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Thick as Thieves (2009)
Watch it for Antonio
I was planning to give this film a 7 until the final scene, when the bubblegum-disco credits music kicked in. Deduct 1 star for the bad taste left in my mouth.
"Thick as Thieves" (alternatively titled "The Code") is your standard high-tech heist film, with serious tips of the hat to "Mission Impossible" and "Ocean's 11." A number of nice plot twists along the way, some of which you'll probably see coming and some not. The obligatory 40 seconds of moderately graphic sex. (Why did I get the odd notion that the producers were trying to bump this up to an R rating but couldn't quite manage it?) And, my main reason for the high rating, exceptional performances from Morgan Freeman and Antonio Banderas.
Freeman is his usual stolid self and always worth seeing, though we've all seen his persona before. But Banderas is a particular joy to watch. At least one IMDb reviewer commented that he's getting a bit old to play the wisecracking buddy-movie younger guy, but I didn't view his character that way at all. I saw a cool-headed, competent crook, still young enough to have all his abilities but aware that the tide is ebbing quickly. (Banderas was 49 when this film was released, though his character can pass for considerably less.) And he doesn't take himself seriously; watch his facial expressions, some of which are hilarious, some self-mocking, and all expressive and beautifully in character.
In fact, the entire film doesn't take itself seriously; I think that's why I had such fun watching what is, at bottom, a modest, not particularly original story. The ridiculously high-tech alarm systems and burglary gadgets, the juggling of identities and motives, the light, understated script (including some wonderful scenes featuring fully expendable bad guys): The mood of the whole is simply fun. Crack a beer and enjoy it.
How in Hell Did They Get De Niro for This Pile of Crap?
I love a good bloodfest as much as anyone, and in films where stage blood accounts for 50% of the production budget, I'm not really particular about plots. (Actually, the plot here is halfway decent.) So far, so good. But the script is boring, clichéd and predictable, and the acting---the main reason for my 3 rating---is just plain dreadful. Danny Trejo is okay, because he doesn't have more than three or four sentences in the whole film, and it's fun to see an action hero who's shorter than I am. But every time one of the other characters opened his or her mouth, I cringed, hoping that he or she would be immediately decapitated---a wish that was fulfilled surprisingly often.
And then there's Robert De Niro, playing a scheming, anti-immigration Senator with a Texas accent as deep as the Rio Grande. Oh, Robert, Robert, Robert: Did you really need the money that much? In any event, De Niro is fine, as always, and almost makes "Machete" watchable. Almost. 3 out of 10.
Guillermo del Toro drops the bug on this one.
I lived and worked and rode the subways in Manhattan for 15 years, and I think that the MPAA should have included a notice at the beginning of this film: "All insects shown actual size."
I'm a huge fan of Guillermo del Toro, both his horror/fantasy films and his all-for-fun monster movies, and I simply couldn't understand how the mind that created a masterpiece such as "Cronos" could turn around and spew out something as just plain ORDINARY as "Mimic." I found at least part of the explanation here on IMDb: After repeated on-set changes by the producer, Bob Weinstein, del Toro apparently disowned the film. Still, his name is up there as Director, so he can't escape all the blame.
All the usual horror ingredients are here: the dark, cluttered, brooding sets; the blink-and-you'll-miss-'em split-second shadowy glimpses of the creatures; the monstrous jaws trailing strands of slime as they open; the cute young heroine who is also a world-class scientist (and, of course, half of the love-interest subplot); and so on. The problem is not that any of this stuff is done badly; it's that everything has been done before (and since). That is not what one expects from Guillermo del Toro. I've seen all his full-length films; some, such as "Pan's Labyrinth," are in my opinion among the best movies every made, and even the least serious of them, "Pacific Rim," shows an ingenuity and attention to detail that pull it out of the "comic-book film" category and make it something special. "Mimic" is the only one of his films that simply drags.
Still, it's probably the only film ever made in which the line, "There's some weird sh*t in here!" can be taken absolutely literally.
Aw, c'mon now, how can anyone NOT like this movie?
We can assume that anyone starting in on "Slither" has at least a suspicionthe title alone is the biggest clue, and the theatrical trailer flat-out tells you what to expectthat this is an over-the-top, affectionate, tongue-in-cheek paean to B-grade horror movies past. ("Tongue-in-cheek" may in fact be a bit too revolting a description.) At the very least, a first-time viewer will be expecting a standard gross-out sci-fi movie.
"Slither" works either way.
If you go in wanting nothing more than an hour and a half of **CGI Slugs Terrorize Small Town!**, you'll get everything you wanted. (More, in fact, because the production quality is far, far above the norm for that type of film.) But if you know, or suspect, that "Slither" is really a takeoff on, and a tribute to, every horror, suspense and sci-fi film ever made, then you'll be able to appreciate its real joys. You've got your slimy aliens, brought to Earth aboard a meteor (always the transport of choice for slimy aliens); you've got your small, isolated town, presumably in the southern U.S., being overrun by (in this case) giant sluglike things, controlled by a single central intelligence; you've got your curvaceous alien-fodder local girls, ready to remove their shirts at the first sign of danger; you've got your square-jawed Chief of Police, doing his duty in the face of something that was definitely not covered in his training. . . .
And you've also got an astonishing number of truly hilarious moments:
● The first-infected human (Grant Grant, played by Michael Rooker), early in his transformation, preparing a cozy nest for himself in the dirt and debris of his basement;
● The same poor guy (his increasingly disgusting makeup is in itself a loving parody of B-grade SF films), indulging his rapidly escalating hunger for flesh---from the contents of his fridge, to the entire stock of the butcher's rib-eyes, to his neighbours' livestock;
● The deadpan performance of Nathan Fillion as Police Chief Bill Pardy, who seems to be thinking, at each new repulsive incident, "You've gotta be kiddin' me";
● The foulest-mouthed Mayor in cinematic history;
● The ever-popular "short scene after the credits," which is definitely worth waiting for.
The effects are not overly ambitious, but top-level for quality. And there's one brief, remarkable scene in which we get a glimpse of the world from which these creatures have come. For about five seconds the level of the CGI, both in content and detail, jumps to an entirely new planean immensely effective and jarring device.
Do yourself a favour and check out "Slither," if only for Michael Rooker's makeup. I mean, when was the last time you saw a room-size mutant squid from outer space reach out a tentacle to switch on a country-music radio station?
Don't assume you're certain of anything---and don't assume that it matters.
I have trouble following the plots of far less devious films than this (ditto detective novels), which makes me the perfect person to counter the criticisms of reviewers who couldn't follow the tortuous, flashback-laden, ever-changing plot of this film. It took me a couple of viewings and (I swear it) written notes and diagrams to figure out what was going on---or not going on---or what the director wanted me to think was going on---or what the director wanted me to think was going on so I'd think it really wasn't, though it actually was. . . . You get the idea.
Let us turn, as I often do when confronted with a plot of which I've lost track a long way back, to Raymond Chandler, the greatest detective novelist who ever lived. In his famous essay "The Simple Art of Murder," Chandler defined the purpose of the detective novel (and by extension detective movies---which, at bottom, is what "Basic" is) as "an effect of movement, intrigue, cross-purposes, and the gradual elucidation of character." Chandler notes that in Dashiel Hammett's most famous work, "The Maltese Falcon," the only "formal problem" in the story is never resolved and, in fact, quickly becomes irrelevant.
Viewed in this light, "Basic" works brilliantly. Forget about the plot holes. Yes, there are some large ones. Forget about the places where fact and fiction (the characters' fictions) can't be told apart. Forget what you think you "know." Instead, view this film as a mosaic of facts, falsehoods and motives. Keep an open mind. When you've reached the end and know the truth---watch it again in that light. It'll make sense.
And mainly, watch it for John Travolta.
The Spirit (2008)
"I am sorely disappointed!"
I had high hopes for this film. I like Frank Miller's work and distinctive style very much, I'm a huge fan of Samuel L. Jackson, and I have no trouble enjoying most "made from comic book" films, even though I'm not a big comic-book fan myself. But "The Spirit" somehow manages to be both simultaneously over the top and banal; it would merit a much higher rating if it had been intended as parody of comic-book films. I mean, what is an actor or actress, even a good one, supposed to do with a line such as "Who knows how far his tentacles may have spread!" Or "I am death! You are the only man who has ever escaped my cold embrace."
Gabriel Macht looks the part of The Spirit, but can do nothing with the role. I doubt that anyone could. Samuel L. Jackson is fun, but it's just too much of the same thing; even he gets tiresome after a while. And almost without exception, every other role is laughably flat. I found myself pitying the actors and wondering whether they listed this film on their resumes.
I think what it comes down to is that if you're going to make a movie based on a comic book, there ought to be some difference between the two---some reason for making the film in the first place. No reason at all here.
Dawn of the Dead (2004)
One of the great zombie movies - - - if you're not too picky
A random group of Navy SEALS sharpshooters, Israeli SWAT team members and Wild West gunslingers find themselves trapped in a Milwaukee shopping mall. . . . Okay, they're really supposed to be an ordinary group of strangers. I merely wish to point out that of the roughly 47 gazillion shots fired in the course of this film, not a one of them missed. To kill a zombie, of course, you have to shoot it in the head---not an easy shot even if both shooter and target are stationary. But we get a feeble old man shooting two handguns while being dragged backward; a guy who didn't know where his safety catch was, dispatching dozens of zombies - - - BANG!--Another zombie down. You get the idea.
This isn't criticism; I'm giving this film 8 out of 10. But you should know, if watching it for the first time, that you'll be asked not only to suspend disbelief, but to hang disbelief by the neck until dead. Plot holes are too numerous to mention; logic (even the film's internal logic) is gently slid off to the side and into oblivion; numerous major questions are never answered, notably how the sudden zombie virus originated, apparently overnight. Oh, lots of stuff.
How, then, an 8 out of 10? Because "Dawn of the Dead," unlike any other zombie film I've seen (full disclosure here: I have NOT seen the 1978 original), clearly had someone with a brain behind it. Maybe even two such someones! There's good, chiseled dialogue; consistent understatement (an early, excellent example is the TV news flash while Ana and her hubby are otherwise engaged; we're not told what the news flash is about---just that there is one); and even some character development! (Well, not the zombies; they pretty much just keep on doing what zombies do.) Also, as other IMDb reviewers have pointed out, very effective flashes of humour, the best being the scene in which the lead characters, communicating by sign with a gun-shop owner stranded atop his store across the street, suggest targets---"Burt Reynolds"--- and the gun guy takes aim and blows away the shambling zombie who resembles Burt Reynolds.
My only serious complaint with this immensely entertaining film is the portrayal of the zombies. You'd think that someone would find some workable variant on the universal zombie standard: arms outstretched, bloody mouth, eyes circled in kohl for that sunken look. It's a tried and true formula, but watch enough zombie films and you just get tired.
Why such extreme reactions - - - on either side?
The reviews here seem to be divided between those who consider "Push" a 10-star masterpiece and those who say it's total garbage. First of all, there's no way in hell this movie rates 10 stars. I can't imagine why anyone would rank it that highly; and yes, one does wonder whether some of the more enthusiastic reviewers were involved with the production in some way.
But I'm just as baffled by those who panned it top to bottom and gave it the lowest possible rating. If "Push" is one of the worst films these folks have seen, then I'm sorry, but they're simply not watching enough bad movies. Much of the plot is predictable or silly, and the sets and settings are limited and unimaginative, but the atmosphere is enjoyably tense throughout (helped by excellent, nervous editing), and the script is, for the most part, sharp and tight. There's quite a bit of overacting---the cast may have watched "Scarface" one too many times---but it never falls below professional level. No Pacinos here, but a talented young cast doing a solid job.
I found "Push" in the local bargain bin for $2, and fully expected to watch it (or part of it) once, then sell it back to the store for a buck. Instead, I'm keeping it.
Straight-ahead sci-fi action flick, with a terrific Kurt Russell.
This is a good, tight, unassuming sci-fi film, with a lot of standard themes, settings and characters swirling around the impassive, almost silent figure of Kurt Russell.
Russell's character, Todd---raised from birth to be a soldier through a ruthless training program, then supplanted by a new breed of genetically engineered soldiers and discarded---is the one truly new idea in the film, and an utter change of character for Russell. "Soldier" isn't "Star Wars" or "Blade Runner," but it doesn't try to be. It's thoroughly enjoyable, completely satisfying escapist fare. The special effects and action sequences are nothing eye-popping, but they're solidly put together, and the acting (though some of the minor characters are pretty thin-grade cardboard) is generally quite good. Jason Scott Lee is a thoroughly effective villain---with even fewer lines than Russell.
The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)
An almost flawless film
This is Woody Allen's favourite of all his films, and it's easy to see why. It combines hilarious comedy with serious themes, as all his best films do, and it does so in lapidary style---not a word wasted, not a joke added just for yuks. The comedy, particularly the bickering among the actors stranded on screen, is as funny as anything Allen ever wrote, and the squalor and cruelty of the real world are a perfect counterpoint, managing to make the film's fantasy premise completely believable.
Several IMDb reviewers have complained that they were disappointed by the sad ending of "Purple Rose"; I strongly disagree. The ending as Allen wrote it is almost inevitable. A happier ending would have brought the real-world half of the film firmly into the area of fairy-tale fantasy, and would have shattered the balance that lies at the heart of the movie. If anything, Jeff Daniels's brooding, regretful look in our last view of him, and Mia Farrow's half-smile in the final shot, soften the power of the ending a bit more than I'd have wished.
If you watch only films with happy endings, you're missing a lot of very good movies.