Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Review: 3:10 to Yuma

Starring: Russell Crowe, Christian Bale
Director: James Mangold

Producer: Stuart M. Besser, Ryan Kavanaugh, Cathy Konrad, Lynwood Spinks
Release Date: September 7, 2007
Running time: 117 min

MPAA Rating: R
Distributors: Lions Gate Entertainment

“You all spared no expense this time, Byron. I gotta say, though, it's probably cheaper just to let me rob the damn thing.”
Ben Wade in 3:10 to Yuma

“If it's between you and some poor guy whose wife you're gonna make a widow... brother, you are going down.”
Vincent Hanna in Heat

The Skinny:
A remake of the 1957 film of the same name adapted from a short story by Elmore Leonard.

The Review:
I don’t see that many Westerns. When you say it out loud it’s kind of appalling considering most of the ones I have seen (and my experience is embarrassingly limited) are generally pretty good. They appeal because of basic thematic fundamentals: enforcement of the law, honor and cowardice, and good old fashion good guys vs. bad guys. The good ones are more than just cowboys and Indians; they are studies in character that take place in a simpler time. Well, maybe not simpler, but definitely a time that is more uniquely American than any other film genre.

Dan Evans (Christian Bale) is a rancher and veteran of the Civil War who is down on his luck. He lost his leg in the war and his barn has just been burned down in the middle of the night. He is living with the fear his sons don’t respect him and that he is not providing for his family. Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) is the leader of a gang with over twenty robberies on the Southern Pacific Railroad on his resume. He has charisma and intellect beyond the borders of his gang and his evil actions. Yet, you still want to see him get his just dues.

Evans and his boys stumble on a robbery in progress by Wade and his gang. Wade takes their horses but lets them go. Later in town, Evans crosses paths with Wade again and stalls him long enough for him to be arrested. He agrees to help escort Wade to prison train in Contention (the 3:10 to Yuma) for desperately needed reward money. In its most basic form, the plot of the movie is simple; get a man to the train on time. But the plot is not what drives this movie. It is the interaction between Wade and Evans while they are on the journey to Contention.

Remember the scene in Heat where DeNiro and Pacino discuss the discipline of their chosen professions and reflect on their ultimate intentions while having coffee? Of course you do. It is a great movie and that scene stays with you long after you finish watching it. Although they come from the opposite sides of the law, they are civilized amidst the chaos that has, and is about to ensue. They go so far as to kindly let the other know that when push comes to shove, civilized or not, neither of them will hesitate to let instinct take over and do what they think has to be done.

This movie is a lot like that scene. It is essentially a long conversation between two men who seem to exist only in each others universe. Even though they will ultimately both do what they have to in order to serve their own interests, they will be civilized about it, even if they are pushed to violence. You get the feeling that if Wade has to be sent to prison, there is no one else he would rather accompany him on his journey than Evans. They interact with each other as if no one else is around, and the movie is all the better for it. The whole movie we are lead to believe that Evans is only doing this for the reward money, but during the final 20 minutes the movie comes full circle because we come to the realization of his true motivations at the precise moment that he does, even if Wade knew it all along.

The Rub:
3:10 to Yuma is a great movie that tells a simple story that flourishes from the performances of Christian Bale and Russell Crowe, both as individual performances and the way their characters interact. Even though both men keep their own agendas in play, there is a civility in their actions that forges a stronger connection and makes the movie all the better for it.

And there’s the rub.

*** 1/2 out of ****

Monday, September 17, 2007

Review: Mr. Woodcock

Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Sean William Scott, Susan Sarandon, Amy Poehler, Ethan Suplee
Director: Craig Gillespie

Producer: Bob Cooper, David Dobkin
Release Date: September 14, 2007
Running time: 97 min

MPAA Rating: PG-13
Distributors: New Line Cinema

“Well, I am known for my meat.”
Jasper Woodcock in Mr. Woodcock

The Skinny:
Childhood fatty gets tormented by his gym teacher, grows up and writes a book only to find out the object of all his motivations is now dating his mother.

The Review:
6th grade. Third period gym. Coach Stange.

Everybody knew all you had to do was show up and dress for class and you’d get an easy A; so that I did. Yet at the end of the first semester I had to explain to my folks why I got a C- in gym class. I argued over and over that Coach Stange flat out hated my guts. Mom even went so far as to call the school to find out. Why the low grade for a whole semester? According to him, it was because I forgot my gym clothes one time and I needed to be taught some discipline. It took her until the next year of seeing A’s in gym for her to finally believe me that he did actually hate me. I didn’t let my distaste for him ruin or guide my life, but God I hated that guy. Mr. Woodcock tell a similar, albeit slightly more colorful version of that same story.

Growing up in small town Nebraska, John Farley (Sean William Scott) was one of the many child victims tormented by their gym teacher, Jasper Woodcock (Billy Bob Thornton). He has since grown up to be a successful writer, penning a seemingly worthless self help bestseller Letting Go: Getting Past Your Past. Farley returns home to claim a local prize only to find that the source of all of his childhood frustrations and adult motivations, Mr. Woodcock, is now dating his mother.

I don’t know why, but the fact that Woodcock looked exactly the same 13 years later made me laugh. Out loud, even. Beyond that, watching Thornton chew the screen was about as good as this movie got. He must’ve typed in Bad Santa into his flux capacitor and hit cruise control because he’s basically doing the same character. The only thing is, like that bad joke you like so well no matter how many times you hear it, it never really gets old. It is widely understood that Billy Bob Thornton is arguably one of the greatest working actors today, and I love seeing him get down and dirty in his dramatic best, but watching him verbally berate people on screen never ceases to be funny to me. At least not yet. I typically like my Sean William Scott cocky and idiotic (see: the American Pie films and The Rundown), so his sniveling, whining, Farley didn’t play that well. Ethan Suplee as Farley’s childhood friend Nedderman, adds another dopey sidekick to his resume and Amy Poehler continues to be as annoying as ever as Maggie, Farley’s agent. I wouldn’t mind it if she was funny, but only being there to forcefully interject her stock one-liners grew tiresome very quickly. Susan Sarandon plays it straight as Beverly Farley, but does it really matter in a movie with the title Mr. Woodcock?

The movie is one joke stretched as thing as it can without breaking. To say this is a good movie, or even a funny one is pushing the limits of my honesty. There are a few laughs here and there but for the most part, it isn’t really worth anyone’s time, cast included. Woodcock plays it all badass until the end somewhere and tries to pull a cowardly lion by finding a heart. I would have preferred him either having all heart or none at all. This isn’t the type of character where I expect to see growth. And the oh-so-predictable ending does what you would expect any one note joke of a movie to do, try to teach us a lesson. And that lesson is this: If you and your mother are sitting in a hospital waiting room, her in her 1970 Corn Cob Queen gown, and you in your high school wrestling tights, both holding on to the past, your best bet is to just go with it because Woodcock is about the most entertaining thing either one of you have going for you. And that’s not saying much. Coach Stange, if you’re out there, had you been remotely funny like this I wouldn’t have thought you were suck a prick all these years.

The Rub:
Mindless and predictable, Mr. Woodcock is the kind of movie that works best when you’ve seen everything else, there is nothing on TV, and you have nothing else to do. Don’t expect gut busting Superbad type laughs, but Billy Bob Thornton is good for a few chuckles, and about the only thing worth seeing. It’s not really good at all but I didn’t completely hate it only because it served its purpose - to help me kill a few hours, even if it had to take a few brain cells with it.

And there’s the rub.

** out of ****

Friday, September 14, 2007

Review: The Brave One

Starring: Jodie Foster, Naveen Andrews, Terrence Howard, Mary Steenburgen
Director: Neil Jordan
Producer: Susan Downey, Joel Silver
Release Date: September 14, 2007
Running time: 119 min
MPAA Rating: R

Distributors: Warner Bros., Village Roadshow Pictures

“Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name. But what’s puzzling you, is the nature of my game.”

- The Rolling Stones, Sympathy for the Devil

The Skinny:
Jodie Foster turns vigilante after the murder of her fiancé.

The Review:
Erica Bain (Jodie Foster) and her fiancé David (Naveen Andrews) are like two peas in a pod. She does a show on a New York talk radio station and he is a doctor. They are blissfully in love and planning their wedding. They fake-cute argue over things like invitations and what type of wedding they should have. On a walk through Central Park one night with their dog, they are brutally attacked. She is beaten within an inch of her life, and him six inches further. She wakes from her coma three weeks later to find that David’s funeral has already been held and she is left with nothing to do but pick up the pieces and try to move on.

Going in to this movie seemed like dangerous ground to tread so soon after seeing Death Sentence just two weeks ago. Another movie about an average Joe turned vigilante killer after the death of their (blank)? And even if there will always be a spot reserved in my movie loving heart for her because of Silence of the Lambs, Foster kind of fell off the map for me some time ago. This movie surprised the hell out of me.

There are three reasons it works so well. First, the performances by Jodie Foster and Terrence Howard are incredible. Foster finally jumped off that one trick pony she had been riding through her last few movies roles and added back some of the spunk that made us love her in the first place. She’s pretty much been sleepwalking for the past five years, so it’s great to see she still possesses the talent and chops that made her famous. Watch the scene where Erica does her first radio show after the attack. She gets on air, freezes and restarts three different times. It is painful to watch. Not only do you hear the fear in her voice, but you feel it for her. You just want to reach through the screen, take her out of the room and end the discomfort. Not many actors could pull it off, and even fewer with such haunting effect. Howard adds the perfect counterbalance to her performance. He plays the rare good cop who still believes in the system he fights to protect, even if he has any number of reasons to have become jaded by it.

Two, the direction from Neil Jordan is very solid. Nothing is overplayed. Even when Erica is in full on vigilante mode, the movie doesn’t just move from one kill scene to the next. They aren’t elaborately staged scenes full of blood and carnage; they all serve the story and illustrate the conflict she is going through. There is restraint in his direction that really sets the tone for everything, and gets it perfect. Even toward the end when the movie walks dangerously close to becoming a cliché cat-and-mouse thriller, he has the sense enough to pull it back and ride the horse that got him here.

Finally, the movie sort of throws conventional revenge movie wisdom out the window. The basic structure is in place, but this movie takes the time to dig deep into the emotion behind Erica’s transformation. This isn’t someone who lives through a brutally violent act then just decides out of thin air she wants to go on a killing spree. She is not a superhero, she is a real person. When she gets out of the hospital she becomes so paralyzed with fear and paranoia that she is a prisoner in her home. She can’t sleep and is afraid to even leave. When she finally forces herself to get out of the house, there is a level of fear to be expected, but we watch it consumer her. She tries the conventional route of gaining some much needed normalcy (going to the cops, getting back to work, etc). She goes to the same places she has been to a thousand times but sees things in a completely different light since the attack. There is a slow burn to her transformation that feels not only justified, but necessary without being righteous.

By definition The Brave One is a revenge movie, but dealing with the idea on such an emotional level is what sets it apart from some of the more mundane features from the same genre. The entire movie barrels on a path toward an expected conclusion but at the end, throws you for a loop by doing the opposite of what you expect. It doesn’t quite feel like cheating, but it does come out of nowhere.

The Rub:
Typical revenge movie conventions be damned - this movie primarily deals with the emotional transformation Erica goes through after her attack. Don’t let the boring and obvious title fool you, this is a fantastic movie carried by the strength of its direction and excellent performances. Everything here is played at just the right tone and we haven’t seen Foster this good in some time. Hopefully it will allow us to see more of the Jodie Foster we have come to know and love watching.

And there’s the rub.

*** 1/2 out of ****

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Review: Shoot 'Em Up

Starring: Clive Owen, Paul Giamatti, Monica Bellucci
Director: Michael Davis

Producer: Susan Montford, Don Murphy
Release Date: September 7, 2003
Running time: 87 min

MPAA Rating: R
Distributors: New Line Cinema

“Nothing could be more painful than listening to you jabberin' on and on.”
- Mr. Smith, Shoot ‘Em Up

“What have I, what have I, what have I done to deserve this?”
- Pet Shop Boys

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
- Jesus

The Skinny:
No skinny. Just read.

The Review:
What is your favorite food?
Maybe it’s something your mother made for you growing up or maybe it’s something you only have during the holidays. Whatever it is, I want you to close your eyes and picture it in your head. Think about how it tastes. How it smells. Think about all the reasons you like it. Now, with your eyes still closed, picture this fabulous meal of meals, the one true object of your culinary affections, your all-time desert island favorite meal of all time, being served to you with a big, fresh, steaming, smelly ladle of baby food colored, I just ate five truck load of the worlds worst sushi and don’t think I’m going to make it to the bathroom, shit smothered all over the top of it. You are now about 10% on your way to describing what I felt like watching this movie.

How in the name of all that is holy, could this have happened with two of my favorite current actors in the leads? Smith (Clive Owen) plays a… well I’m not sure what he’s supposed to be. What I do know is that he happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and ends up in a shootout with a gang of ne'er-do-wells led by Hertz (Paul Giamotti), get it, Hertz? Oh never mind… Smith ends up delivering some poor lady’s baby during the shootout, calls on the help of a prostitute acquaintance of his, Donna Quintano (Monica Bellucci), and together they spend the rest of the movie playing cat and mouse with Hertz and his band of merry men, trying to save the baby. Why he bothered to care enough about it to risk getting his face blown off a thousand times over still escapes me.

The plot is… wait, what plot? Let’s see, there was something about a double or triple cross involving a government official and a gun manufacturer and something about a baby lab set up to harvest bone marrow and guys trying to stop all of it from happening - or something like that. It’s not that I didn’t follow it; I was just assaulted with it somewhere in the middle for the sake of having something else to follow besides the pointless action. Remember how horny you were on prom night? This is more forceful. And like both nights, by the time it really mattered I was too busy trying not to bite off my own tongue from the convulsions to even bother caring.

This was, by all accounts, supposed to be a slam bam, balls-to-the-wall action movie. At least there was action, right? Tell me there was action. If it succeeded on any level it was that it jumped right into it from the beginning. Within the first 5 minutes I thought, “Ok, this could be a fun little throwback to all the cheesy 80’s action movies I grew up on”, so I strapped in for the ride. And as hard as I try, I will never get back, what would be the next 85 minutes of my life. Ever. The action sequences were so over the top and so ridiculous that they could have only existed in the movie to have proof on film that some idiot studio head actually greenlit this movie. He must’ve lost a bet. Or owed someone a HUGE favor. The merry go round shootout, the loft shootout, the car chase, the sky diving scene, the warehouse shootout; even the sex scene was so bad I had to continually close my eyes, take a deep breath, and force myself not to walk out. I kept thinking that it had to get better, or at the very least not get any worse. Oh how wrong I was. This was reminiscent of Showgirls in that the primary draw of the movie (T&A there, action here) was so overused I got sick of seeing it. It kept getting worse and worse and worse until finally I just shook my head and laughed at the carnage (not the good kind) that was unfolding right in front of my fragile little eyes. At least we got various breaks in the action so Hertz can talk to his wife on his cell phone for no reason at all and Smith can eat his carrots… nope wait, never mind, Smith just killed someone with a carrot. Sorry, make that four different people. I guess we don’t get a break after all.

I watch a lot of movies and they aren’t all destined to make the awards circuit - nor should they be. And I am all for a good guilty pleasure now and again. They all have their place. But there are levels of failure that can be achieved. This one didn’t just scrape the bottom of the barrel, it hit rock bottom and kept digging. This is an absolute waste of an extremely talented cast. It tries to be funny and self referential, but the one liners become increasingly grating and if the movie understood itself as well as it wanted to, it would have realized just how terrible it was.

To paraphrase a line from the movie we kept getting bludgeoned with: Hey Smith, you know what I hate? Everything about this god awful train wreck of a movie you just tricked me into sitting through.

The Rub:
This is the worst movie of the year - hands down. There are no redeeming or likable qualities to be found anywhere in this picture; not one. A disappointment on levels I didn’t even know existed in the known world. It can only be best summed up by a quote from an equally idiotic, but at least likable movie, “…what you've just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.”

Yeah, what he said.

And there’s the rub.

zero out of ****

Monday, September 3, 2007

Review: Death Sentence

Starring: Kevin Bacon, Kelly Preston, Aisha Tyler, John Goodman
Director: James Wan

Producer: Ashok Amritraj, Howard Baldwin, Karen Elise Baldwin
Release Date: August 31, 2007
Running time: 110 min

MPAA Rating: R
Distributors: Fox Atomic

“I say who lives, I say who dies.”

The Skinny:
Kevin Bacon does his best six degrees of Charles Bronson as the world’s greatest dad becomes vigilante killer after the brutal death of his oldest son.

The Review:
First - a couple of points. One, Kevin Bacon is an obscenely underrated actor. The fact that he was passed over for major awards for his work in Mystic River and Murder in the First is nothing short of criminal. Two, I am on the opposite side of that spectrum when discussing director James Wan. I am just not a fan. Dead Silence was boring and I thought Saw was absolutely awful. You think it is merely coincidence that the Saw films got better after he stopped directing them? I don’t. Also, I like a good revenge movie. Be it your westerns, your Asian, or your miscellaneous revenge flicks, they are pretty good when they’re done right. But good or bad, there isn’t much in the way of originality to the basic premise. Somebody wronged somebody else and they retaliate by seeking some sort of violent retribution. Everyone has pondered that “what would you do if…” question, so there is a touch of realism that can be felt in these types of movies.

In Death Sentence, Nick Hume (Kevin Bacon) is a risk assessment executive and consummate family man. This guy has it all. The perfect family, the perfect job, and I’ll bet there is a cupboard full of ‘#1 Dad’ coffee mugs to further validate the point. The film opens with various home videos of the Hume family showing us, in numbing detail, just how tight knit this family is. The oldest son plays hockey, the youngest son paints, but they live in their own little fairy tale world where nothing seems to go wrong and everyone gets along without incident. Sure, as the movie moves forward we see that the teenage brothers *gasp* fight like, well, teenage brothers. Beyond that, all is well in the home of Hume. Of course in a revenge movie, so by standard conventions we know this wont last. Nick and oldest son Brendan (Stuart Lafferty) are returning home from a trip in the city where Brendan played hockey. The gas light comes on in the car (in the wrong part of town obviously) and they just have to stop for gas - right now! - in the most dilapitated of gas stations. I wonder if something bad will happen? Sure enough, Brendan goes in for a drink and ends up dying by way of some gang member initiation. After a brief tussle with the one who killed him, Nick gets a look at the face of the killer. At pre-trial, he decides that he will take matters into his own hands rather than put his trust in a justice system that will no doubt fail him, by killing the man who shot his Pa… I mean son. This sets off a war between his associated gang.

The story itself isn’t the problem - pretty much a by the book revenge flick - it’s everything else that feels off. Kevin Bacon deserves better. I don’t know what compelled him to make this movie. Actually, yes I do; this guy has made a career out of playing characters who are against the grain. He doesn’t fit a common mold and will never really be in danger of being type casted towards a specific character type. This could have been another in a long line of great performances, but alas… As the fairy tale father, he played the everyman with ease. But the rest of the movie felt inconsistent because it didn’t seem like he could decide how to play it. Straight bad ass, conflicted killer, scared father; his performance just jumped around too much. And his was the best performance in the movie. Gang leader Billy (Garrett Hedlund) plays the same cookie-cutter, bald headed, tatooed, wannabe BA that could have came from any other movie or street corner. He did much better on the other side of the coin in Four Brothers. The rest of the gang was equally tired and clichéd. They smoke, they drink, they cuss, and they were just too cartoony for their own good. Let me guess, their headquarters is in, oh yep, there it is - the back of a bar. How quaint. Other than a few curse laden epitaphs, they aren’t imposing or scary in the least. There must’ve been a Rollback sale on faceless, dill hole gangsters at Wal-Mart. If so, they got their moneys worth. And don’t even get me started on Aisha Tyler, as Detective Wallis. She is the most distracting, annoying, ill casted piece of trash to grace the screen in a long time. In a scene where Wallis and Hume’s wife Helen (Kelly Preston) come to the realization of what he has done, he is met with a “You are a good father” response from the wife, and a “Stay in the house. You’re lucky to be alive” from Wallis. Poor script to be sure, but her delivery in this scene and many others felt so out of place, I don’t even think she knew what movie she was ‘acting’ in. If you can even call it that. On her best day of shooting, she wasn’t half as good as Cary Elwes on his worst day shooting Saw.

Much like the acting, the direction was inconsistent. There were parts that caught my interest, but the movie never really found its groove. It wanted to be a gritty revenge movie. Then it wanted to have heart. Then it went back. And forth. And so on. Director James Wan went to such lengths to humanize the family in the beginning that it became overbearing, and in the end, I just didn’t care. He used filters to make the film look washed out and gritty, then he hit us with an overuse of color. Mostly red. And a lot of it. The violence was brutal and bloody, but came in spurts (no pun intended). It was graphic, then it was restrained. Almost like Wan picked his spots where to show his ability to direct violence, then let someone else fill in the rest. The best part of the movie was the showdown in a parking garage. There was a nifty looking long tracking shot that followed Hume as we went from level to level that ended in a decent fight on the roof, inside a car while it rolled slowly towards the edge. As I said, it was a good scene but much like the rest of the movie, it felt misplaced and only there as a vehicle to show us that he could pull it off rather than a smooth transition to an event in the story. The final scene between Hume and Billy was an ending that felt real and it worked well, it was just too little too late. For as bad as this mess was, it was still Wan’s best outing yet as a director. For the record, that’s not a compliment.

The Rub:
This was a textbook paint by numbers film that couldn’t decide if it wanted to be a gritty revenge piece with heart or honest character study with violence. The acting was sub par and the direction was inconsistent. Kevin Bacon deserved much more, and while this was James Wan’s best outing yet, he still isn’t a director I am ready to get on board with. Maybe he should stick to the Saw franchise. Then again, maybe not.

And there’s the rub.

** out of ****