Thursday, July 29, 2010

Armored (2009)

Decent, well-paced thriller about a group of guards for an armored car service that decides to fake a hijacking and make off with their bounty themselves. Colombus Short is the protaganist, an Iraq vet with a troublesome little brother in his custody and an imminent bank foreclosure on his house; as soon as we know there is a heist, we know he will go along begrudgingly but end up being the voice of reason (this isn't the most original flick in the world). The rest of his crew is loaded with heavies, including Matt Dillon as his godfather and mentor, Laurence Fishburne, Jean Reno, and Skeet Ulrich. Once the heist gets going, the characters are basically reduced to archetypes, but Ulrich, surprisingly, comes closest to creating a 3-dimensional, realistic character (Short, as always, comes off as earnest but trying too hard). Nimrod Antal, who had a decent hit this summer with Predators, shoots the hell out of a bare-bones thriller script, and keeps the action moving at all times; the locations, staging, and editing do plenty to maintain the tension and keep the focus on the action and the conflict. Even the acting comes off better than it should (especially Milo Ventimiglia, who actually proves endearing and not annoying, for once), given the dialogue, and Fred Ward, in his couple of scenes, comes out of this thing looking like a badass because of a few key decisions made toward the presentation of his character.

Slightly Recommended for fans of heist or standoff films. This is not some lost classic, but it is good enough to justify the successful career that Antal will, hopefully, have in the future.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Wicker Man (1973)

Fuck that admittedly glorious montage of the silliest scenes of Nicolas Cage's remake; this is the real deal, an old school British film along the lines of Straw Dogs and, oddly enough, Hot Fuzz with a great tone and terrific genre performances from Edward Woodward and Christopher Lee.

Highly Recommended for fans of edgy, offbeat, surreal '70s cinema.

P.S. This movie's kind of a musical. Still on board? You should be.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Extreme Prejuidice (1987)

Fun, exciting Walter Hill actioner set in Texas about the elongated rivalry between a Texas Ranger and his boyhood friend, now a cocaine kingpin in Mexico. Nick Nolte and Powers Boothe are the Ranger and the kingpin, respectively, and they have been fighting over Maria Conchita Alonso since before they acquired their legally-opposing occupations. Their story is the A-plot; there is also Michael Ironside and his ex-military crew, including William Forsythe and Clancy Brown, working against Boothe as well, albeit in a more covert manner. Eventually, inevitably, the two plots converge into an explosive finale in Mexico. The addition of the ex-military unit subplot adds a lot of dimension to the proceedings, although the good ol' boy rivalry between Nolte and Boothe is a delight. The parallel plots successfully create the idea that multiple things are actually concurrently going on, which elevates this above your typical forgotten 80's actioner. Aside from the action, which Walter Hill expectedly executes exceptionally well (especially the Wild Bunch-influenced finale), the badass supporting cast also makes this film stand-out. Aside from the three terrific, slow-burn leads, Nolte, Boothe, and Ironside, Forsythe, Brown, Alonso, and especially Rip Torn as Nolte's superior turn in memorable, appropriately archetypal action character work.

Recommended for fans of Texan (or southern) '80s action flicks, the leads, or Walter Hill; like many of his other films, this is, ostensibly, a classic western tale, but the addition of the ex-military unit subplot (and the cast) keeps this from feeling like any sort of retread, and makes it a compelling AND exciting dust-covered guy flick.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Losers (2010)

Cute, but no A-Team. Too many similarities to judge them on their own merits, and this is definitely the weaker, blander, less energetic film. That being said, Chris Evans, Idris Elba, and especially Jason Patric turn in very fun performances, and there are enough fun character and action beats to warrant a casual viewing.

Slightly Recommended for action and/or spy-team movie junkies, but only after The A-Team.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Inception (2010)

Unconventional, intelligent heist thriller about a team of "extractors," thieves that specialize in psychically removing information from unconscious, dreaming minds. The less that is known about this film, the better, for one of the great joys of the film is watching the various pieces of the patchwork plot come together; this is more Memento than The Dark Knight. The cast is terrific, with special mention going to Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy for their badass psychic operators. The visuals of the dream-worlds, ranging from bending cityscapes to gravity-void hallways, are masterful, although, surprisingly, not taken to the lengths I would have hoped; it feels like Nolan expected this to have a lower budget, and only wrote in more ambitious set-pieces once he started to have Cameron-like credibility at WB. Regardless of its intricate plotting and ambitious thematic content, the film is ostensibly a crowd-pleaser, using the oft-used elements of the heist and the "one last job" to keep the audience on a familiar level while challenging them at every possible corner. The crowd I saw it with walked out with a very resounding "what the fuck" reaction among them; after the obvious and contrived horseshit that's come out this year, I was very grateful to be one of them.

Highly Recommended for fans of Christopher Nolan and/or intelligent heist or sci-fi films. Among the titles that come to mind with this one are eXistenZ, Strange Days, and the Matrix; not a shabby list to be included in, by any means.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Predators (2010)

I'm not going to spend too much time on this one. If you have seen the originals (or original), this is a must-see, a throwback to a more stripped down, more primal action film with more brains than the 80s allowed. My girlfriend (admittedly not a sci-fi geek) actually said that she would have preferred it if it remained only about the characters and the "aliens," as she put it, never showed up. That's about the biggest praise I can heap on the film. Oh, and one scene involving the lone Japanese character and a predator is easily the most badass thing I've seen this summer; I'm waiting for The Expendables to beat it.

Highly Recommended for action or sci-fi junkies and fans of the originals. Adrian Brody deserves mention to; he ain't no scrawny li'l bitch no more, and the moments where his character shows how straight-up EVIL he was in his life before the narrative are among the best in the film.

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

Hackneyed, but mildly enjoyable Hays code-hampered comedy about a high society wedding being crashed by leering (cliched) journalists. Katherine Hepburn is the lead, a prudish, wealthy woman about to married to an old, practical self-made man. James Stewart and Cary Grant play the journalists who come to mine the big wedding for headlines, but Grant has the added advantage of being Hepburn's ex-husband. The plot is probably among those that influenced Woody Allen, for it involves a lot of upper-class repression, sexual scandals, and rapid-fire dialogue; however, it also has a mandate by the Hays code to not say anything remotely lascivious whatsoever. As a result, the whole film has that "Streetcar" vibe to it, where it always seems like the characters are talking about something completely different from what they are saying. While the dialogue is snappy and fairly entertaining, it lacks a certain provocativeness that is only achieved in a stretch with Stewart and Hepburn where their character drunkenly cavort in the wee hours of the morning. The loose, romantic nature of these scenes, along with brilliant performances by Stewart (never more charming) and Hepburn (never more radiant) create that intimate, dream-like vibe that Allen worked so hard (successfully) to replicate in his later works. However, the film betrays these scenes by shoehorning in more traditional, Hays-appropriate romantic complications and writing off Stewart's character as a mischievous drunk. Cary Grant does not have the natural, human qualities of Stewart and Hepburn, but does get in his fair share of zingers with his trademark comic delivery. The supporting cast is suprisingly game, with the old aristocrats not seeming as blustery and comic as they would in, say, a Hitchcock film. George Cukor's framing is subtle, but works best in the more intimate dialogue scenes, where he is not afraid to establish fleeting, but real connections between the characters. However, the overly-done plot, the constant stupid misunderstandings and toothless arguments, and the stupid, obvious, heartless ending subvert the genuine, golden-era pleasures to be had here.

Slightly Recommended for junkies of old, classic Hollywood, James Stewart, or Katherine Hepburn. Stewart won a thoroughly well-deserved Oscar for this role, a thoroughly modern one trapped in a classic film (particularly for a moment where Hepburn tries to put on a classy act after their drunken night together and he impulsively laughs at her coyishness); the films biggest flaw, in the end, is that the Oscar (appropriately) was for Best Supporting and not for Best Actor.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Road (2009)

Somber, gut-wrenching drama about a father and his son wandering a post-apocalyptic wasteland in search of food, warmth, and other "good guys." The cataclysm that wiped out humanity is not specified, but the whole world is covered in a grey, volcanic ash, implying either war or atmospheric depletion or both; either way it is incredibly dark and depressing, constantly. Viggo Mortensen is the determined father, who, in narration, confides to us that he is aware that he is close to death, and is being very particular about the legacy he leaves for his pre-teen son. Many of the remaining survivors have given into cannibalism, and so the father-son is aware that they cannot trust anyone except themselves (this leads to several tense encounters with seemingly benign strangers). My favorite stretch of the film involves flashbacks to before, and during, the world-ending catastrophe, with Viggo and the boy's mother (Charlize Theron) going from a happily married couple to a pair of nearly-insane, desperate parents; Theron's performance in this brief section ranks among the best work I've ever seen from her, and easily makes the biggest impression of the supporting characters (although Robert Duvall's appearance warrants mention). The subject matter lends itself well to the dark, apocalyptic imagery, which is more Fallout 3 than I Am Legend in its wastelands and burnt, grey and brown landscapes. John Hillcoat uses the same nihilistic tone (and composers, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis) that fueled his masterpiece, The Proposition, and it helps to achieve a sort of melancholy that few filmmakers can successfully maintain for the duration of a picture. In the end, the whole thing does not amount to much; because the film opts not to go the I Am Legend rote by throwing in third-act twists, and gratefully so, the narrative just sort of sputters out without any real finality. But as a portrait of a post-apocalyptic landscape and the loss of humanity that comes with it, it is slightly more successful than I Am Legend, but has more of its own unique identity.

Recommended for fans of post-apocalyptic goodies like Mad Max or A Boy and his Dog or Viggo, who turns in typically professional work. This did not blow me off my candy ass the way The Proposition did, but I do not expect Mr. Hillcoat to find a more riveting story for his signature slow-burn than that film had in the near future.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Despicable Me (2010)

Fun, well-crafted animated film about a supervillain named Gru whose plans of stealing the moon from its orbit are sidetracked by 3 surrogate children he adopts. Regardless of the cutsey throughline, the film does not betray its villain-centric premise; most of the adult characters in the film are nefarious in some way, and that helps create the world where this film exists in. I was surprised to see Universal's logo before the film, rather than a Dreamworks or Disney, but their signature touch is evident in the distinct, insular production and character design of the film; these characters could only exist in the world the filmmakers have designed for them. The voice work is also very indicative of a desire to deviate from convention; filled with celebrity names, the only ones that are readily obvious (besides Steve Carrell) are Danny McBride and Jack McBrayer, and their roles are so background (and well-designed) that the recognition does not distract from the story. While all the voice actors are fairly note-perfect (with special mention going to Julie Andrews, Jason Segel, and Russell Brand), it is Steve Carrell that holds this movie down. While creating a thoroughly original and distinctive character design for Gru, the animators made the brilliant decision to give Gru Carrell-esque eyes and eyebrows, allowing Carrell to subtly sneak in his patented form of awkward humor at every given opportunity. Hearing him in such a radically different role from Michael Scott while still recognizing (and, repeatedly, appreciating) his signature style was one of the real pleasures of the film.

Recommended for fans of Steve Carrell and family films with a looser, more interesting vibe; this primarily French-animated film is way more Land of the Lost than Toy Story 3. There is a moment toward the end involving Gru and the moon that is almost as moving, in its own way, as the notorious furnace scene in Toy Story, and all the more rewarding because it is an animated moment reveling in the happiness of the villain; not as common as one would hope.

Monday, July 5, 2010

On The Beach (1959)

Dark, thoughtful Stanley Kramer classic about a community of survivors living out their last days in Australia after the Cold War has escalated to the point of irradiating the rest of the planet. The message here is written on its sleeve; there are many scenes of long monologuing about how inevitable the planet's nuclear devastation was and how it was in our nature, and blah blah blah, but it's actually all written very effectively. The characters in the film are thin, but archtypal; of the four leads, Gregory Peck, Fred Astaire, Eva Gardner, and Anthony Perkins, Astaire and Perkins make the most sympathetic impressions while Peck and Gardner's romance is more interesting than either of their separate performances. There is a lot of submarine work in the film, due to Peck and Perkins' characters Navy ranking, and it looks fantastic and legitimate; a long sequence where the sub looks for survivors and/or methods of dispersing the global radiation proves to cause tension even when the planet seems globally doomed from the start. The gloom over the whole thing proves to be the defining factor of the film; in an era, clearly represented by Peck and Gardner's presence as leads, where films were basically legally obligated to be cheerful, this film has a one-two punch of having an unbeatable foe (nuclear radiation brought on by winds) and very uncompromising personal struggles. The last shots of the film are incredibly haunting and provocative.

Highly Recommended for fans of Sci-Fi with a more realistic, down to earth vibe a la Children of Men, which this film shares similarities to. Of the three Stanley Kramer films I've seen (so far), two of them have been very powerful social, moral tales; of the two, this is the lesser film (Judgement at Nuremberg being the other, superior film), but still wholly successful at conveying its message in a thoughtful, dramatic manner.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

State of Grace (1990)

Okay, derivative crime drama about an Irish mob syndicate with a top notch cast, but not much else. Sean Penn is the lead, and HE'S A COP, if you don't figure it out right away; the film's masterstroke is not to reveal his real job until a third into the film, but the director and Mr. Penn make sure you don't have the slightest shadow of a doubt that this cat is completely full of shit and has ulterior motives on his mind, like, say, busting his criminal friends who haven't seen him in 10 years. Some of these friends include Gary Oldman, who evokes Deniro in Mean Streets and turns in easily the most interesting work in the film, John C. Reilly, as a younger version of the John C. Reilly character, and Ed Harris, now the boss, also quite obviously not what everyone thinks he is. Robin Wright is here, not yet Penned, and she sucks as much dick as she sucks in everything else, from Forrest Gump to What Just Happened. She's bland sauce, and her and her lame-o husband definitely share credit with the director for sinking this film like a stone. His "intensity," a.k.a. his macho angst that reminds people, but does not evoke, Brando, gives his character no relatability in relation to the real criminals onscreen. His romance with his real life wife, obviously included to get the audience on his side, is just boring, tepid, pointless, and derivative; blue lit bedroom scenes of Penn confessing his street wounds abound. I was getting anxious watching the opening credits for this film, which has a lot of talent on both sides of the camera; now I know why this isn't a bigger deal in the history books.

Skip it. No point in watching this boring, mediocre trash, even with Gary Oldman doing his sweaty, raving Leon schtick. John Turturro's in this movie; it's so bad, he's not even worth mentioning as a saving grace. I just remembered that he was in it, and figured it should be noted.