Thursday, September 13, 2007

3:10 to Yuma

Well, September 7th, 2007: you didn't let me down. Since the beginning of the summer, we've been participating in the tradition of Western Wednesdays, but the western genre is definitely not my favorite. It's extremely hit or miss in my opinion, and 3:10 to Yuma was undoubtedly a hit. While it was certainly no Shoot 'Em Up, that's what made it so great: the complex nature of the characters, rather than reliance on special effects and unnecessary action scenes, drew the audience in and led us headfirst toward the unavoidable train station finale.

James Mangold (check this guy out - he's done some cool stuff) directed this stunning tale based on the short story of Elmore Leonard (the writer of Get Shorty and Be Cool). Mangold is obviously incredibly talented, and nowhere is that more evident than his use of casual suspense (I didn't think there was such a thing) in this movie. From before the audience even sits down to watch, the title already has us wanting to know what happens on that train to Yuma. The film answers that question by following Civil War veteran Dan Evans as he volunteers to escort the notorious criminal Ben Wade to the train station in return for two hundred dollars for his struggling ranch.

The acting in this film was absolutely masterful. Russell Crowe and Christian Bale proved once again that they are two of the top actors in their generation by giving nuanced performances that were some of the best I've seen in a long time (especially since neither one of them is American!). Ben Foster, although more one-dimensional, was also spellbinding as Charlie Prince, Ben Wade's fiercely loyal sidekick. His utter devotion and heartless lack of morality makes him a classic western character sure to be remembered in the genre far in the future. Western legend Peter Fonda joins the ride as a lawman wounded by Wade's gang, and the surprisingly talented (and apparently go-to actor for his age) Logan Lerman plays the son of Bale's character. Rounding out the cast with arguably nothing more than cameos are Luke Wilson and Alan "Steve the Pirate" Tudyk.

The aspect of this movie that really fascinated me was the dual father-son relationships presented in Dan Evans and his son contrasted with Ben Wade and Charlie Prince. The relationships between the two sets of characters could not be any more different at the beginning of the film, but as it progressed they seemed to switch roles. At the start, Prince is unshakably loyal to Ben Wade; the perfect right hand man.* Conversely, William Evans thought his father was a gutless coward and didn't respect him at all. As the movie went on, Dan gains the respect of his son and Wade loses the respect of Charlie Prince. I'm not going to give away the ending (which is an awesome shoot out Open Range style), so I'll just leave it at that for now.

*All right, I'm going to throw this out there. Some of you won't like it, but I'm doing it anyway. As much as you want to deny it (Branz), everyone knows that a good portions of westerns have an underlying theme of homosexuality that runs through them. In 3:10 to Yuma, on two nonconsecutive occasions, Ben Wade makes references to bright green eyes, "the greenest he's ever seen." The only character that I saw in the whole movie with green eyes were the piercing green eyes of his right hand man, Charlie Prince. I'm not saying anything, but you know - I'm just saying. This is not a coincidence; the director did this for a reason. Draw your own conclusions.

3:10 to Yuma was mainly a character-driven film - full of various thematic elements ranging from the aforementioned father-son bonds, to the perception of time, and more. The action fell into place toward the end as a necessity, so it didn't feel forced or like a "required" gunfight; this contributed to a nice sense of realism for the overall film. There were very few special effects used in the production, which also helped with the realism. One final note: Mangold did a great job taking the traditional "good guy in white, bad guy in black" concept of the western and turning it on its head by decking out Charlie Prince (the most evil of all the characters) in a white jacket. This purposefully calls attention to Prince's morality (or lack thereof), and adds to the theme present throughout the movie that things aren't always what they appear to be on the surface.

Honestly, this doesn't really need to be seen in the theater. Since there aren't really any big special effects, that isn't a factor, and unlike most westerns, Mangold chose not to fall into the cliche of showing huge expanses of mesa and sweeping camera long shots of a lone figure out on the prairie. You'll be fine with renting this when it comes out. If nothing else, see it for the performances of the lead characters and as a truly enjoyable movie in a genre where those are heard to come by. Plus, that poster is really sweet. Until next time...

Monday, September 10, 2007

Shoot 'Em Up

September 7th, 2007. The theatrical release date of Shoot 'Em Up and 3:10 to Yuma. I had literally been waiting on this day for close to a year. I haven't seen 3:10 to Yuma yet (I'm saving it until this coming Western Wednesday), but I must say that Shoot 'Em Up lived up to my expectations and instantly maneuvered its way into my Top Three Crazy Action Movies list. (The other two, in case you were wondering, are Crank and Transporter 2, which coincidentally both star another Brit, Jason Statham.)

You'll know WAY before you actually lay eyes on this film whether you'll like it or not. It's over-the-top, nonsensical, physics-defying, ridiculous, and packed literally from open to close with action. I loved it. As evidenced by its embarrassingly small $5.5 million opening weekend, the general public doesn't necessarily appreciate these kinds of movies. But Shoot 'Em Up (seriously - just look at the title!) doesn't hide its intentions and is a loving gift from director Michael Davis to action junkies everywhere.

Apparently Davis has come out and said that the movie was inspired by the hospital scene from John Woo's 1992 classic Hard Boiled*, and it doesn't take a genius to draw comparisons between the two films. Both feature a seemingly endless supply of ammunition being fired, huge body counts, and fantastic opening scenes (the teahouse shootout from Hard Boiled is widely known as one of the coolest shootouts in film history). I don't want to give too much away when it comes to Shoot 'Em Up, because I really want you to see this movie. It's a short 80 minutes long and it understands there's no need for Lord of the Rings lengths here. Eighty minutes is plenty of time to wrap up the loosely-tied plot, which is the second in as many years that revolves around Clive Owen protecting a child while dodging bullets. Owen plays Mr. Smith, a child-prodigy-gunman-turned-unemployed-bum in an unnamed American city. With a baby in his arms, he shoots his way to an old lover of his, a prostitute by the name of DQ (played by Italian actress Monica Bellucci, The Matrix sequels, The Passion of the Christ). DQ becomes the surrogate mother for the child, and aids Mr. Smith in protecting the little boy from the evil Mr. Hertz, played eccentrically by Paul Giamatti, who has been hired to kill the child for reasons unknown to us until the climax of the film.

The action scenes were innovative and original, hilarious at some points, and just plain fun all the way through. Mr. Smith is never in any real danger of being killed, although at times he is literally unarmed and surrounded by gunmen and miraculously manages to escape. Suspension of disbelief is a required element to enjoying this movie, but if you can do it, then I almost guarantee you'll be immensely entertained. Clive Owen chews on a carrot for most of the film, an obvious reference (coupled with the line "What's up, Doc?") to the classic Bugs Bunny cartoons that evoke the same principles. The car chase scene is fantastic, and keep your eye out for a scene where Mr. Smith expresses his displeasure for bad drivers. Here's a clip (starting at 1:17) of one of the many shootouts, and you'll get a good vibe for what kind of movie it is right off the bat.

Shoot 'Em Up is a unifying force, with frat guys and fanboys alike sure to be singing its praises based solely on its ridiculous qualities and the fact that there's a "smokin' hot chick" in it. I'm not saying that we're better than them, but I guarantee that most of them wouldn't see the symbolism of severing an umbilical cord with a bullet or hiding in a tank from members of the government. While it could be "mindless" entertainment if people choose to view it that way, they'd be missing out on the director's goal: to make a parody of the genre in such a way as to provide viable political commentary and satisfy the cravings of action junkies at the same time. But I'll step down off this high horse. The movie was fun. Go see it. I'm sure it'll have some pretty cool bonus features when it comes out on DVD in (I'm guessing) four months. Stay tuned for a review on 3:10 to Yuma, and we'll see if September 7th was all I hoped for or just half of what I hoped for. Until next time...

*The hospital scene from Hard Boiled is literally about 40 minutes in length. I found this clip on YouTube that edited together a few of the main sequences, so check it out if you're interested. And if you think THAT'S ridiculous, then go see Shoot 'Em Up.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

The 10th Kingdom

Alright, so this isn't a movie, but it is a 6.95 hour long “made for TV” mini-series, and that counts in my opinion. By the way, it's Alan Trehern here to review probably the greatest mini-series/fantasy/John Larroquette movies OF ALL TIME, so get yourself ready. Now you're probably wondering what the 10th kingdom is right? Well, it's New York City, or our world, as opposed to the 9 fairy tale Kingdoms that exist in another dimension. Fairy tales; you know, Snow White, Cinderella, dwarves, basically Disneyland for adults.

The 10th Kingdom is excellent for three main reasons: story, character personalities and overall innovation. I shall discuss each one in turn, without giving too much away. However, at the end of the article, I will list some spoilers because the movie is fairly hard to find, and also I know some of you would never think of watching it, and plus I like giving things away.


Probably the strongest aspect of this movie, one man named Simon Moore, also a producer, wrote the story. For a seven hour movie, it’s pretty impressive to have every aspect of your tale in the movie without it affecting the entire film negatively. (Note: The LOTR books are intense, but very boring overall, therefore not everything was placed in those movies. This is the antithesis of the 10th Kingdom; for a movie to keep an audience interested while portraying an entire literary work unhinged is quite impressive). Here’s the “down low”: The fairy tale worlds are under attack from an evil queen recently escaped from prison, the prince (soon to be king) of the Fourth Kingdom is turned into a dog, and Tony Lewis (John Larroquette, Night Court, Anything Hilarious) is a janitor. Could life get better? I submit that it cannot.

Virginia (Kimberly Williams, According to Jim), is Tony’s daughter and is cursed with the feeling of distrust towards others and complete failures in relationships. This stems from the fact that her mother left her at the age of seven, never to return. After twenty years or so, she cannot get over it. She meets up with the dog-prince, then meets Wolf (a half-wolf, working for the evil queen at the time, trying to get the dog-prince) then manages to drag her father into the fairytale worlds, using the transportation of the queen’s magic mirror. Huff! Tired yet? That’s only about a third of Disc 1.

So now they’re in this world, and Wolf has turned over a new leaf because of some self-help books. So now the antagonists are three inept trolls who provide the comedy relief, but are turned into gold after Tony breaks out of Snow White Memorial Prison. The story then centers around these heroes and their search for the magic mirror so Tony and Virginia can get home, all the while Wolf is falling in love with Virginia and the dog-prince (named Prince), needs their help to overthrow the queen, who has teamed up with the three trolls’ father, the Troll King (Ed O’Neill, Married With Children and Nothing Since). And this is about the time the story gets really good. If you can just muck your way through the huge amounts of characters and intertwining events, you will really enjoy this movie. Having said that, another defining feature of this film is its ability to work in multiple characters without losing sight of the movie’s plotline.

As the story unfolds, more and more characters are introduced and thoroughly used, which I believe is a plus. Some might argue that numerous character plots take you away from the main characters or takes away from the story, but I argue on the contrary. The large cast of secondary characters allows this film to blossom, sometimes taking away the limelight from the main characters and giving you a more expansive view of this imaginative world. It kind of compares to side missions in video games, taking you away from the main storyline and enveloping you in a minor, but no less enjoyable, plot. Each character is portrayed very well, getting the same amount of limelight. In movies like this, I always enjoy character development, because it intertwines with the overall movie, giving you more to think about and a deeper level of movie watching. The 10th Kingdom offers this different level of movie watching, actually taking you into this world and exploring everything it has to offer. It makes you want more even after the last scene (yes, it's 7 hours long and I was wanting more at the end).

Tony’s character is developed the best throughout the movie. He begins as a bitter janitor, who cares about his daughter, but is somewhat unconnected with her and her mother issues. He pretty much cares only about himself, and in the original screenplay, I think the directors wanted him to be a lot more serious. However, John Laroquette found the humor in the character, allowing the audience to see his character transformation through sarcastic comments and slap stick comedy. In the end, Tony realizes the importance of friendship (his relationship with Prince the dog), his daughter’s inner suffering and his ability to dust himself off and start over.

Virginia starts out as a meek, sarcastic recluse almost. She works at a restaurant, which seems to be her only outlet to the outside world. Her travels through the Nine Kingdoms, however, force her to interact more, and start friendships, which she was unable to do up to this point. She even learns to love Wolf, but then again, this guy is a stud, she didn’t have a chance. (Anybody see Russell Crowe in 3:10 to Yuma? It’s kinda like that.) With these new attributes, she is prepared to face her past memories that the queen uses against her.

Wolf, in my opinion, is a constant character, which means he acts the same throughout the film. He is continuously fighting his id and superego verbally, scratching his temple nervously whenever met with confrontation. He is inherently good, but sometimes his love for Virginia and his desire for shepherdesses get the best of him. Wolf is comedic, but you feel for him because he wants to do well, but he’s really stupid.

The character of Prince Wendal, or Prince the dog, is really gay. Seriously, the guy that played this guy likes men. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but did the director say “Hey, let’s make this prince sound like a princess.” Maybe he did to show what a spoiled little brat grows up to be like.

The evil queen (the lady from Edward Scissorhands) is the most mysterious of the main characters. She is the heir of the original evil queen that poisoned Snow White back in the day, and is carrying out her vengeance (apparently the original queen was subjected to dance in red-hot iron shoes at Snow White’s wedding; that is something I’m going to look into when my big day rolls around). Her character is pretty constant as well, never really changing, always evil. But I don’t want to give away the end.Even the guest appearances are well done, including Warwick Davis (Return of the Jedi, Leprechaun), Ann Margaret (Viva Las Vegas), the judge in SheepTown (Lionel's father in As Time Goes By) and Cameron Manheim (the fat lady from The Practice). But I digress.

Overall Influence
I think this movie is so good for a very good reason. It was perhaps one of the first great epics of the new millennium. Coming out around 1999, I would say it was a predessceor to the Harry Potter movies, the Lord of the Ring movies, the Pirates movies, etc. Now is that a bold statement? No. Although it was shown on NBC, that studio did not produce it; it was actually produced by Artisan Entertainment, which isn’t that big. And say x amount of dollars is given to a mini-series, then the guys at The 10th Kingdom went a long way with it, using special effects and locations properly. I read on the internet that is took 12 years to get this thing off the ground, and although it was met with mixed reviews, it has a huge fan following, from what I know. I say it set the standards for television, movies and other outlets in the 21st century, plain and simple. There I said it. Until next time, I leave you with a few bits of 10th Kingdom trivia:

--A sequel has been demanded, and producer/writer Simon Moore wants to do one, he only needs to find the right outlet. The movie ends on the elusion that there will be a sequel, or possibly a upcoming TV series, but that was eight years ago, so I doubt it will ever come about. Plus, my dad claims John Larroquette retired, so there really is no point.

--Although Cinderella is believed dead, she is indeed alive at 200 years old.

--In the castle dungeon, there is writing on the way that reveals that William Grimm had been here 200 years prior, imprisoned in the same cell. Kind of cool.

--(From Wikipedia) The giant bounding across the transformed New York City in the opening credits is actually John Larroquette, uncredited. Damn you, you bastards. Here, I’ll help you out, John. Watch it for yourselves.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Death Sentence

Death Sentence was refreshingly short, incredibly violent, emotional, and well-directed. Most importantly, it relied on the story to move the film along instead of playing leap frog with action scenes. In a time where screenwriters seem to think that movies need to be two and a half hours long (Pirates 3, I'm lookin' at you!), it was good to see a film that said what needed to be said and didn't drag it on for another forty minutes to meet some sort of invisible deadline.

The ever-versatile Kevin Bacon stars as Nick Hume, a father whose life is torn apart when his son is killed before his eyes in a gang killing at a gas station. John Goodman plays a minimal (but humorous) role, but the "off the radar" star was Garrett Hedlund, who played the leader of the gang and was almost unrecognizable from his typecast role as the "pretty boy" in his earlier films. He starred in Friday Night Lights, and played Achilles' cousin Patroclus in Troy; I think his best performance (prior to Death Sentence) was as one of the titular Four Brothers in John Singleton's 2005 movie. The cast stood out as one of the strong points of the film, with the exception of some unintended laughs from the audience due to intense over-acting in questionable situations. Over-acting aside, they did a great job pulling the emotion out of the viewer and really making you feel for the characters.

Australian director James Wan (Saw, the unintentionally hilarious-looking Dead Silence) really did a great job putting this film together. The pacing was great, the style was awesome, and there were some really cool long one-shots, which I always enjoy watching. There were never any bright colors showcased, instead favoring a muted color palette which added to the bleakness of the movie (hearkening back to the visual flair of Saw). The progression of Bacon's character as he spiraled out of control was nicely portrayed and even the music, which rarely stands out to me in films, added to the intense emotional drama involved in the story. The camera work was great, using crane shots to drop us in on the different groups of characters and give a "slice of life" feel to the whole process.

The movie definitely drew on previous material for inspiration, with similarities to Falling Down, The Punisher, Man on Fire, and Taxi Driver that can't be ignored. It's even based on a book by the writer of Death Wish, the 1970's revenge flick that defined the genre. And with Jodie Foster's The Brave One coming out soon, this begs the question: are revenge movies on the rise again? Some claim the political landscape of our country right now is similar to the feelings of the 1970's and early 80's, when crime rates in large cities skyrocketed and people felt helpless and angry because they couldn't control the growing problem. This time, its our situation in Iraq that people are feeling hopeless about, so they need some sort of cathartic release to help forget about their problems. Aisha Tyler's character says at one point "Everyone thinks they're right in a war, but everyone dies in the end."

I for one mostly agree with this point of view, but I also think that coincidence definitely plays a role. Just because two movies of the same genre come out at the same time, does that qualify as a "resurgence of the genre?" I don't think so. If that was the case, then we've had so many genre resurgences over the years that it's not even funny: Antz and A Bug's Life, Deep Impact and Armageddon, the list goes on. I think that at least three movies of the same genre have to come out in the same season for it to be considered a real resurgence AND two out of the three movies have to do really well at the box office.

I thought this movie was all about relationships with the father figure. The gang members didn't have it, so they resorted to a brotherhood amongst themselves. Kevin Bacon's family was obviously a main part of this, with the "golden boy" child killed early in the film and the artistic younger child coping with the guilt of "should it have been me instead?" The leader of the gang had a terrible relationship with his father, and (I'm not going to give it away) that was certainly resolved in an interesting manner. Even Kevin Bacon's relationship with authority, the Uncle Sam father figure, was an interesting look at James Wan's political decisions - generally when you make the police completely useless in a film, you're trying to say something about the state of our country.

Overall, I thought it was worth seeing. The violence is concentrated into a few harsh scenes, so it's not completely bloody throughout, and watching Bacon's transformation is mesmerizing. Give it a "shot," and check this one out. It's not a must-see-in-the-theater kind of movie, since there aren't any amazing graphics or anything that deserves big screen treatment, so if you don't get to it now then definitely give it a rent. If you try to look a little deeper, I think you'll be pleased with it. Until next time...