Monday, January 31, 2011

Red (2010)

Apparently, America, we are having trouble saying goodbye to our aging action stars.  If you truly doubt that, please explain the appeal of Rambo or The Expendables.  Don't get me wrong, I miss the days when a hero could stand in one spot and shoot down fifteen thousand ninja-Communist-Nazis, without getting even a flesh wound, and I've enjoyed Stallone's increasingly idiotic movies.  Still, it's kind of strange that we haven't seen anybody (except maybe Jason Statham) truly embrace the stupid action hero role, given how important dumb action movies were in the 80s and 90s.  When you think about it, the success of The Expendables is an amusing insight into just how badly we want these actors to keep killing bad guys.  I don't know how intentional this was, but Red seems to be in on that joke, too.

It's kind of like the song from White Christmas...what do you do with a former CIA black-ops agent when he stops being a CIA black-ops agent?  Well, if you are Frank Moses (Bruce Willis), and you are living an inoffensive existence as a lonely retiree whose only friend is a customer service representative at a bank several states away, the answer is simple: kill him.  For reasons unknown to him, Frank discovers that his status in the intelligence community has been changed from "retired" to RED ("retired, extremely dangerous").  Being RED means that assassination squads infiltrate your home in the middle of the night, looking to terminate with extreme prejudice.  However, the "extremely dangerous" bit is an understatement; Frank quickly kills his attackers and begins a quest to find out who wants to kill him and why.

Along the way, Frank has to pick up that bank representative, Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker).  He realizes that his phone must have been tapped prior to the assassination attempt and that the next logical step for the bad guys would be to kidnap Sarah and use her as leverage against him.  She's not very willing at first, but as more people keep showing up to kill her, Sarah quickly gets on the Frank Moses bandwagon.  Frank can't unravel the plot against him all by his lonesome, though, which means he needs to find help.  Since he's retired, it turns out that his help is also a little past their prime.  Joe (Morgan Freeman), Frank's mentor, is now living in a retirement home and passes the time by ogling his nurse's ass.  Marvin (John Malkovich) is a well-armed conspiracy theorist that is paranoid to the extent of having a decoy house.  Victoria (Helen Mirren) is a prim and proper housewife, formerly the best wetworks specialist in the business.  With a little help from Ivan (Brian Cox), a Russian spy and former adversary, the group sets out to learn the truth.
I so so so wish he yelled "Flava Flaaaaav!" here.

 I was excited to see this movie after seeing the trailers for it.  It didn't look like a great action movie --- it has Morgan Freeman and Helen Mirren, remember? --- but I thought it looked funny.  I was wrong.  It is funny and a good action movie.  This is one of Willis' more wooden roles, but I don't know if I would have bought a black-ops specialist with a talent for wisecracks.  His stoicism was probably for the best.  Morgan Freeman and Helen Mirren clearly had a lot of fun in their roles, with Mirren taking particular relish in being the gun expert.  I go back and forth with my appreciation for John Malkovich, but he plays a pretty amusing paranoid here.  Malkovich was probably my favorite character in the film, but I also really enjoyed Brian Cox.  I think I just like the idea of former arch-enemies getting together and reminiscing about "the good old days," when they used to try to kill each other.  Cox doesn't get nearly enough comic work, in my opinion.  Mary-Louise Parker was also good as the relative newbie to all the danger.  Is it just me, or was Parker neither attractive or talented until she turned 40?  Weird.  I liked seeing Ernest Borgnine again, even if he wasn't threatening to shoot anyone in the face.  The rest of the cast was kind of meh.  James Remar was in the movie for all of two seconds.  Rebecca "Mrs. David Mamet" Pidgeon and her ugly jaw was as awful as she usually is, as was Richard Dreyfuss in his small-but-overacted role.  I'm not exactly sure why Julian McMahon took his small part in the film, but he was definitely many years too young for the character he played.  The bulk of the meh comes from Karl Urban, though.  While I appreciate his dedication to the action movie genre, Urban is best when he speaks little and doesn't develop as a character.  Here, he tries to actually act, with little to show for it.
Though this isn't from Red, Ernest Borgnine is still awesome.

This movie shouldn't be as good as it is.  The screenwriters that adapted this story from the comic book series are the same people who wrote the dreadful Whiteout.  The director, Robert Schwentke, has never shown a talent for either action or comedy, with his only other English films being The Time Traveler's Wife and Flightplan.  Somehow, those films managed to collectively gross over $300 million and still have absolutely zero appeal to me.  Regardless, the script was smart, the actors were directed well, and the action was pretty cool.  I don't think I've ever seen so many bullets fired into one suburban home before, but I liked it.

Probably the thing I appreciated most about this movie was that it didn't keep calling attention to the age of its characters.  Aside from an assassin calling Malkovich "old man," and maybe a similar remark made during a Willis-Urban fight, age was not a joke in this movie.  Thank you, screenwriters.  Instead, the humor was largely contextual and delivery-based.  The main actors were all very good, and only the bad guys weren't funny.  The pace is quick, the action is good, and many things go boom.  This is exactly what From Paris With Love should have been, but was not.  I will go so far as to say that Red is one of the most enjoyable action movies of 2010, and the perfect antidote for anyone who cannot fathom the success of The Expendables.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Horseman

Brutal.  Seriously, unpleasantly brutal.  That is my short review on The Horseman.  Imagine Taken without all the hope, and you will get this movie.

The tone is set immediately.  The film opens with Christian (Peter Marshall) beating a man with a crowbar and asking where he can find a certain videotape.  The man points to a shelf, Christian grabs the tape, and proceeds to douse the man in flammable chemicals and burn him alive.
If you liked Flicka, you'll love The Horseman!
Christian's daughter recently died.  She was found with alcohol, cocaine, and heroin in her system and signs of recent sexual intercourse.  Nobody knew what happened to her exactly, and whoever was with her on the night of her death wasn't coming forward.  One day, Christian receives a VHS tape in the mail, a copy of a cheaply made porno.  Christian's daughter is on the cover.  He puts the tape in a sees his obviously drugged-up and barely conscious little girl in a room with several men, as they prepare to have sex with her.  Thankfully (for the audience), the rest of the tape is not shown.  That is when Christian decides to kill everyone involved in his daughter's death, from the film editor to the drug dealer.  For some people, that might be a bit of an undertaking, but Christian beats, stabs, smashes, burns, chokes and shoots his way across Australia to finish the job.

That sounds like your average revenge story, right?  So what makes this movie so brutal?  Part of it is the obvious lack of expertise of Christian's part.  He is not a former mob enforcer, or special forces, or even a police officer.  He is just an exterminator.  He isn't outfighting the bad guys because he's that much better than them, he is beating them because he is merciless and attacks before they know that they are in danger.  He also spends a decent amount of time torturing his victims; I will give the film props for being inventive, but I don't ever want to see another movie that implies a bike pump being stuck up a urethra.  I suppose I should be thankful that it was implied and not shown, but I'm not a fan of either.  There is way more torture than I'm comfortable with in this film, but at least it makes sense in the context of the film and doesn't seem to be gratuitous.

The acting and directing in this film is okay, but I don't recognize any of the names from this Australian film.  Peter Marshall is definitely the most emotional vigilante killer I have ever seen on film, but I wasn't terribly impressed with his overall performance.  When he was being tough, it felt abrasive --- that's a choice by the filmmakers, but not one I particularly enjoyed.  On the rare occasions where Marshall was allowed to emote something aside from rage, though, I thought he did a pretty good job.  When Christian, raging without a target, dumps his daughter's ashes in the trash, only to go through the trash later and get as much as he can back in the urn --- that was very effective.  Later, he has the opportunity to talk to a sympathetic hitchhiker and talks about parenthood, and that scene was excellent, too.  If not for those two scenes, this movie would have been 96 minutes of rage and grief, which is more than I can handle in one sitting.  The Horseman is the first and only film by writer/director Steven Kastrissios.  I am impressed that a first-time writer would make such an emotionally vulnerable sympathetic murderer protagonist.  His direction was serviceable and the story was easy to follow, but the tone was just too bleak for my liking.

The film's tone was the biggest stumbling block to my enjoyment of the film.  The violence is plentiful and it is occasionally shocking, but none of it was fun to watch.  This film has a very voyeuristic touch to it because it exploits the grief of a father.  In any given scene, Christian could have burst into tears as he crippled and maimed his victims.  Oddly enough, those man tears made me more uncomfortable than the graphic violence; that might say something about me, but I would wager that I'm in the majority on this one.  There was just so much grief and so much anger, with absolutely nothing to add hope to this film --- the daughter was dead, so there is no happy ending here --- that the movie really started to weigh on me.  Thank goodness he had the parenthood chat with the hitchhiker; that was a breath of fresh air that helped me finish the last third of the movie.  This is a tough film to watch, but it definitely has some merit.  I just wish it was more enjoyable.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Frozen (2010)

I've never really been downhill skiing.  I've gone to a man-made ski slope in the Chicago suburbs, but, as my relatives in Colorado and Montana would probably tell me, that doesn't really count.  That also means that I have never been on a ski lift.  According to Frozen, though, that may not be such a bad thing.

Longtime friends Dan (Kevin Zegers) and Joe (Shawn Ashmore) love hitting the ski slopes, Dan for snowboarding and Joe for skiing.  One Sunday they make a trip to a New England ski resort with Dan's girlfriend, Parker (Emma Bell), who is still a beginner on the slopes.  After a day of watching Parker tumble down the bunny hills, Joe invokes the sacred rite of bros before hoes; he insists that they have at least a little fun for their money and actually go down some challenging slopes.  Parker overhears them arguing and offers to let them go on without her, but for some reason is convinced to go on a more difficult course with the two guys.  However, when they head back to the ski lift, the operator is closing it up because a storm is coming in.  They whine and bribe him into letting them on for one last run, and get what every skier truly desires --- a ski slope, free of other skiers.  The operator gets called into the boss's office, though, and has someone else man the ski lift.  The new guy is told that there are only three skiers left on the mountain, and then they can close.  Well, that guy was wrong; there were three people on the ski lift and three others almost finished skiing down the mountain.  When the first three finish their run, the new operator turns off the ski lift, and pretty soon the whole resort has closed.  That leaves Dan, Joe and Parker stranded on a ski lift far above the ground, with a storm coming.  And this place is only open on the weekends, so nobody will find them there until Friday, at the earliest.  What do they do?  They can't stay up there all week, they'll die of exposure.  Even staying overnight will guarantee a bad case of frostbite.  If they jump, they will definitely get hurt; they're up too high, and the snow beneath them is compacted.  If they try to climb the ski lift cable to a point where they can climb down or jump safely, they will shred their hands on the razor-sharp cables.  And even if they can get down safely, wolves have been howling all night, and they sound really close.  They've got to do something, though, and all their choices are bad. 

Writer/director Adam Green is not a big name in Hollywood (as the cast here indicates), but he has had some small success with the 80s horror movie throwback, Hatchet.  Here, he aims a little bit higher and tries to craft a thriller that is simple, yet terrifying.  The movie is certainly simple.  Three friends, helpless, and out of safe options for survival.  The three basic threats the characters face are all illustrated well; the drop will break your bones, the wire will slice your hands, and frostbite will take away your skin.  The film's gore is not terribly graphic, but the sound effects that go along with it make the movie feel very gruesome.  Green definitely succeeded in making a suspenseful film that exploits many primal fears.

The whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts, though.  The acting is mediocre, with only Shawn Ashmore having anything resembling a dramatic moment, and it took over an hour to get to that point.  It's not all their fault, though.  Green's script, while occasionally funny, tends more toward lameness.  For every good line (the best is a reference to the sarlacc pit in Return of the Jedi), there is about ten minutes of boring, complete with wooden acting.  Green has not mastered the art of having actors read his dialogue naturally (or maybe he hasn't mastered the art of writing natural dialogue), but he is getting better at building suspense.  This isn't a terrific thriller, but it is a major step forward for him, artistically.

But those are just baby steps.  The audience knows within minutes of the group being stuck on the ski lift that someone will jump/fall and someone else will climb the cables.  When you only have two options and three characters, it's pretty obvious.  Green doesn't quite capture all the suspense that this story has to offer; he basically just chronicles what happens, he doesn't show that one act is more important than the next.  That's too bad, because even with poor dialogue and inferior acting, this movie could have been something special.

There is just a lot of stupid getting in the way of that, though.  What kind of idiots knowingly refuse to bundle up when faced with frostbite?  Shawn Ashmore's character was especially guilty of this, rarely using his jacket hood and leaving his coat partially unzipped.  When Emma Bell's character lost a glove, she didn't pull the hand into her sleeve.  They didn't pull down their hats further or breathe into their jackets or bundle together for warmth or anything.  Morons.  What about the poor character that's going to slice open their hands climbing across the ski cable?  Wouldn't that be less of an issue if they wrapped their socks around their gloves, or tore their shirts into strips and done the same thing?  Apparently, sliced open hands are not as big of an issue to these characters as they are to me.  And let's talk about the wolves.  While a New England ski lodge is definitely a more likely setting to have wolves as the enemy than, say The Day After Tomorrow, it's still pretty damned unlikely.  In about one minute's worth of research, I was able to find from a reputable source that there were only three fatal wolf attacks on humans in the United States in the twentieth century, and all three were only fatal because of rabies.  Yes, wolves are kind of scary if you don't like dogs, but if they haven't eaten anybody's American children in the past century, I think we can phase them out as a credible threat in movies.

On the other hand, if you have a fear of heights, this is a movie that will freak you out.  It's not corny, and there is no unstoppable killer that must kill all promiscuous teens.  This is a great idea for a film that could have been much better with slightly smarter characters (at least they weren't "horror movie stupid"), better dialogue, and a lack of wolves.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Town

The Town begins with the line, "There are over 300 bank robberies in Boston every year. Most of these professionals live in a 1-square-mile neighborhood called Charlestown."  The promotional posters claim that Boston is the "bank robbery capital of America."  Here's a shocker for you: that's not exactly true.  According to the FBI, Ohio had almost three times as many bank robberies as Massachusetts in the first quarter of last year, and all of Massachusetts might not reach 300 for the year.  According to an FBI spokesperson, they do not collect data by neighborhood, and Boston wasn't even in the top five cities for bank robberies in the US.  Does any of that matter?  Not really, I just like to research interesting claims made in movies.

Doug (Ben Affleck) is a second-generation Bostonian career criminal.  He commits armed robberies with his lifelong buddies, Jem (Jeremy Renner), Gloansy (Slaine), and Dez (Owen Burke).  Doug is the brains of the group, at least in part because he has stopped drinking and doing drugs, while all his friends care about are "coke and XBox."  The group lets Doug plan things out so nobody gets hurt and they all make it home safely.  The film opens with the team robbing a bank, wearing Rastafarian-inspired Skeletor masks and armed with automatic weapons.  The robbery goes more or less as planned, except for Jem beating an unarmed bank employee (Victor Garber) to a pulp and taking the bank manager, Claire (Rebecca Hall), hostage.  During their escape, Doug calms everyone down and Claire is released, unharmed.  Still, Gloansy and Dez are a little put off by Jem's recklessness.  Bad news, guys: it's gonna get worse.  Jem took Claire's driver's license as a scare tactic to keep her from talking; she lives in their neighborhood, which is bad news for criminals trying to avoid being identified.  Jem offers to "take care of" Claire, but Doug opts to handle the mission himself; he "accidentally" meets her, just to see if she has any way to identify the group (she does).  But instead of doing the hard-boiled criminal thing and killing her or threatening her, Doug genuinely likes Claire and the two start dating.  As the story continues, Doug and Claire get more serious and Doug starts contemplating a life beyond Boston.  Meanwhile, the boys keep getting jobs from the local crime boss, Fergie the Florist (Pete Postlethwaite), and the Florist doesn't take "no" for an answer.  Making things even worse, Jem is getting more and more reckless.  On top of all that, FBI Special Agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm) has the group in his sights, has some circumstantial evidence to tie them to past robberies, and is now actively trying to get evidence to nail Doug and his buddies.  Isn't that just the way things work?  Whenever you want to get off the carousel, it just seems to get faster and faster.

This is Ben Affleck's second directorial effort and third co-writing credit, and he did another good job.  The supporting cast gave pretty good performances, with Renner as the clear stand-out in the cast, and Affleck handled the lead role well.  The robbery scenes were handled quickly and efficiently, which added to the impression of their team as a group of professionals.  The whole movie felt busy.  A lot happens; aside from the three armed robberies, there is the love story, Affleck and Renner's crumbling bromance, the FBI's case, and some father-son time between Affleck and Chris Cooper.  I don't know what else they might have added to the Extended Cut, which is twenty-eight minutes longer than the standard version I watched, but the pace of the film is brisk and everything clicks together nicely.

I'm not a huge fan of Ben Affleck's acting --- I think the last movie I enjoyed him in was Shakespeare in Love ---but he did a decent job here.  I don't think he played that remarkable of a character, but he was likable enough for me.  Jeremy Renner gave the film's best performace, bar none.  As the increasingly psychotic Jem, he made the movie.  You know how Joe Pesci made Goodfellas so much more entertaining with his surprising violence?  That is the rough equivalent of Renner in The Town.  Jon Hamm is pretty good as the FBI agent, but he was stuck between being a total jerk and a smart guy, but not enough of either to really impress me.  He did swear a lot, though, in a script peppered with profanity.  Rebecca Hall handled the more dramatic moments for her character well, but I was pretty indifferent to her overall.  Chris Cooper was good in his small role.  Blake Lively was only in a couple minutes of the film, so I have no idea why she is on the movie poster.  When you break this movie down to look at each actor's performance, it becomes apparent that this is really more of an ensemble cast than a star vehicle.  Somehow, though, Renner manages to draw all the attention his way.

After finishing the film, I joked to my wife that this was like Heat, but without the great expectations.  That's actually not a bad description at all.  Good job, self!  The Town shows us several well-executed and daring robberies, and looks good doing it.  It starts to do something different, with Doug's desire to leave crime behind him, but aside from the truly regrettable The Notebook-styled final shot of the movie, Affleck never follows through on that promise.  Yes, the inevitable shootout scenes were pretty well-done, even if nobody seemed to get shot, even at close range.  But this movie hinted at something a little different than the typical "one last heist" you see in so many crime movies.  The Town is a pretty good movie that, had it followed through on what made it different, could have been great.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Ip Man

Uh-oh.  Ip Man commits one of the cardinal sins of martial arts films.  Not the "let's have a bad white actor do kung fu" rule that has been broken so many times by Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal.  No, the other rule.  "Don't compare yourself to Bruce Lee."  Is there an easier way to underwhelm an audience than by directly comparing your movie's action scenes to the most amazing martial artist to ever get captured on film?  The answer is "no."  I cannot believe that a modern movie (made in 2008, but not released in America until 2010) would be stupid enough to sabotage its reputation like that.  What's even more surprising is that this movie is really, really good.

Set in 1930s Foshan (in southern China), Ip Man begins by establishing the status quo for the titular character (pronounced in the film as "EEP mun").  Foshan is a city renowned for its martial arts schools.  It seems like just about everyone in town is enrolled in one school or another; friendly, informal duels are a commonplace way to determine whose kung fu is best.  Ip Man (Donnie Yen) practices the supposedly feminine art of Wing Chun, but he doesn't get much grief about it.
Clarification: Wing Chun is a form of kung fu.  Wang Chung is, apparently, being eternally punished for their 80s sins.
Ip Man is kind of like Foshan's Superman.  Most of the time, he is unassuming and humble, like Clark Kent.  But, whenever a challenge cannot be refused, he quietly flips on his "tough guy" switch and beats the living hell out of anyone silly enough to challenge him.  His quiet act doesn't fool anyone in town, they all know that he is the greatest marital artist in a city known for martial arts, just like Metropolis knows that Clark "great disguise" Kent is really Superman.  But, since Ip is a pretty chill fellow, he is just a nice, independently wealthy guy who happens to whomp on others in friendly sparring matches.

In 1937, the Japanese invade Foshan, and everything changes.  I know, I was shocked too, when I learned that Ip didn't single-handedly defeat the Japanese forces, but this story is loosely based on a real person.
This is how a real man handles WWII, Ip!
Ip Man's wealth is gone and he does his best to work for whatever sparse food he can earn.  Eventually, Ip learns that Japanese General Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi) is willing to give a bag of rice to any Chinese man that can defeat one of his Japanese martial arts experts.  Sensing danger, but seeing no better chance to improve his lot, Ip joins the Chinese men who are willing to challenge the Japanese.  I wonder if this leads to Ip beating up a room full of Japanese men?  Why yes, it does.  But what good can martial arts do, ultimately, against military force?  If you're Ip Man, you can band together a city and ignite some hope in their hearts.  Aww!

When I watch most martial arts movies, the plot is just a nuisance that takes up space until the hero kicks somebody's head off.  Ip Man actually has a well-written and -executed plot, filled with interweaving plot lines.  Ip goes from reluctant hero to a symbol for his countrymen; initially reluctant to take on students, Ip eventually teaches dozens of men, women, and children to defend themselves against bandits; Ip's wife, Cheung Wing-sing (Lynn Hung), swings from hating Ip's fighting to supporting him, regardless of her own safety.  It was nice to see a kung fu flick that wasn't just a revenge story, but it was even better to actually stay interested in what was going on in the movie when people weren't fighting.  There was a surprising amount of humor in the film, too --- well, at least in the non-WWII part --- and it translated well, which was another surprise.  And the action was pretty sweet.  Every martial arts star has their own style of awesome (Bruce Lee was lightning-fast; Sonny Chiba was dirty and brutal; Tony Jaa leaps six feet in the air to knee you in the face, etc.), and this was my first exposure to Donnie Yen's moves.  I don't know if this was his usual style or not, but this is the first martial arts movie I have seen that felt like a classic Bruce Lee movie.  All of his moves are good, but the best is when Yen treats his opponents like speed bags, landing dozens of punches in a matter of seconds.  While Donnie Yen should be acknowledged for his athleticism, I'm going to credit Sammo Hung, the fight choreographer and the famously fat kung fu star, for most of this movie's awesome sequences.

This is some of the best acting I have seen in a martial arts film, too.  Donnie Yen is pretty good as Ip Man, but the big surprise in this film is that his required moment of doubt was an existential one, not because some dudes stole his girlfriend/elephant/child or killed his parent/sibling/master.  My next favorite character was Jin, the rude Northerner that disrespected Foshan's kung fu abilities.  He was tough, funny, had great facial expressions and was played by Louis  Fan, star of Ricki-Oh: The Story of Ricky, the most comically gory martial arts movie ever.  The other actors were pretty solid, too (another surprise for kung fu flicks), but none of them really stood out to me.  Similarly, the direction from Wilson Yip wasn't fantastic, but I was able to follow the story easily --- always a concern in foreign films, and especially noteworthy with a fairly complex plot --- and the movie looked good.  Apparently, Yip and Yen have made several movies together; I'm definitely going to check some of those out in the near future.

Ip Man is supposed to be based on the real life of the man who eventually went on to mentor Bruce Lee.  As far as I can tell from a few minutes of internet research, there isn't a whole lot of truth in the film, but that didn't bother me because I had never heard of Ip Man before the movie.  If you are a true fan of the martial arts, though, you might want to roll your eyes a bit ahead of time, because the movie plays with its facts pretty liberally.  Aside from that, my only complaint for this movie is that Ip never fought an opponent that seemed like an equal.  He was just better than everyone.  This movie wasn't about a fighting championship or anything like that, so I guess that makes some sense.  It was still awesome, but I'm hoping that there will be a better challenge in Ip Man 2.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Five Easy Pieces

You probably know this already, but the Academy Awards love Jack Nicholson.  He has the most nominations (twelve) and is tied for the most wins (three) of any male actor.  Five Easy Pieces was Nicholson's first film after his breakthrough supporting role in Easy Rider the year before, which also made it his highest-profile starring role to date.  Back in 1970, Jack Nicholson was still an unknown quantity in Hollywood, so this was really a make-it-or-break-it film for him.  Now, I normally enjoy critically acclaimed movies, but I have a bad history with 1970 cinema --- what is up with all of those abrupt endings? --- so, I wasn't sure just how much I would enjoy Jack Nicholson's first Oscar-nominated role for Best Actor.

Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson) is a rough-around-the-edges oil rig worker in California.  He's got a chuckling hick (Billy "Green" Bush) for a best friend and a ditzy girlfriend, Rayette (Karen Black), but he doesn't quite fit in with them.  Sure, he bowls and guzzles beer, but it all looks like he's slumming.  He talks down to his friends and pyschologically dominates Rayette, often treating her like a child.  While not necessarily important, those were some of the signs that Bobby was meant for something more than manual labor.  One day, Bobby and his buddy come to work, still drunk from the night before.  When they are sent home, they manage to get stuck in a traffic jam; looking for a cure for his boredom, Bobby sneaks into the bed of the truck ahead of his car in traffic and finds a piano.  Bobby begins to play Chopin's Fantasy in F Minor, and gets so involved that he chooses to stay in the truck, rather than stop and go home.  From this point on, we begin to learn more about Bobby, a classically trained pianist from a family of musicians who is estranged from his father.  When he learns that his father has had two strokes and will probably die soon, Bobby decides to return home to Puget Sound and reluctantly agrees to bring Rayette with.  After a road trip that was marred only by his choice to pick up obnoxious hitchhikers (Helena Kallaniotes and Toni Basil), Bobby drops Rayette off at a motel and comes home.  There, he has to deal with the upbringing he has been rebelling against, the high society that he despises, and the civilized society that he still enjoys --- throw in women that he can actually talk to and has things in common with, and Bobby is at a major crossroads in his life.

This film focuses entirely on the character of Bobby Dupea, with little regard to typical plot construction or much of a dramatic arc.  In fact, this character study is more of a detective story than anything else; what is this guy doing, slumming it with mouth-breathers?  It turns out that Bobby doesn't know either, which makes the mystery somewhat anticlimactic.  Despite, or perhaps because of, that ambiguity, Jack Nicholson's performance stands out as one of the more nuanced you're going to see in a movie.  I often complain that characters in movies are one-dimensional or basic, but this is a complex, contradictory character, and Nicholson is amazing as he brings out all the little facets in Bobby's personality.  This movie depends so heavily on this single character, and yet Nicholson goes out of his way to make the audience uncomfortable, being both drawn and repelled by his character.  There are other memorable characters in the film, but they feel inconsequential next to Nicholson.  Karen Black played the slavishly devoted and somewhat brain-dead Rayette with more passion than a ditzy role might demand, but her performance is good.  Helena Kallaniotes was purposefully annoying as the obnoxious and butch half of the lesbian hitchhiking couple, with Toni "Hey Mickey" Basil spending most of her time being quiet and staring.  Sally Struthers makes a brief appearance as a bowling alley slut, but it's nothing special.  Lois Smith and Ralph Waite are socially awkward as Bobby's siblings, which fits in their home-schooled character history, but I didn't particularly care for either.  Susan Anspach was pretty good as Bobby's sophisticated love interest, but I thought she was too reactive in her performance; sure Nicholson was an obvious force, but she could have tried to match his intensity.

Bob Rafelson (who directed and co-wrote the Monkees movie, Head, with Nicholson) directed and co-wrote Five Easy Pieces, which is nice --- I always like to know to to blame or praise for a movie.  I didn't find Rafelson's camera work to be terribly interesting, but I will definitely argue that he can direct actors.  The two most memorable scenes in the film are Jack Nicholson monologues (his quest for toast in the diner and the long-awaited talk with his father), but they are also surprisingly quiet scenes.  The acting is pretty subdued and the camera doesn't miss a thing.  You could argue that Rafelson just let Jack do his thing and filmed it, but there are a couple of moments where the director struts his stuff.  The final, dialogue-free shot of the movie, which is zoomed-out and feels like it will never end, is a great end to this movie.  When this movie ends, it is because there is really nothing left to say, as that last scene implies.

At the time this film came out, American cinema was undergoing a great change, and films were doing things they never did before --- the heroes were less heroic and more realistic, the endings weren't always happy and sometimes not really endings at all, and some of the most memorable characters of the decade were not nice characters.  Five Easy Pieces was part of that renaissance, and Jack Nicholson's performance was also emblematic of that movement.  The ambiguous ending, which I really liked, was also a sign of things to come in high-profile movies in the 70s.  I understand the importance of this movie in the context of its time --- it was nominated for Best Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actress (Karen Black), and Original Screenplay Oscars --- but I think it has lost some punch over the years.  Part of that is due to the film's innovative bits becoming somewhat commonplace over time, but it has more to do with Bobby's character than anything else.

It's difficult for me to articulate what I don't like about Bobby Dupea because his character never really explains just what his problem is.  He's an underachiever, and proud of it, decades before Bart Simpson.  He is proud of his life when amongst snooty upper-class socialites, but bored when he's home.  He's talented, but indifferent about it.  While Nicholson's performance is truly fantastic, Bobby Dupea comes across as a spoiled child in a man's body.  I realize that the audience is not supposed to entirely identify with Bobby, but his character doesn't feel revolutionary any more; I admire the performance, but the character being performed is no longer a revelation.  And, I'll admit it, I'm not a huge fan of movies that cater solely to one character, at the expense of a plot.  Sure, it works sometimes, but unless some sort of artificial structure is imposed on the movie (like the Top Five lists in High Fidelity), I find my interest wavering by the end of the film.  As much as I admire the artistry that went into making this movie, the story didn't appeal to me.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


When I was looking into the actors in Armored, I came to a realization: Matt Dillon is not in good movies.  Sure, I laughed at There's Something About Mary when I was stupid and in high school, but that shouldn't be his career highlight.  Considering that the lead roles in this film are split between Dillon and Columbus Short, who is more famous for dancing than acting, Armored might not be a great film.

After being awarded the Silver Star for his service in the War on Terror, Ty (Columbus Short) has been having a rough time back home.  With his parents gone, Ty is the sole guardian of his brother Jimmy (Andre Kinney).  To make ends meet, Ty has taken on a job as a security guard for armored cars.  He's second-generation in his job; the rest of his co-workers remember his father fondly, particularly his godfather, Mike (Matt Dillon).  After work one day, the guards head to a bar to unwind and talk a bit about some of the more famous armored car robberies; afterward, Mike tells Ty that the whole crew is going to rob their own armored car and split the money, which amounts to $7 million each.  At first, he's reluctant, but when social services threaten to take Jimmy away, Ty agrees to help, as long as nobody gets hurt.  Well, guess what?  People get hurt.  Ty won't stand for that, so he fights back against the other five guards.

I won't say that the acting was great in this movie, but it wasn't terrible.  In the lead role, Columbus Short did much better than any professional dancer should be expected to do in a feature film.  No, he wasn't amazing, but he was halfway decent, at long as he wasn't supposed to convey feelings.  Matt Dillon was...well, Matt Dillon.  Nothing new there.  The other veteran actors were not particularly impressive, either.  Skeet Ulrich and Jean Reno just showed up long enough to cash a paycheck.   Amaury Nolasco, who I normally despise, surprised me by playing a character with at least a little depth, but that came to naught when his character unexpectedly committed suicide...I assume.  They never showed the body, which suggests that the budget wasn't very high for this movie.  Laurence Fishburne normally adds a little bit of class to the movies he is in, but here, he plays a violent dimwit.  It's a surprisingly dull role for him, but he was in Biker Boyz, so I probably shouldn't be surprised.
Hello?  Is my dignity there?  Well, can I leave a message?
As for young Andre Kinney, I suppose his not-terribly-intelligent and graffiti-loving role here is a step up from his recurring role on Hannah Montana, but he is still several blocks away from being a real actor.  Milo Ventimiglia also makes an appearance as a police officer, but he gets shot pretty early on, resulting in him talking with a funny voice; I don't think I've seen him in a movie without a weird voice, so I'm still not sure if he can act in feature films.

Mediocre acting does not necessarily doom a film (Avatar, anyone?), but mediocre direction doesn't help, either.  Nimrod Antal is a capable action director, I will admit.  I was able to follow the plot, too, which shows that he has the rudimentary skills to tell a story.  As for directing actors to actually act...well, I don't see any proof of that here.  The dramatic scenes aren't bad, but they aren't very natural, especially between Short and...well, anyone.  Take, for instance, the scene where Short comes home to find Kinney spray painting an owl --- and owl! --- on their kitchen wall.  Instead of them butting heads like a surly teen and an overwhelmed sibling, it plays out like this:
Short: Why'd you paint an owl in our kitchen?  That's where we cook!  I mean, when we cook.  Well, where we're supposed to cook, anyway.
Kinney: I dunno.
Short: What?  I forgot what we were talking about.  Have some McDonald's.
I'm not saying that these actors had a lot to work with, but they sure didn't take advantage of the opportunities they had.

The primary obstacle to this movie's success is the story, which was written by a first-time screenwriter.  Aside from some pretty cliche action moments, I have to wonder just how much thought went into the construction of the armored cars in this movie.  You would think that a real armored car that transfers cash would be pretty secure, right?  Well, not according to Armored.  There are all sorts of ways to mess with these vehicles in the movie.  The alarm is easily disabled without alerting the company base.  They are not on a particular time table, even after picking up money.  The floor of the truck has a thin floorboard that can be disassembled with basic tools.  Sure, the bad guys eventually do the logical thing and go after the door hinges, but those are some suspiciously large hinges for a secure vehicle.  Okay, fine.  Let's say that the armored car problems make sense, or the movie is entertaining enough for that not to not matter.  There is no climax.  None.  There are explosions, and we assume characters die.  Then Matt Dillon shows up and there's a minor showdown, but nothing huge.  I kept expecting another character (Larry Fishburne, I'm looking at you) to show up, partially charbroiled and ready to kill, but the movie just...ends.  Boo!

This movie wasn't incompetent.  It wasn't terrible.  It was mediocre with a bad story.  Its only accomplishment was being a heist movie that I didn't like.
Interesting side note: a Google image search of "Columbus Short glove" comes up with this image.  Why?  I'm so very confused...

Monday, January 24, 2011

Die Hard

It's hard to believe now, but Bruce Willis in an action movie was considered a risky move before Die Hard.  Sure, he had proven himself as a comedic actor on television, but he also promoted wine coolers.

Looking back, it's hard to believe that anyone wanted to see him blow stuff up.  But it was the 80s, and all sorts of questionable choices were being made --- making John Ritter Ted Danson Bruce Willis into an action star probably made perfect sense to a coked-out film executive.

Thank goodness it worked out.  Die Hard (German for "The Hard") is, without a doubt, one of the top action films of all time.  There are a number of small mistakes throughout the film, but nobody ever notices them until they have watched the movie for the twentieth time.  That's better than quality.  That is the all too rare ability to suspend not disbelief, but criticism.  Die Hard is so awesome, it's mistakes make it all the more lovable.

New York detective John McClane (Bruce Willis) is in Los Angeles to visit his estranged wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia), and kids for Christmas.  Before heading home, John heads to her workplace, the Nakatomi Plaza skyscraper, guess he loves his estranged wife much more than his young children.  Maybe they're just awful little people.  Don't judge him.  As soon as John is in the building, European terrorists take everyone hostage; since Holly's company was the last group in the building, the thirtysomething employees make up all the hostages.  With his police training and the good luck of being near an emergency stairwell when the hubub began, John manages to escape to an unoccupied floor.  Now, it's John McClane, unarmed and (for some reason) without shoes, against a dozen terrorists with automatic weapons.  I almost feel sorry for the bad guys.

What makes Die Hard completely rad?  The actors, for starters.  Bruce Willis got to shoot a bunch of bad guys and make witty retorts like, "Now I know what a TV dinner feels like!"  Take that, lonely man nutrition!  As John McClane, Willis is extremely likable; he's not perfect --- he can't help getting into stupid fights with his wife --- but he knows how to get things done.  Of course, a hero is only as good as his villain (if you need proof, check out Die Hard 2), and this movie has a doozy.  Alan Rickman plays Hans Gruber, leader of the bad guys.  Whereas McClane is a blue-collar guy to the bone, Gruber is very fancy; he has extensive business knowledge, buys his suits from Savile Row, and he is a teacher at Hogwart's School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.  Right there you have a slobs vs. snobs match-up for the ages.  Gruber adds charm, wit, and ruthlessness on top of those attributes to make him one of my favorite movie villains of all time.  Also impressive is former Soviet ballet dancer Alexander Godunov, as the hot-blooded revenge-fueled villain.
He's like a bare-chested Mona Lisa.  No matter where you move, his eyes follow you.
Sadly, this would be Godunov's last decent film role before his death; it's a shame, because he played a very convincing crazy.  Sure, there are other supporting actors, like Reginald VelJohnson as McClane's contact with the LAPD, or Bonnie Bedelia, that do a decent enough job, but the rest of the cast is just bit parts.  They are stellar bit parts, though, and they make the film so much more enjoyable with their brief appearances.  Who can forget Lakers fan/computer expert Theo (Clarence Gilyard), the only villain that doesn't die?  Or Paul Gleason, taking a break off from playing a high school principal to be the absolute worst Deputy Police Chief ever?  William Atherton was, once again (remember him in Ghostbusters?), a pitch-perfect jerk as the story-hungry reporter.  And then there is stereotypical 80s businessman, Ellis (Hart Bochner):
Hans...!  Bubby...!  I eventually went on to direct PCU!.
Heck, even the bit-bit players were awesome in this movie.  You have FBI agents Johnson and Johnson (Grand L. Bush and future Bond villain Robert Davi, respectively); Argyle, the limo driver, was actually the shoplifting kid that Ray Charles shot at in The Blues Brothers; and Mr. Fu Manchu himself, Al Leong as (what else?) a bad guy with no dialogue.
Fu Manchu, ready to dump a load of action scenes all over Hollywood
It is worth noting that neither Huey Lewis nor the News are in Die Hard...that is just a dude who looks like Huey.

In the director's chair, John McTiernan shows a much better touch with the actors than he did in 1987's Predator.  Of course it helps to have actual actors in your cast, instead of just future governors.  Thanks to McTiernan's help, the humor, action, and drama are well-balanced in this movie.  And each of those aspects of the film are pretty great.  It's not just the dialogue, either; Willis and Rickman show a lot of great nonverbal acting, for both humorous and dramatic purposes.  The action looks really good throughout the film and the story was told in a very clear fashion.  What more could you want?  Well, more professional editing, I suppose.  If you know where to look, you can find Willis' stunt doubles in a few scenes --- they're usually the Bruce Willis-looking guys with the bright white shirts, long after Willis' has been stained with blood and dirt.

That's okay, though.  In my mind, this film can do no wrong.  It's got action, humor, and is just completely awesome.  Do you want to know how awesome Die Hard is?  Here's a list of stupid things in the movie that I don't even care about.
  • Everything 80s: smoking in airports, cocaine use, pregnant women drinking alcohol, form-fitting sweatpants, Huey Lewis look-alikes, and limo drivers drinking hard liquor --- it's all good in the 80s!
  • If Reginal VelJohnson is a "desk jockey," why was he in a patrol car?
  • So, the only people left in the building are the party on the 30th floor, but the doorman makes McClane search for his wife in the computer anyway?  What a jerk.
  • The Deputy Police Chief makes some valid points as to why there is not a hostage situation...until he explains that the dead body that dropped from the upper stories of the building was "probably some stock broker that got depressed."  Oh, well if it's "probably" just that, then we can all go home now, right?
  • John McClane never tracks down the guy with the "make fists with your toes" advice and punches him in the mouth.
  • The closing message of the film is that Reginal VelJohnson killing somebody is a Christmas miracle.  Pity it didn't transfer over to Family Matters.
Here's an interesting factoid: Die Hard, based on the book Nothing Lasts Forever, was actually supposed to be a sequel to the Frank Sinatra film, The Detective.  Can you picture Frankie saying "Yippie ki yay, MF?"  Actually , I would be pretty awesome.  Anyway, without a doubt, Die Hard is one of the quintessential action films, as well as one of the more cheery Christmas movies that you can watch any time of year.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Oxford Murders

Have you ever seen a movie that was clearly ripping off a more successful film?  I'm not talking about pornographic adaptations, like Flesh Gordon, Pulp Friction, or San Fernando Jones and the Temple of Poon.  No, I'm talking about movies that have tag lines like "If you liked Snakes on a Plane, you'll love Snakes on a Train!"  Well, The Oxford Murders isn't quite that bad, but it is clearly emulating a formula most Americans would recognize.

Martin (Elijah Wood) is an aspiring American mathematician that has just arrived at Oxford to work on his thesis.  He wants, more than anything, to have his idol, Arthur Seldom (John Hurt), as his thesis advisor; these days, though, Seldom is heard an encouraging word toward students.  Martin attends one of Seldom's lectures, where he hears Seldom declare that you cannot prove the truth of anything, outside the laws of mathematics, which means that philosophy (the search for truth) is dead, and life has no meaning.  Not surprisingly, there aren't usually questions for Seldom after he is done speaking, since he basically mocks their quest for knowledge in his lecture.  Martin, though, is brave enough to stick up for mathematics as a form of absolute truth, which gets him absolutely eviscerated by Seldom in the lecture hall.  Figuratively, of course.  It does get his attention, though.  Later, the two meet up again by chance, only to discover a murder.  The victim, Martin's landlady (Anna Massey) and an old friend of Seldom's, had been on the brink of death for years.  If it were not for a small bloody nose, there would have been no signs of foul play; well, except for the note that Seldom was handed while signing books after his lecture.  The note read "First of the series" and had a hand-drawn circle beneath.  Out of context, that note meant nothing, but the note and that bloody nose indicate that someone is committing a series of murders.  Worse, Seldom realizes that the murderer wants to impress him.  Can Martin and Seldom work together to figure out the killer's pattern, or will they forever be one step behind?

I mentioned a formula earlier, but I didn't point it out in the plot.  That's because it's more of a plot device than an actual plot development.  So, here's how the formula goes.  Seldom casually mentions an advanced mathematical concept, like Godel's incompleteness theorems, in front of Martin and a normal (non-mathematician) person.  The normal person asks what that is, and Martin explains it, with Seldom agreeing.  In his explanation, Martin might throw out another concept that the normal person has to ask about, like the vesica piscis, and Seldom jumps in to explain.  Basically, the normal person is the point of view character for the audience in these scenes, and one expert throws out technical concepts with sometimes questionable conclusions, but those conclusions are never questioned because the other expert backs the first one up.  Does that sound familiar?  It should.  Yes, this movie is based on a novel.  No, the novel is not by Dan Brown.  Man, I hate the two experts vs. the uneducated formula!  Unfortunately, The DaVinci Code and Angels and Demons have made the formula so successful that imitations are inevitable.  And, as much as I detest The DaVinci Code (book and movie), this movie is nowhere near as good.

The problem is not the acting.  John Hurt playing a clever and educated British man is not a stretch.  Elijah Wood, aside from his naturally peculiar speech cadence, was also fine.  He plays intelligent characters far better than dimwits, but I think he's been plateauing for a while with his emoting.  Leonor Watling plays a love interest for both men and she does a pretty good job.  It's not a major part, but she definitely made the most of it.  I'm not certain why a murder mystery would require her to get naked, but I think complaining would seem rude.  I was less impressed with the rest of the cast.  Jim Carter is adequate as the policeman investigating the murders.  Anna Massey and Julie Cox play an antagonistic mother-daughter pair, but their scenes are awkward and unnatural; I blame Cox more than Massey, because the awkwardness continues after Massey's character dies.  Dominique Pinon's character was pretty unbelievable, so his performance can be excused somewhat, I suppose.  Burn Gorman, though, plays a frustrated mathematician like his character was the Hunchback of Notre Dame.  His character is also unbelievable, but Gorman overacted well beyond the point of so-bad-it's-good.  There was something weird with his upper lip, too --- it didn't move much, which gave the impression (that I have been unable to prove) that his lines were dubbed over.  Whatever the reason, he was awful.  And, for some reason, Alex Cox (director of Repo Man and Sid and Nancy) has a bit part as a one-limbed insane mathematician.  I hope he doesn't get typecast.

I may not have been a huge fan of the acting and I may hate the two experts formula, but the deciding factor here is the story itself.  The first story problem can be seen with the basic structure.  Martin is the main character, right?  Something should, theoretically, be at stake for either him or his loved ones, which would indicate his love interest.  While it is mentioned that both are suspects in the murders (or at least some of them), there is never any sign that the police are especially interested in them.  So, there isn't a huge sense of urgency.  With Martin as the main character, though, the main character knows more about this film's concepts than the average person; Seldom is the expert, though.  That means that the main character is neither the expert nor the point of view character.  Making Martin the lead character distances the audience from the immediacy of the issue as well as the expert knowledge needed to solve the problem.

Oh, and the rest of the film is dumb, too.  That's a tough problem to overcome.  Why is there a romantic interest in this film at all?  Practically no time is given for it to develop; all it does is provide Martin with a reason to give up his academic aspirations and give bored viewers a pretty Spanish woman to ogle.  About those aspirations...Martin claims that he wants to quit academia forever, once the murder case is closed, and move somewhere with his ladyfriend.  There is no way in hell a budding mathematician that has been working hand in hand with his math idol is going to give that up; that would be like Tim "Ripper" Owens meeting Judas Priest, practicing with them, and then turning them down for a permanent gig.  Not going to happen, folks.  What makes this even worse is that, at the end of the movie, Martin is left seemingly without either love or academics.  Awesome.  The manner in which the plot is resolved also leaves something to be desired.  I don't want to spoil the "twist" that you will never see coming, or maybe never care about, but I will let you know that a busload of mentally handicapped children die to help reach the film's conclusion.  Not just any film can boast that claim, it takes a "special" one, like The Oxford Murders.

It's a shame, really, that this movie isn't very good.  Director Alex de la Iglesia did a pretty good job telling the story, and clues to the ending are shown, even if you're meant to overlook them.  It just happens that this movie has a stupid story that is made worse by its pretentiousness.  The best acting in the world can, at best, make a terrible movie worth watching once.  Unfortunately, the acting and directing in this is only good, which means you shouldn't waste your time with this movie.

Saturday, January 22, 2011


When I watch movies from the 1940s and 50s, I usually don't notice much that seems anachronistic.  Sure, the technology is outdated, but their language and dress are pretty classic.  If I went out to dinner, dressed and acted like Humphrey Bogart or Carey Grant, I wouldn't get confused looks from strangers.  Films from the 60s, though, sometimes show their age more, thanks to their hep slang and groovy fashions.  Harper is an interesting watch, partly because it is clearly a product of the mid-60s, but also because it is just as obviously inspired by classic film noir.

Lew Harper (Paul Newman) is a private eye that's seen better days; he's been living out of his office, reusing coffee filters, and his car looks beat to hell.  Sure, it's a Porsche, but that doesn't mean it's looking good.  Harper is hired Elaine Sampson (Lauren Bacall) to find her husband, a very wealthy man with a history of being flaky.  Elaine isn't worried about her Mr. Sampson shacking up with another woman --- she is an invalid and turns a blind eye to that --- but she doesn't want her gullible husband getting suckered into giving some hussy a bunch of money.  The last time Sampson disappeared and got generous, he literally gave away a mountain to a crooked church.  Why not call the police?  Well, they'd rather handle things quietly, if possible.  Harper makes the rounds, questioning his ditzy and flirtatious daughter, Miranda (Pamela Tiffin) and his pilot/cabana boy, Allan Taggert (Robert Wagner), but they don't really give him much help.  That's not too surprising; Sampson wasn't out with a woman, he was kidnapped.  There's something fishy about the kidnapping, though.  Somehow Harper has to put the pieces together to explain how an overweight former starlet (Shelley Winters), a drug-addicted jazz singer (Julie Harris), and the crackpot church all have something to do with Sampson's disappearance.

I love movies like Harper.  You have a too cool for school lead character that loves to swagger, even when that confidence gets him nearly killed.  Like all classic noir, this story has a lead actor with a heart of stone, who is clever, tough, and willing to do whatever it takes to learn the truth.  Of course, that means that his actions aren't always legal, and he might not take legal actions to solve the big problems, either.  Basically, if you like tough guys that are charming as hell and solve mysteries, Harper is a good choice.

It never hurts to have Paul Newman playing the charming bastard in the lead role.  Newman was one of the greats, and I like him best as the guy that would fun to hang out with, but not necessarily someone you would let your sister date, if you know what I mean.  The supporting cast in this movie is pretty awesome, even if they all have relatively small parts, compared to Newman.  For starters, having Lauren Bacall in a noir is always a good choice; her appearance here is a clear allusion to The Big Sleep, where her father in that film played a rich invalid that pays a detective to find a missing man.  Bacall still was magnetic, even when reduced to sitting down in all her scenes.  Robert Wagner and Pamela Tiffin weren't particularly impressive, but they played flaky characters well enough.  Shelley Winters was sad as the past-her-prime star and Julie Harris did a good job as the tough jazz singer.  I was particularly happy with the small parts played by character actors Strother Martin and Robert Webber.  The best surprise for me, though, was the chemistry between Newman and Haper's ex-wife, played by Janet Leigh.  I'm not terribly familiar with Leigh, aside from her small part in Psycho, so it was nice to see her in a substantial role.  She played one of the best tired-of-her-man's-bullshit parts I have ever seen on film, and she managed to be tough, cranky, and sensitive all in one go.  And their dialogue...!  Here's a taste:
Leigh: What do you want from me?
Newman: Anything I can get.
Leigh: At least you're honest.
Man, that's good stuff!

You can credit the fun dialogue to William Goldman, who has a talent for memorable lines. You want more?  "The bottom is loaded with nice people. Only cream and bastards rise to the top."   Just typing that put a smile on my face. And this film has one of the better ambiguous endings I've seen. Goldman's screenplay is brought to life by director Jack Smight, who does his best to keep the tone and the pace of Harper in keeping with Bogart-esque noirs of yesteryear. I'm not a huge Smight fan, but he handles the dialogue and the action sequences well and keeps the story from being too confusing, which is very important in thrillers like this.

But this is definitely a film that has aged less gracefully than other Newman classics.  Really, any movie that shows characters dancing to rock music is going to look silly in retrospect, but this one has more dancing than any self-respecting noir should have.  I will admit that Pamela Tiffin dancing to surf music while standing on a diving board was pretty funny, but I don't think it was supposed to be that funny.  Most of the lines coming out of Robert Wagner's mouth are dated by his slang, which adds unintentional humor to a movie that isn't trying to make jokes.

Aside from the funny dancing and slang, there's not a whole lot wrong with Harper.  It is definitely an homage to noirs, so it doesn't feel terribly original, but that's not always a big deal.  The one area where this film could have been improved was in the overall feel of the movie.  The characters in this story are pretty sleazy, but the film is dazzling with its handsome cast and bright colors.  Newman manages to look a little scuzzy, but he's the only one who puts any effort into looking the way his character acted: dirty.  Still, the dialogue is often great, there are several memorable scenes, and it's always fun to watch Paul Newman outsmart people.

Friday, January 21, 2011


Most of the time, when there is a heist in a film, it is the focus of the plot.  That makes sense, after all; most normal people don't commit high-stakes armed robbery, so it provides a little escapism for audiences.  Of course, there have been notable films where the robbery was not the focal point, but still an important part of the script.  In the case of Reservoir Dogs, the heist isn't in the movie, but the plot focuses on the aftermath of a robbery gone wrong.  Snatch is a little different, though.  Yes, there is a robbery.  Technically, the same item is stolen several times.  But this is a movie that is more about the awesomeness of incoherent gypsies than it is about any heist.

Snatch is one of those ensemble movies where a dozen or more characters have intersecting plot lines that twist and turn all over the place, so summarizing the plot is perhaps not the best way to describe this movie.  There are only two constants in this plot.  First, New York gangster Avi (Dennis Farina) wants to get his hands on the diamond he hired Frankie Four Fingers (Benicio del Toro) to steal from Antwerp, but he's not the only one who knows that the jewel is in Frankie's possession.  Second, local crime lord Brick Top (Alan Ford) needs competition for his illegal (and known to be crooked) underground boxing matches; he sets his sights on an honest local manager, Turkish (Jason Statham), who needs to deliver a good fight for Brick Top, or quite possibly die a gruesome death.  Everything else feeds into those two seemingly separate plots.

While that actually sums up the plot decently well, I can't review Snatch and not mention the myriad colorful characters sprinkled throughout.  While I wouldn't say that any of these characters are well-developed or sympathetic, most of them are entertaining.  The highlight of the film definitely comes from the "fookin' pikeys," which is a rude British term for Irish Travelers (you know...gypsies); Mickey (Brad Pitt) leads the group of dirty, swindling, and heavy-drinking gamblers, with Jason Flemyng playing his number two.  The pikeys are almost impossible to understand, which adds to their unwashed charm.

The next best characters are probably the duo of Bullet Tooth Tony (Vinnie Jones) and Boris the Blade, AKA Boris the Bullet Dodger (Rade Serbedzija); both are notoriously hard to kill, both are pretty bad-ass, and they each have several memorable moments in the movie.  Beyond them, there is an assortment of lesser characters, like the group of inept criminals hired to rob Frankie Four Fingers (including Robbie Gee and Lennie James), Turkish's partner Tommy (Stephen Graham) and a snitch (Ewen Bremner).

While it is billed as a crime picture, this is really more of a comedy than anything else.  Sure, there's some action, but it is not the focus; the initial diamond heist took about two minutes of film time and even the final boxing match is only about five minutes long.  The characters flash across the screen quickly, as does the plot, with everything slowing down only for jokes.  Unfortunately, many of those jokes aren't very good.  Well, to be fair, they're not real jokes; they're regular dialogue that is supposed to stick out and be funny.  Sometimes, this works out great.  Anything with Brad Pitt speaking is great.  Most of Vinnie Jones' lines are good, especially his explanation for how Boris the Bullet Dodger got his nickname.  Dennis Farina was also very entertaining whenever he got to be overly rude.  But for every great moment, there is at least one joke that truly fails.  They fall into a category that I like to call "repeater jokes."  You have one character saying the same thing (maybe with slight variations) several times, with other characters reacting to it with increasing exasperation; you can inverse the gag, but it's even worse.  Here's an example: Jason Statham asks a guy when the sausages will be done cooking, he is told two minutes; he asks again, and is told two minutes; he asks again and is told five minutes; Jason, frustrated, explains that it was two minutes five minutes ago.  If you're not on the floor with tears in your eyes after reading that, then you agree with me: not funny, guys.  I also found the inept criminals annoying, too, but the repeater jokes are just awful.  They're not funny and they slow the flow of an otherwise fast-paced film.

This was the second film Guy Ritchie directed, and he throws everything he has at the screen.  Slow motion, freeze frames, fast motion, a weird underwater effect, all while moving the camera all over the place.  It makes for a pretty kinetic movie, even when not much is going on, plot-wise.  You can justly critique his style as resembling Attention Deficit Disorder, but as long as the plot is chugging along, his style fits the film.  I'm not quite sure about Ritchie and his handling of actors, though.  He is probably a fun guy to be around, judging from all the actors that recur in his films, but he doesn't have much sense for timing anything but action, as we see when he slows down to tell unfunny jokes.

The acting is mostly entertaining, although nobody is really great in their part.  Brad Pitt is the film's shining performance, managing to be very likable despite being greasy, bearded, and speaking gibberish.  Aside from Pitt, I particularly enjoyed Vinnie Jones, Dennis Farina, and Rade Serbedzija; all of them played well within their comfort zones (criminals), but they were all darned good at it.  I'm not terribly familiar with Alan Ford, but I've liked him quite a bit in both of his Guy Ritchie movies, even if a large part of that like comes solely from his vulgar dialogue.  Oh, and Benicio del Toro was good is his bit role, but I was disappointed by just how small his part ended up being.  I was surprised to see Jason Statham play such an inconsequential part of the story; despite narrating the film, his character doesn't really do much to propel the plot.  In retrospect, it is also shocking that he doesn't fight a single person in this, his big American film debut, and he even manages to keep his shirt on for the whole movie.

So far, I think I can justly sum up Snatch as being a fast-paced crime caper with a focus on humor and eccentric characters.  It's not a deep film, but it's fun, even when it sabotages its momentum with repeater jokes.  On its own merits, this is kind of like the movie equivalent of junk food; it is enjoyable, but ultimately full of empty calories.  When you take a broader look at this film, though, you will see striking similarities to Ritchie's first film, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.  I'm not talking about having Vinnie Jones, Jason Statham, Jason Flemyng, and Alan Ford in both movies, Matthew Vaughn as a producer, or even the fact that John Murphy did the score for both films.  The look and feel of both movies is nearly identical.  The way things end in both films is pretty similar, too.  Even the basic premise of a slightly crooked, but good, guy getting in over his head with a violent gangster is repeated.  Heck, Vinnie Jones' first scenes in both movies are barely distinguishable.  Snatch feels like an attempt to recreate Ritchie's breakthrough picture, but with Hollywood actors.  As such, most people like whichever movie they saw first, which is a shame; Snatch is funnier, but less consistent and less focused.

Having gotten that off my chest, I must admit that I still enjoy Snatch.  Yes, it's basically a repeat of a movie I really like.  Yes, it is all over the place, in terms of plot and characters.  No, I don't really care about any of the characters as anything other than props for action and foul-mouthed jokes.  But it is a damned good time, and it makes me laugh every time.
 This review was done by request.  So, there...service with a smile!

Thursday, January 20, 2011


If you are burnt out on big-budget American blockbusters, with their plot cliches and the same explosions over and over, check out some of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's work.  Well, his French movies, anyway, like Amelie or The City of Lost Children --- I don't know if I can forgive him for Alien: Resurrection.  The man has a gift for visual flair and a kinetic style that is tough to match by any filmmaker in any film genre. 

The full title of this film is Micmacs a Tire-Larigot (shortened to just Micmacs for its American limited release in 2010), which translates into "Non-stop shenanigans," according to Wikipedia.  According to free French-English translation websites, it translates into "Micmacs Pull Larigot."  Hmm...not a good sign for the movie's subtitle quality.

When he was just a boy, Bazil's (Dany Boon) father was killed by a landmine.  The tragedy took its toll on his mother, who was institutionalized soon after, leaving Bazil to the mercy of orphanages.  Thirty years later, Bazil is working at a video store, reciting the dialogue to The Big Sleep (an excellent choice, by the way) in time to the film.  Outside, he notices something straight out of an action movie; a masked motorcyclist and a car with tinted windows are exchanging gunfire in the street.  Bazil catches a stray bullet, right in the forehead.  He doesn't die, though; the bullet is lodged in his brain deep enough where surgery will leave him a vegetable, but leaving the bullet in will let him live a normal life...until the bullet kills him without warning.  The surgeon flips a coin, and Bazil is given the gift of life, albeit one with a practically guaranteed abrupt ending.  While he was hospitalized, Bazil lost his job, his apartment, and all his belongings.  Really?  This is "Non-stop shenanigans"?!?

After being homeless for a while, Bazil is taken in by a group of eccentric junkyard dwellers who have fashioned a cave out of salvaged junk.  The leader of the group is Mama Chow (Yolande Moreau), who, fittingly enough, mothers the group.  There is Slammer, a long-jailed former felon; Buster (Dominique Pinon), a former Guinness Book-worthy human cannonball; Calculator, a Velma-looking girl who can calculate just about anything; Remington, a writer who seems to speak only in cliched prose; Tiny Pete, a frail old man with the strength of three men and a fondness for building intricate scrap-metal marionettes; and Elastic Girl (Julie Ferrier), a contortionist.  Well, I suppose this cast of characters reduces the chance of this becoming an existential film about the never-ending well of depression and hopelessness.  While out collecting junk to bring to his new home, Bazil discovers an intersection with two businesses of note directly across the street from each other.  On the one side is the arms manufacturer who made the landmine that killed his father, run by Francois Marconi (Nicolas Marie); on the other side is the arms manufacturer of the bullet in Bazil's brain, run by Nicolas Thibault De Fenouillet (Andre Dussollier).  Bazil walks into Fenouillet's business first, asking to speak to the company president to talk about the bullet in his head; he is roughly escorted out of the building.  Bazil then poses as a waiter to gain entrance to a banquet in Marconi's building; there, he hears Marconi give a speech about his dedication to making more devastating (and profitable) weapons in the future.  Seeing that these two companies are completely remorseless, Bazil and his new friends decide to take them down the only way they can: eccentrically.

Wow.  It is difficult to watch a Jean-Pierre Jeunet film and not notice the co-writer/director's touch in every scene.  The camera is rarely still for more than a moment; the effect can be dizzying at times, or dreamlike at others.  The sheer amount of detail is astounding; each and every one of Tiny Pete's cool little creations look like it took at least a week to make.  There are animated sections of the movie, flashbacks set in a completely different film style --- heck, the opening credits were a throwback to the Golden Age of Hollywood.  As busy as this movie is, it is one of the more subtle cinematographic efforts I have seen by Jeunet.  Most of the visual effects are small, but they reward attentive viewers.  And fans of Jeunet can catch treats, too, if they pay attention; I noticed two scenes that featured the Micmacs movie poster and one scene that (I think) referenced Jeunet's first film, Delicatessen.  Regardless, this is still an obvious change from typical film style, and I appreciate the change of pace.  Jeunet's greatest strength, though, is his ability to tell a story without much exposition.  Things happen fast in Micmacs, but the tale is told largely through the facial expressions of the characters involved; you could watch this film without subtitles, still follow the plot, and still be amused.  Jeunet is a master of getting the best non-verbal performances out of his actors, which complements his visual style of storytelling.

The acting isn't great in Micmacs, though.  Dany Boone is a dull lead actor and, aside from his occasional bullet-induced brain malfunctions, he plays a straight man for everyone else.  His romantic interest in the film, Julie Ferrier, is better, but her character is too eccentric to take seriously.  Frequent Jeunet collaborators Dominique Pinon and Yolande Moreau are amusing enough, but are fairly one-dimensional.  My favorites out of the cast of heroes were definitely Tiny Pete (Michel Cremades) --- he reminded me of the old man in Geri's Game, the Pixar short --- and Calculator (Marie-Julie Baup), because she was adorably nerdy.  The most entertaining actors, though, were definitely the villains.  Nicolas Marie's self-aggrandizing and heartless performance reminded me of Christoph Waltz, but that might have been influenced by his gray beard.  Andre Dussollier was creepier, though, because he looked more like a typical businessman, but his hobby was to collect body parts from famous people and keep them in bell jars.

Even the best performances in this movie are not terribly deep, though.  What do you expect from a movie that takes the issue of international arms dealing and makes an adorable revenge tale out of it?  Personally, I think it should have had a little more weight to the story.  I'm all for lighter fare, but the movie starts out on such a downer that it is hard to believe that this wasn't meant to be more satirical than it ended up.  With the sad start to the film, Jeunet sets the audience up to identify and care about Bazil, but once his goofy friends are introduced, there are no more efforts to develop his character.  If he changed as the film progressed, there would be a sense of accomplishment.  Instead, the film focuses on the amusingly ludicrous plots the good guys use to frustrate the arms dealers.  I don't know...I liked watching the film because it was cute and quirky and so very unlike just about everything else on the market.  When the movie was finished, though, I realized that I just didn't care one way or the other how things turned out.  Still, it was fun and different, just not one of the director's better efforts.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


"Who controls the past controls the future.  Who controls the present controls the past."  Man, that is such a good line!  Even Zach de la Rocha rap-rocking can't dilute that quote's cynical analysis of power and education.  That line provides the introduction to 1984, the timely (it was made in the year of the title) film adaptation of George Orwell's classic dystopian novel.

If you somehow managed to miss out on reading 1984 in high school, here's the basics.  In the far-flung future of 1984, England is a great big crap hole.  The Americas, Australia and England have merged into one supernation, Oceania.  We are forever battling our fellow supernations, Eurasia and Eastasia for dominion over Northern Africa and the Middle East.  Wait...constant war in 1984...America merging with soccer-loving nations...does that mean that the 1985 Bears will never happen?  What a nightmarish future/past!  In Oceania, freedom of expression is forbidden, and independent thought is a crime (creatively titled "thoughtcrime").  The government's needs come first and foremost, and civilians that do not capitulate are not just killed, but erased from history.  Winston Smith (John Hurt), part of the upper-middle class, works for the government's Ministry of Truth, where he spends every day amending previously published books and newspapers to fit with the government's current take on what history should be.  That changes from day to day, so Winston is always busy.  Like everyone else, Winston is under the constant supervision of the government, shown in omnipresent monitor screens as a glaring face.  Big Brother, the leader of the government, is watching everyone at all times.

Winston isn't happy with his situation, but what can he do to fight against the way the world works?  So, he spends a little time every day in a corner of his home that is in Big Brother's blind spot and he writes in a journal.  One day, he meets Julia (Suzanna Hamilton), and they begin an affair; since independent thought is a crime, you shouldn't be surprised to find that sex is, too.  Through Julia and Winston's relationship, we begin to see just how controlled their lives are, and just how different life can be without a few key liberties.  But how do you fight Big Brother?

There are only a few important characters in this movie, so much of the acting burden falls on John Hurt because he plays the point of view character.  I thought he did a pretty solid job; Winston Smith is basically an intellectual, and that is a trait that Hurt can show in his sleep.  When you give him lines like "I hate purity.  I want everyone to be corrupt" --- in a bedroom scene, no less --- and have the lines spoken in his fairly uptight British cadence, you have yourself a disenchanted academic.  Basically, Hurt fits the role to a tee.  Suzanna Hamilton fit her role well, too, but her character is pretty unemotional, so it's hard to judge just how good of a job she did.  This movie also had Richard Burton in his final role; I usually like Burton, even though he has a tendency to be melodramatic.  Here, he takes a more subtle (for him) approach, and has several scenes where his nonchalance is chilling.

This was the first film Michael Radford directed that got much attention, and part of that is because it is a good adaptation of a well-known novel.  The film had a rusty, dilapidated feel to it, which fits the post-nuclear England where the film is set.  Honestly, I thought all the production values were true to the novel, from the Big Brother monitoring screens to the disgusting food, to the Victory brand gin --- it all looked good and, more importantly, it all looked like things that existed in the 1984 of our reality.  After all, this would not be an adequate warning against nationalism and totalitarianism if it didn't have a sense of immediacy.  Since the characters in the story have deadened emotions, for the most part, I'm not sure how good Radford is with the actors, but he told the story well and the movie looked pretty much how I imagined it in high school English class.

While this is probably the best adaptation of 1984 that we're going to see made (after January 1, 1985, this story became historical fiction instead of a warning to the future), the film isn't great.  The draw of this story is not based on the main characters so much as it is about the world they live in.  Figuring out what really happened in the past, whether Big Brother is real or fake, alive or dead --- those are the parts that mess with your head when reading the book.  Here, the plot moves at the speed of film, so some of the more important (but subtle) plot twists are lost to the film's pace.  Yes, the director does point out several instances where Winston knowingly alters past documents that he knows, from first-hand experience, are the truth, so we get the gist of what's going on, but there is so much more that we're missing.  There is almost no discussion of Newspeak, and the numerous but socially inferior Prole class is barely mentioned.  Granted, those are gripes coming from someone who has read the book and knows they are missing from the film.  Still, I think this film fails to show just how deep Big Brother's control goes.  Aside from a mention of scientifically eliminating the orgasm, this film focuses on the obvious and somewhat superficial government tactics.

Perhaps it is inevitable that this film adaptation would be missing the detail of the source material.  The overall message is conveyed, though, and --- wait, what was that about the orgasm?  Man, you can tell this movie was not made in Hollywood, because that little idea, casually mentioned, would have had at least five minutes of exposition to explain it. 
"Yes, you see my naked butt in this movie.  No, I was never young."
Heck, it could have gotten an entire screenplay based on it!  Just imagine...Orgasm Killer: "If you thought 1984 was tough, look out for '85!"  Yes, it would be a horrible bastardization of the original concept that takes all the bite from the book.  But what would be more Orwellian than that?