Friday, February 12, 2016

Worth Mentioning - Would That It Were So Simple

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.

The Coen brothers meet ninjas and monsters.

HAIL, CAESAR! (2016)

I probably wouldn't recommend Hail, Caesar! to anyone in my personal life. I knew before seeing it that the latest film from Coen brothers Joel and Ethan, who are among my favorite filmmakers, would have a special sort of quirk that wouldn't likely appeal to a very broad audience, so I intended to go see it alone. But, due to some car issues, I ended up having to get someone else to go with me so they could drive to the theatre. As I suspected would happen, they found the movie to be incomprehensible.

The marketable description of the film is that stars George Clooney as an actor who gets kidnapped in the midst of making a sword and sandals Biblical epic in the 1950s, and a studio executive played by Josh Brolin has to try to get his star back safely while keeping this whole scenario hush-hush.

But the endeavor to get Clooney's character back is rather simple and lackadaisical, his kidnapping is simply the big event that serves as a glue of sorts to hold together the Coens' loving look back at the 1950s studio system and the type of films that were being made at that time. Named after a real life studio executive who worked at MGM for decades, Brolin's character Eddie Mannix has several issues to deal with over the course of the 27 hour or so glimpse into his life that Hail, Caesar! provides. He needs to make sure the private lives of his stars are kept out of the gossip columns, he's overseeing a stunt-riding Western star's transition into dramatic films, he's got an offer to take a new job, he's struggling to quit smoking, and there's more.

Following Mannix through his long work day at Capitol Pictures allows the Coens to shoot their own versions of scenes from the kind of movies produced in the '30s - '50s. We see some of the making of the sword and sandal Biblical epic, there's a Western chase scene, the filming of a black and white drama, a musical dance sequence featuring sailors on leave, and an aquatic ballet sequence quite like one in 1952's Million Dollar Mermaid.

In the midst of all this, Alden Ehrenreich, an actor who I had never seen before this film, shines as cowboy Hobie Doyle. He's definitely an actor to keep track of from here on out.

If you recognize what the Coens are paying tribute to here and can appreciate their love for the classics, if you're an avid viewer of Turner Classic Movies, you might be entertained by Hail, Caesar! If you're looking for a straightforward story about a kidnapped movie star, you might not like how much the film gets distracted from that plot element.

I found Hail, Caesar! to be quite enjoyable, and while I may not know anyone who would enjoy it as much as I did, there is an audience for it out there somewhere.


Before I began writing about the American Ninja movies last year, I had a good familiarity with American Ninja, American Ninja 2: The Confrontation, American Ninja 3: Blood Hunt, and American Ninja 4: The Annihilation. I grew up watching those movies, I remember the excitement I had when the third and fourth films first hit VHS. The fifth one, I don't have the same connection to. It never reached the video stores in my area, the first time I saw it was sixteen years after it was released, when I rented the DVD from Netflix in 2009. That was the only time I watched it, until taking in a second viewing at the end of January this year.

American Ninja V is an outsider in the franchise, and I'm not just saying that because I didn't watch it as a kid. The fact is, it's not even connected to the previous four movies. It may star David Bradley from parts 3 and 4 as an American guy who knows martial arts, but Bradley isn't reprising the role of Sean Davidson here. He's a completely different character, Joe Kastle. This movie wasn't even originally intended to be an installment in the American Ninja series. When Bradley, director Bobby Jean Leonard, and writers Greg Latter, John Bryant Hedberg, and George Saunders were working on it, they thought they were making an original, standalone film called Little Ninja Man, or alternately American Dragons - a title which has apparently been retained on some prints of it. Distributor Cannon Films just slapped the American Ninja V title on there to draw more attention to it. To get a little bit more of those American Ninja dollars from fans. This marketing trickery worked on me. The American Ninja title is why I watched it, I'd be much less likely to check out a David Bradley vehicle by one of its other titles.

The plot of the film is something like you'd get from the average American Ninja movie: Glock (the awesomely named Clement von Franckenstein, who also happens to be in Hail, Caesar!), a man who profits from deals with criminals and terrorists, has agreed to provide notorious military leader General Zubino (Alfredo Sandoval) with a specially designed gas called ZB12. The hapless scientist (Ron Ipale) who has been hired to create this gas thinks he's actually developing an untraceable pesticide that will only be used on insects, and when he realizes that his employer has a disturbing lack of morals, Glock has the man's adult daughter Lisa (Anne Dupont) kidnapped.

The bad news for Glock and Zubino is that Joe Kastle and Lisa were just starting to get to know each other. When Lisa is abducted by teleporting ninja Viper (James Lew; this guy has almost 150 credits to his name, so you'd probably recognize him) and his gi-clad henchmen, Joe pursues them. This very easily could have been just another day in life for Sean Davidson.

What makes this film stand out from its predecessors most of all is the "Little Ninja Man" element, the fact that Joe has a tween-age sidekick in the form of Lee Reyes (brother of Ernie Reyes, Jr. from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze) as Hiro. Joe had been asked by his pal Tetsu (The Karate Kid's Pat Morita making a cameo) to housesit for him, water his bonsai trees, and babysit his grandnephew Hiro, the last of his ninja clan. So when Joe shifts into hero gear, Hiro invites himself along.

Kid sidekicks have a tendency to be annoying, but Hiro is actually rather helpful for the most part, even if Lee Reyes isn't much of an actor. Except when he's crying. He's pretty good at that. He also shows some fighting skills late in the film. When he's first introduced, Hiro doesn't know martial arts, but Joe and the all-powerful spirit of Pat Morita are able to make him a true ninja in less than 24 hours.

The title of this movie may be false advertising, but putting that aside I still get a decent amount of entertainment from it. This is a fine example of the sort of low budget action flick that I wish they were still pumping out today at the rate they were back when this came out. I started to look down on a lot of the straight-to-video action fare around the mid-'90s, but now they hold a bit of nostalgia for me, and more appeal. I can just sit back and enjoy them for the unpretentious, mindless, shoot-'em-up, knock-around fun that they are.

American Ninja V packs a whole lot of action into its (slightly too long) 102 minute running time, only stopping for the occasional quick breath. Action is even thrown in there when it makes no logical sense, like when Joe finds himself having to pass through boobytraps on a random hillside. Apparently those traps just happened to be there. And as if Viper's ninjas and Glock's lackeys (led by Marc Fiorini as a guy called Flathead) weren't enough for Joe and Hiro to contend with, they even find other people to fight along the way.

If you liked American Ninjas 1 - 4 but have been avoiding this one because it's not a true American Ninja movie, I'd say it's worthy of a viewing. It's close enough to being along the same lines as what came before it in the series that I don't find it to be a letdown.


A couple years ago, Hatchet creator Adam Green received a fan letter from oddball retired detective William Dekker, who claimed that monsters are real. He had seen them with his own eyes and knew where to find them: actually terribly deformed people rejected by society, "monsters" have sought refuge and acceptance in a place called The Marrow, which is located underground.

Of course, if someone just tells you something like that, you might think they're crazy. They need to be able to prove it somehow, and not just with artistic renderings, which is all Dekker had as proof. So Green and his cinematographer Will Barratt decided to make a documentary about Dekker and these monsters, a project that leads them deep into a state park, where Dekker has located what he says is an entrance to The Marrow.

The more Green and Barratt deal with Dekker, the more questionable he becomes, and the more they learn about the supposed monsters, the more it becomes clear that they aren't as harmless as Green expected them to be.

There are indeed monsters in this film, and given the fact that the world isn't reeling from the shocking revelation that hideous creatures are living beneath our feet, you know that this is a work of fiction. Green isn't trying to fool anyone into thinking it's real, either, as evident from the fact that Dekker is played by instantly recognizable character actor Ray Wise, who has over two hundred credits to his name, including Swamp Thing, RoboCop, Twin Peaks, X-Men: First Class, Chillerama, and Big Ass Spider! The faux documentary style just happens to be what he felt was the best way to approach the story, which was inspired by a real piece of fan mail he got - in that instance, the fan writing in said that Hatchet slasher Victor Crowley was a real person - and the artwork of Alex Pardee.

I'm not really a fan of the style where characters are walking around with cameras getting scared by things, a required element for this type of movie that Digging Up the Marrow does eventually get to, but even though I'm not so fond of those moments later in the film, I did find this to be a very enjoyable watch. Dekker is quite an intriguing character, and I find Green to be an entertaining person. I have yet to watch his sitcom Holliston, but I listen to The Movie Crypt, the podcast he hosts with Wrong Turn 2 / Knights of BadassdomEverly's Joe Lynch, every week and watch the show Scary Sleepover on his website, and this movie feels very much like a companion to those things. If you've watched or listened to those and enjoyed Green there, here's 88 minutes more of him, plus Ray Wise and monsters.

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