Monday, March 17, 2008

Netflix Rapid Fire Reviews - January '08

The Road Warrior
The Road Warrior follows the continuing adventures of "Mad" Max Rockatansky as he assists a small community of desert-dwellers in escaping from a gang of bondage gear-laden pirates in the post-apocalyptic outback of Australia. After being thoroughly disappointed by the "classic" film Mad Max, it's sequel The Road Warrior is a glorious breath of fresh air. This time around, with a clear plot in mind, the filmmakers have created a truly inspiring post-apocalyptic action film. Max himself is an interesting, mysterious character this time around, and he's surrounded at all times by memorable, interesting supporting characters. The plot is simple and expertly handled, and the low budget effects are phenomenal in the way that only 1980's sci-fi films can provide. One of the best words to describe The Road Warrior is "over the top", and it is because of this distinction that the film is able to earn it's title with a balls to the wall car chase/battle during it's climax. This is by far the stand-out installment of the Mad Max trilogy and a must-see for all children of the eighties.

New Police Story
Neither a sequel to, nor a remake of, any of the previous Police Story films, New Police Story is supposedly a reboot of the series, though you could have fooled me. This time around, instead of a lighthearted young "supercop", Jackie Chan plays an older, drunken, washed up police officer who has to earn back his pride by taking down a gang of hip young troublemakers who have made a game out of killing cops. New Police Story reeks of the early days of "cyber crime" action films in which the drug dealing and gun smuggling bad guys of eighties low budget cinema were replaced by computer hacking, extreme sports loving criminals armed with laptops and high tech gadgetry instead of rocket launchers and biceps the size of tree trunks. The concepts behind the online video game which leads the police to the next bank heists and the contest to see who gets more of the haul from the robbery based on who killed more law officials may have sounded good on paper (though I highly doubt it), but onscreen they are just laughable. The aim of the filmmakers was seemingly to make a darker movie than it's predecessors, but the ridiculous attempts to make the villains and their methods "cool" did nothing but hinder them from reaching their goal. While the story is ludicrous and the melodrama is thicker than the aging Jackie Chan, there are still a few worthwhile set pieces and fight scenes which make New Police Story worth checking out, but don't expect anything nearly as good as the original Police Story.

The Enforcer
They call him Dirty Harry because whenever there's a dirty job to be done, he's the one to take care of it. This time, the job in question is putting a halt to the plans of a terrorist organization which has requisitioned itself some explosives from the police department's own warehouse and kidnapped the Mayor for ransom. The real thorn in Detective Harry Callahan's side though? The higher-up's have teamed him up with a female partner. Back in the days when female police officers were a rare sight to behold, this film probably played a lot better than it does now. Callahan is portrayed by Clint Eastwood in this film as a man who is generally accepting of women in his line of work (much to my relief), but the filmmakers didn't make it easy on him, seemingly filling Tyne Daly's character with as many girly stereotypes as they could think of. I think I was actually more annoyed by the pairing of her character and Clint's than even Harry was. The plot of this film is fairly thin with cookie cutter predictability which is by this point in the series rather par for the course, and between the dragging pace, the annoying character interaction, and the obvious plot direction, I found The Enforcer to be rather tough to sit through with my eyes open. This is about as far from the quality of the first Dirty Harry film as you can get.

Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome
Director George Miller disappointed me with Mad Max, then won my admiration with The Road Warrior, but unfortunately he's left me with a sour taste in my mouth with the third and final Mad Max film: Beyond Thunderdome. This time around, Max has wandered his way into a nasty place known as Bartertown in seach of his stolen transportation and belongings. In exchange for the safe return of all of his Earthly possessions Max agrees to enter a fight to the death with a tyrannical set of opponents known as Master and Blaster. Later exiled from the community, Max finds himself in the company of a band of children hiding in the desert and is charged with saving them all from the wrath of Bartertown and it's inhabitants. It's hard to say how far over the edge of rational thought and believability a film can wander before it becomes unbearable, but Beyond Thunderdome found itself well past the line of acceptable wackiness for me. The film had a horrible flow that felt as though the writers had no idea what they wanted to accomplish with it, and none of the characters this time around made me give a damn about them, including Max himself. There were a few noteworthy concepts such as the idea of a group of people trying to preserve the memory of a more civilized time through spoken word passed on through the generations or the Thunderdome itself with combatants strapped to large bungee cords bouncing around the ring with chainsaws and spears, but in the end there wasn't nearly enough worthwhile content in this film to win me over. If you're on a Road Warrior high, don't bring yourself down by subjecting yourself to this sloppy mess.

Jack Nicholson plays a private detective hired to spy on a cheating husband, but after exploiting his mark, discovers that he's been duped. At this point, with his reputation and personal self-image on the line, he'll stop at nothing to uncover the truth behind a mystery that seems to grow larger and deeper with every new clue and lead that he stumbles upon. I'll say this much for Chinatown: I never saw the finale coming from a mile away. I guess that is what has cemented this movie in it's place as one of the most respected film noirs of all time. Beyond even the shock of the twist ending though, I was amazed by the rather disturbing revelations leading up to the climax. I didn't think that such disturbing subject matter would have been brought into the public eye in such a way back in the mid-seventies when this movie was made, and it makes me all the more surprised to know that so many people still love this movie today. It has a very dark core concept, but I suppose that all of the aspects surrounding said core are good enough that it makes the film acceptable. Sorry to be so cryptic, but I'd hate to deprive anyone from discovering the secret behind Chinatown for themselves. Just be's probably the furthest thing from what you'd expect.

A Japanese man whose wife has died is lonely, but shy when it comes to meeting new women. A friend of his suggests that since they work in the film industry they hold a casting call for young women, allowing his grief-stricken friend to essentially interview potential dates under the guise of an audition for a role in a movie. One such girl catches his eye and they quickly begin a modest relationship, but as time goes by he learns the hard way that you cannot always judge a book by it's cover. After watching director Takashi Miike's episode of the Showtime show Masters of Horror entitled Imprint, I felt compelled to look for more of his work. Imprint was so graphic and disturbing that it wasn't even allowed to air on Showtime, and in attempting to find titles in the same vein as this movie by Miike, I came across Audition. Unfortunately, I preferred Imprint over this film, and despite how many of my fellow reviewers have talked up the frightening and sickening nature of the film's climax, I felt that it was rather tame in comparison to the Masters of Horror episode. For the average viewer who is not as readily willing (and in many cases eager) to watch extreme violence in their films as I am, Audition is certainly not a wise choice of entertainment. However, anyone who finds enjoyment in sitting through repeat viewings of such "torture porn" movies as Saw or Hostel should have no real problems making it through this film. It is a bit slow leading up to the shocking climax though, which I think makes it a more successful horror flick than those I just mentioned.

Drunken Master
Having shamed his family by beating up a member of another prestigious family in their village, Wong Fei-Hung (Jackie Chan) is forced by his father to train with an infamously demanding old kung-fu master. Though his playful antics clash with those of his new mentor, Wong Fei-Hung sticks to his studies and eventually earns the honor of being taught the mysterious, difficult, and extremely effective art of drunken boxing. Meanwhile, an assassin with a devastating kick known as Thunderleg has been hired to murder Wong Fei-Hung's father. Catching word of the intended murder of his father, Wong Fei-Hung returns to his home just in time to intercept Thunderleg, but will his new drunken boxing skills help him to beat his adversary, and for that matter, will he remember how to use all of his newly-learned moves? Drunken Master is the movie that put Jackie Chan on the map, and despite it's age, it is still easy to see why it achieved just that. Over the years I have seen numerous Jackie Chan vehicles, all of which include exciting fight sequences, daring stunts, and amazing feats of physical ability, but none is quite as jaw-droppingly impressive as Drunken Master. This movie doesn't have any action-packed car chases or wild gun fights, but what it does have is demonstration after shocking demonstration of Jackie Chan's raw physical prowess and skill. Watching Chan simply train in this movie is stunning, so just imagine what the fights are like. There is no flash to be found here. No huge budget or special effects. Just pure physical mastery and intense hand to hand combat. Some of Chan's other movies may be more exciting or adventurous, but when it comes to sheer amazement, nothing comes close to Drunken Master. I've always enjoyed Jackie Chan's movies, but after seeing Drunken Master I truly respect him as a physical performer.

Pacific Heights
Having recently bought and renovated a beautiful home in San Francisco, the unmarried couple of Patty Palmer (Melanie Griffith) and Drake Goodman (Matthew Modine) are ready to begin renting out the two rooms downstairs to help pay for their at-long-last-completed work on the house. They rent one apartment to a kindly Asian couple, and the other, through a series of rather curious and suspicious events, to a man named Carter Hayes (Michael Keaton). For a short while things seem to be going swimmingly, but soon Patty and Drake come into conflict with Carter over some disputes concerning the rent and Hayes' odd behavior. Before they know it, the two of them are in an all-out war with Carter, who always seems to be one step ahead of them, and they find themselves quickly losing ground. I was initially drawn to Pacific Heights by Michael Keaton, who I always love to see in a role as a nutcase (a la Beetlejuice and Desperate Measures), and while the film is quite good, Keaton didn't actually prove to be the best part of the experience. He is certainly good in the role of the crazed Carter Hayes, but the desperate and seemingly hopeless characters played by Griffith and Modine are who really drive the events taking place. One of the greatest compliments that I can give this film is that it is unpredictable. By the end the suspense is so high that I couldn't draw my attention from the screen, which is why I find it so strange to say that I wish the stakes would have perhaps been a little bit higher. Pacific Heights wasn't at all what I expected it to be, but in the end that turned out to be for the best.

Taxi Driver
Having recently made an effort to go back and watch some of the films that are widely regarded as classics now that I have easy access to them all via Netflix, I've found that perhaps more often than not I don't entirely agree with those who rant and rave about how great certain films are. Such is not the case with Martin Scorcese's Taxi Driver, which is perhaps one of the most critically lauded of those "classics" of which I speak. Taxi Driver was, in my opinion, the complete package. A great story, great acting, great, memorable characters, and although by this point in his career he hadn't quite begun using all of the very specific directorial stylization that he would later become known for, great directing by the undeniably gifted Martin Scorcese. Taxi Driver follows the story of a recently returned Vietnam vet named Travis Bickle as he deals with his insomnia by taking long, overnight shifts as (as the title would suggest) a taxi driver. With no hobbies or interests to speak of and an inability to connect with or express himself to others, Bickle spends his free time ruminating over the state of his country and it's leaders, all the while collecting a menagerie of weapons and grudges in his small, one bedroom New York City apartment. For much of it's running time Taxi Driver doesn't seem to have a clear narrative path, but I was with it all the way and came out of my first viewing of the film immediately wishing that I could relive the magnificent experience of seeing it for the first time all over again. I have trouble attempting to name any flaws in the film (aside from the strange color choices made during parts of it's climax in order to squeeze in under the qualifications for what at the time passed as an R rating), and with a cast comprised of Robert DeNiro, Harvey Keitel, Peter Boyle, Cybil Shepherd, Albert Brooks, a young Jodie Foster, and director-extraordinaire Scorcese himself, that's no big surprise.

Marathon Man
On the same night of his rather distant brother's death, Thomas Levy (Dustin Hoffman) learns that his sibling wasn't exactly who he said he was. Secretly a member of a United States government group known as "The Division", Tom's brother Henry (Roy Sheider) is killed by a nazi group lead by a former slave camp officer who is after a fortune in diamonds originally stolen during wartime. Thomas, a history student following in his controversial father's footsteps, is unwittingly drawn into the conspiracy brought to his doorstep by his well-meaning brother and must use all of his savvy to not only escape unscathed, but also put an end to the wrong-doings of Dr. Christian Szell, aka The White Angel (Laurence Olivier). I'm usually not one to complain about movies being too long, but as is the case with a number of older films (in my humble, modern-minded opinion) about twenty minutes of Marathon Man's unnecessarily long and altogether ineffective shots could have been cut out of the running time to make it a little more exciting and bit less drab. Conversely, I felt that the torture scene involving some disconcerting dental tools could have packed a bit more of a punch if it had lasted longer. A few good scenes of suspense and action are sprinkled throughout the movie, including Hoffman's pre-torture struggle to avoid capture, his post-torture escape from his captors, and a brief showdown at a house in the country. All in all I found Marathon Man to be a less-than impressive film based around a pretty good plot that is worth (forgive me for suggesting this) remaking.

Twilight Zone: The Movie
Based upon the show of the same name, Twilight Zone is a series of four short films by big name directors such as Steven Spielberg and John Landis. In the first segment a racist gets his comeuppance by unusual means, in the second a group of senior citizens realize that youth isn't all it's cracked up to be, in the third a traveling woman discovers the strange secret behind a young boy and his family, and in the final segment a man on an airplane suspects that a monster has stowed away on his flight. The Twilight Zone television show worked so well because even if you didn't like a particular episode, there was always a completely new and different one the following week. Unfortunately, in the case of the film, what you see is what you get. I didn't particularly enjoy any of the segments of Twilight Zone: The Movie. They were all either predictable, poorly conceived, boring, or all of the above. The one thing that I truly liked about the film were the creepy puppets in Joe Dante's sequence, but beyond looking kind of neat they were essentially useless. I'll take the old black and white show over this film any day.

Romper Stomper
I'm a big fan of the film American History X, which is why, when I heard it compared to the film Romper Stomper, I immediately began trying to track down a copy. Having now seen the film, it is true that Romper Stomper and American History X have in common a good bit of rather extreme violence and stories both driven by racism, but what Romper Stomper lacked that American History X delivered were characters who I cared about and who made the story more enjoyable through their onscreen presence. Romper Stomper is also the film that opened a lot of doors for Russell Crowe early on in his career, but had I not already known who he was when I watched it, I'm not sure that I would have singled his out as a noteworthy performance. What it really comes down to is that while the acts of the characters in the film were often extreme, they didn't leave much of an impact on me. The troubled young female character starts off the film as a whiny, rebellious bitch and that fact doesn't change by the end of the movie. Russell Crowe's character is really only there to antagonize the two main characters, which he does just fine, but is otherwise rather one dimensional. Romper Stomper was a well made film, though I feel like it maybe gets a little more credit than it deserves. The story is by no means boring, but it's not very compelling either, and more often than not I found myself wondering why the series of events being depicted onscreen were worth basing an entire movie on them. Certainly do check out Romper Stomper though if you're in the mood for "a bit of the old ultra-violence."

Operation Condor
Originally released in Asia as Armour of God II, the previous installment of the series hadn't been released in the states by the time this one arrived, so it's title was changed to Operation Condor. Considering that this is a sequel to a film that anyone following the American naming system for the series would not have seen yet, the opening of the movie is a bit confusing. Characters who we are already expected to know from the previous film galavant around with little to no introduction and due to this the pace moves very fast as well for first time viewers. Operation Condor has four key action sequences, but unfortunately most of them are set pieces and not straight up fight scenes. The set pieces are both original and funny, but I would have preferred to see Jackie Chan throw a few more punches and kicks. The hotel sequence is by far the most entertaining, but for pure shock value, the wind tunnel scenes at the film's climax are by far Operation Condor's most notable.

The first feature length (just barely at 69 minutes) film of Batman Begins helmsman Christopher Nolan's directorial career, Following is a very moody, low budget black and white movie. The story centers around a wannabe writer who spends his days following random people around town as inspiration for characters in his stories. When he has a chance meeting with a small-time thief he goes from innocently tailing strangers to breaking and entering, and before he knows it he finds himself in some deep trouble. For fans of Nolan's Memento, Following is a must-see. It employs out of order editing much like Memento as well as a thrilling mystery story-line to rival it. The quality of the acting isn't perfect, but never really takes away from the events onscreen, and the plot is smart and snappy enough that you won't really care if anyone ever slips up. Following is one of those rare films that makes up for it's low budget with originality and a bang for it's buck. Seeing this film, it's no wonder that Christopher Nolan is fast becoming a household name.

Gates of Heaven
Proving that you can make a documentary based around just about anything that you can think of, director Errol Morris' Gates of Heaven centers on pet cemeteries, their owners and operators, and the people whose pets occupy them. I've seen a few documentaries in my time, but I am certainly not well versed in the genre. I have, however, been interested in getting into watching some more documentaries for a while now, though my first foray into this new goal did nothing to compel me to pursue it further. Gates of Heaven had the standard moments of glaring reality that make any documentary worth watching, but overall I found it to be stagnant, slowly paced, and, to be blunt, boring as hell. Morris was obviously going for a very simple, stylistic film, but I was not at all impressed by what he ended up with. I've got no real interest in the subject of pet cemeteries, so what I was relying on while watching this film was for the stories of the individuals onscreen and Morris' composure of those scenes to draw me in, but this never really occurred. A simple trick to make the movie a little more bearable would have been for Morris to employ the use of some background music, but instead the entire running time was devoid of song aside from the few occasions when one of the cemetery owners played his guitar. In fact, the perfect way to describe what is wrong with this movie is just that: a film about pet cemeteries featured some dude who worked at one playing his guitar. What is the point in that? What was the point of this movie?

Operation Condor 2: The Armour of the Gods
Operation Condor 2 was released in Asia as Armour of God, but didn't make it's way to the U.S. until after it's sequel (Armour of God II) had already been released stateside as Operation Condor, hence the name Operation Condor 2: The Armour of the Gods. The main problem with this film is the severe lack of action. Watching a Jackie Chan film with no action scenes is like buying a sandwich with no meat between the bread. The general idea is there but you don't get the part you really wanted. To make up for the lack of action throughout, there is one long fight sequence which closes out the movie, however I still felt cheated. Action films generally have three or four fight scenes spread throughout their running time, but there was nary a flying kick nor a backflip until the last fifteen minutes of the movie. Considering that the plot is usually of no concern to a Jackie Chan film, there's really no reason to sit through first two acts of Operation Condor 2.

Death Wish
After his wife is beaten to death and his daughter is orally raped to the brink of insanity by Jeff Goldblum, New York City architect Charles Bronson takes to the streets to put a stop to violent crime in his neighborhood armed only with a revolver and his mustache. That's essentially the entire plot. Bronson, whose character used to be a fairly passive individual, grows a profound, yet misguided set of balls as soon as he finds himself with a gun in his hand and begins literally looking for trouble so as to turn the tables on his repeated would-be attackers. Had this film been made today instead of in 1974, the action would have been a lot more over the top and the moral of the story would have been completely lost in the flurry of ensuing gunfights. Wait...that did sort of happen in James Wan's 2007 remake (*ahem* rip-off) Death Sentence. Death Wish did manage to carry a bit of a moral message along with it's highly unlikely series of events, though I almost feel silly saying that considering how unbelievable the film is. Beyond the occasional silliness though, I enjoyed Death Wish for what it is. some other people must have enjoyed it too, because there are four sequels, none of which I'm too eager to see.

Monday, March 3, 2008


The Plot: During a political summit in Spain, the president of the United States is shot and multiple bombs are detonated around the assembly. In the ensuing chaos, news broadcast personnel, secret service agents, local law enforcement, and even uninvolved civilians attempt to discover the mystery behind the attack.

The Review: Much like the best episodes of the television series LOST, Vantage Point is chock full of unexpected plot twists and stupefying revelations. So much so, in fact, that I'm finding it hard to devise a review of the film without giving away any important plot points or surprising story elements. As such, you should be warned that this review may contain some minor spoilers, but none so influential to the plot that they will ruin the experience to watching the film.

Vantage Point begins with an unusual method of telling it's story. Within the first ten or fifteen minutes of the film the president (William Hurt) has already been shot and we witness the effects that this event has on a small group of people. Shortly thereafter the film pauses, "rewinds" itself, and retells the same events we've already seen, but through the eyes of a different individual. When all is said and done, the viewer will have experienced the shooting of the president and the events which immediately follow about five or six times. While this is certainly an original means of telling the story, I have to admit that I was a little annoyed by it after a while. It felt a bit more like a cheap stunt than a totally worthwhile plot device, but that is not to say that it doesn't work. Some people will accept the nonlinear storytelling more readily than others, but though it does get a bit tired after a while, it achieves what it is supposed to and the early events of the film unfold in an intriguing enough way. My biggest complaint involving the staging of the movie is that because the story jumps around so much there are certain elements of it's timeline that don't seem to sync up properly. If you look closely enough at the progression of the film, it's not hard to notice that during some segments certain events occur much more or less rapidly than the same events do in other segments when the time between them isn't as necessary to see fleshed out. Some people might call that a picky critique, but I would call it a flaw on account of the filmmakers. Again, not a weakness that ruins the film, but more-so one that should provide some good argumentative conversation with your friends after viewing it.

Due to the unconventional set-up of the film which allows the focus to fall on so many different characters, no one actor or actress truly feels as though they are the main character for very long. When all is said and done Dennis Quaid's secret service agent character Thomas Barnes is the most obvious candidate for the title of lead character, but he doesn't necessarily earn this distinction with a superior amount of screen time until near the movie's climax. Along the way we see the events of the political summit gone wrong through the eyes of a multitude of different characters. Perhaps the most short-changed is Sigourney Weaver, who plays the woman in charge of the news crew which is televising the event. Her segment is the first of the film, though when the story moves on to the other characters, hers is essentially forgotten and, in hindsight, really served no use in the story other than to introduce the audience to the events transpiring at the summit. Similarly, Eduardo Noriega's character, a local Spanish police officer, didn't seem nearly as important to the plot as he should have been. His character seemed pretty interesting, though it would appear that the details of his involvement in the assassination were lost in an effort to spend more time with other individuals and events.

Another character who is the focus of his own segment is a vacationing civilian with a video camera played by Forest Whitaker. For a man of such great talent, Whitaker seemed to me to be rather heinously overacting at several points during this film, which isn't necessarily surprising when you consider the role that he is playing. He plays the emotional role that is supposed to tug on the viewers' heart strings amidst the chaos which envelops the rest of the running time. His story is intertwined with that of an innocent little girl (Alicia Zapien), and it seemed as though the writers really had to stretch to get her and Whitaker to interact through several parts of the movie. In the same way that I enjoyed Paul Haggis' 2004 film Crash, but was annoyed by some of it's melodrama, the misuse of Forest Whitaker's character as a selfless every-man meant primarily to warm the viewers' hearts felt a bit cheap. Other actors of note in Vantage Point are Matthew Fox as one of Barnes' fellow secret service agents, Edgar Ramirez as a man who is being forced to participate in something he wishes he weren't a part of, and Saïd Tghmaoui as a man that you'll love to hate (or is that hate to love?).

The characters aside, Vantage Point has a lot to offer as a way to occupy a few hours of your time. The premise is rather shallow, but the plot is filled with enough twists, turns, and flat out surprises to catch anyone off guard; and really, who doesn't love a little mystery in their suspense thrillers? Speaking of which, this film has no shortage of suspense or thrills. There are chase scenes and explosions abound in Vantage Point, but the highlight of the movie's action sequences has got to be the car chase leading up to it's climax. I have openly stated before that Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof provides my all-time favorite car chase, but the one in this movie is of a completely different breed. As opposed to the wide open dirt roads and countrysides of Tarantino's half of Grindhouse, Vantage Point's chase scene between agent Barnes and some of the film's villains takes place in the narrow, crowded streets of Spain. Weaving in and out of lines of cars instead of old fences and cows provides for a hell of a gripping action sequence, which is almost reason enough alone to check out the film.

The Verdict: The unconventional method that the makers of Vantage Point chose to use to tell their story will certainly alienate this film from some of it's potential audience, but without it there wouldn't be much of a point in watching it's events unfold in the first place. Some great acting and superbly thrilling action sequences manage to more than balance out the accompanying sub-par performances and plot holes. While it surely won't go down in history as an example of flawless filmmaking or storytelling, Vantage Point is certainly original and gripping enough to be worthy of at least a viewing or two.