apart. Pyun had been signed on to make a Spider-Man movie and a sequel to 1987's Masters of the Universe for Cannon Films, with both movies being made at the same time. Pyun would shoot two weeks of Spider-Man, then go off to film Masters of the Universe 2 - which would have starred surfer Laird Hamilton as He-Man instead of Dolph Lundgren and would have been about He-Man coming to Earth again, this time disguising himself as a football quarterback... so that sounds awful. During Masters of the Universe 2's six week production schedule, the actor playing Peter Parker in Spider-Man would be working out, adding muscle for the physical transformation the character goes through when he develops his superhero abilities.

Cannon Films was too cash-strapped to make Spider-Man and Masters of the Universe 2 happen, but had already sunk $2 million into pre-production, so they had to get something out of that investment. Pyun slapped together the first draft of Cyborg over a weekend and ended up making this Jean-Claude Van Damme sci-fi action flick for the company. He had wanted Chuck Norris for the lead role, but Cannon had just worked with Van Damme on Bloodsport and liked what they saw from him.

You might hope to see traces of the Spider-Man and Masters of the Universe projects in Cyborg, but there is nothing left of them in the finished project. The sets that had been built were to fake Brooklyn in Wilmington, North Carolina, so all that came of that is the sight of Cyborg characters running around on some city streets and in alleyways. The film's villain also wears a couple pieces of hand-me-down wardrobe that had been part of the character Blade's costume in Masters of the Universe.

The story is set in a future where society has collapsed and humanity has been stricken with plague. The key to a cure is held within a cyborg called Pearl Prophet (Dayle Haddon), who has to get the information from New York to the CDC in Atlanta. Her plans catch the attention of the maniacal Fender Tremolo (Vincent Klyn) and his bunch of sub-Road Warrior lackeys. As Fender clearly states twice within the first 5 minutes, he likes the world just the way it is and doesn't want the plague to be cured. He would like to use the cure himself, though, so he wants to take Pearl to Atlanta.

On the run from Fender, Pearl crosses paths with a "slinger" (like a gunslinger) named Gibson Rickenbacker (Van Damme). Gibson doesn't care much about a cure, but he does have reason to want Fender dead. After Pearl is abducted by Fender within the first 10 minutes, the rest of the movie is one long chase as the anti-hero pursues the villain across the country. This is a dangerous time they're living in, so Gibson has some people to fight even when he and Fender aren't in the same place at the same time.

I've never liked Cyborg very much. I just don't find it very interesting, especially since it reaches its 86 minute running time through the use of way too much slow motion, and I think Fender is ridiculous in an off-putting way. But there is one scene in the movie that has stuck with me ever since I first saw it in 1989 or 1990. It involves a confrontation between Gibson, Fender, and Fender's followers where Gibson gets his ass kicked so thoroughly that he's even crucified at the end of it. Watching Van Damme find a way to survive crucifixion, that's something I'll never forget.


Director Brad Anderson is best known for directing more serious fare like Session 9, The Call, and Stonehearst Asylum, but before he turned his attention to horror and thrillers he made this cute romantic comedy that was actually one Richard Roeper's top 10 movies of the year when it was released, back in the Ebert & Roeper days.

Marisa Tomei stars in Happy Accidents as Ruby Weaver, a woman who has been very unlucky in love while making her way through the NYC dating scene. One day she meets an awkward, unusual man named Sam Deed (Vincent D'Onofrio), who she tries to send away at first but soon embarks on a relationship with... even though she often finds him to be baffling and odd. Eventually Sam admits that he is a time traveler who has come to 1999 from the year 2470 specifically for her. He saw her image in the future, he became fascinated by her, and he gave up everything to come back here for her... Not because he's a creepy stalker, but because he's determined to save her from dying in an accident on a date that will soon arrive.

Despite that sci-fi element, Anderson takes a straightforward, down-to-earth approach to bringing his story to the screen. There could be time travel involved, or Ruby could have found herself another weirdo. Whether or not Sam really is a time traveler, I'll leave for viewers to discover by actually watching the movie.

A decade after Roeper praised the film, it got some positive attention from Entertainment Weekly when the magazine ranked it as one of the "50 Best Movies You've Never Seen"... which is ranking it even higher than I would, but if you haven't seen it I would recommend that you check it out. It's a quirky and charming low budget romance.

One that features a great scene involving a theatrical viewing of The Slumber Party Massacre.

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