Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Blood Simple

I Saw the Devil [****]

I don't know why but the casting of two of Korea's premiere villainous actors Lee Byung-Hun and Choi Min-Sik as the respective hero and villain of Kim Ji-Woon's I Saw the Devil strikes me as utterly genius. I think it's rare for a movie to have a hero so dangerous you feel sorry for the villain, but that's exactly the case with I Saw the Devil. Don't misunderstand me, though, the villain doesn't deserve sympathy but I don't want to be on the wrong side of the line when Lee Byung-Hun's Korean Intelligence Officer with revenge on his mind is my number one adversary. Having prior experience with Lee's brand of villainy makes it easier to cut through the formalities of having the hero realize that operating outside of the law is the swiftest road to justice. All of our experience with movies tell us that's what he'll do, but all our experiences with him as an actor tell us that the bad guy(s) is(are) going to regret it.

The villain of the piece, however, is Choi Min-Sik and if ever there was a force capable of absorbing all that Byung-Hun can dish out it's him. Min-Sik has experience as a hero in Park Chan Wook's Old Boy but his hangdog, weather beaten face suggests a man who has spent his life falling short, being bad and getting back up to do it all over again. For all of his masochistic tendencies, we wonder how it is that Min-Sik can keep going. For ninety minutes of the film's one-hundred forty-five minute running time, Byung-Hun mercilessly engages Min-Sik in brutal fights and cat and mouse games and each time he emerges the victor. Min-Sik has endured more brutality than we believed to be humanly possible, but between each fight he brutalizes an innocent and seems to be completely rejuvenated. It is the chief reason that for as impossibly outmatched as Min-sik is he can't gain our sympathy even though we wonder if he'll be able to stand another punch.

When Min-Sik's character is first introduced in the film he is playing the good samaritan to a pregnant woman (we'll quickly learn the woman is the wife of our hero) who has already insisted that help is on the way. This causes her husband concern, but he figures that if he stays on the phone and comforts her it'll ease her mind and make up for the fact that he can't just skip out of work to help her. The introduction is also worth noting because Min-Sik is glimpsed only in shadows. First, we see his cold, unforgiving eyes and then his emotionless face and I'll admit that my first thought was that a mold of Min-Sik's face would make for an ideal Michael Meyers mask. Truthfully, Min-Sik's character more closely resembles the kind of character you'd end up with if Michael Meyers and Scorpio from Dirty Harry had a baby.

If Min-Sik is analogous to an unstoppable force of evil like Meyers then Lee Byung-Hun is the Wrath of God. This brings us to an interesting point. I Saw the Devil is clearly a reference to the most vile form of evil one can imagine, so why bring God into this? First, the old testament is all about vengeance. Second, if you go to enough sermons in a year you'll hear more than your fair share of talk about smiting enemies and, believe me, Byung-Hun is one of the best smiters of Ye Olde Motherfuckers that the movies have to offer. Plus, God is the Devil's opposite. I'm not treading new ground here, but I'm getting to the point that our natural inclinations towards vengeance cause us, at times, to see the Devil within ourselves more clearly than we see God.

It also works on another level because the hero and villain stand for different things but mirror each other in a lot of ways. Both have broken families; the hero's shattered by the villain obviously, but in his crusade the hero is certainly working on estranging his would be in-laws (at one point they ask him to stop, but he's not finished yet because he wants to make the guy suffer). The villain has a mother who can't stop loving and wanting to help her son, but his father thinks he's good for nothing. They both get a real charge from preying upon those that are weaker than them and in that way, Min-Sik and Byung-Hun are most alike. In their initial confrontation Min-Sik displays a level of arrogance that awakens the worst in Byung-Hun, but I would be loathe to say whether or not Byung-Hun's dogged pursuit constitutes an arrogance on his part or just righteous fury. A better question might be whether or not those two things are the same.

For all of the myriad ways that the film's title can be interpreted and how it informs the movie's content I like to imagine that the title, though never spoken in the film, is derived from the following scene: when Byung-hun confront his first suspect he chokes him with a phone cord, ties him to a chair, interrogates him then causes great trauma to his genitals. The suspect, utterly terrified, turns himself in to the police for all of his (unrelated) crimes and when they interrogate him he mumbles and the film doesn't bother to translate it. I like to imagine this guy told them that he saw the devil. But it works on a lot of levels because it's rich and layered and can encapsulate a whole mess of feelings and events. The title, for the first time in a long time, is not to be taken lightly.

I highly recommend this movie not only for it's expert cat and mouse games, but the stark, bloody poetry of the ending and the way it holds a mirror up to us so we can see the toll that revenge takes on us. Make no mistake the movie is too bold and bloody to preach, but it recognizes that we're only human.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Five Reasons you should buy Isaac Florentine's Ninja on Blu-Ray

Ninja [***]

I wrote a review for Isaac Florentine's Ninja about a year ago and it was done in a jokey, snarky, disdainful way. I liked it, but I wasn't quite being fair to it. I decided to give it a little more reverence since I bought it on Blu-Ray. The original review isn't going anywhere but I want what there is to appreciate about it to be brought to light.

1) Isaac Florentine, director of the two Undisputed sequels, numerous episodes of Power Rangers, is a fan of coherent action sequences that display the martial prowess of star Scott Adkins. It utilizes slow motion to great effect as well, there are numerous shots of Adkins doing a backflip and kicking some poor sap right on his noggin in mid-backflip. Slow motion is a tool I've noticed being employed to show people with the bulk of Adkins (and Chilean martial artist Marko Zaror) do something we might normally see a smaller martial artist do. Florentine doesn't believe in wasting the talents of his stunt team so we get clear, concise shots in every location.

2) The editing builds up the mayhem very precisely. From thirty-nine minutes on the action sequences gradually escalate from a subway train smackdown that culminates with one fighter being thrown through a window and obliterated by a train on the opposite track to a police station invasion in which a ninja cuts the power in a police station, and cuts a vicious swath through the police to get to his prey. The hero and villain even briefly find themselves on the same side as they take on the film's extraneous villains.

3) Scott Adkins shirtless in 1080p. This one is mainly for the ladies and some guys I suppose. Adkins is totally ripped, it's not a long shirtless scene but it's very Van Damme-ian in that it is as unnecessary as his splits in everything. Unlike the Undisputed sequels shirtless fighting is not the norm here, but the camera does like its star. On the flipside of the coin female lead Mika Hijii is tied up by the villain using some Japanese bondage knots if you're into that (Gyaku ebi or Reverse Shrimp Tie it looks like). She's also tied up using blue rope which denotes a serious crime.

4) The subway fight allows Mika Hijii to show off some of her fancy martial arts moves, but with a refreshing degree of plausibility. When Hijii gains the upper hand in a fight she only keeps it for about thirty seconds. Sometimes she's lucky enough to dispatch one bad guy but then another pops up to knock the wind out of her. If you're the type of viewer who prefers a woman to struggle admirably while still adhering to the general truism that women are smaller than men and their hits less powerful then Ninja has exactly what you're looking for as it doesn't get to carried away on the issue of women's competence. She's tough, but humble-able and always down for a good tying up.

5) Ninja is a comforting throwback to the action movies we spent our youth watching on HBO. It may not have the nostalgia factor of casting childhood ninja stalwart Sho Kosugi as the villain, but it does exude a competency in action scenes and a complete go-for-broke spirit without sacrificing any of the sheen of a bigger, budget film. Well, except the bad CGI during the film's rooftop fight. The villain also does a really nifty hang-glide/parachute type move that reminds me of Batman. It's awesome.

For eight dollars on Blu, Ninja is definitely worth the investment.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Harry Potter: The Beginning of the End

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 [****]

I admit it, I'm a blasphemer. I never read the Harry Potter books so my impressions may lack the necessary gravity. I like not being burdened with fan baggage and expectation. I like being surprised. I'm sure you Potters get surprised in different ways. When the results are like this I'm pretty sure we all win.

The more oppressive the atmosphere is the better I like the series. The movie drops us deep into the proverbial shit as Harry is spirited away by an army of friends-cum-impostors looking to protect him from an attack by Voldemort. The plan is to break off into groups disguised as Harry (with the exception of Mad-Eye Moody and Hagrid who go as themselves) in the hopes of splitting up and fooling Voldemort's search party of assassins, but of course they already know what's going on and Voldemort makes an unsuccessful attempt on the real Harry's life.

Harry soon decides that the risks being taken by his protectors is too much. He tries to go it alone, but Ron and Hermione aren't hearing that bullshit and decides to accompany him on wherever his journey takes him. He goes undercover in the Ministry, they destroy a horcrux, escape from a prison and other shit. It's pretty exciting and dark, slightly funny, too. The comedy is mostly just nervous titters to lift the mood a little.

I think it's really important to address the film in terms of performance. My choice might not be the most popular one in a large crowd of Pottery aficianados, but I saw it by myself so my choice was one hundred percent unanimous. Rupert Grint.

As the character with the big destiny weighing on his shoulders, Harry still comes across less developed than the others because in this film he's still young (16) and still being tracked. Everyone that he loves and cherishes has to protect him willingly and get him to safety. He's at the mercy of his destiny and if we never got the sense before that Harry has been powerlessly waiting for that defining moment in his life, we feel that pressure now as the film opens. We also feel it in the fleeting moments when he dances with Hermione. Is the dance to relieve the stress of the mission, say thanks, just to do something? It's all three but when Harry isn't making forward progress in his mission I can see how he might come across as inert.

Hermione is the unquestionably loyal friend, who gets the film's most loaded moments. She casts herself out of her family with a memory erasing spell and devotes herself to Harry's mission. She suffers having the words "mudblood" etched into her skin and suffers all manner of persecution. Hermione's always been a really lovable character who has suffered far too much for the inauspiciousness of her birth and I credit Watson with that, but here she suffers in silence. The moments are loaded, yes, but I wanted her to convey outwardly how she felt instead of being the logical Spock-type. She's not bad, but not exactly doing enough with her anguish for me.

Ron Weaselly has taken all the pent-up frustration of being the lovable goofball and in one nice moment he rails against feeling like a third-wheel in the Harry-Hermione crusade against Voldemort and gives it to Harry with both barrels. He doesn't believe that Harry understands what it is that those who love him are giving up. Ron is caught up in someone else's destiny-- he has a family to lose and he wonders, as anybody would, whether or not it's worth getting caught up in. Ron, of course, is loyal but he does the human thing and assesses the risk. He stares into the darkness and asks if the light that comes when the darkness passes will be enough. Stoicism is overrated. But Ron proves loyalty never will be.

Speaking of loyalty, my favorite most heroic house elf is back. Dobby. Or Harry Potter's Yoda. From the first moment I saw Dobby in Chamber of Secrets I was smitten. Dobby came into my life when I really needed him. It was November 2002 and just a few months earlier Yoda had become a green ball of fury in Star Wars Episode II and it was ridiculous and unbecoming. Dobby had similar giant ears and a propensity for fending off the bad guys with magical arts, but he was subtle and powerful. His English, better. What happens to him is the most wrenching moment of cinema this year. Sorry Kick Ass.

So far, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is shaping up to be everything you want the encroaching darkness and the fight of your life to be. Makes me wish I'd read the books, but allows me to appreciate the baited breath a little more. And a little differently.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Screeching fault

Unstoppable [**]

Unstoppable is the kind of movie I feel bad for not liking. The bare bones plot moves with forward momentum from frame one and the charisma of stars Denzel Washington and Chris Pine should go a long way towards making the film critic proof, but as I am wont to do I get hung up on a sequence of events so idiotic that it is probably fairly accurate and, thus, infuriating.

Be warned, here there be spoilers:

The film opens with two rail yard workers tasked with moving a thirty-nine car train from one section of track to the other, a simple enough job, but they're running a little behind. Rather than take time to connect the disconnected air brakes (that one guy said was pretty important not to overlook) they decide to move the train while leaving it in the idle position. They also have to give the train enough power that it creeps along at about ten miles an hour. In a perfect world the train would've remained in the idle position, but doesn't. When the engineer disembarks from the train to flip a switch, ghost like, the gears inside shift from idle to throttle, the engineer completely unaware of this, struts toward the switch. As the train picks up speed, one engineer races the train until he falls. Meanwhile, the guy standing the next to him, presumably unable to switch a flip or outrun the hundred pounds heavier guy, stands there and does nothing. I can only assume the fear of being sat on looms large. I don't know if it's supposed to soften the blows of their idiocy more when we realize these characters are played by Ethan Suplee of My Name is Earl and Chasing Amy fame and T.J. Miller of She's Out of My League, but I'll tell you that their incompetence is not charming if it's not a comedy.

More jaw dropping than their flat out stupidity and negligence is the idea that I'm asked to believe these guys don't know the content of the trains they're moving. I'm sure that training manuals and previous mistakes have underscored the importance of not cutting corners, but often times it still happens. I'm okay with someone choosing to do a piss poor job, but asking me to believe they remain completely ignorant of this day's thousands of pounds of explosive chemicals seems kind of insulting to me. I have a summer job that allows me to be massive amounts of lazy, but when someone tells me that we're being audited I try to bring my A-game. Explosive chemicals are A-game needing shit, too. I was pretty flummoxed by this, I can only accept laziness as the cause of this. I don't believe people would have been allowed to remain ignorant.

Spoilers pretty much end here.

Did I also mention that the guy in charge of all rail yard operations and the station master were all unaware of what was on that train? Maybe it's weird that they don't know about their cargo, but Denzel Washington's character seems to know everything about what he's hauling that day, the length of his train and everything else. I'm sure the other workers from the beginning weren't conductors or engineers, but clearly everyone on every level can make a costly mistake and they have to know that sometimes the consequences of those mistakes vary. In some ways I can sympathize with the CEOs, that the movie shows, who don't want to get screwed because of the negligence of a couple of idiots, but I also think it's their fault for keeping employees poorly apprised of shipping manifests and cargo read-outs. If this isn't the kind of thing that would normally happen, if these guys would know what was on their train then I blame the movie for resisting the temptation of giving us a human villain. It makes everyone look stupider, even if, only accidentally.

It's a shame too that this is such a persistent hang up because I think Chris Pine and Denzel Washington do some quality first-day-of-work-together bonding Yet my petty grievances are getting in the way of enjoying it. Chris Pine plays Will Colson, a kid from a well connected family whose part of the rail company's ongoing initiative to hire young turks to replace overpaid old timers. Denzel is one of the old-timers who we discover is not just a guy who loves doing the right thing, but a guy who is going to do something completely stupid and heroic because they're already going to push him out the door and he wants to exit in style. As the two of them embark on this impossible mission they bond over their marriages and Denzel tells Pine how much he likes him by saying how much he is annoyed by him. To be fair, Pine is a little cocky, but it's not hard to see that beneath that he's a guy who wants to do the right thing.

Kevin Corrigan and Rosario Dawson are not bad as a Railway Safety Inspector and the Station Master who are both incredibly quick on their toes and seem like exactly the kind of bureaucracy you want to deal with in such a dire situation. Their effectiveness stems from a reasonable level of concern and interest in the safety of people. In contrast, anyone concerned with the company's bottom line, as a result of this situation, is more prone to cook up an extravagant and stupid situational response. An effort to transport a Marine onto the runaway train ends with him being thrown through the locomotive's windshield in front of a television news chopper. It's fairly evocative of Bruce Willis' great line from Die Hard ("I'm not the one who just got butt-fucked on national television, DeWayne.") because, well, it just happened.

One of the things that Unstoppable does is filter every bad response through the prism of television news. I don't know if it was done on purpose, but it only makes the situation worse, we get to watch the trouble escalate, but a lot of times we get to watch people as they watch the situation escalate. I'm not talking about the good guys behind the scenes who aren't on the news but regular folks. Being removed from the action like that makes the story less intense, but also shows how disconnected people are from the decisions they make. Weirdly, though, it doesn't flatter the movie. Both the film's audience and the movie's audience get to see the wrong decisions play out on the news while the people actually coming up with the plan and doing it don't get seen at all or through news cameras that make them look like more idiots making bad decisions.

I guess what I'm saying in as long winded a way as possible is that the movie is more interested in screw-ups than heroics. Not even the fact that it's heroes are screw-ups, but it's interested in what people do wrong more than right. Again, I'm not talking about characters who have something to attone for but people who take unnecessary risks and/or are stupid. Even when the movie tries to take the time to explain the heroic decision by Pine and Washington it can't help but look like another misguided idea.

Perhaps it's unfair to get hung up on the actions of a guy who sets the plot in motion. Had this mistake not happened there wouldn't be a story here but this was neglect, not an accident. It's a big deal that no one actually reprimands the guy whose fault it is onscreen. Relegating his fate to a punch line in the end credits character post-script speaks poorly of the comically incompetent light the movie puts the character in and everyone else in the movie by association, except Washington and Kevin Corrigan (Corrigan deserves credit for actually making the plan Denzel proposes in the trailer a workable one).

One day I'm sure I'll get over this. You know how I get about mole hills.

Monday, November 1, 2010

All Hallow's Eve

Saw 3D [*], Paranormal Activity 2 [***]

This Halloween weekend I partook of a horrifying double feature. Last year, a short lived rivalry began between the Saw franchise and a "we didn't know it then but we do now" upstart young franchise called Paranormal Activity. The latter was the superior film last year and this year the competition yielded the same results.

After seven films the Saw franchise has finally managed to wear out its welcome, although it started to show serious fatigue with the fifth entry. Paranormal Activity, on the other hand, shows no real signs of fatigue. The scare ratio is about the same and the characters come across in equal portions of sympathetic and likable, but doubtful or sympathetic, likable and eventually terrified. If anybody seems like they're being an asshole it's not because we need a character to root against but because they think the leap people around them are making is a little ridiculous and they'd be right if it weren't so horrifyingly true.

For me the most effective aspects of Paranormal Activity have to do with the complete lack of reverence men have for the spiritual world and how this complete disregard for the things that go bump in the night seems to drive everything to a fever pitch. You can say it's about a demon looking for a soul until you're blue in the face but you still can't ignore the fact that its about man's ignorance and superiority if they think that certain handshake agreements don't exist between the worlds as well. Remember, a handshake or a promise (a word handshake) is the reason this started to begin with so of course they honor them.

All of this being said, both films are dependent on their predecessors to deepen or worsen (here's looking at you Saw 3D) the franchise's mythology. Paranormal expounds on something hinted at in the first film and while it contains some slightly redundant exposition it is ultimately comprised of new and satisfying information. Saw 3D asks us to believe in the mother of all fail safes in the form of an answer to an oft-asked question about the film(s) that no one really cares about the answer to. That being said, Saw 3D's efforts to bring the film's full circle goes so far over the rails into lunacy that it actually ends up being a little endearing. That's not to say that the film is actually good, but its wide eyed optimism and stupidity can't be ignored. Doesn't mean you have to like it.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Depth of Love

Ocean Heaven [***1/2]

Following the rather stunning one-two punch of Jackie Chan's performances in The Shinjuku Incident and The Karate Kid that proved there was more to Chan than just being an adept physical performer, Jet Li follows up his turn in The Expendables with Ocean Heaven, as the cancer stricken single father of an autistic son. Like Chan and Shinjuku, Ocean eschews his typical gifts, but allows Li to deliver a strong and nuanced character that packs a punch in its own right.

If this premise sounds like it is designed specifically to tug at your heart strings and make you cry then chances are it probably will. If you take a gander at the poster above you can see Jet Li's face, he looks like a man with a depth of patience and understanding and you can practically see his halo as he smiles through the pain of his cancer. Li doesn't disappoint, he really embodies that saintly fellow of eternal patience. I suppose it's worth noting that he looks like a dude whose ass you could kick but don't want to because his smile is so adorable.

The movie is not about cheap sentiment despite a premise with an inherent minimum handkerchief limit. It takes the time to address some real concerns that Wang has. His son, Dafu, is twenty-one and severely autistic. I'll admit that because of TV's Parenthood and the movie Adam I was expecting a high functioning Asperger's Syndrome afflictee because I, somehow, forgot for a moment that other kinds of autism existed. If only The Shield were still around to remind me of such things (because, apparently, I learn nothing from actual life experience). Without his father's guidance Dafu has no way of taking care of himself so Wang spends his free time at work calling orphanages, mental care facilities, nursing homes and schools for the disabled wondering what exactly can be done. Dafu has the burden of being both too old and too young for the state to take care of him. Dafu's apparent unteachableness is magnified in numerous situations and you begin to feel, like Wang, exhausted.

Who knew that knowing you were dying had so much politics involved?

I imagine it's tough knowing you're going to die soon without really having a clear sense, in spite of preparation, of any sort of emotional or financial straits you may leave your family in. It's probably worse for anyone to whom the concept of death may be ungraspable and I think that Jet Li and the screenwriter have given these questions due consideration and created a very honest movie about death. It's so honest I don't know whether to cry or get my affairs in order. I honestly feel like I don't have time for the former.

Honestly, as good as Jet Li is and he's good enough to be considered for a Hong Kong film award, he is eclipsed by Zhang Wen who plays Dafu. Dafu appears to never be paying attention to his father, content to let everything be done for him while he pays attention to his few obsessions: swimming, dolphins, juggling, hide and seek and a girl. In a role with very little dialogue, Wen is able to convey his feelings with a series of finger twitches and a particular way of walking. Those gestures mean he is content or evened out while any shifts into anger can still be portrayed with screaming or crying jags. Wen never displays any sense of an actor playing a part, he lives and breathes the character and gives the character a sense of understanding we might not have thought possible. I don't mean to sound like those with certain severe forms of autism are incapable of higher thought, but until the film's final twenty minutes I didn't know if he'd ever understand the gravity of his situation. He seems to have gotten it, though. And not only gotten it but understood the magnitude all along. I like to think that Dafu's initial refusal to listen was an attempt to hold on to his father because if he doesn't understand then who will take care of him? You can't take him away, right? It wouldn't be fair.

The best thing about Ocean Heaven is that it never stops exploring or probing its deeper questions. The movie could've milked you for tears or taken you on a bullshit series of misadventures, but the movie isn't eager to throw caution to the wind. It addresses questions of legacy when it isn't dealing with the red tape of dying on a time table. The rare moments in the film when Dafu and Wang find themselves separated allows us to see the unconscious influence they've exerted over each other all these years. Wang stands in his son's favorite hiding place one night as if he expects, like Dafu does, that the other will materialize out of thin air. My favorite, of course, is the triumph represented by the moment when Dafu finally moves his stuffed dog from atop the television without having to be told.

Ocean Heaven is a simple story told with remarkable care and precision. It's not just about what it means to be a parent or a son, but about what we carry with us when one leg of the journey is over and the next one begins.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Mass. affection

The Town [****]

There are two Ben Afflecks on display in The Town, one is the poised visual stylist who in the space of two films manages to stand shoulder to shoulder with some of cinema's heavyweights. The other is the actor whose own rise and potential fall is echoed in that of his character, former hockey player and bank robbery mastermind Doug MacRay. MacRay like Affleck was raised in a single parent home, like Affleck enjoyed notoriety (Affleck as a screenwriter and actor, once upon a time, MacRay as a hockey player who blew two chances and now leads the fated life of a Townie-- a born and bred criminal) and through the love of a good woman and divine providence comes to a point where redemption seems the next obvious step. Affleck is enjoying his second life as an actor and receiving well deserved praise for his proficiency with a camera. He has also settled into the role of family man with a wife and two daughters, but both Affleck and his fictional counterpart play their roles with a tentativeness. As men who have had it all before and know what it's like to lose it all.

In many ways the ease with which Affleck has settled into being a director, a legitimately great one at that, has a way of calling attention to itself. If we can evoke comparisons to Michael Mann (The Town is Heat in Boston, after all) from a narrative standpoint and in the crisp, concise way he shoots action, for those reasons we can also draw upon Sam Peckinpah too. Martin Scorsese and Clint Eastwood for how quickly he established himself as a force to be reckoned with then we must acknowledge a debt to everything that has come before. Affleck the director can shoulder that burden, but Affleck the actor turns the film into a naked, emotional plea from an artist.

Most of The Town is spent with Affleck's character getting to know the woman he and his crew kidnapped during a bank robbery. She didn't see their faces, but knows one small detail that can send them all down the river. So post kidnapping he befriends her to assess the risk (which is fairly big as evidenced by the above sentence) and begins to fall in love with her. During one of their dates he cracks a joke about how all of his TV watching gives him insight into the mechanics of crime fighting. It's not the joke that matters so much that it's the first time Affleck has cracked a joke on film in seven years. His old charm and charisma begin to shine through, but it's self conscious, a tentative baby step towards the easygoing, confident Affleck of yore. The man is probably more loved now than he's ever been but now that you see his face it's probably easier to hold him accountable for the sins of the past so you don't let the smile linger too long, you remember that it's all a house of cards.

You might be wondering, how does his tentativeness translate into a plea? Well it's the first time he's joked on film in seven years and it's on a date. Saying the wrong thing could send everything crashing down, but he can't unsay it. It's out there to be accepted or rejected. The film's final image also offers up Doug MacRay as a character on the cusp of redemption. Affleck the director has a way with actors (including himself) and in the coda of his film he makes peace with who he was, but knows that what his audience thinks of him matters so he leaves it to his audience to unify the two halves.

But the part of Affleck that is liked and respected continues to flourish. Ben Affleck elicits flawless performances from everyone in his ensemble. Jon Hamm, Jeremy Renner, Affleck and Rebecca Hall are all expectedly terrific. I also like the return of working class grit embodied by Slaine Jenkins as getaway driver Albert Maglone and Titus Welliver as a Charlestown bred FBI agent. His action scenes as previously stated are terrific. Crisp, concise, intelligible. Jeremy Renner's last stand with the police is evocative of Steve McQueen's shootout with the police in Sam Peckinpah's The Getaway. He's not anywhere near as stoic as McQueen or calculating but he goes for broke in a fairly hopeless situation and it's a thrilling sight.

When you get right down to it, The Town, more than being an exceptional acting showcase or action picture stripped down to it's bare essentials is a love letter. Ben Affleck has a way of framing his fair city in a way that gives it character, but also as the place that defines him as a performer and an individual.

If every city is drowning and all of it's inhabitants are just waiting to be saved Affleck is the benevolent God who will do so. Consider scenes from both of his directorial efforts: in "Gone Baby Gone" hero Patrick Kenzie has reunited a young girl with her drug addled mother and an uncertain future. By the letter of the law he has done the right thing and by the burden of Catholic guilt he has done the thing that lets him sleep at night. In his heart of hearts is it the right thing? Probably not, but it's an acceptable risk. Another hero is willing to make the same trade off with a similarly lifestyled mother in The Town and it speaks to Affleck's unconditional acceptance of the denizens of Boston and their myriad flaws.

One of the most haunting images in The Town is an establishing shot of the prison that houses Doug MacRay's father. It's desolate, lonely and cold reminding us that we live in a city of ghosts, but that ghosts are the sum of our experience. That being said the coda of The Town offers us the chance to reconcile with the ghosts of our past and anyone who hasn't taken the opportunity to forgive Affleck the sins of 2003 would do well to offer him the grace he affords his characters.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Something Something Button Mash

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World [*]

I have to admit upfront that the previews for Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World does pretty close to nothing for me. Michael Cera despite his infinite sameness can be charming, Edgar Wright because of his ability to understand our base, simple desires and affections and validate them with excellent motion pictures and a few actors gamely hamming it up could've/should've been the wild cards that make this film better than it looks. It doesn't work. Edgar Wright brings nothing short of his usual visual coherence and crisp editing to the film, but aside from one genuinely satisfying, pulse quickening sequence Wright is powerless despite what he brings to the table.

This might be the first Edgar Wright film to feel paced exactly like an evening with Michael Cera. It doesn't really move so much as mope, the narrative never gains any moment even as the stakes grow and the climax approaches. The film remains so evenly keeled and unenthusiastic. Speaking of which, a bored looking Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays pink haired Ramona Flowers. Scott's unrequited crush/ love interest/ Amazon delivery girl that literally travels through Scott's empty headspace that motivates him. Sure he'll fight for Ramona, but he'll also string along an immensely sweet and more likable seventeen year old girl with whom he is in a sexless non-relationship. But Scott only fights to be with Ramona (read: in Ramona), his struggles don't actually include any self improvement, at least, not in the way the film leads you to believe there will be.

So then comes a series of less than exciting battles against exes that employs the usual video game tropes of sixty-four hit combos, extra lives and people exploding into coins. Although to be fair, the one truly inspired set-piece involves Scott being "controlled" (gotta love the wordplay) by Ramona when he expresses his reluctance to fight her ex-girlfriend because, well, he doesn't hit girls. It's the only moment in which Scott displays a genuine awareness and concern for anyone not himself. I'm also a sucker for the other person as weapon and an inversion of the chivalrous idea of a man not hitting a woman and child (at the insistence of another woman of course).

The arched eyebrows and over enunciation of Chris Evans as action star Lucas Lee culminate in the movie's biggest missed opportunity and anti-climax (he rail grinds to his own doom) while Brandon Routh's super powered Vegan sub-plot offers up a delightful pair of cameos, but all inspiration remains but a blip on the map of Scott Pilgrim's world.

I've begun to consider the possibility, as I write this review, that the Scott Pilgrim source material is not meant to be affectionate in any way, I don't know how or why you pick video game loving, garage band hipster geeks as your target of derision(comic book lovers and film lovers, too, if we're considering all mediums the story is presented in). According to the IMDb page it is sometimes referred to as Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life which I have to take as derogatory. It says to me poor Scott Pilgrim, sharing a house and bed with his gay roomie, has a seventeen-year-old girl fawning all over him, is in a band called "Sex Bob-Omb" (also deeply sarcastic) and no means of visible income or support, man life is rough for this poor sap. I think the reason Scott's sister is always yelling at him is because he's a bum that life always seems to work out for and he's only motivated to fight for someone's vagina meanwhile she's ALWAYS working. I also think after the excellence of Up In The Air, Anna Kendrick is not so secretly frustrated with going back to being that one girl with a small part in a bad movie played by a one note actor.

I also can't help but wonder if Edgar Wright's participation is some sort of a warning that he's done with the clever/affectionate geek out shit. I know he has respect for genre films, video games (as evidenced by his UK series Spaced) and comic books and that he approached the film with the utmost professionalism, but it has also been eleven years since Spaced and from what I can tell everybody in all of Wright's other work may have had arrested development and simple pleasures but they were adults with jobs who tried so they deserved a little bit of a fantastical respite when life got too much for them to bear. Scott Pilgrim is five years out of high school, unemployed and sees life through the prism of a video game which puts him well within the realm of needing to grow the hell up.

As someone who is probably in the minority in disliking this film I'd like to point out something to its champions: the film's Universal logo is down in the 8-bit graphic style smacking anybody with an affection for video games square in the nostalgia bone. But I believe it betrays the integrity of that love by having Scott initially lose to the final boss and before activiating his extra life for a do-over all of Scott's mistakes are explicitly spelled out and he is told what lessons he needs to learn. Part of the sense of accomplishment, appeal and fun of those games was the earned ending. We made our own mistakes, figured them out for ourselves and corrected them. What happens to Scott Pilgrim is tantamount to having a cheat code for life and, maybe even, the simplest and most undemanding existence of all.

What I'm saying in the most explicit way possible is that you have all been mocked. Anybody who has dared to take an interest in the story no matter the medium has been mocked. If you don't believe you're being made fun of then understand that you are at least encouraging the most dishonest movie of the year to spread more poison.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Cutting Kind

Machete [***1/2]

Robert Rodriguez's Machete comes dangerously close to being the first wholly successful competitor in the recent throwback sweepstakes that has beset cinema since mid-August. First, Stallone took the can't lose premise and casting of The Expendables and made a mediocre disjointed mess. Next, Alexandre Aja's Piranha 3-D saddled us with its most boring characters for the biggest chunk of its running time then almost made up for it with a full-on blood bath and great Christopher Lloyd appearances. Sure there were boobs (and good ones), but that doesn't make up for the wealth of Jerry O'Connell the movie gives us. Then along comes Robert Rodriguez's finally feature-length Machete. The first theatrical trailer didn't quite have the trash appeal of the original, but I was hoping for the best and largely it delivers.

The plot such as it is concerns Danny Trejo as the titular ex-Federale betrayed by his boss and displaced to America after a drug lord murders his wife. He becomes the patsy of a conservative senator's advisor (Jeff Fahey) in an attempt to assassinate said senator so that his chances at election rise exponentially and his border closing initiative can begin. The initiative stands to greatly benefit the aforementioned drug lord (Steven Seagal) and this betrayal greatly benefits Machete because it puts everybody who needs Machete's blade up their ass right in his path.

Machete ends up becoming allied with an ICE agent (Jessica Alba) and a mysterious woman named She (like Che (Michelle Rodriguez)) to help him fight his war. Machete is a big bad ass who really doesn't need help with the physical stuff but the scope of betrayal necessitates that he make friends whether he likes it or not. She runs a group called the Network that helps illegals find jobs, feeds them when they have no work and helps them escape from hitmen in a crowded hospital.

Danny Trejo has been around since the days of Desperado and with his first starring role it's nice to see that Trejo really has talent and charisma rather than just a look that Rodriguez finds gives his films character. He's a really authentic part of the Rodriguez verse, he's got pretty good deadpan comic timing and when he says the classic "you just fucked with the wrong Mexican" line you believe it. The guy's wife was killed right in front of him, bosses, beautiful ladies and politicians betray him and now he's used somebody's guts as a rope. I'd say the entire ordeal is starting to wear on him. He's also pretty good with machetes, blows people's brains out with relative ease too. He's pretty much who I want Antonio Banderas to grow up to be. Most of the other questionable casting actually works out pretty well. Big gambles were made on Jessica Alba and Lindsay Lohan and they actually pay off. Lohan's character is saddled with a lot of the same real life baggage she has (i.e. someone in serious need of rehab with a possibly perverted father and skanky mother) and while I won't say it makes her performance raw or honest I think it made it easier for her to come to work prepared. Jessica Alba might be too pretty to be plausible but ever since she got her face pummeled in by Casey Affleck I'm more willing to give her and her work a chance. I think one of these days somebody is honestly going to figure out what purpose she best serves in a movie and give her the right role.

Sadly, though, Machete still performs a major misstep. As the film goes on and gains momentum it isn't simply about revenge it becomes a film about the immigration issue. As Machete pursues his quest for revenge the myth of himself grows and he starts to represent the downtrodden masses caught between the worlds of their nightmares and their dreams. Machete's allies take up arms alongside him and this leads to an all-out actual war. Machete's personal revenge is given short shrift and the movie's politics take center stage. I don't have any grievances with what the film has to say on the issue of immigration. When Lindsay Lohan's character comes gunning for DeNiro's uber-conservative senator and then, upon achieving her goal, literally shoots the guns from the hand of every man fighting to help along the movie's climax I appreciated what was being said: another war isn't going to solve this problem. On the other hand, in a damning way, I think it was also being suggested that without a personal stake in the fight we should just walk away. Perhaps leaving the border fence question as an eternally debatable one is better than turning it into an avoidable tragedy.

The issue seems too big for this particular movie, not that the movie doesn't have the right to address it, but the importance of this particular discussion is too much for the movie to bear. On the one hand I look like I don't care about the larger themes of the film, but I do. I also wanted the satisfaction of a revenge film and I don't quite get that. It's a double edged sword this film.

However, if we're going to get the two promised Machete sequels I'll take him in whatever strength we get him: avenger, superman, folk hero. But whatever evolution he undergoes I hope the ending of this film serves as a reminder that every transition can only bear so much weight on its shoulders.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

To the limit

The American [***]

Control director Anton Corbijn's second picture as director, The American evokes memories of yet another picture about control, the aptly titled Limits of Control by Jim Jarmusch. Both are films that unfold at a speed roughly the pace of a Sunday drive (that probably sounds like a negative when phrased in such a way, but it is actually a pretty high compliment), both films feature a leading man whose expressionless face could bore holes through stone, they love espresso and often find themselves in the company of a beautiful naked woman (although only the hero of Jarmusch's film has the capacity to resist urges of any kind). What makes both films smashing successes is the way the hero is often left alone with his own thoughts. As a hitman how often do you contemplate, in your loneliness, your own death? Do you ever wonder if the only other guy who knows where you are is conspiring against you? That's how a movie in which nothing much happens is able to pull you in. It gives you time to think about the aforementioned questions, but also given the right actor you can see past the stone-pokerfacedness and watch those introspective gears turn. It's a way of knowing that we're asking ourselves the right question as an audience.

Admittedly, The American is a fairly typical George Clooney role. An equal in tone and pacing to Michael Clayton in which his character, a consummate and unflappable bad ass in his chosen profession, who comes to the late in the game realization that he's been working for the wrong side all along. And if he has always known that fact, and let's assume that he is smart enough to be aware of this, the movie is usually about the final job in a line of work that threatens to destroy his soul entirely.

Clooney has always had an understated world weariness to him and he uses it to great effect here as he typically does. I like best the smaller moments that let us see the constantly engaged hitman's brain in action. When visiting a local mechanic he quickly scans the shed for the parts he'll need to build a sound suppressor for a rifle. It's a deftly edited sequence that shows a man quick on his feet, a contrast to the slightly frazzled trigger man we see in the film's opening. Editing aside, Clooney brings a keen sense of awareness to the proceedings. He's constantly calling his boss and delaying the job because he's starting to grapple, perhaps for the first time ever, with an inability to detach himself from his work. If his work is to be in Italy he will, of course, fall in love with someone. He also becomes friends with a priest, both are ways of passively and aggressively searching for an avenue out of his life of crime.

The American is not a typically breathlessly paced Hollywood thriller but a slow burner that examines the consequences of a certain kind of life with a certain amount of speed and care. It is also another worthy addition to the typical George Clooney character pantheon.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Patriot Act(ion)

Yuen Woo-Ping's True Legend is a certifiably grand entertainment that traffics in ridiculously over-the-top fights, unrequited love and hate, vengeance and patriotism. In short, it's everything I've come to expect from every martial arts movie I've seen since Donnie Yen's phenomenal starring vehicleIp Man. Vincent Zhao essays the lead role of Su, a fearless warrior who wants to settle into family life and teach wushu, so he refuses a promotion. This means good things for two colleagues, Ma and Yuan, but Yuan resents Su for always being given the things he turns down. Yuan's jealousy comes to a head when he loses the woman he loves to Su. He murders their adoptive father and, using the five venom fist, vanquishes Su into what should be a lonely, watery grave.

However, the woman he did this for forsakes her child and plunges in after Su. This really angers Yuan who has to put up with Su's little brat in the hopes that the kid's mother will one day come to reclaim him. Maybe in the meantime he can come up with a better plan to woo Mommy or, assuming they didn't have such things at the time, invent a foundation that will make him look not so deathly gray.

At this point, I should comment on a couple of the film's really nifty touches: the villain has a super lightweight armor fused to his skin and his deathly gray pallor comes from the poisons injected in him by various scorpions and spiders. He sticks his hands into a box full of them, much like Tong Po did with glass in Kickboxer or Charlie Sheen did with caramel and gummy bears in Hot Shots Part Deux! The second things is that when Su begins rehabilitating his hair is grown long and he's punching a tree to build up his strength. The heart warms at this unexpected homage to Hard to Kill and why shouldn't it? Because if there's one thing Su proves by the end of his crazy journey it's that he's hard to kill.

Another point of Su's rehab is his training with the Old Sage (Gordon Liu) and the God of Wushu (Jay Chou). The sage cackles maniacally and strokes his long white beard while the God of Wushu handily deflects Su's every strike and knocks him from countless precipices. The "training sequence" and a showdown with another drunken boxer compromise the two worst sequences of the film. The training is full of horrendous computer generated images of mountains that make the film look like a sub Monkey King adventure film. The sequence with the other drunken boxer isn't too bad, but it's marred by what looks like breakdancing moves and a desire to speed the competitors up via CG so that it looks like they're trying to drill holes into the floor. They're pretty ugly mistakes in a film that doesn't make many at all.

Besides the above mentioned sequences the fights in the film are pretty exceptional. The first being Su's showdown with Venom Fist Master, Yuan, which is the kind of righteously angry battle you should expect from a guy whose come to claim his wife and son from his most mortal enemy. There's a particularly impressive sequence in a snake pit where both men make exceptional use of the confined space, doing the splits to hold themselves in place while just wailing on each other or shimmying past each other to avoid attacking snakes. A real person couldn't get that much mileage out of confined spaces, but it seems like a surprisingly normal and plausible person in a confined space type of fight for a wuxia movie.

The film has a third act that's entirely different from what I expected. Su's showdown with Yuan happens with about forty minutes left in the film and when it's over there's a whole other direction for the film's last half hour. It moves in a cycle of Fall, Revenge, Redemption and Redemption is inarguably the most crowd pleasing-est part.

Haunted by the failure to save his wife Su is a raging drunk and a beggar. In one scene his son barters to buy a sweet potato and when he goes to split it with his father (they don't show what I'm about to tell you in its entirety) it seems like the guy eats the whole potato when his kid's back is turned. But he receives charity from Ma, one of his fortunate buddies from the beginning, who is the head of the Wushu federation. Su decides to pay Ma back by defending the country's honor in a free for all against fighters of other disciplines. But Ma failed to defend his country's honor first, so it's more like he's getting a redemptive revenge to make up for not saving his wife, which is slightly less honorable, but not much because the stakes are higher than they were previously. Su fights a trio of wrestlers played by mammoth seven footers. The mammoth seven footers angle is typical of films like Jet Li's Fearless in that they are non-Asian, but that isn't always the case. However, the specimen in films meant to please the crowd is always ostensibly physically superior. With the exception of Ip Man it's hard to know for sure if the hero will survive if their opponent is non-Asian. I guess you can gauge whether it is truly the country's honor at stake or personal honor to determine the hero surviving, but this is usually a metaphor for national Chinese honor all the same.*

The finale is brutal, with wrestling moves like tombstones and power bombs contributing to the requisite head trauma induced by a small guy being attached to wires and doing impossible things to impossibly big guys who beat him impossibly bad before realizing his spirit and body cannot be broken. It's a tense fight because people fighting for their country's honor in exhibition matches tend to receive Apollo Creed inRocky IV levels of brokenness. And the film's final fight gloriously milks that tension and patriotism. The tension is also sold by the bond Su shares with his on-screen son who shows a genuine concern for his father and can cry like nobody's business. The scene where he declares that he won't leave his father despite it being his best option is genuinely touching. He was pretty much abandoned by one parent once before and his other parent is a mess because of what happened to the other parent. This kid knows his parents love each other and him, but he openly and directly suffers as a result of it twice. But he is wonderful and selfless about it. It gives the excitement of the fights an extra layer of emotional resonance.

Despite an unfortunate act two setback, True Legend is thrilling and appropriately warmhearted with only a couple of regrettable details to be found. On that note, I'll leave you with a final detail to ponder. On the set of Kill Bill it was rumored that David Carradine and Woo-Ping were not big fans of one another. I don't know if that's true or if they share a stubborn old martial artists animosity that results in the occasional blow up that seems like a big deal to everyone but them, but Woo-Ping has dedicated this film to Carradine's memory and cast him as an unabashedly cartoonish asshole of a villain who dopes up his wrestlers to ensure the destruction of the "Chinaman." Is this a fun tribute to your a-hole buddy or a final middle finger? I don't know. But I like it.

Note: Objections to my use of the phrase Chinese honor are expected. Sometimes I also say things like "not rape, but date rape." It's not a distinction I make for any reason other than it was an accident and I said it in later conversations almost reflexively. It is, however, a hilarious language gaffe.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Three And Out

Brooklyn's Finest [***1/2]

Brooklyn's Finest tells three different stories involving a police officer at a cross roads: First, we have Sal (Ethan Hawke) a morally compromised cop who may or may not have been a bad guy before his wife's sickness and ever expanding family caused the sudden need to move to a bigger place. A need that can only be met with cold, hard (and ultimately dirty) cash. Next is Doogan (Richard Gere), a hair's breadth away from retirement who wakes every morning and puts an unloaded gun in his mouth and squeezes the trigger. Doogan is reluctantly assigned as a training officer his final week on the job and we see that his style of policing (for the most part) matches his one foot out the door approach to life. Finally, we have Tango (Don Cheadle) an undercover detective working as a drug kingpin in a particularly violent Brooklyn apartment complex. He's close to getting the desk job that he always wanted, but his last assignment requires betraying his only real friend in the life, Casanova Philips (Wesley Snipes), who saved his life during his job related stint in prison. The three stories never really connect on a deeper level, characters cameo in each other's stories in mostly superficial ways, but they all end up in the same crime ridden apartment complex on a fateful night and pretty much remain strangers.

Director Antoine Fuqua is no stranger to stories of police corruption, he and Hawke navigated similar terrain in 2001's Training Day, where Hawke's character only dabbled in ways of villainy. Here Hawke is a full-on bad guy with a badge, not necessarily a bad man in general, but in close proximity to drug money he is the worst morally compromised sort. He's got a pregnant, sick wife, the doctor keeps telling him to move out of his mold infested house and just when you think you've met his entire brood there comes another child. Six including the twins his wife is carrying. No wonder Sal is seen in a church not asking for forgiveness, but chastising God for his dire straits and asking for help. If your God won't let you have birth control maybe he owes it to you to help get a bigger house.

Ethan Hawke is always good at playing The Guy with a Choice, sometimes like in Daybreakers there's a clear right way to go and there's no moralizing to it while in other film's he's just a born criminal (Before The Devil Knows You're Dead, What Doesn't Kill You), but Brooklyn's Finest gives Hawke the fertile middle ground that allows him to justifiably seethe with righteous anger and kick himself for saving a friend instead of taking the money and running.

I've always liked the films of Antoine Fuqua they're swift and entertaining and occasionally they deliver larger than life characters, but until this film there hasn't actually been a legitimately great dramatic moment in any of his previous works. Gere's Doogan lives a burnout's life. Other younger cops harass him and call him a coward, his only friends are apparently fish and the prostitute he visits on a weekly basis. Doogan's proposition to the prostitute to run away with him (wherein he serenades her with "Sea of Love") is a sweet emotionally naked moment for Doogan and it really backfires on him. Or does it? He makes the proposal to her because she buys him a watch as a retirement present, she rejects him and it's sad. Maybe he even contemplates killing himself, but he bought his fishing gear already. He knows he's a born loner, but maybe he needs to see if he has a chance of retiring with someone at his side. So he tried it, and the thought of suicide that he entertains every morning, is faux suicide. Doogan's way of saying, it could be worse, now let's get going. It's like having back pain and taking twelve Aleve in the morning just to get up. You're old, you're broken but you're not dead.

Until this third viewing I never realized that Doogan could just be being overdramatic at being a man defeated by life. He's done with the job, sure, but his last week is also threatening to get pretty interesting and he doesn't want that either. He's so uninterested in accolades or work that he refuses to fabricate a story that could save a rookie's career and earn him a citation, but more importantly he's ready to go home.

It's nice to see, if also brutal and horrifying, that before he can walk into the sunset Doogan has to go renegade to save a missing girl. The sense of purpose infused within Doogan in the film's final moments is a lot like reading George Pelecanos' novel "The Night Gardener" without the bitter irony of what happened to the ex-cop in that book. In general, I think Brooklyn's Finest is capable of doling out humanity and irony and valiant violence in a way that is evocative of Pelecanos.

Don Cheadle and Ethan Hawke's stories come the closest to fully intersecting, but the character played by Cheadle is never mentioned by Hawke even though it is his lackeys that Hawke and other cops are constantly busting and/or murdering. Cheadle's character struggles with the idea of whether or not to descend fully into his street persona and he confides this much in his boss (Will Patton), but what keeps him from doing exactly that is his loyalty to Philips' moreso than the job. He doesn't have anything to prove to fellow gangster Red (Michael K. Williams) by not wanting to beat a snitch to death, but any indulgence of his undercover persona makes Philip's harder to help out and it's Tango's desire to have it both ways that fuels the story. I like the chemistry between Cheadle and Snipes, a roof top scene between the two is similarly evocative of the final scene between Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale. Men on top of an empire, the betrayal of one, by another, inevitable. You get a sense of their history in the way they interact with each other and talk about their hopes and dreams and even plan a final score. Had it gone that far, the scene of confession between Cheadle and Snipes probably would've been heartbreaking.

What the film does give us, introspection from another action stalwart of a bygone era, is pretty good stuff. This might be the last time a movie allows Wesley Snipes to be this good. I'd like to be wrong, though. Cheadle is really good, too, wielding the righteous anger and calling Ellen Barkin a dude. The situation is tense and the choice yet another unenviable one. Somehow this feels like the weakest section of the film, maybe because it traffics too much in familiarity from a pop culture standpoint with vets from TVs The Wire and Brotherhood but also countless other films. It's tough to say, after all, the Gere segment did elicit a Pelecanos' comparison. Maybe, and probably, it's as simple as "I can't betray him he's my friend" isn't as compelling as "I will buy my family's new house with your blood" and "all I'm trying to do is live my life unnoticed and I can't" are much more compelling dilemmas to be faced with.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Neither Vital Nor Necessary

The Expendables [**]

Of course it was too good to be true. All these stalwarts of action in one place. Stallone working once again under the Millenium Films/ Nu Image banner that brought the glorious bloodbath Rambo to the masses a couple of years ago. Everything about this film should ostensibly speak to the action lover in all of us, but it doesn't really, except, as a roster of names, a wish in one hand and a pile of shit in the other.

The Expendables such as it is, is the story of a team of freelance mercenaries led by Barney Ross (Stallone leading et al) hired by Bruce Willis to take down the General (David Zayas) who overthrew the government of a fictitious Latin American country. A lengthy bit of surveillance and one action scene later Barney and his best buddy Lee (Jason Statham) discover that the real target is a former company man (Eric Roberts) who has teamed with the general to profit from the country's drug trade. We also learn that Barney and his men are more expendable than even the fact that Stallone has a tattoo that says 'expendable' implies.

In the action department, the film is a more miss than hit affair. Perhaps we should've known that we were going to be letdown in the first action scene. After Terry Crews' Hale Cesar blows a Somali pirate in half the film switches to night vision so the rest of the Somali pirates can be decimated in shades of pink and yellow, robbing me of the blood I have so rightly come to expect from films under this banner and from Stallone's brand of choreographed chaos. If this only happened once perhaps I could forgive it, but every action scene boasts a failing of one sort or another. Except a great car chase where Stallone and Jet Li are pursued by gunmen. It's exciting in a way that none of the one on one duals are. Perhaps the idea of having so many good fighters in one place is such a daunting task that the only sensible thing to do is to give the best tiny understated action scene to the prettiest guy in the cast, Jason Statham. Everyone from this film except Couture and Crews has been in a better action film at some point or another during their careers. I'll be fair here and say The Expendables is undoubtedly crushed by the weight of expectations, but it's not like the film only misses the mark by a little sometimes.

The one element of Stallone's pictures that remains present and accounted for since Rocky Balboa is the introspective nature of the lifelong bruiser who realizes he has one last good fight left in him. Perhaps, The Expendables lacks the finality of this realization (as evidenced by sequel talk after the film's strong opening weekend), but is certainly capable of observing finality in some way. Rourke delivers a stunning monologue about his final moments in the mercenary life while the camera zooms in on Stallone who looks haunted and saddened but for unfathomable reasons hasn't been broken yet. To be fair, if this were Stallone's monologue I think it would close the book on this character as well, but he's not ignorant to the way a certain kind of life wears on you and he feels the need to address it. So he gives moments such as this to his most seasoned heroes (Rourke, Lundgren) and they wear the moments that break them so very well. It should also be noted that David Zayas of Dexter fame plays the General and he looks so incapable of doing bad without a heavy heart that he endears in surprising ways.

I could probably say a little more about the failings of The Exepndables, how any attempt at humor falls as hard and unceremoniously as mythical figures often do, how if this film were a steak then Dolph Lundgren is the steak sauce it could use a little more of, but instead I'll take the performances of Rourke and Lundgren as an acknowledgment that sometimes when the war is over we're only left with shadows of our former selves.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Killer (Performance) Inside of Him

The Killer Inside Me [***1/2]

In reality Casey Affleck is probably as nice and charming as the day is long (recent accusations of sexual harassment not withstanding) and one of my favorite performances of his is as the titular, amiable loser Lonesome Jim, but he's more famous for roles like Patrick Kenzie in Gone Baby Gone and Robert Ford, the coward, from The Assassination of Jesse James ad nauseum. In both of those film's Affleck is compelled to draw his gun because no one takes him quite seriously enough. Compared to other cowboys and other tough talking Bostonians he's tall, lanky, polite and slight so it's easy to misjudge him. It's also dangerous. Michael Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Me is the first film of his career to effectively exploit that aspect of his screen persona.

Affleck plays Lou Ford, the polite, amiable, and closeted psychopath of a deputy sheriff to a small Texas town. In voiceover, Ford extols the virtues of being well mannered and folksy while he drives to the edge of town to encourage a suspected prostitute (Jessica Alba) to get out of town. The exchange is brief and polite up to the point where the prostitute strikes the sheriff. Repeatedly. He strikes her back, too. Delivering the same kind of "justice" Ned received in Unforgiven but only to the meat of her buttocks. Eventually, this little fracas leads to rough sex and a plot to swindle the dipshit son of the richest man in town out of ten thousand dollars.

Such plotting awakens in Lou the desire to settle old scores and as with all plotting of this nature things go horribly, horribly wrong. The reason film's like this work is not in seeing how it all goes wrong, although that certainly helps, it's in watching the man caught in the eye of the storm fray and fall apart at the seams. Casey Affleck does his fraying and falling apart with a perfect poker face. He listens, he attacks only the weakest people and only at their most vulnerable moments. Because of his position and his trustworthy face he enjoys the benefits of being a silver tongued devil. The viewer only gets to see the madness take root through use of flashback. Lou kills a girl as a teenager and his stepbrother takes the fall, his propensity for tenderizing female backside is given an origin story and his dalliances with the prostitute from the beginning also occupy a place in his mind. The flashbacks pop up a couple of times throughout the film showing that Lou's vices have taken root and festered like a virus. The dormant monster begins to consume him.

There are some other nice touches to Affleck's performance. He's a real charmer, but like I said before he's a good talker. He can make anything that comes out of his mouth sound pretty believable, so naturally he's pretty good with '50s style hard boiled dialogue like this movie has. Then again Affleck is a good everyman type so it stands to reason that he can slide into the role like a chameleon and pull it off. One of the nice little touches Affleck brings to his character is that when he assaults his two female victims he either dons gloves or takes off his dress shirt. It's either vanity regarding his hands and his clothing or it's something that you shed from yourself or burrow into to distance yourself from the crime. It's either smarm or the only sign that Ford is losing it and can't keep a safe distance from his own worst nature.

It must also be said that the entire cast of The Killer Inside Me is game, but the best moments belong to Affleck and Elias Koteas as a suspiciously well informed union man who knows the information he supplied Ford is part of the reason the son of the town's construction magnate is dead. Most everyone in town is smarter than they look, but some are burdened with a gender or an age curse that makes them blind to who Ford really is and what he's capable of, only Koteas' character has the audacity to come at him full throttle time and time again.

I suspect that The Killer Inside Me would be a really good film no matter who was in it, but with Affleck in the lead role it becomes yet another case of the difficulty in imaging that the actor can exist without the character or vice versa. Casey Affleck rises to the occasion and sears himself into our memory yet again.

Note: In regards to Casey Affleck's alleged sexual harassment I say the fact that he asked the plaintiff her age before asking her if she thought it was about time she got pregnant clearly speaks to his concern for her unfulfilled wish of being a mother. Had he simply asked her if she wanted to get pregnant without asking her age then it would be crass and unacceptable.

The Blank Identity

Salt [**]

If there's one thing the Philip Noyce directed- Angelina Jolie starring vehicle Salt can't be faulted for it's wasting time getting down to business. The film opens with Jolie being tortured (off-screen) in North Korea and her husband and some of her CIA fellows arriving in tow to spring her. Next thing you know it's a year later and Salt is preparing to celebrate her anniversary with her husband until some Russian ex-pat shows up and tells her she's a Russian spy who is supposed to assassinate the visiting Russian president at our vice president's funeral. Call it the worst anniversary ever.

Salt is essentially a feature length chase scene in which Jolie spends fifty minutes running away from the CIA proclaiming that she isn't a Russian spy whilst doing all the things a suspected Russian spy does in between bouts of pleading for her co-workers to find her husband. Then she tells the Russians that she's actually pretty fucking American (by murdering all of her handlers) and spends the next portion of the movie running towards them. To be fair they have another traitor in their midst just not Salt. Salt, it should be noted, is and always was an American but she spent some time under Russian interpolation when her parents died there and she was taken in to be trained as the perfect spy in the "mythical" KA program.

For a movie so boldly concerned with the identity and loyalties of a single spy, am I with the Russians or Americans? Did my time in a Korean prison break me in a way Dolph Lundgren from Rocky IV never could? Salt never manages to distinguish itself in any discernible way. The film was written for Tom Cruise but when he jumped ship it became a vehicle for Angelina Jolie. It's also the one film Jolie's been in that never manages to objectify or sexualize her in any way. It was admirable when I thought it was done on purpose, but less so when I discovered they'd just traded one star in for another. Perhaps you could play the "this movie needs a star" card, but really it doesn't. The charisma of Liev Schreiber and Chiwetel Ejiofor is dialed down a great deal, although in the spirit of honesty they are character actors with leading men looks who can't help being badasses, but in this film they just need to be faces. Andre Braugher's inclusion in a blink and you miss it role speaks as much to the idea that we need those who can blend in more than we need stars as the scenes in which Jolie is buried under latex so that she goes unrecognized at the start of the film's climax. What I'm trying to say is, in this case, the star makes not one iota of difference because they bring no sense of identity to the role even though they bring movie star baggage with them. This casting switcheroo effectively kills the tension and negates the crux of the film.

The action scenes in the film are not bad. I'm a sucker for a good car jump and the climax has a well staged close quarters shootout and the shaky cam doesn't take away much at all from the coherence of the action but it happens to someone we never know at all. When you're movie begs the question "Who is Salt?" Make sure the answer matters.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Royal Shit

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time [1/2*]

Prince of Persia directed by Mike Newell and costing a couple hundred million dollars threatens for a couple of minutes not to be as bad as I was expecting. To be fair it gets down to business pretty quickly, but it ebbs and flows pretty often. Exciting for about two minutes then boring for about five or so. It stretches just under two hours to the point where it feels about four hours. The film's length and the dearth of excitement are just where the problems begin.

I like swords and I like looking at Gemma Arterton, but if there's two things in this world that don't work in the same movie it's her and swords (see also: Clash of the Titans). Arterton also serves the same purpose here that she did in Titans to infuriate me with her prettiness and to be a gift bestowed on humanity by the gods. In Titans she was an immortal, here she's just been spared by the Gods to be the protector of a magical dagger that allows its holder to travel back in time. I'll expound more on the dagger thing momentarily, but I guess what I'm trying to say is if you can see Gemma Arterton in The Disappearance of Alice Creed you should. She can hold her own as an actress, she's given stuff to do and you finally have a reason to look at her that doesn't require you to sit through the interminable for a change.

Speaking of interminable, the plot of Sands of Time involves Young Dasdan (Jake Gyllenhall) being plucked from the streets as a resourceful young beggar by the king and growing up to be loved and a great warrior. Dasdan grows up to lead the attack on an ancient peaceful neighboring Persian city called Alamut (also resided over by Arterton's Tamina). Alamut is alleged to be providing weapons to enemies of Persia and are set to be overtaken by the Persians. Dasdan comes to realize after a lengthy battle, the bestowing of Tamina to his person and the subsequent assassination of his father that the reason he was sent to Alamut was for a dagger (a dagger that holds magical sand in the hourglass on its handle and allows the possessor to travel back in time thirty seconds whenever they push a button) and the ruse to get him there was a lie. Dasdan teams up with Tamina to get rid of the dagger before his power mad uncle (Ben Kingsley) can get a hold of it and change the course of his life as the less favored son. Also, Dasdan is on the run for "killing" his father (spoiler: not him). Lots of bloodless battles are fought, times is traveled back in so that our hero can erase his own surprising ineptitude (near death by snakes, girl, brother).

I'll give you a moment to pick your jaw up from the floor while you process that Dasdan has been manipulated by someone he trusts, sent on a wild goose chase for weapons that don't exist and essentially Matt Damon-ed all to hell in this movie. That's right people, Green Zone has been re-imagined as a swashbuckling summer fantasy no one will think twice about going to see. They literally didn't think twice as the film only made ninety million dollars in America.

Fear not, Prince of Persia still manages to be as bracingly irrelevant as Green Zone but with a few added bonuses: Arterton as stated before does a rehash of her Clash of the Titans schtick, there's time travel in it and Ben Kingsley as the treacherous brother. Also, none of these are good things and at least two of them are things from movies that came out earlier this year that no one gives a shit about and they've been crammed into another that no one gives a shit about. And when I say "no one" I mean me, but I'll gladly have anyone who feels the same as my company.

I'm glad that I don't have a family I'd have had to take to see this piffle. Its an extravagant waste of money that's safe, bloodless, boobless and almost certainly a predator that stalks your family for easy prey with its attendant Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer logos. I'm saying that families looking to be entertained are an infinitely stupider unit than the individual looking to be entertained and as such Bruckheimer and Disney continue the trend of forsaking them every step of the way. Perhaps, I'm just so mad because no one else will be and they should. You paid to see specific elements of it at least once this year and now you're just paying to be insulted and duped.

As they say in the soaps, like sands through the hourglass, these are the wastes of our lives.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Nothing better than a lack of a clever headline

Kick Ass [****]

I find in “Stardust” director Matthew Vaughn’s frankly excellent “Kick Ass” a cinematic cousin to Jody Hill’s “Observe and Report” and not because they indulge in some pretty awesome violence that is, in at least two instances, a gut punch in its shocking-ness but also because both films exist in a world that is a little south of reality where the unhinged are not only not particularly well reigned in but that they’re the self-appointed guardians of our virtue. To be fair, the crazy dedication that Rogen and Cage display in their respective films is rooted in failure (one is too unhinged to be a cop, the other a disgraced former one) and it brings a touching vulnerability to the cracked personas that choose, and frankly it is a crazy choice, to don a costume and mete out justice with no regard for rules or the comfort of standing on the right side of the line. You might wonder if I think that all cops and good Samaritans are crazy and I don’t but there are obvious breaks in the realities of these two characters so it makes it kind of sad, kind of scary and dangerous and shocking. If you’re wondering whether I think Batman is crazy, I guess I do, but he’s also more popular and rooted in popular culture in a way that is undeniable. The folks of “Kick Ass” can, in my estimation, have the benefit of being treated like regular people despite their arsenal because one guy gets beat up a lot and when Big Daddy, Hit Girl and Kick Ass aren’t wearing their costumes they are infinitely more normal than a millionaire playboy with a death wish and advanced research and development on his side.

“Kick Ass” is on the one hand an origin story for our title character, but it begins in media res for our father-daughter duo and their paths eventually converge when Kick Ass, who is performing heroics by request via My Space, decides to take on the junkie/drug dealers harassing his love interest/fag hag (she thinks Kick Ass’ alter ego is gay and this mission is clandestine) and Hit Girl shows up to save him because he’s overzealous and undertough. Dave Lizewski/Kick Ass (Aaron Johnson) decides on a whim that he wants to be a superhero and invests in a yellow and green scuba suit, practices pithy one-liners and pulling out a pair of sticks that suggest he means business and then finally standing up for the downtrodden and beaten upon. Ass’ first foray into hero-dom is met with only a marginal degree of ass beating and a maximum degree of internet phenomenery, but his second attempt, this time against the thieves that regularly rob him and a friend ends with a knife to the gut and a nice little roll over the hood of a car. If you felt inclined to believe this would be the end of KA’s heroic jaunts no one would blame you, but the resultant steel pins and extensive surgeries make him feel tougher and more Wolverine-esque so he has a psychotic break and says “I’m doing it again.”

Big Daddy and Hit Girl (Nicolas Cage, Chloe Grace Moretz) are a father-daughter team who have made it their mission to eliminate the crime boss who wrecked Daddy’s life when he refused to join his payroll, and as I said before their interests eventually converge with Kick Ass, they’re a more deadly and experienced team. Their relationship as regular people is both touching and hilariously vulgar: she swears like a sailor and her father dotes on her, but he gets really confused when she acts her age and talks about puppies and stuff. She’s only kidding though, she probably thinks that being a girl is for fags anyway. The relationship between Hit Girl and Big Daddy is part of the reason the stakes in the film feel so high, they love each other and can function normally, but there’s a crazy and overwhelming compulsion to fight a war that already took away everything you had once before and is likely to do it again. Kick Ass also has a similar relationship to his own father and Mark Strong’s villain has a relationship with his son and they all suggest unconditional love but espouse different degrees of communication: Hit Girl and Big Daddy share everything they’re a team, the villain shields his son from what he does for most of the movie and Kick Ass’ father notices his son has blossomed out of his shell but their routine is predicated on extended silences at the dinner table followed by the occasional uber-mundane observation. That the mothers are peripheral characters in the film, when they are present at all, speaks to the idea that without a feminine guiding voice we are truly lost souls and perhaps even that the city itself is the mother that birthed us and it must be protected at all costs. I guess when one finds their self on the villainous side of the equation, we must acknowledge that the mother was ineffectual and as she abandoned us we abandon our desire to be good.

This, of course, leaves us with Hit Girl who is the film’s lone female character of import. Roger Ebert was morally outraged, in his review of Kick Ass a few weeks ago, at the site of a child murdering bad guys and also being subsequently beaten herself during the film’s final showdown. For starters, she doesn’t get beaten that bad. I just want to say that even in all seriousness there are worse acts of violence perpetrated on children in movies and on TV every day. Hit Girl also, at least, for about two thirds of the film exists on a different plane than the other characters. She’s bonding with her dad, she’s not inundated with the same trauma as he is. She’s been interpolated by him, yes, but she’s like a preternaturally gifted athlete. The carnage around her is CGI blood, she’s an awesome and amusing site. She’s played with warmth and humor and spunk. While I’m not one to shit on someone’s opinion (particularly because in a bonafide verbal confrontation they’d clean my proverbial clock,maybe even my verbal, biological and evolutionary ones too, who knows?) I am calling bullshit on Mr. Ebert here. However, there is a moment when the film begins to perform a disservice to the character.

As the third act of “Kick Ass” begins a shocking event transpires that changes Hit Girl’s relationship to the film. Gone should be the goofy soundtrack choices that tell you “look this little girl is whooping people’s asses isn’t this funny” but after giving her a seriously great take no prisoners moment set to Ennio Morricone’s theme to “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly,” argue for its overuse taking the piss out of a moment if you want to but that doesn’t negate how perfect a soundtrack choice it is (one of two in the film), it fails to treat the character with the gravity afforded Big Daddy and Kick Ass. I don’t like the movie any less for this flaw but I wish it had done right by the character in those moments.

Fittingly enough, as our flaws and damages contribute to our want and need to be a hero this slight misstep only magnifies the excellence of everything else that surrounds it. “Kick Ass” is seriously ballsy and unforgettable and I think summer is going to have to work overtime this year.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Caught: a novel by Harlan Coben

This is the story of Dan Mercer, social worker, ex-husband, godfather and friend to children everywhere, who entered a red door one night and lost everything. It is also the story of Wendy Tynes, widow, MILF and tabloid reporter whose expose on child predators may have destroyed the life of an innocent man. It is also the story of Haley McWaid, a bright, happy teen reeling from a few of life's big disappointments...and missing. In the world of Harlan Coben it's never a question of will any of these lives intersect, but how and when they do what ugly truths will be revealed when all the surfaces get stripped away. What long sought redemptions will be granted? What shattered hope will be pieced back together? The last two questions are almost always the biggest tools in Harlan Coben's kit and he tackles them always in the same predictably unpredictable framework.

Early on in the novel, we learn in quick succession, two very important facts: First, Tynes was made a widow by a drunk driver named Ariana Nasbro. Nasbro has also been writing letters to the family seeking, if not forgiveness, then a chance to clear the air. Secondly, Dan Mercer was the victim of a set-up. He has evidence to prove it and wants to meet with Tynes. For the record, Dan has already been cleared by the court of law but the court of public opinion doesn't look to kindly on Dan's alleged dalliances with underage girls captured on a To Catch A Predator style tabloid show hosted by Tynes. Nasbro's appeals to Wendy are part of the novel's recurrence of characters seeking vindication from those whose lives they've most irreparably damaged. It's also around this point of the review where the tap dancing begins because the information divulged so far doesn't begin to cover every element of the story.

Around page 60, Frank Tremont, a retired federal agent and father to one of the alleged victims of Dan Mercer, offers up a philosophical quandary and real world solution that begins and ends with the death of Dan Mercer. However, he introduces a wild card in the form of Ariana Nasbro and the redemption/forgiveness theme of the novel is brought front and center with tinges of "given the opportunity I'd kill you where you stand" rhetoric for good measure since redemption, and it never is especially in a Harlan Coben novel, isn't always such a cut and dried topic of discussion.

Within the next seventeen pages Coben will throw one of his most effective early novel haymakers. Not to say he doesn't have any doozies saved up for later, but to stagger the reader so effectively so early on is a bit of a departure from his formula. Halfway sure, ninety percent definitely, but one fifth of the way through a novel it lends it one of the most stifling airs of waiting for the other shoe to drop that has ever beset a Harlan Coben novel. In light of this departure it should be noted that this novel lacks a deranged, silent, face breaking, pressure point manipulating psychopath of any sort that have populated Coben's earlier works (unless you count Windsor Horne Lockwood III's appearance, but no mention of his martial arts prowess or psychotic tendencies are made only his haughty superiority and propensity for one night stands). Coben is all about subtle tweaks to his formula and finding effective ways to still dole out his surprises, but the omission of a psychopath seems to suggest that, in this case, all expert manipulation of the body (from feeling gutshot at a haymaker, to the small smile that creeps on your face at a joke or the prospect of closure/redemption/forgiveness) will be done by an eternal optimist and not his id (facebreaking psychos). Even still it manages to be one of the most oppressive and damning books in Coben's catalogue if only for all the indignities to his name any one character has to suffer. It also contains the second worst betrayal to any character's memory in all of Coben.

"Caught" is typical Coben, which is to say good Coben. It reveals the man to be as much a fighter as a novelist. He staggers you early with a punch and when it's well placed you feel it for a long time afterward. You survive, but you're different than you were before. Any good fight will leave you a little winded, why not a good book?