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The Cutter (2005)
A 1985 action flick made twenty years too late.
60ish Chuck Norris plays a retired cop and finder of abducted persons in this paint by numbers 1985 action flick which had the bad luck to have been made in 2005. Seriously, it was as if the creators were either blissfully or wilfully unaware that twenty years of cinema had passed under the bridge. Did somebody win an old Chuck Norris script in a storage locker auction and decide to shoot the thing? The generic looking vehicle chases and punch-ups would have been nothing special back in the days of Good Guys Wear Black, but coming in the wake of modern action opuses like The Matrix they seem downright anachronistic, like somebody starting a Nascar race in a Stutz Bearcat. Even the bad guys - an incognito Nazi war criminal and a black clad soldier of fortune seem badly dated.
At least the producers had the good taste to give Chuck age-appropriate female friends (Joanna Pakula and Tracy Scoggins); watching younger actresses cozy up to sexagenarian Chuck would have been just too icky.
Joan of Arc (1999)
A lot of reviewers loathed this film
...but it still made interesting viewing. More biographies of Jeanne d'Arc exist than of any other person, and any attempt to portray her rather incredible life as France's greatest heroine and martyr on film can expect to encounter a similarly large number of second-guessers. This is precisely what happened when this picture came out. Reviewers went on at length about what the picture should have been about, and how Joan should have been portrayed (and by whom), leaving readers to wonder what they thought of the picture that HAD been made. This tendency to review the picture they wish had been made is a classic failing in many critics and this picture seemed to bring it out especially often.
The picture that Luc Besson made here deserves to be appreciated on its own merits. It is visually stunning, rousingly action-packed, and full of interesting period details. Yes, casting his supermodel wife Milla Jovovich in the lead was a risky choice, as her looks were hardly those of a typical medieval peasant. Yes, her performance did not resonate with the period the way one by a more classically trained actress might, although she was clearly never trying to be Ingrid Bergman. Still, Milla's hyperactive personality made her interesting and watchable as a historical person about whom so much has been written, who nonetheless existed so far back in the past that she lacks a strongly identifiable humanity. When somebody makes a better statue than a person, as Joan does from a contemporary viewpoint, odd casting choices can be forgiven if they work. Milla's twisty mannerisms, rolling eyes and whispery speech give the viewer constant occasions to ponder just how much of Joan's fanaticism came from genuine devotion to God and the church and how much was just an under-medicated personality disorder. This is actually one of the key scholarly issues surrounding Joan's life, and the picture brings it to the fore in its latter part as Joan herself tries to come to terms with her own claims of divine communication by means of a debate with Dustin Hoffman as her confessor-priest/conscience. That Besson takes no particular viewpoint here is an interesting choice, and one which actually helps the viewer to understand why Joan's story has compelled so many generations of historians.
The political aspects of Joan's life and legend were also dealt with in a nicely balanced fashion. Like many figures in times when political and national alliances changed with the seasons, Joan herself blew back and forth between being tremendously useful to the French throne at times and dangerously inconvenient at others. Fame is a powerful commodity at any time, and the picture carefully tracked the rise and fall of Joan's fortunes as she watched hers be manipulated, leveraged and ultimately put on trial.
I thought a lot of The Messenger and recommend it. Religious and historical scholars are advised to approach with caution.
Ashton Kutcher is no Pierce Brosnan.
A pretty young woman marries a mysterious man on the rebound and then finds out he's a former government assassin, and more assassins are after him. Sound familiar? Yep, this movie's pedigree could not be more obvious if they called it Mr. and Mrs. Smythe...
Anyway, action comedies rely on a few things to succeed: good action sequences, charismatic stars and funny dialogue. Here we get one of three. The fight scenes were pretty well-staged, although the chases ranged from very good to merely ho-hum, and there were none of the really elaborate knock-your-eyes-out stunts that a viewer sometimes encounters in these pictures. And although Katherine Heigel has screen charm to burn, she is basically playing the same gorgeous but slightly over-wound neurotic character as in The Ugly Truth. She needs a new shtick. The real letdowns here, though, are the script - which had no more than maybe two light chuckles and no big laughs - and Ashton Kutcher, who just isn't interesting enough on screen to carry a movie of this kind on his own. Ashton wants to be Pierce Brosnan , but comes off as more of a goofy frat boy George Lazenby. In The Ugly Truth, KH had Gerry Butler to play off, but with Ashton the sizzle just isn't there.
The scenery is nice (It's set in Nice, get it? Okay, moving along...) and the lead pair are attractive to look at, but this is about as lightweight and generic a movie as you can make without it going direct- to-video. There are worse ways to kill two hours, but don't expect much in the way of originality or cleverness.
Nice moody atmosphere, little plot.
The grim, dim urban decay around Manhattan's grungier edges holds a secret: animal attacks by apparent packs of wild dogs may actually be werewolf attacks. This aspect of the film is obvious to the viewer - heck, it's written on the box - yet it takes a good part of the film before the principles even begin to suspect the truth. It then takes forever before they act and even then little happens. Really, the plot gets doled out by the teaspoon here. Any viewer looking for action/horror is advised that this particular picture doesn't have much of either.
That said, there is still a lot to like here. At a time (the early 80s) when new low budget horror movies were getting released every week despite almost a total lack of cinematic art, the dark, almost film noir, look and mood of the film are consistently rich and interesting. Eerie pools of streetlight, sudden shocking howls and fast moving cameras chasing nothing very distinct effectively generate suspense and an atmosphere of dread early on, and maintained throughout by scattered moments of general creepiness, again nothing obvious or distinct, but enough to keep the audience uneasy. Basically it works as a mood piece.
Hell Comes to Frogtown (1988)
Strictly for collectors of outrageous movie premises.
The story: Roddy Piper is the last sexually potent man on earth and the now female-dominated military has to drive him into a post-holocaust wasteland to impregnate fertile women. Really. Not making this up.
There is actually a halfway decent B-movie script here. Unfortunately the 'actors' in this movie don't do it justice with their mostly amateurish performances. Cec Verrell is spot on as a bad girl soldier, but Sandahl Bergman is a better dancer than an actress and rassler Roddy Piper is from the bargain basement of action stars. Also, the budget for vehicles and stunt drivers must have been very low, resulting in some not very exciting two vehicle or one-vehicle-chasing-a-pedestrian (!) chase scenes. Road Warrior this isn't. Some pretty good makeup effects were employed, and so the denizens of Frogtown look pretty good, and there are some genuine laughs in the dialogue. But low expectations are a must for anyone looking for a good time here.
More Pulp Fiction fallout
The late 90's brought several post Pulp Fiction wannabes (Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead, 2 Days in the Valley) in which unsavory characters cross paths and get tangled up in one another's schemes and some even occasionally find redemption. Aww... And this is another.
Craig Sheffer stands out as a merciless thug due for a comeuppance, who kidnaps a drug chemist (Lucy Liu) in the first of many messy criminal schemes which unravel due to bad luck, bad planning and mostly just bad timing. The bad timing bug hits a philandering spouse, whose punishment rapidly outstrips his crime, and then others who similarly come to grief in random and often comic ways.
The film is a very mixed bag of mostly unlikable characters and squirm- inducing scenes, but its sheer random unpredictability makes it at least somewhat watchable. Don't even try to guess where any of the plot lines are heading or what will happen next. Chances are you will be wrong.
Non-baseball people will still enjoy this movie...
...since its dramatic elements are universal: an underdog takes on the established rich and the comfortably smug and beats them by changing the rules of the game.
Baseball was fertile terrain for this, since sport even at the highest professional level is notoriously anti-intellectual and conservative. Baseball men would rather underachieve than face ridicule from their peers by rejecting common practice. This is made clear early in the film. Baseball scouts and front office personnel are shown to be making decisions on team makeup in an ad hoc, seat of the pants fashion that disappeared in most other enterprises with the coming of the information age. But any battle against established wisdom and entrenched power has heroic qualities and makes for compelling drama. Baseball just happened to be the venue this time out.
The story: after losing key players to richer organizations after the 2002 season, Oakland GM Billy Beane faced the same to succeed as them but with less resources. He needed a cheaper product. His response quietly revolutionized baseball by challenging conventional wisdom about player evaluation and showing it up. The fact that the 'moneyball' approach is now almost universal in pro baseball gives the film's subject the weight of historic interest, but even if the experiment had failed the mission itself was heroic and historic.
Brad Pitt, creates a full bodied performance as Beane, a man risks his career and reputation to implement his quiet revolution, while dealing with the fact of a failed playing career and a failed marriage with as much dignity and practicality as he can, and without turning his experiment into a quest. Beane's passion for the game drives him forward without blinding him to the fact that he is running an experiment that might fail. He weathers a storm of opposition and ridicule from others around baseball, from a skeptical and misinformed media, and even within the ranks of even his own team, while he (and the audience) watch the season play out.
Jonah Hill successfully underplays a bright outsider on the fringes, whose insights into the game career baseball men won't admit exceed their own, and who serves as the catalyst and caretaker of the Moneyball experiment. Robin Wright strikes the perfect note as the ex-wife who bears Beane no ill will but who has nonetheless moved on with her life. Beane's personal drama is past, but the big public one playing out everyday in the sports pages should be enough conflict for anybody, including the audience.
Key: The Metal Idol (1996)
Must viewing anime.
The Pinocchio-esque Key, an android whose creator has been murdered, leaves her idyllic small town to travel to the big city in order to discover her purpose, despite having been raised in isolation and thus having never acquired a normal set of social or emotional responses, let alone anything like urban survival skills. Her responses to what happens to her in the saga of misadventures and heartbreaks that follow are uniquely innocent verging on messianic, in this beautifully drawn, sadly compelling, very unusual anime series.
After so many soulless fighting giant robot adventures, it is refreshing to watch a series which makes a technological creation so intimate and heartfelt and which focuses on personal existential growth rather than just using cutting edge robot technology to bash stuff.
Highly recommended, especially in its original Japanese.
Gou yeung yi sang (1992)
Graphic, brutal crime thriller that was much-imitated in its day.
The 'crime confessional' story device used here was much imitated over the next few years but this was the one that started the cycle. A taxi driving serial killer is caught and then, as he details his litany of crimes, the bulk of the movie plays out in flashback.
Most of the crimes take place at night and in the rain, and the reflected glare of wet windows lends everything an eerie Vaseline sheen of ickiness which accentuates the horror. The killer revels in the gory details of his crimes and the movie wallows right along with him, making a spectacle of every flying blood spatter. This is a gruesome exploitation movie and not for the timid, but quite compelling for its type.
Watch at your own risk.
The Big Picture (1989)
Satiric 'insider's' view of Hollywood
Bolstered by an early appearance by Teri Hatcher as a vapid starlet, The Big Picture takes a smirky look at the corruption of the creative process by the know-nothing power brokers who run Hollywood. A recent film school graduate gets a chance to direct his first feature, providing he is willing to take advice. It seems everybody has 'suggestions' for the novice director, and the clout to cram them down his throat, especially a pervy producer played with slimy grace by J.T.Walsh. The movie begins to mutate out of his control with funny and disturbing results. Finally he finds himself having to fight to regain control of his film and career.
Hollywood movies about Hollywood movie making have proved a rather mixed bag over the years, surprising given the supposed intimacy with the subject matter the films' creators theoretically enjoy. A botched technical detail here or there in a film about Arctic exploration might be forgiven, but Hollywood ought to know its own turf. Luckily, this particular addition to the Hollywood-on-Hollywood genre has a fairly authentic ring. Indeed, the more you understand about the Hollywood movie-making process, the more interesting and entertaining this film is. Yet the movie has enough striking visuals and funny and surprising bits, as to make it accessible to anyone.