Sunday, September 30, 2007

Episode 59 - The Dead Zone

The Plot: On the way home from a date with his sweetheart Sarah (Brooke Adams), school teacher Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) is involved in a car accident which leaves him in a coma. Five years later, Johnny awakens to find that Sarah has moved on with her life and is now married and the mother of a ten month old son. That's not all that has changed in the past five years, though. Johnny discovers that he now has the unexplainable ability to see into a person's past and/or future when he comes into physical contact with them. After he uses his newfound ability to help the local police solve a long-running murder case, news shows and people in need of all manner of help begin to hound Johnny, forcing him to relocate and live in seclusion. However, after shaking hands with soon-to-be presidential candidate Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen), Johnny catches a disturbing glimpse of the future. Now he must go to drastic measures to stop what he saw in his vision from coming to pass.

The Review: I think that most people would classify The Dead Zone as a thriller, but to me it is most accurately categorized as a science fiction film. Sure, the movie is thrilling, but it relies more on the concept of Johnny Smith's unique powers than it does on the threat at hand. The event that Johnny tries to stop is merely the vessel through which the "dead zone" is explained and showcased to the viewer. As Dr. Willis McNelly said, "The true protagonist of [a science fiction] story or novel is an idea and not a person." In addition, another quote that I am rather fond of regarding science fiction and it's general purpose comes from Philip K. Dick: "If it is good [science fiction] the idea is new, it is stimulating, and, probably most important of all, it sets off a chain-reaction of ramifications in the mind of the reader; it so-to-speak unlocks the reader's mind so that that mind, like the author's, begins to create. Thus [science fiction] is creative and it inspires creativity..." I personally feel that this statement applies greatly to The Dead Zone inasmuch as through the entire film I was coming up with different ways that the plot could branch out and eventually came to the realization that the possibilities dealing with the film's premise were nearly endless. Hence, if Dick's comment is true, The Dead Zone is an example of, as he puts it, "good" science fiction.

The sci-fi/supernatural concept aside, what really makes The Dead Zone worth watching is the amazing performance by Christopher Walken. These days Walken's name is associated more closely with cow bells and wrist watches stuck up people's asses than it is with quality acting, but what many people forget is that amidst all of the humorous cameo appearances he has been making in blockbuster comedies lately are several decades worth of great dramatic character pieces. His serious performances in films such as King of New York and Catch Me If You Can are awe-inspiring, and his turn in The Dead Zone is no different. Everything from Walken's facial expressions and line deliveries to the uncomfortable silences and his character's limp are perfectly executed and manage to bring a great level of validity to what could have been a rather hard to swallow plot. He grounds all of the events in reality which allowed the (at the time) still up-and-coming director David Cronenberg to concentrate on adding his own recognizable style to the film without having to worry about losing anyone's attention. In other words, he made Cronenberg look good (not that he really needed the help).

The supporting cast is for the most part quite good. Brooke Adams, while only in a few scenes, gives the viewer the feeling that she is really broken up about what happened between her character and Walken's. Sean Sullivan and Jackie Burroughs, who played Johnny's parents, both felt as though they were overacting a bit, but were generally harmless. Herbert Lom was genuinely likable and convincing as Dr. Weizak. As his character progressed and began to show signs of becoming obsessed with and protective of Johnny and his condition, I honestly wanted to see more of him and where he was heading, but in the end he served is purpose well enough. Anthony Zerbe was interesting to watch, though his character's demeanor seemed to take a 180 degree turn at one point just to further the plot, and Tom Skerritt appears briefly as a police officer toward the beginning of the film, though he isn't given much to do, which is a shame. Finally, we have Martin Sheen as the brash senator-in-the-running Greg Stillson. Sheen's performance was fine, but what I was most amazed by was how similar his voice is to his son Charlie's. I swear that if I closed my eyes during the movie I would have pictured Charlie Sheen delivering those lines instead of his father.

All of my problems with the film, which are minor ones at best, are related to the script as opposed to the acting or direction. The beginning of the movie felt a bit rushed and ambiguous. It's almost as though the screenwriter wasn't sure how to introduce Johnny Smith's new abilities to the audience; a problem that I find odd considering that the film is based on a book by Stephen King. Having not read the book myself, I suppose there's a possibility that it's opening is equally as poorly written as that of the movie, but my bet is that this fault can be placed solely on the screenwriter's shoulders. Another slight problem that I had with The Dead Zone is that the first half of the film felt somewhat disjointed from the second half. The first fifty minutes or so revolve around the origin of Johnny's abilities and then jumps right into a murder mystery which wraps itself up much quicker than I'd expected. From that point we jump to a new location with all new supporting characters and a completely new plot and antagonist. In this way the film almost feels like two episodes of a television show combined to form a feature film, but it's not so jarring that it ruins the viewing experience. In fact, I may just be overanalyzing the film in an attempt to find some flaws.

The Verdict: I hesitate to say that The Dead Zone is a movie that anyone and everyone would enjoy, but if you like to have a good think both during and after watching something, chances are you'll like it. As Philip K. Dick would say, "Joy is the essential and final ingredient of science fiction, the joy of discovery of newness."

Episode 58 - 3:10 To Yuma

The Plot: After the most recent in a string of robberies committed by his gang, notorious outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) is captured by the authorities in a small, dusty town near the home of humble farmer Dan Evans (Christian Bale). Desperate to earn enough money to save his home in the wake of a railroad which is being built over his property, Evans volunteers his services to help transport Wade to a train station several towns away where he will be put on the 3:10 train to Yuma Prison. Along with railroad tycoon Grayson Butterfield (Dallas Roberts), veterinarian Doc Potter (Alan Tudyk), local lawman Tucker (Kevin Durand), and aging gun for hire Byron McElroy (Peter Fonda), Evans and Wade set off for the train station unaware that they are being followed by multiple parties. One is Dan's son William (Logan Lerman), who disobeyed his father's orders, leaving his mother and younger brother alone on the farm in search of adventure. The other is Wade's gang, now led by his right hand man and pistol expert Charlie Prince (Ben Foster), who is intent on rescuing his partner in crime. As they near their destination, Evans and Wade grow a unique bond that neither of them seems willing to accept, but which may soon decide both of their fates.

The Review: I'm not sure that the average moviegoer truly appreciates the western genre. Maybe this is just me waxing poetic, but with so many westerns out there (and believe me, there are a lot of them), and with such colorful characters as John Wayne and Clint Eastwood commonly associated with them, it seems to me that there are entire generations of people who shrug off the western as a throwaway male fantasy genre. I grew up watching and enjoying westerns such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sons of Katie Elder, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance with my father, so in the rare occasion that a promising new addition to the genre comes to theaters, I'm usually pretty excited. Of course in the case of 3:10 To Yuma, it also helps that Russell Crowe and Christian Bale play the two main roles on opposite sides of the law. Tell that to just about any male and he'll be chomping at the bit to see how said conflict plays out.

In recent years Christian Bale has risen the ranks of my list of favorite actors working today and currently has long-time favorite Edward Norton teetering on the edge, about to lose his lofty position at #1. Bale has an uncanny ability to play any role, no matter how intricate or varied, and make the transformation completely convincing without ever leaving me questioning his performance. A perfect example of this is his portrayal of Dan Evans in 3:10 To Yuma. Evans isn't your normal badass cowboy, but rather a somewhat meek individual with a problematic past who has trouble demanding respect from even his own children. Throughout the course of the film he has to rise to several difficult occasions and really shed his skin to become something he's not. Conversely, Russell Crowe's character starts off as that age old wild west standard of a hard drinking, gun running tough guy, but peels back the layers of his personality over time to let both the viewer and Bale's character into his head to see what kind of a person he really is. Both men fill their roles perfectly and, sharing the majority of their scenes together, are constantly stealing the show from one another.

Even with two incredible actors in two equally interesting lead roles, I somehow found myself most interested in the character of Charlie Prince, Ben Wade's second in command. Although there were constantly engrossing scenes playing out between Bale, Crowe, and the other men leading Crowe to his destiny, I was constantly wishing for more scenes with Ben Foster. Though few, all of his scenes popped right off of the screen and grabbed my imagination. Wearing a primarily white outfit to contrast the grays, blacks, and browns of everyone else's, and seemingly taking no shit from anyone, Prince was a refreshing change from the somber attitude of much of the rest of the film. Yet while he wasn't in the movie as much as I may have liked, this fact proved to make his character all the more interesting because of the way other characters referred to him when he wasn't around. From the first time someone in the film calls him "the hand of god", referring to his deadly speed and accuracy with his dual pistols, a bit of a reputation for the character was born that I couldn't wait to see fleshed out in a bloody battle. Having seen Foster's acting chops wasted in an over-the-top role in Hostage and on a throwaway character such as Angel in X-Men: The Last Stand, it was a treat to finally see someone let him create his own onscreen persona, proving that he's got what it takes to play with the big boys.

The rest of the cast of 3:10 To Yuma is rounded out with performances that, while good in their own rights, are dwarfed by those I've already mentioned. Logan Lerman caught my attention in the role of Dan's son William as an up-and-coming actor that I'll have to keep my eye on. Alan Tudyk and, to a lesser extent, Dallas Roberts provide a bit of comic relief without overdoing it. Peter Fonda oozes contempt for Crowe's character with whom he's had an ongoing feud for some time, and Kevin Durand does a splendid job of making the viewer hate him, which is precisely what he was there for. Then, in a surprise cameo as a surly fellow named Zeke, Luke Wilson puts in perhaps one of the best performances I've ever seen from him. True, he's only in the film for a few minutes, but he manages to drop the dopey innocent guy facade that's riddled every role he's ever played and tries his hand at being a badass, which I must admit I enjoyed.

The premise of the the movie is simple enough. The good guys escort the bad guy to prison (or in this case the train that will deliver him to prison), and encounter a few snags along the way, culminating in a doozy of a shootout at the climax. It's not rocket science, but it gives the actors in the film plenty of time to strut their stuff, which proves to be the real draw behind seeing this movie: the performances. 3:10 To Yuma isn't chock full of action, but that's not really what westerns are about. They're all about bravado, friendships, and trust in your fellow man. Don't worry though, as I mentioned, there is quite the gun battle to close out this film, and while I was initially slightly put off by the ending, I've come to realize that it really makes sense in the context of the rest of the plot that preceded it, and I had only momentarily fallen into the ignorant trappings of judging a movie based on it's genre.

The Verdict: 3:10 To Yuma has proven to be one of the truly satisfying films of 2007 thus far. If the stellar cast alone isn't enough to convince you to see this movie, let my recommendation be the one to set you over the edge: go see 3:10 To Yuma because simply put, it is a great film.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Episode 57 - Good Luck Chuck

The Plot: During an innocent game of spin the bottle as a child, Charlie "Chuck" Logan (Dane Cook) is cursed by a jealous young goth chick to be unlucky in love forever. He thinks nothing of it until years later when it comes to his attention that every woman he's ever had sex with has found true love with, and gotten married to, the next guy they dated after him. Now a humble dentist, Chuck is convinced by his life long best friend Stu (Dan Fogler) that he should take advantage of all the beautiful women lining up to have sex with him in hopes of reaping the rewards of "good luck Chuck". Happy to oblige, Chuck is eyeballs deep in the fairer sex until along comes the gorgeous, but ridiculously clumsy Cam (Jessica Alba), who he immediately falls madly in love with. However, just as he's about to seal the deal with his new dream girl it occurs to Chuck that if he makes love to Cam she will fall for the next man who shows an interest in her. It's now up to Chuck to find a way to break his curse so that he doesn't lose the love of his life.

The Review: It seems like when it comes to Dane Cook there are three categories of people: those who love him, those who despise him, and those who have never heard of him (which usually means that your kids love him). I used to be an adamant Dane Cook fan, and while he's fallen a few slots on my list of favorite comedians in recent years, I'm still oddly attracted to just about anything he's involved with. Watching him in the recent thriller Mr. Brooks convinced me that Cook isn't cut out for playing serious, dramatic roles, but having previously seen him in Employee of the Month, Good Luck Chuck just served to further convince me that he is perfect at portraying the lovesick average Joe in stereotypical romantic comedies. In the case of both Good Luck Chuck and Employee of the Month, Dane Cook is just about the only thing that made these movies worth watching. They are the same old predictable crap that the likes of Adam Sandler and Matthew Perry have been churning out for years, and just like his predecessors in the genre, Dane's knack for physical humor and hitting comical beats with perfect timing manage to make for some overall forgettable, but surprisingly entertaining films. The key to making a movie like Good Luck Chuck work is getting the audience to rally behind the lead and grow to like him, which, as Cook has shown with his stand-up career, is something he's good at.

While the lead in Good Luck Chuck succeeds in keeping the audience entertained, the supporting roles for the most part fall flat. Jessica Alba's character was obviously written into the script with a note reading "Actress must look good in her underwear, but that's about it." Any moderately talented, yet beautiful actress in Hollywood would have carried the role of Cam just as well as Alba, but she admittedly looked good doing it, so I guess the casting director did his or her job correctly. The stereotypical fat, comical-relief sidekick/best friend character Stu fell victim to two glaring problems. First, he was horribly (and did I mention stereotypically) written. Second, he was played by someone not even remotely as funny as the lead. Not only did Dan Fogler not hold his own in Good Luck Chuck, but he somehow managed to make Dane Cook less funny in almost every scene they shared. Whenever he was onscreen, Fogler brought the comedy to a stand-still. I can't blame this entirely on the actor, though, as the character was obviously only in the movie to provide Chuck with ways to come to obvious conclusions through poorly written exchanges of dialogue. The only other notable character is Cam's brother/co-worker Joe (Lonny Ross), whose only purpose in the film aside from providing Jessica Alba with the occasional bit of uncharacteristically philosophical advice seems to be spouting off the standard array of pot jokes that have come to be expected from comedies aimed at teens and young adults.

There isn't much to be said about the plot of Good Luck Chuck. It's nothing that anyone who hasn't been living under a rock for the past twenty or thirty years hasn't seen before. Boy meets girl, boy does something stupid, girl breaks up with boy, a montage of some kind takes place, and boy wins back girl. I hate to overuse the term stereotype in this review, but we're even treated to the heinously overused "guy has to race through an airport to stop the love of his life from jetting off and leaving him forever" ending once again. The only truly shocking and/or remotely original aspect of this film is the abundance of breast shots. I haven't seen so many different pairs of nipples in a single film since the co-ed shower scene in Starship Troopers.

The Verdict: In closing, I can't justify recommending Good Luck Chuck to anyone, but if you're considering watching it, I'm sure there are worse ways that you could spend 96 minutes.

Times, They Are A-Changing

As you may have noticed, there haven't been any new rants or reviews in about a month. The truth is I hit a creative wall, and it's been a long time coming. Writing movie reviews is something that I love doing almost as much as watching movies, which is the reason that this blog exists. However, it is also a time consuming process that is often unrewarding. When I spend anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours or more writing a blog, post it, and get no feedback of any kind, I don't feel horribly compelled to continue spending my time in this fashion. After all, why keep writing reviews if nobody's reading them? I already know how I feel about the films I watch, so the purpose of this blog is to inform other people of what my opinions are on the subject so that perhaps they can be introduced to a new cinematic experience or discover a new favorite actor or director. I can't blame people for not reading and/or responding to my posts, though, because that would be unfair and rather childish. Instead, I've been forced to rethink and alter my original plan of attack. What I've Been Watching isn't going anywhere, but there are going to be some changes.

First of all, I will be posting reviews less frequently. Until now I had been making an effort to review every single movie that I watch, which can sometimes number upwards of seven per week. As such, I was forcing myself to write reviews rather than to take my time and do the job right. I'm not apologizing for any reviews that I've written in the past as I stand behind everything I've posted here, but there's always room for improvement, right? From now on I will be writing reviews based on two things. I will continue to review films that I see in the theater so as to provide others interested in catching them before they've left the cinema with my opinions on them. Aside from that I will only be writing reviews for movies that strike me, upon watching them, as worthy of being reviewed. This will all depend on my personal feelings toward the movies in question and my mood at the time of watching/writing.

Second, I've changed my review format. In place of the ambiguous run-on blocks of text that riddled my previous posts, I will be separating each review into three sections: The Plot, The Review, and The Verdict. The Plot will contain shorter synopses than I usually write as some people have expressed a disinterest in reading a synopsis at all. The Review will contain the largest chunk of each post with my thoughts on any aspects of the films that I feel are worth noting. Finally, The Verdict will contain a short summary of my feelings on the movie being reviewed and will generally state whether or not I would recommend it to others.

Hopefully these changes will make the experience of both reading and writing What I've Been Watching more enjoyable for all parties involved. While I intend to focus on one review per post from now on, I will also continue to post multi-film theme reviews (such as several of the same genre or multiple titles by the same director) from time to time. Also, I will continue to write rants and lists as they come to me, though as always there is no set schedule for when these will appear.

As you peruse the blog, please feel free to leave comments with your opinions of my reviews and/or the films being reviewed, as well as recommendations for those which you'd like to see me address. If you prefer the new review method that I've adopted, please let me know that as well, as it will encourage me to keep up the standard of quality that I'm attempting to deliver.

Thanks for stopping by.

- Rian

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Episode 56

Death Sentence - Nick Hume (Kevin Bacon) is an average man with an average life. He has a loving wife (Kelly Preston), a good job, a nice house in suburbia, and two sons named Brendan (Stuart Lafferty) and Lucas (Jordan Garrett). In high school, Brendan has become a pretty good ice hockey player with hopes of going to college in Canada to pursue his dream of playing professionally. His dream is cut short, however, when a gang attacks the gas station that he and his father have stopped at on the way home from a game. As part of new member Joe Darley's (Matt O'Leary) initiation into the gang, he is forced by the others to kill a random person. It just so happens that that random person is Nick Hume's son Brendan. Seeing the murder take place, Nick tackles the perpetrator as he escapes and removes Joe's mask before losing him. Not long after, Nick is able to pick his son's killer out of a line-up, but not satisfied with the punishment which Joe will receive for the crime, Hume decides to let him go free. Fueled by anger over the loss of his son, Nick follows Joe and this fellow gang members as they leave the courthouse, and later that night returns to the scene, killing Joe Darley. Little did Nick know, Joe was the younger brother of gang leader Billy Darley (Garrett Hedlund), who wants revenge for the murder of his brother. After he discovers that Nick was responsible, he and the rest of the gang track him down and begin to make his life a living hell. Pushed to the edge in defense of his family and his honor, Nick Hume must now go to war with an entire inner city gang, but does he have what it takes to protect what he holds dear? Not the most original film ever conceived, Death Sentence's story of revenge and retribution brings to mind previous movies such as The Punisher, Kill Bill, and about half of the action films released since the early eighties. Honestly, this movie isn't much different from any of those others, but that's not to say that it isn't without any redeeming qualities. First off, Kevin Bacon is great in Death Sentence. Outside of a particularly poorly directed scene which takes place in a hospital, Bacon's performance is very visceral and surprisingly believable given the circumstances of the plot. Not only is he believable, but also just fun to watch as he mows down a series of gangsters. The gangsters themselves are incredibly stereotypical, but I suppose that there really is only one type of modern gangster to draw reference from, and that is the highly tattooed, constantly angry lot that we get in this film. Bacon's onscreen family is much more believable than many that I have seen in the past, coming off as the imperfect, but overall loving family unit that is the universal standard throughout most of America. In a relatively small cameo as a black market weapons dealer, John Goodman delightfully plays against type, proving once more what a versatile range of personalities he can bring to a project. By far my least favorite character in the movie, Aisha Tyler's Detective Wallis is everything that Goodman's character isn't: unoriginal, unbelievable, and stale. The first non-horror film from Saw and Dead Silence director James Wan, Death Sentence carries over a lot of his directorial style to the action genre. While this film isn't necessarily meant to scare viewers, it maintains a certain level of the onscreen violence and brutality that Wan first showcased in the original Saw, and which had a number of the women behind me in the theater screaming throughout. While I don't necessarily think that this is an overall good thing, it certainly made for a few impacting death and fight scenes. With a sub-par concept and generally unoriginal direction, Death Sentence is by no means a must-see movie, but definitely one that I would recommend when looking for something fun to watch with your friends.

For Your Consideration - It all began with a little film called Home For Purim. When rumors begin to circulate around the set like wildfire that washed-up actress Marilyn Hack (Catherine O'Hara) may be in the running for an Oscar award based on her performance in the film, the cast and crew couldn't be happier. In fact, before long the word has gotten out to every news show in the country, much to the surprise of many who have never heard of the small film. Everyone begins to take notice, however, when Hack's co-stars Victor Allan Miller (Harry Shearer) and Callie Webb (Parker Posey) are also rumored to be nominated for Oscars. With all of the buzz going around concerning the film, it's financial backers including Whitney Taylor Brown (Jennifer Coolidge) convince studio executive Martin Gibb (Ricky Gervais) to make some alterations to the movie in order to make it more accessible to a wider audience. Changes made much to the dislike of Lane Iverson (Michael McKean) and Philip Koontz (Bob Balaban), the screenwriters of the film. In a matter of days the set of the small, independent movie is swamped with talk show personalities such as Cindy (Jane Lynch) and Chuck (Fred Willard), the hosts of an Entertainment Tonight-esque news show, and what used to be a modest film about an obscure Jewish holiday has been transformed into a cheap grab at award nominations. All that is left to be seen is whether or not there was ever any actual truth behind the rumors that Marilyn Hack and her co-stars were ever in the running for Oscar nominations at all, or if they just got caught up in the Hollywood machine. For Your Consideration is the latest mockumentary-style film from writer/director/actor Christopher Guest, whose previous films include Waiting For Guffman, Best In Show, and A Mighty Wind, and co-writer/actor Eugene Levy. While I say that it is a mockumentary, this isn't one hundred percent true. Unlike a film such as Best In Show, the characters never talk straight into the camera as though being interviewed, but the similar tone and obvious and frequent ad-libbing by the actors makes it a close fit for the genre. Technically though, For Your Consideration is a normal comedy. The majority of the cast is comprised of the same familiar faces that anyone who has seen any of Guest's other movies will recognize. Fred Willard fits into his usual doofus who doesn't realize how stupid he looks archetype, Catherine O'Hara is over-dramatic in almost every scene, Eugene Levy is a conservative weirdo, Parker Posey is arrogant and full of herself, Jennifer Coolidge is an airheaded bombshell, Harry Shearer is a sweet but clueless fellow, and Guest himself is a quiet oddball. These are all repeat roles in some sense, but ones which are welcomed by fans of Guests work. New to the mix is Ricky Gervais, whose background in quirky, oft-ad-libbed humor with television shows such as The Office and Extras makes him a great addition to the cast. So with all of the pieces in place for another classic Christopher Guest comedy, why didn't I love For Your Consideration? Probably for the same reason that I didn't really like the previous A Mighty Wind. That reason being? I have no idea. Best In Show is one of my favorite comedies of all time, but A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration just haven't really done it for me. It may be because I love all of the characters in Best In Show (which was the first of Guests films that I saw) so much that it's impossible for me to like them again when they're placed in different scenarios, but I'm not sure why that would be. I cannot say that For Your Consideration (or for that matter A Mighty Wind) is a bad film, because it's probably at the same level of quality as Best In Show, but for whatever reason I just didn't think it worked quite as well. There are plenty of funny moments for anyone who likes Christopher Guest, mockumentaries, or comedy in general, but in my case I didn't laugh nearly as often as I have while watching some of Guests past films.