Friday, December 26, 2008

Defending The Spirit

All right, that's it. I've had enough. The bashing of The Spirit needs to stop.

Roger Ebert had this to say about the movie: "There is not a trace of human emotion in it. To call the characters cardboard is to insult a useful packing material." As admittedly funny and sarcastic as that comment may be, those kinds of remarks should be reserved only for the likes of unwatchable sludge like You Don't Mess With The Zohan, Strange Wilderness, and The Love Guru. Let me say this: The Spirit is nowhere near the best movie I've seen this year, nor good enough for me to even highly recommend to anyone other than fans of the original comic series. But is it worthy of the harsh online criticism that it is receiving, with The Movie Blog even going so far as to boycott the film because of its marketing? I don't think so.

The Spirit
Writer/Director: Frank Miller
Starring: Gabriel Macht, Eva Mendes, Samuel L. Jackson

I think people give this movie a bad wrap because they are misinformed before they enter the theater. The general movie-going audience (or GMGA) automatically sees the visual style in the trailer and connects the film to Sin City, a reasonable conclusion due to Miller's involvement in both projects and the same studios working on them. People make the assumption that because the two films look the same, they will share similar themes and tones. This is a problem because while both films are cop/noir/dramas, The Spirit is unquestionably a more goofy and cartoonish take on similar subject matter that was tackled through heavy violence, sharp dialogue, and an overall more "badass" approach in its 2005 predecessor.

Honestly, I believe I'm being slightly more generous to audiences than they probably deserve: in reality, most people probably won't know who Frank Miller is or that he was involved in a film released three years ago that many have already forgotten. The online film/comics community, on the other hand, is definitely tapped into the memory of the well-received Sin City and knows full well the effect that Miller has had on comics over the past quarter century. This, I think, adds a level of pressure to Miller as a first time director; he has earned the respect of many through his comic works and those fans expect work of equal or greater value to his previous adaptations (300 included). But as far as GMGAs are concerned, they are clueless as to Miller's achievements and don't enter the theater with that same expectation.

I'm not going to pretend I'm a master of all things Spirit-related, but here's a brief history behind the project: Will Eisner, one of the most important developers of comic books in the history of the medium, created the character of The Spirit in the early 1940's in comic strip form for newspapers. Years later, Eisner (who was by then well-recognized within the industry for his influence) became a mentor to Frank Miller. After Eisner passed away, producers asked Miller if he wanted to take on the challenge of directing a live-action adapation of The Spirit, and he refused because he didn't think he was up to the task. Almost immediately after, Miller realized they would give the project to somebody else, so he manned up and took the job. He knew he would be the only person able to capture the essence of what Eisner would have truly wanted in the movie because he worked so closely with the man himself. (I'd guess they talked about a live-action Spirit movie back in the old days, just tossing ideas around and not truly expecting it to happen.)

Here lies what I believe is the main problem with The Spirit - the marketing team didn't successfully transfer all of that information to GMGA's, so people can't look at the movie as more than just the images on the screen and appreciate the history behind it. Even the online film blogging community doesn't seem to know that the movie is supposed to be far more lighthearted and cheesy than the visually similar Sin City. The problem is only confounded by this trailer:

In defense of the company contracted for making trailers for this movie, there are only so many cool lines they could use to promote it and they put a small amount of effort into trying to convey the essence of it by concentrating on ridiculous one-liners like "I'm going to kill you all kinds of dead," and "I'm going to get El Spirito dead while I still can." But using those quotes from "critics" as the centerpiece of their marketing is a pretty shady move, especially since the guy they quoted is not a respected critic.

While I don't think that The Spirit necessarily lived up to the fan pressure put on Frank Miller, it was better than a lot of movies out there and I was entertained to the point of getting my money's worth. I know that "getting your money's worth" isn't the most lofty goal to set for a movie-watching experience, but it's a lot better than coming out of a theater disappointed. Stylistically, The Spirit treads where few others have - and the style hasn't bored me yet. I for one still really enjoy the harsh contrasts and stark colors, especially set against a noir background. The film allowed Samuel L. Jackson to really let himself go in an over-the-top role that added to his steady-growing collection of eccentric characters he's played. A refreshing thing is that the movie deviates from the standard "origin story" formula that so many comic book films fall victim to in their first installments and picks up with The Spirit already in action. I think The Spirit fell victim to The Happening syndrome: the movie was trying to be campy and the dialogue was pretty iffy, but because the GMGA's didn't know this was how the film was supposed to be, the movie's reputation suffers. Another high point in the film (for me personally) was the inclusion of mythological artifacts and references to ancient Greece. As long as you don't care about how the characters came across these items or the tangibility of the whole situation, I think most people will enjoy the plot device as well. I also liked how the whole concept revolved around The Spirit being a complete rouge and a total womanizer; even women news reporters were smitten with him, and he had chances to pick up dames left and right throughout the movie.

The purpose of this post is not to try to convince you to go see The Spirit, but rather just to give the movie a little breathing room after the online community has been choking it so badly over the past couple weeks. The acting is pretty bad, the characterizations are not up to standard, and the movie is almost too over-the-top for its own good. But that doesn't mean it's the worst thing out in theaters right now, or even the worst thing out in the past couple of months. So if you're feeling up to it and you don't want to see Oscar bait like Benjamin Button, go check out The Spirit. If you're not, that's fine - I'm just saying that there are worse things out there. Oh, and did I mention it has Eva Mendes and Scarlett Johansson in it? Until next time...

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Spotlight: J.J. Abrams

J.J. Abrams has been on a remarkable rise to stardom since his start in 1991. The dude has become one of Hollywood's top writer/producer/composer/directors*, and he has already left his mark in both television and film. Starting out composing music for low budget horror flick Nightbeast, Abrams soon wrote his first film treatment with his college roommate and sold it to Touchstone Pictures for a svelte $2 million dollars. Since then, he has become one of the most influential members of the entertainment industry. Let's take a look at some of the content that Abrams has brought to us in some capacity or another.

Armageddon (1998) - Co-Writer
Yes, people hate on this because it's a Michael Bay movie. But whenever the topic of "crying in movies" comes up, I'll be the first to admit that I cried when I saw Armageddon. Yeah, that's right. I'm telling you straight up, that scene at the end where Bruce Willis is talking to Liv Tyler, his daughter, through the monitors got me, and it got me good. I can't confirm that J.J. wrote this scene since he was a co-writer of this movie, but hey - he was involved, and it was solid.

Joy Ride (1999) - Writer/Producer
This movie gave my friends and I multiple hours of entertainment in our early high school years through the magic of creating a "Rusty Nail" counterpart in the instant messaging realm. If you were a friend of ours back then, chances are you were suddenly challenged to a battle of wits with characters like "OxidatedScrew" and "SuperSaturatedWalkingStick." The film follows Paul Walker and Steve Zahn as they mess with the wrong trucker (known as Rusty Nail) and promise him a night with a fake girl they made up, named Candy Cane. Too bad Rusty doesn't take a joke very well. Nice concept, and well written by Abrams.

"Alias" (2001-2006) - Creator/Writer/Executive Producer
One of the best shows on TV at the time, Alias was a spy drama that was a step above the rest because of its characters and their relationships, notably Sydney Bristow and her handler Michael Vaughn with supporting roles by Victor Garber and Lena Olin. The show's quality was highlighted through tense storylines, action-packed scenes in every episode, and the mystery of the unknown - a recurring theme in Abrams' work.

"Lost" (2004-Present) - Creator/Writer/Executive Producer
I've never seen anything like Lost before, and I don't expect to ever see anything like it again. It has transcended "TV show" status and become something else entirely. It's the best written thing I think I've ever experienced, and the connections and seeds planted in early episodes only to be revealed seasons later are mind-blowing. The best parts about it are the characters, and with so many of them on the island you would think this would cause some confusion or dissatisfaction with the amount of "playing time" devoted to each one. But this is not the case at all, thanks to the utter dedication to character development by the writers; all of this is helped by the fantastic cast that deserves every accolade they've received for their work. Suspense and the unknown play heavily into the show, leaving Abrams' signature for all to see.

Mission: Impossible III (2006) - Co-Writer/Director
Scoring a cool $150 million for a budget makes MI:3 the most expensive movie ever made by a first time director. While it wasn't quite as good as MI:2 (I'm biased in favor of John Woo), this sequel still has tremendous rewatchability and features some great set pieces and memorable scenes. It sure doesn't feel like it's coming from a first-time director, and that's due to Abrams having a lot of practice with his television shows (which all feel very cinematic). Trivia - he also directed an episode of "The Office" in 2007.

"Fringe" (2008-Present) - Creator/Writer/Executive Producer
While not reaching the brilliance of Lost, Fringe is a decent show with a few great characters and one big mystery (what is The Pattern?). This show suffers mostly from a boring lead actress, but conspiracy theories and unexplained phenomena abound to keep things interesting. Performances by Joshua Jackson and John Noble are the high points, and the show succeeds because it makes the audience feel as if we are only one slight step behind, making us just interested enough to keep us coming back the next week. It's not the best thing on TV, but it's quality entertainment on a Tuesday night.

Cloverfield (2008) - Producer
Matt Reeves (an old friend of Abrams) directed this Americanized version of a monster movie, but the Abrams touch is evident in the characterizations and overall feel of the project. My thoughts on the movie can be read in full here, but suffice it to say that J.J. had a lot to do with this being as great a film as it turned out to be.

Star Trek (2009) - Director/Producer
While we don't yet know how good this project is going to be, it's clear that Abrams has ignited the internet and breathed life back into a franchise that was on its cinematic death bed. Could he be the next Christopher Nolan and reshape Star Trek into something that's socially acceptable again? Or will this turn into a disappointment for fans and newcomers alike? We shall see, but I'm siding with Abrams on this one. The guy has rarely let me down before, and I'm willing to see what he has in store for the most famous crew of the Enterprise.

There are some other things that J.J. has been a part of, but these are the only ones that I really care about. He seems like a guy who doesn't get enough respect, so I thought I'd show him a little love here on the site and hopefully give you some insight to some projects that you might not have known he was involved with. Until next time...

*The only other people I can think of that do all of these things are Robert Rodriguez and Clint Eastwood.

Slumdog Millionaire

Much like 2003's City of God, Slumdog Millionaire plunges the audience into unfamiliar territory and provides a cultural contemplation that leaves you wanting more after it ends. Director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Sunshine) hurls his camera into interesting areas and extracts moving performances from his lead characters; at the same time, the film almost has a documentary feel to it because it is so genuine.

Slumdog Millionaire
Director: Danny Boyle
Starring: Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Anil Kapoor

Set and shot in India, the story revolves around an 18-year-old uneducated "slumdog" named Jamal Malik, who is on the Hindi version of "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" If you're doubting the quality of the movie based on that plot description, you aren't the only one: I thought the same thing before I saw the movie. Seriously, "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" But trust me - the structure of this movie is so awesome that it isn't even an issue. It actually becomes one of the coolest aspects of the film, because every time Jamal is asked a question on the show, there is a flashback to personal experiences that reveals how he knows the answer.

I really can't recommend this highly enough. It reminds me of Wristcutters: A Love Story from last year, a little-known independent film that I ranked as my favorite movie of the year. The story for Slumdog Millionaire is, in its most basic form, a love story between Jamal and a girl he meets as a child named Latika. He gets on the show because he knows she will be watching (the whole country becomes enamored with the program when they find out that this uneducated kid is rocking it so hard) and uses it as an opportunity to reconnect with her after years of tumultuous times.

The cinematography is incredible. The filmmakers used lightweight digital prototype cameras to have the maneuverability necessary to move around in some of those tight spaces in the slums of India, and the results are definitely worth checking out. The editing is great, lending well to Boyle's intense style. But the soundtrack is what really has people talking, featuring a fantastic pulsating mix of songs by composer A.R. Rahman and even features "Paper Planes" by MIA.

This is one of those rare films that pulls you in from the moment it begins and doesn't allow you to even consider stepping away from it. I was utterly captivated the entire time and completely invested emotionally. When Jamal is asked the final question on "WWTBAM," I was on the edge of my seat. The relationship between Jamal and Latika is essentially a modern-day fairy tale: would these series of coincidences actually happen in real life? Probably not, but we don't care - the movie captures a sense of joy and translates it directly to the audience in a way that makes me remember why I love movies so much in the first place. Truly a triumphant celebration of life and destiny, Slumdog Millionaire succeeds for all the right reasons and proves once again the versatility of its director. This is a must-see. Until next time...

Saturday, December 13, 2008

2008 In Film

So here's the deal - I'm going to list out every movie that was released in 2008 that I saw during this calendar year, whether it was in the theater or rented at home. A brief account of my thoughts will accompany each film. This way, when I do my obligatory Top 10 of 2008 list, I don't have to tell you what I thought about each one - you'll already know from having read this post. Enjoy.

Cloverfield - Blew me away at the beginning of the year, and I definitely haven't forgotten about it. It's one of my favorites of the past few years, actually.

Cassandra's Dream
- This Woody Allen movie with Colin Farrell and Ewan McGregor was really enjoyable and different from most Woody Allen films I've seen. Much more Match Point/Scoop than Annie Hall. Great acting, solid script, good movie.

Rambo - The most violent movie I've ever seen in a theater. Depending on your movie preference (and probably your sex), that will most likely determine if you enjoyed this one as much as I did. Oh yeah - the dialogue was terrible, but no one cared. Freakin' Rambo is back.

Strange Wilderness - Horrifyingly dreadful. That part with the shark laugh was the only truly funny part, and that's simply because we laughed about it from the trailer so much. If you've never seen this, keep it that way.

In Bruges - Colin Farrell's best performance. This movie was funny, violent, crude, and touching. A great film that was very purely written, if I may use that as an adjective in that context.

Definitely, Maybe - Cute chick flick. One of the few that I really enjoy from that genre; my appreciation springs from the inclusion of Ryan Reynolds, Elizabeth Banks, Isla Fisher, and Rachel Weisz being in the same movie.

Be Kind Rewind - Let down. Not nearly as funny/cool/inventive as it could have been.

Charlie Bartlett
- Another solid performance from Robert Downey, Jr. Charlie Bartlett is underrated, I think. It wasn't marketed that well, but I think most people will like it if they see it.

Vantage Point - I liked it a lot while watching it, but instantly forgot it afterwards. It was the movie equivalent of a chicken sandwich at Burger King.

The Counterfeiters
- Kind of a drag due to its serious subject matter, but it does me good to see a foreign flick every once in a while.

The Bank Job - Not one of Statham's best. Entertaining, but certainly no Italian Job.

21 - Overrated. Decent, but overrated. My feelings could stem from the fact that I've heard the true story recounted so many times by family members and The History Channel, so keep that in mind.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall
- One of the more enjoyable comedies of the year. Russell Brand was really funny in this one.

Pathology - It tried to be "edgy" and "crazy," but ended up being another standard in line with Flatliners and other medical based suspense movies like it.

Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay
- Like the first one, but more obscene. Pretty funny, although I would have appreciated a little more NPH.

Iron Man - Awesome. Surprise hit of the summer, and cemented RDJ as a comeback kid.

Redbelt - Chiwetel Ejiofor couldn't save this one on his own. The script was all right, but the ending just left you with that "what just happened?" feeling.

Speed Racer - I don't care what anyone says, I really dug this one. My experience playing Mario Kart Double Dash has a lot to do with it.

Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian - I liked it more than the first one. Better action, better character development.

Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
- I am angry just remembering this movie at all. That South Park episode hit it right on the head.

The Strangers - Not quite scary enough, but a good horror movie. I appreciate that movies like this are still being made, and I hope more of them appear soonl

The Promotion - Not as funny as reported, but still worthy of a viewing. Stifler and John C. Reilly go face to face for the same job.

The Happening - Awful. I love Night, but he's testing my patience. This was almost unwatchable.

The Incredible Hulk - Too many stupid CGI scenes. They should have utlized Ed Norton more; when you have a solid lead actor, take advantage!

Get Smart - Stupid, but amusing. Really childish humor, cheesy jokes, etc. If you're in that kind of mood, go for it.

WALL*E - One of the year's best. Heartwarming, topical, and amazing to look at.

Wanted - Shoot 'Em Up meets The Matrix. I liked it in the theaters, but I don't know if it has a lot of rewatchability.

Hancock - The little twist they have was worth it for me. The rest of the movie, not so much.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army - Sorry Jared, this one kind of sucked. I paid $2.50 to see this in a theater and was kind of disappointed it cost that much after I walked out.

The Dark Knight - Yep, it's as good as everyone says. This movie dominates.

Transsiberian - Good cast, decent script, mild suspense. Not quite what I was hoping for, but passable.

Step Brothers - One of the funnier flicks this year. Catalina Wine Mixer.

The Midnight Meat Train
- Surprisingly, a good horror movie. Far better than I thought it would be.

Pineapple Express - Overrated and pretty stupid. Rogen and Franco were all right. Maybe I just don't get it because I'm not a pothead, I don't know.

Tropic Thunder - Nicely done, Ben Stiller. This one was hilarious.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars - Definitely a kids' movie, but it didn't have the same magic as any of the original trilogy.

Death Race - Awesomely bad. This was one you could write in your sleep, but Statham made it awesome.

Burn After Reading - A "comedy" that I didn't think was that funny. Sometimes the Coen Brothers just don't do it for me.

Appaloosa - Keeping the western trend of last year alive, this was a solid addition to the genre and a great team-up of Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen.

Eagle Eye - I liked it. More than I should have. Say what you will, but the kid's got talent.

Quarantine - Scarier than I thought, but full of "jump" moments instead of truly scary things.

RockNRolla - I liked Guy Ritchie's latest a great deal. I hope they go through with the sequels.

Sex Drive - Another one that flew under everyone's radar. This was the Superbad of 2008, and I think it might be better than Superbad.

Pride and Glory - You've seen this storyline 5o times before, but it's watching Norton, Farrell, and Jon Voight do their thing that makes this one worth it.

Saw V - Not as good as the predecessors. I hope they go to into space soon.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno - Like a Judd Apatow movie, but slightly funnier. I like Kevin Smith's older stuff better; hopefully he returns to that before making another one of these.

Quantum of Solace - A good Bond movie, but not as good as Casino Royale.

Transporter 3 - By far the worst of the series. I wish it was more like the second one.

Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show - A documentary following some protoges of one of the funniest guys around.

August - Josh Hartnett does a great job in this, and if you're a Hartnett fan you should see this. If not, skip it.

Zombie Strippers - Literally one of the worst movies I've ever seen.

Meet Bill - Aaron Eckhart, Jessica Alba, Elizabeth Banks; charming and funny, if not slightly forgettable.

Nobel Son - The mixing was disastrous and the music (by Paul Oakenfold) was unneccesarily pulsating, but aside from that it was a solid heist movie.

Anaconda 3: The Offspring
- Terrible. Hasselhoff should know better. Wait, what am I saying?

Role Models - A lot of live action fantasy role playing, but funny stuff nonetheless.

That's it so far. There are still a few that I'd like to see before the year is over, so hopefully I'll get around to them before it gets too far in January to do a Top 10 list for 2008. More reviews are coming soon, along with the rest of our Countdown From Judgment Day series, so stay tuned. Until next time...

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

Countdown From Judgment Day - Part 2

Continuing our series of Terminator-themed posts, Ben's Movie Reviews has once again teamed up with The Solar Sentinel to bring you everything you could possibly want to know about the Terminator franchise.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines
Director: Jonathan Mostow
Starring: Arnold Schwarzeneggar, Nick Stahl, Claire Danes, Kristanna Loken

STORY: The third installment of this film series picks up in 2004 where we are reintroduced with John Connor (Stahl), who has been living off the grid since the events of T2. Even though the date of Judgment Day has come and gone and the war never started, John still doesn't believe that he is safe. He was right - Judgment Day has not been prevented, only delayed. From the future, machines have sent a new model back to destroy Connor's future soldiers in the rebellion - the TX (Loken), an advanced killing machine the likes of which no one has ever seen. So the rebels send the T-101 (Schwarzeneggar) back to protect Connor and Kate Brewster (Danes), an old friend he is reacquainted with while repairing his injuries. Skynet, the computer system that runs the machines and fuels their takeover, has moved from Cyberdyne Systems to the Air Force's new defense program. When a super-virus threatens the nation, Kate's father (a general) decides to activate Skynet, unaware of the impending apocalypse. T3 is a race against time, a race against fate, and a race to stop the unthinkable from actually happening.

While not as high quality as the second film, this one is still pretty solid. John Connor is one of the most complex characters I can think of in film - how does one live with the knowledge of what's to come, but not tell anybody because they'll think you're insane? Better still, how does he live knowing that he is humanity's only hope for survival of an event that hasn't even happened yet? He's such a well-written character. I thought Nick Stahl (the yellow guy from Sin City) was a good Connor; he played the role with equal parts distance and urgency. Edward Furlong (Connor from T2) was going to reprise his role, but he was having some drug problems so the casting people went with Stahl. Claire Danes was also a good fit for her part. She is the audience-relatable character in the movie: new to the situation, thrown into chaos, and has to be strong enough to take it all in and come out the other side. (Perhaps she was a bit TOO strong - her finacee was murdered and she barely shed a tear.)

Schwarzeneggar returned for his last starring role since he became The Governator. The writers (who are also writing Terminator Salvation) laid on the cheese factor with some of his lines and actions ("I'm back," "She'll be back." The gay bar scene, etc.) but overall it wasn't the worst performance I've ever seen Arnold give. He IS playing a robot, after all. How hard can it be? (Trivia: Arnie received a $30 million dollar paycheck for this film, which was the highest amount paid to a single actor upon the film's release in 2003.) Kristanna Loken plays the T-X, the upgraded model that can reshape her appendages into flame throwers and energy ball launchers. I could spend the next paragraph talking about women's roles in film and the meaning of having a female Terminator, but I'll save that for some feminist blog somewhere else. Suffice it to say that Loken succeeded as a creepy, emotionless, efficient killing machine. Her battles with Arnold were a little unbelievable only because his character is the one who explains how much more advanced she is. So why didn't she just launch an energy ball into his face and be done with it? Because the movie wouldn't have been as entertaining, that's why.

As far as the directing and style of the film, Jonathan Mostow (Breakdown, U-571) did as best he could when coming off the heels of the prolific James Cameron. It seems when Cameron split from wife Linda Hamilton (who plays Sarah Connor in the first two films), she received the rights to the series and sold them immediately. Schwarzeneggar called JC to convince him to direct or produce, but he refused. Cameron didn't take it personally, though, later callling T3, "in one word? Great." This entry is not as heavy on the swearing or violence as the earlier films are, and it has a much more spotless look than the dirty grime of LA in the first one and the blue haze that appeared in much of the second one. The action scenes are decent, but nothing like the awesomeness of T2. The crane chase sequence in T3 stands out, but that's about it. But if the whole movie garners the blessing of the series creator, then I guess it's good enough for this writer as well.

Branz's Comments:

T3 had its high points, especially with the car chase scenes and the appearance of Schwarzenegger one last time. However, it wasn’t as dark as the two predecessors. I mean T1 was pretty scary while T2 had the suspense and darkness of the first film with a light-hearted touch of a child and learning 850 series model 101 terminator. I guess I really can’t be scared of a killing hottie like the T-X, even though Arnold is still at his most destructive. The crane through the building scene was really sweet. I guess my thought is that T3 was good, but not as sinister and enthralling as T2 and T1. Hopefully T4 can live up to its history.

Friday, November 28, 2008

(The) Midnight Meat Train

The circumstances surrounding the release of The Midnight Meat Train have already catapulted the movie into cult classic status. After being advertised as a regular horror film for Lionsgate, the movie was eventually released in only 100 theaters across the country and delayed past its original release date. These behind-the-scenes moves gave the film more attention than it probably would have received normally and succeeded in generating some effective online buzz. Surprisingly, it actually lived up to the hype.

The Midnight Meat Train
Director: Ryuhei Kitamura
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Leslie Bibb, Vinnie Jones

Let's just take a second and remember how awesome it was to hear the late Don LaFontaine say this film's title at the end of the trailer. I've heard that guy utter a lot of movie titles, but no other title has caused this much audible laughter in a theater.

Ridiculous title and strange release circumstances aside, The Midnight Meat Train was actually a competent and well-constructed horror film. I know - I was shocked also. The direction was impressive, the cinematography was ethereal and evocative, and the actors (little known as they are) were up to the task of making the best movie they could. Sometimes with horror films like this, you can tell that the actors cash in their performances because they know the movie isn't going to be worth it in the end - this time, you could tell that the director really concentrated on getting the best performances possible from his actors.

Bradley Cooper stars as Leon, a photographer who yearns to capture the gritty essence of the city. His girlfriend Maya (Leslie Bibb) is supportive while she works in a crappy diner, waiting on him to hit the big time and sell his photos so they can get enough money to get married. The problem comes when Leon follows the wrong dude (Vinnie Jones) on the subway one night, discovering a secret that he wasn't supposed to uncover. Cooper in particular stood out as surprisingly fun to watch in this movie because most viewers will know him as the ultra-douche villian Zack from Wedding Crashers. He does a complete 180 here and plays a likable (if not obsessive) protagonist that you can't help but pull for, even though he makes some stupid mistakes along the way. And Leslie Bibb definitely steps up her acting from the ditzy blonde she portrayed in Talladega Nights, proving that she easily join the ranks of other actresses in her age group that can play decent roles but not quite carry a film on her own just yet.

I can't say much about this film without ruining some interesting (if not completely original) plot twists, but I would definitely recommend The Midnight Meat Train to fans of the genre. It's refreshing to see an Asian director not have anything to do with Sarah Michelle Gellar or black-haired children in a horror film. Ryuhei Kitamura, the director of Godzilla: Final Wars, made his American debut with TMMT, and I hope he sticks around for a while. There's a shortage of well-crafted horror movies out there today, and I think this guy has the chops to bring us a few more. The movie promised to be gory and violent and didn't hold back when it came to the brutality; my favorite shot in the film was from the POV of a victim whose head gets knocked off with a meat tenderizer - but the camera acts as if it's inside her head, spinning around after impact and landing on the ground nearby only to see her own body lying on the floor. It was a rewardingly original idea that I've never come across before, and proved to be one of the coolest parts of the movie.

Vinnie Jones, best known for his bit parts in Guy Ritchie's British gangster flicks, utters only one word as the mysterious Butcher during the course of the film. Honestly, that one word wasn't even necessary. He does his best work looking menacing and being silent, and as much of an insult as that may be, it's also a compliment to his physical stature and haunting presence. Casting directors, take note - this guy needs to be in more movies.

If you're in the mood for some above-average suspense or just want to boost your film geek cred like I did, check out The Midnight Meat Train. The ending may leave you a little confused on how they got there, but give it some credit - at least it didn't go for the boring ending. (This whole movie was based on a short story by The Master of Horror, Clive Barker; it actually reminded me more of an old episode of "The Twilight Zone.") Until next time...

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Transporter 3

I can remember the last second of Transporter 2 and how excited I was for the sequel. Well, it's here - and as an undeniable fan of this franchise, I'll sadly be the first to tell you that Transporter 3 not only kind of sucked, but that it's probably not even worth your time at all. You would think a guy named "Olivier Megaton" could direct a good action movie.

Transporter 3
Director: Olivier Megaton
Starring: Jason Statham, Red-Haired Chick

This series has been known for its outlandish stunts, questionable acting, ludicrous plots, spectacular driving, terrible female characters, and awesome fight sequences. It's with a heavy heart that I tell you the filmmakers took this pre-existing formula and tossed the ingredients in a bad movie blender - the end result is way too cliche and doesn't nearly possess the right amount of brazen ridiculousness to make up for it. The elements that stood out as negatives of past installments (the useless Inspector with the maple-syrup-thick accent, awful dialogue, etc) are on display in full force here, and the aspects that make this series truly great seem to have fallen off faster than Statham's shirt in a fight scene.

Jason Statham returns as Frank Martin, the transporter whose set of rules separated him from others in his line of work in the previous two films. This time around, he breaks nearly every one of his rules for seemingly no reason at all - he seems flustered and emotional here, not like the calculating Martin we've known in the past. Obviously, no blame can be put on Statham here; it's the script that's the problem, but we knew that from the get-go. As implied above, you don't go to a Transporter movie for realism or drama. You go for the kick-ass factor which was sorely missed here. Statham was competent as always when it came to his hand-to-hand fight sequences, but the lack of meaningful car chases made it seem like anyone could have been driving his now-iconic Audi across Europe. Also, the gimmick to this one was that Statham couldn't get further than 75 feet away from his car or else his bracelet would explode. Sounds a little too much like Crank, guys - let's try to come up with something original next time.

Joining him this time around is without a doubt the most worthless and annoying character I've come across in 2008: Valentina, a red-haired Ukrainian whose broken English and vapid attitude was the cause of much dismay throughout our theater. In this character, the dialogue reached it's low point for the series. Inexplicably, she had a propensity to list random foods that she desired for mind-numbing lengths of time (the editors should be shot). The film also fell victim to a familiar case of "I've known you for a day but now I'm madly in love with you" disease, this time with a nasty Ukrainian aftertaste. She had very few (if any) redeeming qualities, and nagged our usually stoic transporter into disappointing submission. At one point, she implied that he was gay (a standard assumption by film critics), but then he had his way with her to prove he wasn't. I honestly would have preferred if Frank had just admitted to being gay, shoved her out of the car, and continued on his way to more action scenes. I guess that would have broken his perfect delivery record, but every other rule was broken at random in this movie, so why not that one too?

The thing that pissed me off the most about this movie was that somewhere among the nonsense, they had the makings of a really solid storyline. One of the plot points revolved around another up-and-coming transporter that Statham suggests to the villain (who was so bad, I'm not mentioning him again) early on in the movie's timeline. The idea that there are different types of transporters and seeing Frank interact with them is such a promising concept; perhaps the fourth one (if they make one) could be about the transporters competing for some sort of high profile job. It was cool in this one to see Frank as the mentoring transporter, the veteran who passes off unwanted jobs to the younger generation. If only they could have explored this angle more instead of concentrating on that inarticulate French police inspector, then this might have rivaled the second as the best film in the franchise.

There were flashes of brilliance to be found in Transporter 3, but as a whole they couldn't compare to the epic insanity of Transporter 2. The BMX bike scene (small clip here) was by far the crowd-pleasing favorite; he was one step away from pulling moves like these.

There were also a couple of car moves that can't be ignored, like crashing through the back of a moving train car after crashing through a guardrail to land on top of the train in the first place. Once again, none of these moves could compare to the awe-inspiring scene from the second one in which Frank removes a bomb from the bottom of his car in the most ridiculous way imaginable. And while the act of driving on two wheels is certainly impressive, we've already seen it before: in a Bond movie (Branz, help me out with this one?) and, if I remember correctly, in Last Action Hero.

I liked this more than I should have because of Statham's presence and simply the fact that it was another Transporter movie on the big screen, but I wouldn't recommend it to people other than huge fans of the series. Unfortunately, even those will be left unfulfilled. Until next time...

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Quantum of Solace

The new Bond movie is out after a two year wait, and there's a lot to mention about it. Spoilers abound, so take that into consideration as you read on.

Quantum of Solace
Director: Marc Forster
Starring: Daniel Craig, Olga Kurylenko, Mathieu Amalric, Dame Judi Dench

Quantum of Solace picks up an hour after the events of Casino Royale, which makes it the first direct sequel in Bond history. The story follows 007 as he tries to track down members of Quantum, the organization that was ultimately responsible for the death of Vesper Lynd, his love interest from the last film. Let me say this: after watching Casino Royale, I didn't really get why Bond was so into Vesper. She didn't seem that special to me, and it was hard for me to fathom how the international super-spy that we all are so familiar with would be willing to give everything up to be with this girl that he seemingly barely knew. On subsequent viewings of the movie, however, my opinion on Vesper has changed. I think I was so blinded by the new incarnation of Bond that I didn't let myself see their relationship for what is was - the key element to the character of the new Bond. Remember, back in Royale, Bond wasn't yet the "Bond" that we are accustomed to - he just recently gained "00" status and therefore it wouldn't be that much of a stretch to assume that he could give it up to be with a woman since he hadn't really gotten into his career yet. Vesper's betrayal at the end took a chunk out of Bond's soul, challenging his perspective on life and making him a better agent because of it. Quantum of Solace is a showcase for how Bond deals with those feelings; his most important motivation is doing what he has to in order to free himself from Vesper, who haunts his memory.

Plot-wise, the story left a little to be desired for me. The actual title of the movie* comes from a short story in "For Your Eyes Only," but the events of the movie have nothing to do with the events of that story. It's pretty obvious that is the case, since the film is fused with the ever-topical environmentalism theme that seems to be ripping through movies recently (WALL*E, The Happening, The Day The Earth Stood Still, etc). The shadowy members of Quantum, we discover, are hoarding the Bolivian water supply to sell at a ridiculously high price to the newly inserted government officials. In the scheme of things, there are worse Bond plots to be found (Die Another Day, Tomorrow Never Dies), but it seemed like the writers could have gone the extra mile and thrown some originality in there. I will give them credit for the climactic scene in the explosively unstable eco-hotel in the desert, though - I've never seen that before, so that kind of creativity should be rewarded. Thank God they didn't go with what was originally in the script, though - Vesper had a kid that Bond found out about. We all know how what happens when you bring children into movies: Superman Returns.

Daniel Craig returns as the Bond of today - "damaged goods" as Mr. Greene calls him - and I thought he was a little more heartless in this one than his previous performance. Bond kills people left and right in QoS; going so far as to use an old friend as a personal bullet shield, throw his body in a dumpster, and take the money from his wallet. I'm not saying those actions weren't practical, but dude - show a little emotion about it. The lack of one-liners and the humor of the movies of yesteryear leaves the audience a little concerned with this James Bond, almost to the point where he's unnervingly stoic while he does his job. I guess he probably put himself into "emotionless mode" to get the job done and get revenge for Vesper's death, but even so, Craig's Bond is definitely more callous than previous versions.

Ah yes, the Bond girls. The impossibly gorgeous Olga Kurylenko plays Camille, a one-dimensional character bent on getting revenge for her family's death. Her mission mirrors Bond's, and the two of them sped through the film on a quest for their individual redemptions. She didn't really do much for me, but then again most Bond women don't have prominent motives or solid storylines to work with (effective, yes. Solid, no). Gemma Arterton plays the lovely Strawberry Fields, whose first name is never mentioned on screen. A MI6 agent sent to recover Bond from Boliva, Fields is the eye candy that Bond seduces, but her screen time was cut tragically short due to a Goldfinger-inspired death. Instead of being covered in pure gold, Fields is killed by Quantum members who drowned her in oil and left her for Bond to discover. All said and done, nothing to write home about with these ladies, except that Arterton will be starring alongside Jake Gyllenhaal in the upcoming Prince of Persia: Sands of Time movie. I think it goes without saying that Judi Dench was awesome as M, a pattern that doesn't look like it will be broken any time soon.

QoS is the shortest Bond movie ever made, but they certainly didn't skimp on the action. In fact, I might go as far as to say that there was too much action in it, almost to an unnecessary degree. When you've got James Bond swinging from ropes like something out of The Musketeer just to fill some time, there's probably something wrong. They shouldn't have to resort to that. Just keep it simple - car chase, jumping out of an airplane, ramping a motorbike onto a boat, exploding hotel...that's not enough for you guys? And the Bourne style of editing was on full display for a few of those scenes, throwing frames at us and expecting us to be able to put it together in our heads without showing much of anything in the process.

Marc Forster, director of such films as Finding Neverland and Stranger Than Fiction, took over for Martin Campbell in the director's chair this time around. You can tell that they wanted someone with a more "artsy" background to direct this one because Bond's character was supposed to be the main focus, and Forster made his mark known with a couple of strangely cut scenes during the movie. The intercutting of a horse race and an opera scene right in the middle of a chase scene and a gunfight (respectively) seemed more distracting than effective; Bond movies aren't high brow entertainment - those kinds of things aren't needed. You know what WAS needed? More Felix Leiter. His character is criminally underused in these movies, and his presence in this one was confusing and unclear. Have him team up with Bond and do some action of his own in the next one.

Technologically speaking, the movie followed Casino Royale's lead by not featuring excessive amounts of gadgets. The one really cool thing was at MI6, they had a computer interface that was a massive touch screen similar to that in Minority Report. You've seen it, so you know what I'm talking about. I thought that whole sequence was really cool, from being able to connect to the phone system, to having Bond's voice recognized into a search engine (when he said "Greene," he said "G-R-Double-E-N-E" and the computer changed a "W" to a "EE" because it anticipated what he was saying and corrected itself). Funny part is, we're not that far from that technology today.

The ending to QoS was a little more closed off than the open-ended finale to Casino Royale. Bond leaves Vesper's boyfriend alive (after killing most everyone else throughout the movie) and I think the reason he did this was because he was able to warn the guy's new conquest. Bond told the female Canadian agent this guy's whole game plan, saving her from Vesper's fate and finding a little bit of redemption for himself in the process. The ending shot (Bond dropping Vesper's old necklace into the snow as he walks away) gives closure that he's done with this chapter of his life. I applaud the film for not stretching this storyline out into three movies, because that would cheapen this movie by itself (anyone who watched the second Pirates knows what I'm talking about), and this one doesn't feel like a wasted setup to a third film. It definitely doesn't tie up every loose end (Mr. White is still out there, along with the whole Quantum organization), so that leaves some promise for a third picture when that comes out in a few years. Since Quantum of Solace already holds the record for the highest Bond opening of all time in theaters, I'm sure that a sequel isn't too far away. Until next time...

*In case you're still wondering what the heck "Quantum of Solace" really means, Daniel Craig might be able to clear it up for you. He says "Bond is looking for his quantum of solace and that's what he wants, he wants his closure. Ian Fleming says that if you don't have a quantum of solace in your relationship, then the relationship is over...Bond doesn't have that because his girlfriend has been killed, and therefore he is looking for revenge to make himself happy with the world again."

Friday, November 7, 2008

Week 5

By Guest Writer Alan Trehern

I just heard word Ben is on some type of secret mission for the government. He won't be around for the next couple of days, and your cell phone may self-destruct if you try to contact him. In lieu of that information, he bequeathed to me the honor of picking Week 5's Actor of the Week.

I thought about picking a female actress, but then I remembered I dated a number of them, and picking one over the other just isn't fair. Instead, I went to the man who has pretty much shaped me into 67% of who I am today...

Week 5 - John Wayne
Born Marion Robert Morrison in 1907, the Duke has starred in over a hundred films, a majority of them as the leading role. Mostly known for his character in westerns, Wayne also played gritty military men (The Green Berets, They Were Expendable) as well as a lovable toughman (The Quiet Man). He is best recognized for his work with director John Ford, who placed the Duke in great western epics like the "Calvary Trilogy" (Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande), The Searchers and 3 Godfathers. His best work, in my opinion, was done in the B-movies of the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Movies like El Dorado, The Fighting Kentuckian and Big Jake may have not hit it big in the theaters, but they get huge playtime on TV. Back in the day, every weekend a John Wayne Classic Theater would come on and show an adventure with the Duke. Thankfully, I grew up with Wayne classics too.

John Wayne may have been one of the greatest actors of all time, and I'm prepared to take a back-lashing of reeds to say he IS the best. Wayne was finally recognized as the Best Actor with his Academy Award in 1969 for his character of Rooster Cogburn in
True Grit, whose hooting exclamations can still be heard in our house. Unfortunately, cancer beat the Duke over the years, costing him a lung, four ribs and his life in 1979. But his image and strong character live on in his movies and in his admirers. Here's to you, Duke.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


Guy Ritchie's newest British gangster film is pretty much exactly what the trailer indicates - a wild "in-too-far" story that features different sects of the London underground with ridiculously-named characters. This is the return (thankfully) of the Ritchie we once knew.

Writer/Director: Guy Ritchie
Starring: Gerard Butler, Tom Wilkinson, Thandie Newton, Jeremy Piven, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges

To paraphrase an article I read, Guy Ritchie movies are like AC/DC music. Who cares if the songs all sound the same, as long as they rock? Much like his famous earlier efforts Lock, Stock, And Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, the plot of RockNRolla doesn't matter as much as the way that it's presented - fast flowing solid dialogue, and some memorable characters that get in over their heads with gangs and money.

For those interested, the convoluted plot follows a Russian mobster who is trying to get in on the action of the London scene, currently owned by Lenny (Tom Wilkinson, aka "Juntao" from Rush Hour) and his number one guy Archie. Deals go down, more players become involved, money is stolen, and a "lucky painting" is lost. A rock star has faked his death to boost record sales, and everyone is looking for everyone else. The main protagonists, a group of thieves known as "The Wild Bunch," get hooked up with a bored accountant (Newton) looking for some extra money on the side. From there, everything gets pretty out of control.

Stylistically, RockNRolla is a return to Ritchie's earlier (more respected) films rather than his "I'm only here to out-think you" 2005 attempt, Revolver. With character names like "One Two," "Johnny Quid," "Handsome Bob," "The Tank," and "Mumbles," RockNRolla takes more time to focus on these characters and builds their histories and relationships instead of confusing us with unnecessary plot twists. Gerard Butler, as the charismatic "One Two," led the charge of decent performances from the major players. No one in the cast was amazing in their roles (save for Wilkinson, who always delivers), because the characters were spread so thin there was never really enough time to concentrate on one more than the other. That being said, it seems Ritchie has settled down a bit behind the keyboard (he writes AND directs most of his films), and that definitely translated into a more positive movie watching experience. The editing was perfect for a movie like this: quick Aronofsky-esque montages when needed and a mix of music video and action movie for the rest.

A fine supporting cast was probably underused because there were a few too many characters thrown in. This resulted in Jeremy Piven and Ludacris only having like 15 minutes of screen time, which was a shame because there could have been a little more done with those characters. The only other real complaint I have is that Jason Statham (a Guy Ritchie staple) was not involved in this movie due to scheduling conflicts. As long as that means he was hard at work on Crank 2, Crank 3D, or Trans4ter, I suppose it's acceptable.

The cool part was the announcement of a sequel was attached to the ending title slide, listing a few characters names and saying that they will return in The Real RockNRolla. I've heard this was a planned trilogy, with the third in the series being called RockNRolla Suicide. If the others are just as good as this one, then I'll be pleased. Give this a shot if you're in the mood for a good crime flick or you've got a hankering to hear some intense British accents. Until next time...

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Point Break

It's time for another retrospective movie review here at BMR. When the topic of 90's action movies arises, Point Break should definitely be mentioned near the top of the list. Sure, there's the requisite Van Damme and Seagal flicks that held that decade together, but putting the unlikely team of Keanu Reeves, Gary Busey, and Patrick Swayze in this 1991 flick makes for one of the most over-the-top action spectacles you'll ever behold.

Point Break
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Gary Busey, Patrick Swayze, John C. McGinley

A quick plot reminder if it's been a while (and yes, there will be SPOILERS from here on out): Johnny Utah (Reeves) and Angelo Pappas (Busey) are FBI agents trying to bring down a group of bank robbers that wear plastic masks of old presidents when they rob banks. Pappas' theory is that the group is comprised of surfers, and since surfers are notoriously territorial, they decide to send Utah in undercover to try to find the crew that's responsible. Utah learns to surf and gets into a relationship with a girl named Tyler (Lori Petty), who introduces him to Bodhi (Swayze) and his group of spiritual surfers on a quest for the ultimate ride.

It's been well-documented that I'm not the biggest fan of Patrick Swayze. Point Break proves that there is an exception to every rule - Swayze (though his character is about as one-dimensional as they come) plays zen-surf-guru Bodhi to perfection. His wild eyes, calm demeanor, and laid-back delivery accent an impressive physical performance [1]. Speaking of delivery, Keanu Reeves gives one of the most impressively stilted character renditions that I can remember. While some may scoff and consider this "bad acting," I find it extremely enjoyable for some reason - probably because I just like watching people who take themselves too seriously. Reeves' Johnny Utah is the hotshot rookie archetype, but Keanu brings a surprising depth to the role. When Utah realizes that Bodhi and his boys are actually The Ex-Presidents, he struggles internally with the decision to bring them to justice. Over the past few weeks, he has become their friend; Bodhi has shown him the true meaning to surfing and the impressionable rookie's life has been changed because of it. This is no longer a job for him - Johnny Utah has been converted, baptized in the ocean and shown a new kind of freedom that's inches away from the moral line that he's been walking his whole life. Watching Reeves battle with this realization is one of the better parts of this movie [2].

The supporting cast was solid but stereotypical. Gary Busey (before he went insane) was competent and entertaining as the bumbling elder Agent Pappas, and the presence of John C. "Dr. Cox" McGinley as their perpetually yelling bureau chief was a breath of fresh air that could have easily gone stagnant with another less capable actor.

I'm too lazy to go back and look any of this up, but as far as action movies go, I think Point Break was pretty innovative. The skydiving scene with Reeves jumping out of the plane without a parachute has been copied (intentionally or not) many times since. This is really the first "extreme sports" action movie out there, setting the "good guy goes undercover but gets too caught up in the game" template for plots like The Fast and The Furious, Drop Zone, and Cutaway (just to name a few). On a personal note, I've seen so many action movies that it's hard to keep tabs on which came out first and what plot devices were borrowed from what - if you watch Point Break today, you'll be hard pressed to find a scene that you haven't seen in another movie. Also adding to this factor is the film's status as an action movie staple, lovingly embraced in the film Hot Fuzz (see it) so much that half of that film is based on characters reacting as if they were in Point Break.

Cinematically speaking, Point Break is always moving. Whether it be the camera work (even in conversations the camera is slowly tracking back and forth on the actors), the fast-paced editing (there are very few boring scenes), or the well-choreographed shootouts and fight sequences, this movie gives you what you want to see. The only time it slows down is when it slows WAY down for super slo-mo shots of surfing (trust me, there are plenty). And while the plot isn't the most original thing you've ever seen, the ending (however cheesy) is one of my favorite parts. Utah has chased Bodhi across the world always a step behind, but knows exactly where he'll be at a certain time - the 50 Year Storm in Bells Beach, Australia. After a scuffle on the shore while the waves swell to gigantic proportions, Bodhi pleads with Johnny to let him go out and catch one final wave instead of being taken into federal custody. Utah, sympathetic to Bodhi's ideology since he has himself become a true believer in the power of surfing (he tells Bodhi he still surfs every day), grants him his last request and allows him to die in the biggest wave of the century.

The perfect ending, right? Or is it? There have been rumblings for a while about a Point Break sequel tentatively titled Point Break: Indo and set in Indonesia. Directed by Jan de Bont (Speed, Speed 2: Cruise Control), the movie was supposedly going to feature "the most extreme action stunts ever caught on camera." The writer of the original wrote the sequel and production was set to start in mid-2008, but the project lost a lot of steam when Patrick Swayze contracted cancer and was sidelined from his acting career. Interesting to note - the movie would feature the return of Bodhi (he survived that wave? Not until I see the sequel on a big screen) but Johnny Utah would be replaced with a younger agent instead of having Reeves reprise his role. The admittedly-awful plot synopsis can be read here. I kind of hope they don't make this.

Finally, I just found out about a fantastic stage adaptation of the movie that takes place at a bar every weekend in LA (and now moving to Las Vegas) called Point Break LIVE! The play puts the audience in an immersive experience "putting [the audience] in the water with surfers, throwing you out the door of an airplane, and robbing you at gunpoint." And the best part is that the actor who plays Johnny Utah is chosen at random from the crowd every night (man or woman) and reads all the lines off cue cards (as a jab to Keanu's acting ability). Sound awesome? That's because it is. I really hope this show survives for the next year or two until we can all road trip to Vegas to see it. Until next time...

[1] Swayze and Reeves trained for two months before shooting with a former professional surfer in Hawaii. He refused to use a stunt double for many of his surfing scenes and incurred four broken ribs while performing them. He also did his sky-diving scenes himself, with the trainer proclaiming him "a natural."

[2] Initially, Matthew Broderick and Charlie Sheen were to star with Ridley Scott behind the camera. I doubt very seriously they could have pulled off the iconic performances we now cherish from Point Break. What a different movie that would have been...