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Box of Moonlight
Dock Ellis & The LSD No-No (2010)
The year is 1970 and Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis is feeling the pressures of the big leagues more than ever before. Infamously, he combats these feelings with the use of psychoactive drugs, which most people were clueless about "other than what they'd seen on TV with the hippies." On one particularly strong game-day LSD trip, fog and rain settle into the stadium and miraculously create conditions which help him to sustain a no-hitter. James Blagden takes this story, narrated by Ellis himself, and enhances it using period-inspired animated designs, a contrasting color scheme, simplistic editing, and humorous and clever sound design. Blagden builds the animation's tone around Ellis's laid back and playful account of the event, and the result is a five minute short that is so filled with hilariously exaggerated detail that repeated viewings are essential.
The General (1998)
Top Notch True Crime Story
Michael Mann's recent biopic about John Dillinger, "Public Enemies," posed a lot of probing, psychological questions about its infamous subject, but failed to fully follow through on them, favoring the excitement and the action of the story instead. Maybe Mann should have taken his cues from John Boorman's sadly under-known 1998 film "The General," which is the real-life story of the strikingly successful Irish thief Martin Cahill (also known by the title nickname). This is a film that is so simply but thoroughly grounded in its subject's psychology that each scene is immersing and utterly convincing. The story moves quickly with a cohesive structuring of Cahill's dizzyingly ambitious heists, but what impresses most is how the viewer is always fully aware that the man enacting them is a human being, not a mythologized folk hero.
For that, Boorman is largely indebted to his leading man, Brendan Gleeson, who breathes authentic life into his character and therefore enables the whole movie to stand sturdily on his shoulders. Gleeson is so convincing in the role that it is not only difficult to question the presentation of the subject, but also to question or judge the motives and actions of the subject himself. That is no easy feat, as Cahill is a man who created his own moral code, having been disenchanted with local government authorities since he was a boy, and justified his criminal lifestyle by it. Gleeson humanizes such a rebellious, Robin Hood mentality by giving Cahill the amount of grit, working class pragmatism and playful humor that would most likely be required for one to successfully live his life like a perpetual cat and mouse game with the authorities.
That's not to say Gleeson's performance is the only star of the show. Boorman is in top form, with a lean script that neither misses a beat nor belabors Cahill's sprawling, episodic story. He gives key psychological and expository information at the beginning and lets the factual events unfold at a breakneck speed. The action is well handled, allowing Richie Buckley's playful jazz score to elicit absurd humor from Cahill's exploits, but the film is never too cinematic nor too self-consciously "real life." It is simply a great story told with soulful gusto.
Great biopics are fully aware that they are telling a story, and try not to let needless details get in the way. Boorman achieved this in "The General" by focusing on a tight story arc and letting the details give it muscle. But that's not to say he simplifies the material. Instead, he tells Cahill's story as a succession of challenges to his morally ambiguous, self-serving code which ultimately lead to his much-deserved downfall. By the end, Cahill is shown having lived and died fully by his code.
"The General" is anything one could want from a biopic. It's fast and entertaining while sustaining enough authenticity and ambiguity to keep things constantly interesting.
(3 out of 4)
a Good Sci/Fi Fantasy that Chooses Accessibility over Greatness
The Harvey Weinstein-edited, American version of Rene Laloux's ambitious 1988 feature "Gandahar" is a lavish, mostly satisfying animated spectacle. It suspends Isaac Asimov's sci/fi philosophy, Cold-War politics and psychedelic, Daliesque imagery with conventional plotting that keeps the story clicking along briskly with an accessible, user-friendly approach. Having not seen the pre-Weistein version, it is frustrating to wonder how much of Laloux's original intent was lost in Weistein's decidedly Americanized cut, but what remains is an intelligent, fresh and well-layered fantasy romp.
Weinstein seemed to hold "Star Wars" as a reference point, as he wielded the classical, Campbellian hero structure to ground its complex visual designs in familiar storytelling. These designs immediately plunge the viewer into the peaceful alien civilization of Gandahar, a beautiful blue world inhabited by intelligent creatures who enjoy a blissful political harmony. Gandahar is so peaceful, in fact, that its leaders completely neglect technological advancement due to a universal contentedness in the progress of the civilization. Inevitably, the peace is threatened when mysterious, unidentified rays are reported in nearby areas, causing Gandahar's leaders to send their young, precocious prince Sylvain to investigate the possible alien threat.
After coming into contact with the grotesquely deformed remaining members of a previous civilization, Sylvain learns of an army of metallic soldiers who are operated by an enormous brain called the Metamorphosis. They pull their resources together and fight the army using their wits, giving way to a third act that puts its building ideas into a fine focus while also delivering the expectedly rousing action goods.
"Gandahar" grounds its thesis in the fact that a civilization's strength lies in a fully integrated sense of past, present and future. The historical connections are obvious, as the film cleverly points out the inherent weakness of domineering political powers that combine brute force and radicalism in order to eradicate truths demonstrated by history and tradition. As a political statement, the film works incredibly well, as its blend of sci/fi philosophy and politics fit together naturally - reminding one that great mythology is traditionally political.
As an auteur piece, however, it's hard to ignore an overall lack of sheer, artistic wonder. Weinstein's (or whoever's) familiar structuring balances the film's many layers elegantly, but there is a definite artistic compromise present that will likely be disappointing to fans of Laloux's "Fantastic Planet." Much of the movie has a Disney-like simplification of its world and logic that prevents it from fully captivating the viewer with its whimsical absurdities. "Fantastic Planet" is spellbinding because it treats its viewer like a visiting alien, never over-explaining or belaboring its genuinely bizarre imagery and focusing mainly on an amazingly distanced, otherworldly mood one which would have been suffocated by a driving, centralized plot. In this way, "Gandahar" disappoints in its overall familiarity, favoring traditional story tropes over bold originality.
To a viewer looking for a multifaceted, accessible science fiction fantasy, however, the film is a treat. With so many balls in the air, it understandably picked a straightforward approach and is able to satisfy a wide variety of viewers. It's just unfortunate that such an approach is what separated a good film from a potentially great film.
Under the Volcano (1984)
An Indulgent, Often Incoherent, but Interesting Adaptation
John Huston's adaptation of Malcom Lowry's celebrated novel is very much like his adaptation of Flannery O'Connor's "Wise Blood": foggy, dreamlike and at times unwatchable. Huston finds a strange, distant tone that is somewhere between ironic and completely bizarre, with intentionality that is questionable at best. Even though Huston was getting old at this point, he was still tackling challenging material in his old age, which possibly explains the odd mix of provocative, dense material with stilted, unintuitive storytelling. If his age isn't the main culprit for the film's weird failings, then it may be his stiflingly traditional film-making, which seemed a bit outmoded in 1984. Either way, the film never finds a proper stylistic center, causing "Under the Volcano" to continually sink into incoherence.
Huston's most grave misstep was his choice to pace the film with mostly static shots and slow editing rhythms. For being so conservatively made, there is an almost constant lack of clarity, as no one element in the film complements the other. Albert Finney's go-for-broke performance as British diplomat Geoffery Firmin is fearless and raw, but Huston's shot selections and mostly bland mise-en-scene distract from the brimming anger and pain the actor tries so nakedly to express. Similarly, the absorbing, mythical imagery of the story's Mexican "Day of the Dead" setting instead feels random as the foregrounded symbolism seems ham-fisted where it should have been atmospheric. Instead of casting the story's eerie spell, Huston's film-making suffocates the material, causing it to become overblown yet underdeveloped.
That is all not to say Huston is completely to blame, however. Screenwriter Guy Gallo's task of condensing such enormous, literary ideas into a stand alone two-hour film is admirable, and structurally he does great things to keep the story immediately revolving around Geoffory's character arc, but by the end it feels like too many corners were cut to make it happen. The character of Hugh, Geoffery's dashing half-brother, is extremely undeveloped to the point of feeling unnecessary, and Yvonne, Geoffery's estranged wife, is never given the psychological need that would make her sympathy toward him credible. Even worse, the conclusion comes with a clumsy thud, ending the film suddenly and untidily.
(2 out of 4)
Death Train (2003)
Weak as an Action Movie, Terrific as a Campy Cult Movie
Bryan Genesse's charms aren't dissimilar to his more mainstream meatheaded counterparts Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren, Seagal etc. He's got the necessary brawn and martial arts finesse and surprising watchability despite having very little appeal. What makes or breaks the vehicles he stars in are first and foremost the writer and director.
Unfortunately for Genesse, he doesn't have the collaboration of solid directors like Peter Hyams ("Timecop") or Ringo Lam ("Maximum Risk," "Replicant"). His best film that I've seen is "Human Timebomb," where the real points are earned with the balls-out action sequences that are undeniably fun even when they have the lowest of production values. That director, Mark Roper, shows skill at giving B-movie productions big, well-constructed sequences, but God help him if the script has too much dialogue.
Yossi Wein, who served as cinematographer for Genesse's "Cold Harvest" and "Traitor's Heart", tries to bring similar sensibilities to the 2002 Nu Image flick "Death Train". It starts off with a slam-bang train heist sequence that finds all in top form. From the first ten minutes, Wein shows skill at keeping the action coherent and at least marginally expensive-looking. Genesse doesn't need to bring much more than brawn in this one, and keeps the cringe-worthy wisecracks to a minimum in comparison to his other performances anyway.
Unfortunately, there is not much more to be found after the competent opener besides loads of camp and unintentional humor. The villain Weaver, played by Bentley Mitchum, is anything but threatening, only memorable for some downright weird lines. There is way too much talking and not enough challenging complications to keep the film moving after the beginning. In fact, Genesse seems to be doing pointless acrobatic maneuvers along the train cars for most of the second act, which Wein unwisely uses to supplement action. When the action does come, it is usually pretty sloppy like a shootout in the cafeteria car that plays more like an amateur action scene staged by third graders.
Things do come together somewhat in the end, with a decently-choreographed showdown between Genesse and Mitchum (if you ignore one extremely lazy somersault by Genesse). However, the resolution has some bizarre details that should not be given away, because they are probably the biggest laughs one will have in the whole movie.
Camp value seems to be the most redeeming factor about this B-movie, and in that department it consistently delivers. If it could have delivered some good action among the camp, it would have been in better form. But, as any B-movie buffs knows well, asking for both is asking for too much.
Black Circle Boys (1997)
Intriguing in Spots, but Unavoidably Forgettable
The best scenes of "Black Circle Boys" are of the film's wounded teenagers reacting to their turbulent lives in total isolation. The main character Kyle is a young man with a weak personal identification, mostly likely stemming from the distant relationship he has with his parents. Writer-director Matthew Carnahan allows these revelations to happen periodically and inductively. He directs such scenes in long takes, relying completely on the performances and nuance of the barren surroundings to bring forth the tensions boiling below the story's surface.
These few scenes are peppered in an otherwise flawed film which is melodramatic, implausible and disappointingly underdeveloped - giving the film a mysterious emotional undertone it doesn't follow through on. The opening introduces Kyle and his All-American swimming buddies wreaking antisocial havoc on the top of a building. Carnahan uses the POV of a videocamera, but stages the action awkwardly - rendering the whole approach of the scene useless. One pivotal detail in particular is extremely obscured, and that is the accidental death of one of Kyle's best friend who apparently falls off of the building.
The movie shifts into Kyle's new life in a new town and school. It becomes a traditional juvenile delinquency teen pic, throwing trite plot elements seen in most similar films from "Rebel Without a Cause" to "The Craft." Inevitably Kyle falls in with the bad kids, which in this case is a group of headbanging metal thrashers who call themselves the Black Circle Boys. Its leader Shane (Eric Mabius) is uncompromising, sociopathic, and slitheringly persuasive. The Black Circle boys turn out to be more than a fledgling metal band, and Kyle finds himself uncontrollably immersed in dangerous occult rituals and violent antisocial escapades.
The familiarities and annoyances of the film are largely to the fault of the script. While the style could have been glossy and dull like most teen pics of the time, it transcends the disappointing story with an unsettling conjunction of hand-held cinematography and gritty art direction. Carnahan's direction is raw in a way few teen films were in 1997, because he meets the material with at least attempted realism and a very serious tone. However. he's not consistently on his game throughout the film, and some scenes are bogged down from lazy direction.
The film is helped by a consistent and believable performance by Scott Bairstow. He is brooding, but likable and draws understanding to a character who makes progressively bad decisions. This is a weak, but all-around watchable teen drama that was a precursor to the realistic teen dramas of the 2000's, like "L.I.E.," "Bully" or "Mean Creek."
Mark Roper was one of Nu Image's golden boy directors in the late 90's. Hot off the high-octane spy romp "Human Timebomb," he was more than an appropriate pick for the second "Delta Force" sequel. His craft is in fine form with "Clear Target", displaying a tighter focus on pace and plot - as thin as it may be. His skill has always been at deploying limited resources to follow the trends of Hollywood action directors. Here, his influences are clearly Michael Bay and John Woo, and he delivers a product worthy of his ambitions.
A harbor shootout kicks the film off nicely, with all the heavy artillery and explosions one watches this kind of film for. Roper shows improvement with keeping things cohesive and accessible, more notably in the next big sequence, which involves a locomotive ambush. Crane shots, dollies, and quick pans are utilized very efficiently and the many dimensions of the layered action are captured with seasoned confidence. The stuntwork is top-notch, with the actors scaling locomotive cars with apparently no safety harnesses, giving the scene raw and perilous danger.
Roper's B-movie tendencies are not completely shed in this stage of his filmography, however. Some drab sets, costumes and props drag down too many scenes and he seems to have trouble coaching the actors. Some do a fine job, most notably Gavin Hood (six or so years before winning an Oscar for directing "Tsotsi"), but plenty of the scenes are cardboard and far off hitting their mark.
This is an enjoyable film if you watch it in the context of an independent actioner. Sure there's abundant stock footage and direct-to -video cheese, but there's also an impressive use of resources and genuinely good film-making. It plays like a comic book, with a simple story tying together sequences of great action. Army/navy buffs will surely get a kick out of it, as will die-hard action fans.
(3 out of 4)
Shoot 'Em Up (2007)
A Near Pefect Satire
Writer-director Michael Davis seems to have watched enough mediocre action movies to know what makes them bland and silly. Just look at the brilliant nerd dissections of the James Bond movies in "Eight Days a Week." His new one "Shoot 'Em Up" takes all the clichés that have made modern action movies so bland and hypes them up into a surreal, fast-paced send up.
"Shoot 'Em Up" can be best described as a punk rock action movie with mockery and gratuity so deeply intertwined that its shameless excess becomes ultimately thrilling. Unlike indecisive action spoofs like Charlie's Angels, which couldn't seem to find the right tone or balance to truly spoof its subject, Shoot 'Em Up is constantly clever in its cartoonish cracks at tired action movie conventions. This is one of the only movies I have ever seen that is truly seamless in its blend of action and comedy.
Clive Owen plays your typical loner action hero world weary, cynical and tough. He goes by Smith and is always seen eating a carrot. Why not? Don't action movies usually tend to be as ridiculous as Looney Toons? Anyway, Smith reluctantly ends up saving an infant child from a band of crooks led by a hilariously over the top Paul Giamatti.
Soon he finds himself caught up in a political conspiracy involving the firearm industry. Typically some jabs at gun ownership are made, but the social commentary is nothing particularly revolutionary or insightful. "Shoot 'Em Up" is so pitch-perfect as a spoof that its political messages don't seem immediately relevant.
I loved "Shoot 'Em Up" because it never stops moving at its breakneck pace. It reminded me of last year's similarly fast-moving and ludicrous Crank, only it didn't feel as desperate and it didn't run out of steam like that movie did. It is keeps your interest by being genuinely thrilling and funny, not by being cheap and mindless. Michael Davis has created a Spinal Tap for the action movie. May the tired formulas of routine action pictures rest in peace.
Set It Off (1996)
Alarmingly Unrealistic and Sensational
I've never lived in the projects. I have in no way experienced the plight of the marginalized. I've never known what it's like to be kept below the line that divides those who should be educated and those who should be left in the dark. For that reason I, by no means, have any right to speak for those people. But after watching the 1996 movie "Set it Off," I can't understand why no one seemed to get offended at its ignorance about, and exploitation of, the lower class- in particular the struggling black communities of urban areas.
"Set it Off" is about four close-knit women who have all had tough breaks in life. They made the best out of growing up in the projects and became, for the most part, honest, hard-working and self-respecting young women. The story starts off with Francesca, a bank clerk, getting held up and witnessing a violent shoot out that her fear crippled her from possibly preventing. A by the numbers detective named Strode blames her for it, causing her to get fired. The story shifts to its main character Lida, Francesca's friend who is a janitor in an upper-class apartment building, soon learning she has to compromise all of her good traits just to break even in life. To help her little brother get some money for college, she gives in to her shady employer's sexual demands. When her brother is coincidentally mistaken for the bank robber by Strode, he is shot and killed with no apologies.
The movie was off to a good start, but I quickly started noticing that its scenes were getting progressively dumber. First off all, Strode seems to be on every case that the L.A.P.D. has to offer. Being that I have heard much praise for this film, I was surprised when more and more coincidences started trying my patience. The movie started feeling like a predictable crowd-pleaser, although it was supposed to be a hard-hitting protest about why the lower class seems to have abandoned.
Any high school or college writing class teaches that to evaluate something is to see how closely or effectively it comes to its intended mark. My problem with "Set it Off" is that it is unclear as to what its mark really is. It shakily walks the line between action movie and socially-conscious drama so much that I started to question how dumb does the screenwriter thought his audience was. Since there is an objective made early on in the script, that there must be a reckoning for the unfair treatment of these women (and the lower-class community at large), it is questionable when it starts to stray.
In his three and a half star (out of four) review of the film, Roger Ebert calls it "observant and well-informed." Sure the film had some very relatable characters and situations, but the screenplay is far from "Observant and well-informed." If anything, the writing is histrionic. A realistic screenplay would have characters who were less heroic and aware of their exploitation. Sure Queen Latifah is fabulous as a gun-toting lesbian, but does such a character really represent underprivileged women? A competent screenplay also wouldn't rely on coincidences and action sequences to make its point.
(1 and 1/2 out of 4)
Disappointing Despite Nunez's Typically Sublime Film-making
Victor Nunez is on par with a lot of directors who use their surroundings as their muse. Like Scorcese with New York, Mann with L.A., or Shamalyan with Pennsylvania, Nunez builds his stories around an area he knows well: east coast Florida. His masterpiece "Ulee's Gold" used the enchanting backdrop of Orlando's peaceful outskirts to build on the emotional aspects of its main character Ulee. The movie came alive from Nunez's subtle, but powerful focus on atmosphere, character nuance and rich symbolism.
It's disappointing that his follow-up "Coastlines" (which completes his "Panhandle Trilogy") had some of those elements in tact, but failed to use them effectively. The story is about a young man named Sonny (played by a well-cast Timothy Olyphant) who gets released from prison to a home town that has grown up without him. He gets back in touch with his old friend Dave, who is now a police officer and married to Sonny's old crush Ann. Simultaneously, he deals with unsettled issues from his old mobbed-up employers.
From that story come some potentially engaging themes like revenge, jealousy, nostalgia, disenchantment and betrayal. However, disappointment quickly sets in when the scenes become more and more dull. The screenplay was written before "Ulee's Gold," and is extremely similar, with many characters and back stories almost exactly mirroring those of the previous film. "Coastlines" brings nothing new to the table, and has no energy with the subject matter at hand. As the movie moves on, it becomes hard to shake the feeling that Nunez had run out of inspiration.
What the movie lacks despite energy is originality. The movie contains plenty of drama, but there is nothing happening that hasn't been done better in other movies. What Nunez needed, in order to transcend the clichés, was the rich undertones and subtexts that made "Ulee" so engrossing. Nunez needed another layer of depth to give weight to all the things going on in his story.
There is no doubt that Victor Nunez is an excellent independent director. However, that doesn't excuse the fact that "Coastlines" is a movie that simply didn't need to be made.
The Last Minute (2001)
Norrington Stumbles in Style
Stephen Norrington's "Blade" is undoubtedly a highlight of recent American cinema. It was one of the grandest blockbusters of the 90's - a powerhouse of trend-setting style and beautifully realized action sequences. Norrington proved to be an ambitious and promising director. It's unfortunate that he stumbled with his follow-up. "The Last Minute" is scatterbrained, indecisive and consequently confusing and also too derivative of other hip directors (Danny Boyle, Guy Ritchie).
"The Last Minute" is semi-autobiographical of Norrington's experience with the entertainment industry. While it's confusing as to just what kind of "artist" the protagonist Billy Byrne is, it is clear that his exploits mirror that of Norrington's. Byrne is hailed as an up and coming genius, then almost immediately thrown out to dry by his employers, the media and all of his so-called friends. What's more, Bryne's old flatmate steals his career, leaving him with nothing.
In this dilemma, Norrington asks some very good existential questions about the true worth of an artist. There are plenty of brilliant artists living in every city of the world who never have and probably never will be recognized. Having mass appeal is key, as is circumstance, opportunities and luck. The artists who do make it are sometimes self-important, because they wrongly believe themselves to be completely entitled to the recognition they obtain. This shows that the true value of art is not determined by things like mass-appeal and critical praise. A better film would have stayed with these questions.
Norrington's account of a bought, sold and rejected artist is too complex, because its personal nature interferes with the larger themes and messages. First, Norrington shows a throw away entertainment industry that is fickle and disloyal, meaning many artists are bound to get stepped on. It is a nice set-up for a satire, but then the film takes a misstep by having Byrne realize that he had little life experience in the first place. The movie is then suddenly about Byrne's quest for personal experience and redemption, losing the satirical edge the film starts off wanting. "The Last Minute" is too personal for its own good.
The story then takes another step in the wrong direction by suddenly morphing into an Oliver Twist-inspired story about the underbelly of London. The biggest problem with this second act is that it was simply not credible. There wasn't a good enough motivation for the fame-hungry Byrne to actually live in complete destitution. It would have been more consistent for him to just observe poverty in order to obtain "experience." Another problem with the second act is the misconception that poverty is "reality". Its too easy, and also far-fetched, for Byrne to learn experience by being poor. Things get especially muddled when an action sequence (followed by a musical sequence) erupts, reminding the viewer just how lost the screenplay is.
The Christopher Guest movie "The Big Picture" was a similarly satirical look at a young Hollywood director. It share's "The Last Minutes" sense of magical realism, but is more effective in its clarity. Both movies use humor and absurdity to poke fun at and criticize the entertainment business, but "Big Picture" works so much better because it is consistent and concise. "The Last Minute" rambles and loses touch with its tone and purpose.
That's not to say Norrington's film is uninspired or dull. He is still high off his love of flash and glamor, exhibited in "Blade". He again uses stylish techniques like time lapse, jump-cut editing and extreme mood lighting to show the frantic atmosphere of big cities that leads to large-scale marginalization of many citizens. His cinematographer James Welland picks up where Blade's Theo van de Sande leaves off, beautifully using murky colors and quick dolly-in shots to create a constantly on-edge feeling. Norrington is brilliant in how effectively he brings all elements of production into a seamless whole.
Norrington's direction does falter in his overuse of Euro-trendy devices. There are bombastic musical sequences and over the top characters which feel way too similar to trends started by Danny Boyle, Guy Ritchie and Baz Lurhman. Norrington proved in "Blade" to be highly original and trend-setting himself, and has no need to borrow the quirks of other filmmakers. Let's not forget that this is one of the first guys to use pre-"Matrix" bullet-time.
It's a shame Norrington has claimed to have given up on motion pictures. After "Blade," he blew every chance he had to make another classic. "The Last Minute" shows a director who is unfocused, but passionate. Did mavericks like David Lynch not make the same mistakes early in their careers as well?
The Grass Grows Green (2007)
Jesus Beltran's short "The Grass Grows Green" is powerful in its simplicity. Although Beltran says his biggest influences are Scorsese and Michael Mann, his style is stripped from any of those directors' flash and glitter. His film is observant and reflective, which is very appropriate for the story of a marine who questions his recruitment of a marine who dies in combat.
I loved this movie because it realizes the relevance of its subject matter and handles it appropriately. In times of combat, the occupation of marine recruitment carries weight many recruiters may not be prepared for- pointing to the question, should we be swaying our youth towards possible death? The answer is unclear and Beltran makes no compromises. This movie is so sharp in its flawed characters and gray moral terrain. In dealing with a serious issue, it smartly doesn't let any movie contrivances strangle it.
First time director Jesus Beltran is very skillful with the technical aspects as well. He keeps the camera moving gracefully throughout, moving the audience through the story with agility and a tight focus. On a low budget, he nicely balances elements like sound, production design, cinematography and lighting. This is a very well-made short that hits all its marks.
I was fortunate enough to see Beltran premiere this film at the Dallas film festival. It was surely a good opportunity as much should be expected from Beltran in the future. He shows masterful control that is not common among first time filmmakers. On a big budget, he just might catch up to his idols.
Man in the Chair (2007)
Endlessly Sappy Would-Be Crowdpleaser
Michael Schroeder's new movie should have taken him out of B-movie obscurity. The director of the two "Cyborg" sequels has finally grasped some serious material, but unfortunately he hasn't let go of the cheese from his previous films.
The story trails lonesome, alienated Michael- a movie buff who wants to win a film scholarship, which is available through a student video competition. His torrid home life and nonexistent social life start to weigh down his dream of becoming a filmmaker. By chance, he meets a cranky old man named Flash (played very well by Christopher Plummer) who has connections to Orson Welles and the golden age of cinema.
"The Man in the Chair" begins with a montage featuring some Tony Scott-type mock handcrank shots. It's a questionably flashy beginning, but it creates a serious tone that allows you to take it seriously. This tone is betrayed immediately when Michael is introduced. He is bullied in an unrealistic, Nickelodeon-worthy fashion. What is particularly jarring is when he jumps on top of the bully's car with his bicycle (!?). Immediately, the movie turns into an artificial and inept after school special.
As a result, much is wasted. The cinematography by experienced Hollywood camera operator Dana Gonzales is absolutely beautiful, but the handcrank shots (added as reference to classic cinema) become distracting and irritating. However, there is crisp lighting and some impressively done sequences. Great performances by Plummer, Mitch Pileggi and M. Emmet Walsh are marred by the campiness of the screenplay. This is an unfortunate movie that didn't deserve any of the talent it attracted.
The real problem with "Man in the Chair" is its utter lack of credibility. This is an optimistic story that is full of good cheer, but it tries to get by on its likability alone. Truly important details, like believability and honesty are half-attempted. The development of Michael consists of platitudinous and insincere movie references. Michael is a cardboard "cinephile" with no depth, just a poorly developed passion. One character gets into trouble with the law, but this is shown with very little long-run consequence. The movie tries to avoid clichés that would be seen as "too Hollywood" to the point that it feels like a self-conscious Hollywood movie. The lack of honesty is not only appalling, it is embarrassing.
The clichés don't stop. The generation-gap jokes between Flash and Michael are tired and mostly unfunny. Also, there is far too much similarity to "Finding Forrester" to acknowledge this movie as even marginally original. There are countless plot conveniences filled with poorly thought out logic. Schroeder skims on plot details, making the movie lose respectability with every scene.
This is a feel good movie that seems to be aimed at idiots. Schroeder's film may have been passable as a mid-90's Disney movie, (minus some useless foul language inserted for a "hard edge") but he doesn't realize that American audiences have moved on from absolute characters and feel-good clichés. Unfortunately, Schroeder hasn't left his B-movie tendencies behind. Maybe he should stick to the straight to video shelf.
A Solid Sci-Fi Picture, But Little Else
Eduardo Sanchez's new film is everything it looks to be. That's kind of a problem. You get the setting, the creature and the action that you expect, but little else. The movie moves along with some solid entertainment, but there is no sense of originality and spirit that you can hold onto. Mr. Sanchez claims that "Altered" is a film he has wanted to make since high school. Why can't the audience grasp the magic and wonder that made this story so appealing to him through all these years?
Sanchez is one of two directors who banded together on the luckiest student film of all time, "The Blair Witch Project." "Blair Witch" was a movie that got by on its so-real-it's-scary thrills, despite technically home-made production values. "Altered" is a movie where the opposite must be achieved; fantastical, cinematic scares must be created through impressive production values. Good influences are drawn upon to reach such a goal, with some scenes that whiz by on doses of Speilbergian suspense and Raimi-like atmosphere. Sanchez himself is a competent director, but doesn't prove to be a strong enough force with "Altered." This is the kind of marketable, cheaply enjoyable movie you'd expect to see on a late night stretch of Sci-Fi channel, when it should be a sound directorial piece for fans of the science fiction and horror genre.
As I said earlier, "Altered" is certainly well-done. Great things are done with lighting, cinematography, production design, sound design and special effects. The creature is detailed and scary and a lot of fun scenes are done with it. The opening is absolutely terrific, with an attack of creative sound design and a sequence which plunges you right into the story with no questions asked. I liked how an elaborate back story on extraterrestrial life is pushed aside, as to prevent any distractions. The movie is about five or so people in a small house combating the complications of a kidnapped alien life. Action and suspense are on the top of the priority list, and the point is understood as is the audience. If only more films were this straightforward!
The problem with "Altered" is that it doesn't push quite far enough. It is perfectly comfortable being a mediocre, marketable sci-fi picture to turn heads on the New Release rack. "Altered"'s comfort with itself is a good thing, because the movie doesn't take itself too seriously and it delivers the goods with no distractions. It is a bad thing too, because when the fun is all over, there is little to remember or hold onto. Eduardo Sanchez may be perfectly fine making slick movies with good distribution deals. Who wouldn't? However, film fans and sci-fi/horror buffs surely should expect more from him.
Dead Beat (1994)
A Glimpse at What Should Have Been a Classic
Movies like "Dead Beat" stick out for their mediocrity. This is a film which establishes its main character Kit as a truly larger than life legend of sorts. Kit is given a brilliantly colorful world to come alive and is surrounded by highly competent actors to help. However, somewhere after his grand introduction, it starts to increasingly feel as if the movie is falling short of the sheer bigness the story requires.
Kit is played by the devilishly handsome Bruce Ramsay, who isn't given the meaty role he should have been able to run with. Instead, the character teeters on the edge of boldness when he should be brimming with life. I did like the idea of the Kit, though. He is a super-cool Elvis fanatic who intoxicates a whole town with his magical confidence and other-wordly charm. His face is so layered with makeup that he resembles something of a walking Ken doll, which is a perfect indication of the hollowness his charisma is compensating for. Ultimately, "Dead Beat" is about the dark side and eventual decay of an almost mystical small-town legend. Like his hero who held American culture in the palm of his hand only to disappear in heartbreaking tragedy, Kit loses himself amongst public adoration and personal despair.
This is the first and only movie by Adam Dubov. If only he had the confidence of his leading man! Dubov seems too cautious to harness such a bold story. He misses the mark on many scenes which should have been pushed to their fullest in terms of style and humor. Some scenes are just plain badly directed. Take the introduction of Kristen (played by the sexy Natasha Gregson Wagner) , the girl who ruins Kit, for example. She pulls a malicious prank on a lifeguard at a public pool, a scene which gives exposition to the only girl in town who could lead to Kit's downfall. The scene should have been classic, but is confusing and unfunny due to oblivious direction. Also, the movie builds up to what should have been a heart-wrenching climax. By the time it comes, the audience is too confused to know what to think about (or care about) an event which should have been riveting and extremely sad. A very well-written voice over ends the film, and serves as a reminder that this could have been a poignant and unforgettable film.
There are many recommendable values of the movie that also give hint to the fact that it could have been much greater. The production design is a knockout, especially considering the small budget. The world created for Kit is vibrant, appropriately archaic, detailed and original. There is an excellent use of color which gives the movie a romantic comic strip feel and breathes life into the constantly dull scenes. The supporting cast are talented and thankfully watchable. I loved Balthazar Ghetty's understated, grounded interpretation of Kit's somber sidekick Rudy. Natasha Gregson Wagner is pitch perfect as Kristen, using the character's bratty personality for humor instead of irritation.
"Dead Beat" deserves a bolder director. It is entertaining enough due to its few saving graces, but only amounts to a glimpse at a film that could have been an indie classic.
(2 out of 4)
The Gas Cafe (2003)
A Good "One Set" Film
Jean Paul Sartre's classic one-act play "No Exit" is remembered more for its philosophical themes than for its narrative. The play is composed of one set, a few characters and a lot of dialogue centering around an existentialist dilemma. The characters are in a room, which represents hell, and they are tortured by the eternal interactions with each other.
One set stories aren't as easy to construct in film, because it is demanding for the writer to only have only one location, spanning three acts, to wring out drama that is heavy enough to sustain the audience's attention. Brian De Palma struggled to make one set interesting in "Snake Eyes," but other films like "Tape," "Two Guys and a Girl" and "Phone Booth" shine, because they rely on plot-relevant dialogue and sharp twists to keep the audience engrossed in the story.
Kelley Baker's film "The Gas Cafe" was funded from welfare checks, probably because he couldn't afford many more locations than one. It isn't obvious that finance was the only reason Baker chose to do his film in one set, however. The film is interesting, sporadically funny, well-plotted and more complete than one might expect. Following a similar structure of "No Exit," Baker's story uses an earthly set to resemble a purgatory-like, spiritual netherworld. Also, its themes are deeply rooted in the inevitable, existential dilemma of death.
The film steps in the wrong direction when it tries to fully realize its supernatural elements. There is a character who is a guardian angel who patiently waits for another character, who is a stubborn dead man. The existence of these characters are clumsily explained. A better idea would have been to keep a distance from the physical reality of the otherworldly characters. Instead of being delightfully mysterious apparitions, the otherworldly characters become absurd. The whole point of magical realism is to use extraordinary events as if they were ordinary. Wim Wenders' treatment of angels in "Wings of Desire" was able to seamlessly establish reality from fantasy, because the audience was intoxicated by the magical story throughout. It didn't matter how the angels were able to hover around earth- just like it shouldn't have mattered here. Since Baker uses earthly explanations, he allows too many holes in the plot to be shown.
"The Gas Cafe" still is able to entertain and ask meaningful questions throughout, though. Even though the characters aren't always consistent, the actors turn in very sincere performances. Baker's history as a sound designer benefits this film as well. The sound is very professional and detailed...right down to each crackling burn of a cigarette. The movie has a minimalist feel, partially due to the 30p cinematography, but Baker harnesses his limited resources to allow a tight focus on character and story.
I liked this movie because it is made with a sheer sense of independence. Baker seems like a risk-taker, and the risk of using one set for a feature sprang good results. Baker skilfully uses Sarte-esquire themes and makes them interesting enough to fill out a feature.
El hijo de la novia (2001)
The Best Crowd Pleaser in Years
I am always surprised when I find a movie that genuinely revels in the ordinary and keeps away from unrealistic, extravagant elements. I enjoyed Mike Leigh's "All or Nothing" for this reason, because the entire film never compromised realism for the "dramatic intensity" most dramas cheaply exploit. What surprised me most about Juan Jose Campanella's "The Son of the Bride" is that it took a very sincere approach towards a crowd-pleasing story.
The last time I saw a crowd-pleaser, it was "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" and I was bored with its reliance on platitudes and I was annoyed with its constant cuteness. It wasn't until I saw Campanella's film that I remembered that the goal of a good crowd pleaser is to give the audience an optimistic perspective of life, not to bombard them with farcical whimsy and relentless, shallow cuteness.
"The Son of the Bride" is a remarkably honest movie about a man named Rafael who has been living the wrong life for years. He doesn't realize his disposition until it is almost too late, but circumstances allow him to reevaluate the choices he has in life.
A story like this could have taken the lesser, "Greek Wedding" road, conforming to all kinds of crowd-pleaser clichés to create a naively positive tone, but "Son of the Bride" realizes that nothing in this life is absolute. Good moments never last forever, and life is never completely beautiful or completely ugly. The characters are all very realistic, because they doubt themselves and others, they sometimes contradict themselves and are therefore closer to feeling like real human beings than any character in a crowd pleasing movie I've ever seen.
Watching "Son of the Bride," I was reminded of a little film I once saw called "Los Lunes Del Sol," which chronicled the ordinary plight of some unfortunate working men of Spain. I loved that movie, because it reminded me of the frustrations of my own family during hard times. "Son of the Bride" brought back those same sad memories, but also reminded me that its through pain and struggle that we grow up and are enabled to see things clearer. Nothing is absolute- yes, hard times are hard, but they are essential for growing and learning how to truly live.
My only complaint for this frequently funny and touching epic of ordinary proportions is its opening scene. The opener is an unnecessary, not to mention corny, scene where Rafael is a little boy. It could easily be trimmed without effecting the movie in any negative way. This is a minor gripe, though. The movie is marvelously, but realistically, optimistic and is a new benchmark by which all crowd pleasers should be measured.
Of Unknown Origin (1983)
Not to be Underestimated!
This movie is about a large, smart rat threatening to undermine everything a worldly wall street climber (Peter Weller) has worked to create for his world. The movie is like it's clever rat...creeping up with more intelligence than should be expected.
Great movies work equally on separate levels so that a wide audience can take what they will from it and still enjoy it immensely. Although technically a B-movie punctuated by 80's camp, it is unmistakable that "Of Unknown Origin" is truly special.
It's unfortunate that this movie has enough unattractive elements to deter a viewer's interest. First of all, it's a "rat movie". When has that ever been a favorable genre? Second of all, Shannon Tweed's involvement, however early in her career, emits an odor of genericness and illegitimacy.
Don't be turned off by all these potentially fatal bad traits. Director George P. Cosomotos and Peter Weller had an interesting, artful collaboration going on in "Of Unknown Origin". The film has a tight focus on theme and story, and goofy, highly entertaining, cult-status-worthy performance bits from Weller. It's a fun film- there's no doubt about that. There may be cheese, but there's also sincerity in how the film refuses to take itself seriously. Also, the familiar moral of the story is shown in so fresh a form that you won't even care.
For a story that works so well on an intellectual level, it's a blessing that the actual rat combat scenes are a great time. As Weller's lost yuppie starts to lose his sanity, his battles with his furry foe become more and more extravagant. Let's just say the conclusion is incredible.
The title refers to the clouded evolution of rats. It also speaks of the burning, unavoidable core of our hearts that is pure and determined to defeat our dark sides. Our consciences? Our God? Or is it just a fear of a big friggin' rat? Ponder that if you'd like, but enjoy "Of Uknown Origin" regardless.
A Bad Movie, but Laughs to Be Had
Andy Dick's new movie doesn't truly feel like a movie. It wanders from scene to scene with Dick's often funny, unmistakable brand of humor. A lot of the jokes don't work, but there more laughs then you'd expect. To enjoy it, think of it more of an extended episode of "The Andy Dick Show". But an episode of his brilliant (but short lived) series this isn't, and as a movie it's pretty awful.
Dick's "mostly autobiographical" story follows the title character, a down-and-out former sitcom golden boy who is quickly slipping to the F list. We learn through a horribly filmed, lazily directed "News Radio" spoof that it is wasn't Andy/Danny's proudest career moment, even if it was of his most successful. With a muddled motivation, he puts together a movie about his substance abuse problems.
With this story, Dick able to make jibes at the industry and these are the best moments of the film. Starting with the untoppable "Late Night With Jimmy Kimmel" sequence and continuing with hilarious scenes ripping apart empty-headed execs, intense crew members and naive actors, Dick is able to stick it to the industry. He is also able to make fun of himself and his colleagues in the process (Ben Stiller, Jack Black, James Van Derbeek and more are all able to make fun of themselves in assorted scenes).
There's no doubt "Danny Roane" is filled with some great moments, but they are strung together with bad camera work, platitudinous scenes, and plenty of unoriginality. Not to mention none of it feels consistent or effectively planned out. Dick and producer/star Marshall Cook admit to not following many conventional film techniques, and it really hurts the film. It wouldn't be so much of the bother if the script wasn't such a banal rip off of "Bowfinger" and "Living In Oblivion".
With more work, higher talent in crew and a bigger budget, "Danny Roane: First Time Director" could have been a hit. As it is, it far too often descends to bomb territory and gets tired out too quickly. In all, it's a pretty awful debut, but that's not to say there's some laughs to be had.
Note: I attended the Northeast Premiere of this film, where Andy attended obviously drunk. Although I reviewed his film with as little bias as possible, he was disrespectful to even the fans in the audience. Seems pretty contradictory of the final words in the credits ("Thanks to my fans who stuck with me through the bad times.") It was hard to tell if Andy was really acting in this movie-and if he was intoxicated while shooting most of it. With his film, one can tell he's pretty jaded from the industry- but it seems he's jaded more so from himself.
Deux frères (2004)
An Annaud Masterpiece!
"Two Brothers" is sheer film-making. Annuad is one of the only directors who can pull off a film where two animals are the lead characters. Like "The Bear", dialogue isn't primarily important to letting the story unravel. Annaud, as Kubrick did in his best works, focuses on his sound, striking visuals and sturdy plot to tell his story.
Using crisp, high definition DV, his most recent film is one that leaps forward, but respects the past. Annaud creates a visual atmosphere that breaks apart from most conventional films. His story similarly takes strides away from convention. It's parts are loosely structured, but beautifully interwoven. I was very much reminded of his 1992 film "The Lover" from a story that floats through a wonderfully thought out path without feeling like any story ever told.
"Two Brothers" is about a pair of baby tigers who are separated from their father and eventually each other. The grasp of humanity constantly pulls them apart and takes them away from their natural and loving environment. The use of two tigers as lead characters is humble and symbolic in itself. Annaud's message communicated, through the different sections of the film, is that we must respect animals like tigers (who are dwindling in existence) enough to coexist with them.
A pivotal character in the film is a famous, revered big game hunter played with charm, equanimity and excellence by Guy Pearce. His transformation in character is the centerpiece in which the film's main messages revolve around. He is a learned, realistic man, nothing of a dreamer, who strives for understanding of himself and his actions after he bonds with one of the brothers named Songa.
This is an excellent film! Jean Jaques Annaud is in top form with a severely underrated, but strikingly important feature. Not only a big improvement over the dull "Enemy at the Gates", but also a crowning moment in his career, "Two Brothers" is a must see movie!
Snake Eater III: His Law (1992)
More Incomprehensible Hilarity
If you've seen any of the "Snake Eater" trilogy, you would know the following. The stories are based, well stolen, from many others. The first is an odd mix of "Miami Vice" and "Deliverance" (?)...the second is "Lethal Weapon", or any cop vs. drug world story, mixed with "The Three Stooges" and "Laurel and Hardy" (??)...and the third is pretty much every vigilante cop movie-only totally messed up. You would also know that it seems every line in these movies either makes absolutely no sense, is horribly acted, or is just plain hokey. Finally, every scene is directed with such an unmistakable ineptitude that it creates a disorientingly bizarre environment you will never forget.
This time, Mr. Eater (who has a needless other name, Solider, as well as his real name Jack Kelley) is suspended, for the millionth time, for handling a stick up in the deranged, overly violent fashion he is known for. He is hired by a family to protect their inexplicably (and unnecessarily) sex-crazed daughter...one who pulls down her skirt on first meeting with Soldier AKA Snake Eater AKA Jack Kelley. The story has no set direction and meanders into a biker gang subplot. Of course, you'll find nothing but laughs here.
Everything about this movie is laughable, including Lorenzo Lamas' signature destitute, blank performance. Eater's wingman this time is, wouldn't you know it, a deranged vigilante. The only difference between the two is that the wingman is an aged cowboy who is slightly more sociopathic in his unjustified killings. Its funny how every destructive thing Soldier accomplishes is completely not noble. He's not even an anti-hero, he's in a category all his own: psychopath wanna be anti-hero. It makes one wonder if the filmmakers and actors were trying to create something so awful that it is intentionally comical. I highly doubt it, but its a thought.
Destiny Turns on the Radio (1995)
There are only certain movies that can overcome their technical failures. Movies like "Destiny Turns on the Radio" have an authentically magical spark that draws you in despite some bad production values. What's more, its whimsical but truly bizarre story never alienates its audience. It is solidly entertaining and memorable throughout. Featuring some dazzling performances (minus Quentin Tarantino's lackluster turn as the suave Johnny Destiny) and a truly unique story, "Destiny" is a low-key gem.
Dylan McDermott is downright charismatic as Julian Goddard-a fugitive who was able to escape a Nevada penitentiary through a once in a lifetime brush with luck and fate. He is rescued by Destiny and delivered back to his old life of crime after 3 years. He hooks up with hotel manager Thoreau, his longtime partner and friend-played by James LeGros who is one of the film's most shining assests. With a fresh new hand at life, he sets out to get back with his ex Lucille, who is looking for her big break as a singer (by any means necessary). She is now with a piggish casino owner played by a surprisingly funny James Belushi. Of course, Goddard needs to thwart him, his goons, not to mention a handful of cops on his tail in order to get to his long lost love. All the while, Johnny Destiny is planning his return to his netherworldly realm through means of a hotel pool portal (don't ask- watch the movie).
There are a lot of things that just don't work in this movie. Fortunately they are not hard to look past. These include the terrible sound, which require some leniency from the viewer. They also include some jokes that go flat-notably a completely needless subplot starring none other that Bobcat Goldthwait. As you know, Quentin doesn't do much for his great role and to top it all off, there are some things that don't make a whole lot of sense in the script.
The beautiful thing about this movie is that it doesn't stop being so effortlessly likable. It gets very far fetched, but it never turned me off the whole time. In fact, it only proceeded to draw me in and captivate my imagination. Not to mention it's sprinkled with great bit parts like Tracey Walter as Goddard's desert-rat father, a hilarious David Cross as Lucille's sleazy agent and Allen Garfield as Vinny Vedivici, the slob producer who can make her dreams come true.
It may not hit all its marks, but "Destiny Turns on the Radio" convinces you it doesn't have to. It is one of those irresistible movies that you don't know why you enjoy it, but can't help doing so nonetheless. Don't be shy, accept "Destiny".
In Search of Shakespeare (2004)
I've never been a huge Shakespere reader. I like what I've read and definitely respected him like anyone else. Even with this minimal background on Shakespere, the docu-series "In Search of Shakespere" was still fascinating. The details of William Shakespere's life are obscure and sometimes shrouded in mystery. The brilliant angle of this series is how host Michael Wood chronologically journeys through Elizabethan England to uncover them.
One can be in touch with the life of William Shakespere better than ever before in going along this journey with Michael Wood. The series chronicles background information (like the rise and fall of his bureaucrat father and the connections his family has with historical people and events) as vividly as it does the trials and tribulations of William. It is truly amazing seeing all the places William was as he was shaped into the legend he became. Wood looks at documents (most interestingly an employee list) to discover aliases and occupations William had- and uses them to find all the nooks and cranny's of Willaim's life.
There are many possible revelations about where William got some of his ideas. For example, the priest who married him to Anne Hathaway did illegal off-season marriages-much like the friar in Romeo and Juliet. Also, Michael Wood encounters a river William once had to cross which seems to be referenced in Henry VI.
Michael Wood's inspired adventure is one you must go on! "In Search of Shakespere" is a truly fascinating insight into the world's favorite author. One need not be a fan of his work to appreciate it, either.
Splendid Low Budget Noir
Don't judge this one by its cover- "Black Out" is a smartly-plotted film noir piece that has surprisingly sharp writing. It is tainted by a noticeably tight budget, but this is a movie that deserves the respect it will probably never get. This is "A History of Violence" with a lesser budget and director, resulting in unfortunately generic production values.
Keep an open mind and you'll enjoy it. "Black Out" is the story of an accountant named John Gray who's perfect life falls to pieces when a tragedy sparks memories of a suppressed past double life. He finds himself on the run, trying to piece his old life back together while simultaneously fighting off mobsters who want him dead. These flashbacks are told in washed out black and white- nodding to the classic film noirs and providing wonderful homage to them.
This is a knockout story considering "Memento" and "The Bourne Identity" (the movie, anyway) wouldn't come out until years later. A better actor than former NFL star Brian Bosworth could have taken the role of John Gray-and the movie for that matter-to a higher level, but he makes do. The real problem proves to be the direction. Allan A. Goldstein achieves greatness in some areas of the film, (like the stylish flashbacks and the flawless realization of the story) but he messes up with some of the action scenes. They are awkwardly cut, which probably indicate sloppy direction of the scenes. He didn't do an adequate enough job capturing everything going on during the action, so most of the action becomes incoherent and forgettable. Also, he didn't seem to invest much in the art department, being that the production design is hopelessly bland. The constant generic feel eats away at any hope of the gritty atmosphere the story so desperately needs.
Do give this one a try, though. It is fascinatingly written and the talent involved is more than you'd expect from a movie staring Brian Bosworth, who really isn't all that bad- really! (3 out of 4)
Hard Justice (1995)
In the mid-90's, Nu Image had a good thing going with its direct to video action pictures. Movies like "Live Wire: Human Timebomb" were fun and action-crammed with decent budgets and a high guilt factor. By the preview, the following entry "Hard Justice" seemed it would be the peak of this entertainment scene. With fresh, John-Woo inspired director Greg Yaitanes, B-Movie legend Charles Napier and lots of great stunts and explosions, how could it go wrong? Unfortunately, this one is a big misfire with too much emphasis on a weak story rather than on its well-done action sequences.
The opening scene is promising, as narc officer Nick Adams (a forgettable David Bradley) takes down a large-scale drug deal in a seemingly fail-safe warehouse. Wouldn't you know it, there's an overhead window Nick smashes through by means of dropping from a helicopter, guns blaring. He is marginally successful, but consequences lead him to go undercover in a hardcore prison to find out who murdered his ex-partner.
This is where the movie starts to go flat. Writers Nicholas Amendolare and Chris Bold invest way too much in the prison section of the film. The subplots of goings-on in the prison are clearly more interesting to these writers than they are to the poor audience member. The action scenes are stifled by this plot structure, being that they are pushed aside so that a weak, mostly boring plot can be developed. The results are a very mediocre action movie.
One recommendable aspect of the film is the few big action sequences. Yaintes is very skillful in capturing details as to involve the viewer in the action. He has an eye for what looks cool in terms of stunt work, gun play and special effects. With a better script, he could make a very strong action film. Its too bad this is a less than strong debut.
Also, watch for good performance by Yuji Okomoto and the beautiful Benita Andre, who plays Nick's wife Hannah. They do what they can in a limiting script, and their work should be recognized.