Archive for the '2.5' Category

Oldboy

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

**½

It sucked!It'll be on cable.I liked it.It was good!It was awesome!! (1 People gave this 2.00 out of 5)
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Old Hat

Oldboy

The H-Bomb: Yuppie, alcoholic douche bag Joe Doucette (Josh Brolin) gets royally hammered after blowing a big business deal on the night of his daughter’s third birthday. He awakens from his drunken stupor to find himself inside a strange hotel room. After discovering that there is no phone, no window, and the only door is locked up tight, Joe realizes that he’s being held prisoner in this room. Day in and day out, Joe remains locked in the room, with only the television and a creepy portrait of a grinning bellhop to keep him company. His meals, usually dumplings from a Chinese restaurant and a bottle of liquor, are shoved through the slot in the door three times a day, but his attempts to speak with whoever is delivering the food are fruitless.

He finds out, via the television, that his ex-wife has been murdered, and that he has been framed for the crime. It’s then that he figures out, as if it wasn’t obvious before, that there’s some kind of plot against him. But who would do this to him, and why? After writing down a list of all the people he may have pissed off in the past, he realizes that there are countless possibilities. He’s wronged more than a few people in his life, and any one of them could be the one behind all this.

Sadly, Joe can’t do any more to narrow down the list of suspects from inside the room, and he’s not going anywhere for a long, long time. 20 years to be exact. For 20 goddamn years Joe is locked in that room. In that time, he manages to give up drinking and get himself into fighting shape, in case the day that he’s able to take revenge ever comes. Then, after all that time, he’s finally set free. But, whoever held him prisoner is hardly done with him, as he soon receives a call from his former captor, some bloke with a British accent, telling him that he has kidnapped his now adult daughter, and if he ever wants to see her again, he has only a few days to come and find them.

It’s not as if Joe needed the extra motivation, but nevertheless, the clock is ticking, and he’ll need to go digging deeply into his own past to try and figure out who the hell his sadistic tormentor is, and what he might have done to this person to make them go to such extreme lengths to exact their revenge.

I can’t really go on a tirade against Hollywood remakes of foreign films, as there have been some that I’ve genuinely enjoyed. Sure, there’s been shit like The Vanishing, or Swept Away, or any Asian horror remake that isn’t The Ring, but there have been some honest to God good ones, like The Departed and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Spike Lee’s “re-imagining” of Oldboy, based on Park Chan-Wook’s brutally awesome South Korean thriller of the same name, falls somewhere in the middle. It’s not good, nor is it bad, it just… is.

In a way, this is a tremendous letdown, as any movie with a premise as brilliantly bizarre as Oldboy’s, shouldn’t be merely okay. It either should be really fucking good, or really fucking bad. But to be so utterly forgettable, and to leave me the viewer feeling so completely indifferent to it, is much worse. Even if it had been terrible, I at least wouldn’t be shrugging it off without so much as a second thought. But as it stands, the only reason I’m paying it any thought at all, is so that I may review it for you, dear readers.

The pedigree of this Oldboy remake certainly isn’t the kind one would associate with mediocrity. I’m not exactly a fan of Spike Lee, however, I often do find his films provocative, if nothing else. Not so much the case with this one. Curiously branded “A Spike Lee Film” instead of the usual “A Spike Lee Joint,” this is a telling sign that Lee simply had no passion for this project. The vibrancy typically found in one of his “joints” is almost entirely absent, and despite some slick cinematography and a handful of interesting shots, there is next to no energy in the picture. Nothing in the story, not the ticking clock element, or even the stomach churning final twist, has any sense of urgency, and Lee’s rather limp recreation of the famous hallway hammer fight is but a shadow of the one from the original film.

It really is apparent that Lee’s heart just wasn’t in this at all, that it was merely a payday for him, and nothing more. Which is a crying shame, because it seemed to me like his leading man, Brolin, actually gave a shit. At first coming off as a hilariously buffoonish drunk, then transforming into a half-crazed, vengeance minded badass, he is tough, tense, and simply terrific here. His tussle with some punk ass football players has that oomph that the rest of the movie’s violence lacks, and the wince inducing scene where he takes a box cutter to Samuel L. Jackson’s throat would be a classic, if only it were in a better, and even halfway memorable, film. Brolin is definitely a forceful presence on screen, and he could’ve carried this movie, it’s just that Mark Protosevich’s screenplay never gave us a reason to care about his slime ball character.

Oh, but did I mention that Samuel L. Jackson is in this? Well, he is, but it’s of little consequence, because despite sporting a goofy ass mohawk, his role as a heavy is ultimately ineffectual… and I didn’t think it was possible for SLJ to be ineffectual, but the movie found a way. Another disappointing turn comes from Sharlto Copley, who was so tremendously nasty as the bad guy in Elysium, but as the underwritten villain of this flick, he doesn’t even rise to the level of mildly creepy. Elizabeth Olsen, as a sympathetic nurse, has a few nice moments with Brolin, and a rather showy sex scene, but ultimately, she doesn’t register much, either. Damn, that’s three excellent actors that Lee managed to completely waste… how does he do it?

In a way, this whole movie is a complete waste. A waste of time, money, and effort, for both the filmmakers and the audience. Again, not because it’s a bad movie, but because it’s such a painfully average one. It really does boggle the mind how Spike Lee was able to take something as gruesomely audacious as the original Oldboy, drain away all the potency, and leave us with a film this shockingly bland. He has remained largely faithful to the original’s story, and he didn’t neuter it in order to make it PG-13 friendly, but it completely lacks the outlandish punch that made its Korean counterpart so memorable. As far as remakes go, it’s perfectly watchable, thanks mainly to Josh Brolin doing his damnedest, but given the source material, this could’ve, and should’ve, been so much more.

~@TheHManTweeteth

 

Sabotage

Saturday, March 29th, 2014

**½

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“Who dropped ass?”

Sabotage

The H-Bomb:  Arnold Schwarzenegger is Breacher, the cigar chomping, Austrian accented leader of an elite, paramilitary squad of DEA agents, the members of which boast such charming monikers as Pyro, Monster, and Tripod.  After a successful raid on a cartel safe house, Breacher and his team stash away ten million dollars in drug money that they intend to keep for themselves.  Trouble is, when they come back to retrieve the cash, it’s gone.

The DEA, wanting to know what happened to that money, vigorously investigates the squad for six months to no avail, because the team is just so tight (like a family, we’re told), that they would never, ever rat each other out.  So, the investigation is dropped, and the team is placed back on active duty.  But, before Breacher and his boys (and one girl) can go kicking down doors again, they face a much bigger problem:  Members of the squad are being picked off one by one, in ways that are very gory, gruesome, and grotesque.

Female homicide detective Caroline (Olivia Williams) is assigned to the case, and at first she and Breacher both think that it’s the cartel looking for their money.  However, as they continue to dig, and members of Breacher’s squad continue to drop like flies, they find that it might not be the cartel looking for their loot, after all, that the real killers might be a little closer to home.  In the interest of not dropping spoilers, I shall end the synopsis there.

In recent years, director David Ayer has proven himself to be a filmmaker worth paying attention to.  He wrote the screenplay for Training Day, which in my humble estimation is a modern classic, and of the films he’s directed, I consider Street Kings sadly under-rated and End of Watch one of the best films of 2012.  The typical David Ayer police protagonist exists in that murky, morally grey area, where one is neither entirely good or entirely bad, and in that regard, the cops who populate Sabotage are no different.

Here, as in Ayer’s past films, the characters face situations in which there are no good, or right, decisions available to them, and everyone is susceptible to corruption.  The grittiness, and the graphic, no-holds-barred violence of his prior movies are very much on hand, as there’s a character in one scene who is literally turned inside out.  On the surface, Sabotage seems to get everything right, yet somehow, it ultimately turns out to be a strangely unsatisfying film.

It’s not bad, per se, as there is plenty of bloody, hard hitting action and strong performances from the talented ensemble (yes, even from Schwarzenegger), but the movie itself just isn’t particularly entertaining.  I was never bored at any point, nor was I particularly interested.  The problem is that the characters, all of them, were so utterly off putting, that once they’re being brutally dispatched, I just never really cared.

In Training Day, we had Ethan Hawke as the one cop who was able to keep his head above the shit, so we the audience could latch onto him and identify with him.  Sabotage never gives us such a character.  Every single cop from Arnold’s team, including Arnold, is a thuggish slime ball, and I couldn’t invest in them, or give the slightest shit what happened to them.  I assume we were supposed to identify with Williams’ no nonsense detective, who is the audience surrogate, but she herself isn’t particularly interesting, or sympathetic, or anyone I would willingly spend time with.

The lack of a true “hero” in Sabotage ties into the film’s other main problem, its identity crisis.  It strives to be a gritty cop drama, as well as an Arnold Schwarzenegger action fest, and it comes off as an uneasy blend of the two.  It aims to be both credible and incredible, realistic and larger-than-life, and it simply doesn’t work.  It has all of the bangs and booms of an Arnie flick, but none of the fun.  Adding even more to the movie’s laundry list of issues, are Ayer’s attempts to experiment with cross-cutting, in-scene flashbacks, which were just downright discombobulating.

All things considered, Sabotage is quite the disappointment.  It’s not a terrible film, as some critics have asserted, as the violent gunplay is effective (fans of blood spatter will get their money’s worth), and the chase sequence towards the end is one wickedly destructive spectacle.  Also, as mentioned earlier, Arnold is good in this movie.  Unlike in The Last Stand, where he lumbered about like an aging, arthritic Frankenstein, here he looked very credible running and gunning, and he actually came off as a little scary at times.  He’s not going to bag an Oscar the way Denzel Washington did for Training Day, but his performance is commendably solid.

Unfortunately, Schwarzenegger’s stellar turn is not enough to recommend Sabotage, at least not enough to recommend going to see it in theaters.  This rather grim and surprisingly unpleasant shoot ’em up might make a decent rental for a rainy weekend, but for right now, I’d strongly suggest checking out End of Watch on Netflix, instead.

 

That Awkward Moment

Friday, January 31st, 2014

**½

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“So…….?”

That Awkward Moment

Swift shot: In every relationship these days there is that awkward so, so what are we doing here? So, are we going anywhere with this? So, what do I tell my friends? . . . And so on. That Awkward Moment is really just that, a series of awkward moments strewn loosely together to form a patchwork of a romantic comedy. There isn’t anything spectacular about it.

Zac Efron pulls out a full frontal assault as he plays Jason, the most self-absorbed character of 2014. His friend Daniel (Miles Teller) is only one degree less selfish. And Mikey (Michael B. Jordan) is a struggling true romantic who is facing a serious challenge with his marriage to Vera (Jessica Lucas).

Daniel and Jason actually have a cool job, designing book covers, which is perfect as a metaphor for how Jason treats women – only doing the surface work. But when he first meets the sophisticated Ellie (Imogen Poots) he may finally have met his match.

As Ellie and Jason traverse the romantic meanderings of Gramercy Park, and their friends’ stories meld with the film, directed by Tom Gormican, the audience really only sat waiting (less than patiently) for the next vulgar joke or site gag.

If vulgar jokes and less than stimulating romance comedies are your thing, this won’t disappoint. But, I really didn’t care how the characters’ stories ended. And I wasn’t surprised or genuinely moved once.  I do get a kick out of saying Poots, though.

 

 

Delivery Man

Tuesday, November 26th, 2013

**½

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Only half delivers.

Delivery Man

The H-Bomb: David Wozniak (Vince Vaughn) is an aimless slacker who is up to his neck in debt and can barely hold down a job as a delivery driver for his family’s meat shop. He owes one hundred grand to some shady mobster types, and he’s just learned that his sort-of girlfriend, Emma (Cobie Smulders), is pregnant with his child. Then, as if his life wasn’t already complicated enough, David’s misspent past comes back to haunt him in the worst (and most outlandish) way imaginable. It seems that roughly twenty years ago, David, under the alias “Starbuck,” made hundreds of donations to a private sperm bank for cash, and he now finds out that he is the biological father of over five hundred test tube babies.

Of those five hundred children, all of whom are grown, some one hundred of them have gotten together to file a class action lawsuit against the sperm bank in order to learn the identity of their biological father. David, as a man who has shirked responsibility his entire life, is understandably disconcerted by all of this. He receives an envelope with the names of his bastard children inside, and against the advice of his best friends and lawyer, Brett (Chris Pratt), David starts seeking them out.

As he observes his kids from a distance, he soon realizes that his offspring come from just about every walk of life. One’s a professional basketball player, another is an actor, another is gay, another is a drug addict, so on and so forth. At a certain point, he starts approaching some of them, and even starts helping them out in various ways… without ever revealing who is really is, mind you. The more he interacts with his many, many children, the more he realizes that he actually kind of digs being a dad, and wants to get involved in their lives, even though he can’t quite bring himself to tell them that he is the Starbuck that they are all looking for. From here, David learns some valuable life lessons about family, relationships, responsibility, yada, yada, and becomes a better person for it.

Delivery Man, written and directed by Ken Scott, who is remaking his own 2011 film, Starbuck, is the kind of bland but watchable dramedy that you go to see only when you have absolutely nothing better to do with your time and you’ve already seen everything else that’s playing. There are some scattered laughs throughout, but nothing that will have you rolling in the aisles, and while the story and characters are strong enough to keep you engaged, you won’t find yourself terribly moved when all is said and done, despite the schmaltzy ending.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Delivery Man is that it gives Vaughn a rare chance to show a more sincere side of himself. He was a dramatic actor once upon a time, but he found his niche in comedies about ten years ago, and that’s pretty much what he’s been doing ever since. So, it is something of a nice change up to see him playing a somewhat serious role. Bear in mind, he is playing an aging slacker, so there still is some goofiness there, but he is, more or less, playing the straight man here, which required acting instead of his typical mugging, and he handled it quite well.

So, with Vaughn going semi-serious on us, the bulk of the comedic heavy lifting is carried by Pratt, as David’s rather tactless attorney. He’s always saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, and gives the movie its laugh out loud funny moments, which sadly, are too few and far between. That is my main issue with Deliver Man, for a movie with a premise as outrageous as this, it just isn’t all that funny. Hell, the film’s funniest joke is the premise, and I knew that one going in. I understand this was meant to lean more on the dramatic side, but still, I think I should’ve laughed, or at least smiled, more than I did.

Aside from it being just not all that funny, there are other points about the movie that just bugged me. Like isn’t it convenient how David will meet one of his children just at the right moment to give them life altering assistance, such as saving one of his daughters from a drug overdose, or helping one of his sons land an important audition. It’s convenient coincidences like those that took me out of the movie and made me believe in it just a little less.

There’s also the incredibly half-assed mobster subplot that’s maybe mentioned in two or three scenes, and completely ignored the rest of the time. It either should have had more impact on the story, or it should have been removed completely. Then there’s the issue of David’s sort-of girlfriend, who thinks he’s an immature loser and is always coming down on him for that reason. The more I thought about it, the more I had a hard time believing, especially when we find out what she does for a living, that she would have ever gotten involved with someone like David in the first place.

I suppose that while I’m complaining, I could mention how the film, in addition to everything else, is overlong, to boot. The final act felt especially drawn out, and should have ended about ten or fifteen minutes before it did. All my bitching aside, however, Delivery Man is not at all a bad movie, it’s just not the kind of movie you need to run out and see. It’s certainly not one you need to catch at the multiplex on opening weekend (good lord is The Hunger Games going to trounce this). It’s the kind of fluffy little flick you rent on a slow weekend, and then forget all about in a few days’ time.

The Counselor

Thursday, October 24th, 2013

**½

It sucked!It'll be on cable.I liked it.It was good!It was awesome!! (2 People gave this 3.50 out of 5)
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“Counselor, you may think there are things that these people would simply be incapable of.  There are not.” – Westray

The Counselor

Swift shot:  Go see Savages instead.  The Counselor was so drawn out with an inevitable conclusion – for those paying attention.  The dialog was interesting, and thought-provoking, but it was misplaced in this film.  Designed to create a slow burn, it really just started to annoy me.  Perhaps if I had time to re-watch this film, or read the book, I might care.  Simply put, you can’t escape your fate, and the world is a dark place with unforgiving people.  While it seemed to work for Cormac McCarthy in No Country For Old Men – which I loved – it just comes across as over-bearing and boring.  To para-quote one of the film’s characters, “You can do anything to women, just don’t bore them.”  The same can be said of most movie critics.  I was bored, and I really didn’t want to be.  Ridley Scott has directed some of my favorite films, and he just didn’t deliver with The Counselor.  This was more like Body of Lies and Robin Hood than Alien or Gladiator.

Too many moving pieces (and characters) distract the audience from the message, as you try to piece everything together, you are left with a lot of questions that, quite frankly, you don’t even need answered.  You should feel slightly perturbed after this film.  I certainly was.

The Counselor (Michael Fassbender) is a man in love, which means he’s about to do something colossally stupid.  He does.  But, unlike what the previews would have you believe, he doesn’t make one stupid mistake.  He makes several mistakes, primarily surrounding himself with the creatures that will devour his soul.  He is a business associate with a known Mexican cartel member, Reiner (Javier Bardem) and he has decided to venture into the trafficking business himself.  His fate was already sealed before the film even starts, and there is a brilliant metaphor that is mentioned for how the snare is already set . . . so to speak.

The love of his life, Laura (Penelope Cruz) is juxtaposed with the woman in Reiner’s life, Malkina (Cameron Diaz).  Both women play important roles in shaping the fate of their men.  Malkina is sultry, sexy, and demonic, whereas Laura is naive, warm, and a practicing Catholic.  Yet, even she is surrounding herself with people that should have her flee from The Counselor.  But, she too is in love.

The middle-man for the trafficking deal is Westray (Brad Pitt) who does everything short of tell The Counselor to piss up a rope and get out of the deal.  A final warning, if you will, that there is still a point in time where The Counselor can remove himself from the snare.

Now, this is not a spoiler, because we don’t do those at iratefilms without a huge warning.  But, there were rumors that Ridley Scott wanted to gag all press from revealing some big plot twist – folks, there isn’t one if you have half a brain.  There are some different methods deployed in sealing the fate of the characters, and the tension is real, because at the end you aren’t completely sure how everything will play out.

This film will definitely be much talked about, for something that happens in the “third act” – but it wasn’t a spoiler so much as it was a shock to the system.  You’ll see what I mean, because if you are a devout disciple of either McCarthy, Pitt, Bardem, Fassbender, or Scott, this is one of those films that is just too enticing to skip on.  But, don’t say I didn’t warn you that it is pretty boring in most parts.  Kinda like a Paranormal Activity pace where when the evil gets to really come out, it is somehow more poignant.  Savages balanced that brilliantly!  The Counselor, not even close!

 

 

Carrie

Saturday, October 19th, 2013

**½

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You can only push someone so far…

Carrie

The H-Bomb: Teenage outcast Carrie White (Chloe Grace Moretz) is showering after gym class one day when she starts to bleed. Not realizing what’s actually happening, Carrie has an epic freak out in the locker room, which is helped in no way by her fellow female schoolmates, led by evil alpha-bitch, Chris (Portia Doubleday), who pelt her with tampons. We soon learn that the reason Carrie has no idea what a period is, at the age of eighteen, is because she’s been sheltered her whole life by her super-Christian mother (Julianne Moore), a fanatical moon bat who believes that sex and women are, of course, pure evil.

As if she wasn’t already, this tampon incident has turned Carrie into the laughing stock of the entire school. But one person who isn’t at all amused by this hilarious act of cruelty is the gym teacher, Ms. Desjardin (Judy Greer), who punishes the ring leader of the tampon attack, Chris, by barring her from attending the upcoming prom. Meanwhile, another one of the girls who took part in the pelting, Sue (Gabriella Wilde), actually feels remorse for what she did, and tries to make up for it by getting her hunky boyfriend, Tommy (Ansel Elgort), to ask Carrie to the prom.

At first, Carrie is reluctant, fearing it’s just another prank, but even if it isn’t, she knows that the news of getting a date will not go over well with her mother. After some persistence on Tommy’s part, Carrie finally caves in and agrees to go, her Jesus freak mama be damned. However, getting past her mother is not going be Carrie’s only obstacle of the evening, as Chris is still plenty pissed about not being allowed to the prom, and she’s planning a nasty little surprise for Carrie at the dance.

What Chris doesn’t know, though, is that Carrie possesses a very special gift… a gift that can make her into a very dangerous person if she gets angry enough… I think we all know where it goes from here.

Before I get into why this, the second remake of Carrie (it was first remade as a TV movie in 2002) ultimately doesn’t work, let me go over the positives. First, and this is the primary reason to see the film, is Moretz’s portrayal of the title character. As a girl, who through no fault of her own, is an outsider and is socially ill-equipped to enter the world, she is absolutely marvelous. She takes Stephen King’s complex, tormented character, and makes her into someone that the audience truly feels pity towards and is terrified of at the same time. Moretz is considered one of the very best actresses in her age bracket, and her work here is most definitely a testament to that.

Then there’s the supporting cast, which is solid all around, but special shout outs have to go to Moore, who is genuinely scary as Carrie’s psychotic, suffocating mother, and Greer, as the sympathetic teacher who sincerely feels for Carrie and tries to help her. The performances notwithstanding, the film is also exceptionally well crafted by Oscar bait director Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry, Stop-Loss), who, in particular, made the climatic telekinetic massacre spectacularly horrific… if not a wee bit over-the-top.

By any typical standard, this new version of Carrie is a perfectly decent film. So, why then, would I say it doesn’t work? Well, because we’ve seen this movie before… literally. This is not a new adaptation of the Stephen King novel, no sir, this is a beat for beat carbon copy of the 1976 Brian De Palma film. So much so, in fact, that the original film’s screenwriter, Lawrence D. Cohen, is actually given a writing credit on this one, simply because the remake follows his outline that precisely.

The problem with this is that instead of watching the film to see what happens next, I’m merely waiting for the things that I already know are going to happen… to happen. I made a list in my mind ahead of time, then checked off each story beat and plot point as they occurred on screen, in the exact order I predicted. Carrie has her period, check. Carrie gets pelted with tampons, check. Tommy asks Carrie to the prom, check. Chris and her douchebag boyfriend go kill a pig for reasons that will later be apparent, check… you get the picture. Having seen the 1976 film, I went into this knowing everything that was going to happen, when it was going to happen, and so will anyone else who’s seen the earlier film. Take it from me, it makes for one dull movie going experience.

Now, by this point, I know better than to ask why Hollywood remakes movies, especially horror movies, because it’s pretty damn obvious ($$$). But in a case like this, where a remake follows an original this closely, it just seems especially gratuitous. Yes, there are some modern tweaks to the story, such as someone recording the tampon attack on a cell phone and putting it online, which one could argue makes the story relevant in how it relates to bullying and the tragic consequences it can have in today’s world, but minus the Internet angle, that point was already very much driven home in the original film. King was ahead of his time on that one.

In a way, I really do feel awful telling people to skip Carrie, because Moretz gives a harrowing performance and completely makes the role her own, and on its own merits, it’s not at all a bad movie. But as far as remakes go, this one ranks up there with Psycho as being one of the most utterly pointless. I don’t know how else I can say it, so I’ll simply reiterate, if you’ve seen the De Palma film, then you’ve seen this one. Plain and bloody simple.

On the Road

Sunday, September 8th, 2013

**½

It sucked!It'll be on cable.I liked it.It was good!It was awesome!! (1 People gave this 3.00 out of 5)
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And what a flat road it is.

On The Road

The H-Bomb: Jack Kerouac’s 1957 novel On the Road is a seminal literary work of the Beat generation, a post-WW II movement defined by youthful rebellion, artistic expression, sexual liberation, and drug use… lots and lots of drug use. A sort-of prelude to the hippie era, if you will, with jazz in the place of rock n’ roll. The semi-autobiographical book chronicles the adventures of Kerouac surrogate Sal Paradise (played in the film by Sam Riley) on his various journeys across and around the U.S., from New York, to Denver, to San Francisco, to New Orleans, down into Mexico, and wherever else the open road takes him. He travels on the fast and cheap by car, bus, and if all else fails, hitchhiking.

Sal’s companion for many of these journeys is one Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), a slick, easy going dude with an affinity for weed, liquor, and sex (with girls and guys). He’s a life of the party type who can charm the pants off of almost everyone he meets (an ability he exploits to no end), and who possesses a rather cavalier attitude towards life. This is made perfectly clear when we find out that Dean has left his wife, Camille (Kirsten Dunst) and their baby in San Francisco so he can go gallivanting around the U.S.A. with his girlfriend, Marylou (Kristen Stewart).

Sal and Dean come across a vast assortment of individuals throughout their travels, including a couple of close encounters with humorless traffic cops, as well as an extended visit with their heroin addicted, gun-toting mentor, William S. Burroughs stand-in Bull Lee (Viggo Mortensen). The two form a special kind of bond on the road, even though Sal is fully aware that Dean is, for the most part, bad news. But hey, if nothing else, Dean will provide a vast amount of material for that book Sal is thinking of writing, provided he ever makes it back to New York in one piece.

The film adaptation of On the Road is perhaps second only to John Carter (of Mars) in terms of how long it has loitered in development hell. Francis Ford Coppola has been attached to the project for at least a couple of decades, and remained on board as executive producer. The directing reigns were finally handed to Walter Salles, who after making the exceptional Motorcycle Diaries, seemed like the ideal man for the job. While I’m no aficionado on Beat literature, I did read the novel On the Road some years back, and while it’s been too long for me to do a step by step comparison, from what I do remember, the film does stick pretty close to the source material. Unfortunately, while Salles’ film is mostly faithful to the novel, something most definitely was lost in the translation.

Or, perhaps not. Because, while I quite liked the book, when I heard there was a film in the works, I remember having my doubts as to whether it would make a good film. Now that I’ve seen that film, I feel I can say that my doubts were indeed well-founded. There was a romanticism, a sense of discovery and adventure in Kerouac’s book, as well as a clear understanding of who Sal was and where he was coming from. None of that carries over into the film. Here, the characters basically bounce around from place to place, drinking, smoking, fucking, dancing to jazz music, and drunkenly sharing their poetic musings with each other. Intersperse that with the odd scene of them driving down some picturesque back road, and you have the movie. It gets repetitive as hell, with no discernible point to any of it.

Another aspect that hurts the film is the behavior of our two protagonists. While some hipsters may find how they act to be admirably free spirited and romantic, I do not. I find their behavior, particularly Dean’s, to be boorish, selfish, and downright hedonistic. While they claim that they’re rejecting the conventional values and materialism of old in pursuit of finding some “deeper meaning,” I say they’re full of it, that they only use that philosophy as an excuse to avoid any kind of societal responsibility, so they can just go off and do whatever the hell they want whenever they want.

Also, if this Dean is so damn charming and likable in the eyes of all the other people in the film, why is it the actor who plays him, Hedlund, is so completely devoid of any kind of charisma whatsoever? This may be more the fault of Jose Rivera’s screenplay, but the Dean I’m seeing is a shallow, manipulative asshole who is absolutely dull, to boot. As for Riley, who plays our narrator/tour guide to this boozy, hazy world, I found him rather bland and boring to watch, as well. Considering these are the two mainstays for this episodic, humdrum journey, some effort could have been made to make them a bit more engaging.

Oddly enough, it’s Bella Swan herself, Stewart, who breathes life into this picture with a sincere and spirited performance. The downside to that is, her doting girlfriend character is woefully underwritten, as we never understand why she’s so head-over-heels for that douche bag, Dean. Oh, and you may have heard, this is the film where Stewart frequently appears topless… take it from me, folks, you’re not missing a thing. Dunst, as Dean’s scorned wife, is also quite good, but like Stewart, she’s underused. Amy Adams’ appearance (as Bull Lee’s ill-fated wife) is so fleeting that she barely registers, and Mortensen, doing a pitch perfect Burroughs impersonation, is solid as Old Bull Lee, but like all the other good ones, the movie needed more of him.

While I’m on the subject of things that actually worked in the film, I should note that the cinematography by Eric Gautier is quite splendid, and worth seeing in high definition, and that the period detail, from what I could tell, was spot on. So, kudos to the production designer and the camera guy, they did their jobs well. Everyone else kind of fell short. It’s not that I think On the Road is a bad film, it just leaves a lot to be desired… like a compelling dramatic arc, or even a point. As far as self-discovery road movies go, I’d say that Sean Penn’s Into the Wild, as well as Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries, are both far superior films, and more worthy of your time. When On the Road finally got to the overdue end credits, I was left with one thought… not every book is meant to be a film. Some stories only work on the page.

To the Wonder

Wednesday, August 28th, 2013

**½

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For the most loyal of Malick fans only…and even they may not like it.

To The Wonder

The H-Bomb: If pretty pictures alone made for a great film, then To the Wonder would be far and away the best movie of the year. As is the case with pretty much all of writer/director Terrence Malick’s pictures, the cinematography is breathtakingly spectacular, and makes it worth seeing on the largest screen possible…for maybe ten or fifteen minutes. A film can have the most beautiful imagery from beginning to end, but if an engaging story and interesting characters fail to emerge, then the film will ultimately falter. As an admirer of Malick’s work, it pains me to say that’s exactly what happens here.

To the Wonder essentially plays like an artsy-fartsy version of Blue Valentine, which is odd, since I thought that Blue Valentine was the artsy-fartsy version of Blue Valentine. The story, such as it is, is about an American, Neil (Ben Affleck), who starts a whirlwind romance with Marina (Olga Kurylenko) while in Paris. They then move back to Neil’s hometown in rural Oklahoma, and from there the film covers the ups and downs of their relationship…in the most abstract way imaginable.

Very little dialogue is exchanged between our two leads, as Affleck has about ten lines in the entire film, and Kurylenko’s voice over, which is spoken in French, is the typical kind of poetic musings we’ve come to expect from Malick these days. Most of their romance is conveyed through them embracing and frolicking through various scenic backdrops, such as the streets of Paris and the fields of Oklahoma…if there’s one thing Malick does manage to get across with resounding clarity, it is that your typical American suburb is pretty drab and nondescript when compared to any Parisian block.

It’s a romance that blossoms, then sours, then rekindles, then sours again. All of this is interspersed with gorgeous, twirling shots of nature, lengthy takes of our leads staring off into nothing like they’re deep in thought, and classical music that comprises the bulk of the soundtrack. That’s really about all there is to this film, when all is said and done. With Malick’s earlier films, particularly The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life, I felt that there was a deeper philosophical point being made beyond the dreamy tone and the ponderous, at times silly, voice overs. In To the Wonder, the dreamlike tone is expertly recaptured, but this time I sensed that there really wasn’t a whole lot of anything going on underneath the surface, and that left me underwhelmed and disappointed.

As for the acting, the performances have always been more or less beside the point in a Malick film, but here, I feel as though the cast was totally shortchanged. I sensed that Affleck and Kurylenko could have had fine chemistry together, but their characters are never allowed to develop in a way that I could invest in them. This is the complete opposite reaction I had to the love affair between John Smith and Pocahontas in Malick’s The New World, where the characters shared very little dialogue with each other, but at least I was made to care for them as individuals and their relationship. Malick completely fell short in accomplishing that this time around.

It’s not enough that the central romance fails to register, there’s also a half-baked subplot involving Rachel McAdams, who shows up for about ten minutes as a past love of Neil’s, with whom he has a brief fling. This is something that could’ve been excised from the film entirely, and no one ever would have missed it. Another story thread, one that just left me scratching my head, involves a Spanish priest, played by Javier Bardem, who is undergoing a crisis of faith. The film leaves Affleck and Kurylenko at several points to focus on this priest’s story, but aside from a few fleeting moments he shares with Kurylenko, I’m not entirely sure how this character was relevant to anything else in the movie.  Perhaps the idea is that the priest and Marina are two strangers struggling to find their place in a strange land, but that was the only real connection I could make.

And that sums up my main issue with To the Wonder, I just could not connect with it in the way I could with Malick’s previous works. I’m usually the first one to defend this filmmaker against those who would simply dismiss him as a pretentious jerk-off [like our editor, Rick Swift], but this time, I’m afraid to say I’m more on the side of the naysayers. It felt less like Malick had a clear sense of what he wanted to do or say with this film, and more like he had just shot a bunch of random footage and decided to figure it all out in the editing room. That, for me, was truly a let down.

Now, I should stress that I didn’t entirely dislike the film, as it is visually every bit as splendid as his others, and I was with it up to a point. It was when I realized there was less to it than meets the eye, that I lost interest. Perhaps I missed something. Perhaps others, like the late Roger Ebert (whose last review was written for this film), will get more out of it than I did. Terence Malick is nothing if not polarizing, after all, and some may find some substance within To the Wonder that’s worth pondering…I personally did not. As far as I’m concerned, this is his first miss.

The Last Stand

Monday, June 17th, 2013

**½

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“I’M DUH SHEER-UFF!!!”

The Last Stand

The H-Bomb: Notorious South American drug kingpin Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) is in the process of being transferred to Federal Death Row, when he makes a daring, and somewhat improbable, escape. Now, behind the wheel of a souped-up Corvette, with a captive in the form of a lovely, young female FBI agent (Genesis Rodriguez), Cortez is barreling through the desert night towards the Mexican border, with a private army hired to hold off the pursuing Feds (led by Forest Whitaker, playing a useless dunderhead who truly puts the “special” in Special Agent).

It would look as if Cortez has successfully left the bumbling Federales in the dust, but there’s just one thing he didn’t count on, Sheriff Ray Owens (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a former L.A. cop who now presides as the top law dog of Summerton Junction, the one-horse border town that stands between Cortez and freedom. This big shot dope dealer may think that this one, measly little sheriff doesn’t stand a chance against him and his gang of mercenaries, but little does he realize… he’s fuckin’ with Arnold, bitch!

The Last Stand was touted as being the big comeback vehicle for the legendary action hero, who has spent the better part of the past decade guhvernating California. Well, as it happens, perhaps Arnold should have stayed in politics, because when The Last Stand came out earlier this year, absolutely no one cared, despite a butt-ton of marketing. It landed in multiplexes with a resounding thud, and quietly vacated them about two days after that. Having now gotten a chance to catch up with it on Blu-ray, I can say that while it’s no Terminator, or Terminator 2, if one’s expectations are kept modest, it is fairly enjoyable.

Now, I should stress that for the first hour or so, The Last Stand is nothing to jump up and down about. I wouldn’t call it boring, but much of the front half of this flick is little more than the drug dealer driving and FBI wonder boy Whitaker hopelessly trying to keep up, all while Sheriff Schwarzenegger starts to piece together that something’s not quite right in his sleepy little dust bowl. Aside from the occasional shootout here and there, it’s all pretty uneventful and even gets a tad redundant. Again, I wasn’t bored… but I was getting there.

Then the big showdown happens, and holy shit does the movie come to life. It finally shifts out of neutral and turns into the raucous, bullet-spraying romp that I expected the whole movie to be. Arnold rockin’ a giant-ass magnum, Johnny Knoxville grinding away like a lunatic on an antique Gatling gun, blood and brains spattering the grounds like your best Hong Kong shoot ’em up, fuckin’ A! Now we’re talkin’! Brilliantly staged and executed by director Kim Jee-Woon, this balls out battle in the middle of town square will satisfy even the most insatiable carnage junkie… if only the movie didn’t have to go through a fucking eternity of nothingness to get there.

As great as the central action set piece is, I must say, what really blew me away about the The Last Stand, wasn’t the gunfights, or the chases, or the mano y mano fisticuffs, but Arnold’s performance. I don’t know what it was, but he really reached down, tapped into something raw and primal, and gave an acting tour-DE-force that rivals Brando shouting “Stella!” at the top of his lungs in the pouring rain. It is a searing, powerhouse, revelatory turn from the Governator that will be remembered this Oscar season… and if you really buy that, then I have a bridge and some swampland that I’d like to sell you.

In truth, Arnie’s acting is a little cringe worthy here. Even by his usual (sub)standards, he’s pretty bad, with his attempts at idle chitchat with the townsfolk at the diner being particularly amusing in an accidental way, and of course, his Austrian accent is never explained. He’s never been a Brando, or a De Niro, but that old charisma of his, that got him through the roles where he wasn’t playing a cyborg, is completely AWOL.

More distressing than his missing likability, is how over-the-hill he looks here, with his every movement appearing stiff and strained, like every joint in his body is wracked with debilitating arthritis. I’m really not joking here, folks, watching him lumber and creak around like his legs are about to break apart underneath him is actually a little sad.  Not to mention, it made his climatic fistfight with Cortez seem utterly ridiculous.

As for the rest of the cast, they actually loaded this up with a pretty colorful ensemble; including Peter Stormare as Cortez’s chief goon-for-hire, Harry Dean Stanton as a crotchety old farmer, Luis Guzman and Jaimie Alexander as the deputies who make up Arnold’s police force, and Johnny Knoxville as the gun-crazy village idiot who is deputized when the sheriff finds himself in need of extra manpower. Though Knoxville was billed in the ads as being the primary co-star, in actuality, he’s barely in it, which honestly, I’m fine with, as his whacky, jackass-y antics just seem out of place, anyway.

Forest Whitaker was meant, I’m sure, to bring some Oscar winning heft to the party, but as I said, his Special Agent Dunderfuck is completely worthless, as his only purpose is to provide exposition on everything… literally everything, including background info on Arnold’s sheriff, before vanishing and being entirely M.I.A. for the film’s gigantic, pyrotechnic packed third act. More rewarding work, he has done.

But it goes without saying, we don’t go to a Schwarzenegger flick for the acting, we go for the action, and that is something that The Last Stand does indeed give us… albeit a bit late. Once it gets to the explosive showdown, it gets kind of awesome, it’s just that everything around that explosive showdown is a flat pile of meh. I will say this for it, it’s better than Die Hard 5, but then again, a boil on my butt crack is better than Die Hard 5. It’s far from a great film, with an action star who has certainly faded, but it didn’t deserve to flop as hard as it did. If you’re a fan of old school Arnold, and are in the mood for undemanding entertainment, then you should definitely scope it out.