Thursday, October 2, 2008

Random Rapid Fire Reviews - February '08

What can really be said about Commando? You either love this movie or hate it, but whichever side of the table you fall on, you feel that way because it's bad. I'm one of those people who loves this movie, as I do just about any cheesy 80's action film. I know that it's not technically a good film, but with Arnold Schwarzenegger delivering lines like "Let off some steam, Bennet" after impaling an enemy on a steam pipe, I find myself rendered incapable of disliking it.

There are good ideas for sci-fi action films and then there are ideas that sound good on paper but turn out preposterous onscreen. Something like Terminator would be one of the former. Face/Off is among the latter. Sure, having the good guy become the bad guy and vice-a-versa sounds fun, but when John Travolta and Nicolas Cage begin swapping faces and John Woo tries to make an art-house picture out of his shoot-'em-up movie, the film's credibility begins to stretch itself a little thin. There are worthwhile moments here to be sure, but not enough of them for this reviewer.

The Invasion (2007)
To read this review, click here.

The Howling
Despite being a huge fan of monster movies, werewolves, vampires, zombies, and the like have never held much interest for me. I prefer an original creature, or at least an original take on an already established creature. Unfortunately, there's not a whole lot of original stuff going on in The Howling, but it does have one card up it's sleeve: Rob Bottin. This is perhaps the only time I've ever watched a movie specifically because of the special effects artist who worked on it. The human-to-werewolf transformation scene in this film is the one reason that I will re-watch it again someday. The man who made the title character of John Carpenter's The Thing a visually plausible concept brings werewolves to life in this movie. While I sincerely doubt that anyone else out there will agree with me, that is reason enough to watch The Howling.

Catch & Release
Kevin Smith plays a substantial role in a movie which he didn't write or direct for, if I'm not mistaken, the first time. That made me curious enough to consider watching this otherwise (from my point of view) completely uninteresting film. However it wasn't until I read Smith's book entitled My Boring-Ass Life in which he chronicles the process of shooting the film in quite a bit of depth that I finally committed to checking it out. As it turns out, the film was just as dull, predictable, and yawn-inducing as I'd expected it to be, but it was actually somewhat interesting to note particular moments in the film which I'd previously read about in Smith's book from a behind-the-scenes standpoint. So in other words, don't watch this movie unless you've read My Boring-Ass Life, and even then you should probably think twice before popping in the DVD.

Half Nelson
I enjoy Ryan Gosling as much as the next movie-goer, but I'd have probably passed on watching this film if it weren't for all of the rave reviews that it seems to have acquired across the blog-o-sphere as being some sort of underdog masterpiece. Gosling certainly handles the role of a drug addicted teacher well enough, but I couldn't help but get the feeling that the events of the film were a little hokey. I have no problem believing that there are teachers out there in underprivileged parts of the country who grow a bond between themselves one of their students, but the sentiments in Half Nelson's depiction of one such instance felt forced to me. This is absolutely a well-crafted and acted film, but it's perhaps a bit too self-important for my taste.

Not long ago I was in a Blockbuster Video taking advantage of the "4 previously viewed DVDs for $20" deal that the store runs from time to time. There I stood in the same situation that I always end up in when trying to choose four titles to purchase: I had three movies in my hand that I wanted and couldn't find a fourth which I was interested in. Then I laid eyes on a movie I'd never heard of called Played. The cover of the DVD box prominently featured an image of Vinnie Jones and Gabriel Byrne aiming pistols at me, as well as an inset photo of Val Kilmer, immediately bringing to mind such films as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. I figured "Those three guys and the tag-line 'Money, murder,'s all part of the game'? It's got to be worth five bucks." As it turns out I was sorely mistaken, and the first of many reasons that I will list off as to why this movie is a horrible piece of shit is this: combined, Vinnie Jones, Gabriel Byrne, and Val Kilmer, all of whom are featured prominently on the DVD box cover, are onscreen for maybe twenty minutes of the film. "Maybe" being the key word here. Played stars writer/producer Mick Rossi, in his first acting role aside from another credit as "Club Patron #1", as a small time thief who plays a part in a bumbled robbery which ends with him rotting in prison for eight years. When he gets out of the slammer he finds himself galavanting through several unnecessarily confusing intertwining plot threads full of British accents and gunfire on his way to revenge. Let's settle on the word "confusing" for a second. Introducing a new side story with a new British guy in a suit every ten minutes does not a Guy Ritchie movie make. As much as the people responsible for Played may have liked for that to be the case, they've done nothing more with their film than prove that they are nowhere near as talented as the man from whom they were attempting to steal a genre. And speaking of British people, just because someone has an accent does not mean that they are a good actor. Hell, even the good actors in this movie sucked. I think the best performance of the entire film belonged to Vinnie Jones. This isn't to say that I don't think he's capable of putting in a good performance, but we're talking about a movie co-starring Gabriel Byrne and Val Kilmer. The best has yet to come, though. Beyond the misleading box art, beyond the confusing plot, and beyond the heinous acting lie the direction, cinematography, and picture quality. You know when you're watching something like COPS and the show cuts away to a "dramatic reenactment" of a crime being committed? Or perhaps when you were forced to watch old VHS-recorded History Channel specials in grade school featuring sequences which were supposed to take place during the Renaissance or something, but which were obviously filmed in a nice public park somewhere with people in ridiculously fake old timey clothing? Well that is what this entire fucking movie looked like. I could swear that the director found an old camcorder in his parents' closet and decided to shoot the entire film with it. I have never seen a feature film with such horrible picture quality aside from The Blair Witch Project, but that movie was supposed to look like it was recorded by amateurs. Unless I nodded off and missed something, I'm pretty sure that Played was not supposed to come across that way. Seriously though, I didn't fall asleep during Played, but I did honestly consider turning it off at around the fifteen minute mark, which is something I never do. I could go out tomorrow and make a better movie than Played using my camera phone. The only difference would be that I would give Val Kilmer and Gabriel Byrne bigger roles.

Raising Arizona
The first time I watched Raising Arizona I was both bored and confused by it. I had the same feelings about The Big Lebowski the first time I saw that film as well. The second time I saw The Big Lebowski I liked it a little more. The third time I liked it yet a little more, and so on. Now I proudly proclaim that The Big Lebowski is my favorite comedy of all time. After I saw No Country For Old Men in the theater at the end of 2007 I decided that I needed to catch up with some of the Coen brothers films which I either hadn't seen before or felt as though I needed to revisit. Upon re-watching Raising Arizona I'm perhaps just as confused by parts of it as I was back when I first saw it, but in my eyes it has gone from boring to hilarious. The Big Lebowski is still my favorite comedy of all time, but Raising Arizona can't be too far behind. Not to mention, this film is proof that Nicolas Cage could act at one point in career, and that's pretty incredible in and of itself.

The Brave One
When I saw the trailers for The Brave One I thought that it looked dull and predictable. I'm no psychic, but as far as I'm concerned I predicted both of those facts about this film correctly. Still, Jodie Foster managed to (as she often does) hold everything together in the less-than-inspiring plot and kept me interested in her character enough that I was willing to stick with her on her journey through the film's running time. If you've seen The Punisher or Death Wish, you've essentially already seen this film. The main difference is that instead of a gun-wielding vigilante with a skull on their shirt or a mustache adorning their upper lip, this time the vigilante has breasts.

The Last Winter
A horror film about a small team of researchers stranded in an arctic base with some variety of creature which has been unearthed from the ice? Sound familiar? John Carpenter's The Thing this movie is not, but it isn't bad. Despite the obvious similarities it isn't a complete copycat film either. I'd say that I don't want to give away the mystery of The Last Winter, but I honestly don't know that I could if I really wanted to because the movie managed to fairly well confuse the hell out of me. It certainly didn't end the way I expected it to. There is some good suspense here, but one of the main differences between this film and Carpenter's "ultimate in alien terror" is that aside from Ron Pearlman and maybe one other character, none of the personalities in the film are particularly memorable or likable. As such, I didn't much care about what happened to any of them, which neutered my chances of connecting with the story on a personal level. Horror movie fans should give The Last Winter a shot, but anyone else will probably find it to be a waste of time.

Maximum Overdrive
Maximum Overdrive has the unbecoming distinction of being the only film that writer Stephen King has ever directed. If you've seen the film you can surely tell that King had never stepped behind a camera before this outing, and it should come as a relief to find out that he has never again been allowed the privilege. The film centers around a very good sci-fi concept as every piece of electrical machinery on the planet becomes a killing machine with a mind of it's own when the Earth passes through the tail of a nearby comet, but the worthwhile aspects of Maximum Overdrive end there. As I've mentioned the direction is terrible, but surprisingly (considering that King himself wrote the screenplay), so is the writing. Add to the "cons" list the jumpy pacing, heinous acting, a series of glaring inconstancies, and a lack of focus, and what we end up with is a near-worthless film. Had King decided whether he'd wanted to make a comedy or a horror flick, maybe he would have then been able to figure out a way to hold his movie together with proper pacing and subject matter, but as is the film is simply a mess. Comedy and horror have certainly fit together well in the past (i.e. Tremors, Slither, The Host, etc.), but such was not the case with Maximum Overdrive. In my opinion this movie should have leaned a lot more toward it's scares than it's laughs, and if it had I can imagine it turning out to be a terrifying and thrilling experience like that of the more recent Stephen King adaptation: The Mist. The story is certainly similar, focusing on a small group of people trapped inside a restaurant which is surrounded by evil machinery (as opposed to a small group of people trapped in a grocery store by a mist full of evil monsters). Then again, Maximum Overdrive could have also made a great global scale sci-fi thriller similar to I Am Legend, Independence Day, or 28 Days Later if the story had been set in a city as opposed to the North Carolina countryside. What I'm coming to realize as I think about all of the possibilities that this story could have explored is that in it's current state it is probably the worst movie that could have been made from this subject matter. Any other variation on it's plot, focus, or themes would have been light years better, which brings me to the conclusion that, unlike almost every other film out there, Maximum Overdrive is actually deserving of a remake.

Thomas Jane, Jason Lee, Timothy Olyphant, Tom Sizemore, and Morgan Freeman. I'll bet that you didn't know four out of five of those guys were in this movie. That is if you've even heard of this movie to begin with. Stephen King's stories are well known for being some of the best modern horror literature around, though I don't know that I'd refer to Dreamcatcher as a horror film. It's more sci-fi than anything. There are some suspenseful and/or creepy moments (such as one which takes place in a bathroom between Jason Lee, a toilet, and some toothpicks), but overall I wouldn't necessarily expect anyone to cover their eyes through much of this movie. Some of the CG is pretty atrocious, but there are enough original ideas and interesting, well-acted characters here to make me a repeat watcher of this film.

The Ladykillers
In an attempt to watch every single Coen brothers movie in existence, I had to endure a few which I had no real interest in seeing. One such film was The Ladykillers, but thanks to my own stubborn obedience to my role as a completist, I'm happy to say that I was quite pleased with this movie. The situations are ridiculous, the characters are cartoonish, and the entire charade could be best described as "tongue in cheek", but if you're willing to let yourself be whisked away by the fantasy world that the Coens have created, you may be as pleasantly surprised with The Ladykillers as I was. If nothing else, you'll probably have a good chuckle at Marlon Wayans at some point.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
The longer that this film was delayed by post-production debates between the director and the studio behind it, the more my anticipation of it's release grew. The main driving force behind my interest in seeing The Assassination of Jesse James was Brad Pitt, who I generally like and was looking forward to seeing in the role of one of the title characters. As it turns out, Pitt is somewhat overshadowed by the character who shares equal billing in the title, and the actor portraying him; those being Robert Ford and Casey Affleck. Rather than debate who was the better addition to the cast however, I'll simply say that Affleck and Pitt made a great team and managed to keep me enthralled throughout the film's rather tedious running time. If the events of the plot were tightened up a little bit and the movie were a little shorter it may have worked a little better logistically, but it's still an excellent film as is.

We Own The Night
One word: forgettable. To be fair, it's been a few months since I watched We Own The Night, but I can honestly say that this is one of those movies which I had trouble describing the day after I saw it. Not because it was confusing, but because it interested me so little that I subconsciously began blocking it's plot from my memory bit by bit as soon as it had ended to make room for things which I care more about making an effort to remember. The acting is solid, as is the directing, and there are a few memorable moments such as an instance of a drug raid gone bad, but all in all I simply don't have much to say about We Own The Night. It's neither good nor bad. It just is...

Intolerable Cruelty
Let's get this out of the way right off the bat: I don't like George Clooney one bit. Lots of people love him, but ask around enough and you'll find that there is a sizable community of people out there who feel that he plays the same character in every movie, and as such classify him as a bad actor. I'm one of those people. Regardless of that fact, Intolerable Cruelty is simply a bad movie. It's supposedly a comedy, but coming from the men responsible for The Big Lebowski and Raising Arizona, I feel compelled to argue that categorization. Here's the simple fact of the matter: the Coen brothers have style. This movie does not. I don't know who they were paying off a favor to when they made this thing, but I hope that whoever it is is happy, because he or she has almost single-handedly tarnished a near perfect filmmaking record.

Crap. If there weren't a few semi-fun instances of gunplay being shown off here I would have nothing at all good to say about this film. It wants to be so much cooler than it is. The problem with (essentially) every video game movie ever made is that their writers take a property that must be pretty good if it's managed to be optioned as a film, and then proceed to completely gut the story from the inside out. By the time the thing makes it to the big screen, all that you really have remaining from the original source material is the title. Video game movies have (thus far anyway), on the whole, essentially just served to give sub-par writers a chance to do whatever the hell they feel like under the safety blanket of a recognizable property name. Hitman is no different. Whoever wrote this thing seems to have just been pissed that they didn't come up with Leon The Professional and decided to take a stab at writing his own version.

Gone Baby Gone
This movie is so good that if I hadn't known prior to seeing it that it was directed by Ben Affleck and you'd told me just that after my having watched it, I'd have laughed in your face. Who would have thought that Ben fucking Affleck had something like this in him? Sure, the script is compelling and well written and the acting is superb, but the real triumph here (in my eyes, anyway) is the direction. There are better directors out there to be sure, but I'm still having a hard time believing that Ben Affleck helmed this thing. Wow. Anyway, moving on, Casey Affleck does an exceptional bit of acting, as does Michelle Monaghan. Both Ed Harris and Morgan Freeman have been better, but their performances here are nothing to balk at. Perhaps the best part of Gone Baby Gone doesn't actually come until after the film has ended and you happen to run into someone else who has seen it. The questions which the movie asks are ones which seem to divide audiences with every viewing. Great movies make for great conversations. Gone Baby Gone is proof positive of that.

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