movies

Awakening The Star Wars Trailer

I no longer see movie trailers when they come out on the Internet. I’ve seen too many movies over the years that fell short of a well-made trailer.  (Or in the case of “Cloverfield,” a well-made end credits with awesome music that was better than the movie.) If I have a low expectations walking into the theater, the less disappointed I’ll be after seeing the movie. The only exception to this rule is Star Wars, as the first “Episode VII—The Force Awakens” trailer has come out.

When I worked at Accolade/Infogrames/Atari (same company, different owners, multiple personality disorder), my fellow video game testers and I went to see “Wing Commander” (a video game-based movie) in 1999. The “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” trailer premiered with that movie. People got up after the trailer was over and left without seeing the movie. As for the movie itself, low expectations made “Wing Commander” almost enjoyable for being so bad.

What does this new trailer tells us about the plot of the next Star Wars movie? Next to nothing.

Although I saw the trailer on the Internet, I’m not going out of my way to read about various plot leaks. (Except for Harrison Ford being injured on the set after the Millennium Falcon door clobbered him.) Since director J.J. Abrams is responsible for re-imaging the Star Trek franchise, he literally threw out the books regarding what to expect with the Star Wars franchise. Anything is possible.

The two parts that I liked the most were X-wings fighters skimming above the water and the Millennium Falcon flying into the air before flying low over sand dunes while under fire from Tie fighters. Unlike the previous six movies, the spacecraft really do blend in with the environment. A promising start for a venerable franchise.

Review – John Wick

john_wickI haven’t heard about Keanu Reeve’s new movie, “John Wick,” until a friend mentioned it.  I knew the basic premise for this revenge flick from watching the trailer: something bad happens, retired assassin comes out of retirement, and everyone dies a cinematic death. The little details, like gold coins buying access to a secret society of professional assassins in New York City, made all the difference.

John Wick (Reeves) bails out of a SUV with a bloody wound to his stomach, staggering away and collapsing to the ground. A cellphone in his hands plays the video of a woman (Bridget Moynahan) at the beach, calls him John and they share a selfie kiss. Forty-eight hours earlier, he’s a distraught husband who lost his wife to breast cancer, buried her in cemetery, and cleaning up an empty house after everyone leaves the wake. A special delivery arrives with one last present from his wife to ease his grieving pain: Daisy, an adorable Beagle puppy.

John takes the dog out for a drive in his souped up 1969 Mustang the next morning, racing up and down the local airstrip to relieve his anguish. Stopping off at the gas station to fill up, he encounters a group of young Russians men. One of them, Iosef (Alfie Allen), takes an interest in the Mustang, insists on buying it and makes a snide remark in Russian after John told him that it wasn’t for sale. John surprises him with his own remark in Russian before driving off. Later that night, Iosef and his friends break into his house to kill the dog and steal the car.

If they have only stolen the car, things would have ended with less bloodshed. But they killed his dog, making the payback very personal. After burying the dog and cleaning up the floor, John takes a sledgehammer into his basement and pounds the concrete floor into pieces. A large case with guns and gold coins reveals the secret past he left behind for marriage to a loving woman.

Who the hell is John Wick?

As the Russian crime boss, Viggo (Michael Nyqvist), explains to his wayward son, John Wick wasn’t just a highly talented assassin but one with the nickname buka (Russian for boogeyman). Iosef, of course, doesn’t believe in the boogeyman. While the father sits before the fireplace and sings the nursery rhyme about misbehaving children being taken by the boogeyman, a squad of his best men takes on the boogeyman. With a disabling body shot and two head shots in a well-executed (pun intended), choreographed sequence, John systematically takes apart his former employer to extract revenge.

Reeves claim to fame was “The Matrix” movies, where slo-mo bullet time got invented for those movies, and too often overused in other movies. I was hoping that this movie would have absolutely no slow-mo bullet time, but one scene used it for hilarious effect just before Iosef meets his inevitable fate. Like “47 Ronin” earlier this year, Reeves gives another fine performance as the reluctant soldier who fights for justice.

How Godzilla 2014 Should Have Begin

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As much as I love the new “Godzilla” movie, I never liked the official trailer where the story was about a distraught husband who loses his wife and seeks revenge on the monsters. The distraught husband (and father) bites the dust about 30 minutes into the movie, setting up the adult son to save his wife and child from the monsters. When How It Should Have Ended did their video re-take for Godzilla, the conceit from the trailer got dispatched immediately. Tossing in the Jaegar from “Pacific Rim” and Superman from “Man of Steel” was a nice touch.

The Return of Howard The Duck

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Howard the Duck rose from the cinematic graveyard of the 1980’s to make a cameo in the post-credit scene for The Guardians of The Galaxy,” appearing as a newly released specimen in the wrecked museum of The Collector (Benicio Del Toro). The foul-mouthed, cigar-smoking duck from Duckworld, featured in one of the worst movies ever made by George Lucas, has returned to the big screen. Be afraid, be very afraid.

Hooked On A Feeling For Star Wars

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Coming out this summer is “Guardians of The Galaxy,” a science fiction movie from Marvel Studios about a Sony Walkman and the songs, “Spirit In The Sky” and “Hooked On A Feeling,” from the 1970’s. Well, not quite. It’s an odd combination. As I’ve gotten older, I became more appreciate of the music that I missed growing up as a kid. (My father’s truck had only two radio stations, talk and country.) The forthcoming movie soundtrack is awesome. Someone re-cut the original Star Wars movies into a Guardian-style trailer for even more awesomeness.

The clever editing and blending of the two songs was perfect. The scariest part of the trailer was “Disney’s” appearing above “Star Wars” on the title screen towards the end. Since Disney owns Lucasfilms, tweaking—or twerking?—the forthcoming “Star Wars: Episode VII” movie to fit the Disney’s formula is quite possible. We won’t know until the first official trailer comes out in theaters in 2015.

Big Wow Comicfest 2014 – New Godzilla Movie

Big Wow Comicfest 2014 Godzilla PosterWith the Big Wow Comicfest 2014 and the new “Godzilla” movie converging on the same weekend, it was no surprise that special screenings were held at the Camera 12 Cinemas. Special guest appearances included Kenpachiro Satsuma (Godzilla 1984-1995), Bin Furuya (Ultraman) and Daisuke Ban (Kikaidia & Inazuman) from Japan, and introductions by author August Ragone, who became the teenaged Japanese film and Godzilla expert to Bob Wilkin’s “Creature Features” and “Captain Cosmic” TV shows in the 1970’s.

My friend and I went to the Friday night showing. Surprisingly, it was in theater 12. Last year we saw a special showing of “Star Trek Into The Darkness” at the AMC Cupertino Square with an enthusiastic crowd (i.e., screaming, shouting and hollering), and at the Camera 12 with a less enthusiastic crowd (i.e., deader than zombies) during a Saturday afternoon break from the comficfest. A huge difference. The Godzilla crowd that night was enthusiastic. One guy who stood in line behind us had seen the new Godzilla movie three times already, showing pictures of his expensive Godzilla toy collection on his cellphone, and swapping stories about past Godzilla movies with my friend.

Ragone welcomed everyone to the special Big Wow screening and introduced his Japanese guests. Satsuma asked everyone to stand up to go through the motions of being Godzilla without the rubber suit. Furuya had everyone do the signature hand-and-arm gestures of Ultraman. They didn’t stay for the Friday night showing, as they just arrived straight from the San Jose International Airport from Japan. They did see the Saturday night showing. At the Sunday morning Godzilla panel, Ragone reported that Satsuma gave his approval to the new Godzilla movie with a hearty chuckle (unlike the Chicago showing of the Godzilla 1998 movie which he didn’t approve at all).

As for the movie itself, it was a lot better than I expected. I feared that the new movie would follow Godzilla 1954 too closely, revealing all of Godzilla only until the last 18 minutes of the movie. Hints of Godzilla as a force of nature from the World War II atomic bombings of Japan to the Cold War nuclear tests in the South Pacific to a nuclear power plant disaster in Japan got sprinkled liberally throughout the first half of the new movie. When the new monsters make their full appearances in the second half, Godzilla wasn’t far behind them to kick some monster ass in the San Francisco Bay Area. This being a Silicon Valley audience, we hooted and hollered at many familiar landmarks.

My friend and I skipped the “Creature Features” presentation of “Night of The Living Dead” with former host John Stanley and the Saturday night showing of Godzilla. (We saw “Horror Express” with Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Telly Savalas at last year’s “Creature Features” presentation.) Driving over to Century Theatre at Pacific Commons in Fremont, we saw Godzilla on the larger XD screen in Dolby Atmos surround sound. I saw more details and heard more sounds at this theater than I did at the Camera 12. A better viewing experience for an awesome Godzilla movie.

Big Wow Comicfest 2014 – North Korean Monster Movie (Video)

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One of the stranger stories to come out of Big Wow Comicfest 2014 (May 16-17, 2014) was the true story of a South Korean movie director, Shin Sang-ok, being kidnapped by the North Korean government to produce a 1985 monster movie called “Pulgasari” (available on Youtube with English subtitles), reportedly because the son of Kim Il-sung was a huge Godzilla fan, and later escaped from the regime. From what I read elsewhere on the Internet, the movie was so awful that it’s pretty good.

Bye-Bye At The Century Domes

Century Domes Are ClosedAfter the Retro Dome had one last showing of “Raiders of The Lost Ark” at the Century 21 with 1,000 people in attendance, the iconic Century Domes has closed their doors after nearly 50 years. Without a historical landmark designation, the Domes are destined for the dustbin of history. My friend and I attended party, and, not surprisingly, we found ourselves in the front row because of the sold-out crowd. Beach balls were flying fast and furious as people knocked them about.

As the announcements got made, the booing and hissing got louder.

The Retro Dome people had a meeting with the Santana Row developer that acquired a 99-year lease—not a 50-year lease as previously reported—to redevelop the Winchester Boulevard property. The developer has no interest in preserving the domes, would demolish all the buildings (including the Flames Restaurant at the corner), and build another Santana Row II with more luxury stores and expensive housing. (The most popular audience rumor was that Bloomingdale and Saks Fifth Street will become anchor tenants.) If the any of the domes do get a historical landmark designation, the surviving domes will not remain as movie theaters and get retrofitted into something else.

Everyone, of course, got encouraged to contact the San Jose mayor and their council member to get a historical landmark designation for the Century Domes and reject the demolition permit that waiting for approval. The city, of course, would rather have the jobs, development fees and sales tax revenues that comes from a big project like this. Given the choice between preserving the a historical building and adding to the city’s bottom line, San Jose doesn’t have a good track record in saving old buildings that aren’t historical landmarks.

As for “Raiders of The Lost Ark,” this wasn’t my first time seeing it on the big screen. I saw the IMAX version that came out in 2012. But I really enjoyed watching the movie on the big screen at Century 21, as it has the special magic that the IMAX lacks. The audio system packed an incredible wallop with each gunshot, reminding me how the explosions from some movies can rattle my lungs. Since Borders closed at Santana Row in 2011, my friend and I have gone to other theaters with better hangout spots. We haven’t realized how much we have missed the Century Domes until this final showing.

The Return of Morpheus

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I was browsing through a business magazine when I noticed a Kia K900 car ad that featured Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) from “The Matrix” movie that came out 15 years ago. I did a double take. Bad enough that Samuel Jackson wears a T-shirt that says, “I’m not Laurence Fishburne,” because, well, they both look like an aging Morpheus. There are even rumors of a new “Matrix” trilogy in the works. Now we got the return of Morpheus as a car salesman in this Kia Super Bowl commercial that I didn’t hear about. Doesn’t make any sense to me. I’m already missing the Kia hamsters.

Death Knell At The Century Domes

Century 22 DomesThe first time I went to the Century Domes on Winchester Boulevard was see “Star Wars” when it first came out in 1977 and before it exploded as a cultural phenomena. My aunt took my cousin and I to see a weekday matinée showing. The massive parking lot was empty except for a few cars. We had the entire theater to ourselves. That was thirty-seven years ago. The Century Domes today are heading for the dustbin of history unless the Century 21 dome gets a historical landmark designation by city, state and federal authorities.

The Century Domes are twentieth-century buildings that preservationists are trying to save. The Retro Dome (a.k.a., Century 25) at Westgate Mall got demolished last year, which showed classic movies like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” and now plays at the Century 21 dome. The Century 24 dome, down the street from the Century 21/22/23 domes on Winchester, recently got torn down, which showed all the movies destined to die at the box office (a very reliable indicator). The remaining domes are next for the wrecking crew.

The families that own the nearby Winchester Mystery House and the land underneath the Century Domes for the last 90 years refused to renew the 50-year lease for the theaters and sought out a developer to revitalize the property. I’m surprised they didn’t try to sell the land. The 11.6-acre property is prime real estate in the heart of Silicon Valley. With the movie crowd watching movies at modern multiplex theaters around the south bay, this area was long overdue for a major change.

The developer for Santana Row across the street, which was the home of the Town & Country Village movie theater before it got razed in 2001, has acquired the new lease. Expect more of the same with mixed-development (i.e., ground-level retail space built from concrete and four-story housing from wood) and seven-story office buildings (the flight paths of nearby airports prohibits skyscrapers in Silicon Valley).

The Flames restaurant, formerly Bob’s Big Boy back in the day, will get demolished to square out the property in front. A small senior citizen mobile home park that I didn’t even know existed behind the Winchester Mystery House and Century 23 theater may get rezoned for development, which is a serious issue for these senior citizens as mobile home parks are disappearing from owners selling out to developers. I very much doubt that a multiplex movie theater would go into that location. The developer for Valley Fair Mall floated a proposal to build one down the street from the Century Domes that died without a whimper.

My friend and I stopped going to the Century Domes after the Borders bookstore closed at Santana Row in 2011. Without a convenient hangout spot, there was no reason to go there. We will be attending the Retro Dome movie, “Raiders of The Lost Ark,” which played for a whole year at Century 21 when it first came out in 1981, on March 30th at 7:00PM. Never mind that we saw “Raiders” when it came out on the IMAX screen a few years ago. This movie is a fitting tribute to a piece of Americana that may disappear soon.

When Godzilla Comes To San Francisco

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According to this Snickers candy bar commercial, Godzilla is a regular guy. (I’m assuming that Godzilla is a “guy,” although the 1998 American movie with Matthew Broderick turned “him” into an asexual iguana.) He flirts with the girls at the beach, rides an ATV on a dirt course, can slam down a Ping-Pong ball like a Japanese master, and becomes the center of the party. Unless he gets hungry, grows to skyscraper height, and starts trashing the place. His friends unwrap a Snicker candy bar to throw into his mouth, returning him to regular guy size and everyone watches him go water skiing.

With the new Godzilla movie coming out in May, I’ve been trying to avoid any pre-release news (i.e., I’ll see the trailer if it appears at the movie theater). Alas, my roommate is the biggest Godzilla fan in the world. Any Godzilla-related news that hits the Internet gets repeated to me within minutes. This week’s news trend is what the brand new Godzilla toys say about the forthcoming movie.

The synopsis for the movie has Godzilla traveling from Japan, stomping through San Francisco, and getting wasted in Las Vegas. When he does come to San Francisco, we can give him some Snickers and send him down to Los Angeles for a thorough stomping. Las Vegas is only a short stroll through the desert from the burning City of Angles.

Review – 47 Ronin

47-ronin-6After seeing the trailer for “47 Ronin” over the last few months, I expected a sword-and-sorcery movie based on the true story of The Forty-seven Ronin (samurai without a master) who plotted the murder of the feudal lord who murdered their feudal lord and allowed to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) as their punishment in eighteenth-century Japan. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that this was a quite different movie. If all the fantasy elements were remove, the movie closely follows one of the most famous Japanese stories about honor and revenge.

Most Hollywood movies based on Japanese samurai culture have a “white samurai,” a foreigner who learns bushido (the way of the warrior), to lead the other samurai into battle against the enemy. “The Last Samurai” (2003) with Tom Cruise as an American cavalryman captured by the samurai was a perfect example of this. Of course, the inspiration for the novel, “Shogun,” came from James Clavell reading a line in his daughter’s textbook: “in 1600, an Englishman went to Japan and became a samurai”.

A boy runs out of the demon-infested forest to collapse in a creek. Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada), leader of the samurais, tries to drown the boy because he saw a demon. But Lord Asano (Min Tanaka) has compassion on the half-English/half-Japanese boy, Kai, bringing him into his household and raising him with his daughter, Mika. Many years pass. Kai (Keanu Reeves) is an outcast in Japanese society because of his mixed heritage and demonic background, held in contempt by the samurai and beloved by Mika (Kou Shibasaki).

Kai leads Lord Asano and the samurais on the hunt of an eight-eyed beast that rampages through the countryside. After killing the beast with the sword of a fallen samurai, he notices a nearby white fox with different colored eyes. The fox is a trickster in Japanese culture, which later becomes the witch, Mizuki (Rinko Kikuchi). Kai, the white samurai, steps aside and Oishi becomes the main focus of the movie.

That’s an unexpected twist.

Lord Asano attacks his unarmed rival, Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano), while under the influence of witchcraft. The shogun (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) orders him to commit seppuku for violating the peace. Oishi and his samurai become ronin, exiled into the countryside, and forbidden from plotting vengeance. The shogun gives Lord Kira the lands of Lord Asano, and Mika in marriage after she completes the one-year period of mourning.

Oishi seeks out Kai’s assistance against the witch and gathers the ronin in secret after being released from prison. Overcoming the deep mistrust by the ronin, Kai earns his place to fight and die with them as a ronin and not as a white samurai.

The final battle begins after the ronin infiltrates Lord Kira’s stronghold during preparations for his marriage to Mika. After Lord Kira and his witch are dead, the 47 ronin return his head to the shogun, accept their death sentence for disobeying the shogun, and earned the privilege to commit seppuku as samurai because of their loyalty to their dead master.

One of the big surprises was how bloodless the movie was. Most recent Japanese movies with samurai swords have elaborate blood spray from a fire hose for comedic effect. If someone loses their head, the ceiling gets splattered with blood. If someone plunges a knife into their stomach, the floor gets drenched in blood. None of that in “47 Ronin” as the camera cuts away at the last moment as someone gets killed.

Despite the sword-and-socery fantasy elements, this is probably one of the finest Japanese movies to come out of Hollywood in a long time.