Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Possession (2012)

Scene not appearing in this film.
Oh man, you guys. I'm scared. Petrified, even. Can you blame me? Just look at today's movie. How can you now look at that and just be chilled to your soul? I like a good scary movie as much as the next red-blooded guy with an appreciation for dark things, but even I have my limits. I mean, do I even want to put myself through this terror?

A PG-13 horror movie. Is there a more terrifying concept known to man?

With that, "The Possession" came to this race with three quarters of its fuel tank emptied before the starting gun even went off. It's impossible to look at a horror movie not rated R and not assume right from the beginning that it's going to suck. There's a perfectly reasonable explanation for this, which is that 98% of the time, they do. And when they suck they suck hard. I'm not really looking forward to another.

So where does "The Possession" stand after making its case? Surprisingly its place is not at the bottom of a rock quarry filled with rat carcasses, which is where "The Apparition" or "House at the End of the Street" landed. Instead its place was more akin to standing in a ditch filled with a few inches of water. And some of the water got up over the top of its shoes and made its socks a bit wet. And it's a little chilly out. But the water is nice and clean as opposed to muddy. Maybe a few leaves in it.

What I'm attempting to say using that very forced analogy is that "The Possession" actually wasn't that bad. It wasn't that great, in fact it wasn't very good, but after seeing the duo of pig vomit that was "The Apparition" and "House at the End of the Street" I'm just so happy to be watching some likeable characters in a horror movie that I'm willing to let a lot slide for this one.

"Ah, bubala, such a mensch is this goy!"

"The Possession" follows the zany adventures of a box. Inside this box is a dybbuk, an evil spirit contained by a Jewish ritual. Once the box is opened it takes control of whoever opened it and does whatever it does that evil spirits that possess people do. It's a given that there will be creepy young girls acting spooky and parents who don't want to believe there is something wrong with their kid. You know the drill.

When Clyde (Jeffery Dean Morgan) buys the box at a yard sale for his youngest daughter, Em (Natasha Calis) it's not too long before she starts acting creepy by saying and doing weird things, freaking out at people who threaten to take away the box, speaking in different voices, and looking not unlike a Nine Inch Nails groupie after a week locked in a small crate. On the other hand, even after all that she's still the more likable of the two daughters. But in her defense, the older daughter Hannah (Madison Davenport) has hit that "Whatever, Dad, you loser" phase of her life. She can't help that she sucks.

After a long, slightly irritating stretch where the characters are all playing catch-up with the audience who figured everything out half an hour ago, Clyde finally enlists the help of a Hasidic Jew named Tzadok (Matisyahu) to get the dybbuk out of Em. This all culminates in an exorcism in the basement of the hospital Em is staying in after collapsing after making her mom's boyfriend's teeth fall out of his skull using only the power of her rage. I feel I should bring up that at that point, Em had shown a drastic personality shift, had been found sitting in the dark in a room overflowing with gigantic moths, was seen talking to an invisible person, had stabbed her dad in the hand with a fork, had performed acts of impossible clairvoyance, had performed acts of telekinesis, and had also tried killing her mom with broken glass. And it's only now they decide to get her some help. So we're a little lite on the parental competence here.

Clearly, she's just stressed.

Most of (well, actually all of that) has to do with the mother, Stephanie. She's played by Kyra Sedgwick and is a horrible person. And I hated her character. But the odd thing is that I'm not sure if that's a point in Sedgwick's favor or against it. The reason for that is that I'm of the opinion that it's totally possible that she's meant to be something of a villain in this film. And if we're supposed to despise this person as a bad guy, Sedgwick nailed it. If not, hoo boy. If not, that's one of the worst portrayals of a sympathetic character I've ever seen.

Stephanie and Clyde are recently divorced, although we never actually learn why. No mention of infidelity is ever mentioned or even hinted at. They obviously have their issues with each other, but they still seem to be halfway amicable, or at least politely respectful. Well, at least Clyde is. Stephanie on the other hand is constantly getting on Clyde's case for literally nothing, disrespecting and condescending to him, getting right in his face and calling him a son-of-a-bitch and a rotten bastard for horrendous crimes like getting an amazing job offer and letting his daughters eat pizza, even when he's the only person who's trying to help his daughter when there's something clearly wrong with her.

Clyde actually seems like a pretty chill dude. He's friendly, he's funny, he's good with his kids, even the one who gives him flak because she's a teenager, and he's a successful college basketball coach. Dude's seemingly got it going on, and Jeffery Dean Morgan plays him with a lot of charisma and ingrained likeability that it's very easy to like this guy. Far more so than the cold ice-queen Kyra Sedgwick puts forward. The worst thing he does is miss his daughter's dance recital, which sucks and he's totally a douche for doing so, but as far as son-of-a-bitch status goes is pretty unconvincing.

And how dare you look like Javier Bardem!

Maybe something happened we don't know about, but from what "The Possession" shows us, Stephanie is an over-reactive harpy who drinks too much, treats her ex-husband like a child while not being nearly as good with the kids as he is, and in fact scoffs at the notion of getting her daughter professional help when she's looking like Linda Blair in "The Exorcist" and trying to stab people. She's also shacked up with this guy who's a total stuffy jerkwad, seemingly immediately after the divorce. So that's Stephanie. Obviously, Clyde is the one totally at fault here in this situation.

And the wild part is that when they get back together at the end, I think we're supposed to be happy. I wasn't. Clyde's too good for her. I honestly found the ending which alludes to them patching it up to be quite sad, because I hated to think of Clyde being stuck with that woman.

"After your father gets done saving us by offering himself up as a sacrifice to a demon I am SO going to yell at him for messing up my hair."

I mention the Stephanie thing a lot because it really was about the most notable thing about "The Possession." While Natasha Calis did an admittedly bang-up job as the possessed girl, and the scenes with her and Jeffery Dean Morgen are very, very good from an acting dynamic perspective, overall there's not too much left to hang the rest of the movie on. The plot is nothing more than what you'd see in a random so-so episode of "The X-Files," and the scares are basically non-existent as the movie doesn't even seem to try, as if it knows it's not going to do anything with that PG-13 so they didn't bother. That's somewhat commendable in a strange way, but still, it's irritating when it's called a horror movie.

Honestly, the creepiest part of the movie is the whispering coming from the box. That's pretty sad.

There are some pretty effective things going on here, though. Whenever Em is freaking out as the dybbuk is surfacing, the odd soundtrack and effectively gross effects done to make her eyes roll into the back of her head is creepy and unsettling enough to drag out some much needed tension to the scenes. The soundtrack in particular is pretty gutsy in terms of being a bit unconventional and off-kilter. And for a movie with a generic story like this, trust me, anything composer Anton Sanko and director Ole Bornedal can do to make "The Possession" stand out in any way is a very good thing. And generally, they do a pretty good job of this. For the source material they were given I'd say they performed admirably. The fact that it doesn't outright suck is honestly a miracle.

This might have actually been scary if the trailer hadn't given it away. Now instead of creeped out, we're just saying "Oh, look. It's that scene that was all over the trailer." Good job.

But if there was a reason to see "The Possession" it would end up being almost entirely for Jeffery Dean Morgan and Natasha Calis. Morgan's already proven himself as a phenomenal actor on a number of occasions, most notably in "Watchmen," but Calis reminds me a bit of Jodelle Ferland. And if she's anywhere close to Jodelle, she's an up-and-comer to keep an eye on.

So I guess the best thing about this one was the fact that it avoided being crap. Huzzah?

THE BOTTOM LINE - "The Possession" is a PG-13 horror movie. That should tell you it's crap as a horror movie. However, it's well made enough to function as something closer to a drama with some creepy stuff going down. Don't except it to scare you, and at least you'll get some good performances out of it. It's still not great. But it's not nearly as bad as it could have been. Watch "The Unborn" to see how bad this story could have gotten.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)

I used to work at Blockbuster. One time while trying to recommend a movie to someone, I was asked why it is that I watch and collect so many older films. Granted, the person doing the asking was a vapid high schooler who, and I'm not joking here, refused to watch any movie that had been made more than 10 years ago on the basis of it "being old." They looked at me, head tilted to the side and said "Why would you watch that? It's old. I don't want to watch old movies." My answer was the suitably snide, condescending remark "Right, because they never made any good films until 2004." The sarcasm was dripping.

Of course the real answer as to why I am always playing catch up with older films is because there are just so many awesome ones out there that I haven't seen yet. Every time I pick up a title that I missed back in the day, I'm always secretly hoping that I'll be kicking myself for missing it earlier. Even better is when that one film leads to the discovery of the body of work of a director or actor I didn't even know about before, but find myself being a big fan of. It's like discovering an old friend you never knew you had.

And "From Dusk Till Dawn" most certainly fits that bill. Why, why, why...WHY IN THE NAME OF ZORDON did I never see this movie until 2013? I don't know how much I would have liked it back in the day, but after seeing it now I can safely say it's some of the most fun I've had watching a movie in a long time.

"From Dusk Till Dawn" is directed by Robert Rodriguez, famous for "Desperado," "Machete," "Planet Terror" among other hyper-violent bloodbaths which are ludicrously entertaining. He also does kids movies. He's not very good at them. Why he does both I have no idea. It's kind of weird. Anyway, Rodriguez is a director I like, and the screenplay was done by one of my all-time favorite writers, Quentin Tarantino, who also stars in the film. There is no way I'm not going to love this film.

From the very beginning of the film, which Rodriguez gives a hot, steamy, sweaty look right from the start, it's not difficult to imagine that this is a lost Tarantino film. The dialogue is punchy, funny, and so packed with fire coming from the mouths of the actors, all of whom are so good it's unreal, that the tension is through the roof and nearly unbearable. This is especially so in the first half of the movie, which plays out kind of like "Reservoir Dogs" mixed with "Natural Born Killers."

Oh yeah. There's no way this is a Tarantino movie with a shot like that.

The story begins in a gas station in Texas, as Texas Ranger Earl McGraw (a recurring Tarantino character played by the inimitable Michael Parks) stops by for a drink and a friendly chat with the attendant (a pre-"Deadwood" John Hawkes). What seems like random chit-chat takes a sudden, shocking turn as the bank-robbing Gecko Brothers, Seth and Richie (George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino respectively) show up to turn a relatively simple hostage situation into a bloodbath. Most of this is due to Richie being a total and irredeemable psychopath.

You know, not much is ever made about Tarantino as an actor, but he really deserves more credit for that than he gets. He's in almost all of his movies, but nobody ever really talks about how good he is when he shows up in any large capacity. His turn as Mr. Brown in "Reservoir Dogs" and Jimmy in "Pulp Fiction" were really good, but in "From Dusk Till Dawn" he really knocks it out of the park. He plays Richie so off-the-handle and so creepily evil that there's never any telling what in the hell he's going to do next. In fact he pretty much carries all the tension of the first half of the film by himself, and there's plenty of tension to be found.

Well, tension AND release...

Seth has to constantly do damage control for his brother, and Clooney is quite magnetic as the calmer, less overtly crazy brother. He'd still be a total scumbag no matter where he was, but next to Richie he's a pretty reasonable dude. Yeah, Seth set a guy on fire, but it was only after Richie started the whole mess. And once you account for Clooney's natural charm, you've got a character who is a villain, but a really likeable one, and you really want to see him make it. Tarantino plays a great character, but you can't help but constantly be amazed by how much Richie sucks, and you wouldn't be too sad if he bought it. In fact you're kind of waiting for it to happen. The biggest question is whether or not Seth is going to be the one to finally take him out or not.

"From Dusk Till Dawn" isn't really structured like an average three act film. It's more like two halves. The first half is vintage Tarantino, full of tension and fantastic dialogue as Seth and Richie kidnap a family and make them drive to Mexico and freedom from the police and FBI who's hot on their trail. The family is Jacob (Harvey Keitel), his daughter Kate (Juliette Lewis) and adopted son Scott (Ernest Liu). Jacob is a former preacher whose faith is shaken after losing his wife, and is on an indefinite road trip to clear his head. They go along with the Gecko brother's orders, but there's always the lingering doubt in both his and the audience's mind whether or not they'll be let go as promised at the end of the journey. This is especially so with Richie being insane and killing people over looks he imagined they had.

Not long after they reach their destination, a strip club in Mexico called "The Titty Twister," is when the movie begins the second half. And it's here that I will suggest, if you've never seen "From Dusk Till Dawn," and have no knowledge of it whatsoever, you stop reading IMMEDIATELY. Don't even watch the trailer. Don't look up any pictures of it. Don't do any research whatsoever. Don't even read the description on the back of the case or on Netflix. You need to go in blind because the second half of this film has one of the most radical, drastic and completely off-the-wall twists I've ever seen, and unless you've seen the trailer (which completely spoils it) there's no possible way you'd ever come close to imagining what's in store.

"Huh. Didn't see that coming."

I'm dead serious. Stop reading this and go watch "From Dusk Till Dawn" while 100% ignorant of it. Trust me, it'll be awesome.

I'm not even going to go into great detail about what actually happens on the off chance you're still reading. It's enough to say that during the blood-soaked climax of "From Dusk Till Dawn," there exists enough insanity for around 3 other films. Body parts fly everywhere, blood and other fluids of various colors and origin cover the place like varnish on a dresser, and the cheese is off the meter as "From Dusk Till Dawn" turns into something like a spiritual successor to "The Evil Dead." It's certainly a thing to behold.

The practical effects are skillfully done enough to be disgusting and corny enough to also be a comedic blast for those with a twisted sense of humor. This was also back before CGI blood was the standard, and action wasn't filmed with shaky cam to be "more intense," so there is also a lot of fun artistry to the carnage, harkening back to "The Thing" and once again, "The Evil Dead." There's just something special about seeing practical effects in front of the camera which lends an air of credibility and enjoyment for those of us who like seeing the creative process of film-making at work.

And of course this is all going down around a great cast, like everything Tarantino is involved in. The leads are all still there, but added to the fray once we arrive at the strip club are horror movie legend Tom Savini, NFL and B-movie hero Fred Williamson, Robert Rodriguez BFF Danny Trejo, and finally Cheech Marin in one of the three parts he plays in this film. Selma Hayek even shows up to do some sexy dancing. What's not to like?

"Well this was fun. I'm going to go lay down now."

From the first frame of "From Dusk Till Dawn" to the last, I was glued to the screen. I love this movie. Anyone looking to have a good, bloody time is going to love it. Some may prefer one half over the other, in fact I kind of like the first half more, but they're so vastly different that one can almost look at them as two different films all together. Almost like "Well, that movie's done. That was really tense. Too bad it didn't have much of an ending. Oh well. Let's watch this crazy gory splatterfest next! That's going to be a lot of fun! And hey, it's got the same cast. Neat!"

In fact...holy crap. Flip those two around in terms of order of sequence and cram it into an hour and a half and you've essentially got "From Dusk Till Dawn!"

THE BOTTOM LINE - I'm so upset that I came to this one late, because it's probably one of my favorite movies from the 90's now. In terms of blood, guts, laughs and awesome Tarantino dialogue, few things can top "From Dusk Till Dawn" outside of an actual Quentin Tarantino movie. One of the best action films of that decade. I just wish it hadn't been spoiled for me all those years ago when I saw the trailer. Seeing it blind would have been amazing.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Taken 2 (2012)

It's no secret to anyone who knows me that I have a severe man-crush on Liam Neeson. I apologize for and rescind nothing. The man is a mack-daddy of the highest caliber as far as acting is considered, and even in dreck like "Star Wars: Episode I" he can make utter crap halfway decent just by being in it. Well, maybe not decent, but we'll call it watchable. As long as he's on screen, that is. And not in the presence of annoying, racist CGI sidekicks.

And yes, I had heard nothing but bad things going into "Taken 2." And it's true that I had refused to see it in theaters even though I'm a huge Liam Neeson fan, and I loved the first "Taken." The reason I refused to pay to see it in theaters was because of the fact that producer Luc Besson has a nasty habit of releasing R-rated films edited down to a PG-13 in theaters, which is what both "Taken" and "Taken 2" did, only to release the "Unrated" cut later when it comes out to rent. This is actually just the original version of the film, not some super special edition. And I'm not paying $9.50 to see a version of a movie that I would see on TV. I'm a grownup. Let me watch my grownup films.

That aside, did "Taken" really need a sequel? It seems a tad unnecessary. I suppose there are worse films to make sequels to. Honestly if you're looking at from a storyline standpoint there's more reason to have "Taken 2" than there was to have, say, "Terminator 2," since the events of the first "Terminator" essentially make it so a sequel should literally be impossible. But it's not like "Terminator 2" where we're dealing with plotholes involving physical impossibility. Mills could feasibly have people come after him again, and they don't have to travel through time to do it. So sure, why not? Make a sequel.

But that brings up the worst part of the whole "Taken 2" idea. Based on the title itself, they've kind of roped themselves into a corner. The bad guys can only do one thing - abduction - because the name of the movie is "Taken." What if one of the baddies just said "Hey, why don't we plant a car bomb and kill him with that?" Would the other guy bring up the fact that the name of the movie they're in isn't "Car Bomb," and it's against the rules? And now they're talking about "Taken 3," and at that point it's like Jack Bauer and another one of his very long days.

 "Oh god, not this crap again. Who am I, Bill freaking Murray?"

For those reasons, including the fact that the only other film I've seen from director Oliver Megaton (really?) was "Transporter 3," an acceptable but forgettable affair, I wasn't expecting too much out of "Taken 2." In fact I wasn't expecting anything at all. This turned out to be a pretty smart way to approach it. "Taken 2" wasn't as bad as everyone was saying it was. But it still wasn't that good. It kind of just "was." It's a movie you'll see once, forget a good chunk of it not too long after it's done, and never really think too much on it ever again. But there are worse ways to kill an hour and a half.

Picking up a year or so after the first movie, "Taken 2" finds Mills and family on a trip to Istanbul. Once there, the relatives of the people Mills killed previously enact a plan to get their vengeance, and Liam Neeson and Famke Janssen end up being the ones who are kidnapped, with Maggie Grace being the one who has to save them.

Yes, I know the idea of Maggie Grace: Action Hero sounds lame. That's what the trailer would have us believe this movie is, but honestly there's more to it than that. It's true that she does a little bit of reckless driving through the streets and runs on some rooftops, but the whole ordeal with her saving Liam Neeson is only about a 20 minute chunk of the movie. Once she does rescue him it's business as usual from that point on as Liam does what Liam will do and kicks some ass.

Liam is actually shooting people. Maggie is just sitting there going "Rrrrraaaaaaawwww Pwaaaaaaaahhh EEEEEEEEEEK Brrrraaaaaaa HONK HONK! Rrrrrraaaaaaa..."

And really, aside from that bit it's really the same movie as before. Liam tracks down bad guys, Liam kills bad guys. While this is usually a point against a sequel, hey it's not like they're rehashing bad stuff. "Taken" was a good movie. The fact they're somewhat copy and pasting it isn't a bad thing. It just makes it fairly unremarkable and not very memorable.

Honestly the worst part is that compared to "Taken" this movie doesn't have nearly the same amount of action, at least from what I recall of it. Which truthfully isn't that much. I remember the French dude from the first movie getting killed, Maggie Grace throwing grenades and driving a car, Famke Janssen getting tortured, Liam getting a gun, and Liam killing the main villain with a coat rack (I think. It was really quick and hard to make out). That's all I remember. I still recall most of the first movie, and I haven't seen that in years. I saw "Taken 2" just the other day and I'm already blanking on all but that handful of scenes. Take that for what it's worth.

There were still some things I enjoyed about "Taken 2" though, and oddly enough they both heavily featured Maggie Grace. The first bit was that whole "grenade" thing I mentioned earlier. After being kidnapped, Liam is able to call Maggie Grace on a phone he smuggled in and coaches her through how to find him, using a map and loud noises. These loud noises just happen to be some grenades, which Maggie then proceeds to throw while Liam estimates distance based on how long it took the sound to reach him. It's a neat scene, and I found Maggie just chucking grenades where "it doesn't look like anyone is there" to be oddly funny.

But wait a minute. Timing that precise via cell phone would be all off because of the natural delay in reception... (Stupid nitpicky brain, stop that! You liked that scene!)

There's also a bit in the beginning when Maggie Grace is practicing for her driver's test, which they kind of bring back during the car chase where she's driving and Liam Neeson is still coaching her while shooting out the passenger window. I thought that was a fun callback which actually made decent sense in context, because even though the thought of Maggie Grace making like Steve McQueen is enough to make one roll their eyes, it's not like she's very good at it yet. She's barely keeping the car on the road and is kind of panicky, which is a reasonable reaction. Although having to suffer through her wailing "I can't!" before she does what she just said she couldn't do over and over again got really old.

That brings me to my last point. I don't like Maggie Grace. Never have. Probably never will. I don't think she's that good of an actress, she always gets moderately to severely annoying characters to play, and her forehead is far too big to not be distracting. At first I was willing to cut her some slack because I figured that I just despised her character on "Lost," Shannon, with the fiery passion of Eternal Hellfire so much that I just assumed my hate for that character was spilling over onto Maggie as an actress, which wasn't fair to her. But then the catch came when I saw her in things other than "Lost," and she's still basically playing Shannon. Not as horrifyingly wretched, of course, but Shannon is still in there. And she needs to be killed with fire.

I did cartwheels when they shot your ass in "Lost." CARTWHEELS.

So that's "Taken 2." It's not as bad as they all said, but neither is it worth spending 90 minutes with unless you're a huge fan of Liam Neeson, particularly if you've already seen the first film. If that's the case, you've already seen the better version of what is essentially the same story. And at least in the first one there wasn't all those events that happened in a movie proceeding it that the heroes seem to forget about, which makes them look stupid. What else am I supposed to think when they're saying stuff such as "You hear all about these terrible things that happen to people over there."

Kind of like that one time that your daughter and her friend went to Paris and got kidnapped and sold as a sex slave, resulting in her friend's death and the deaths of a whole lot of people you killed getting her back? Things like that? Yeah, that might have been worth remembering.

THE BOTTOM LINE - "Taken 2" is not the cinematic abomination that it had been made out to be. Seriously, it's not that bad. It's a decent action movie, and I was reasonably entertained. Its biggest problem is that it's a sequel to a better film. Don't cancel any plans in order to see it, but it's not going to hurt or offend you or anything. And hey, it's Liam Neeson. Can't be all bad.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Cosmopolis (2012)

It's a difficult thing to watch a director you like have a sudden moment of insanity. That's the only answer I have as to why David Cronenberg made "Cosmopolis." Clearly somewhere along the way, he lost his marbles. Or perhaps it's not as extreme as all that. Perhaps it was more that he was simply attempting something different and unique. In his defense that's what Cronenberg has been doing his whole career. In regards to that I suppose "Cosmopolis" would be a success. It is different. It is unique. And sometimes you fail miserably at trying something new. But that's how you learn. That's the process of creativity at work.

But man, the steaming pile of desiccated, reeking placenta left in the afterbirth of the creative process that is "Cosmopolis" is enough to make a person wish Cronenberg had left well enough alone. This movie is a big pile of pretentious excrement.

There is a rather severe disconnect going on in this film between what "Cosmopolis" thinks it is, and what it is in reality. What it thinks it is a scathing indictment of the rich, bundled up in their comfortable soundproof limos as they cruise over the backs of the peons beneath them in blissful, self-entitled ignorance. What it is in reality is the longest feeling 109 minutes of pretentious, incoherent babbling I've ever seen outside of a Terrence Malick film.

Although there is a merciful lack of wheat fields.

There is no real narrative. There are no real characters. There is no dialogue that makes any kind of sense. There are no performances that make us feel like we're looking at human beings. This is an absolute mess, and the only positive thing I can bring myself to say about it is that at least it has the decency to not be as long as an average Malick film. Sure feels like it, though.

"Cosmoplis" consists of billionaire Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) sitting in a limo as he drives across town to get a haircut. According to the back of the DVD case, this qualifies as "an odyssey." I can already guarantee you this movie is giving itself far too much credit. As he is doing this, stuck in traffic the whole way, an assortment of characters pop in one after another to say weird things and then leave after 10 minutes of talking like a robot. Then Eric leaves the limo, does something random, meets someone else, usually has sex with them, another scene filled with rambling nonsense happens and then we go back to the limo to do it all over again. For nearly 2 hours. And then at one point Eric gets a pie in the face while a Frenchman will not shut up about it and camera flashes threaten to give me a seizure. All of this while SYMBOLISM with rats goes on in the background.

Could you please be a tad more overt? I don't think you've hit me over the head with it enough.

Now, I get what they're trying to do here. I'm not stupid. I understand symbolism. He's a rat who knows nothing of the plights of people not rich. Very original. But that stuff works best when it's subtle. Like Animal Mother's "Born to Kill/Peace Sign" helmet in "Full Metal Jacket" referencing "The Duality of Man" and all that crap. I get that. Although that could also just be something ironic that the character did. Sometimes it's hard to tell with symbolism, and I think a lot of times people inject far more into films than what was intended.

In the case of "Cosmopolis," it seems to have hit a symbolism singularity where it's so far over the top and obvious that it almost becomes subtle again, because your line of thinking reasons that no director in their right mind would do something do hackneyed. Especially a good one like Cronenberg. Add to that the fact that everything about "Cosmopolis" is so surreal that it comes across more like a fever dream to the strains of bad poetry, and you're not really sure if what you're seeing is actually supposed to mean anything anyway.

Oh I get it! They're separated like it's a confessional! That makes EVERYTHING make sense!

And you know, I could maybe handle some of that crap if the performances were decent. But the performances are across the board, the worst I've ever seen. Ever. I'm not even joking. Not one single person in this movie speaks like a human being. They deliver their lines like an alien or some other creature that learned the English language by reading E.E. Cummings poems, rambling off incomprehensible diatribes that seem more like a "flowery prowse" edition of Mad Libs.

Let me give you an example of this "deep" dialogue "Cosmopolis" seems to think is so insightful and powerful. Strap yourself in:

Eric Packer: There's a poem I read in which a rat becomes the unit of currency.
Michael Chin: Yes, that would be interesting.
Eric Packer: Yeah, that would impact the world economy.
Michael Chin: The name alone, better than the dong or the kwacha.
Eric Packer: The name says everything.
Michael Chin: Yes. The rat.
Eric Packer: Yes, the rat close lower today against the euro.
Michael Chin: Yes, there's going concern that the Russian rat will be devalued.
Eric Packer: White rats, think about that.
Michael Chin: Yes, pregnant rats.
Eric Packer: Major sell-offs of pregnant Russian rats.
Michael Chin: Britain converts the rat.
Eric Packer: Joins trend to universal currency.
Michael Chin: Yes, US is establishing the rat standard.
Eric Packer: Is every US dollar redeemable for rat?
Michael Chin: Dead rats!
Eric Packer: Yes, stockpiling of dead rats called global health menace.

I'm sorry. Were you attempting to say anything in that vapid, rambling verbal diarrhea?

And while the terrible dialogue is all on the author of the book, Don DeLillo, the bizarre deliveries have got to be on Cronenberg's direction, because I've seen (some of) these actors do FAR better. Pattinson continues his streak of being simply not a very good actor. As per usual he's flat and uncharismatic, and I can't wait until the world is finally done with him. But having a Paul Giamatti performance is a good thing, and it's kind of wasted when you have no idea what he's talking about.
 Seriously. Go away. Take your eyebrows with you.

And it's absolutely insulting, at least to me, that a director with the pedigree of Cronenberg would subject us to this wretched, student film B.S. Is that really what it's come to? Does Cronenberg really think this crap that could be the final project of any random, pretentious, film school dropout would fly after giving us films like he's given us for 30 plus years? What in the blue hell is he thinking?

This is the guy who gave us "Eastern Promises." This is the guy who gave us "A History of Violence." This is the guy who gave us "The Fly." The is the guy who gave us "Videodrome," for crying out loud! Why, for the love of all that is Holy or Evil, is he giving us a piece of crap that is about as deep and meaningful as a sad clown flipping pancakes?!

I am not even kidding you. This is "Cosmopolis."

From the first frame of "Cosmopolis" to its sudden, utterly baffling ending, this is a film that screams out that it is smarter than you are. It screams out that it has something vital to say. It screams out to be taken seriously, and for critics and film snobs to heap praise upon it and shower it with awards because it's so utterly alienating and so gorged upon its own importance that the only possible explanation they can come up with is that it is a "thick and chewy" artistic masterpiece.

Well I, too, have an explanation for why it's "thick and chewy." It's because "Cosmopolis" is the most over-blown piece of garbage I've seen since "The Tree of Life," and it's a massive, greasy turd squeezed from the anus of the most amateur coffee-house beatnik failed poet which sustains itself on its own farts. How's that for an answer?

Hey, Cronenberg. Try making a f*#king movie next time.

THE BOTTOM LINE - This may very well be the worst film I've seen since "The Tree of Life." I wanted to stop it after 10 minutes, which felt like 30, but for some reason that I can't fathom, I muscled through it. I regret every second I wasted doing so. This film is punishment. This is something you'd use to win an easy $5 with by betting your buddy they can't sit through it.

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Delta Force (1986)

I love how Lee isn't even looking where he's shooting.
Chuck Norris may be ironically famous again thanks to the internet and its obsession with taking things that are considered lame and making them not lame by way of overblown forced epicness, but there was a time, back in the day as it were, when he was actually considered something more than just a punchline. And Steven Seagal actually had movies released in theaters. Eddie Murphy was respected as an artist. So was Micheal Jackson. And the graphics in "Super Mario 64" were cutting edge. And Nickelodeon was actually a really good channel. And Green Day was considered edgy and rebellious. Shocking, I know, but it's all true. I'll quit now before young minds are too collectively blown.

"The Delta Force" is one of Norris' best known films, and was released by Golan-Globus Productions, who were a home-video action movie gold mine in the 80's, producing such films as "Enter The Ninja" and "Death Wish 3" among many others, including two Stallone films, "Over The Top" and "Cobra." In other words "Cheese-filled 80's action-splotation." And if you like films like that, then "The Delta Force" is going to be right up your ally. If not, well, you're probably going to hate it.

Go ahead. Tell him you didn't like it.

The story is inspired by a real life plane hijacking that occurred in 1985. Lebanese terrorists take over a plane from Athens to Rome, forcing it to instead land in Beirut. They then make the standard demands of the US government on threat of the death of the passengers. And it's up to Delta Force, a highly trained Spec Ops unit, to save the hostages. There's a little more to it, including an Israeli Army sleeper agent in Beirut and the alternate imprisonment of the Jewish passengers on the plane, but that's the general idea we're working with here.

Personally, I wasn't a big fan of this one. I can't lie. From the concept I was expecting something along the lines of "Executive Decision," a movie that kicks ass, but instead it was more akin to a clunky, not very well paced bore-fest. True, it had it's moments, but overall it didn't have nearly enough action and relegated its star and title military unit to barely being in the movie at all for what seems like a good 70% of its far too long 2 hours and change run-time. But the biggest issue I took was that the narrative was very difficult to follow for me due to some rather bizarre choices in the editing booth.

The initial hostage taking scenario I was fine with. Robert Forster as Abdul, the main terrorist, is fine and plenty scary as the main villain, and kind of functions as an evil Raul Julia. His twitchy partner, Mustafa (David Menachem), I was less a fan of. And while they did do a passable job of being sweaty and creepy, they both had this really annoying habit that all bad guys have in movies, in that they don't understand that a gun is generally regarded as a ranged weapon. They always shove their gun in the faces of the people they're threatening, which is indeed an effective way of scaring someone, but at the same time is pretty dumb of the person holding the gun because if the person being threatened had the basest amount of self-defense training they could disarm him so quickly his mustache would spin like a joke bow-tie. It's no huge deal, it's just a pet peeve of mine.

"Don't MAKE me put myself in a position where you all could easily overpower me!"

But after the hostage taking is when I loose track of all narrative cohesion with this film. All the Jewish passengers are rounded up and unloaded in what is probably the best and most intense part of it, and had the whole movie been centered around that idea and fleshed it out a bit more while keeping the run-time at a reasonable hour and a half, "The Delta Force" would probably been a stronger film.

This is also the bit with the best acting, as some big talents like Joey Bishop and Shelley Winters really ratchet up the tension with the fear over being exposed as Jews to the terrorists. But surprisingly it's German actress Hanna Schygulla as the stewardess having to point out the Jews on board, and (shockingly) George Kennedy as a Catholic priest stepping up to stand with them who steal the show. That was some really good stuff, and Robert Forester plays it evil enough so that there's really no telling what will happen. That should have been the backbone of the whole film. You've even got action movie veteran Bo Svenson as the pilot. I hate to say it, but this movie doesn't really need Chuck Norris or Lee Marvin.

 "Say, Chuck. You ever feel unnecessary?"
"Only if I allow the situation to not need me."
"Baby, that joke won't be around for another 20-some years."

After that bit is where I started to lose the plot. The plane lands in what I thought was Beirut, and they take on more terrorists, who board the plane and take the Jewish passengers off, and free the women and children. It's at this point that Delta Force finally gets to do something after over an hour into the film, but surprise, they screw up and don't realize there are more than two terrorists on the plane now. Way to recon that one. So one of the hostages gets killed as a result. Good job, Delta Force.

I thought that the movie had to be getting close to over, since I thought the terrorists had landed where they initially wanted to go, but as I had to look up later online after being thoroughly confused, that scene was actually taking place in Algiers. They had made a stop along the way. Then it cuts to Delta Force training to take out an airliner full of terrorists (which they never end up doing by the way), and then *boom* the terrorists are shown bopping about somewhere in the Middle East. I'm assuming it's Beirut, but the movie never actually shows them landing there. All of a sudden the hostages are in jail cells somewhere and I'm wondering when in the hell this all happened.

"So Fred from Scooby Doo, Chuck Norris, and a rabbi are driving in a van..."

It really felt like I missed a 15 minute chunk of the movie somewhere. How did the terrorists land in Beirut? What was the result of that? Did they have to fight anyone? Did they just let them go on their merry way once the plane touched down? I have no idea because the movie doesn't seem to think I need to know that. The thing that really makes that confusing later is that before the hostages in Beirut (?) are rescued by Delta Force, they free the Jewish prisoners. But I had no idea where those prisoners are in relation to the other hostages, since I never knew where the terrorists went after unloading them. And more to that point, since I just saw Delta Force evidently having the time to set up elaborate training exercises, I didn't even know when the two rescues were taking place.

The best way to describe it is to imagine that you're watching the first half of "Air Force One." Then, halfway through, throw in the last half of "Clear and Present Danger." Yeah, it's still Harrison Ford and yeah there's still ethnic people being evil, but you would tend to wonder what in the hell happened to that whole "plane thing." And yeah, you'd probably wonder why the villain is Venezuelan instead of from Kazakhstan now, but hey, they're still ethnic right?

The last act of the film is when we actually get to see Delta Force kick butt in all its glory, but for me it's a bit too little too late. There was just too much jumbled mess leading up to it. And the acting from the passengers was so much better than the acting from anyone in Delta Force that I really wanted to see the hostages more than their rescuers. And the last act is an endless wave of action that gets more than a tad repetitive, since I know nothing about nor care anything about any of the soldiers in Delta Force at this point. All I know about them is that they all dress in black and have an easily spotted coil of white rope looped around them.

Seriously with the rope. What's up with that?

That's really all I've got for "The Delta Force." It's got a following, and it's notable not only for its 80's-tastic theme song but also for being Lee Marvin's last film before he died, but even those things really didn't do enough for me. The song is far too happy sounding for the tone of the film and is overused to the point of absurd annoyance, and it gets really grating to the nerves. Frankly I started to wonder if that was the only bit of music for the entire film because I swear it's either that freaking song or silence.

And as far as Lee Marvin goes, I love him but he's not really in it a whole lot, and when he is in it he doesn't do very much except bark orders over a portable phone he starts yelling into a full two seconds before he actually brings it up to his face. Although the coolest bit that Lee has in the film involves that phone as he gives the most badass reading of the phrase "Take 'em down!" in the history of cinema. Seriously, it's glorious. But that's about it.

You could actually say the same thing about Chuck Norris, really. He isn't in "The Delta Force" very much considering that he's the top-billed star and accused main character. True he does some of the expected kung-fu-ing, but it's nearly two hours into the film until we see it, and it's really not much to write home about since it's not much of a fight. To be honest, I think Harrison Ford in "Air Force One" ended up kicking far more ass than Chuck did in this film. And growling "Get off my plane" before breaking the villain's neck and tossing him out of the loading bay at cruising altitude is a far better one-liner than whispering "Sleep tight, sucker" after shooting a guy under a bed.

Then again, Harrison Ford didn't have a ROCKET BIKE. Chuck's got the advantage there.

THE BOTTOM LINE - If you cut out an hour of "The Delta Force," you'd actually have an okay action movie. Nothing to write home about, but it would be okay. It's just too damn long with not much happening until the last 40 minutes. If you only watched that last act though, it's alright. I'm not saying it's bad, I've just seen a lot better. Count me out of the fan club on this one.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Last Stand (2013)

I feel something this momentous needs an epic sounding introduction. Something Tolkien-esque. One that rhymes, is in iambic pentameter or narrated by Morgan Freeman or something. But were he still around, maybe Mako would be a better choice, since the momentous occasion I speak of can only be referring to the return of Arnold Schwarzenegger! It's been so long since Arnie has graced us with a movie that gave him top billing, and I for one missed him terribly.

He's one of my favorite action leads ever, and I personally don't want to live in a world where there are no new Arnold movies to look forward to. The years he was governor were just painful for me, but now the wait is over and a new day is upon us! A day filled with cheesy one-liners! Onward to a new dawn!

Obviously, the extent to which I was excited about "The Last Stand" can not be measured by normal human methods. And after finally, finally seeing it, I can say without hesitation that it was exactly what I expected it to be. It is both a vehicle specifically designed for Schwarzenegger's comeback and a really fun time on top of that. What's interesting is it also possess both the classic campiness of older Arnold films while maintaining a level of gritty realism that has become more commonplace in action movies today.

I don't know guys, he looks like he's having too much fun here. I'm not sure I can get on board...

It seems that was what they were going for in terms of reintroducing Arnold to movie goers after such a long hiatus. In the 11 years since the last "Arnold movie," the horribly disappointing and weak "Collateral Damage," action movies have seemingly gotten overall less cheesy and more dour, with shaky cams and serious heroes aplenty. And when a big movie does come along that does have fun like "The Expendables 2," it's decried as stupid even though that's the whole point. Clearly this is not a market that Arnold can easily fit into anymore.

But since when was it written that nobody can have fun in an action movie now? Why is that seemingly relegated to direct-to-video affairs with Nicolas Cage?  Nobody even spouts one-liners much anymore besides James Bond, and even he's dialed it down a significant amount lately. Hell, seriousness almost flat-out killed the Bond franchise with "Quantum of Solace." This is an endangered concept. So how can Arnold Schwarzenegger, the guy who made action heroes fun, compete with the stone-faced austerity of characters like Jason Bourne?

Well, the answer seems to be "very carefully." If there is one thing that "The Last Stand" balances well, it's the mix of fun and serious tone. If anything, perhaps it's a bit too serious for its own good. This has a tendency to slow down the pace, but at the same time when there are scenes of both a sports car flipping an SUV by driving backwards and using itself as a ramp and of Arnold shooting a frakking minigun from the back of a schoolbus while Johnny Knoxville cackles maniacally and feeds him ammo while wearing a medieval helmet, it's easy to see that at its core "The Last Stand" is not trying to fool you into taking all this too seriously.

Pictured above - Totally serious.

The story concerns Ray Owens (Schwarzenegger), a former LA cop who settles down in a quiet Arizona town on the Mexican border as sheriff. And no, never once does anyone ever acknowledge the fact that "Ray" has an indecipherably thick Austrian accent. This, as in every other Arnold movie ever, is never explained. But on the other hand it's all part of the charm of Arnold. I just love imagining that his real name is Raymünd Owenschlisser, and I come up with an elaborate backstory as to how he came to live in the States. In my version of things he was a former bouncer turned hot air balloonist who found a love of crime stopping when he busted up a diamond smuggling operation whilst ballooning over South Africa. I'm working on the screenplay.

When Cortez, the leader of a Mexican drug cartel gets sprung from jail in Las Vegas in a jailbreak that would make Danny Ocean proud, he speeds towards the border in a car that can roughly do 200 mph. The FBI is at a loss to find or stop him, as they seem to have been outsmarted and out-"impossibly convenient BS-d." Perhaps the bad guys have a psychic among their ranks, I don't know. In any case, the only person who can stop them is Ray and his staff of inexperienced small-town cops. And Johnny Knoxville playing a crazy person. That's clever casting right there.

Much of the first half of the movie is a slow build up to the carnage that is to come, as the bad guys are constructing a bridge right outside of the town spanning a gorge between the States and Mexico for Cortez to drive over. Slowly we see Ben and his men getting closer and closer to piecing together what's going on as it goes from Ben's nagging suspicions, to a farmer going missing, to a case of murder, and finally to an outright shootout with the bad guys as they finally realize what's going down. All this is going on while Cortez speeds towards the town, the FBI in hot but hopeless pursuit.

Honestly, if your last hope is Arnold Schwarzenegger, you could be in worse shape.

Director Jee-woon Kim keeps the action pumping and inventive during the last part of the movie, and unlike a lot of action directors, he also has the common decency to keep it framed nicely so that we can actually see what's happening. The slow buildup is also used effectively, injected with just enough episodes of brief, brutal violence to keep us going and on our toes while we wait for Cortez to finally make it to the town.

This is also where most of the seriousness comes in, as Arnold not only plays it calm and relaxed when going around town, but also dour and mournful when the deaths of people he knows comes up. Often in Arnold movies we see him swearing cold-eyed vengeance on those who killed his friends, but here it's not played quite as hammy. The difference is that previously, he's usually more mad than anything else. But now, since we're taking our action movies more seriously today, he has to be more mournful instead. And while this isn't a deal breaker, in fact Arnold plays it surprisingly well, it does tend to mellow some of the more fun aspects which come later.

Take for example the line Arnold has in "The Running Man" after Yaphet Kotto dies. He tells Richard Dawson that he's going to "Ram [my fist] into your stomach and brake your goddamn spine." That's pretty badass and fun. In "The Last Stand," as he's getting ready to do battle with the villains, he tells one of his remaining cops that there is no way that she is as scared as he is at that moment, because "I've seen enough bloodshed to know what's coming." That's no doubt a badass line, but it's not very fun, and it tends to humanize Arnold as opposed to making him larger than life like he was before. That speaks to the differences I was talking about earlier. It's still awesome, but we can't have too much fun with it nowadays, apparently.

Easy with those cars, boys. You can drive through a cornfield. Just don't crack any one-liners. That's too much fun.

After the humanizing lead in, the back half of "The Last Stand" really fires up to fulfill the promise of Arnold's return to the world of action movies. When the bullets start to fly and the eponymous defiance begins it's hard to deny that not only does Arnold still have it, but there are more than a just a few big action movies to get out of him. This isn't a swan song, this is a new beginning for him. Yeah, he's older but you don't need to be young or even in very good shape to shoot a gun. That last part is important because it's clear that under that uniform, he's packing some gut. But hey, he can still one-hand a .44 like it's a pop-gun with the best of them.

Just keep his shirt on and he'll be fine.

This was also a fun cast to watch. You all know I loved Arnold in it, but Eduardo Noriega, who I remember from "The Devil's Backbone," an awesome movie by Guillermo del Toro, also made a fun and sleazy villain. Luis Guzmán and Johnny Knoxville. two people I'm not a big fan of, also deserve a lot of credit for providing a master's class on how to be a comedic relief character without being annoying, a talent utterly lost on most actors. That right there is worth the price of admission for the shear relief. Okay, maybe Knoxville got a little over the top with it, but the payoff was actually pretty funny.

The only two people I didn't really like were Forest Whitaker and Peter Stormare. I didn't like Forest much because he didn't do a whole lot except wheeze into a phone and fail at doing things. And Peter Stormare I really don't like in anything because he's Peter Stormare and I cannot tolerate his voice. It's seriously distracting because I never have any idea what kind of accent he's supposed to have. It's always this weird, nasally Italian/Russian/Swedish/German sounding dialect that just drives me up the wall. Even when he has a vaguely Texan accent like in this movie I can still hear it. Although his Texas accent is far more tolerable than his normal speaking voice.

And I enjoyed seeing him getting shot in the face.

Is "The Last Stand" art? No, it's not. But is that really what you were expecting it to be? Apparently so since this movie is bombing hard. And that's a damn shame that I don't understand. Are you all so jaded that when an action movie icon that became famous for cheese and gratuitous slaughter, which we LOVED him for, comes back after a long time gone and gives us a movie which is right in line with the things we loved about his old stuff, we roll our eyes and scoff? What's wrong with everyone? What more do you want? You know you love Arnold movies, as everyone with red blood pumping in their veins should. Why not this one?

Because I tell you what - If you see this movie and think that it's a weak entry in Arnold's filmography, watch "The Sixth Day." Watch "Collateral Damage." Watch "Jingle All The Way." Watch "Junior." Watch "Batman & Robin," if you have a death wish. Watch any of those. Then watch "The Last Stand," where Arnold tackles a guy off a roof while shooting him in the head, and then lands on him to cushion his fall.

And then look me in the eye and tell me that he's not starting his return off on a high note.

THE BOTTOM LINE - I really liked "The Last Stand." While it may not have had the shear amount of action per frame that I was hoping for, the mounting tension made for a more suspenseful film as opposed to a more brainless one, which is an acceptable tradeoff. This is a great return for Schwarzenegger, and I can't wait to see what else he has in store, particularly later this year with "The Tomb." It's going to be sweet. Welcome back, Arnie. I missed you so much, bro.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Gangster Squad (2013)

I've never been a huge mark for gangster movies. Their plots tend to be a bit overly complicated for me, what with the phone book of names they require us to know, almost all of them ending in "o" or "ni," and the connections between all of them, which when charted out with lines connecting all the dots resembles something akin to a Spirograph drawing. Oddly I find the same stuff in "Lord of The Rings" easy to follow. For some reason I know that it's Gimli, son of Gloin, son of Groin, descendant of Durin, but for some reason I could not tell you why Tony Soprano wants "Big Pussy" Bonpensiero dead. I have no explanation for this.

Movies like "LA Confidential" and "The Departed" just made my head hurt trying to keep up with the plot, to the point I couldn't enjoy them. I guess I'm just a simple man when it comes to gangster movies. Stuff like "Dick Tracy" or "Scarface." Cops are good, gangsters are bad. They shoot at each other. There you go. I'm all for shades of grey and crooked cops and men on the inside and informants and whatnot, but not at the expense of knowing what's going on. I even found "The Godfather" to be slightly frustrating, as good as it was. But that's just me. I don't like olives in my martinis, and I don't like convolution in my mobster plots.

But it seems an accepted fact now that gangster movies need that ridiculous web of connections and plots within plots within schemes within rats in order to even get made. It's just something those movies are supposed to have, but I've always found that to really be annoying because when it's all said and done, the only thing we want is to see the big shoot out at the end, because that's how they all always end. That is the part everyone is there to see in the first place. To have the road to that shoot out be so twisting and turning and doubling back on itself seems pointless, plodding and bordering on pretentious.

*sigh* It's just not exciting unless I've seen 3 hours of impossible-to-follow lead-in...

"Gangster Squad" doesn't have any of that. It was fast paced with a clear and easily digestible plot, and I found it to be something of a breath of fresh air. It was streamlined to the point where there wasn't anything left of the usual annoyances I have with the genre. What's left my not be anything that someone coming into it expecting a film like "LA Confidential" would want, but that's not to say it's bad. In fact, as "dumbed down" as that person may see "Gangster Squad," I greatly preferred it to something more "cerebral," and the reason for that is because it's free of that previously mentioned pretension.

I suppose it's for that same reason that "Gangster Squad" has been thrown under the bus in terms of critical reaction. Not that any of that really matters in the long run, but the 33% that Rotten Tomatoes has this film at is nowhere near the rating it deserves. I guess it's quite telling how deeply those elements of obfuscation have been engrained into the mob movie when a fun, well acted, action packed entry is shunned simply because it lacked those elements. It's a shame.

Listen up, you critics who gave this movie crap for not being "LA Confidential." It's not "LA Confidential." They never meant it to be. Accept this and move on. Stop crying into your notepad filled to the brim with scribbles bemoaning how this movie DARED to be a fun time, stick the pencil in your eye and leave the rest of us who got the point of this movie in peace. Just go pleasure yourself over "Road to Perdition" again or something.

What? Walking away from an explosion? Zero stars.

"Gangster Squad" plays out like a slightly more serious remake of "The Untouchables." Calling it "more serious" may be something of a misnomer, since there is certainly a good amount of humor to be found within, but anyone who saw "The Untouchables" remembers how comic-booky it got. "Gangster Squad" has a similar premise, what with a seasoned cop forming an elite team to take down a powerful mob boss, but this time it's in LA instead of Chicago. And we have better actors than Kevin Costner.

While I wasn't blown away by Josh Brolin's Sgt. O'Mara, the main character, I suppose he did a passable job of squinting and looking like a jaw had grown to gigantic proportions and sprouted legs. I'm not going to complain about his performance. He did what he was supposed to do. He was a hard-ass cop who didn't play by the rules, but damn it, he got the job done! I'm surprised they didn't give him a .44 magnum.

His jawline is actually a detective. It hides its badge under O'Mara's tongue.

I found Ryan Gosling to be more entertaining to watch, even though I'm still not 100% on board with him as an actor. We'll call it 70%. He has been climbing the ladder, but he still reminds me way too much of Casey Affleck, who's rocking a 25%. At least Gosling has the ability to not mumble. He's the reluctant member of the eponymous squad who's also playing the most dangerous game out of anyone, as he's having an affair with Grace (Emma Stone), who just happens to be the "companion" of the villain, Mickey Cohen.

Speaking of him, if there was one reason to see this film, it's Sean Penn as Mickey Cohen. He's another actor I'm usually not overly fond of, but I've got to say this was a really fun performance that he gave. If you were to channel De Niro's Al Capone and Pacino's "Big Boy" Caprice, you'd be in the right ballpark in terms of how fun he is to watch. Because he's a former boxing champion, Cohen is a bit more intimidating on a physical level than most mob boss villains are, and it's rather tense seeing him bare-knuckle throw down with Josh Brolin at the end, because there's a really strong possibility that Brolin is going to get his ass handled to him in a fancy cocktail glass.

I'd like to see Gandolfini do this...

In addition to Sean Penn, two other reasons to see "Gangster Squad" are immediately brought to mind. The first is Robert Patrick as a six-shooter toting cowboy cop who seems like he wandered onto the set from another movie being filmed across the street, but they liked him so much they just rolled with it. He may be out of place, but he's still a badass and possesses the best facial hair of the film. It's glorious. Plus it's Robert Patrick. And that's awesome.

The other reason was Emma Stone. Well, Emma Stone and her legs. There are certain things that I just can't lie about. One of those things is the fact that when it comes to particular people, I am a disgusting pig. I can't lie. So here it is: Emma Stone seems to be on a mission to be the most offensively attractive person I've ever seen in my life, particularly when she's sporting the red hair. And that seductive, Becall-esque, cigarette soaked voice of hers that sounds straight out of a movie from the 40's...good lord. I have a list of body parts I would be willing to saw off myself (or anyone else for that matter) with an allen wrench if it meant that I could merely be in her presence. I don't care how creepy that sounds, I stand by it.

She's also a really good actress. There is that, too.

Seriously, that's not fair, Emma. You're killing me by being so gorgeous.

With all that said, the cast really can't do too much if the rest of what's going on around them isn't entertaining as well, but "Gangster Squad" manages to be exciting throughout, with a good amount of action beats to keep the tempo brisk and engaging, and enough surprisingly brutal violence to satiate the bloodlust of anyone watching for the carnage. And for the kind of movie this is, which is a big budget B-movie harkening back to something that Lee Marvin would be in, that doesn't seem out of place at all.

And what do you know? It's also pretty funny. Some might not like that. Of course when you have lines like "You know the drill, boys" before a guy gets killed via a drill to the face, followed by brains splattering on the wall, followed by Josh Brolin throwing hamburger meat on a grill, it should be obvious what kind of movie this is. And expectations should be adjusted properly. I'm just glad I had fun at a mobster movie for a change.

THE BOTTOM LINE - "Gangster Squad" was a lot of fun. It's exciting, it's well acted, the action is brutal, and it doesn't take itself very seriously, which adds to the humor and overall enjoyment. This is not a movie made by a people desperately trying to get an Oscar like most modern gangster films. This is a movie that remembers that those movies used to be a really fun time. Which "Gangster Squad" was. Check it out.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Running Man (1987)

At the time of this entry, there are only two days remaining. Two days until the triumphant return of one of the greatest Action Movie Gods of all time. He is the giant who cannot be hit by bullets. He is the man who can make something explode just by pointing something else at it. He is the man who can look badass in both a loincloth and a spandex bodysuit. He's the King of The One Liner. He's also one of my favorite actors. I can be speaking of none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger. And this week, he returns.

I can't accurately describe my excitement for "The Last Stand." I'm so excited, in fact, that I couldn't help myself and needed to pre-game before seeing it. I decided to pop in one of the less popular Arnold vehicles, "The Running Man."

Right off the bat, I can see two reasons why "The Running Man" is usually not one of the films mentioned often in conversations about Arnold movies, unless the people discussing are big fans. The first is that frankly it's not one of his better movies. That's not to say it's bad, but it's a little too tame on the violence and a little too cheesy for its own good to hold up next to some other classic Schwarzenegger films. Which brings us to the second reason: 1987 saw the release of two Arnold movies. "The Running Man" was one. The other movie was "Predator."

Yeah, "Predator" wins.

How in the world any movie is supposed to hold up next to what is one of the best action films of all time I have no idea. It seems unnecessarily cruel to compare the two, since the source material at a base level is better in one over the other, but especially so since "Predator" director John McTiernan went on to do "Die Hard," and "The Running Man" director Paul Michael Glaser went on to do "Kazaam." Did "The Running Man" ever have much of a shot at being the more memorable film?

"The Running Man" is set in what is now considered a pretty cliched setting: In the not-too-distant future, television and The Media will be the most powerful thing on the planet, and there will be a distopian landscape where human life is held with the same amount of reverence as used toilet paper. In this future, the most successful and popular show is "The Running Man," where criminals (as determined by the corrupt government) fight to the death in embarrassing bodysuits against gladiators in even more embarrassing outfits known as "stalkers" in order to win their freedom. Of course, it's all a hoax and even if you win, they kill you in secret.

Hey, it may be cliched now, but I'm sure back in 1987 it was a bit less plausible and frighteningly less close to home.

Bee tee dubs, he's the author of the book it's based on. #themoreyouknow

Schwarzenegger plays Ben Richards (yeah right), a former cop who gets thrown in the slammer after not killing a bunch of starving people, whom he's then framed for killing anyway. After breaking out of the most ineptly run prison in the world after only a year and a half, Ben ends up in the custody of the government after being a bit of a prick and trying to abscond to Hawaii with this random girl who he finds now living in his brother's apartment. They make it as far as the airport before she predictably betrays him to the authorities at the first possible opportunity.

Ben is then forced into participating in "The Running Man" by the guy who runs away with both the literal and proverbial show, the movie's villain Damon Killian, played by Richard Dawson. Dawson was on a lot of TV shows, most notably "Hogan's Heroes," but everyone remembers him as "That host of Family Feud that tried to make out with all the female contestants." Richard Dawson was awesome, and he was actually a very good actor as well. There's no contest when I say that out of everyone in "The Running Man," Dawson throws down the best performance as the slimy bizarro-version of himself as the host of the eponymous show. And to be honest once again, were it not for him I really wouldn't consider "The Running Man" to be watchable. Even with Arnold in it.

Arnold's bulge was up for a Golden Globe. It lost to David Bowie's. True story.

There's just too little payoff to be found, in my opinion. There are really only four big fights in the entire film that Arnold has, and none of them last very long or are satisfying in terms of the carnage we'd expect from the premise. The first fight between Ben and Subzero (played by not-Harold Sakata professional wrestler Professor Toru Tanaka) starts off reasonably promising, but it's over pretty quick as Arnold takes him down with a single maneuver. The next stalker, Buzzsaw, has the longest fight and goriest kill, but most of it consists of Buzzsaw dragging Ben around behind his motorcycle and the violence isn't shown. Not very thrilling. The walking Lite-Brite Dynamo just crashes his car with Ben never touching him. Lastly, the stalker with the best weapon, Fireball (played by NFL legend Jim Brown) doesn't seem to realize how easily he could kill him with a flamethrower and gets taken out like a punk with barely any fight at all.

There's also a decent fight between Jessie Ventura and Arnold, but it's not actually the character of Ben Richards. It's only a guy with Ben's face mapped over his own in post. Although we never do find out who they had just sitting around the place who just happened to be a competent but expendable fighter the exact size of Arnold Schwarzenegger. I don't know. It's an 80's action flick. I'm not going to lose sleep over something like that. But it still doesn't change the fact that for an R-rated action movie about futuristic gladiators staring Schwarzenegger, this is a pretty tame outing.

"And if you survive, the grand prize will be...having your story be repackaged as a teen fiction phenomenon which will serve as a better alternative to a lousy teen fiction phenomenon!"

Also, if you have Arnold promise the villain with the horribly cheesy but strangely badass line, "I'll live to see you eat that contract, but I hope you leave enough room for my fist because I'm going to ram it into your stomach and break your goddamn spine" and you don't have him follow through with that promise...reconsider how you are going about making your film. Seriously you guys, that one was a freebee.

This. I want to see Arnold do this.

Lastly, "The Running Man" is just a little too corny for its own good. Don't get me wrong, my favorite thing about Arnie is the one-liners, but here they just aren't up to par. There's a couple groan inducing ones including "What a hot head" after he roasts someone and "What a pain in the neck" after he garrotes someone else to death, but as you can probably already tell, they weren't very creative. Some also required some pretty forced lead-ins. Even the most memorable one-liner "Here is Subzero! Now plain zero!" is honestly just confusing to me. "Plain zero" implies simply nothing, while "Subzero" implies less than that. Is he saying that he's improved Subzero by killing him? Has he made him at least break even now?

Hell, the best one-liner in "The Running Man" came from Richard Dawson when, after Arnold says "I'll be back," he quips "Only in a re-run." Taking away my hatred for whenever they have Arnie recycle a line, when compared with any of the numerous phenomenal quotes from that same year's "Predator" it's not even close. That can't compete with stuff like "Stick around." That can't even compete with "Knock, knock." This movie wishes that it could have that same badassery, and it tries, but when you kill your main villain by firing him into a wall in a rocket-car and the line after is "Well that hit the spot," it's just sad.

What spot? Was the rocket-car's name "Spot?" What the hell are you talking about?

THE BOTTOM LINE - While "The Running Man" should be required watching for anyone who's a fan of Arnold, it's probably the weakest of his 80's films, if only because back then his peaks were so high. It's alright, but this is one of the weakest. The only ones worse are probably "Conan The Destroyer." Or "Red Sonja." Or "Twins." Okay, so maybe "The Running Man" ain't all that bad. At least see it for Richard Dawson being awesome.