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Monthly Archives: April 2010

Charley Varrick (1973) – Walter Matthau dissects himself from his career defining habit of playing grumpy charmers and instead turns in a close-to-the-chest performance as the title character in this heist piece from 1973.  Varrick, along with his wife and two accomplices, try to rob a small town bank and instead wind up botching the operation.  They instead get several parties killed, Varrick’s wife included, while accidentally romping off with a massive amount of mob money.  “Varrick” feels like a great grandfather of sorts to the contemporary classic “No Country for Old Men.”  Both involve an everyman character inadvertently winding up with money not belonging to them and getting a homicidal hitman on their tail because of it.  Joe Don Baker turns in a cool supporting role as the nonchalant killer assigned to locate Varrick and dispose of him.  John Vernon and Andy Robinson, both alumni of “Dirty Harry”, do good supporting work as well.  The Don Siegel directed movie has that unpretentious, no frills style that was common of the day and is by this viewer sorely missed.  It doesn’t go in for grand arcs, deep morals, cheap sentiment or crushing pretensions.  It simply is what it is and it does it very well.  A good find for fans of minor 70’s classics, heist cinema or Matthau.

Bigger Than Life (1956) – 50’s bound melodramas can be hard pills to swallow.  No cinematic reality feels more fabricated, alien and false than tales set against the overly idealized and romanticized world of the ‘good old days’.  Nicholas Ray’s “Bigger Than Life” struggles with these “Leave it to Beaver” styled surroundings but manages to turn out something worthy by the time it’s over.  James Mason is a struggling schoolteacher who takes a second job to keep his family living the American dream.  But after working himself to the point of exhaustion he collapses and finds out that he’s on the verge of death.  A miracle drug, cortisone!, saves his life but his addiction to it turns him from Jekyll to Hyde.  Better yet, it’s like watching Gregory Peck turn into Robert Mitchum.  His pleasant, fatherly ways become laced with twisted morality and sick game playing.  He morphs into a hate charged tyrant who cannot stop pushing his family until he’s justifying their destruction in his own mind.  Ever reliable Mason may have never been better than he was here, slowly warping his calm, cool British charm into something monstrous and grotesque.  “Life” can’t escape all of its trappings and the dated nature of some of its messages, but it’s still relevant in surprising ways and worth sticking with till the end.

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Ten Word or Less Review: A lot of fuss and muss.  Kind of a bust.

“Kick-Ass” poses the superhero question as it should’ve been posed long ago.  What if some run-of-the-mill slob, in this case a very average teenager, put on a costume and tried to fight crime?  No super powers, no alien planet background, no dead parents, no billions of dollars to construct a top notch arsenal of wonderful toys.  Just a highly evolved sense determination to see what would happen.  The kid doesn’t even take karate.  What should and does happen is that he gets his ass kicked by people bigger and stronger than himself.  It’s taken two decades of putting actors in leather costumes for someone to get around to the fundamentally ridiculous idea driving all this nonsense and poke it with a stick.  The end result is a low-tech, grab bag of comic book movie deconstruction that doesn’t have the fortitude to follow through with its central idea.  By the time it’s ended it has abandoned its conceit and embraced the ludicrous nature of its forefathers, possibly because it thought it had no choice in the matter.

Dave (Aaron Johnson) goes to high school, is very unspectacular, hangs out in comic shops with his equally average friends, jerks off a lot, until one day he decides to fight crime.  He isn’t insane or mentally challenged or even lonely in any desperate or unique way.  Dave sees the villainy in the world, he’s a routine victim of it and he sees the apathy which guides most people.  Repulsed by this malaise he’s inspired to take action by becoming the title character.  Out of these circumstances he becomes Kick-Ass, a crime fighting vigilante who has a mail ordered costume, an e-mail address, fan sight and becomes a You Tube sensation after someone records his first successful crime intervention on their phone.

Dave’s initial scenes as this alter ego are down to life and true to the idea at hand.  Director Matthew Vaughn embraces the no frills, low-budget approach by having Kick-Ass walk around in his silly costume getting weird looks, being beat up by bigger guys, nearly killed on occasion, until he finds accidental success followed by mild stardom.  Within its first half “Kick-Ass” has answered its own question.  It’s at this point that Vaughn starts to steer his movie into a more typical, if ironically toned, direction.  Before long Kick-Ass is wrapped up in a plot involving teenage love, mobsters, betrayal by an insecure, masked bad guy, the introduction of two fellow crime fighters, Hit Girl and Big Daddy, and a progressing sensation that the filmmakers have quickly stretched out their own idea past its use.

Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz) and Big Daddy (Nicholas cage) are the best characters “Kick-Ass” has to offer and at the same time they start to undermine the entire conceit the minute we meet them.  If the point of “Kick-Ass” was to propose a scenario where a regular guy puts on a costume, Girl and Daddy come from the very universe the movie portends to hold up as bunk.  They’re a costumed vigilante, father-daughter assassination squad who break all rules of reality.  Cage and Moretz have wonderful chemistry as this twisted, father-daughter dynamic duo and it seems wrong to criticize their presence, but they’re comic book characters in a film that’s supposed to not be about comic book characters.  They belong in their own movie somewhere else.  Hit Girl is already the point of numerous debates.  A homicidal sociopath at age 12, she dispatches bad guys with gruesome efficiency.  It’s hinted at that she may be unaware of her own homicidal nature, but the movie doesn’t care.  She’s meant a satirical jab at comic violence.  Dozens of nameless baddies die in movies every day and we the audience express zero moral outrage at any of it.  So what does it matter if these dime a dozen hooligans are eviscerated by a little girl?  If it didn’t matter when Bruce Willis killed them, why does it now?  They’re dead all the same.  Vaughn clearly relishes the idea and stages his best sequences around Hit Girl’s killing frenzies.  She and Big Daddy are great creations, far upstaging the title character, but both are part of the escalating conundrum “Kick-Ass” falls into.

As it reaches its third act, the movie culminates in a wildly overblown action finale and the initial intricacies that launched the movie are shot to little pieces that fall to the floor and wither away.  Despite this floundering one thing becomes clear, “Kick-Ass” thinks it had no choice but to evolve into the very thing it pretended to stand against.  The sensation that hangs over much of the movie is one of mild indifference.  It’s entertaining to an extent and funny in spots, but it can’t shake the vibe of being inconsequential in a very important way.  Because Kick-Ass has no well tested motivations for becoming a hero, no journey to complete, nothing much depends on his actions as a central character.  He doesn’t progress from the well-intention but dull nerd at the beginning of the story.  His only real accomplishment is to achieve a generic sex fantasy with the girl of his dreams.  The rickety mob plot that develops around him is driven by cases of mistaken identity and his own clueless nature.  It isn’t until late in the film that Kick Ass is aware that evil forces are working against him.  Then the overblown stuff sets off and the film buries its premise in bullets and bazookas.  In short, Kick-Ass the character is a really thin foundation to build a movie on.

“Kick-Ass” set out with the question “What happens when a regular guy decides to fight crime?”  It quickly gives us an answer, “He would get the shit beat out of him and probably die painfully.”  But we have to have a whole movie so brazen action histrionics must take hold.  It’s a cynical and clichéd ending to a story that had unique possibilities.  Vaughn’s final message is that comic book movies have to function in certain ways and making them different is only possible to some extent.  The good guy must win, he must get the hot girl, the bad guy must be vanquished in a large explosion, there has to be a sequel implied by the last shot.  For all the effort “Kick-Ass” spends trying to be a different kind of comic book movie, it ends just like all the others.

Red Cliff: There’s a massive review to write for John Woo’s epic “Red Cliff” but I’m not going to write it.  It doesn’t quite warrant the effort.  Just know it’s the largest production ever mounted by China’s film industry, it runs a total of 5 hours over 2 films, there’s lots of pros and cons to weigh about the whole thing, but when it was all said and done, I felt mild respect towards it because of some solid performances, but not much else.  It’s brought down several notches by misguided action scenes which are part “Crouching Tiger”, part “Gladiator”, but never anything their own.   Also, a woefully under imagined film score undermines the entire effort.  It’s as if a cheap, temporary score was left hanging over the film instead of conducting a real one for it.  The entire production feels handicapped by this.  If you’re a fan of Woo, historical war epics or Asian cinema in general, then you’ll probably find a lot to like about this colossal effort.  But for all its ambition and points of merit, it’s far from perfect.

Dreamscape: Look at that poster.  That poster sells.  It’s telling me that this is 80’s Spielbergian influenced adventure with action heroes, monsters and Christopher Plummer doing evil deeds.  That poster is a lie of obese measures. “Dreamscape” is an 80’s high concept vehicle being driven by very little actual imagination.  Dennis Quaid plays a talented psychic who starts working with a government project involving dreams.  He’s supposed to enter into peoples dreams as they sleep, find out what’s driving their nightmares and then help cure them.  But like a lot of product from the time the reach comes up woefully short of the grasp.  It doesn’t take much time before “Dreamscape” has turned into nothing more than a routine political thriller with badly dated special effects.  On a conceptual level the movie could be seen as a precursor and influence on seminal works like “The Matrix”, but there’s nothing entertaining on its own merits at play here.  Some 80’s movies are better left as the forgotten relics they are.

Ten Word or Less Review: Better than average family flick,

It seems these days that kids films are bound by certain routines and formulas which their makers are unwilling or unable to break away from.  The protagonist must always be a young person, probably an akward child who doesn’t fit in with his/her surroundings, suffering from feelings of unapproval from a parent whom they don’t relate too.  These ropes are tried and true but they’re getting harder and harder to breathe life into.  “How To Train Your Dragon” follows these conventions almost to a tee but turns in a fairly solid effort of family entertainment despite being overtly familiar in key places.
Set on a tiny island inhabited by burley vikings we find the young, scrawny Hiccup.  Against his barrel chested brethern of large beard and huge sword, Hiccup looks like a walking stick who has never seen food.  As a character he’s a mirror image of Flick from “A Bug’s Life”, I.E. the smart kid who can’t harness his real ingenuity in any way to impress the other members of his clan.  Harder still than this lack of an ability to distinguish himself, his father is the village king and the strongest of all vikings, a fact which riddles Hiccup with even more insecurities.  Adding to all this is the fact that the island that Hiccup and the vikings live on suffers from a unique problem, dragon attacks.  Many nights see the village raided by swarms of fire breathing behemoths who loot the food stores and make off with the livestock.  One night, Hiccup accidentially catches the uncatchable dragon, a night fury, but much to his own self loathing can’t kill the beast.  He’s struck by a moment of compassion as he sees fear in the creature’s eyes and instead decides to cut it free.  Later on he finds the injured dragon stuck in a valley, unable to fly out and he slowly learns that the village preconceptions about dragons are all wrong.  Instead of a savage, pitiless killing machine he finds a loyal, trusting companion whom he dubs Toothless.  The two become fast friends and Hiccup is forced into that age old conundrum of kids movies, keeping a secret from a parent.
“Dragon” is a good enough family movie, but with just a little bit more rule bending on its part it may have been a genuine classic of animated films.  The vikings frequently talk of how they’ve killed thousands of dragons over the years while also lamenting their own loss of family and friends, but the film never goes as far to show anyone do anything like this.  “Dragons” wants to keep all of its characters on our good side so no one can do anything irreversibly bad to anyone else.  This makes the movie soft and simple in places where it should be pushing for more.  This lack of any real harshness runs through most of the movie, but towards the end it finally strikes a stronger and more meaningful cord.
“Dragon” ends on a gutsy beat that isn’t downbeat, but surprising in its honesty and sense of consequence.  If more of the story had been like these last scenes, a stronger sense of accomplishment could have been realized.
As for the overall look, this being a Dreamworks piece most of the humans have that standard, rounded, CGI look to them, but the design of the dragons are quite wonderful.  The variety and detail on display make for a charming lot of movie monsters.  Toothless especially is a triumph of character design and expression.  Dreamt up as some kind of fierce but adorable hybrid between lizard and cat, he has wonderful eyes and a great sense of expression and movement.  The scenes with Hiccup and Toothless are the backbone of the film.  What the movie lacks in innovative plot mechanics it makes up for with its strong relationship between the two.  Their flight scenes are exhilerating, rivaling “Avatar’s” sense of amazment at the discovery of being able to swoosh through the air at breakneck speeds.
“How To Train Your Dragon” is a great case of an almost great movie.  Had its makers pushed just a little harder in the story and character department they could’ve achieved a timeless work of meaningful kids entertainment.  As it is they’ve scored a modest success with some very bright moments.  One hopes that should any further adventures of Hiccup and Toothless come to the screen, they be guided with less trepidation and a stronger since of daring.
Related to: E.T., The Iron Giant, any kids movie involving a lonely kid befriending a feared creature

Ten Word or Less Review: Better than expected Woody Allen movie.

For the first time in a long time, I admire the craft of Woody Allen.  This tired, rehashed, over-discussed, over-the-hill director some how managed to make a movie that feels young, vibrant, romantic and honest.  “Vicky Christina Barcelona” feels like a movie made by a man in the prime of youth, not an over 70 senior long faded from relevance.  “VCB” charts the romantic entanglements of American tourists Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Christina (Scarlett Johansson) as they visit Spain.  The former is an engaged intellectual who dissects life in calculating, rational fashion.  The latter a demanding spirit searching for an unfettered but fulfilling life.  Together they spend a summer in Barcelona where they meet Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a seemingly clichéd artist/intellectual/seducer who quickly moves past pretense and engages them both emotionally and sexually.  Throw into the mix his very unbalanced ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) and the stage is set for a uniquely frustrating but lively movie that one could hardly expect from a senior citizen.

With its pseudo-intellectual characters, convenient narration, and picturesque travelogue settings, “Vicky Christina Barcelona” could initially be confused as nothing more than a filmed vacation for director Allen and his cast.  No one is more known for coasting on the kudos of past success than Allen.   “VCB’s” story conflict seems at first conceited and arrogantly high minded.  There’s little at stake but the romantic inclinations of two pretty but frustratingly dull American girls.  As it plays out, a more meaningful sense of relevance begins to take hold and we find ourselves entwined.  A wild but loving relationship develops between Bardem, Johansson and Cruz while Hall struggles with commitment to a man she’s talked herself into loving out of rationality. Allen constructs all of his creations as simple clichés who gradually rise above their easily knowable origins.  We watch these characters evolve from semi-contemptible types into more complex and compassion worthy human beings.

Though Hall and Johansson both deserve credit for making things work better than expected, Bardem and Cruz hold the film up a few notches more than perhaps it deserves.  The two play a divorced couple nearly incapable of civility or rationality.  At constant, almost violent odds with one another, Cruz and Bardem ratchet up the emotional intensity of everything by multiples.  What was once a pleasant, mildly insightful relationship picture becomes feverish and angry in its second half.  Cruz finds herself in an American movie which doesn’t squander her talents, while Bardem, now well known for the shadow of his “No Country for Old Men” persona, shows he’s capable of convincing romantic notes.  The two deserve a movie all their own.

As “VCB” winds down, a stunningly honest current develops.  One not pursued because it’s a movie but because it’s what the story demands.  In short, Allen doesn’t cop out and lie to us about what happens to these people just to make us feel better.  As a director, Allen has spent much of the past decade feeling like a useless has been.  Suddenly freed from his usual New York trappings, his spirit feels released and unfettered.  He had something vital to explore and his movie feels young in spirit because of it.  Most directors his age often dwell on the twilight aspects of age like growing old, driving slow or just dropping dead.  “Vicky Christina Barcelona” is a movie which slowly reveals a man reinvigorated.  Here’s hoping that Allen maintains that spirit.

Related To:  Good Woody Allen movies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Armored – Absolutely mediocre action vehicle.  Wants to be something to make John Carpenter or Walter Hill proud, but fails from start to finish.  Not enough character or twists to be found.  Scratch that.  No character or twists to be found.  Lots of semi-credible actors walk through it, Laurence Fishburne, Matt Dillon, Fred Ward, Jean Reno, but director Antel Nimrod has little for them to do and no tricks up his sleeve.  Tedious and forgettable.  Go rent “Tresspass” for a better version of the same thing.

Hot Tub Time Machine – Slovenly comedy that provides a few chuckles.  Overall I feel left out of movies like this.  They’re too undiscipline, sloppy and all over the place for me, even though nothing like those virtues is the least bit important to those making them.  It stumbles though its jokes like a drunken moron, assuming everything it does is hysterical, but only some of which is actually funny.  Movie tries to score easy nostalgia points by trotting out cultural relics like Poison, Red Dawn, a gratuitous tit shot, Chevy Chase, whatever.  I’m not nostalgic.  It’s harmless and silly and if you were a big fan of “The Hangover” you’ll probably dig this.

The Box – Floundering “Donnie Darko” wonder kid Richard Kelly tries to bounce back after the catastrophic failure of “Southland Tales” with this “Twilght Zone” inspired film.  A financially strapped couple gets an offer of $1 million if they press a button, which will then result in someone unknown to them dying because of it.  They press it, things start to unravel.  There’s a luminescent and engrossing look to everything, a subtle and skilled score contributed from several members of Arcade Fire, as well as strongly honed performances from James Marsden, Cameron Diaz and Frank Langella.  Kelly though can’t whip his story into a suitable shape.  The director/screenwriter’s attempt to expand short story material into a feature length effort results in a slow burner that never boils.  The story slowly becomes a metaphysical, Earth in the balance mess with a befuddling conclusion.  Still though, it’s an interesting misfire.  It may have come apart before the credits roll but there’s more to appreciate in this than other, less ambitious stinkers.