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Here are some of my favorites:
Note: These are ratings of 8 or above.
The Wild Bunch (1969)
All the President's Men (1976)
Star Wars IV: A New Hope (1977)
Toy Story (1995)
Taxi Driver (1976)
Hotel Rwanda 2004)
Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Die Hard (1988)
The Terminator (1984)
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Leon: The Professional (1994)
The Dark Knight (2008)
Superman: The Movie (1978)
The French Connection (1971)
Groundhog Day (1993)
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
A Bug's Life (1998)
Dirty Harry (1971)
Do the Right Thing (1989)
Apocalypse Now (1979)
E.T.: The Extraterrestrial (1982)
12 Angry Men (1957)
Casino Royale (2006)
From Russia With Love (1963)
There Will Be Blood (2007)
American Beauty (1999)
Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Letters From Iwo Jima (2006)
Beverly Hills Cop (1984)
Meet the Robinsons (2007)
Despite all the opportunities, Contagion is a rather bland thriller
Every here and there, there always seems to be a life threatening disease ready to kill us. For most of us, we've been able to avoid death with good health care and isolating the disease quickly. But what if we didn't isolate it immediately? Steven Soderbergh's Contagion tries to answer that question with a technique similar to the one he used for Traffic – only with less time on his hands. Although 106 minutes is plenty of time to fill a movie, for a virus "thriller" like Contagion there should either: a) more time for characters, or b) less situations and focus on the few.
Set across the globe, Contagion covers several story arcs relating to a virus outbreak that starts in China and soon spreads across the United States. Here they are based on the chronology of events:
- Businesswoman Beth (Paltrow) comes home to Minnesota after a business trip to China, where she contracted a virus and soon dies in her home while also infecting her six-year old son. Her husband Mitch (Damon) is soon infected himself, and he is a possible risk to his teenage stepdaughter and others as he waits for a cure and becomes paranoid of outsiders.
- Dr. Orantes (Cotillard) is sent to China to investigate the original source of the outbreak with the help of a local (Chin Han), although she is eventually kidnapped and struggles to stay alive in a village.
- Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) is sent to Minnesota by Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) to get information on how Beth became infected, and she tries to get a sample of the virus herself. However, she soon becomes infected and fights for her life while Cheever fights off rumors that he alerted several friends and family about the virus before it hit his hometown of Chicago, including wife Aubrey (Sanaa Lathan).
- Journalist/blogger Alan Krumweide (Jude Law) tries to tell the truth of how the Government is hiding the dangers of the virus from the public. He goes to great lengths to make himself a hero, although his "self infection" of the virus makes him more of a profit motivated blogger than a "prophet" of the people.
Not a lot of Contagion will give you much reaction, since we don't really attach ourselves to the characters. The cast make the movie work to a degree; I just wish they were given more to do in this surprisingly low key effort that sometimes seems maddeningly slow. Since Contagion does cover many aspects of the virus' progression, it becomes tough which characters to invest in. Though the trailers made us think that Damon would get the most sympathy, the truth is that no one in Contagion does enough to gain our sympathy.
We simply look at them on screen and hope that they live in the end. With such a scattered focus, you'd think that Contagion would be more ambitious than what is actually in the final product. We get glimpses of the effects of the virus and how people try to contain it, but we just never get that sense of claustrophobia that good thrillers deliver. Even with Damon's paranoia of outsiders giving his stepdaughter the virus, there's just not enough suspense to speak of. If nothing else, you'll enjoy Contagion strictly for the star power and how everyone is utilized.
Law, Winslet, Fishburne, Damon, Cotillard all deliver earnest performances, even if Law gets hammy as the mad blogger. While Paltrow is part of the cast, in truth her scenes exist as flashbacks in dictating how the virus came about. Outside of the quibble, the "all star" cast do fine jobs in keeping our attention despite a serious lack of involving characters.
I didn't expect Contagion to be something like Outbreak, and I think it's good that we get a variation of the "crisis" genre that doesn't merely use the crisis as a backdrop to deliver an action movie. However, Contagion feels too subdued if anything else. Too often does the movie feels like a made for television movie – minus the cheap production values.
More time could have meant more effect, and with the limited time Soderbergh has to tell his story Contagion doesn't seem nearly as involving or thrilling as it should be. Even with a scattered focus, Contagion is not nearly as enjoyable as it should be with a cast like this. Soderbergh does a good job pacing the film, and the various angles the film takes does create more intrigue near the end. Yet it's not enough for me, as Contagion is a passable but deeply flawed film that would be better off with more time on its hands.
The Hangover Part II (2011)
A tired and worn down sequel without heart
If you've seen the first film, you're not missing much outside of a change in scenery and more outrageous gags that will more likely disgust than amuse. It's as if Hangover Part II didn't even try to add anything new, which becomes evident with how the story flow goes through the guys finding a missing person and having the usual montage at the end. The only differences are that Stu (Ed Helms) is the one getting married and not Doug (Justin Bartha), who doesn't go missing but instead Teddy (Mason Lee), the bride's brother. The guys go all over Bangkok and go through an endless series of quests that works out well for everyone but Chow (Ken Jeong).
Despite a serious fan base for the first Hangover film, I'm not in that group. The sequel more or less shows why I don't think much of the first film, let alone this turgid mess of a sequel. What exactly is missing from the first film? There's not much as far as structure goes, but there's just that empty feeling you get when you've wasted 102 minutes watching the same movie twice – only in different settings. There's less character development on display, which is a good thing since the first film established what kind of characters we would get. However, we don't get the feeling of a buddy movie that the trailer promised us.
If anything, The Hangover Part II is an uneasy and unpleasant sequel that'll leave you not wanting to go to Bangkok. My does this film gets deep into the heart of Thailand! We get strippers, gangsters, club owners and a tattoo artist, all of whom are unkind and unwilling to help the guys find Teddy while getting Stu to his wedding. All of these attempts at shock value left me curiously bored, and I pretty much checked my brain out after about an hour. There's not much in terms of revelations from the guys, but it's sad to see how much of the template this sequel uses from the first film that goes to waste.
I can't believe I'm saying this, but the Transformers movies have more creativity than the Hangover movies. The Hangover Part II is so similar to the first film that it's as if Todd Phillips didn't try to change one word in the script. Though there are plenty of new characters here, they play a minor part in the picture. Part II is really all about the Wolfpack, and quite frankly the act is getting tired. Galifianakis is still funny in small doses, but in larger quantities he gets annoying to the point of stupidity. Helms overacts to the point where he looks like he's having a seizure, relying on sitcom comedy to make us laugh. It doesn't work.
Cooper's talents are better than this, and it shows with a serious disinterest in his lines. His cocky charm from the first film is gone, going for a more muted approach that leaves his character forgettable in Part II. A supposed cameo by Mel Gibson would have helped, but since he got booted out there's not much to say about the cast other than how tired their gags get. The settings might be exotic, but they can't cover up the staleness that encompasses The Hangover Part II. Perhaps Part III will alleviate some of the issues found here, but I doubt that will happen.
It's that rare feel good sports movie that never gets sugary or one sided
As far as sports movies go, Warrior is one of the few that actually seems to deliver what it promises. Most sports movies in today's age often feel stale because of the lack of emphasis on characters, but Warrior is not that kind of film. Unlike Gridiron Gang, Warrior focuses its time more on characters than the sport itself. That's what makes Warrior a tremendous surprise given how the trailer emphasized most of its time on the big MMA showdown between Hardy and Edgerton. For the first time since Miracle, Director Gavin O'Connor delivers a picture worthy of his talents and makes Warrior a brutal but affectionate feel good picture.
Tommy (Hardy) and Brendan Conlon (Edgerton) could not be more different as brothers who despise their recovering alcoholic father (Nick Nolte). But one thing that does bring them together is a MMA event that fetches a 5 million dollar prize, although their paths are quite different. Tommy is a war veteran who has just returned home under mysterious circumstances, and decides to train with his father after knocking down a major MMA contender in which becomes a viral hit.
Brendan is a father of three struggling to make ends meet, and he has no choice but to fight in "Sporta" after a fight leaves him suspended from his day job as a Physics teacher. With his house about to be foreclosed on and his wife (Jennifer Morrison) struggling to raise their three daughters, Brendan decides to return to the ring despite an earlier fight that left him unconscious. As these two paths collide, one thing is for sure: these brothers will hold nothing back to live their dreams.
Much like Rocky and The Fighter, Warrior is a fighting picture that focuses more on its characters than the fighting at hand. Despite all of the brutal fighting that ensues throughout, most of Warrior devotes its time to the journeys of the characters. That's what makes Warrior a special sports movie, as it rarely feels like a stale "rise from the ashes" kind of tale. It also never feels stale for a feel good movie, as it truly digs into all of the emotions the characters to the point where it pushes the actors to their limits. If you don't cry at least once throughout Warrior, then you will not hear the end of it from me.
Warrior reminds me of Hoosiers, only instead of one man finding redemption we have two finding redemption in the "cage". The one drawback of Warrior is that it feels like an expose of MMA, digging so much into the underbelly of Mixed Martial Arts that it sort of ruins the mystique of the sport. But Warrior doesn't become as obsessed over these elements as one will expect, so it's not much of a surprise that Warrior boasts such great acting. As an emotional roller-coaster, Warrior is never short of moments that feel like Oscar bait. And you know what? The men in the picture do quite well in their roles as a whole.
Hardy bulks up and does well as the resistant son, delivering a brute but powerful performance both inside and outside the ring. Edgerton is splendid as the father down on his luck, delivering a "Rocky" like performance that's hard not to love. Besides the incredible physiques, both Edgerton and Hardy are incredible in their final fight sequence. While nothing exceptional, the final fight sequences echoes much of what's great in feel good sports movies. You hate to see one of them lose, yet you know that only one can get what they want. The MMA event sort of goes by too quickly, but its impact is made by the brutality of the event.
Just seeing Kurt Angle fight in Warrior is a treat, as the film doesn't hold back the harsh nature of MMA in general. However, Warrior's best element comes from the emotionally vulnerable performance of Nick Nolte. It's hard not to see why Nolte is up for awards, as his emotionally volatile take on the alcoholic dad is nothing short of heartbreaking and devastating. Throughout the film he tries to reconnect with his sons, but it's clear that his sons want nothing to do with him despite Paddy staying sober. This creates some serious drama by Nolte, and the way he breaks down over the rejection of acceptance from Hardy and Edgerton is truly tearful.
The script lacks great originality, but its low key approach allows the brutal nature of the fights to be more surprising than expected. It covers too many areas of the fighters' lives at times, robbing some of the "underdog" nature that Warrior strives for, and the camera work is a bit shaky with all the shaky cam at hand. Many will consider Warrior to be a rip off of The Fighter, Rocky, Hoosiers and so on, but with results like these it really doesn't matter. Warrior is not your usual feel good sports film, but rarely does something as emotionally intense and cheerful like Warrior come every year.
Ritchie does his best with the material, but it's all flash and little intrigue
You don't go into a Guy Ritchie directed movie expecting something intelligent, but even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would be shocked at how much the mystery of Sherlock Holmes has been reduced in this sequel. As with the first Sherlock Holmes movie, A Game of Shadows is all noise and fireworks but little excitement or mystery. There are more than enough small laughs and set pieces to deliver adequate amusement, but the misuse of Moriarty becomes the film's biggest disappointment – in addition to yet another muddled and damn near incoherent retelling of another Sherlock Holmes movie. For all of the flashy set pieces and costumes A Game of Shadows shows off, it can't hide the emptiness that cursed the first film.
In his latest adventure, Holmes (Downey Jr.) believes that a series of attacks throughout Europe are linked to scholar and equally brilliant Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris), who has someone Holmes knows well killed to get what he wants. Meanwhile, Holmes reunited with the husband to be Watson (Law) to track down the clues to uncover Moriarty's true intentions of wreaking havoc all over Europe. To do this, they need the help of gypsy Simza Heron (Noomi Rapace), whose brother could be involved in Moriarty's plot to assassinate a powerful political figure and start war in a time of peace.
It pretty much comes down to this as to whether you'll like A Game of Shadows. If you enjoyed the first one, you'll feel more satisfied with a better villain and better set pieces that compliment the action. If you didn't, then the action itself tends to be boring and the mystery itself is quite tame and misguided. As a person who didn't think much of the first one, I didn't get much more out of A Game of Shadows. If anything I felt less interested because the sequel had more potential after a rather drab reinvention with the 2009 version. But I do give the sequel one good thing: the action is better staged and better crafted even with all the slow motion techniques Guy Ritchie picked up from Zack Snyder.
The meaty parts of the film of course involve explosions, and A Game of Shadows is never short of them. Despite the obsession over slow motion, most of the action in normal speed tends to be occasionally entertaining and even humorous at times. While the first film threw out adequate action, the sequel amps up the wow factor and does what it needs to in order to satisfy fans of the first film. Too bad I wasn't impressed, as it's truly the only thing that could have made the sequel better than the missed opportunity that the first film was. Ritchie throws in plenty of well choreographed stunts, but they just never add up to more than mildly amusing bits.
Downey Jr. continues to play dress up here, and I don't mean that in a good way. His take on Sherlock Holmes is becoming more like Jack Sparrow without the charm, feeling more like a pretentious wannabe of a detective rather than the genius he originally was. It's becoming clear that this version of Sherlock Holmes is all action and no mystery, which doesn't bode well for the plot. Admittedly Downey Jr. is occasionally humorous, and his dysfunctional chemistry with Law does add some charms to the film. However, it feels like child's play to him, as the script seems lazy and unwilling to give Downey Jr. more to do other than prance around in a dress or solve mysteries with the tiniest of hints.
Law seems more discontent with his role than Downey Jr., and I can't blame him by looking so worn out and tired of playing second fiddle to a guy who constantly mocks him. He still has his moments, but this Watson seems less enchanting than the first movie. Arguably the biggest draw of A Game of Shadows should have been Moriarty, but he's badly underused and fails to find much of a reason to exist here other than serve as a plot device. As cunning and brilliant as he his, Moriarty fails to find a voice here despite Jared Harris' excellent work in a devious role, one that unfortunately is undermined by the general lack of motivation he is given in A Game of Shadows.
That comes with the fault of the script, which acts as nothing more than a series of set pieces disguised as puzzles to keep us on our feet. While the new cast breathes some life in this game, not even Stephen Fry or the original "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" Noomi Rapace can do much to help A Game of Shadows. Ritchie knows how to make a film look pretty, but his storytelling skills with the Sherlock Holmes series needs a serious readjustment. Much like the first film, A Game of Shadows will do enough for those who don't care for an involving mystery or great characters. However, it's not enough for those who want intrigue and actual thrills instead of endless slow motion, and that becomes a flaw that A Game of Shadows can't overcome.
Source Code (2011)
Jones delivers an intriguing and well realized Science Fiction drama
Many Science Fiction films deal with at one time or another time travel and so on. But what if you could travel back within an alternate reality to help the government? Duncan Jones goes into that topic with Source Code, his latest surprise gem of a film following Moon. Unlike Moon however, Source Code expands Jones' imagination with a bigger budget and bigger idea. Within its limits, Source Code provides a nifty little version of Groundhog Day meets The Matrix. Even though it heavily uses those two films as a template, one can see more than just a mash up of reliving time and living an alternate reality and delivers a genuinely interesting if improbable journey.
Captain Colter Stevens (Gyllenhaal) is a "volunteer" for a program known as Source Code, which is where he is able to go back into a certain event in the past to not change the outcome but to help the government. But what makes Source Code different is that this program is set in an alternate reality, and Colter's mission is not to prevent a bombing but rather identify the bomber so that the government can track him or her down in present day. For Colter however, he decides to try to save fellow passenger Christina (Michelle Monaghan) and others while taking orders from Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) and learning of his fate in the real world and so on.
The challenge with Source Code is that the plot itself can get very tricky to decipher despite all of the explanations the characters discuss about the Source Code project itself. Despite spoon feeding us information on more than a few occasions, Source Code surprisingly remains intelligent and resourceful despite the limitations of its premise. Though marketed as a "save the world" Science Fiction movie, there are more layers to the film besides seeing a train blow up over and over again. The true beauty of Source Code is seeing Gyllenhaal try to save people that are already dead in reality while helping the government all at once.
At times this seems like a cheat given that Gyllenhaal's mission is not to save people but rather spot the bomber, but with all the twists that come up Jones manages to suspend our lack of interest in the main story by adding character moments. It's frustrating to learn that the Source Code project itself cannot change time but rather prevent future attacks, but once you get past that Source Code offers something more. It offers a hearty character based Science Fiction drama where Gyllenhaal digs deeper into his character the closer he gets to spotting the bomber, and he probably becomes the sole reason Source Code works as well as it does despite the limitations of the plot and the redundancy of the action in general.
Gyllenhaal isn't the kind of guy I'd imagine would work well in dramas, but after seeing Source Code you might want to reconsider that perception. Not only does he work well by himself in a restricted environment; he is able to work well with others. You might even get a few chuckles out of Gyllenhaal with the ways he tries to prevent the so called attack. Whether these laughs were intentional or not remains in question, but there's no question Source Code has more than its share of moments with comic relief that grounds the film for the better. What works well the first time works better on successive attempts within the project, as there's something more to Source Code the more Gyllenhaal tries to save an alternate reality.
Source Code is heavy on explosions and "action", but there's so much more to the movie itself. Underneath its exterior lies human drama that works to the film's underlying theme of "making the most out of life", especially with the big twist that Colter himself learns about. I like the way that the film remains low key even when it goes CGI heavy on the train explosions. The film slowly grasps our interest and focuses more on the actions of the characters over the real action as time goes by within the movie. This allows Source Code to be something enlightening as a movie that's about seizing every moment that comes by. The movie doesn't make all the sense in the world, but somehow Source Code has its cake and eats it too.
The CGI for the train sequences aren't quite up to A-level, as the images often look blocky and rather distorted despite the frequency of them. Despite that letdown, the explosion itself generally delivers some thrills when shown from different angles. Even if Source Code came with blocky CGI, it still would be a good film. The plot itself is borderline implausible given the scientific variables involved, but much like a good Science Fiction film Source Code remains intriguing and stays true to its characters when it needs to. Jones doesn't have the greatest talent for filming action, but he certainly knows how to keep an audience on their feet by focusing on characters and the story.
Horrible Bosses (2011)
It works better than its trailer would lead you to believe
What if you hated your boss so much that you wanted them dead? That's the question Horrible Bosses asks, though not with as much consistency you would expect. Based on the trailers, Horrible Bosses looked like one of those comedies where there isn't more than meets the eye – for lack of a better analogy. How much you laugh with Horrible Bosses depends on a number of things. If you like predictable situations with unpredictable results, then you'll leave more than satisfied. If not, then you'll find parts of Horrible Bosses to be occasionally boring and a bit tiring as the film approaches to a semi-predictable ending.
But even with the lack of true surprises, Horrible Bosses actually works once one overlooks the limitations of the script and the grating presence of Charlie Day. The more you watch, the more you forget about its flaws and just go with the laughs. Nick Hendricks (Bateman) is an Executive at a firm who is frequently abused by his boss Dave Harken (Spacey), who tricks him into drinking scotch in order to get a promotion. Dale (Day) is a dental assistant who is frequently hit on by his sexually obsessed boss Julia (Aniston), who is so relentless that she resorts to blackmailing him to sleep with her just as he is about to get married.
Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) was happy with his job, but with his bosses' son Bobby (Colin Farrell) running things, he just can't take it anymore. Nick, Dale and Kurt ponder about wanting their bosses dead one night, though it becomes real when they pay a "criminal" (Jamie Foxx) to help them do the dirty deed. Together they get information on their bosses, though not all goes as planned when Dale inadvertently saves one of the bosses' lives while breaking and entering. However, it gets much worse when one of the bosses kills another, and the guys are soon implicated on murder charges that only they can prove false.
At first sight I wasn't all impressed with Horrible Bosses. With all of the annoying attempts to make us laugh and the worn out high concept premise, Horrible Bosses seemed doomed to fail as yet another forgettable attempt to make Bateman, Sudeikis or Day a leading man. However, what I found was that the more I watched, the less I complained about the film's various problems. Some of it comes from the script, which to my amazement was written by three people. If I didn't know better, I thought some college kids wrote the script out of spite and anger without really getting into the characters' heads. Horrible Bosses is really more of a character based comedy, but rarely do we get a feel for the characters beyond understanding why they hate their bosses.
It threatens to make Horrible Bosses one pitiful gag after another, specifically with all the drugs Day does and Spacey's performance that borders on psychotic. Eventually the script becomes rather trite and contrived, although that's not what the movie is about. It's all about laughing at something that would never happen in real life, and as far as laughs go Horrible Bosses accomplishes its goals. Charlie Day however doesn't get the movie to achieve anything, as his high pitched voice and relentless need to mug the camera makes him look more of a mental patient than a capable dental assistant. His act works in It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia because it fits the tone, but in Horrible Bosses he needs to be more grounded.
Most of the acting in Horrible Bosses is hit or miss, so Day at least doesn't become the only offender. Sudeikis seems a bit full of himself, lacking a great presence as a comedian. But I give him credit for at least building good chemistry with Bateman, as their constant jabs at Day adds something unpredictable to the film. Playing yet another vulnerable character, Bateman does an adequate if unexceptional job as the guy who has the biggest issue with his boss. Though Spacey has bite, he seems all wrong for a comedy like Horrible Bosses. He seems stuck in 90's mode when he was really something, and Spacey goes over the top to make sure we sympathize with Bateman and his friends wanting him dead.
It doesn't work as well as it should, primarily because he's too much of a dick. At the very least, Aniston is quite raunchy and funny as the sexpot Dentist. Defying her good girl stereotype, Aniston is easily the best aspect of Horrible Bosses. I didn't expect much out of her given her lack of appeal as a lead comedian, but in an ensemble flick like Horrible Bosses she works quite well. Unlike Spacey, Aniston has a better feel for the material by adding enough awkwardness to intimidate Day while being creepy enough to feel like a boss who solely exists in a fantasy world. She might be the only reason I think highly of Horrible Bosses in small doses, and trust me Horrible Bosses has many flaws beyond what I just said above.
I do admire that the film throws us plenty of curve balls, which make us more engaged with the plot than we should. But somehow the movie overstays its welcome, reducing the three leads from being calculating optimists to complete idiots. Then again, there wouldn't be as many laughs now would there? It's true that Horrible Bosses is deeply uneven and needs a more refined script. It's true that the film has next to nothing as far as surprises go. But even with those issues, the cast make the most out of the scatter shot material and works well enough to sustain its laughs. It lacks a great amount of laughs or a stable storyline, but you'll get your fair share of amusement for what it's worth with a cast like this.
127 Hours (2010)
Franco carries this gripping human drama with raw intensity
Danny Boyle's latest film, 127 Hours, is based on the true story of climber Aron Ralston, who became trapped under a boulder and endured 127 hours of loneliness before cutting his arm off to get out. Sounds like a simple survival story doesn't it? Well not until you learn what he had to do to survive being by himself with just a camera and basic camping tools. Following Oscar glory with Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle creates an equally entertaining but much more effective tale of survival beyond your imagination. I certainly thought that Slumdog Millionaire merited some accolades, but Best Picture was not one of them.
127 Hours cures that remedy, as Boyle creates such a tense and provocative picture that at times you wonder whether the big cutoff scene is worth the wait. It definitely is, though not as gruesome as something you would see out of Saw. Instead, the big finale relies solely on Franco's grunts, and it makes the journey towards his rescue all the more uplifting. Aron Ralston (Franco) is an extreme enthusiast who will do just about any crazy sport out there. But while climbing in Utah, he falls between two walls and has his arm trapped under a boulder. With no contact to the outside world besides his memories, Ralston will have to do whatever it takes to survive 5 days on a bottle of water and his camera to document his struggle.
Though Ralston's story doesn't come with much of a script on screen, that's not what 127 Hours is all about. Instead, it is all about one man's struggle to survive and his willingness to make the most out of his ordeal. This is where 127 Hours lives and dies with Franco, but luckily Franco delivers in his Oscar nominated performance. For a film that never becomes as emotionally uplifting as it should, it's not if you know the end but rather how well the journey towards the end engages, and in 127 Hours the journey is worth the wait. Gripping, somber and touching, 127 Hours isn't terribly well constructed but delivers an experience that might just rock you to your core.
With the story of man vs. nature told countless times, one wonders what makes 127 Hours an unusually interesting film. 127 Hours is not just a man vs. nature film. It is a film where thought comes into play, but not to the extreme of Inception. As portrayed by Franco, Ralston uses the various thoughts in his life to get through the grueling ordeal to which he suffers through. This can be interpreted as something remarkable, or something pretentious and stylishly manipulative to win us over. I view it as probably 60% of the former and 40% of the latter. Boyle went overboard on the visual excesses in Slumdog Millionaire, and though he tones it down here we still feel thrown in the loop with all that's thrown on screen.
On the other hand, Boyle injects the film with unexpected humor that eases us into making us feel like we're there with Ralston and that we understand what he went through in 2003. Boyle draws a very thin line with this technique, but it proves more effective than erratic for a simple tale of survival. I wouldn't call 127 Hours entertaining based on the stylistic nature that 127 Hours adopts, but Franco certainly can make you look at 127 Hours that way with an Oscar worthy performance. Acting is one thing, but acting by your self is the most challenging part of the profession. Franco however delivers in the clutch, and his ability to make us feel like we're trapped with him adds to a wonderful performance.
Since we do spend about 80% of the film with Franco, it's his movie to lose if he doesn't convince us to care for Ralston's tale. Happily he never loses sight of what's important, and he offers a mix of cockiness and self deprecation that makes his performance offbeat but full of heart. We do get testy when he goes overboard with his extreme antics during the opening scenes, but Franco never acts like he's better than everyone else; he just merely lives life like there's no tomorrow. That foreshadowing helps us ease into him being trapped, as he stays up night and day to try to free himself regardless of whether he loses sleep or something more.
Not only does it feel natural; it feels like an appropriate transition into the inevitable when Aron frees himself. What I didn't expect was how great Franco would be in 127 Hours, but he makes this tale even more rewarding for those who wait for the big finale. Raw, unsettling but inspiring, Danny Boyle's 127 Hours is a profound effort that is elevated thanks to Franco's mesmerizing performance. The lack of a script or heartwarming moments keeps 127 Hours from greatness, but there's plenty here that makes us satisfied. As a survival tale it's nothing new, but as a one man play 127 Hours offers a refreshing effort.
Super 8 (2011)
Boasts its moments of magic, but it feels unfinished and somewhat empty
While J.J. Abrams hasn't been in film for long, his energy towards film helps his films seem more interesting than anything Michael Bay will ever do. Though best known for TV series such as Alias and Lost, Abrams has branched out with successful flicks such as Mission Impossible III and Star Trek, with the latter getting a sequel from Abrams next year. For his latest film comes a little bit of nostalgia in Super 8, which mixes in a little E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind and other Spielberg films. With Spielberg as producer, it's no wonder Super 8 feels so close to home.
And perhaps that's why Super 8 feels like it should have been directed by Spielberg instead of Abrams, whose love for Spielberg might overshadow the film's high moments. Set in 1979, Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) is a preteen who must adjust to losing his mother after a construction accident, which his Deputy dad (Kyle Chandler) still hasn't quite gotten over. A few months later summer comes, leading Joe to hang out with his friends Charles (Riley Griffiths), Martin (Gabriel Masso) and others to finish a film to enter in a competition.
While filming a scene at the local train station, they witness an incident that makes all of them grow up quickly. This little train crash is caused by someone who wanted to let something out of the train, which gets the military involved as the town begins to get curious when motor engines and people disappear from plain sight. Despite their best efforts to finish filming, Joe and his friends instead investigate the train crash that eventually takes one of their friends. What they find out is beyond their imagination, for they will truly find out what it is truly like to meet something out of their world.
If you've seen this movie before, then you're not alone in that train of thought. As mentioned before, Super 8 reminds me heavily of E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind to the point where certain scenes homage both of those films. How much of it works depends on interpretation, though to be honest they can only work for so long before they become too nostalgic for their own good. Most of Super 8 can be magical, enchanting and fun, yet there's that odd empty feeling inside that makes Super 8 less than stellar.
However, I won't fault Abrams for the viewpoint of Super 8. The decision of showing the movie through the eyes of the kids is bold but clever, giving the film some naturally innocent moments that remind us how summer movies can be fun without loud explosions. You get a feel for the kids when they witness the crash and get involved in investigating the crash, allowing many touchy moments that keep us intrigued by what exactly the kids find on the train. Though there are too many of these moments to make every one of them work well, they do manage to evoke the right amount of passion from the kids' point of view.
The preteen cast generally seems a little hit or miss, but as a whole they seem charming and honest. We get the usual stereotypes of kids, but rarely do they feel like stereotypes. There's a lot of heart in these roles, bringing us a fresh perspective on the innocence of growing up with this kind of event rocking their town. While the characters aren't that fascinating, they have good personalities and keep things going even when the film goes into "Alien" mode. The emotional attachment between Joe and Alice really keeps us engaged with the cast, giving us some beautifully tender moments in the wake of what's happening around them.
Unusually quiet for a summer movie – at least the first hour or so, Super 8 certainly has the ambition to be a fresh take on the "growing up" genre. It accomplishes many things such as bringing back childhood memories and allowing us to be wrapped up with the unfolding story and children that make up the story. At times Super 8 reaches greatness due to its restraint, while at other times it seems to hold back what made Spielberg movies great. Super 8 is an intense film full of suspense and uncertainty, yet we are never quite sure what to feel for the movie. Abrams does so much to relive his childhood that in the end Super 8 is an unfinished dream rather than a complete movie.
Plenty of themes get the chance to be used, yet not one ever seems to dominate the film. That's where Super 8 falters as a significant film, lacking great focus and occasionally goes off track from its purpose. Super 8 works best when it concentrates on growing up around mass chaos, delivering the necessary suspense combined with quiet moments of humor to get us in the mood. But when it goes in a completely different direction, mainly conspiracies and what was on the train, Super 8 doesn't work as well.
I get that Super 8 is a film that wants to relive a time where technology wasn't everything and that imagination was the greatest tool for film, yet it ultimately seems like a noble failure in the end. Abrams knows what he wants on screen, but he doesn't quite know what he wants us to feel for Super 8. Parts of Super 8 capture the Spielberg tone well, while others tend to make it emotionally empty. Super 8 boasts its moments of magic that infects us to relive a different era, but beyond that Super 8 doesn't do enough for me to consider it as a good movie.
The Specialist (1994)
Cheesy and over-dramatic, The Specialist is a tremendously dull thriller
After the failure that was Rocky V, Sylvester Stallone was officially off the A-list and tried his hand at comedy. But it was a failure for him, being reduced to an atrocious movie with Estelle Getty as well as a movie that is named after the most coveted prize in acting: Oscar. Cliffhanger got him back into the game, though only for a brief shining moment. It pretty much all ended with Judge Dredd and Daylight, both substantial failures in many aspects. But I believe that it was The Specialist that sort of started the downfall for Stallone after a successful year in 1993. While it technically counts as a hit, so many things go wrong in it.
Departing from over the top solo efforts, The Specialist tries to steer Stallone in a different direction in this slightly erotic but mostly derivative revenge thriller. Twists and mayhem ensue, yet it never quite does much for us to be honest. 10 years after a bombing that gets him kicked out of the CIA, Bomb expert Ray Quick (Stallone) is in Miami waiting for his next targets on the orders of May Munro (Sharon Stone), who wants revenge on the men that killed her parents when she was a child. The men are made up of the Leon family in Joe (Rod Steiger) and Tomas (Eric Roberts), both who are vicious and cold blooded to May.
Old friend turned enemy Ned Trent (James Woods) overlooks the situation, though he knows that Ray can kill just about anybody without really trying. While killing some associates of the Leons, Ray gets a little too close for comfort for May and soon becomes personally attached to her past. Despite accomplishing the necessary killings, it isn't quite over for Ray and May, who still have to deal with Ned before they can get away. Plus, one of them is not telling the truth to the other, so it will be a matter of who gets who in the end.
The Specialist hardly represents the worst of Stallone, but it's closer to the bottom than the top to be honest. An unusual film even for Stallone, The Specialist is darker and more subdued for the typical Stallone film. Sadly, that's where the film loses us in trying to rebuild Stallone's image despite him retaining muscles for a role that definitely didn't need it other than one erotic but hopelessly pointless scene. Moody but cheesy, The Specialist tries hard to be a throwback revenge film but ends up getting tangled into too many webs and doesn't deliver the necessary thrills.
Surprisingly based on a series of novels, I'd have to imagine that the novels at least seem more interesting than this joyless action picture. For what the film tries to be in a dramatic thriller, the end result makes it cheesy and depressingly routine for Stallone. The script mostly plays like a series of puzzles that never seem to make sense, though the film tries hard to fit them. The only enjoyment you'll get is the many ways that Stallone kills his targets, which sadly provide only some pleasure when they pop up. Without those bits of overkill, The Specialist is an empty spectacle full of fireworks but no thrills.
The screenplay wants us to buy into the various twists and turns, but eventually they'll leave your head either shaking or sleepy, though it wouldn't matter because the script runs out of ideas halfway through. When the movie goes through its targets, it's as if The Specialist seemed to stall and just wanted to end with even more fireworks than shown before. Eventually, it gets tedious to get to a finale that sadly is as big of a letdown as seeing James Woods and Rod Steiger being conned into a film made for Stallone and Stone. Woods does his best to inject the movie with life, but even his hammy performance can't cover his lack of enthusiasm for the role.
Woods chews the scenery and rarely gives it back – that is until Stallone comes into the picture. His lack of conviction hurts his role greatly, giving us a character that looks good on paper but often seems underwhelming and lackluster. Stallone distances himself from being a macho action hero in The Specialist, yet the look on his face makes you think otherwise. He gives us enough mystery to give us an occasionally interesting character, but even he can't hide his muscles from becoming a distraction. The lack of background story on him makes us even less interested, not to mention that Stallone isn't what he used to be.
Stone fits the manipulative woman well, but that's a role she's been known for her whole career. She certainly has the body and looks, but she doesn't have the brains to pull off a part that Kathleen Turner did well in Body Heat. While her intentions are modest, it's the plan in action that makes Stone's character less than believable. Steiger is more hammy than Woods here, yet he seems less interesting because he becomes irrelevant in the long run. Roberts either seems too old or too beat up to pull off the beautiful tough guy, lacking any sense of morality and becomes a distraction for The Specialist.
Some of the action pieces can be fun, but since they aren't the focus of The Specialist, they seem less than stimulating to be honest. A few exhilarating moments are negated by bad twists, dull characters and an atmosphere that's more tacky than mysterious. I suppose setting the film in Miami had something to with it, for it seems that the cast had more fun off the set than on it. Barry's music is better fit for a romantic drama, not something as mysterious or dull as The Specialist amounts to be. The Specialist gives a few cheap thrills, but it simply never does much for its characters or atmosphere.
Rapid Fire (1992)
It works well when it comes to action, but not so much when it goes for story
Being the son of a legend isn't easy, especially when you're the son of Martial Artist Bruce Lee. That was the predicament that Brandon Lee was put in, and soon comparisons to his dad were hard to avoid. Even with his first film in Showdown in Little Tokyo, Lee was clearly going to get some kind of comparison to his dad. Of course Brandon never was as great of a martial artist as his dad, but to me he was a better actor despite being dealt with bad one liners in his debut. For his second effort he goes solo, though he doesn't do so with the most convincing act.
Clearly a star vehicle for Lee, Rapid Fire delivers what it needs to and no more. The action does enough to be entertaining due to decent production values, but the story is mostly third rate at best. Jake Lo (Lee) is a college student who is good at drawing, especially a model that takes an interest in him. After being dragged to a party, he witnesses a murder by drug kingpin Antonio Serrano (Nick Mancuso) and somehow escapes his clutches.
Of course he doesn't get away clean and ends up being arrested. That is until he tells the cops the story, and he is transported to Chicago to testify against Serrano. But when a few dirty agents want to take him out, Lo goes all out and has to team up with local cop Mace Ryan (Powers Boothe) if he wants to live another week. Eventually Ryan uses Jake as bait to lure Serrano into giving details about a drug deal, but all hell breaks loose again and soon another drug dealer comes into play that Jake will have to take down as well.
Rapid Fire is not without merit, but one cannot help that it should have had more action and less story. Story can only take an action movie so far, and perhaps it takes Rapid Fire too far to the point of near boredom. Of course with Brandon Lee as the star he never makes Rapid Fire boring, but he sure as hell doesn't make it as worthwhile as The Crow. When Rapid Fire sticks to the action, it generally entertains. When it goes for dramatics, they seem to bog down Rapid Fire's fast pace approach.
The basic story of Rapid Fire is adequate, though not the most intelligent story you could get out of an action film. When Lee kicks ass despite being a pacifist, it creates unexpected thrills and actually keep us in the movie. When he flashes back to his past, it gets a little too sappy and adds little depth to a movie that should contain more action. As the film progresses, the story seems to run out of energy and never quite knows where to end. The main problem is that Rapid Fire gets tangled into too many subplots that feel rather irrelevant, and they seem to restrict what Rapid Fire could have been.
Lee was capable as an action star, but as a leading man he wasn't quite ready to make the leap. He looks the part and seems to fit the leading role, but he doesn't take charge the way his dad did. He feels more like an afterthought in Rapid Fire despite being the lead attraction, and it's not just the story that makes him forgettable. It's the lack of truly impressive action pieces that make Lee barely better than Chuck Norris or Jean Claude Van Damme here, even with a few glass shattering sequences that occasionally entertain.
The villain, or villains, are mostly just nameless presences that don't add much to the story other than characters that get their asses kicked by Brandon Lee. The cops that help Lee are somewhat amusing, but they're played out typecast roles at best here. Only Boothe gets some kind of background story, but even then we don't feel all that much emotion for a cop who gets too greedy in trying to nab a drug kingpin. In giving us another villain, Rapid Fire gets desperate at creating more thrills when it should have stuck to a better story.
Some of the action pieces in Rapid Fire work, but not many of them seem to work well. They sustain our attention just enough to get some joy out of Brandon Lee kicking ass in his first lead role, but to be honest they don't make us cheer enough for the good guys. When the story is at its most basic, the action actually can be entertaining. But with layers of story there comes a price, and the price that Rapid Fire pays is thrilling action. Rapid Fire isn't weak, but it never seems to be better than the best Jean Claude Van Damme effort.
Best of the Best II (1993)
The change to a more violent picture makes this sequel unpleasant
While Eric Roberts has had something of a resurgence in today's age with The Dark Knight and a stint on Celebrity Rehab, he truly was stuck in B movie hell for quite some time. Even after moderate successes with The Pope of Greenwich Village and Runaway Train, he simply failed to capitalize on those successes and went straight to video and eventually Lifetime. Case in point: Best of the Best, a martial arts movie that tried so hard to imitate better movies that the only thing that made it interesting was the fight sequences and ending.
All that is thrown out the window in Best of the Best II, a sequel that to my amazement is not only cheaper but also more disgusting. Action movies don't have to be brainless, but Best of the Best II sure takes the cake with silly one liners and action that feels like it's on auto mode. Leaving off where the original ended, Alex (Roberts), Tommy (Rhee) and Travis (Penn) return home to the states to open up their own martial arts studio.
But Travis has other plans in mind when he decides to fight to the death in an unsanctioned fighting arena known as the Colosseum, where the champion is Brakus (Ralf Moeller). When Travis gets the chance to fight, he is unfortunately killed senselessly and dumped into a nearby river. After learning of this, Alex and Tommy confront Brakus but get thrown out while tearing up his place. To make things interesting Brakus sends some henchmen to kill them, but Alex, Tommy and Alex's son escape to Tommy's foster parents where they learn to fight like Brakus from Alex's foster brother James (sonny Landham). When Brakus finds the location, Tommy will have to fight Brakus to get not only his freedom but save Alex's life as well.
Best of the Best wasn't exactly Shakespeare, but it looks like it compared to the utterly idiotic nature of Best of the Best II. Cheaper than a Chuck Norris film, Best of the Best II mostly throws out the usual in any dumb action movie: thin characters, little plot and a lot of violent action that doesn't excite but rather disgust us with the way it develops. The first Best of the Best was something of a feel good movie, but this one made me want to vomit all over my lap when I saw it.
Usually if there's one good action sequence in any movie, then it can't be all bad. Sadly Best of the Best II has no redeeming value as an action movie, though it tries hard when it wants to be an underground gladiator movie. As dumb as Best of the Best II can be, it could have been at least watchable had the film emphasized the arena instead of the characters, who are so thinly drawn out that there is little attention as to how they actually get to the point of fighting their way out like that Bruce Lee wannabe did in Game of Death.
Roberts does try so desperately hard to inject some kind of drama or passion in this sequel, but even his minor talents can't do anything for him and the others. He sure looks fit here, which is why Best of the Best II feels like Rocky IV. From the montages to the cheesy dialogue to cold hearted villain, Best of the Best II is your basic ripoff of Rocky IV or any movie involving overcoming the odds. Rocky IV at least had good music to accompany the montages. Best of the Best II has some cheesy rock n roll score that couldn't be more simplistic if it tried.
Getting back to Roberts, he does what he can to not be involved in his character. That's where the motivation for Best of the Best II falls apart, leaning on a flat personality like Rhee to carry the film when he has to fight Brakus. While he fights well, his acting is something of a disappointment, lacking much of a larger than life persona that should fit this movie. Even the additional screen time for Alex's kid doesn't help, giving us a lot of hokey sentiment that doesn't fit such a gratuitously violent sequel. Yeah Walter distracts a henchman so that his dad can beat him up, but so what?
Even Moeller as Brakus seems largely forgettable, though his accent might be the only thing that makes his character stand out. He's given a lot of bad one liners that really make me cringe, and the only thing that makes him remotely compelling is that his muscles might be bigger than his head. Wayne Newton was fun to look at in Licence to Kill, but here he overstays his welcome and becomes something of a nuisance for those wanting a good scene stealer for the movie. Sadly he isn't, and as Brakus' manager he really is an egotistical jerk without a soul.
The action is where Best of the Best II lives and dies, but unfortunately it dies before it lives up to its expectations. Various people get killed for no reasons, and what's with the guns? If Best of the Best II wanted to stick with some resemblance to the original, it should have been all martial arts and no guns. This is where Best of the Best II fails: when it tries to be something of a no win situation for the main characters. The finale is moderately entertaining, but it is more disgusting than exciting as with the rest of the film. People get their heads blown off, get their limbs broken, but not much of it seems to make sense as with the rest of Best of the Best II.