Friday, February 7, 2014

Informal Movie Reviews: The Protector 2, The Wolverine, Golden Queen's Commando

More movie reviews! Short and informal. Some spoilers.

The Protector 2 (2013)

Tony Jaa returns to the big screen! Bad guys steal his elephant and force him to murder people by turning the elephant into a bomb? There was some English but I didn’t watch a subtitled version, so I got to make up my own story. Anyway, the action: disappointing, but not in the way I expected. I was worried that they would fake Tony Jaa: try to make him look cool by pitting him against boring opponents and using a bunch of camera tricks and CGI. But what they did was take Tony Jaa, the real Tony Jaa, and make him look fake. There was some nice choreography; there were some crazy stunts. But the good stuff was impossible to appreciate: obscured by close shots, quick cuts, weird camera angles, and yeah, a bit of CGI as well. Overall, it could have been a lot worse, but the end result was mediocre when it had the potential to be great. Oh, and Jeeja Yanin’s role? Incredibly disappointing. I mean, I didn’t expect her to out-stage Tony Jaa or anything, but her character was so weak! Like, she would struggle forever against some no-name thugs and then Jaa would step in and finish ‘em in a couple of hits! Who doesn’t get to beat up on the no-name thugs? Were there not enough no-name thugs to go around? 

The Wolverine (2013)

Wolverine goes to Japan to visit a dying friend–whom he saved from an atomic bomb during WWII–and then gets caught up in a corporate power struggle involving Yakuza, ninja, and mecha-samurai. The film also portrays less cliche elements of Japanese culture, but still, really? I had fun, though. The plot wasn’t overly concerned with heroics, which was nice. Structurally, it reminded me of many HK action thrillers: action in the first and last acts bookending a middle where the characters do character things that are somewhat entertaining, even if they don’t make a whole lot of sense. In this case, we have Wolverine visiting the Japanese countryside, reminiscing about old friends, and falling in love with his dying friend’s granddaughter. Corny? Maybe, but it was nice to spend time watching the heroes interact with each other (although unfortunately the sidekick disappeared for a while), rather than just watching them run around in response to antagonists. I also liked that the action was less CGI-heavy than most modern superhero movies. Besides the bullet-train sequence (kinda cool, actually) and the mecha-samurai (totally lame–the thing had no weight), the fights had more in common with your typical martial arts flick than your typical Hollywood blockbuster. Nothing mind-blowing, but entertaining in a B-movie way. 

Golden Queen’s Commando (1982)

What happens when you take a one-eyed war criminal, a bible-toting gunslinger, a cage-fighting amazon, an alcoholic swordswoman, a quick-fingered thief, a traitorous courtesan, and a dynamite-laden bandit and throw them in a maximum security prison? Well, they escape, duh, and go on to have exciting adventures together. Basically this movie takes the highlights from a crazy mix of pulp genres (prison break, western, WWII mission, adventure), puts badass women in the lead roles (something more films should do), and totally steals Ennio Morricone’s music from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly to play in the background. Don’t go in expecting a smart plot or slick Hollywood production values and you’ll have a cheesy fun time.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Ursa Tonic

Spaaaaace cocktail. Enjoy!

Ursa Tonic: a popular drink among the inmates of an Ursa-class space prison. 

3 oz. Urju: a spirit distilled from the fermented juice extract of Ursa Corp’s patented oxygen-recycling algae. 
4 oz. recycled station water, pumped full of CO2 by the cafeteria carbonator.
3 drops synthesized quinine. Usually obtained by bribing a guard to fab it in the chemprinter.

Shake and serve in a prison-issue stainless steel mug, for that signature metallic aftertaste.

(Story and cocktail are part of another terribleminds flash fiction challenge)

Ursa Tonic

Stellion to Hold-em to Five-card Draw to New Kong Stud and back to Hold-em, the last a tense hand that Pichet wins with wired kings. They have been drinking and smoking and playing poker–dealer’s choice, base-limit hands–since fifth rotation, the four of them now sprawled about the open cell: Sin cross-legged, black dreads falling to the cold metal floor, losing and pissed; Zoe leaning back against Wu’s bunk, losing as well but too drunk to care; Wu beside Zoe, occasionally reaching for a thermos filled with Urju and a vial of synthesized quinine, mixing both with stale soda water and pouring the solution into stainless steel mugs which she passes to the others; Pichet completing the lopsided half-circle, she and Wu the only ones ahead, winnings grown to a small pile of expired yuan and cheap cigarettes and all the other crap that passes for currency in the Ursa-class space prison they inhabit.

Pichet takes the deck from Wu and shuffles it with an idle faro. Zoe and Sin sort out the blinds.

“Shit,” Zoe says, drunken amusement. She runs a hand through neon blue hair and throws a weak smile to the others. “You cleaned me. Looks like I’m out.”

Wu exhales a cloud of smoke. “So. That mean we’re through?”

Pichet shrugs, sets the deck down and begins to gather her winnings.

“Wait, wait, wait. Neither of you gonna offer to spot her?”

Wu laughs. “You really want to keep on playing, Sin? Not doing so well yourself.”

“I’m just saying. Give us a chance to get it back.” Sin turns to Pichet. “How ‘bout it, Pichet? Give us a chance, yeah?”

“I don’t give something for nothing.”

“Fuck that. She’s new. Have a heart.” Sin glares at Pichet, but evokes no response. “Hey, Pichet!”

“C’mon, Sin,” Wu says nervously. “Cool down.”

“Something for nothing! Can you–“ Sin breaks off with a frustrated snort. “Aw, fuck it,” and under her breath: “asshole.”

The group falls silent. Pichet counts out her yuan; the others watch. The gap in their conversation fills with the chaotic ambience of Block B40: the stuttering buzz of the air cycler; work boots against metal; endless chatter punctuated by moans and shouts and screams. Wu finishes one cigarette, starts another. Sin stretches her back, rolls her neck, restlessly cracks her knuckles. Zoe bites her lip–initial amusement turning to quiet distress as the extent of her losses becomes clear. Eventually, Pichet finishes and moves to tuck the notes into an inner pocket of her prison-issue jumpsuit. 

“Wait,” Zoe says. “I got something. Well, not a thing, it’s information, a secret, but it’s valuable and maybe–”

“Spit it out,” Wu says.

“I know how to escape.”

“Bullshit,” Sin says. “You’re still here.”

“It’s not easy, but I know how to do it. And I’ll tell you. Spot me fifty, and if I lose it I’ll tell you.”

Pichet shakes her head. 

“Oh, c’mon Pichet,” Wu says. “I’m curious. What are you worried about, anyway? Afraid you’re gonna lose?”

“Fine.” Pichet peels a few notes from her roll and tosses them to Zoe, sets the rest aside. She grabs the deck. She cascades the cards from one hand to the other. “We play.”

They start with a round of New Kong Stud and continue with Stellion and Hold-em. Zoe hits a streak of lucky hands and starts to pull ahead. Pichet bides her time, lets the deck go around a few times, retains a pair of kings which she hides up her sleeve. After Wu deals a hand of Five-card Draw that ends with both Sin and Zoe chasing a hearts flush, Pichet sees her chance. The deal passes to her; when she gathers the deck she sets the important cards–eight of hearts, nine of hearts, ten of hearts, ten of spades, king of clubs, queen of hearts, jack of hearts–on the bottom, keeps them there with a few false shuffles. Then she deals a hand of Hold-em, sneaking the retained kings to Zoe and bottom-dealing the eight and nine of hearts to herself. After each phase of betting, she burns from the top and deals from the bottom, so that for the showdown Zoe’s confident, sitting on a full house of kings and tens, while she herself is poised to win with an unlikely straight flush.

It works better than she expected: Zoe goes all in. Pichet reveals her straight flush with a small flourish. 

Zoe laughs. “I didn’t think you were the type to chase straights, Pichet,” she says. Then she flips her own cards over, revealing the ace and king of hearts–a royal flush. “Clever scam,” she continues. “Wu draws me into the game, gets me drunk on Ursa Tonic. Pichet manipulates the cards. Sin plays the angry loser to undermine any complaint I might make. And after I leave–“ but before she can finish Sin leaps to her feet and grabs her, stands her up against the wall. “Hey, wait–“ Sin punches Zoe in the gut, and Zoe pukes Ursa Tonic over the scattered cards and jumbled notes.

“Jesus, Sin. Back off. She figured it out. It doesn’t matter,” Wu says. And then to Zoe: “So what gave it away? And why are you bragging about it?”

“Oh, I always knew. Your group has a bit of a reputation. That’s why you target new inmates like me, right? See, I wasn’t lying when I said I knew how to escape. But I can’t do it alone. I need liars, people who can pull off a con, and I think I just found the right women for the job.” Zoe wipes vomit from her mouth with the sleeve of her jumpsuit, then quirks an eyebrow and grins. “So, you all ready to blow this joint?”

Wu and Sin look to Pichet, who responds with a rare crooked smile. “Yeah, sure. Deal us in.”


Some notes: I'm not sure that going into extended detail on how exactly Pichet pulled off the cheat was the right choice. I feel like it stands out as the only section with a clear POV, but maybe the mistake was that I didn’t establish a clear POV for the rest of the story, tried to do some kind of group-centered omniscient thing instead. Initially, I felt that not having a POV character was essential to the double reveal structure of the story, but in retrospect I think the double reveal was more a construct of the mid-action starting point than anything else.