Friday, April 30, 2010

Mr. Majestyk

I don't know if I'd agree with that movie poster.  This came out in 1974, so if I had to recommend only one movie for that year, it would be The Godfather: Part II.  It's only one of the top five movies ever made.  Or Chinatown.  Or Mel Brooks' best work in Blazing Saddles or Young Frankenstein.  Or Coppola's best non-Godfather work,  The Conversation.  Or two of the best horror movies of all time, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Black Christmas.  Hell, I might even recommend Foxy Brown over Mr. Majestyk.  I'm not saying that this is a bad movie; I'm just questioning the validity of the movie poster's claim.

Mr. Majestyk is the story of Vince Majestyk (Charles Bronson), a former military bad-ass that is now a struggling watermelon farmer.  I'll give the movie brownie points for the unusual movie crop.  Majestyk needs to bring in his melons before it starts to rot in order to stay financially solvent.  Logically, he likes to hire experienced melon workers, so he hires migrant Mexican workers.  However, a local hood tries to bully Majestyk into using his men, mostly inexperienced drunks.  What the profit for the hood is remains unclear, but he really wants those drunks to pick Majestyk's melons.  Majestyk doesn't like that, so he beats up the hood and scares him off with the hood's own shotgun.  The hood files a complaint against Majestyk, and Majestyk is jailed.  I would have thought that swearing a complaint would not lead to immediate incarceration, especially if Majestyk could counter-complain that the man was trespassing on private property, but I'm no lawyer.  Majestyk's prison transfer bus is hijacked en route to delivering Majestyk to court; the hijackers are trying to rescue fellow bus passenger and Mafia hitman, Frank Renda (Al Lettieri), but Majestyk has other ideas.  He re-hijacks the bus and takes Renda hostage.  The idea is for Majestyk to negotiate with the police for Renda's return to custody, in return for Majestyk's freedom, so he can bring in his melon crop.  Well, Renda gets away and vows revenge on Majestyk; to allow for this revenge, the local hood drops the complaint against Majestyk, making him a free man.  Renda tries to intimidate Majestyk and promises to kill him, but Majestyk remains unruffled.  Only when Renda's men take machine guns to Majestyk's crop do things get serious.  Majestyk decides to fight back against Renda and his men, but does so on his own terms.  The rest of the movie is a cat-and-mouse game that is surprisingly well-executed.  The car chase scenes are even more impressive knowing that Majestyk's Ford truck was not modified for its use in the film; Ford even used clips from the movie in commercials to hsow how tough their product was.

I don't know how many Charles Bronson movies you've seen, but there are generally two types: young Bronson (sans mustache) in ensemble action movies, and mustachioed 1970s leading man Bronson action movies.  Generally speaking, the former are better films, at least in part because the primary acting does not rely on Bronson.  Despite this obvious handicap, Mr. Majestyk is a pretty entertaining movie.  The first half is not very good, I'll admit.  There is little action and Bronson has a hard time delivering lines from Elmore Leonard's reliable script.  Oh, and if you've ever wanted to hear the hero in a movie say "melons" over forty times in one movie, you're in luck.  The supporting cast is pretty low-rent, so they don't help out much.  Bronson's love interest (because someone nicknamed "The Ugly One" in Italy --- true story --- is a convincing romantic lead), Linda Cristal, is decent, but she's far from the focus of the movie.  Al Lettieri plays a convincing Mafia thug, but that's more because he looks like an ordinary guy than due to great acting.  Besides, it's nice to see a scary Mafia thug played as an egocentric moron every so often.  This cast is handled decently by director Richard Fleischer, but it's pretty clear that his main focus was on the action-packed ending.

Despite these shortcomings, this film still manages to work.  Once the hijacking attempt takes place, the pace of the film picks up considerably.  Aside from Majestyk's legal position, the movie progresses in a pretty plausible fashion(aside from the romantic angle); Bronson does not have a big shoot-out at any time, but instead does the smart thing and arranges to pick his enemies off, one by one.  Honestly, the final quarter to this movie is pretty great.  Of course, to get the full payoff of those final scenes, you have to deal with Charles Bronson saying "melon" over and over.  It's worth it, especially if you find the word "melon" funny.  Go ahead...say it.  Melon.  Now say it while doing a Charles Bronson imitation.  Now say it while doing a Charles Bronson imitation and shoot a bunch of bad guys.  Now you know how this movie feels.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

One of the things about Sherlock Holmes stories that has always bothered me is the big reveal at the end.  More often than not, Holmes will figure out whatever secret the story requires relatively early in the plot, but will refuse to explain anything until the story is all but over.  It's not like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's stories were predictable by any means, so giving a hint here and there wouldn't hurt the story at all.  Instead, Holmes lectures Watson and the reader in an almost Jeff-Goldbloom-in-Independence-Day manner; his leaps in logic are enormous, the facts he spouts are obscure and unknown to any reader, and the facts that are given in the narrative are completely insufficient for any reader (even a detective) to reach the same conclusions independently.  As stories, I enjoy Holmes, but as mystery stories, I find their mockery insulting.

This movie, though, has the right idea.  Sherlock Holmes keeps the spirit of Doyle's best work, but manages to not be constrained by the source material.  This movie is the first Holmes film (to my knowledge) to have an original screenplay.  That means that even the most avid Holmes fan does not know what will happen next.  Brilliant!  Why didn't anyone think of this before?  I can imagine the pitch: "Umm...maybe, in this movie, the mystery can be one that wasn't written a hundred years ago?  Maybe?" 

Freed from the tethers of a predictable script, this movie really shines with its focus on the bromance between Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and Dr. John Watson (Jude Law).  Yes, the plot is really about the nefarious scheming of Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), but the bromance takes center stage.  This only works, though, because the two leads have great chemistry.  Downey's Holmes emphasizes the weird eccentricities of the character well, showing the brilliant as well as the crackpot aspects almost simultaneously.  The best moments with Holmes, though, were the simple ones.  For instance, his dinner date with Watson and Watson's fiance-to-be shed light on his character, from when he ordered his food (he timed it perfectly!) to the strain he endures due to his all too acute observation faculties.  Those were just great touches.  Jude Law was an interesting casting choice for Watson.  Oftentimes, Watson is portrayed on film as the quintessential sidekick to Holmes; he usually seems likable, but inferior to Holmes in every way except his ability to grow a mustache.  Here, he is intelligent, able, and very much Holmes' equal.  By making Holmes a little less omnipotent than usual and making Watson more competent, this film finally makes sense of their friendship.  The best parts of the film have these two arguing or helping each other out, in true best friend fashion.  Really, this feels more like a buddy flick than the typical wait-for-Holmes-to-explain-everything Sherlock mystery.  By having this film more character-based than plot-based, the filmmakers made this film more entertaining than any other Sherlock Holmes movie.

The plot here is relatively unimportant, since you know Holmes and Watson are going to solve an impossible mystery.  What is important, though, is the work of the supporting cast.  Mark Strong is a natural villain and his performance was on par with the two lead actors.  He wasn't fantastic, but he plays a respectable foil to Holmes' brilliance.  It is worth noting that Strong's character is an original creation for this film.  The supporting actresses, though, have their origins in Doyle's tales.  Rachel McAdams plays Irene Adler, the only woman to outwit Holmes ---twice! --- and thus, won his heart.  Kelly Reilly plays Mary, Watson's love.  Of the two, Reilly does a better job, adding assertiveness and some intelligence to a role that doesn't require much effort.  McAdams plays a femme fatale, but not very well.  Personally, I think she was miscast here.  The character is untrustworthy, clever, and sneaky.  When McAdams tries to portray these traits, she comes off as a sweet girl who abruptly becomes conniving with the flip of a switch.  If she played the role as a woman that was pretending to be nice, but was a stone cold bitch underneath, I might buy it.  Her abruptness, though, was off-putting.  Other key supporting performances by Hans Matheson and Eddie Marsan were a little more natural than McAdams', but more forgettable.

The blend of humor, action, and Britishness combine to make this easily the best film director Guy Ritchie has made since 2000's Snatch.  It has his trademarked slow-motion/fast-motion action, but Robert Downey Jr.'s narration over these scenes adds a pleasant new element to this standard trick for Richie.  The movie is well-paced and the character scenes show humor and even a little heart.  McAdams' acting indicates that Ritchie still hasn't quite figured out what to do with female main characters yet (Swept Away, anyone?), but he is definitely making strides toward becoming a more well-rounded storyteller.  The CGI used to make Old London was mostly well-used, although the climactic bridge scenes had some completely unnecessary zoom out with 360-degree camera rotation, a la Tony Scott.  Still, it is nice seeing Ritchie making fun movies again.

Was this a great film?  No, I wouldn't say that.  The main actors were a lot of fun to watch, but the supporting cast was a little lackluster.  The plot was decent, but forgettable.  Luckily, the movie focused on the Holmes-Watson friendship instead of the plot.  Fantastic detectives need fantastic mysteries to solve, after all, and an unimpressive mystery can only hinder a Sherlock Holmes tale.  To make up for this lack, the action and humor were turned up and used well.  That makes this a light, fun movie that serves as an excellent appetizer for a potentially awesome sequel.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Addams Family Values

For some reason, it is almost impossible to make a good movie out of a classic television show.  Bewitched, The Flinstones, and Dragnet all made it to the big screen, but none of them were very good.  Don't even get me started on Cedric the Entertainer's Honeymooners debacle.  The Addams Family is the only show to truly make a successful leap from the small to the big screen (okay, Mission: Impossible did a good job, too).  Having overcome that first hurdle with The Addams Family, Addams Family Values feels like the cast and crew performed with a weight lifted from them.  Gone are a lot of the zanier moments that stayed true to the original show.  Instead, this movie feels like a logical step forward from the 60s to the 90s.

This movie uses its sequel status quite well.  A lot of sequels have major cast changes that require some explaining, or they take the time to reintroduce the characters for viewers that are unfamiliar with the series.  Here, it is more or less assumed that the viewer knows that the Addams are weird and moves past that to propel the plot.  The story this time around has Fester (Christopher Lloyd) looking for love, only to find serial black widow Debbie (Joan Cusack) looking to marry (and shortly inherit) into the Addams fortune.  Fester is harder to kill than a non-Addams, though, so Debbie has to isolate him from his family.  This devastates his brother Gomez (Raul Julia) and sister-in-law Morticia (Anjelica Huston), especially after they have their new baby, Pubert.  There is a subplot dealing with the older Addams children, Wednesday (Christina Ricci) and her brother Puglsey, being sent to an exceptionally upbeat summer camp, but the real story is about Debbie vs. the Addams Family.

The primary cast from the last movie remains unchanged.  The characters are more well-developed this time around, particularly Wednesday and Fester.  Lloyd benefits the most here because his character had amnesia in the first film; this time around, he's as weird as everyone else from the start.  While the sequel came out only two years after the original, Ricci matured a lot in those two years, which improved her deadpan delivery significantly.  The other established cast members are still exceptionally well cast.  Carol Kane is always fun to see in a movie, especially when she looks like a witch.  Raul Julia had a talent for embracing the ridiculous that was more apparent as Gomez than any of his other roles.  The casting of Anjelica Huston as Morticia was inspired, showing a playfulness that rarely showed in her earlier work.  Even the undemanding role of Lurch was well-played by Carel Struycken.  Even Joan Cusack is enjoyable here; her grating voice is a lot more palatable when she is presented as a murderer.  The supporting cast features some noteworthy appearances, including a young David Krumholtz as a sickly love interest for Wednesday, Peter MacNicol and Christine Baranski as camp counselors, while Nathan Lane, Cynthia Nixon, David Hyde Pierce, Peter Graves, and Tony Shalhoub all have bit parts.

Excellent casting aside, I'm not saying that this is a perfect movie.  A lot of the humor is predictable, but it is written and delivered well.  I like that this is a (more or less) family movie with a macabre sense of humor.  It's rare to see so much deadpan sarcasm in a movie primarily aimed at children and teens.  As someone with the mentality of a child or teen, I appreciate that.  A lot of the predictability in this film comes from its limitations.  The Addams' make all sorts of grizzly, creepy allusions to grave robbery, murder, and sex, but they remain allusions.  Would this movie be better if these aspects of the script were more explicit?  Do we really want to see Wednesday kill anyone at summer camp?  Do we want to see Gomez and Morticia in the bedroom?  Do we want to see Fester and Debbie digging up a corpse?  Not really, no, and NO, respectively.  Sadly, the limitations that this movie places on itself to remain (mostly) in the realm of good taste handicap some of its humorous potential.  This is a wise choice, overall, for the film, because it is able to make some occasionally good jokes and fill the rest of the time with largely inoffensive predictable fare.  The deadpan delivery and morbid sensibilities set this apart from almost all modern comedies, and this remains one of the best examples of a television show making the transition to film.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Fantastic Mr. Fox

Roald Dahl and Wes retrospect, it's hard to believe it took this long for those two names to be connected.  Dahl, the author of so many delightful, dark, and subversive children's books, seems to have delighted in writing legitimate literature for the young and the old.  In his books, adults were often evil, and the world is full of evil, so it always seemed fantastic when things went right.  Wes Anderson is perhaps the youngest genius director working in Hollywood right now.  His films don't always work (I'm looking at you, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), but they are always worth watching.  As the writer and director of his movies, Anderson pays an amazing amount of attention to detail in all his films, so much so that re-watching his movies can often be a revelatory experience.  Anderson doesn't like telling safe or typical stories, so him basing a script on a Dahl book is a natural fit.

The first thing you will notice about this movie is the animation.  Anderson wanted to capture the look and feel of the original King Kong, so stop-motion animation was used.  However, unlike the claymation-style animation from Gumby or the original Clash of the Titans, this animation looks absolutely painstaking.  The hairs on each animal move.  Not all at the same time, or even in the same direction.  They move naturally, which is extremely difficult to achieve through artificial means.  The characters are far more expressive than you would think possible with this technology.  The animation style changes, from the ultra-detailed work of the close shots to fast and loose two-dimensional shots used to pass time quickly and show off the cartooniness of the story.  Nowadays, Pixar studios have the animation market cornered with their terrific computer animated films.  The Fantastic Mr. Fox is a welcome reminder that animation comes in many shapes and forms, and can be just as amazing as the best that technology has to offer --- or even better.

That's just the animation, though.  What about the story?  This is the tale of Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney), a former chicken thief turned family man.  Mr. Fox has sworn off the risky life of chicken thievery to please his wife, Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep), and provide for his son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman).  The movie conveniently skips over the twelve years where Mr. Fox kept to the straight and narrow and focuses on when he eventually starts stealing again.  There are three mean farmers near the Fox household.  Fox plunders them systematically until they decide to fight back.  This movie doesn't pull its punches with the mean humans; they have might and machines, and are willing to use them.  Fox's home is torn apart and the entire neighborhood is ruined, making Fox and his entire community homeless.  That doesn't mean that Fox stops fighting, of course.

Wes Anderson adds quite a bit to Dahl's original story, partly to make it feature-length and partly to fit into his unique cinematic vision.  The most notable change is the number of children, from four in the book to one in the movie.  This sets up Fox's somewhat odd son, Ash, for a rivalry with his cousin, the athletic Kristofferson; Mr. Fox seems underwhelmed by Ash, while openly applauding Kristofferson.  Then again, it wouldn't be a Wes Anderson movie without a strained father/son relationship, would it?

The voice acting here is fine, overall, but could be better.  Clooney is excellent as Mr. Fox.  Willem Dafoe is very entertaining as Fox's animal nemesis, the rat.  Bill Murray does a good job with Mr. Badger; not good enough to cancel out Garfield, but still pretty good.  Overall, though, it probably would have been better with voice actors.  As it is, the cast is a blend of Anderson's friends, coworkers, and actors that he likes.  That means that Adrien Brody, Brian Cox, Owen Wilson, director Garth Jennings, musician Jarvis Cocker, and Wes Anderson himself all make small contributions to the voice cast.  Anderson earns loyalty from his actors unlike any other director today; that is why so many of the same actors work with him, picture after picture, even if their part is minute.  That works wonders in an ensemble movie.  This is animated, though, and that affection does not always show through.  While the voice acting could have been better, it certainly could have been much, much worse (I'm thinking of Shark Tale as an example).  The movie circles around Clooney's character, so that makes a lot of the shortcomings inconsequential; it's called The Fantastic Mr. Fox, not An Animal Ensemble featuring Mr. Fox, after all.

From a visual standpoint, this movie is superb.  From a directorial standpoint, this movie is pretty awesome.  But the story...well, it is ambitious, but doesn't quite hit a home run.  Anderson's script calls attention to the anthropomorphic aspects of the characters, pointing out some of their odd behaviors, all while reemphasizing the fact that these animals are, in fact, animals.  It's not quite metafilm, but it's close.  The movie likes to step back and point out some of the oddities of animals acting like people, and that quality of self-awareness, while often funny, detracts from the story . It sometimes felt like Mr. Fox was giving me the old wink-wink-nudge-nudge, letting me know that animals don't really act like this.  This isn't overt stuff, like Jimmy Fallon mugging the camera, but I noticed it.  Anderson also takes the time to show the consequences of Mr. Fox's actions; Fox's selfishness (or wildness, I suppose) threatens the lives of his friends and family in the short- and long-term, makes his son feel inadequate, and might ruin his marriage.  This is theoretically fine, but a little heavy-handed in practice.  Do I need a realistic marital argument in a children's film about foxes?  No, but I admit that it was written well.  The fact that it was written, though, just feels like a case of wrong time, wrong place.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Bank Job

I love that this movie poster states that this film is based on a true story.  Most of the time, when a movie makes that claim, the story is fairly well known.  Apollo 13, for instance, told a well publicized story.  Other times, the story is less well known, but still based on fact.  Tom Horn tells the story of...well, Tom Horn, an old West gunman/assassin.  He's not very famous, but when the movie claimed to be based on his life, the veracity of the claim could be researched.  The Bank Job, though, is something else entirely.  Supposedly based on the 1971 Baker Street robbery in London, the reality/fiction ratio of this film seems to be skewed toward the latter.  Aside from the bare bones facts of the case (there was a bank robbery), just about everything else about this movie appears to be fictionalized.  Not that that's a bad thing, mind you.

As the title suggests, this is a heist flick.  I usually enjoy heist movies because they make you root for the bad guys and the thieves are usually very clever and charismatic.  The heist movie often takes one of two forms; it either focuses on the heist itself (the preparation and execution, a la The Italian Job (2003) and Inside Man) or it focuses on the escape (like Heist, Quick Change, and The Killing).  However, this is an unusual heist flick because its focus is less on those aspects of the crime and instead focuses on the trouble the loot will bring these characters.

Jason Statham stars as a small-time thug that has gone (more or less) legit as a husband, father, and car salesman.  He is approached by an old flame, Martine (Saffron Burrows), with a fully researched criminal proposition.  All Statham needs to do is put together a crew and actually go through with the plot.  Wanting to get ahead of life for a change, Statham accepts.  Burrows and Statham recruit two of their childhood friends, played by Stephen Campbell Moore and Daniel Mays, to help with the heist.  A few others play important roles to the plot, but the story is primarily about this group of friends.

There are a lot of secondary stories in play, though. Martine was apparently busted smuggling heroin into England.  She was working with MI5 (the British Secret Service) to set up Statham and company.  Why would MI5 want a low-level group of crooks to break into a bank?  Good question.  A paparazzi had taken pictures of Britain's Princess Margaret involved in a threesome.  Okay, that's kind of awkward for the Crown.  The photographer did not, however, publish the picture for profit.  Instead, the pictures found their way to the militant black revolutionary Michael X (whose appearance is uncannily reproduced by Peter de Jersey), who used the pictures as a "Get Out of Jail Free" card.  Michael X kept his photos in a safety deposit box in the bank in question.  Unfortunately, other important people kept important things in the same bank.  The madame of a prestigious S & M club had secretly been photographing several members of Parliament and other high ranking officials getting the whips and chains treatment; she kept her photos safe in a safety deposit box at the bank.  A local gangster kept a ledger of his payoffs to corrupt police officials in the same bank in --- you guessed it --- a safety deposit box.  So, MI5 wants the naughty pictures of their Princess, but does not want to break the law to get them.  Instead, they facilitate a crime on behalf of the royal character, planning to allow local police to capture the criminals that MI5 put up to the job.

Wow.  It's just that easy!  If I ever need to over-complicate a smash-and-grab heist, I now have a blueprint to show me how.  Despite the ridiculousness of the plot, this movie is still entertaining.  It is so customary for heist movie criminals to be smarter than the viewer that having amateurs do the work in this film is refreshing.  Statham proves once again that he does his best acting in ensemble casts and the rest of the cast doesn't screw up.  Really, the star of this film is the interwoven plot and director Roger Donaldson does a good job of tying itself together.  There is the issue of the film's truthiness, though; if you research the actual robbery, you will find a lot of assumptions being made with this script, as well as some outright inventions (like Martine's character).  Does that make this a bad movie?  No, but learning that takes some of the fun out of it.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Slammin' Salmon

Comedy troupes are an interesting anomaly in the movie world.  Sure, you have the megastars like Monty Python, okay, so there really isn't any other group that has been continuously successful on the big screen.  Some of my favorite groups, like The Kids in the Hall and The Whitest Kids U' Know, have only made one movie.  With that duly noted, I think that it's pretty cool that the guys in Broken Lizard have managed to put out their fifth movie, The Slammin' Salmon.  The group is best known for Super Troopers, but Jay Chandrasekhar, Kevin Heffernan, Steve Lemme, Paul Soter, Erik Stolhanske have managed to write, act, and direct (well, Chandrasekhar has) in four pretty solidly stupid (and consistently funny) comedies before this.

The movie takes place in the Slammin' Salmon restaurant, named after owner/professional boxer Cleon Salmon (Michael Clarke Duncan).  Basically, Salmon is a moron.  He lost a lot of money gambling and needs the wait staff to bring in $20,000 in one night --- that's about twice as much as the restaurant's best night ever.  To sweeten the deal, a cash prize is offered to whichever waiter makes the most money, while the loser will be pummeled by Salmon.  The wait staff primarily consists of Broken Lizard, with Chandrasekhar playing a mentally ill (but medicated) guy, Heffernan as the wussy manager, Lemme as a failed actor, Stolhanske as a jerk, and Soter as a cook and a twin brother on his first day at work.  There are two waitresses, April Bowlby (the stereotypical blonde) and Cobie Smulders (the smart one), as well.  Obviously, some hijinks must ensue for this to be a comedy, so the wait staff performs some shenanigans and the customers cause problems. 

The supporting cast is fairly noteworthy, with Jim Gaffigan, Will Forte, Lance Henriksen, Morgan Fairchild, Vivica A. Fox, Olivia Munn, and Sendhil Ramamurthy making appearances; fans will also notice a few recurring actors from other Broken Lizard movies playing small roles.  All of these roles are shallow and most are lazy stereotypes, with few generating more than a smirk.  Ramamurthy's reactions to his girlfriend's (Munn's) inanities are mildly amusing, but the other recognizable actors are pretty useless here.  Of these supporting roles, only bit player Michael Weaver really gets an opportunity to be funny. 

That makes sense, though.  Movies about waiters are never about the customers because waiters will deal with dozens of customers per shift.  The main interest has to come from the waiters.  Unfortunately for the viewer, things don't work out so well in that department.  The bizarre mentally unstable performance from Chandrasekhar is probably the best of the bunch; when medicated he is terribly awkward and not funny, but when he's off his meds, he takes on another persona that is much, much more amusing.  Soter is okay in his dual role, but nothing special.  He plays twins for only one predictable joke, too, so he split his efforts for no real reason.  Lemme was decent as an actor, but he wasn't very funny, either.  Stolhanske was just terrible, though.  The two waitresses were inconsequential.  All in all, the wait staff was pretty disappointing.

That leaves the management as the only possible saviors for this movie, and they almost pull it off.  Kevin Heffernan is annoying as the manager, but he is the funniest actor in the group and that makes his scenes more tolerable than they should be.  A lot of his scenes are almost funny, but not quite there.  Luckily, Michael Clarke Duncan ends up carrying this film.  As the almost freakishly large boxer, Duncan dwarfs everyone else in the cast.  His booming voice and (let's be honest) stupid dialogue provide much of the motivation for the other characters.  Their reactions to him and his expectations for them offer a lot of opportunities for humorous interactions and the occasional profane one-liner.  I wouldn't say that his performance would steal the show in any comedy, but it is definitely the bright spot here.

Overall, this was a disappointing directorial debut for Heffernan.  Most of the problems were in the script and this was filmed during the 2008 writer's strike, so they might not have been allowed to improvise or improve their lines.  That doesn't excuse this movie, though.  The premise is uninspired (make money or get beat) and isn't even revealed to the waiters until halfway through the film, for some reason.  The entire first scene with Heffernan as a waiter should have been cut because it isn't funny and has nothing to do with his work as manager.  Soter had no real reason to play twins, but the fact that there are twins makes you wait for a "I thought you were the other one" moment.  That moment eventually arrived, but was not worth the wait.  The acting was competent from most, but only Duncan looked like he was having fun. 

Worse than that, Broken Lizard tried and failed to work outside of their comfort zone.  They are at their best with contextual humor, not one-liners.  I can't tell you how many Super Troopers quotes I have heard, but I can tell you that only people who have seen the movie laugh.  Since the waiters are on their own at each table, there is not much banter between the staff.  This means that the humor has to come from jokes, which Broken Lizard has never excelled at in the past, and certainly failed with here.  The best moments are when the established characters get screen time together, which includes almost all of Duncan's performance (which, I would like to reiterate, was funny).  Had the movie spent more time with the managers or the cooks and less time with customers, this film might have been saved.  Instead, we get a Waiting... knock-off, minus the stupid fun.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

I don't often say this.  It actually hurts me to type this.  Nicolas Cage is totally over-the-top overacting in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans, and he is super-awesome because of it.  Ugh.  I think I need a shower now, I feel so dirty.

Rarely does a film's quality rest so heavily on one actor, but this movie (oddly enough, not a sequel of any kind to the 1992 Harvey Keitel vehicle, Bad Lieutenant) is completely dependent on Cage.  Sure, the supporting cast here is pretty solid, but that's just icing on the cake.  Fairuza Balk shows up for a few minutes and plays against type by not being a goth chick for once.  Eva Mendes plays Cage's junkie hooker girlfriend about as well as you would expect her to (she's pretty and can memorize lines).  Alvin Joiner (AKA rapper Xzibit) does a better than average job as a scary drug lord, but I think the real revelation for him is why he needed a rap pseudonym in the first place.  Isn't "Alvin" tough enough?  I find it hard to believe that misspelling something that belongs in a museum is much tougher than a rascally chipmunk.  Tom Bower is fine as Cage's AA-bound father, but it's his beer-swilling wife that is the surprise.  Jennifer Coolidge (Stifler's mom in the American Pie movies) makes a surprisingly unglamorous appearance as Cage's step-mom; she actually turns in a pretty good dramatic performance here, but my immediate reaction was to how appropriately haggard she looks.  Val Kilmer has a small but key supporting role and, miraculously, does it well and doesn't try to out-overact Cage.

All that is inconsequential, though.  This is the story of Terence McDonagh (Nic Cage), a police officer in New Orleans.  The movie takes place shortly after Hurricane Katrina, although it doesn't mention the disaster much after the first scene.  That first scene is important for two reasons, though.  First, it explains why this New Orleans movie is not about Mardi Gras.  Second, McDonagh hurts his back in this scene and the result is a permanent injury that even McDonagh's doctor admits will not be completely helped by pain medication.  That serves as the justification for this character to seek out any relief he can from the pain, be it drugs (marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and crack), sex (with his hooker girlfriend or a civilian in lieu of arrest), or gambling (often and poorly). In the middle of all this vice, there is a homicide case that McDonagh is supposed to be solving.  The funny thing about this cop movie is that the case is really secondary to the character.  As a viewer, you are never really drawn into the details of the crime because McDonagh treats it like a job, not an obsession (rare in movie cops).  This film shows McDonagh doing absolutely everything wrong until the walls all start closing in on him.  He doesn't stop, mind you.  His mounting gambling debts are starting to creep into his professional life, his addictions have caused him to act in ways that get Internal Affairs actively interested in taking his badge, he has opted to sell information to drug dealers that are willing to kill him, and his vice-sharing girlfriend decides to clean up her life and stop using drugs.  The only question is what will be the first part of his life to ruin him?

Now, that sounds like a really depressing movie, but it's not.  Sure, the back injury can be seen as a justification for McDonaugh's actions, but this film never makes excuses for his behavior.  As such, this is not a story with a moral, and that makes all the difference.  Instead, director Werner Herzog must have asked Nic Cage if he wanted to pretend to be out-of-his-mind-crazy on film for two hours.  Never one to turn down the opportunity to overact, Cage obliged.  It's a good thing he did, too, because Cage is a treat here.  He's weird, though.  He walks around with a hunched back throughout the film.  He throws out some truly bizarre laughs out of nowhere.  He makes you think that Johnny Depp should have studied him for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, THAT'S how drugged up Cage acts.  Cage's performance isn't seen through his own druggy lens, though; instead of seeing how McDonaugh sees the world while high, we see how high the world sees McDonaugh.  Well, that's true for most of the movie.  There is a scene where Herzog allows Cage's drug use to subtly affect how he interprets a TV broadcast.  There's another, less subtle scene where Cage hallucinates iguanas and the camera assumes the point of view of an iguana for about two minutes.  Regardless of the point of view, Cage turns in one of the best performances of his career and

It's difficult to describe an actor acting high without sounding like you should have been an extra in Dazed and Confused.  Imagine The Shield if Michael Chiklis was in-orbit-high.  That's the best parallel for this film that I can draw for you.  There's a lot of gritty crime stuff going wrong and McDonaugh is obviously crazy and deserves to be jailed for his many, many indiscretions, but then you see a moment that shows what an awesome police officer he is.  Or another moment that shows how horrifying it can be to have someone this twisted in a position of power.  Those moments are what make this film hang together.  There's a scene toward the end of the film where Val Kilmer's character shows that he might actually be, in some ways, worse than Cage as an officer of the law.  You'll notice that the movie poster doesn't include "The" in the title; it looks like a clue that, as bad as Cage's character is, he's not the bad lieutenant.  He's just one of many.

Monday, April 19, 2010


I love it when a movie comes out and a supporting character gets all the attention.  Remember how horrible and racist Jar Jar was?  Or how awesome and tragic Heath Ledger was as the Joker?  Kick-Ass has a supporting role that overshadows the main character in a similar fashion.

Kick-Ass is yet another adaptation of a comic book, although it doesn't have a lot of the common problems and strengths of that movie sub-genre.  For one, this is a comic that just finished its run in February of 2010.  Two months later, and here's the movie.  This isn't a longtime fan favorite, either; it only has four issues, and their release was spread out over two years.  Clearly, this is a film that was developed in coordination with the comic, which makes the adaptation less of a concern for fanboys.  Sure, some things were changed for the big screen, but they were relatively minor and make it more palatable for movie audiences.  Also, with so little source material, there is not the typical question of what plot or characters will be featured in the film.  In that, I applaud this movie.  It's faithful to the source material, but is willing to change enough to appeal to a broader audience.

That said, this is not a movie for everyone.  It is extremely violent, both in an over-the-top fun way and a viciously brutal way.  Which type of violence just depends on whether a good guy or bad guy is getting hurt at that moment.  One aspect of this violence that a lot of critics have seized upon is that the best over-the-top stuff comes from a then eleven (now thirteen) year-old girl.  I don't necessarily blame you if you don't find the notion of a teenage assassin awesome, but you're missing out on a lot of fun.

This movie stars Aaron Johnson as a typical semi-nerdy kid that is neither too smart or too popular.  One day, he realizes that nobody has ever tried to be a super hero in the real world.  His friends (Evan Peters and perennial nerd Clark Duke) reason that it is because A) super powers don't exist and B) anybody trying to fight crime while wearing a costume is destined for a beat down.  Not one to listen to logic, Johnson's character orders a wetsuit online and presto...!  the crime fighter Kick-Ass is born.  His first time out, though, Kick-Ass gets his ass kicked.  Once out of the hospital, though, he keeps at it and is eventually filmed doing his good deeds and becomes a Youtube sensation.  That's all fine and good, but Kick-Ass is a small-scale vigilante; he'll try to find your cat or break up a beat down, but he doesn't have the brains or skills to attack crime on a larger scale.  Kick-Ass influences others, though, including some that are on his skill level (like Christopher Mintz-Plasse, AKA Red Mist) and some of whom are way, way, way more qualified to take the law into their own hands than him.  In the latter category are the father-daughter team of Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and Hit-Girl (Chloe Moretz).  The movie really hits its stride when Kick-Ass gets mixed up with these two and sees how scary and violent comic book-style violence is in the "real world."

For the first half of the movie, viewers are going to be primarily focused on Kick-Ass and his problems with girls and being taken seriously as a hero.  Most of the time, you're supposed to be laughing at him or, at least, sympathizing with him.  To his credit, Aaron Johnson does a good job in this role.  Unfortunately, the movie doesn't feel deep enough to make you care a lot about him.  On the bright side, these scenes are still entertaining, but they're basically cinematic fluff.  Yes, it's funny seeing an ordinary person act so bizarrely in ordinary circumstances, but there's not really any emotional repercussions for any of the actions taken.  For a story that shows how people would react to a real-life superhero, the main motivation for Kick-Ass in naivety and boredom, which seems like it would run out very quickly.

That might sound like I didn't enjoy the movie, but that's just a fundamental problem I have with the story at its core.  This movie is a lot of fun, and it's almost entirely due to Hit-Girl.  Sure, Christopher Mintz-Plasse is good as Red Mist and the other teen actors Clark Duke and Lyndsy Fonseca (both from Hot Tub Time Machine) are fine; in particular, I enjoyed Red Mist and Kick-Ass rocking out to Gnarls Barkley in Red Mist's Mistmobile.  It's not a huge moment, but it's a cute touch.  Fonseca is better than most teenage actresses here, but her role isn't too demanding.  Clark Duke successfully portrays a slightly chubby nerd.  Again.  Mark Strong plays the movie's villain and makes a pretty good bad guy.  I don't know exactly what it is about him, but he doesn't come across as very nice.

But this isn't their story.  Kick-Ass is all about how a normal guy like Kick-Ass compares with Hit-Girl, who has been trained since birth to fight crime and kill criminals.  Chloe Moretz is fantastic in this role.   I'd tell you some of the things that she does and says, but the surprise is half the fun.  She kills lots of people in a uber-stylish comic book fashion and is very entertaining in the process.  Nicolas Cage delivers an awkward performance as her father and mentor, but even his William Shatner-esque dialogue cadence doesn't detract from the film.  The film isn't all fun and laughs, though.  When Kick-Ass, Hit-Girl or Big Daddy gets hurt, it is graphic.  There is a torture scene, and that is both gruesome and uncomfortable.  The worst shots (in terms of being hard to watch, not quality) feature Hit-Girl getting punched and kicked in the face by a grown man. 

The brutality is used to show some consequences for the characters' choices, but this isn't meant to be a cautionary tale.  It is fun, dumb, and very, very violent.  Director and co-writer Matthew Vaughn does a great job with the action in this movie and delivers the humor well, too.  The only problem is with the story itself.  By opting against a psychological profile of would-be superheroes, this movie turns up the fun but leaves the potential for heart behind.  That's not a bad thing, mind you.  Sometimes, there's nothing wrong with enjoying an eleven year-old girl take on organized crime.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Mist

Do you love stereotypes?  If so, then I have a movie for you!  It's called The Mist!  It's about a mysterious mist that envelops a town.  I probably should have written "Spoiler Alert" before that sentence.  Oh well, it's too late now.  Yes, this is another movie where a small group of friends/naughty teens/townspeople gather together in a building, trying to stay safe while zombies/vampires/serial killers/monsters/weather reign supreme outside.

I'm not against this story formula, mind you.  Most zombie movie follow it, and 30 Days of Night was the best vampire movie I've ever seen.  The enemy this time is, predictably enough, in...the mist.  DUH DAH DUMMMMM!!!  The building that townspeople gather in happens to be a grocery store.  So we've got a novel location and mysterious natural-looking phenomenon.  With those two elements, you could make a taut, stylish horror/thriller with no problem.  You could even go the original Dawn of the Dead route and use the location as a commentary on consumerism.  Or you could do what writer/director Frank Darabont did and do nothing of the sort.

Instead, we get insufferable, unbelievable characters.  I know, the script is based off a Stephen King short story, but that's no excuse.  Thomas Jane is the main character, and he is the best part of this movie; Jane stands out in his role as "the rational guy," if only because everyone else is poorly developed and makes bizarre choices.  Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden is god awful as the resident holier-than-thou Bible thumper.  Does this movie really need a uber-judgmental Puritan in the cast?  Wouldn't it have been better served with a more moderate character, like...I don't know...maybe a reasonable person with a strong religious faith?  I would have settled for a character that just didn't sound like a cartoon.  Instead, one of the main characters is completely unsympathetic, despite a (theoretically) sympathetic underlying motivation.  Andre Braugher, who can be excellent when given the right role, is another disappointment.  He plays a hot shot lawyer and is clearly the most intelligent person in the grocery store.  His character's skepticism and sense of persecution are on par with the most annoying JFK conspiracy theorists you can imagine ("The moon landing was just a cover-up for The Man to finally get rid of FrankenKennedy!"  Actually, that's a decent B-movie right there...).  William Sadler is rarely a good actor, but is normally inoffensive.  Here, he's annoying.  Laurie Holden is decent, but she doesn't have a whole lot to work with.  The only supporting actor that was a pleasant surprise was Toby Jones.  He wasn't great by any means, but it doesn't take much to be a breath of fresh air when the rest of the cast are stock characters from soap operas.  Here, he plays the short, wussy guy who happens to be a crack shot with a pistol.  That's actually kind of cool.  The rest of the supporting cast is poorly developed, but ranges all the way from redneck to hick.

The characters are bad, but the plot could make that unimportant (see: Independence Day).  It doesn't.  Instead, ridiculous characters do ridiculous things when monsters attack.  For the first fifteen minutes or so of the group's self-imposed quarantine inside the store, there is the reasonable debate that there might not be anything dangerous in the mist.  Okay, that makes sense.  Until people you know die in front of you, it could all seem like hysteria.  That is, until one of the store clerks is killed by a monster's spiked tentacles in the loading dock area.  There's a lot of blood afterward and Thomas Jane chopped a tentacle off with a fire axe.  Okay, so there's clear physical proof, so now everybody can get on the same page.  For reasons that are beyond rational thought, Andre Braugher's character refuses to look at the blood or tentacle, assuming that it is a trick.  In fact, only a handful of people take a look at the evidence.  Personally, I would want to see bloody mist-borne killer tentacle parts, but that's just me.

The group splinters after this scene.  Six or seven people stay reasonable (read: the mist is dangerous, so let's wait this one out), a few more choose to be skeptical about the monsters and make a run for it (bad idea) and the rest apparently become early apocalyptic Christians, led by Marcia Gay Harden.  I've got nothing against religion or the Planter's products that can come with it, but people going from normal to "it's-the-end-of-the-world-let's-sacrifice-a-child" in under 48 hours is a bit more than I can chew.  There's a smaller contingent that just commit suicide.  As the plot progresses, Thomas Jane and his friends confront threats from the mist and from their fellow townspeople and are forced to blah blah blah.  Do you really want the details?  You know they have to go out in the mist eventually.  The movie's called The Mist, after all, not Waiting Patiently For the Mist to Evaporate.

As the movie goes on, this movie's logic gets a little lost.  Thomas Jane and co. change their tactics as it suits them.  They want to stay in the grocery store, where it's relatively safe.  But, when someone is clearly going to die, they go out into the mist to reach the pharmacy next door.  Sure, it's heroic, but the tentacle monster should have been all over them, but wasn't.  Instead, the monsters switch types throughout the film.  First, it was spiked tentacles, then prehistoric-sized bugs and mini-pterodactyls, then big spiders and later mammoth sized monsters.  No one ever says the words "monster" or "dinosaur" in this film, though.  That is hard for me to believe.  There is no reason given for this evolution, if that's what it is.  The monsters could just be taking turns, for all we know.  I hate that the film makes a half-assed attempt to explain where these creatures come from (another dimension, FYI), but never tackles the issue of why they only get attacked by one monster type at a time.

I get the basic premise of this story.  Individuals are reasonable, but groups are irrational.  Or, if you like the story, you can argue that it is about the lengths that ordinary people will go to under extraordinary circumstances.  What.  Ev.  Er.  That doesn't excuse the carelessness of this plot/script.  Frank Darabont has done an excellent job adapting Stephen King's work for the screen before and has done a good job directing those same films (The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile), but here he comes up short.  You can blame the source material, but Darabont could have changed anything he wanted to.  To be more realistic, he could have had the townspeople spend a longer time in the grocery store.  All you need to do is put "Day 3" up on the screen, kill some people with giant spiders, and then fade to black for "Day 11," when some characters commit suicide.  I can buy that.  But the degree of hopelessness in this film in such a compressed period of time is disheartening.  On the bright side, I never cared about any characters, so there's no problem when they die.  So, you win some and you lose some.

The ending to the movie is a little controversial because it deviates from King's original short story.  It shouldn't be a problem for fans of King in general or the story in particular; King signed off on the new ending, adding that he wished he had thought of it first.  I won't give the ending away, but I will say this: if you watch the movie and are enjoying it, this ending will seriously upset you.  If, like me, you thought this movie could fertilize your garden, then the ending might elicit a chuckle.

Friday, April 16, 2010


Let me get this off my chest right away: if you suspect that your movie isn't going to have fantastic acting, having Queen make a soundtrack for it is a great way to divert attention.  It worked for Flash Gordon, right? The band was only supposed to do one song for the film, but were moved after they viewed an early cutting and recorded four or five tracks.  Oddly enough, no soundtrack was released and most of the songs ended up on Queen's next studio album, A Kind of Magic.  I read about this before I saw the film, but now that I have, I would like to paraphrase that again.  Legendary camp/metal/classic rockers Queen, one of the most financially successful bands of all time, had a deep emotional response to this movie that inspired them to write songs for specific scenes.  Sometimes, there just aren't words to express profound shock.  I guess "Wow...really?" comes closest.

For those of you who have managed to miss the five live-action films, one animated feature, two live-action television shows, one animated television show, and the slew of books, comics, and games based on the Highlander story, this is square one.  Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) is an immortal.  I know what you're thinking: "Thank God Christopher-freakin'-Lambert will never die because I cannot imagine the world without him."  I know, riiiight?   Well, that's not 100% true; he can die if he is beheaded.  But, seriously, what are the chances of that?  I've known literally thousands of people and not one of them has been beheaded...yet.  Really, if you want to avoid a sword to your neck, stay out of Japan and you should be just fine.  Or, if you just have to do some Dance Dance Revolution in Tokyo, at least go prepared.  It's not that easy, though.  Connor is not the only immortal wandering the earth; there are several but, eventually, "there can be only one."  Why is that?  Because these immortals must kill each other and the winner will get "the prize," a power so awesome, it can change the fate of humanity.  Why "must" they?  Umm...because...they love the creamy center   are all really, really annoying   ...look, just buy into this, or you'll grind your teeth for the entire movie, okay?  Of course, since this movie is about people that have to do battle to the death, there is a bad guy, the Kurgan (Clancy Brown).  Basically, the Kurgan hunts down Connor and they do battle, with the story jumping between 1986 New York and Connor's past in 16th century Scotland.

Honestly, the basic idea here isn't a bad one.  Immortals with only one weakness do battle through the ages?  That sounds reasonably cool.  I completely understand the popularity of the idea.  This movie, on the other hand, just proves that nerds will keep wanting sequels if you don't do it right the first time.  There is not a whole lot good about this film beyond the basic premise.

Fact: Christopher Lambert took speech lessons before filming to perfect an accent that sounded vaguely European, but not specific to any one place, because he has lived in many places over the years.  In this, he succeeded.  His accent is absolutely unrecognizable.  And annoying.  But that's not the real problem with the accent...he has it for the entire film.  If Connor MacLeod is Scottish, living in Scotland before he becomes immortal, Lambert should at least pretend to be Scottish in those scenes.  The sad thing is that Lambert worked with a professional to arrive at his accent; in other words, somebody got paid for helping create that mess.  Accent aside, Lambert's talents are still difficult to pinpoint.  His hair can look sort of funny.  He can out-act most cold breakfast cereals (Malt-O-Meal might be out of his league, though).  He does a good job of staring.  And that's about it.

The other actors aren't great, but are better than Lambert.  Clancy Brown (the main prison guard from The Shawshank Redemption) is a great casting choice for the villain.  However, he has a voice.  You Christian Bale does in the Batman movies?  Yeah.  That kind of voice.  As for his acting, I think it can be fairly described as a cross between Johnny Rotten, Snidely Whiplash and a Tex Avery wolf cartoon.  Subtle, he is not.  Sean Connery makes a supporting appearance as the kindly immortal that clues Christopher Lambert in on immortality.  Connery is his normal charming self here, but that's part of the problem.  He sounds like Sean Connery, a Scotsman.  According to the film, he is Egyptian and just came from a length of time in Spain.  While I would pay money to hear Sean Connery say "Walk like an Egyptian" with a straight face, a movie that cares enough to make Lambert's accent sound extraterrestrial doesn't care about a Scottish burr coming from the Nile delta?  That's just inconsistent.

Normally, I would just assume that the erratic acting in this movie was due to the erratic casting of talent.  However, I'm going to choose to blame director Russell Mulcahy.  Lambert might not be much of an actor, but the director is responsible for making him seem vaguely human.  In this, he failed.  Clancy Brown's performance was enough to make Nicholas Cage blush, and that had to be encouraged by Mulcahy.  Sure, the script might have been weak (there are some cops and women in the script, too, but I'm doing you a favor by omitting them), but only the director can tell an actor that they're making the right choices. 

The immortal action scenes are worth noting, although probably not worth watching.  While I understand that this movie's budget had to have been moderately low, having the actors take fencing lessons would have gone a long way.  Lambert and Brown are both clumsy for immortals that carry around swords regularly.  Lambert's katana seems as heavy and solid as Brown's broadsword, when it should be lighter and faster.  And what's up with all the sparks flying during immortal sword fights?  If it is because it's a cheap way to make immortal fights seem more exciting and powerful, fine.  It's not consistent, though, because two immortals sword fighting can go from scene to scene, sparking one minute but not the next. 

That doesn't make sense, but neither does the follow up to immortal death.  After an immortal gets beheaded, a lot of energy is released and is apparently absorbed by the victor.  That's how immortals become more powerful and why the ultimate immortal will have the "prize" of big-time power.  A side effect of these power-ups is that all electrical devices (lights, cars, whatever) turn on, amp up and explode (except the cars.  They apparently turn their own ignition switches and rev their engines while their headlights flash and explode).  But then, all the glass in the area implodes toward the immortal.  I'm not a scientist, but I would expect an outward expulsion of energy to cause the glass to blow out, not blow in.  It's a small detail, I know, but dumb details add up in bad movies.

This movie raises a lot of questions that never get answered.  That can be good for a movie; it can whet the appetite for a sequel.  This movie generally doesn't even raise these questions, though.  One such question is how Sean Connery knows so much about immortals.  How does he know that "there can be only one?"  Who's giving him this information?  How do they know?  It's not like there has been another generation of immortals that have had the same thing happen to them because "there can only be one."  How does he know that immortals cannot have kids?  Maybe he's sterile or has a STD.  It doesn't matter what the answer is, just as long as the question is asked.

Ultimately, this is a bad movie.  It has bad acting, terrible directing, lame action, and a poor script.  The premise is good, Queen makes a solid (if occasionally funny) soundtrack, Sean Connery is Sean Connery, and I do like the fact that immortals develop scars from wounds that would have been fatal to normal folks.  A few nice touches do not make up for a movie full of wrong, though.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

True Grit (1969)

There are times where a role seems so perfectly suited for an actor that it feels like they were just born to play that role.  Jack Black's character in High Fidelity is a recent example, but John Wayne's performance as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit is one for the ages.  This is, of course, the film which won Wayne his only Oscar, and it is sometimes seen as an example of the Academy's tendency to award an actor/director's later work as a way of acknowledging their complete body of work.  There might be something to that; John Wayne has 170 movie credits on IMDB, and he played John Wayne in every single one of those films.  The man's acting range can be fairly compared to that of Michelangelo's David.  And yet, here it is pitch perfect.

One of the reason for this is a pretty good script.  While I won't say that the lines are razor sharp, they play to Wayne's strengths and are made more enjoyable by his bizarre drawl.  Rooster Cogburn gets most of the good lines in the film, but the dramatic weight of the film is carried by Kim Darby (who later played John Cusack's mom in Better Off Dead).  This shocked me the first time I watched this movie; who would have believed that a teenage girl in a John Wayne western would be anything but annoying?  As a rule, westerns don't have much of a strong female presence; having Darby's character drive the plot shows how many opportunities westerns have missed.  The other supporting characters don't get a whole lot to work with, in terms of script, but they rarely seem shallow, which probably has more to do with acting and directing than writing.

The film is about Mattie Ross (Darby) and her drive to bring her father's killer to justice.  To accomplish this, she hires the meanest Marshall in the territory, Rooster Cogburn.  That's pretty much it.  Sure, country legend Glen Campbell (sporting the same haircut he has today) is a Texas Ranger that helps them on their mission, but it's a pretty bare bones plot.  Cogburn is mean and drunk, while Ross is strong-willed and obstinate; the movie is about how their personalities clash and gel.

While the script is good and the plot is fairly plain, the acting and directing stand out.  Of course, Wayne plays himself, albeit an older, crotchety version of his classic tough guy.  But Darby does a good job as the obstinate young woman and her acting makes the growing connection between her and Wayne's character believable.  They didn't do it all alone, though.  Glen Campbell is okay, I guess.  Initially, I thought he didn't do much in the movie, but his performance does help explain how Cogburn and Mattie Ross can get along, adding an everyman presence to a movie where the two main characters stray far from the norm.  Dennis Hopper manages to not seriously overact in a small role.  Robert Duvall (who apparently never had a full head of hair) does a predictably good job as a villain who just seems desperate, not evil.  Villains in the 1960s are often over-the-top, mwa-ha-ha, twirling-their-mustache evil, especially in westerns.  Here, Duvall turns in an understated but believable performance, as he has done so many times since.  I credit most of these performances to director Henry Hathaway.  If you have seen any of John Wayne's less famous movies, you know how terrible the supporting cast can be, even with a decent script.  Being able to push Darby and Campbell to where their characters needed to be made this movie what it is.

This isn't a flawless movie, of course.  A lot of it has aged poorly as the popularity of westerns has declined over the past few decades.  John Wayne at his best still has the tendencies of John Wayne at his worst; I've seen toddlers that can play a more convincing drunk than him.  The viewer is forced to invest a lot of their interest in Darby early on, and it takes a while to believe that it's going to be worth it, because she is pretty annoying without Wayne to counterbalance her.  Still, this is an all-ages western that manages to be endearing, funny, and touching, even to those that are normally bored stupid watching westerns.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Eastern Promises

Most films that deal with the mafia, in its various forms, tend to sensationalize it.  Sure, you usually end up dead by "lead poisoning," but the trip there looks pretty entertaining, right?  Not so much in this movie.  Maybe there is still a bit of Cold War stigma attached to the Russians, or maybe they're just scarier criminals than the traditional Italian movie mobsters.  Whatever the case, this film does not romanticize their lifestyle at all.

I wouldn't really categorize this as a mob movie, in the traditional sense.  Sure, there are mobsters, but that association of criminals is secondary to the fact that this is a crime film.  The movie begins with two deaths.  They seem to have no immediate connection, but as a dead girl's diary, a midwife, and a Russian mob family all become intertwined, the connection becomes clear.  This is a plot heavy film that demands attention, otherwise the suspense and the plot twists will be ineffective.  If you're willing to shut up and watch, though, you're in for a gritty treat.

Naomi Watts plays a midwife in Britain that attends to a teenage girl's delivery.  The girl dies, unknown and without identification, but the child survives.  Determined to get the baby to its family, Watts finds a diary, written in Russian, as the girl's sole belonging.  Her Russian immigrant uncle is unwilling to translate the diary, but Watts is able to find the name of a restaurant, so she goes there.  The restaurant is clearly the legitimate business front for a Russian mafia family, run by Armin Mueller-Stahl.  His son, played by Vincent Cassel, is ineffective and mean; Cassel's bodyguard and driver, Viggo Mortensen, is brutal and loyal.  At first, Mueller-Stahl feigns ignorance of the dead girl, but becomes very interested when Watts mentions a diary, written in Russian.  From this point forward, the plot begins to tighten its proverbial webs.  The characters seem claustrophobic as their options dwindle and violence becomes imminent.  Watts realizes the mistake she made, unwittingly going to the Russian mob, and sees how easily she, her family, or even the unwanted baby can be hurt by these men.  Vincent Cassel tries to please his father, but his brutality and stupidity shine through and his "heir apparent" status becomes questionable.  Viggo sees his loyalty and talents rewarded, but was unaware of the price he would be asked to pay.

I don't want to give away much about this movie because the drama comes from putting the pieces together yourself.  I will, however, point out one of the excellent choices this film makes.  You might expect the main characters, Viggo and Watts, to have a star-crossed romance here; in films where loyalty to an organization is paramount, the outside love interest is a common source of conflict.  Not so much here, although I will admit to some sexual tension.

The lack of romance makes this plot significantly less predictable and more awesome.  Director David Cronenberg does a great job throughout, both with the actors and the camera work.  Armin Mueller-Stahl is great as the godfather-type character; that description doesn't do the character justice, though.  This godfather is feared and is crafty.  He plays his cards close to the vest and plays people like chess pieces.  I think his best moment was when he appeared in Naomi Watts' hospital, just to show how easily he could enter a secure ward without a problem.  It's difficult to portray something as complex as a very dangerous man calmly restraining himself, but the menace is present in most of Mueller-Stahl's scenes.  Naomi Watts does a good job, too, although her main job is to realize just how deep of trouble she has gotten into.  It was nice to see a determined female lead that did not depend on a romantic interest to achieve her goals.  Vincent Cassel is fine here, which is a huge step above his Ocean's Twelve performance.  Viggo Mortensen, on the other hand, is extremely impressive.  His character design is just one of the reasons for this; Russian mobsters have their crimes and achievements displayed on their bodies with tattoos, and his collection makes him look pretty bad ass.  They were realistic, too; he went out for dinner after a day of shooting without having the makeup removed and noticed an Eastern European family fall silent in his presence.  Viggo does show off his man junk in this movie, but you'll notice that I pointed out the lack of romance (although not sex) in this film.  No, Viggo's nudity comes from an awesome (and, in all probability, eventually legendary) fight scene.  Normally, male nudity is used for uncomfortable humor in movies.  Here, it A) shows off the body art and B) makes Viggo seem all the tougher for taking on armed (and clothed) assassins in the buff.  While Mueller-Stahl's menace is restrained, Viggo's is vibrant.  You see the things he is willing to do without batting an eye, so when he speaks to Watts and her family, it makes his choice of words and actions sometimes frightening. 

I'll admit that I'm not a huge fan of anyone involved in this movie.  I can usually take or leave Viggo; sure, Lord of the Rings is great, but Hidalgo?  Really?  That's your follow-up?  Vincent Cassel has earned my lifelong ire for being one of two elements that made Ocean's Twelve absolutely unwatchable.  Naomi Watts is okay, I guess, but I'm not used to her not screaming.  David Cronenberg has made some great movies, but some of his work is just too weird (Naked Lunch) or too creepy-James-Spader-y (Crash) for my tastes.  This movie rises above all that to make, at worst, a solid crime flick.  Obviously, my take is a little better than an "at worst."  Not a simple movie, but not a difficult one to understand, I like just about everything in this film.
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Saturday, April 10, 2010

Ninja Assassin

Every so often, a movie lets you know whether or not you will like it within the first five minutes.  If you like seeing people being sliced into bits with ridiculous amounts of obviously CGI blood on the screen, then this movie is for you.  If that doesn't sound like your cup of tea, then perhaps you shouldn't watch a movie with the words "ninja" and "assassin" in the title.  Speaking of the which, I'm pretty sure the working title was *Redundant Ninja Redundant*

The lead in this movie is Korean pop star Rain, known for his brief time as Stephen Colbert's nemesis
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as well as his role in the movie Saibogujiman Kwenchana, which translates into "I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK."  Oh Asia, how amusingly random you are.  There are other actors in this movie, with such diverse talent as Rick Yune (The Fast and the Furious) and Sung Kang (The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift).  The real talent on display though, is the violence.  This might be the most gratuitous use of stylistic violence since Riki-Oh: the Story of Ricky.  To put it another way, this movie is so ridiculously over-the-top violent that, when Rain does some sweet moves and completely cuts a man in half, you won't stop to rewind it because you just know something even bigger will happen in a few minutes.  I have to say that this film embraces ridiculous violence with more joy than any new release in years; the amount of blood makes even Kill Bill: Volume 1 look realistic.  It's not a huge surprise, coming from director James McTeigue (V For Vendetta), but it is a pleasant one.

What?  You want a plot?  It's called Ninja Assassin!  What do you expect, a script by a Hugo Award winner?  Well, that's what you get from two-time winner and top-tier comic book writer J. Michael Straczynski.  Apparently, JMS opted to forget about his writing history when co-writing this script, but it does have about half of the movie (45 minutes) devoted to plot development.  Apparently, ninja clans kidnap orphans and raise them to be ninjas.  Training to be a ninja isn't much fun.  Frowny face emoticon!  In some states, it might even border on child abuse.  Rain decides to rebel, which means killing his entire clan.  Of course it does.  There are some British people that act as point of view characters, but they are ultimately disposable.  Unfortunately, they manage to get the British military involved, so there is a scene where ninjas fight tanks and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare-esque ground troops without the benefit of shadows.  That sucks.  But it's the only action scene that doesn't fully deliver.

What do you get with this movie?  About 45 minutes or so of super violent death and dismemberment.  Sure, there's a plot, but it's not important.  Go make some popcorn or go on a beer run (just don't leave until the first scene is over).  By the time you're done, things will be just about ready to rock.  Sure, they needlessly lengthen the movie by shoehorning a plot into it, but this is a film that knows exactly what it is (Hollywood pitch: "Ninjas kill stuff --- the movie!") and delivers with a smile.  I just wish the whole movie was as totally awesome as the opening scene.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Men Who Stare At Goats

The Men Who Stare at Goats is a great title for a movie.  Maybe not as good as "The Men Who Do Things to Goats," but that's a flick that could go in all the wrong directions.  Oddly enough, goats play a relatively small role in this film.

This is the somewhat true story of a military program that was developed to harness the psychic power of the human mind.  The tale is told primarily through flashback, as George Clooney's character explains the events to Ewan McGregor.  This program began in the 1980s, headed by Jeff Bridges' character, and it attempted all sorts of paranormal stuff.  Traveling through the astral plane, invisibility, walking through walls, telepathy, and killing via only eye contact (which is how we get the title) are the tangible goals for this group.  The two star pupils are played by Clooney and Kevin Spacey; the two become rivals because Clooney likes the New Age-ish notions of expanding human consciousness, while Spacey is interested in the more practical (read: lethal) military applications.  It's appropriate that Bridges calls his men Jedi warriors, because Clooney and Spacey represent the light and dark sides of The Force.  Years after the military decides that the program is a wash, McGregor follows Clooney into modern-day Iraq, where they find a new program being run by Spacey and representing everything Clooney and Bridges hated.

This is a goofy plot.  You would expect the movie to be just as goofy, like maybe Big Lebowski- or O Brother Where Art Thou?-level goofy, but it's not.  Whose fault is that?  I blame the Coen brothers for not writing or directing this film.  Sure, you could blame Jon Ronson, whose book the movie is based on, but that just takes away from the solid fact that this should have been a weird, goofy Coen brothers movie.  It already had Clooney and Bridges!  What more enticing do those men need?  Well, parts of the film are as funny and goofy as you would want them to be.  The directing emphasizes weird, awkward moments and sometimes those moments pay off with funny.  However, every time the movie feels like it's going to finally get permanently weird, it stops and takes a cold dose of reality.  There are a lot of depressed characters in this movie and they are well-developed, so you feel for them.  Jeff Bridges, in particular, does a fantastic job with his dramatic scenes.  He's subtle, physical, and understated, but it is really worth noticing.

The acting in this film is as good as you would expect from three Academy Award-winning actors.  Bridges resurrects some of his laid-back surfer ways from Lebowski and Clooney performs with his usual deadpan confidence (although noticeably not a lady charmer here).  Kevin Spacey doesn't have quite as much opportunity to impress here, but he's always fun to see as a bad guy.  McGregor is good too, but he's stuck in the straight man role.  I'd like to see him take another stab at an outright comedy, because he's got good timing and I know he's a good actor.

The acting performances actually increase my frustration with this film.  These guys are usually enough to make me interested in a movie if even one of them is starring, but their presence here makes the movie's shortcomings more annoying.  The fact that the actors do so well might make you think that the direction was good, but this is the first major directing project for frequent Clooney collaborator Grant Heslov.  I think Heslov has friends that are awesome actors and they helped make him seem impressive.  It's a neat trick that I'd love to try.  Still, there are a lot of awkward moments that are not used for dramatic or comedic purposes and the pace drags at times.  Ultimately, the choice to balance the humor with so much realism had to come from the director.  I disagree with this choice because treating the ludicrous as reasonable for the sake of humor degrades any attempt at sincerity.  If Heslov wanted the dramatic moments to have a lot of impact (and, judging by the performances of Clooney and Bridges, he did), he would have necessarily had to tone down the deadpan comedy.  The other option would be to make the depressingly realistic portions of the movie more comedic.  It's not impossible for a comedy like this to have a point or to have heart, but it is a difficult task to accomplish with two styles (goofy comedy and sincere drama) that are so very different.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Clash of the Titans (2010)

Judging from the title, you might think that this would be a movie about the Greco-Roman gods battling their parents, the Titans.  You might think that this film would feature epic battles and deal with the Freudian ideas of how children must usurp their parents in order to come into their own.  You might be a big, stupid moron.

This film is a remake of the campy 1981 movie of the same name.  Sadly, the stop motion effects of the original are replaced with actual special effects this time around (although the robotic owl from the original makes a cameo).  So, if this movie isn't about battling the Titans of Greek mythology, then what is it about?  The king and queen of Argos decide to topple their ridiculously enormous statue of Zeus, claiming that they need not worship the gods because now is the time of man.  Why anyone would do this when gods are known to walk the earth and smite mortals is beyond me.  Not surprisingly, Zeus (played by Liam Neeson) sends his brother, Hades (Ralph Fiennes), to spread some Hellenic-style smiting across the isle of Argos.  Hades does his damage and threatens to have his pet monster, the kraken, wipe Argos off the map unless Argos' princess is sacrificed to the gods.  Who will save Argos?  That would be Perseus, played by Sam Worthington.  Perseus' family was killed in Hades' attack, but it's all good; Perseus learns that he is a demigod and that Zeus is his father.  Perseus and a band of Argos' best warriors then decide to find a way to kill the kraken.  To do this, the crew must visit some witches, who send them to the underworld to kill (Or is that re-kill?  She's in the underworld already, right?  No!  Must...stop...thinking...) Medusa.  The idea is to cut her head off because any mortal (even a monster) that looks in her eyes will turn to stone.  Along the way, the men team up with a djinn, a warlock-like thing whose skin appears to be made of a cross between granite and tree bark.  They fight several giant scorpions and end up riding the rest across a desert, like camels.  In the end, we get what is promised:

the kraken turns to stone when it sees Medusa's head.  Consider yourself spoiled.

Huh.  How about that?  Yep.  It's a bit of an anticlimax.  You've got to give credit where it's due, though; you learn that Medusa's head can kill the kraken early in the film and it sure does.  Mission accomplished.  Who needs drama, anyway?  The plot fails to follow through with a lot of decent ideas here.  The hero has to kill a huge monster?  Awesome.  Instead of killing the monster just by showing up with the right tool, I would have rather...I don't know...had the monster eat the hero and have the hero cut his way out of the monster's chest?  That would have been cooler.  I would have had the witches be more threatening; they were only a cool-looking nuisance.  The giant scorpions were okay, but I had trouble figuring out who was fighting what scorpion; these were the most confusingly edited action scenes since Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.  I pay attention when I watch a movie, and if I can't tell how many giant monsters are in a scene, there's a problem.  The subplot with the sacrifice of Argos' princess could have been decent in a different movie, but it's just filler here.  Of course, I don't envy the writer who has to justify destroying a populated island over sacrificing one person, so I see why they left the subject mostly untouched.

The characters were equally frustrating.  Sam Worthington has yet to prove himself as an actor, despite leading roles in Avatar and Terminator: Salvation.  He plays the same basic character over and over again.  I know, he's not the only actor that does this, but I don't think Randy Quaid is a great example for young actors to strive toward.  Liam Neeson is okay, I guess, as Zeus; it's hard to judge Zeus as a character because the mythological god was all over the place, in terms of logic and attitude.  In this movie, he's alternately a doting father and an attention-starved god.  Ralph Fiennes really irritated me as Hades at first because he whispered all his lines; this served a plot-related purpose, so I'll let it slide this time.  His forehead dandruff was unnecessary, though.  The other gods barely got speaking parts, including Danny Huston as Poseidon.  This movie is all about throwing recognizable actors at you and not giving them time or space to act.  Jason Flemyng is a somewhat effective man-monster who spends most of his time running away from Perseus.  Nicholas Hoult (the weird kid from About a Boy) proves that ugly child actors can actually grow up to be reasonably handsome...and that's about all he does here.  Gemma Arterton pretty much reprises her role from Quantum of Solace as a pretty face with no character.  Mads Mikkelsen is the only standout here, and he just did a decent job as the resident military expert, but somebody had to look good against the cardboard cutouts this script provided. 

And's a special effects movie.  Do we really watch these with the same expectations as a Charlie Kaufman-scripted film?  The answer is that we should, but we don't.  Sometimes, effects are good and fun enough to let us turn our brains off and bathe in the screen's warm glow.  The effects in Clash of the Titans aren't good enough to make up for its many shortcomings, but they are pretty good.  The character designs on the kraken, the witches, the djinn, and Hades' flying bat creatures are all great.  I don't know how many of the locations were shot in front of a green screen (the movie was allegedly shot mostly in Whales), but the panoramic shots of Pereus and company descending into the underworld were awesome.  The strange thing about the effects is that they don't seem to be enhanced by 3D.  I realize that these 3D parts were thrown in at the last minute after seeing how well Avatar did in theaters, but I expected them to be...well, not crappy.  In fact, the 3D effects were the worst in the film; it seems like they were forced to go 3D, but didn't have the time or budget to do it right, so they just did it fast.

Overall, the plot wasn't great and the actors just showed up.  Neither was terrible, though.  The effects were good enough to make this film visually appealing, but the real star was the character design for the creatures.  Is that enough to recommend a movie?  Tough call.