29 June 2011

Movies: Rammbock: Berlin Undead

Rammbock: Berlin Undead (2010) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1583356/

A German-made Horror/Thriller. German language, subtitled.

Michael's girlfriend moved to Berlin, soon after she broke up with him. He travels from Vienna to Berlin to return her keys to her and, he hopes, plead her back into his life, or at least get an explanation as to why they broke up.  Right after he arrives at her apartment block he hears screams in the distance. When he gets to her apartment he finds a plumber and his apprentice but no girlfriend.  Then the plumber falls to the ground twitching, starts foaming at the mouth, then attacks Michael and the apprentice. They successfully lock him out of the apartment, take a look out the window into the apartment courtyard and see more seemingly rabid folks attacking screaming victims.  TV news reports a state of emergency, there is some sort of virus is spreading by body fluid contact and recommends everyone stay inside, then goes off the air. A recorded message loop on the radio continues the warnings.  Michael keeps hoping his ex-girlfriend is safe and wants to find her. At the same time he and a few other uninfected apartment block residents realize they need to band together and try to survive, perhaps escape.

The story has good pacing, no dragging of the feet. The film is only an hour long, but that's fine. They told the story they had to tell in probably the best amount of time.  They didn't pad it to feature-length; had they done so it probably would have started dragging. I'd rather a good story be told in an hour than have a story turned mediocre with extra worthless crap tacked on just to stretch it out.

There isn't a whole lot of character development, just a bunch of surviving folks that have come to terms with their situation and their attempts to deal with things, perhaps escape from the area.  The actors seem fine in their roles, but due to my not being able to understand German I wouldn't be able to tell if the line delivery was off. Seemed natural enough to me.
Technically seemed filmed and edited together well. There is some handheld camera work in the more intense scenes, putting us viewers in the room and getting jostled about by the infected as they chase down their prey.


Now - this is billed as a zombie film, even the film makers use the 'zombie' term to refer to their infected folks. However this technically an infection outbreak film. This is about a virus that spreads from infected to infected, no indications at all that dead are reanimated. There's no indication any of the infected in this film die from a bite or are dead. The symptoms are slightly different, too, with the infected foaming at the mouth, easily lose interest, attracted to loud sounds and apparently very bright-light-sensitive.  One of the broadcasts indicate that a bit person tends to 'turn' quicker if they get excited, as in adrenaline release hastens the onset of symptoms. The constant use of tranquilizers can delay onset indefinitely. The infected move as fast as people, whereas true zombies tend to move at varying speeds depending on the extent of the decomposition affecting their musculature. Plus these infected tend to just bite their source of irritation, un-infected folks, as opposed to devouring them.  However, if any devouring occurred, it must've been off-camera and I missed it.

One thing I've never quite understood in infectious outbreak films, and even in zombie films to a lesser degree, is why the infected never attack each other.  Zombies can sort of be explained in that the living probably smell like fresh food vs. spoiled decaying flesh, though recently turned zombies probably smell near as fresh as the living. But why, in an outbreak film, don't they attack each other too? Especially in this film when the infected act almost like they are rabid or something. They react to loud noises, seeking out the source, though they don't react to noise made by other infected.  They beeline for the uninfected and attack, ignoring any infected in the vicinity.

I suppose this film would be one that could be considered in the same breath as 28 Days Later. However Rammbock's visible world isn't near as expansive as that of 28DL.  Most of Rammbock takes place inside the apartment block,  28DL's takes place in London and beyond. 

This film's appeal is in its small world approach. It sticks with the protagonist Michael through the whole film from start to finish - we see the outbreak occur as he sees it, with the same line of sight limitations he experiences.  There's no explanation as to the source of the infection. But from Michael's point of view knowing the whys and hows isn't important, survival is.

It is a good entertaining foreign outbreak film. Much less gory than most zombie/outbreak films so it'll go better on the stomachs of the easily queasy. Probably worth watching you enjoyed 28 Days Later or other outbreak or zombie-genre films, like to see more, and don't have issues with reading subtitled foreign films.  It isn't especially groundbreaking or list-topping, but it is a good entertaining film in its own right.  Just don't expect Romero-esque zombies, because they just ain't.

26 June 2011

Movies: Wild Target

Wild Target (2010) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1235189/

British crime and dark comedy film with a wee bit o'action.  Victor is an assassin from a proud family heritage of assassins, so much so he's the best paid in the killing-for-hire business. Rose, a thief of sorts, commissioned a copy of a Rembrandt, then pulled a slick on-site switcheroo to sell it to a private collector. After discovering the fake the collector wasn't too pleased and contracts Victor to take her out. While Victor follows her about, looking for his moment to kill her, something fascinating about her causes him to not follow through. He actually saves her life by stopping an attempt by the collector's henchmen. Along the way Victor collects young Tony and makes him an apprentice. The three of them go on the run trying to avoid the collector, his hired guns, and the second-best assassin chasing them down.

There's some action in the film: a little gunplay, a car chase. It's a dark comedy due to the multiple nonchalant killings, yet it is quirky, sometimes whimsical, and almost but not quite farcical. Then again, maybe it is farcical to the British comedy sensibility?

The always good Bill Nighy plays Victor, you might recall him as Shaun's step-dad in Shaun of the Dead or Viktor in Underworld, or from any number of other films. Emily Blunt plays Rose. I knew I'd seen her a few times but couldn't recall where, probably from The Wolfman, Sunshine Cleaning or The Great Buck Howard. Rupert Grint,  Ron Weasley of the Harry Potter films, plays Tony.  The primary and supporting cast all do well.  Grint does a great job in his non-Ron role. Good to see him expanding his repertoire.

It's a funny story, the plot pretty much goes where you would suppose it goes. The characters aren't very deep as people, but for this film they really don't need to be. Victor is the upper-middle-aged always in control with mother issues sort, Rose fills the role of the sexy and flighty young thief and potential love interest for the 30-years-too-old-for-her Victor. She almost qualifies as a MPDG. Tony is the directionless stoner type that gets half-dragged along as Victor's apprentice, which ties him in as a surrogate to Victor's relationship with his mother and her desire that he pass along the skills of the family business.  Some of the character actions aren't always logical or explainable from the little we do know of the characters, but happen because that is what the story demands. But that's okay in this sort of film.

I queued this film after I watched the trailer, got its whiff of story line and saw who the cast was (especially Nighy).  I liked the film, it was funny. Even though it's a Brit-humor comedy it has its American-friendly bits as well. It's not a thinking film, just a well-filmed smartly amusing and entertaining distraction for an hour and a half.  It's a charming and refreshing break from the glut of recycled and unimaginative comedy fare coming out of Hollywood of late.

25 June 2011

Movies: Get Low

Get Low (2009) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1194263/

Period drama with a bit of mystery. Stars Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Bill Murray, Lucas Black, Gerald McRaney, Bill Cobbs.

Set in 1930s Tennessee, Felix Bush (Duvall) is the mysterious hermit that's lived by himself in the middle of the woods for the past 40 years. Of course the nearby townfolk all have their tales about the old hermit - that he's a killer, in league with the devil, and whatnot. He suddenly shows up in town one day, shotgun in hand, and says he wants to buy himself a funeral and attend said funeral before he dies. He wants everyone around who has a story to tell about him to show up and tell it so he can hear what others think about him.
As the funeral director Quinn (B. Murray) and his apprentice Buddy (L. Black) make the funeral arrangements we begin to get hints about Felix Bush, his relationship with a local widow (Spacek) and an Illinois preacher (Cobbs), and the mystery about why he's been living alone all these years.

The film is loosely based on a true story about an actual dude that threw his own funeral back in 1938. As to how much of the film is based on that dude's funeral I have no clue. My guess is the similarities are probably superficial things like hermit, self-thrown funeral, 1930s Tennessee. I couldn't find anything much more detailed than a sentence-long "based-on". Then again I didn't dig deep to find one either.

This is no escapist film like so many modern films tend to be.  It's a great break from the remake films, the sequels, the comic book adaptations, the action/adventure films, explosions. Straight up period drama with a hint of mystery.  It's a redemption film, a reconciliation film, an emotional coming to peace with oneself film.

The story is compelling and as more hints about a mystery are revealed the more one is drawn into sticking through to the end. Whether or not you figure it out ahead of time doesn't matter, the story as told by Felix at his funeral makes everything clear.

The cast and acting is superb.  Duvall and Spacek - can't say enough about how good those two are. I realize most folks see "Bill Murray" and assume it's some sort of comedy, but Murray is perfectly cast in his dramatic role. He stands out as different from the local Tennessee denizens and he is, having lived in Chicago for many years before moving out to the boonies. He's a great contrast to Duvall's backwoods hermit.  Then again he does have one of the best funny lines in the film.
Lucas Black's performance reminded me of his Frank Wheatley role in "Sling Blade" - it's as if little Frank grew up and now works at a funeral home. He played "Buddy" with that same wide-eyed yet caring innocence. Every time he got that goofy look on his face I could hear Carl saying, "You ought not talk that way. Yer jest a boy."  And if you haven't seen "Sling Blade" yet you ought just do that. Biscuits, mustard.

The locations are amazing, the cabin, the woods, the 1930s-era town.  Costuming and set dressing and props all feel spot-on. The production completely immerses the viewer in the time and setting.  Great pacing, editing and all other technical aspects. If there were any production flaws I didn't notice them. There's a couple plot points that don't get resolved, but the story is about what's important to Felix Bush. So I suppose those things are left alone because they aren't as important as Felix's story.

Amazingly this is the feature-length directorial debut of Aaron Schneider. Very mature production for a first-time director. Schneider has had a bit of experience as cinematographer or DP on a few productions, so he isn't exactly a stranger to film production. He's obviously learned his craft well and it shows.

I really enjoyed the film. Like I mentioned before, it isn't anything like the escapist fare that is the bulk of films released these days. If you have trouble sitting through a film that has great characters and great dialog in a dramatic setting you'll probably have trouble with this one. It wasn't boring to me at any point, but that's me.

"Coen brothers", "Miller's Crossing" and "Sling Blade" all come to mind because this film reminded me of their story telling styles. I've mentioned in other reviews I really like the films from the Coens. If you haven't seen "Miller's Crossing" or "Sling Blade" I highly recommend those films in the same breath as recommending this one.  Yes I know "Sling Blade" is not a Coen bros. film - that one is all Billy Bob Thornton and it's awesome.  See all three movies. Do it.

24 June 2011

Movies: True Grit vs. True Grit

True Grit (2010) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1403865/
True Grit (1969) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0065126/

The Coen Brothers film is not so much a remake of the John Wayne True Grit as it is another film from the same source book.

When I first heard True Grit was going to be made again my initial reaction was, "why the hell are they remaking films that don't need to be remade? True Grit is an established classic and untouchable. Any attempt to make it again is doomed to suck." The 1969 True Grit is an iconic western film and won John Wayne his only Oscar.  Why mess with success?

Then I heard it was the Coen Brothers were remaking it. With Steven Spielberg as an executive producer.
At that moment I shrugged away my remake concerns. There are very few things the Coens do wrong. Seeing their name on anything means automatic watch to me.  So I went from "this is doomed to suck" to "best of luck to the Coens I hope it doesn't suck."  I even developed a serious case of edge of the seat anticipation excitement waiting on its arrival.

Well, it doesn't suck. Not one bit.

Acting is top notch. Young Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie is amazing. Bridges as Cogburn works in ways I didn't imagine it would. I even appreciated Damon's LaBoeuf interpretation.  Josh Brolin's performance as Chaney is distinct from any previous performance he's given. I am so glad he didn't repeat his Jonah Hex for this film.

Locations, dialog, effects, stunts. No complaints. A great movie born from a great production with a great crew.

Concerning a comparison with the 1969 version of True Grit. 
I saw the differences in the films as far as story details. So I did a little search to see if anyone had compared the book to the films. Based on what I read it seems the Coen True Grit (CoenTG) is a bit more faithful to the book than the Wayne True Grit (WayneTG).  I don't want to go into some of the difference details because they would actually be spoilers to the CoenTG film, that is, spoilers for the folks who've already seen and remember the WayneTG film.  I will say I like and even prefer the changes from the 1969 film.

Performance-wise John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn is still John Wayne. After you've watched enough of his movies there isn't a whole lot of difference in how he plays characters. That's fine, there are other actors who are the same way and are effective in the roles they are given. However Wayne almost over-plays Cogburn, almost hammy about it. In comparison Jeff Bridges plays Cogburn straight up, unapologetic and in some ways subdued. Thankfully he doesn't try to channel the Wayne performance. He leaves being The Duke to The Duke.
The CoenTG keeps the attention more on Mattie as the central character through the whole film,  the WayneTG shifts focus from Mattie to Cogburn once Cogburn is introduced to the story.
Glen Campbell's LaBoeuf performance is a bit wooden and unpolished, then again he is a singer not an actor, and he comes off more as a goof in a hat and spurs. Matt Damon plays LaBoeuf much better. He is boastful, but as you learn more about the character he isn't quite the idiot that Campbell's LaBoeuf seemed to be.
As for Kim Darby's Mattie in the WayneTG - she's obviously older than 14 yet dressed to try to appear 14. She plays her with spunk, but her voice gets annoying at times. She constantly carps on Cogburn, which makes her voice that much more shrill.  Whereas Hailee Steinfeld is 14, just like the character Mattie, plays her just as spunky and strong, but loads less annoying. She has her say, she doesn't pull punches, is capable of admitting if she misjudged, a fierce negotiator, and doesn't incessantly nag either.
The WayneTG is played a little looser with winks to the audience when something is supposed to be amusing. Ok, not literal winks, but certainly let in on the jokes. The CoenTG is played as a straight up drama, anything amusing comes off as such naturally. The audience is treated as a quiet observer of events, not as another person on location participating in a lightly comedic drama.

There are a couple of other character encounters in the field that are new in the CoenTG.  And we never get to actually see the Lawyer J. Noble Daggett. We do get to hear his voice. He's voiced by J.K. Simmons, who you would recognize as that dude wielding a flamethrower vs. giant lint ball in the Farmers Insurance commercials (bum ba bum ba bum bum bum).
The WayneTG did have some 'bigger' landscape shots, whereas the CoenTG seemed to keep the camera tighter for most of the film.
I actually preferred the way dialog is spoken in the newer True Grit too, it doesn't have modern American English speech patterns or embellishments. This is especially evident when you listen to Josh Brolin's dialog as Tom Chaney.  It sounds a little unnatural to the modern ear, yet evokes a sense of the distance in time between then and now.

In comparison I think the newer True Grit has quickly become my favorite version of the two, and IMO is the better film to tell the story. I still like the 1969 True Grit, always have, but I think the Coens really outdid the original. What I don't know is if this preference is due to perception of a film colored by today's film sensibilities vs. those of a 1969 viewer.  Regardless, this film is one great example that yes, today's Hollywood can still make good western films.

Well worth watching. Lives up to the expectations set by the press  coverage.

22 June 2011

Movies: The Vanishing on 7th Street

The Vanishing on 7th Street (2010) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1452628/

Thriller / mystery / horror flick.
The film starts in a movie theater. Suddenly the lights go out. When they come back on, everybody is gone except for the projectionist (John Leguizamo).  By gone I mean that their clothes are in piles wherever they happened to be, but there's no bodies inside the clothes piles. As the film progresses we meet up with a TV news reporter (Hayden Christensen) and a physical therapist (Thandie Newton), and a 13yr old kid who have also not disappeared.  What is going on?

The film starts out seemingly with a strong mystery premise. Unfortunately it quickly spirals into a giant waste of time.

I should've listened to my "Internal Movie Prejudgement Engine" on this one.  First off, Hayden Christensen is in it, which to me is an automatic disqualification for watching. But I was lured back with cast members John Leguizamo and Thandie Newton, plus Brad Anderson directing. Anderson directed The Machinist, a film I enjoyed, as well as episodes of Fringe, so I figured it had to have potential. I was wrong.

The characters are shallow at best, inconsistent in motivation and emotion. The rules of the world established for the film's events are applied unevenly and inconsistently through the middle and end of the film. The plot deteriorates after the first half hour. The film becomes an exercise in waiting for it to finish.
Dialog - not so great either. Especially when Leguizamo's character tries to string together a bunch of science-y terms and concepts as an explanation and they really don't make any sense unless you don't know what they mean to begin with.  A half-hearted supernatural theory is put forward only to be ignored for the rest of the film. That's sort of the problem - things said and done don't follow through, they just come out and disappear and have no bearing on anything.
And cripes - if a CD Jukebox is playing and the power is flickering off and on the music doesn't slow down and speed back up like it would with 45s on old record players. I'm flabbergasted they did that. Someone needs to be slapped.

A lot of times I can look past such things if the film is entertaining enough, but this film doesn't even deliver enough entertainment.

It is a shame, too. Technically the film is produced well. And the initial premise - power goes out citywide and stays out, darkness happens, people disappear almost instantaneously and all their clothes are left intact in piles, the amount of sunlight that gets through during the day is diminishing. It's mysterious. It triggers the 'fear of the dark' impulses.  It's a good starting premise, but its a shame that the rest of the movie happens to waste it away.  I even liked that there never was an explanation as to why these things are happening. That kind of mystery is fine with me, sometimes we just don't know. But dang. The middle stuff. ugh.

I guess it feels worse for me because I didn't expect to like the film. But then I got interested in the premise at the outset and my expectations started to rise, only to deflate into a doughy glob of disappointment. Yeah - a bread allegory. This movie didn't make bread.

Watch if you want. Maybe you'll like it? I won't recommend it. There's better stuff to see.

21 June 2011

Movies: Megamind

Megamind (2010) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1001526/

Animated comedy film for the family.

Megamind starts with him telling us about his origin. Much like Superman, his parents put him in a craft and sent him to Earth right before their planet was sucked into a black hole.  Megamind's lifelong nemesis, Metro Man, was also put into a craft and sent to Earth by his parents before their planet was also sucked into that same black hole.  We get to see how both of the babies' lives took separate but intersecting paths as they grew into adulthood. Baby Metro Man landed in the lap of luxury, grew up with Superman-like powers, was loved by all, and took on the role as Metro City's protector. Baby Megamind landed in a prison, had no super powers except his intellect, was ostracized by all but the criminals he grew up with, and decided to take on the role as the city's arch criminal.  Megamind unleashes his master plan to destroy Metro Man, and much to his own surprise actually succeeds. So what does he do now?

Story - not an entirely original story at its very core, but the outer layers, how it is told with its new(ish) twists, tells it in an entertaining way. Paced well, didn't seem to drag at any point. I thought it interesting to see that Guillermo del Toro got a creative consultant credit so I looked into what he offered. Apparently during the final three weeks of production he watched a pre-screening and suggested the opening sequence and tie-in to the final act of the film. Nice touch G. (Guillermo del Toro is responsible for some really great films as producer, director and/or writer)

Voice cast: did great with the voice talents of Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, David Cross, Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill. Even executive producer Ben Stiller provided a character voice. But what I really liked was the voice acting didn't come off as "hey, recognize my star voice in an animated feature." The actors did a good vocal performance that really fit their animated characters.
Animation - no complaints.  Computer generated and polished.  Dreamworks computer-animated features have come a long way since Antz.

There were occasional bits that bothered me, a couple of song choices and some of the dated pop culture references.  They almost seemed tacked on to meet some checklist requirement or something. Honestly the film would have been fine and enjoyable without 'em. And if some of the references seemed dated already they'll be more dated in 20 years. Then again, the references will already be lost on today's children who aren't going to be paying attention to any of that stuff anyhow.  Most likely it is my problem that I'm bothered moreso than the film's problem.

The odd thing I noticed is Megamind seemed to start as a rather average film then improved as it progressed. By the end of the film I was less bothered by the niggling aspects because the film as a whole was so enjoyable.  Usually it's the other way around, where I find a film interesting at first then lose interest as it seems to fall apart the longer it plays out. So good on the production staff, writers and director.

Overall I found the film entertaining. Much better than Planet 51, much much better than Igor, and about as enjoyable as Despicable Me.

Good one for kids/family and a good one for adults who still enjoy smart animated features.

Movies: The Mist

The Mist (2007) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0884328/

This is a horror thriller based on a novella by Stephen King.

A powerful storm  rips through a small Maine town.  This drops a tree through David Drayton's living room. The next morning he and his son Billy head in to town to pick up wood and plastic to temporarily cover the hole plus grab some groceries. While at the grocery store a thick mist rolls into town.  Just before it envelops the store a bleeding man runs out of the mist and into the store screaming about things in the mist attacked him.  The dense mist completely covers the store, trapping all the people inside. They can barely see five feet past the front door. The folks trapped in the store begin dealing with fears of the unknown, then known.

The thing about Stephen King movies is that a lot of times the strength of the film rests wholly on who makes the film moreso than the fact that Stephen King wrote the story. Generally regular readers of King novels have an idea what they're in for when they pick up his books, not so with the films.
However - this film is written and directed by Frank Darabont.  He wrote and directed The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. He's the executive producer/developer of the AMC series The Walking Dead. And has plenty of other noteworthy credits. The guy does good stuff.

The Mist is no exception to Darabont's success. It starts out strong and thrusts you immediately into the situation within the first 15 minutes of the film. The film is paced well, with little breathers before the suspense ratchets back up again.  The plot stays consistent in the context of the world painted for the story. The end of the film tends to shock people.  Interesting trivia: Darabont wrote and filmed an ending different than the original Stephen King story. Stephen King said after seeing it he wished he had thought of that ending.

Yes, King's characters generally are stereotypes with little character development, but most of King's horror stories aren't so much about deep character development (beyond the protagonist) as they are about tapping into the fears the majority of people have in some degree or other.  This film taps into the fear of the unknown in dense fogs, fear of stinging bugs, fear of spiders, fear of tentacles, fear of those crazy fundamentalist-bible-thumping types that whip crowds into bloodthirsty frenzies. And it does it well. Delivered in measured doses of varying visibility.

The cast does well with their characters. Plenty of solid and recognizable B and C listers plus Thomas Jane, Marcia Gay Harden and Laurie Holden. A shout-out to the little actor Nathan Gamble who played Billy Drayton. That kid was very convincing in being scared and crying when the scene called for it.

The film is entertaining, can be scary at times (I guess, I have to rely on the wife's reactions to tell me), and is even worthy of multiple viewings. I think this was the fourth time I've watched the film. The first two viewings were the same week we bought the DVD.

I'd recommend seeing it if you haven't seen it yet and are a casual  thriller / horror flick viewer.

I'm not sure how well this film works for the hardcore horror flick crowd.

19 June 2011

Movies: Red Hill

Red Hill (2010) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1530983/

A thriller with a western-style flavor set in modern Australia.
Young city police officer Shane Cooper moves with his young pregnant wife to the small town of Red Hill.  On his first day of the job news of a convicted murderer Jimmy Conway escaping from prison sets his boss Bill and the rest of the constabulary into a panic, such that they recruit some of the local men to help them prepare. Conway had been put away fifteen years earlier by Bill, and Bill and the boys are expecting Conway to return to Red Hill to exact revenge.

Stars Ryan Kwanten as Shane Cooper.  Who? You probably know him better as Jason Stackhouse if you're a fan of the True Blood series on HBO. Odd as might be to see Jason Stackhouse speak with an Aussie accent, he is from Australia so it's probably more authentic than his Louisiana accent.
You also might recognize Shane Cooper's wife Alice (heh), played by Claire van der Boom of Hawaii Five-O fame, or perhaps The Square. I recognized her name because "van der Boom" sounds cool. The rest of the Australian cast I don't recognize.

Overall an average but enjoyable flick as a thriller / mystery.  The story has a decent enough plot with enough hints to be able to figure out the mystery component well before they tell you. The film didn't drag much - the span of the film covers Cooper's first day on the job and into the night.
As for its western-style flavor - that comes from the remoteness of the location, people riding horses, a sort of wild-west constabulary in the town, gunfights, staredowns, beatdowns, and recognizable western-style themes hinted in the music score. 

Some of the negatives:
The panther (leopard actually). I never really figured out why it is included in the story. If it is supposed to be an allegory for something I completely missed it.
There is one snap-shot with a pistol that was a groaner in its improbability given situation, angle, distance and cover, but one such foible is forgivable.
Drawing a gun and threatening someone while standing at arm's length. I can't figure out why anyone draws a gun on someone without actually intending to shoot them in the face. If you're not gonna follow through you're gonna get yourself punched in the face.  It's especially dumb to do that when someone else is in the room and has a gun pointed at you.
Begging. You'll understand if you watch it.
Posse runs away. WTF? You're a posse. There's more of you than him and you have guns. If you know where he is, just go take him out. Why keep running away, splitting up and getting yourselves killed?
Small universe. Yes it is a very small town, but some events take place outside of town as well. Yet the small cast seems to always be where they need to be for something to happen.
Cooper is passive through most of the film. Supposedly a hero, he is more a means of just being places and going places to carry the story along. He doesn't seem to actively do anything until the very end.

Positives: Despite negatives that stood out to me, I still enjoyed the film. The cast did fine playing their roles. I was interested in the story and wanted to see how it turned out. It was entertaining and thrilling enough for a relaxing viewing.  Sort of an entertainment value exceeds the sum of the parts thing.

I can't remember why I even had this film in my Netflix queue, I don't recall seeing a trailer for it. But since I'm the only one chucking films in the queue something must've clued me in to see it. I like these occasional mailbox surprises.

An enjoyable and entertaining thriller/mystery that's slightly better than average.  If you're stuck for something to watch you can't go too wrong with this one.

18 June 2011

Movies: TRON: Legacy (plus the original TRON)

TRON (1982) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0084827/
TRON: Legacy (2010) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1104001/

Before I watched TRON: Legacy (T:L) I figured it would be a good time to re-watch the original TRON film.

TRON is basically a story about a 80's era hacker (Flynn) that wants to break into his old employer's computer and get proof that his old boss stole game programs from him. Flynn is aided by a couple of friends (Lora and Alan) that still work for the company. While trying to break in to the mainframe the computer's Master Control Program, which is somewhat an AI system that gets 'smarter' as it assimilates other programs, detects Flynn's breakin attempts and uses Lora's laser-digitizing project to digitize Flynn and draw him into the mainframe to stop him. Flynn then battles MCP to escape the mainframe and return to the real world.

I remember watching TRON in the theater when it was first released, and re-watching the film recalls those early memories.
I can't even imagine how this film looks to the folks who were born not knowing a world without home computers and internets and such things. I grew up during the time when the first video games and video game arcades came about, when the first home gaming systems that predated the Atari 2600 came out.  Been watching that cutting edge cutting for decades, so appreciating the context of the era that film was released is easy for me.

So TRON, back in 1982, was somewhat of a topical and innovative-looking film to a youngun like I was at the time. Computers and video games were still comparatively new, mysterious and wonderful, as were real lasers and things. Sure we knew we were watching a fantasy film, but we didn't care.  Even though the film didn't do so well, Disney did a masterful job of marketing the film by backing an arcade video game that hit all the high points from the film. I still remember the film's music - kinda cheesy and electronic-ey and repeated often during the game play.
Watching it through my eyes of today, especially after having spent a career writing and debugging software, this film is a riot when it comes to dialog and overall thin plot. Mostly because I understand what that language meant in the context of the era when it was written.

One thing I'd never noticed until this most recent viewing -- that the actress Cindy Morgan was in the film. She played "Lacey Underall" in Caddyshack and I never made that connection until now. Then again I haven't seen either film in quite a while.

Even today the look of the original film is rather unique compared to films from the same decade. How they filmed it is still an interesting story considering how labor-intensive it was at the time. Its techniques are considered primitive by today's standards, but really give the film a unique look. Despite its occasionally cheesy dialog, it is still an entertaining film for me, having grown up during the period it was made. I just have no idea how the folks born after this film was made would interpret it.

But I didn't really want to sit down and rate the original TRON. I just wanted to see the original TRON again so I could see how TRON: Legacy does as a film and as a sequel.

TRON: Legacy (2010)

We get a bit of Flynn a few years after the first film's end.  He married, had a child (Sam), his wife died, then Flynn mysteriously disappears when Sam is about 7 years old. Sam inherits his father's shares of the company, but doesn't want to run it. Alan from the first film is still part of the company, but is relegated to "ignored member of the board" status after Flynn's disappearance.  Son of original TRON's bad-guy Dillinger is on the board, but inconsequential to the story. Maybe if they do another sequel they'll actually use him?

20 years after Flynn's disappearance Alan receives a page (yes, a page, not a text message) from Flynn's disconnected phone from Flynn's old office at Flynn's old shut-down arcade.  Alan tells Sam to go investigate it. Sam discovers his father's hidden room under the arcade, tries to log in to the computer down there, and BOOM ends up in the digital world Flynn designed. Just like his father in TRON, Sam has to overcome obstacles to overcome the oppressive 'big bad' and return to the real world.

Stripped down T:L's plot is pretty much the same as TRON, there are some twists to differentiate the film a little. That is to say just like the first TRON there really isn't much to explain why this digital world works the way it does, why programs are anthropomorphized the way they are, why they even have anything resembling motivations beyond their original programming, etc.

The key to watching TRON:Legacy? Just like with TRON:  don't ask questions, don't think deeply about it. Just let it happen.

Visually the new digital world looks much better and more organic than the original TRON world - which is to be expected considering technological advances. Not entirely sure about the need for clouds and jet exhausts and things.  A few callbacks to vehicles from the original film show up.
But is looking more organic actually better? Or will you pine for the sterile landscapes of the original TRON?

The CGI de-aged Flynn face is rather off-putting. Deep inside uncanny valley. Despite their best efforts it just doesn't move like a real person's face, especially when talking. It's really disappointing, especially after seeing Weta Digital do their magic in Lord of the Rings and Avatar.  On a side note it was amusing that elder Flynn (role reprised by Jeff Bridges) talks more like he did in "The Big Lebowski", however he didn't smoke pot or drink white russians. Nobody peed on his rug, either.

I got a kick out of seeing the Daft Punk cameo -- they show up as the DJs in the End of Line club. Daft Punk did the soundtrack for the film. Worked for me. I like 'em.

For me, the film's appeal was in its entertainment value for nostalgia's sake. And that's a nostalgia that was born from memories dating back in 1982.

So is TRON:Legacy a good sequel for TRON? In some ways, sure. When watched with the right mindset.
Neither film is great, but this is a case when I don't mind. The both occupy a special place reserved just for them. I was entertained enough. It had flashing lights. ooh! 
I can imagine this film and its predecessor TRON probably look great to children.  Little ones aren't going to notice thinish plots - they're going to be loving the light cycles, wondering what it's like to live in a computer, and even the geekier ones will be saying "Greetings, program!" to everyone for an intolerable amount of time.


Just don't expect a mind-blowing like the first Matrix film delivered and you should be okay.

17 June 2011

Documentary: Top Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of World War II

Top Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of World War II (2010)
  http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1587359/

Good little one-hour long documentary about the lady mathematicians employed during World War II to calculate out trajectory tables for our weapons and bombers. Unsung heroes - their story is now told, almost 70 years later.

Back before we had electronic computers the term 'computer' was a job description.  A computer was a mathematician employed to perform calculations. After the U.S. was drawn into World War II the government employed mathematicians to perform trajectory calculations by hand and with the assistance of mechanical calculation equipment. With the trajectory solutions in hand our forces in the field and in our bombers were able to aim better.  As many of our men were sent off to fight, the war department turned to employ women mathematicians.
Some of these ladies were later employed as the first electronic computer programmers, for ENIAC, though they never received public credit for their work.

The documentary has interviews with some of the ladies employed as computers during WWII, and a couple of the gents that either worked with the ladies directly or benefited from use of their solutions in the field.

Great watch for folks interested in lesser-known World War II history. Also great for folks interested in the history of human computers, the first electronic computer used by the US Government, and the ladies behind the first programming of the computer. I don't recall hearing about these ladies in any of the college courses I attended that told of the history of computers and programming. I'd heard of Ada Lovelace and even had the humbling opportunity to meet Adm Grace Hopper, both big names in the pioneering of computation machines and programming; I don't recall ever hearing the story of the female computers of World War II before now.

This documentary is streaming on Netflix as of this post.
Documentary website: http://www.topsecretrosies.com/

16 June 2011

Movies: Splintered

Splintered (2010) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1016241/

A British-import horror film.  About a group of young college-aged kids taking a weekend to investigate the area around a farm where the news has just reported that a mysterious creature had attacked a farmer and his sheep.  The film centers around Sophie, her best friend, her best friend's brother, her best friend's boyfriend, and her best friend's boyfriend's friend. Some other folks show up from time to time.

Yes, the brother has a crush on Sophie, the boyfriend's friend wants to sex up Sophie, the best friend and her boyfriend want to sex up each other. All this tension causes dumb arguments between them.
We also get flashbacks to events in Sophie's past that sort of explain her interest in tracking down potential monsters. Of course her interest in cryptids and the supernatural is a source of needling by most of the rest of the kids with her on this campout weekend.  Except best friend's brother - who plays the meek "i got a crush on her so I'll worship from afar" type. He wouldn't pick on her - he wants her to notice he's nice and maybe that'll impress her enough that she'll notice his tent. (they're camping - he has a tent - you know...)
At night mysterious noises are heard, a chase through the woods splits Sophie and the boyfriend's friend from the rest of the group, and a mysterious old abandoned building is stumbled upon. Sophie ends up locked in a room, all by herself.

A plot loaded with influences from many low-budget horror films past that involve teenagers/young adults.  No real surprises. Not much depth to the characters beyond Sophie's past. Heck I don't even remember anyone's names because there is no real reason to do so.  The cast performs their roles okay, no big acting stinkers in the lot, but they don't really have a great script to work with either.  Not especially violent or bloody. Has some scenes that ratchet up the thrill a little.

So yeah, I suppose the film could be surprising to anyone who hasn't ever seen a horror film before, otherwise it's just old hat. Not especially entertaining old hat either. Just average in all ways.

I won't recommend seeing the film, I won't dissuade you either. I'm forgetting about it as I type.

Lucky for you, as of the date this is posted you can't even rent this one via Netflix.

15 June 2011

Documentary: Bobby Fischer Against the World

Bobby Fischer Against the World (2011) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1777551/

Billed as the first documentary feature of Bobby Fischer's life.  I think the key word is feature. There's been other documentary-style productions, not none near as lengthy.  I've not seen those, so I can't contrast the amount of information this documentary has in comparison with those.

This film is an amazing look into Bobby Fischer's life, from his childhood, his meteoric rise through the American chess world, his famous match against Boris Spassky and the crazy antics leading up to and surrounding the match, his disappearance, his reappearance and eventual death.

The documentary tried to place the Fischer vs. Spassky match in the context of the Cold War.  I know it has to be tough for the younguns that didn't grow up during that era to be able to understand how much weight the Cold War had on anything that happened to involve anything USSR and USA. As much as the documentary tried to stress the context of the times it just didn't feel near as heavy as actually living through the era felt.  But that's probably not the film's fault, some things just can't be easily conveyed.

The film has plenty of interviews with a few people that did get close to him, which makes the film much better than one that only interviews folks who are experts from the outside.  When it came to Fischer's behavior it didn't seem like anyone held any punches, they called it as they saw it. As a kid Fischer seemed a little off.  They discuss his relationship with his mother. She's no paragon of parental behavior and seemingly a little wacko in her own way, but I doubt that Fischer's madness is a case for "nurture vs. nature". I think there's a little bit of both at work here.
Fischer seemed to have been able to function in public to some degree, but as he got older it certainly seemed he had some serious sanity issues.  The documentary also compared his behaviors with some previous chess grand masters.  Not exactly decreeing that "stellar at chess batshiatcrazy" but there seems to be some common issues.

Now I have to admit that yes I knew about Bobby Fischer before I ever watched the documentary because I used to be part of my high school's chess club. Knowledge of his existence is rather tough to avoid in those circles. But I'd never really studied the depths of his life, not the way this documentary lays it out.  I remember seeing in the news his problems in '92 after his unofficial rematch with Spassky in Yugoslavia, his expatriation, his post 9/11 comments, his later arrest in Japan, and finally his death in 2008.  The world had changed so much since the Cold War world of  the 1972 match against Spassky, as had Fischer. He mattered so much back then, had such an influence, and it all withered away after '75 and pretty much became a footnote with Fischer by '92 and later, except for the few who remembered the Fischer that was.

Great in-depth documentary for history buffs and chess lovers.  But I would think even if you've never heard of Bobby Fischer and have no interest in the game of chess, the documentary is still a compelling film to watch about an amazing and tragic life.

13 June 2011

Movies: Dracula 2000

Dracula 2000 (2000) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0219653/

Horror/Action film. As implied by the title, it's Dracula. In the year 2000.
Thieves break in to a vault at an upscale antiques store expecting riches. Instead they find a collection of seemingly worthless antiques and another vault inside, a vault that contains a silver coffin. They steal the coffin, only to find a surprise they weren't expecting. Guess who's coming for dinner?
By the way, the store is owned by Van Helsing's grandson Abraham.  Dracula escapes to New Orleans, where he seeks out Abraham's daughter Mary. So of course Van Helsing goes after him  (he is a Van Helsing) as does one of his trusted antique-store employees, newly introduced into the reality of the situation. Van Helsing's daughter Mary just happens to have a roommate named Lucy. If you recall the film "Bram Stoker's Dracula" you can't miss the Mina-Mary parallel and the Lucy-Lucy parallel at this point.

Stars an almost unrecognizable (pre-300) Gerard Butler as Dracula, Christopher Plummer as Van Helsing, plus a couple others you might recognize like Jennifer Esposito, Jeri Ryan, Omar Epps and Danny Masterson. For the most part the cast did well, although Masterson seemed almost out of his depth.

Sort of a continuation of the traditional Dracula story. At times one can also spot parallels to the original Dracula story, but they are superficial. It seems to start with the traditional vampire rules (decapitation, wooden stakes, sunlight destroys), incorporates the more modern lore addition of silver having a negative effect, then adds a new twist that the very things that kill normal vampires doesn't work on Dracula. Thus the explanation why a Van Helsing is still sitting on an imprisoned Dracula in the year 2000.  And the film also presents a new version of Dracula's origin.

Over all it's pretty much an average quality production.  An odd thing about the film was that even though the bulk of the film takes place in New Orleans the film feels claustrophobic. Although not physically cramped, it takes place within a small space confined by the main and supporting cast. Even as Dracula is chased around town everyone ends up exactly where they need to be for whatever happens in the film. Which is a really odd thing to feel while watching a film that takes place in multiple locations and isn't at all like "Buried".

Watched it on a whim. I avoided it when it came out because my "Internal Movie Prejudgement Engine" indicated "don't bother with this". It wasn't quite as bad as I thought it would be, but wasn't especially good either. Probably hits the level of about as good as "Fantastic Four", or just slightly under.  By the end of the film I was in full facepalm mode. I should've listened to the IMPE analysis. 

I won't discourage watching the film, but I certainly won't encourage watching it either. I suppose if you're a vampire film aficionado you probably have no choice. But chances are the aficionados have already watched this one.

If you've not seen 1992's "Bram Stoker's Dracula" by Francis Ford Coppola, I recommend you see that instead.  If you have seen it and are pressed to watch a vampire film tonight, just watch Dracula again.

12 June 2011

Movies: Black Death

Black Death (2010) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1181791/

Thriller-drama with hint of mystery, set in the late 14th century as the Black Death ravages England.  Stars Sean Bean and a bunch of other folks I didn't readily recognize.  Bean sure is making the rounds of the medieval era/style films.

Young Osmund, acolyte (monk-in-training if you weren't sure), slips from his monastery and sends a young girl out of the town and off into woods to try to keep her safe from the plague ravaging the city. She is one that he obviously loves and may or may not have had inappropriate relations with. She wants him to meet up with her, he tries to divine a way to do so. Ulrich (Sean Bean), envoy of the bishop and on a quest, shows up at the monastery requesting one of the monks lead him to a village in the marsh that is by the very same woods Osmund sent his secret girlfriend. Osmund volunteers for the task as he grew up in the area.
Why is Ulrich and his crew traveling to this village? Rumor has it the plague has not infected the village, that the village has abandoned Christianity, and that a necromancer lives there that can raise the dead.  Ulrich is to bring the necromancer back to the Bishop for proper disposition.
We watch as this group travels through the woods and to the village in the marsh. They ask if they can rest before moving on. The villagers welcome them in with open arms and hold a feast in their honor. muhahaha

I really enjoyed the film. I like Dark Ages films that mix in mystery and local magics and stuff.  Probably why I enjoyed "The Name of the Rose" so much.
This one has a bit of this and that, piles of plague-ravaged bodies, dirt, scum, some swordfighting, slogging through marshes, gruesome torturous deaths. Everything one could want from a dark ages film. At times one could almost smell the putrefaction. Nice.

I liked the sets and locations - they looked sufficiently dirty and poor as one would imagine dark ages locations would look.  Historically accurate? No clue. Worked for me. The cast did well, no complaints about performances. Story was interesting and kept my attention throughout.  About the only thing that caught my eye as sub par occurred with some of the choppiness in the 'slowed-motion' scenes. Something I've noticed in recent films. I think it has to do with the film-to-digital transfer for editing process. So much for nits.

In case you saw it and are wondering - no, the contrast of the hypocritical actions of the pagan villagers vs. the christians sent to destroy them wasn't lost on me either.

I liked it, I recommend it. Great for a scorching Texas Saturday afternoon when it's too damn hot to be outside and you just want to bask in the blessed coolness of the air conditioner.

And, if you haven't seen "The Name of the Rose" yet I highly recommend it. Heck I recommend it over "Black Death", if you are forced to make a choice. That is one smart mystery set in a dark ages monastery movie with a great cast and a great author behind the story.
But, lucky for you, you shouldn't have to make a choice. Both "The Name of the Rose" and "Black Death" are streaming on Netflix right now.  So how about this: roast a goat, pour the mead, light the fire, slip into some chain mail and have yourself a medieval mystery weekend.  Everybody wins!

11 June 2011

Movies: Middle Men

Middle Men (2009) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1251757/

Drama based on a true story. How true? No idea.
It's about a guy who is a problem-solver and how he got mixed up with a couple of idiots guys who innovate a porn on the internet business and turns it into an internet credit-card clearing business. You know, the business that keeps charges to sites like GrannyTrannies.com or GiantMechanicalPenises.com from showing up on your credit statement by putting the charges under a less-revealing and less-embarrassing name so the spouse doesn't find out.

Has a decent ensemble cast with Luke Wilson, Giovanni Ribisi, and a great performance from James Caan. You'll probably recognize Kevin Pollak, Terry Crews and Kelsey Grammer, possibly a couple others too. 

I haven't seen 2010's "The Social Network" yet so I can't draw comparisons except that both involve telling the story of influential internet startups. This film didn't seem to get near as much buzz, though. I stumbled upon the film rather by mistake. Probably heard about it in a podcast or something.

I thought it was an entertaining drama, a little tongue-in-cheek-ish. Of course since it covers the development of an internet porn business there's lotsa scenes with naked breasticles.  A Russian mobster is involved so there is some violence as well. It isn't really a docu-drama in that it isn't presented in documentary style at all, more in a feature film style.  The extent of its truthiness I can't vouch. It appears many names of people and businesses were changed for the film, and I'm sure some character composites took place as well.

I liked the film - the story portrayed was interesting and entertaining. The start of the film was mildly disorienting because the narration style was kinda 'cutsey' in telling part of a story, pausing to jump back a little in time to give some background, then jumping back again before actually moving forward. Once that business is over the film settles in to tell the story with occasional narration to fill the gaps in time and background knowledge.

Not a blockbuster, not an absolute must-see, but worth the time if you've nothing else going on.

10 June 2011

Movies: The Shortcut

The Shortcut (2009) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1243955/

Low-budget thriller about a particular shortcut through the woods, it's local legendary history, and a recently-moved-to-town high school senior (Derek) and his kid brother (Tobey).

The film starts out establishing the local history - in 1945 a gal and her boyfriend are taking the shortcut after a school dance, the boy gets fresh, the girl knees him in the nads and runs off, she encounters an 8-year old(ish) kid on the path, the kid smacks her in the head with a rock and kills her.
Jump to present day. The school is now an elementary school and the kids dare new kid Tobey to take the shortcut.  Along the way Tobey encounters a disemboweled dead dog. When he goes to poke it with a stick a spooky old guy with gloves and a shovel scares him. Of course Tobey falls fully into the pool of blood around the dog then runs away. When he gets home he looks like he went swimming in the puddle. He tells his older brother Derek about the dog and the spooky old guy. Derek helps him get cleaned up.
Derek tells his smart-ass friend Mark and their friend Lisa. He tells 'em about the dog and the shortcut. They relay more stories about people disappearing along the spooky shortcut, the old dude that owns that land and creeps people out. The shortcut/dog story gets around to a high school jock, who lost his dog, so they all team up to do some Scooby-Dooing to find out of the creepy old guy is behind the dog disappearance.  Oh yeah, there's a hot blonde that Derek is interested in, so he pursues her and invites her along for the sleuthing.

The story is told with interspersed flashbacks to the 40's and 50's, dropping tidbits of history surrounding the family that owns the land.

Yeah - that's a long-summary setup, especially considering the B-movieness of the film.  It's chock full of a mix of bad actors and decent ones. You'll probably recognize Raymond J. Barry (Arlo Givens in Justified) and William B. Davis (Cancer-man from X-Files). The gal playing Lisa, Shannon Woodward, looks familiar but I can't recall watching anything she's been in. There's always the possibility she looks like someone else whose name I can't recall. Regardless, she's cute and actually one of the better actors in the cast.

The overall plot is pretty straightforward, not especially original and has a couple of twisty things at the end.  Acceptable production quality, though there were a few noticeable ADR issues. Not much character depth - just enough to figure out what the standard roles are: hero, wiseass sidekick, girl sidekick nobody is interested in, jock, unattainable blonde hero-love-interest, creepy old dude, dead dog. Also one big glaring historical mistake (fall of 1945, Nazis). A couple amusing one-liners from smartassed friend and Lisa, but some of the cultural references will be dated in a few years. Not much gore for a horror-thriller. Most violence is handled off-screen. It really isn't that great of a film, but not entirely terrible either. More money has been spent on worse films.

Makes an okay Saturday-afternoon middling-to-bad but entertaining enough to be worth it if you're bored horror-movie film.  At PG-13 is probably one of the more family-friendly options as far as horror-thriller flicks go.

08 June 2011

Movies: I Sell the Dead

I Sell the Dead (2008) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0902290/

Supernatural Horror Comedy about an imprisoned 18th century grave robber, accused not only of his ghoulish profession but of murder, and his confessions of some grave-robbing anecdotes to a priest before the robber is due to be executed for his crimes.

Stars Dominic Monaghan (Lost's Charlie, or Lord of the Rings's Merry Brandybuck if you prefer) as Arthur the grave robber, Ron Pearlman as the priest Father Duffy, and a few others I don't recognize.

The film starts off with us watching Arthur's partner Willie being decapitated for the same crimes Arthur is accused of. Then Fr. Duffy walks in to prison and starts talking with Arthur about his past. We learn that as a child Arthur apprentices with Willie to earn some cash for his family.  They dig up corpses for a local physician that needs them for dissection.
The film is pretty much the flashback portrayals of Arthur's anecdotes about growing up in the business, starting as a lad and on into adulthood, with returns to the prison cell between each story.

The first scene, Willie's decapitation, was so full of scenery-chewing goodness I was really worried about the film. But then it settled into the tongue-in-cheekiness feel established by that opening scene.  Yes it is played up and exaggerated comedy, but just shy of overtly so. Once I settled into the film's 'feel' it wasn't so bad.
The musical scoring of the film got intrusive at times with it's whimsical comedy carnival sound before blessedly retreating  into the background. Yeah, it was noticeably annoying at times, but other times not so much so.
The plot isn't extensive nor thought-provoking. Clearly for sit-back entertainment of varyingly effective farcical scenes.  The first time paranormal horror is introduced into the story Arthur and Willie dig up a corpse that has a garland of garlic around its neck and a wooden stake embedded in the chest.  They toss the garlic, pull out the stake and turn around to prepare to cart off the corpse. The corpse rises and walks off, scaring the crap out of the two grave robbers. Then the corpse comes back and attacks them.  It is a silly but funny physical comedy scene and lets the viewers know they're in for some grave robbing stories occasionally sprinkled with various paranormal corpses.

The film's conclusion is kind of coincidental and wonky but stays within the film's spirit and plot.

There are a couple of laugh-out-loud, or at least hearty guffaw, moments, others not so much.  Not quite enough laughs chained throughout the whole film.  So I guess it would rank more as an amusing comedy and funny enough to not be terrible.  Probably makes a decent enough Saturday nothing-else-to-do film.

07 June 2011

Movies: The Next Three Days

The Next Three Days (2010) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1458175/

This thriller/drama stars Russel Crowe as a community college teacher and Elizabeth Banks as his wife (aka the Brennans). We first meet them they seem like a happy perfect couple together with their son. But oh-ho! Early on in the film Banks is arrested and convicted of killing her boss. Brutally. Caving in her skull with a fire extinguisher. Unfortunately for Banks she had just argued with her boss that day, her fingerprints are on the extinguisher, and the boss's blood is on Banks's coat. Crowe loves her so much he refuses to believe she is guilty. After exhausting her conviction appeals over the course of three years Crowe decides to bust her out of the county jail before she's moved to prison, then flee the country.

Supporting cast includes Brian Dennehy, Liam Neeson, Daniel Stern, Jason Beghe, Olivia Wilde, and a few more recognizables. The cast did well, everyone solid in their performances.
Gonna take a moment to tip the hat at Elizabeth Banks. I like her - she's versatile. She can deliver great comedic performances and great dramatic performances. Crowe did the Crowe thing. He's good at it.

Despite a couple leaps in cop intuition that were necessary for the drama to continue to ratchet up plus an obvious fact foible for any Mythbusters fan*, for the most part the film stayed within the realm of reality.  Well there is one hanging out the car door at highway speed thrill that pushed it.

Pacing got a little sloggy in the second act.  If one considers act one the intro to the family and her arrest, act two = planning stage, and act three = executing plan breakout, act 2 feels about an hour long and we don't get to act 3 until about an hour twenty minutes into the 2 hour film. Yeah - I was starting to get antsy during act 2. But once act 3 got going I forgave 'em.

Here's where I have to stop, though, without spoiling the film concerning the failure or success of the breakout, or things Crowe may or may not have to do during the planning stages.  I can't even point out, contrast, or ask questions about moral ambiguities and such without spoiling the film. I don't want to ruin the experience for folks, I do want to impress that I didn't feel the film was a waste of time to watch.
A good story plotted well, acted well, filmed well, plus a couple of tugs to the ol' heartstrings if you like havin them tugged. What more can you ask for?

An entertaining thriller worthy of the ol' Friday Night Popcorn Night slot. I liked it.



* Curious about the Mythbusters reference? Okay. In a couple scenes Crowe uses the old "hole in tennis ball pressed against car door lock = unlocked door" trick. Of course Mythbusters already busted that for all the folks out there who thought the technique even approached plausibility. And if you're not a fan - here ya go:
http://dsc.discovery.com/videos/mythbusters-tennis-ball-car-unlock-minimyth.html

P.S. concentrating on writing a review is very hard to do when the wife's MP3 player starts churning out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sN62PAKoBfE

01 June 2011

Movies: Faster

Faster (2010) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1433108/

Revenge / Thriller flick starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and Billy "The Bob" Thornton.  You'll also catch a couple small performances from Tom Berenger, Maggie Grace (Shannon on Lost), Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Mr. Eko on Lost), Courtney Gains (Malachi of "Outlander we have your woman" fame in Children of the Corn), Jennifer "Dexter's Sister and ex-wife" Carpenter and a couple more recognizables.

Johnson was the driver in a bank heist pulled off by his brother and a couple friends. Another group ambushed Johnson's crew for the cash at their (not so) 'safe house', which left all of them dead but Johnson. Johnson swore to avenge his brother's death right before being shot in the head.
Of course he survived - there wouldn't be a film if that were the case. We first meet Johnson as he's being released from a 10-year prison stay and immediately embarks on his killing spree - to keep the promise he made.  Thornton is one of the cops working the case after the first revenge killing takes place.  There is also a hired assassin in the film, hired to take out Johnson by one of the ambushers before Johnson kills them.

There is an underlying "The Good, The Bad and the Ugly" motif going on in the film. The assassin, the Rock, and the Cop (Thornton) are the most likely candidates for the thematic trio. That's about the only reason I can see for the assassin to be in the film in the first place - to complete the triangle.  The assassin's ringtone is the signature "The Good, The Bad and the Ugly" theme - which I'm sure is the big wink to make sure the audience draws the parallel. Aside from a 3-way showdown, that's about where the similarity stops. They weren't all on a quest to recover the cash, the Rock was on a quest to do some killin, and the other two were trying to put an end to it.

Yeah - of all the characters in the film the assassin's need to be in the story is somewhat questionable. We get some of the dude's background to understand what makes him tick, but I didn't really care. If he were cut from the film completely it wouldn't change the story any. I suppose his whole purpose was for the "The Good, The Bad and the Ugly" theme. 
There's a couple other characters that didn't have much to do with the film's story either, their inclusion simultaneously asking and answering their own questions, and cutting them wouldn't hurt the story a bit. However the movie is good enough despite the bits so I don't hold it against the film.

The film completely surprised me. It had a decent enough plot for a revenge flick, tempered fight scenes and violence only when necessary to the story, and car chase scenes that were reserved and a lot more believable than standard hollywood car-chase-scene fare. I really enjoyed that the production didn't go 'over the top' the way they easily could have done. Instead they told a good story and let that story be what is interesting about the film instead of relying on dazzling the audience with CGI and stuntwork.

The film was cast and acted well. The Rock has been in some cheesy films, some action films, some corny films. I don't think I've ever seen him in such a serious role. Dude got his acting on. And not in a scenery-chewing fashion.

Very entertaining and very surprising it was so low-key. Definitely worth watching on Friday night popcorn night.

-----

Edit: 8 months later and I barely remember this film, even after re-reading this post. The film didn't leave much of a lasting impression and I'm not much inclined to rewatch the film. I guess I kinda liked it in the end, but it does sound problematic.