The A-Team Emergency (Weekly Links)

Best film of 1960; see radio link below.

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week.

The A-Team. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

The screenplay for “The A-Team” is a brilliant gem of literacy and dramatic depth, but the action sequences leave something to be desired.

Just checking to make sure you’re paying attention. Of course I’m kidding, but sometimes my fingers get weary of typing the reverse: hey, here’s a big action blockbuster, the script sucks, but things sure blow up good.

In “The A-Team,” a testosterone inflation of the 1980s TV series, the script at least shows signs of life, and the action scenes are crazy-go-nuts. The result is an enjoyable popcorn picture, as long as you’re willing to suspend disbelief about every realistic component of what the human body can survive as punishment.

There’s a storyline, which director Joe Carnahan and his co-writers don’t seem to have taken seriously. A dandy opening sequence cements the line-up of the Special Ops, undercover group known as the A-Team: leader Hannibal Smith (Liam Neeson), Face Peck (Bradley Cooper), B.A. Baracus (pro wrestler Quinton “Rampage” Jackson), and “Howlin’ Mad” Murdock (Sharlto Copley).

It’s hard to argue with the casting: Neeson brings his authority (and the new butt-kicking image he got from “Taken”), it makes perfect sense to put a pro wrestler in a role once inhabited by the ineffable Mr. T, and “Hangover” star Bradley Cooper, who radiates vanity and a certain oily charm, is well-cast here.

The other name may not be familiar, but Sharlto Copley came out of nowhere to play the lead role in last year’s “District 9,” the hit South African sci-fi epic. His off-kilter style fits his role. (For a couple of cameos, stick around to the end of the end credits.)

The Team gets involved in international intrigue that stretches from Bagdad to Germany, some of which is connected to a CIA operative (Patrick Wilson), some of which has to do with Face’s ex (Jessica Biel), an Army captain.

The giant set-pieces include an attempt to “fly” a tank that has fallen out of a plane, and a cargo ship that spills its containers all over our heroes. Carnahan seems to think that since this kind of stuff is unbelievable anyway, he might as well shoot the moon and drop his characters from planes and skyscrapers without them incurring bodily harm. Also, I didn’t mention the truck that barrels out of a tunnel and falls off a cliff into a lake. They survive that, too.

The odd thing is, Carnahan does have a talent for super-macho dialogue scenes—for instance, a hilarious sequence here involving a gun, the CIA guy, and a prisoner (co-writer Brian Bloom) in a car.

With a few more scenes like that, “The A-Team” might have been more than a guilty-pleasure summer movie. But you know the drill: so many things to blow up, so little time.

The Karate Kid. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Among the lessons learned in “The Karate Kid” is that if you project stillness, your opponent may be frozen with stillness himself, in unconscious imitation.

That could explain what happened to me while watching the new remake of the 1984 hit. The movie’s glacial pace lulled me into a nearly comatose state.

The tip-off was the extremely slow build-up to a two-hour-plus running time. This “Karate Kid” takes a roundabout approach to creating momentum.

Hark back, if you will, to the original, where Ralph Macchio received karate lessons and life wisdom from teacher Pat Morita. The new one takes young hero Dre (Jaden Smith) from Detroit to China, where his mother (Taraji P. Henson) is newly employed.

Pedantic types will note that the Chinese setting would properly make this “The Kung Fu Kid” or something, because karate is associated with Japanese martial arts. Listen: the brand is “The Karate Kid.” If the remake took place in Scandinavia, it would still be called “The Karate Kid.” Get over it.

Dre gets bullied at school, seeks to learn self-defense, and falls into the capable hands of the maintenance man at his building, Mr. Han. This gentleman is played by Jackie Chan, who supplies the movie with whatever measure of grace it summons up.

With only a couple of fighting scenes, Chan goes about creating a real character with Mr. Han, and his stooped posture and vaguely irritated manner are nicely drawn. The movie’s a reminder of how infrequently Jackie Chan has been asked to act in his Hollywood vehicles.

Jaden Smith, the son of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett, is a likable enough kid although quite a bit younger than Macchio’s character was. He’s so young the movie lacks a certain adolescent urgency (but this may have been deliberate, given the PG rating and a release date timed to catch grade-schoolers starting summer break).

When we finally get to the actual training sequences (after endless scenes of Dre outrunning the bullies and befriending a violin-prodigy classmate), the gears do begin turning, and of course the story builds to a climactic competition in which young Dre will take on his bullying nemesis.

I won’t disclose how that comes out. It wouldn’t be fair to, you know, the children. But the memory of the original and the diminishing returns of a series of sequels has left the “Karate Kid” franchise without any new place to go, except maybe a coma.

Bass Ackwards. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Seattle-based filmmaker Linas Phillips is nothing if not industrious: he’s put out three features since 2006, a better record than many filmmakers working above his micro-budget level.

“Walking to Werner” chronicled his determined trek (on foot, mind you) from Seattle to Los Angeles in the hopes of meeting his hero, director Werner Herzog; “Great Speeches from a Dying World” delved into the lives of members of Seattle’s homeless population.

The new one, “Bass Ackwards” (which just played at the Seattle International Film Festival), ventures into a more fictional realm than those two films. And yet, here’s Linas Phillips, on screen, playing a character named Linas.

All right. But this time there’s clearly a fictional through-line carrying the character Linas along: he’s just seen the end of his affair with a married woman, he’s been gently kicked out of a friend’s house after freeloading for a while, and he doesn’t seem to have a job.

More or less by accident, he comes into possession of a Volkswagen “Shorty”—a version of the VW van that looks like it middle section has been taken out. And, once in possession of this intermittently-functioning vehicle, Linas decides to drive across the country to visit his family in Boston.

The journey that follows is as uneven as the van’s performance. Some of it is amusing, some of it is self-indulgent, a lot of it looks improvised out of thin air.

If you’re a fan of that kind of breezy, digressive movie, which trundles along the road in hopes of finding something interesting along the way, you’ll probably be in the relatively small audience that digs “Bass Ackwards.”

It’s nicely photographed (by Sean Porter) and Phillips proves he has a keen eye for a running gag. The VW van itself is the film’s secret weapon, a freakish thing that can’t help but elicit a chortle every time you see it (same with Phillips’s increasing exasperation as the van’s engine gets weaker and weaker during the trip).

The movie doesn’t aspire to anything as ambitious or definitive as “Easy Rider,” instead settling for the value of rambling. Not such a bad thing.

Living in Emergency. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

You’ve surely heard of Doctors Without Borders—those physicians who venture into war zones and disaster areas to supply emergency medical relief.

But seeing the documentary “Living in Emergency” makes the actual hands-on work of MSF (the initials from the original French name of the group, Medicins Sans Frontieres) much more understandable. If anything, the disaster areas are even worse than you might have imagined.

This film was mostly shot during a couple of MSF missions in 2005. One goes into the heart of darkness that is the Congo, another into Liberia in the aftermath of a horrible civil war.

What we see are doctors improvising in dire situations, sometimes with patients injured by violence, other times with people who simply have had no health care for many years. There’s no discreet cutting away from surgery or bullet wounds, so be advised.

We focus on a few people in particular, and watch their progress. On the one hand, there’s an Australian doctor, Chris Brasher, who’s been in the MSF ranks for nine years; like a character out of “MASH,” he’s developed a thick skin and a way to keep his equilibrium in the midst of war zones.

At the other end is another Aussie, Davinder Gill, who is on his first mission at age 28. Exiled to a far-off Liberia outpost, the high-strung Dr. Gill seems on the verge of losing it, overwhelmed by his frustration at bureaucratic problems and lack of necessary supplies.

There’s also a Tennessee surgeon, Tom Krueger, who left his lucrative 20-year practice so he could do something with MSF. He seems to be adapting the right philosophical attitude to weather the vagaries of working in a constant state of crisis.

Director Mark Hopkins’ emphasis in the movie can be questioned—by focusing on the doctors, it continues a long tradition of telling stories about the visitors to Third World countries, not about the people who live in those places.

Still, this portrait is vivid. So vivid it is difficult to watch at times, and not just because of the explicit surgical gore. Among the heart-rending scenes is a girl who recovers from surgery on her broken arm only to remember that her parents have been killed in an attack. As a nurse says, “Now it is not just the pain, it is the sorrow.”

This film will certainly make you think more about the ground-zero world of disaster areas. As one observer puts it, there’s a sameness to the temporary missions MSF undertakes: wherever you go, you see “civilians who are terrified, and some people who enjoy killing other people.” Which is why the group is needed, unfortunately.

Notes on the final weekend of the Seattle International Film Festival, here.

On KUOW’s “Weekday,” I talked with Marcie Sillman about the movies of 1960, and how they changed the landscape; archived here. The movie bit kicks in with the Psycho strings at 14:08 into it.