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The Spirit (2008)
A flawed but fun-filled romp.
I love the interview with Lorenzo Semple Jnr, screenwriter for 'Flash Gordon,' when he suggests that the film would have been a big hit if only they'd been able to market it as a movie that would be a cult classic in thirty years. He goes on to explain what the core problem is: A cult film, by definition has fanatical supporters ... just not a lot of them. Those who 'get' the film will keep it alive forever, but Joe Moviegoer won't care if he ever sees it again. And so I turn to 'The Spirit,' a film which has similar qualities to 'Flash Gordon': bad enough to be awesome, tongue firmly in it's cheek and gentle satire in it's hand.
'The Spirit' manages to be wondrous and infuriating. A visual feast, Frank Miller was the perfect choice to bring the film to life. On the other hand, the dialogue is often so cheesy and the characters so over the top that the movie never allows you to be lulled into that wonderful moment of forgetting that you're watching a movie. There isn't a single character in the movie who talks like a real person. They all talk like, well, comic book archetypes: gruff commissioner, megalomaniacal super villain, brilliant evil assistant, sultry femme fatales, loyal and uninteresting love interest, and on and on. Take Samuel L Jackson's character, 'The Octopus' for example. It is a character that Jackson was born to play and Sam throws every ounce of his endlessly entertaining and over the top style into the character. It works and he plays the part brilliantly because he takes ridiculous dialogue and ridiculous material and has wild amounts of fun with it. The cast, by and large, follow his lead. Scarlett Johansson is hilariously withering with her acerbic barbs to The Octopus' clone lackeys, all of whom are played with deadpan wit and verve by Louis Lombardi. It is hard, in fact, not to feel some pity for Gabriel Macht who has to play Bud Abbott to a cast of rollicking, scene-chewing Lou Costellos in an over-acting competition. It all works wonderfully if you're willing to view the film as, uncharitably, being unintentionally funny or more genuinely as a gentle lampoon of comic book films by one of the great figures of the graphic novel genre.
Frank Miller takes 'The Spirit' and has great fun with it. It is quirky at times, ham-handed at times, but lovingly made. A brilliant Noirist, Miller actually has much better luck in 'The Spirit' in moments of levity. The noir angles of this film don't work unless designed as a kind of self-righteous satire. The noir feels forced and dramatic moments are mercilessly skewered by the corny dialogue that a helpless Gabriel Macht delivers with straight-laced determination. 'The Spirit' has the look of 'Sin City' and the heart of 'Flash Gordon.' When it works, it works well, but the film is a terrible mess whenever it is trying to be serious.
So is it worth the ride? I think so if you go in with the proper expectations. There's not really anything new visually if you've seen 'Sin City' or '300' -- both Miller works of course -- but that didn't make them any less interesting to me. Plenty of humour where it may or may not have been planned and the potential to be a cult classic. This is the kind of movie you can best enjoy in the company of friends and a cold six pack. Look for diamonds and you're looking for too much. And if nothing else, Eva Mendes has never looked better on film than she does here. That's got to stand for something, right?
Max Payne (2008)
I'm trying to remember the last time I've been so disappointed leaving the movie theatre. 'Max Payne' is a film with two faces. On the one hand it is visually stunning, conceptually great and a feast for the eyes. The art direction, atmosphere and style have so much flair. John Moore conceptual and visual styling is a feast for the eyes. My problem is with the other hand: I need more than just style to look at if I'm going to enjoy a film. I need substance.
All of the excellent visuals and atmosphere in the world can't over-ride one severe problem: 'Max Payne' has a script devoid of the dramatic glue that transforms it from a pastiche of episodes to a flowing story. The movie is so busy being gritty and dark that it forgets to give you characters who you care about. So much time is spent trying to build up the mystery that nothing is spent on character development. The irony is that the film needed to be twenty minutes longer to help fill in some of these connections, but already feels like it runs too long. This is Beau Thorne's first script and I won't pretend to think that it is easy to do an adaptation of anything -- let alone condense hours of a video game into an hour and a half of film. Some of the problems might have been easily solved. As just an example, Max Payne is driven, bitter and solitary. Why not open the film by showing the reason he is this way instead of leaving it until the movie is half done? Brutally edited and paced, 'Max Payne' is a story headed no where and taking forever to get there. The acting isn't bad -- given the material they have to work with -- and there was some relief in watching Beau Bridges chew scenery mercilessly as the movie grinds to it's conclusion. Mark Wahlberg turns in a typical performance and manages to look disappointed that he doesn't get to swear. Chris O'Donnell and Donal Logue are under-used and both Amaury Nolasco and Mila Kunis would have benefited from more screen time and character development. I wish that 'Max Payne' had kept it's Restricted rating. Because I wanted it to be harder edged? Oh no -- an 'R' rating would have kept more people from watching it.
I will say that there were two decent action sequences and I thought they were both pretty decent. There is a good showdown in the office building ... twice. It might even be worth renting the DVD and fast-forwarding your way through a turgid boggy mess in order to see them. Unless you value style over substance though, give 'Max Payne' a pass.
Not quite as strong as the original, but still very good.
There must have been comedians in the projection booth the night that some friends and I went to see a family friendly film. These particular friends tend to watch only light-hearted material and get upset for weeks whenever they see horror films or intense thrillers. They were totally unprepared for a 'Quarantine' trailer and it shocked them all so badly that we nearly had to leave and get our money back. Maybe it was because of their strong reaction that my interest in the film has stayed so high for the past several months.
This week I have seen both 'Quarantine' and 'Rec' the film that 'Quarantine' is a remake of. 'Rec' is not without flaws but it is a very solid and chilling horror film. 'Quarantine' is able to expand on several of the strengths in 'Rec' while falling into a few pitfalls of it's own. Both films are about a TV news crew taping a show about what a night in the life of a fireman is like. A seemingly routine call turns out to be something much more and the news crew is trapped in a quickly quarantined building.
Giving credit where it is due, 'Quarantine' kept me on the edge of my seat for most of the movie. It lures you in with a very relaxed opening ten minutes but once you reach the building and the cop in charge asks why the camera crew is there, the whole tone of the movie changes. The fun and games, the light-hearted banter is gone. We only realize how serious it is though when they enter the apartment of an injured old woman. For me the tension starts with the entrance to the apartment and never lets up. Each new segment that the TV crew starts filming holds potential terror. The set design and the lighting are terrific and 'Quarantine' walks a careful tightrope of character action. So often in horror films the audience is yelling with frustration at what characters on the screen are doing because it all goes against common sense. There is a little bit of that early on but 'Quarantine' does a better job of playing to the characters and their panic. Characters die not through naivety or stupidity as much as they do from inevitability and inescapability. The key performance comes from Jennifer Carpenter.
The film's greatest strength and weakness at the same time, Carpenter is the focus of the camera because of her role as the reporter and it isn't an easy part to play. She is solid for the majority of the film but terror essentially overwhelms her with ten minutes to go and she is reduced to a sobbing, shrieking, shivering bowl of jello. Would I or anyone else be any better in the situation that 'Quarantine' creates? Hard for me to say but probably not. The problem is that there were three primary acting choices for her to make in the final ten minutes: she could play it as a hysteric (which she does), she could play it as numbing down her fear like the cameraman does in order to try and escape, or she could have been so overwhelmed by her fear that she becomes a functional catatonic working on autopilot. Carpenter's choice is probably the 'truest' choice for how people would react. That doesn't mean that it is going to make for good drama. Her transformation from confident and outgoing to hysterical jabbering is so jarring that it feels forced instead of real. The camera man keeps telling her to calm down when they've reached a potentially safe room but she is far beyond the calming down stage and well into the years of therapy one instead. I found it to be just too much and actually pulled me out of the horror and towards comedy instead.
'Rec' felt a bit more organic and gritty than 'Quarantine.' The performances are decent in both but you feel less of a connection to the characters in 'Quarantine.' Many are clearly there to serve as fodder with no attempt to seriously develop them. 'Rec' does a much better job, particularly when the reporter interviews each of the buildings residents. The five minutes spent in filming those sequences gave more of a stake to the audience into the well-being of those characters. That never really takes off in 'Quarantine' and I regret that they didn't follow the lead of 'Rec'. One thing that I thought 'Quarantine' did a much better job of was in plot clarity and how they provided information. The clues to the source of what is going on are much more explicit and come very early in the movie. 'Rec' dropped a few hints for the viewer to put together but relies on the final five minutes to give the major clues about patient zero. What patient zero is spreading is clearer in the remake and I thought the clarity benefited the plot. Of course by the time you find out about patient zero, Carpenter's character is beyond being able to help provide the audience with anymore real analytical power. Don't blink or you'll miss everything you need to know.
I give the slight edge to 'Rec', but certainly recommend 'Quarantine' to horror fans. It's problems aren't severe enough to detract from a very decent effort.
Bangkok Dangerous (2008)
A surprisingly rich meditation on rediscovering who you are.
This review may have mild spoilers but they come through implication and aren't explicit, in short, your viewing of the film shouldn't be ruined by anything written here. This was, surprisingly, a very interesting action and character piece from Nicholas Cage. I generally find his work either very good or cheesily over the top. In 'Bangkok Dangerous' he delivers an under-stated and nuanced performance as a hit-man who has withdrawn from humanity for so long that when he steps back in, the personal and professional consequences are tremendous. To survive as a hit-man he's lived by a set of rules. Finding a major contract for four jobs in Bangkok leads to deep, personal revelations when his strict adherence to those rules starts to peel away. Cage's character Joe says at one point that the only way for him to do the job is to withdraw from humanity. He leaves no trace that he's ever existed, finds no acknowledgment from other human beings and exists only as the wind. Humanity "... starts to look like a different species" and he only comes out to study people for brief moments before withdrawing again to remind himself that they aren't. So what happens when he goes to Bangkok and the culture is so alien to him that he can't help be drawn into it?
There were a number of things I really liked about the movie. The exotic location is matched with beautiful cinematography and luxuriant sets. The colours, the atmosphere and dark vibrance of the city at night is in stunning contrast to Joe's spartan and non-descript apartment: white walls and brown tables. The Pangs did an excellent job of drawing the audience into the same intoxicating world that Joe is drawn into. The sights in the markets, the sounds in the clubs and in the streets (and the wonderfully engaging score), the taste of the food and the smell of the city -- these all leapt out. The Pangs direction here is, in my opinion, some of their best work. Joe's hits are tense and well set up. In one particularly horrific action scene, the camera looks up at Joe who has just dispatched his target, Joe who stands even in shock at himself for the brutal killing, Joe who realizes that killing has moral complexity since his humanity has reawakened. The camera lingers on Joe for an eternity, shock and awe in the audience; shock and awe as he realizes what he is.
So how does it happen? Is it the city that draws in him? Partially, but he's been in other exotic cities. Is it the sidekick and messenger he's hired on to be an errand boy? Partially. Joe reveals a soft spot when he sees that the sidekick goes above and beyond what he has been asked to do in order to protect Joe during an attempted robbery. Is it when he is first troubled in the film by his rule to leave no traces of himself? Is it when he makes a connection with a beautiful deaf pharmacist? Joe's survival in his career has been from dehumanizing himself from the rest of the species. Bangkok is dangerous to him because of the jobs he has taken and the people who have contracted him but Bangkok is also dangerous because he recovers part of himself. People who genuinely care about Joe crack the armour, at once strengthening and destroying.
Is it a nihilistic film? On a superficial and literal level, yes, 'Bangkok Dangerous' is a nihilistic film about a guy who kills for a living. Much deeper is the understanding of how we are all shaped by our choices but how redemption and rebirth are possible -- even in the most unlikely of anti-heroes.
Tropic Thunder (2008)
Fun in the Sun
To give due credit, Tropic Thunder is reaching for the stars. It tries to satirize as much of the movie business and the Vietnam-War-film genre as it can. There are high points, such as Robert Downey Jr.'s method actor Kirk Lazarus being so wedded to the character that he can't break free -- even when it has become clearly obvious that they are no longer filming a movie -- or Matthew McConaughey's super agent Rick Peck and his obsession with TiVo. I won't mention Tom Cruise's guest role as a foul-mouthed, iron-fisted dictatorial studio head other than to wonder loudly how things are going over at United Artists.
Why then did I feel so unsatisfied with the movie? I liked it. I enjoyed and laughed heartily through most of the jokes. It was as if the individual jokes were all greater than the sum -- a collection of funny punch lines that are a pastiche of laughs but not a satisfyingly funny routine. Part of it is the unwieldy blending of high-concept satire and lowbrow profanity-laced rants. Swearing can be used to high effect and it plays to perfection at times in Tropic Thunder. The best example (and my favorite line from the film) is from Robert Downey Jr. who, after being asked what kind of farm he works on, mows down the bad guys with his gun and declares that "I'm a lead farmer, mother--" well, you see where I'm going. Initially, Tom Cruise's profanity-ridden rants are funny too. But then you realize that there isn't anything else to the character. His character, Les Grossman, just throws tantrums and screams profanities, a paper-thin joke that works through audacity but wears out after the first rant. After a while the swearing starts to sound like a group of little kids who've just heard their first bad words and think it is funny to yell them over and over again.
On the other hand, I loved the performances. Jack Black's focused insanity was pointed in the right direction and he got a great part that he's well-suited to. Stiller manages to play Tugg Speedman with enough vulnerability that you can buy his need for the fictional movie to be a big hit. The scenes from his critical bomb Simple Jack are priceless, as are Downey's explanation of why Speedman would never have won an Oscar for it. Nick Nolte (good to see him again) has a strong supporting part, as does Steve Coogan as the overwhelmed first-time director. The picture is Downey's, though, and wherever Redd Foxx is, I think he would be proud. Scene-stealing, scenery-chewing and utterly priceless, Downey looks like he's enjoying every minute on screen. If you see Tropic Thunder for any reason, watching Robert Downey Jr. should be it.
Death Race (2008)
Fun, very loud and unabashedly dumb.
I shouldn't write reviews for movies like this because it feels like I'm lining up to kick a puppy. A movie like 'Death Race' can only be judged fairly through a set of lowered genre expectations. I'll try but I'm not making any promises. It is fun, very loud and unabashedly dumb. It was never envisioned to be anything other than an attempt at 'cool.' The average viewer will - without fail - be able to pick out every moment where Paul W.S. Anderson had an idea during the script writing and thought to himself "That'd be awesome!" before looking around the room for someone to high five. I shouldn't pick on him because I actually do enjoy his movies. He isn't trying to make 'Casablanca'; 'Robocop' is more his style. Just without the boring stuff like characterization and development. And as little subtlety, satire or nuance as needed. Unless unintentional or totally by mistake and ironic -- That'd be alright.
This movie's lone strength is the special effects and it lives and dies by the car chase, the machine gun firing and the gory death(s). Michael Bay, eat you heart out. Anderson knows the art of kaboom and action junkees should be satisfied with his efforts here -- especially during the second race when the 'Dreadnought' enters the race. As long as you numb your brain into not asking serious questions about things like physics. Or how massive amounts of armour on a car wouldn't make flesh and soft tissue any safer in horrifying car crashes. Or how the American economy of the Dystopian future has crumbled, but 70 million can still afford the pay-per-view price to watch. Maybe some of the viewers are from Canada.
If you were to put any consideration into serious film criticism where 'Death Race' is concerned, then you'd be the first one. The movie is so predictable, lazy and unambitious that it asks you to hand it the popcorn. In fact, have you seen the trailer? You've seen the film. Tyrese's character is homosexual, which I thought was stunningly inventive given the scriptwriter. Sliding back into predictability, it is used solely to make a few tasteless jokes before being forgotten about. Pretty standard fare for Anderson. If you've watched his other films, you know exactly what to expect. Except less. Brain still hurts too much to think about it. I think the annoying thing is that Anderson has potential. I wouldn't keep going to his movies if I didn't enjoy them. It annoys me when the problems at script level are so apparent. He has a tendency to go to predictable places: Requisite gay jokes for the prison? Check. Incredibly hot women on screen? Cue horny Rap music since I need a musical cue to point out the obvious. I'm annoyed when one character asks another if they think that they're really the best choice of parent for their offspring and the second character says later "Someone once asked me if ..." like they and the audience have forgotten the specifics of the first conversation. The audience doesn't need to be spoon-fed the obvious. It's a weakness that I hope Anderson can shed. He clearly loves making movies. Trusting the audience a little more and giving us some credit might let him make better ones.
The crazy thing is that despite it all, I enjoyed 'Death Race.' It is flawed from top to bottom but wears the flaws so honestly and endearingly that you really shouldn't hold it against the movie. Need to go see a mindless distraction for an hour and a half? 'Death Race' isn't a bad choice. With 'Death Race' you get exactly what you expect and exactly what you deserve.
The Condemned (2007)
A pig tries to understand why it rolls in garbage.
Conceptually, 'The Condemned' isn't a bad idea: 10 death row prisoners are rounded up and placed on an island. They've got 30 hours to kill each other off or a bomb on their ankles will kill everyone if more than one is left. 'The Condemned' is 'Battle Royale' and 'The Most Dangerous Game' filtered through 'Rollerball.' Unfortunately the filter is the 'Rollerball' remake and not the James Caan original.
What 'The Condemned' wants to present and what it actually achieves are two different things. Although a modestly enjoyable actioner the film's interesting premise is sabotaged by a lack of courage. The film hides behind cardboard indignation and tries to satirize reality TV. 'The Condemned' asks of the violence that it shows, "Isn't this disgusting? Isn't this just wrong?" It revels like a pig in filth though, holding it's nose to ignore the smell as it rolls in the mud shamelessly enjoying the thing it wants to 'condemn.' I wouldn't mind so much if the film had been just been better executed. This is a movie that doesn't know if it wants to be satirical or exploitative. It fails as such then because it waffles helplessly lost between the two. If satire was the goal, then the film-makers should have more fearlessly embraced the violence. Show the violence and repel the 'actual' audience while having the crew unwaveringly celebrate it. Here they set up scenes and then cut back to the truck where the crew complains that maybe 'doing this is wrong,' or that 'maybe we shouldn't be doing this.' I can live with that. When they go on in the next breath to say that there is a better angle shot from a different camera, the film undermines itself. I suppose the gimmick is that reality TV (or live-stream reality internet in this case) will do whatever it takes. It strikes as very amateur.
What acting there is isn't bad. Steve Austin doesn't have a lot to work with but he's good with the one-liners. His character is hard to connect to because of the wishy-washy script. Austen's character is mostly interested in not playing the game, tries to tell other competitors this but offers no apparent plan on how he intends to get away -- or maybe he doesn't intend to get away since he also gets caught up in a needless sub-plot about getting in touch with his girlfriend to let her no that he's stashed some money aside for her. Vinnie Jones chews scenery and is great as the main villain in a cast of heavies.
Too bad about 'The Condemned.' The film-makers should have just gone with the core idea -- ten people on an island trying to kill each other in front of an internet audience -- and been less ambitious. This is a case where a popcorn movie shouldn't have tried to have a brain or respectability and is weakened by being a pig that tries to understand why it rolls in the mud instead of just doing it. I like smart movies and I like dumb movies. This one would have been a lot better if it had just embraced being mindless.
Viciously satirical, deeply irreverent and wonderfully fun!
Had it not been for a free pass to an advance screening, I must admit that my friends would have had trouble getting me to see 'Hairspray.' I don't mind musicals but 'Hairspray' didn't seem like something I'd enjoy. Not for the first time in my life was I wrong.
'Hairpsray' is about tolerance, integration and acceptance of others. The film uses the racial divide between blacks and whites but the subtext of the film is Heterosexuals and Homosexuals. 'Hairspray' viciously lampoons bigots and reserves specific devastation for Ultra-conservative religious zealots, figures of authority and WASPs. The satire is white hot (Alison Janney steals every scene she is in), the music catchy, the movie's spirit is irreverent.
I had no problems with the cast and their performances. John Travolta isn't bad and when he gets his chances to dance he's great fun. Christopher Walken and Travolta have a song and dance number duet that rates among the best moments of the film and isn't to be missed. Queen Latifah adds some dignity and balance while Michelle Pfeiffer plays a terrific screen villainess. Amanda Bynes has few lines to deliver but gives perfect comic deadpan when she does for excellent comic effect. Keep a sharp eye out for the hilarious John Waters cameo during the opening number.
Of recent major movie musicals, this is easily better than 'The Producers,' (better comedy and music) and last year's 'Dreamgirls' (weaker songs but better pacing and strong beyond the first half). Although it doesn't have the star power or scale, I also prefer it to 'Chicago' -- 'Hairspray' takes itself less seriously and not many movies have me laughing and smiling from start to finish. If you're looking for a little pure counter-culture escapist fun, 'Hairpsray' is your movie.
The Old Master and the Rising Star play chess
The character played by Anthony Hopkins tells a story in the film to Ryan Gosling. The story is about sorting eggs on a farm when he was a boy and about putting aside 300 eggs that all had minute cracks or imperfections. The moral is that everything has a weakness if you look closely enough. Hopkins is using the story to warn Gosling that his near perfect conviction record is about to be tested like never before.
I caught an advance screening of 'Fracture' and am counting myself among the lucky. 'Fracture' showcases two terrific performances. The first is Ryan Gosling who plays a hot shot Assistant District Attorney on the verge of joining a very lucrative private law firm. He's only got one case left to handle and, although it looks like a slam dunk on paper, he'll soon find it to be a bit more formidable than he first thought.
The second great performance is Sir Anthony Hopkins. Stealing every scene he's in with charm, humour and menace, Hopkins turns in one of his most enjoyable performances of recent years. Hopkins plays the accused in Gosling's last case and goes out of his way to give Gosling a very bad day. The battle of wills between the two leads is central to the movie and their combat is electrifying.
One of the main questions in the movie is the location of the murder weapon. The film quite explicitly shows the crime of the film and how it is carried out in the first ten minutes of the movie. It seemed obvious to me where the gun was (although my friends told me after the film they had no idea). For my part, knowing where the gun was didn't hurt the film at all because although Gosling's battle to solve the case and get a conviction are certainly a core part of the film, 'Fracture' works better as a character study. Both leads are over-flowing with pride. Both believe themselves to be as flawless as the eggs from the story are supposed to be, but both will come to realize that they have micro-fractures too. This movie is about their arrogance and ultimately about how they deal with the discovery that perfection is a little more elusive than they thought. 'Fracture' shows all seven deadly sins at work and places Pride as the deadliest -- all else springs from it.
'Fracture' has a great score, a terrific script and dynamic characters who are believable in everything they do. This is a rich and highly enjoyable film. I fear it might get lost in the shadow of huge summer blockbusters like Spiderman 3 which is really a shame -- totally engaging little gems like this are why I love movies. 'Fracture' is well worth your time and the price of admission.
The Return (2006)
No return to horror greatness for Gellar
Technically there are elements of 'The Return' that are well done, nice little touches that add great atmosphere. The score is subtle and effective. Everything is grey or shot in muted tones and this really works well for the film. Sarah Michelle Gellar makes a great choice and goes with brown rather than blonde hair. Brown works better for this film because it is a less vivacious colour. Her blonde look tends to be used in movies where she plays much stronger characters and not victims like she does in 'The Return.' This added vulnerability helps to make her a bit more believable. Sadly, 'The Return' needed every trick it could find and ultimately still falls short.
The acting isn't to blame here because all of the principles are game. Nobody turns in a bad performance but are all desperately trying to save a mediocre script. Gellar does well with a more challenging role than she's had recently but the script doesn't give her enough to work with. One of the key components for a successful film is being able to find some sympathy for the characters -- especially in a horror film! Here it just never takes hold. You don't wish ill on any of the characters (Gellar's creepy co-worker a possible exception) but nothing really gets you behind them either. The script believes it is far more clever than it actually is and when all is finally revealed in the final two minutes, you may, like me, find yourself wondering if the first 83 minutes was actually worth it.
Tension doesn't really exist in the film until nearly the end and most of the "scares" in 'The Return' rely on sudden shocks. Basically if you see the movie once, you'll be able to sit through it like a statue if you ever watched it again (don't, by the way). This is such a cheap gimmick and it isn't really done all that well here. Oh, there are creepy moments -- the music in the car when she's driving to Texas for example, and the climactic action sequence at the end -- but overall not very well done.
A botched horror film with no horror, a thriller with no thrills, and a drama that isn't dramatic, 'The Return' just ... is ... and that isn't enough of a magnet to bring in quality or an audience for it. Largely disappointing, here's hoping for better things for all involved.