Tag Archives: Movie Reviews

Haywire (2011) a (mildly) belated review

Director Steven Soderbergh is some kind of speed demon.  Either that or he doesn’t sleep.  On his IMDB page, he’s listed as having 34 Directorial Credits since his 1985 debut in video documentary (Doing the math, that translates to roughly 1.26 releases per year as director).  And that doesn’t include the Production Credits (33), the Cinematography Credits (18), Editor Credits (12), etc. etc.  Some are duplicate credits, yet on a whole, this man has had his hand in an incredible volume of works.

As I look over Mr. Soderbergh’s myriad credits and story genres, it appears his 2011 directed movie Haywire represents the first full foray into action/adventure territory.  He’s worked in and around the genre before, perhaps most notably in the very successful caper/comedy Oceans 11, 12, etc. films, but, as I said before, this may well be the first time he’s fully hit at this particular genre.

When Haywire was originally released, I really wanted to see it, although for reasons that are unique to me.  You see, I released this novel called Mechanic back in 2009 that features a protagonist that, to my mind’s eye, wound up looking exactly like Haywire’s protagonist Mallory Kane, as played by actress and mixed martial arts fighter Gina Carano, someone who up until the film’s release I had no knowledge about.  She is the movie’s main draw and is present in almost every scene.  This is certainly quite a challenge for a first time actress, especially when you are tasked to not only perform your own stunts (which she handled quite well), but also act with such seasoned veterans as Michael Douglas, Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Bill Paxton, and Antonio Banderas.

Looking at the film’s overall reviews on RottenTomatoes.com (you can read it here), the movie wound up scoring a very curious split.  A whopping 80% of critics gave the film a “thumbs up” compared to a far more anemic 41% approval from audiences.  Thus, it appears that Haywire was a critical darling but casual movie goers weren’t quite as impressed.

So what did I think?

To begin, Mr. Soderbergh and Ms. Carano provide a potent mix.  If you come into the film looking for some bone crunching fight scenes, I can’t see how you walk away from the movie disappointed.  But be aware that this film is most certainly an “old school” type action film.  There are no flashy special effects.  There are no epilepsy-inducing Michael Bay-like jump cuts.  There are no super-heroics.  The fights are presented for the most part in long, reasonably realistic takes.  There is exactly one car chase, but it too is presented reasonably naturally, with no cars performing incredible leaps or crashes.

Which may explain why audiences which by now are accustomed to big scale action films along the lines of a Fast Five or The Avengers might not react so positively to a movie on a much smaller scale like Haywire.  Frankly, I appreciate the effort, even though I think the film, in the end, was simply not as successful as I hoped it would be.

However, during its first hour or so, it most certainly was.  I was instantly drawn into the movie’s story and the plight of Ms. Carano’s tough as nails Mallory.  Ms. Carano’s performance, the lynchpin of the movie, was pretty damn good.  She more than held her own against the seasoned actors she was up against and made for a compelling hero.

But after that first hour, the film simply lost steam.  The plot, featuring undercover operative Mallory’s betrayal after a “job”, was pretty standard stuff, even though Mr. Soderbergh gave it as much pizzazz as he could.  The film’s greatest sin was its lack of a compelling climax.  An action film, in my mind, should build as it goes along.  The final act, in particular, should be smashing.  Not only did Haywire not have a “smashing” ending, it committed the even greater sin of concluding on a decidedly abrupt note that left me even more unsatisfied.

Ultimately, Haywire is about 2/3rd of a very, very good old school style action film.  I just wish Mr. Soderbergh and the screenwriters could have fashioned a more fulfilling and satisfying climax and given us a film that ended with a bang rather than a whimper.

The Collector (2009), Chaos (2005), and The Lincoln Lawyer (2011)…a trio of (somewhat belated) reviews

Another post from the past, this one originally appearing on March 16, 2011.  It has been mildly edited for clarity…

Don’t exactly know how, but I managed to claw enough free time to see a trio of few films over the weekend.  Was the time well spent or a complete waste of time?

First up was the 2009 horror film The Collector.  When I first heard of this film, I was intrigued.  It seems there are precious few “new” ideas when it comes to modern horror films featuring your standard Bogeyman-type villain.  Pretty much everything was locked into place regarding this movie-screen killer in John Carpenter’s original Halloween and since then we’ve seen mild variations of this theme.  Sure, some movies have featured better effects, more elaborate “kills” (to the point of being ridiculous) while others have added humor into the otherwise bloody proceedings.  But the general blueprint remains roughly the same:  A group of people (often movie versions of teens) are targeted by the insane killer and are offed one at a time before the killer is apparently taken out by the hero/heroine.  But just before the credits roll, the audience wonders…is the fiend actually dead…or will we see him/her return in a sequel?

I’ve seen this story so many times, over and over again, that despite being a fan of horror films, I’m not really interested in re-visiting this particular sub-genre.  However, when I heard about the plot of The Collector;, I took notice because it presented, finally, a pretty interesting new wrinkle to the familiar bogeyman routine.

Yes, in this movie, our killer is a sadistic and almost supernatural being.  His “work” involves locking people in their homes and making their familiar surroundings a death trap while he goes after them one at a time.  Boring stuff, really.

But then comes that wrinkle: A theif by the name of Arkin (played by the very taciturn Josh Stewart), is a decent enough man who is forced to steal to pay off a debt for his wife/girlfriend before some loan sharks do her harm.  He targets a house in which he believes the residing family are gone for the weekend.  Instead, he quickly finds that not only are they around, but they are currently being victimized by a demented fiend who has made the house an elaborate death trap.  The wrinkle is that the thief’s presence is known neither to the family OR the killer and in short time, the thief/protagonist is forced to play a game of cat and mouse with the killer while trying to save the family from their doom.

As I put the film on, I truly wanted it to succeed.  And for a good while, it does, even if almost from the very beginning the film veers into the truly ridiculous.  You see, the number of traps our “Collector” has arranged in the victim family’s house are simply waaaay too much.  If our killer had a few months to set up all those elaborate traps, it would make sense, but our protagonist is seen casing the house in the morning and breaking into it that same evening.  There is simply no way killer manages to get all that work done in one day (How I wish real life contractors were that efficient!!)

Worse, the family members our protagonist eventually tries to save -at least two of them- die in virtually the same manner, running off screaming and getting the killer’s attention when by that point they should know much better.

But the film’s biggest failing is its downbeat (yet cliched) ending, wherein our bogey man does what all these other bogey men do:  Rise from the grave (so to speak) and “triumph”.  By that point, though, the film’s clever new wrinkle was long past being interesting, and the film lost me completely.

Having said that, I know that a sequel to this film is in the works, called The Collection.  Despite the fact that I feel The Collector was ultimately a let down, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t intrigued with the idea of a sequel.  Hope (or maybe stupidity on my part) springs eternal…

Next up is the 2005 straight to video release of the Jason Statham, Ryan Phillippe, and Wesley Snipes film Chaos.   When I first heard of this film and the fact that it was not released theatrically, I figured at best it was mediocre and at worse pretty terrible.  Particularly considering the three leads it had.  In the end, Chaos falls more into the “best case” scenario for a direct to video release, maintaining a good level of interest until it fizzled out at the end.

Mr. Statham is Quentin Connors a suspended cop.  After a bank robbery in the city goes bad and the people in the bank demand to speak to Connors, he is brought back in for the job.  From there, a cat and mouse game between Connors, his new partner (and newbie) Shane Dekker (Ryan Phillippe) ensues.  The bulk of the film is an attempt by Connors and Dekker to discover what exactly the thieves were after, and how their actions and interests tie in to Connors’ past.

There are some very clever twists and turns in the film, but ultimately, unfortunately, this is a movie that demanded at least one more turn at the very end…a turn that doesn’t come (without giving away too terribly much, I believe one of the characters should have gotten the upper hand in the end…and not the one that did).  Despite that reservation I think this is a film worthy of your time if you have nothing better to do one lazy Saturday afternoon.

The trailer can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=81eXAC96k8w

Finally, we have the 2011 Matthew McConaughey film The Lincoln Lawyer.  Now, I’ve stated before my love of author Michael Connelly’s novels (excluding his biggest misfire, IMHO, 9 Dragons).  While The Lincoln Lawyer was one of his most successful novels in terms of sales, I have to admit that, while it certainly wasn’t as outright terrible 9 Dragons, it nonetheless wasn’t, in my opinion, one of Mr. Connelly’s stronger novels (An aside:  One of my all time favorites books he wrote, Blood Work, was also made into a film and starred Clint Eastwood.  Unfortunately, the film would up being quite mediocre, mostly because of several unwarranted deviations in the film’s climax).

Because the novel was a success, Hollywood came calling and the movie was made.  Would it be on the level of the film version of Blood Work?  Thankfully, no.

Matthew McConaughey plays attorney Mick Haller, a rather slick, unscrupulous defense lawyer who, from all appearances, has been placed on this earth for the sole purpose of making as much personal gain as he can via his profession.  He is provided a “hot tip” on a very wealthy young man who may have assaulted a prostitute and, seeing the possibility of making some big cash, visits the client in jail.  The potential client, Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe, again!), swears his innocence, but Haller doesn’t seem to care.  The temptation of a very big payoff is too great to ignore.

He takes on the case and his investigation of the circumstances of this assault begin.  Very quickly, things turn out to not be quite what they seem.  Usually, a novel trumps a movie, but here I think the movie trumps the book.  Yes, the film follows all the main elements of the book while ditching a couple of aspects (Detective Harry Bosch, Mr. Connelly’s biggest literary creation, for example, is no where to be found in the movie, though he made an extended cameo appearance in the book).  Apart from that, the elements that were trimmed from the book actually, I felt, strengthened the movie.  And while Mr. McConaughey doesn’t seem to fit the description of the book’s version of Haller, who was described as somewhat overweight and not all that attractive, it proves irrelevant.  Mr. McConaughey’s work here is damn good, which proves very helpful considering he is present in virtually every scene in the film.  Thanks to his charisma and solid acting we are eventually able to root for a guy that, at first, we should be repulsed by.

Nonetheless, the film is not without some flaws.  Marisa Tomei is given far too little to do in the film as Haller’s ex-wife (in the book, he has two ex-wives, but the second one isn’t identified as such in the film).  Also, the pressure the police put on Haller when he comes under suspicion for some nefarious doings never becomes as pressing as it could have been.

Having said that, I would still recommend The Lincoln Lawyer to anyone looking for a decent -and twisty- diversion.

Adventureland (2009) a (mildly) belated review

Another post from the past, this one originally appeared on March 16, 2011.  It has been cleaned up a little for clarity.

Has there ever been a movie that you’ve simultaneously loved -and disliked- at the same time?  A film that hits so many good notes, yet stumbles so badly in other ways that in the end, despite so much good, you feel it is difficult to recommend it?

I recall when M. Night Shyamalan released Unbreakable, his follow up to the incredibly successful Sixth Sense, back in 2000.  The film was presented as something of a mystery: David Dunn (Bruce Willis) is a man who questions exactly who/what he is after a devastating train accident leaves him the sole survivor.  In the end, it turns out (SPOILERS!) that he has the powers of a superhero…and must eventually confront his very own super-villain.  While the film was, for the most part, enjoyable, there was a scene in it that just irritated the hell out of me to such an extent that, even today, I can’t help but think of it whenever I think of the film itself.

The sequence in question involved our protagonist and his son in their home’s garage.  Dunn has begun to realize he is different from other people, and he and his son are checking out just how different he really is by seeing how much weight he can bench press.  Dunn, who previously was a star on the high school football team, states that while he lifted weights back then, he never pushed himself to see just how much he could lift.  He does this now, and finds he can seemingly effortlessly lift a considerable, even supernatural amount.  This further provides evidence that he is indeed not a typical human being.

Unfortunately, this scene made absolutely no sense and, worse, revealed the director/writer’s ignorance of High School jocks.

You see, it was my experience while in High School and, afterwards, college, that people who actively engaged in sports -surprise surprise!- tended to be very invested in their physical training.  They kept track of how many situps, pull ups, or miles they ran each day.  And they most certainly knew (and took pride!) in how much they could lift in the weight room.  It was not unusual for me to overhear their conversations, wherein they noted how much they lifted that day, how often, and for how long.  They took pride in striving to incrementally do a little more, and then a little more than that, for it is in this progress they gauge their physical improvement.

For David Dunn, an alleged football star in High School, to profess in that movie scene that he never knew how much he could lift was simply ridiculous.  If he made any effort at all during his football playing years, then he damn well would have kept some track of his physical prowess.  This would be a source of pride, not something that he would shrug off. Further, in exploring just how strong he was while in High School, Dunn would/should have come to the realization that he was a super being much, much earlier in his life.  Just like that, the entire movie’s premise -that he was blissfully unaware of what he was after all these years-simply fell apart for me.

In Adventureland we have a sweet coming of age dramedy that struck a deep cord within me.  No, I never worked at a dodgy amusement park following High School/College to make some money, but the movie took place in a time and featured a cast of characters I could easily identify with.  The movie is set in the mid-1980’s and features a cast of characters who are roughly the same age as I was in that same period of time.  Like the protagonist, I too was finding my way in the world and, over the course of doing so, met and made friends with people very similar to the various characters, both male and female, presented in the movie.  I knew the womanizers, I knew the clueless adults and youths, I knew the potheads, I knew the parties.  And, yes, in my youth I also fell for that out of reach “edgy” girl.  In fact, I made a habit of it.  As someone who often loves reflecting on those sweet  feelings of my youth, the movie proved a pleasant nostalgic kick.

Jesse Eisenberg is James Brennan, our protagonist, a nerdy, intelligent guy who comes from a poor family and is looking to leave his roots and head to New York.  He’s just finished high school and is expecting his parents to help pay for a trip he intends to make with his best friend to Europe.  He’s planned out his post-Europe life:  He will go to New York to complete his studies and from there become the adult he wants to be.

All those youthful plans are dashed when he discovers his parents aren’t doing so well financially and thus cannot pay their share of the trip.  He is forced to abandon Europe and take a job at a somewhat sleazy carnival/park called Adventureland.  It is there he meets Em Lewin (Kristen Stewart, who absolutely nails her role).  When they first meet, she seems instantly interested in James.

Why?

There is no real reason.  She simply is.  As the movie progresses, we find she has a messy home and personal life.  She is involved with the park’s resident handsome lothario, Mike Connell (Ryan Reynolds in a relatively small role).  Mike is married, but he’s an alley cat who carries on with whatever female he can charm into his bed.  In any other film, he might be presented as the movie’s villain but here he is humanized and shown to be yet another person with faults.  Indeed, everyone in the film is presented this way…no one is a pristine heroes of a terrible villain.  The people in and around the park go about their young lives as best they can, stumbling at times, being let down at others, all while working their way through this summer.

As stated before, I found myself really into the story and even more so into the characters presented because I could sympathize with that epoch.  The film really had me, especially regarding the growing love James had for the (somewhat) troubled Em.  As the movie progressed, I was expecting it to go bold and give us an ending that was honest and true to life…in as much as a film can be.

Instead, the filmmakers decided to go into a direction that, unfortunately, wound up souring the experience.

SPOILERS FOLLOW!!!

Setting the film in the past already had me as a viewer on alert.  As with other films set in the past that wax nostalgic, like the equally sweet but overall better American Graffiti or the more bawdy Animal House, I figured we were headed into a bittersweet “where are they now” type ending.

Young love -at least in my experience- is often filled with hormone infused frustration.  Therefore, I was certain the relationship between James and Em was never destined to be.  Indeed, when James loses Em and hears she has moved to New York toward the end of the film, he says of his relationship with her: “I wish it hadn’t ended that way”, and I thought that would be it, and that the movie would then shift to the present, wherein we would find an older, wiser James standing before the now crumbling Adventureland park and remembering that one youthful love he had…and lost.

“Where is she now?” he would wonder in my imaginary ending.  His youthful looks are marred a bit by the passage of the years, his hair is a little gray.  He looks on at this place where the last moments of his childhood played out and walks away.  Despite the sadness of losing Em, there is a smile on his face, for he still has those pleasant memories.

Instead, the filmmakers decided to opt for a more standard “happy ending.”  Unfortunately, their idea of a happy ending is to have our protagonist travel to New York in search of Em.  Like a stalker, he eventually finds her, and, despite the implied passage of time (it is hinted many months have passed since they last saw each other), they instantly, indeed too quickly, rekindle their puppy love and decide that now they can go all the way.

Yes, the movie’s happy ending is that James finally gets to sleep with Em.

As with the problem I had with Unbreakable, Adventureland’s conclusion might not put off other viewers and may be something that bothered me and no one else.

Still, the ending rang hollow and ruined what until then was a beautiful slice of life feeling.  I suppose saying I “hated” the movie is too strong a word.  Yet despite all the good stuff, despite the fact that this film had me waxing nostalgic with memories both good and bad of my youth throughout its run, that ending proved a real turn off.  Too bad.

Wrong is Right (1982) a (very) belated review

Back in the 1960’s and at the height of the Cold War, director Stanley Kubrick decided to make a movie that focused on the horror of a nuclear conflict.  I’ve read that as Mr. Kubrick worked on the script for that then upcoming film, he kept finding humor -black humor, but humor nonetheless- in the very real possibility of an accidental nuclear war, a decidedly odd focus given the horror the common citizen felt at the time regarding the proliferation of those weapons of mass destruction.  The end result, 1964’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb, proved an absolute masterpiece of jet black comedy and is easily one of Mr. Kubrick’s best films.

So, one wonders, might there be another director out there who, upon looking at the events surrounding 9/11 and the second Iraqi war, might not also look at the myriad tragedies involved, from the thousands upon thousands dead, the loss of national treasure, the inept leadership, the media manipulation, and the very questionable motivations for engaging in the conflict in the first place…and decide that this too might be good material in the creation of a black comedy?

Thing is, someone already did, and they did it a whopping 20 years before the events of 9/11 and the subsequent Iraqi War.

I’m talking about 1982’s Wrong Is Right.  As directed by Richard Brooks, the movie features Sean Connery in the role of Patrick Hale, an intrepid, world famous reporter who, in the process of criss-crossing the globe, comes to realize he’s landed himself smack dab in the middle of machinations involving the CIA, an Arabian leader whose land is filled with oil, a weapons dealer, a terrorist intent on getting his hands on two mysterious suitcases, and a U.S. presidential election.

The various parties involved actively try to manipulate the story Hale perceives and tells, and ultimately what may appear “true” becomes a matter of convenience.  To go into too much detail about the story’s plot would be a disservice.

Having said that, this now 30 year old film is incredibly prescient.  With some minor modifications, this could easily be a black comedy “take” on the buildup to the Iraqi War.  The most eerie element of the whole thing is that the movie’s climax takes place on the roof of the World Trade Center.

Yes, the World Trade Center.

As wild a coincidence -or prognostication- as all this is, Wrong is Right is simply not as good a film as one would have hoped.

Sean Connery, usually a very reliable actor, is strangely ineffective in his performance.  Likewise, most of the actors involved in the movie turn in either bland or forgettable performances.  Robert Conrad is given one of the better small roles as General Wombat, the President’s military advisor.  He’s presented as a wild-eyed yet clear speaking lunatic whose chief advice to the President is to push the button and end the nonsense once and for all.  Alas, we don’t see nearly enough of him -or characters like him- throughout the film and, ultimately, Wrong is Right winds up being a black comedy that simply isn’t as funny as one would hope.

Yet, despite its flaws, I can’t entirely dismiss it.

In the end, I would cautiously recommend Wrong is Right to viewers who are intrigued with the idea of seeing a film that manages to be as prescient as this one is.  Just don’t expect the movie to be anywhere near as good as Dr. Strangelove.

The Big Bus (1976) a (very) belated review

Another posting from my previous blog.  This one first appeared on March 16, 2011.  It is presented with some minor revisions for clarity’s sake:

Over time I developed a list of films I read/heard about yet hadn’t seen that I was intent on catching whenever I could.  Thanks to the proliferation of cable/movie channels and DVDs, this list of unseen -by me- films grows smaller ever day.  As of yesterday, that list is minus another film, one I heard about years ago and was curious to see.  A comedy that evoked memories of 1980’s Airplane!, yet was made a full four years before that classic.

Would it delight, or would it disappoint?  See for yourselves…

The Big Bus rolled (ugh) into theaters in 1976.  Like Airplane!, the makers of this film apparently looked over the landscape of then popular “disaster” films and decided to parody them.  In the case of Airplane!, the Zucker Brothers and Jim Abrahams took the very serious 1957 film Zero Hour! and essentially remade it as a parody, with nods toward the other Airport films that were, up to the previous year, pretty popular.

In the case of The Big Bus, the producers were far more ambitious.  They decided to parody almost the entire “disaster” film genre while having the “all star” cast face danger while aboard the most absurd moving vehicle they could think of: A giant, nuclear powered bus.

That’s right, a bus.

Even now I’m giggling at the absurdity of that concept.  Too bad the film, in the end, simply wasn’t all that good.  While Airplane! is a comedy classic and could well be my personal all time favorite comedy film, The Big Bus unfortunately disappoints because it just wasn’t as funny as I was hoping it would be.  Airplane! presented wall to wall jokes, from Three Stooges-type physicality to verbal jokes to outrageous sight gags.  There was simply no let up, and the most amazing thing is that it worked.

Airplane!’s secret ingredient, and one of the keys to its success, was that it took a bunch of “serious” veteran actors and stuck them in decidedly idiotic roles.  Despite the absurdities, the “serious” actors delivered their lines seriously.  Thus, you laugh out loud when Leslie Nielsen responds to the “Surely you can’t be serious?” line, or when Robert Stack and Lloyd Bridges mentally crack up while bringing the wayward airplane in for a landing, or when Peter Graves makes decidedly inappropriate comments to a young passenger.

The Big Bus, on the other hand, presents us with a large and fairly familiar cast that simply isn’t charismatic or zany enough to pull off the idiotic elements presented.  Perhaps the film’s best joke is presented early on, when we find out the man who will be driving the big bus on its maiden trip was involved in a previous bus trip that ended in disaster (and cannibalism!).  For those curious, the sequence is presented below.

I wish the rest of the film could have been that (dare I say it?) biting.

Sadly, the movie lumbers along, not unlike a real bus, with little momentum before reaching its climax.  Incredibly, it is there that the film seems to finally find some spark as the bus balances precariously on a cliff’s edge.  That sequence proved both surprising and visually exciting.

The bottom line: If you’re in the mood for a disaster movie parody, stick with Airplane!

Southern Comfort (1981) a (very) belated review

It’s been a while since last I posted some of my old blog entries.  Here is my (very belated) review of Southern Comfort, originally posted on July 27, 2010.  I have updated and clarified some of my thoughts:

For the most part, I love the films of director Walter Hill.  To the very casual movie-goer, his name probably doesn’t evoke much of a reaction, but his first seven films as a director, starting with his 1975 feature Hard Times and working his way to 1984’s under-appreciated Streets of Fire, this man was…well…on fire.  Those films firmly tread on the concept of myth and his characters, both heroes and villains, were always larger than life.  Today, he may be better known as the producer of the Alien films, and yes, he is listed as a producer on the highly anticipated Prometheus.

Coming out in 1981, Southern Comfort appeared the year before Mr. Hill’s biggest hit as a director, 48 Hours.  I recall, albeit vaguely, it was at best a modest success.  A few of the critics pointed out that the film was very similar, at least thematically, to the 1972 film Deliverance.  In fact, if there was a reason to dismiss Southern Comfort, that was it.  Deliverance, both the novel and the subsequent film, were (and still are) considered classics.  And when you decide to tread in the shadow of classics, you damn well better bring your “A” game.

I don’t know if I saw the film when it was originally released, but if I did, the only lingering memory of it was the climax, and this could well have been a result of a subsequent televised viewing.  Being a fan of Mr. Hill’s and seeing the film being shown on a cable channel (uncut), I set the DVR and, some four or five months later, I’ve finally had a chance to see the film all the way through.  It was the last of those seven original Hill films left for me to see, and I was eager for the opportunity to gauge it against my favorite Walter Hill films (The Driver; The Warriors, and the already mentioned Streets of Fire).

So, how did it stack up?

Not all that badly, as it turned out.

To begin, yes there are strong echoes of Deliverance throughout Southern Comfort.  And, to be very blunt, Deliverance is the superior film.  Far superior.  If similarities in themes between films bother you and you’re also a fan of Deliverance, there is a good chance that you may not enjoy this film.

Like Deliverance, Southern Comfort presents us with a group of weekend warriors (in this case, they quite literally are weekend warriors…they’re National Guardsmen).  As with Deliverance, our group travels off into the dark places just outside civilization.  And as with Deliverance, the group faces off against both the forces of nature and the shady locals.  This place is their playground, and our protagonists are clearly out of their element.

The biggest difference between the films is that while Deliverance was a story about self-confident city folk who head out to the woods with their brand new shiny state of the art hunting gear (in other words, they are poseurs) and find themselves quickly in over their heads in their rural location, Southern Comfort delivers more of a parable of the United States’ war in Vietnam.  The “weekend warriors” head out to the woods on a training mission and are equipped with fearsome weapons…all loaded with blanks.  They intrude into a land with its own rules, where the people speak their own language and have their own culture.  As the terrain shifts and these testosterone filled individuals get lost, things quickly become muddled.  The National Guard group unit we follow are barely a cohesive unit.  The individual members push things this way and that and, ultimately, the troubles they encounter are of their own making.  Going along with the whole Vietnam analogy, they have no real mission other than survival and the enemy is literally as much a part of the scenery as the deadly swamps they’re stuck in.

Powers Boothe, a sadly under-appreciated actor, simmers in the role of Cpl. Charles Hardin.  While his actions within this film aren’t always right, he more than anyone else becomes aware of the gravity of their situation.  Keith Carradine plays Pfc. Spencer, a good-natured “city boy” presented as almost the polar opposite of the more intense Hardin.  In this case, the near opposites form a strong bond and they eventually realize they have to work together or fall apart.

Southern Comfort, in the end, is an enjoyable Walter Hill film, again provided the similarities to the superior Deliverance don’t become too big a burden to the viewer.  While the action comes in spurts, the tension is well maintained and the dialogue is very snappy.  A highlight is the building, and final, confrontation between Boothe’s Hardin and Fred Ward’s Cpl. Lonnie Reece while the movie most fumbles with the way, way too-fast decomposure of Cpl. ‘Coach’ Bowden.

Still, the film is very much worth a look.

Priest (2011) a (mildly) belated review

So I had a few minutes to spare and looked around some of the DVR recordings I made over the last month or two and found, among them, a recording of the 2011 film Priest.

Why was it there?  I admit, I was mildly curious about the film and was vaguely aware that it was based on a Korean Manga of some note.  Was also aware the film came and went pretty abruptly from theaters.

Wasn’t aware that the film featured Karl Urban in the bad guy role and (really surprising) veteran actor Christopher Plummer in a smaller role as a head priest.

The plot?  Post apocalyptic sideways world where vampire creatures and humans have battled for years.  The Priests are essentially the Church’s badasses, devout vampire killers who, as the story begins, are considered past their prime.  It is believed the vampire menace is over.

It isn’t.

For the first hour or so of the film, I enjoyed the film quite a bit.  The visuals were outstanding and the story presented was a decent “B” movie adventure.  After that first hour, I began wondering why this film was ranked so low on Rottentomatoes.com, where it earned an extremely low 17% approval from critics and an equally poor 36% from audiences (you can read the rankings here).  Could the critics and audiences have been wrong?  Was my taste in movies taking a serious nosedive?

Then came the movie’s second half and those poor ratings were explained away rather well.

For you see, if Priest were a novel, everything presented within the movie would have been a prologue to a (potentially) far more interesting story.  What story we have is, in the end, woefully undernourished, a tale of a one-time Priest turned vampire attempting to assault the “big city”.  His plan is to steal our protagonist’s daughter and force him to chase after him for no real reason at all.  Revenge I suppose, but really…

It all makes little sense in the end.  Karl Urban is wasted as the villain.  He’s by far the most interesting character in the film but when all is said and done is given so little time to do his villain thing that you wonder why they bothered.  Worst example of this?  The bad guy’s face off against three Priests, a sequence that should have been shown in its full glory (Priest is an action film, right?!) and is instead absurdly abbreviated.  I’m not exaggerating when I say this potentially explosive “action sequence” goes like this:  The three Priests meet up with Karl Urban’s bad guy.  One of them runs at him and is killed by  bad guy in literally one second.  We cut away from the fight and, a few minutes later, our protagonist arrives in the town where this fight occurred and sees the fight’s aftermath and the three dead Priests.  What happened to the other two Priests we have to fill in the blanks with our imagination.

Again, this is an action film, right?

Watching Priest, I had the feeling the director felt uncomfortable with showing too much action.

Anyway, by film’s end we are informed that there is some vampire queen out there and that the battle has “just begun”, ie, the real story is coming in the movie’s sequel.

Given the movie’s performance at the box office, you’ll forgive me if I don’t hold my breath waiting for that sequel to materialize.

The Skin I Live In (2011) a (very mildly) belated review

Way back in 1988 I was first exposed to director Pedro Almodovar via his breakout hit Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.  That movie was funny, a bit trashy, absurd, and highly entertaining.  The movie also featured then unknown Antonio Banderas in a large role that no doubt helped him make the big jump to Hollywood.  Both Almodovar and Banderas, thus, would go on to very successful careers.  The Skin I Live In, released last year in 2011, represents the first time in many years the two worked together again.

When I first heard of The Skin I Live In, I was curious to see how Mr. Almodovar, whose most successful works to my mind are usually humorous or dramatic in nature, would handle a foray into the horror genre.  I approached the film with excitement, interest, and curiosity.  I also avoided spoilers, only reading cryptic hints as to the movie’s plot, which apparently involved a surgeon/skin researcher Robert Ledgard (Banderas) and a most unusual client, Vera Cruz (the stunning Elena Anaya) and their twisted relationship.  That, in the end, was the extent of my knowledge of the film.

When i finally sat down to watch it, I was immediately struck by the thematic similarities The Skin I Live In had to other (very) old-time horror works. Indeed, this film employs what is perhaps one of the oldest horror movie tropes: the mad scientist.

To give away more details of the movie’s plot would be a crime, for this film offers plenty of bizarre –very bizarre– surprises.  At a couple of points in the film I thought I had things worked out, but the eventual story reveals proved a whole lot stranger than anything I came up with.

Having said that, as good and as wicked as the story being told is, The Skin I Live In proved also to be a frustrating experience.  The very gutsy and potentially profound story is undermined by weak, almost soap-opera level characterization and melodrama.  The way the story unfolds, too, is frustrating, starting in the present and then, halfway through, abruptly shifting to the past.  Finally, as an audience member one has to accept too many unlikely things happening between the characters and often involving dumb actions on their part for the movie to actually work.

Without giving too much away, here are a few of the things that didn’t work for me:  We have to accept that a group of veteran surgeons would perform a very major operation on someone without looking into their patient’s background at all.  We have to accept that a character who appears quite grounded would allow a very dangerous individual into her home.  We have to accept that a character would take a disturbed relative to a party, her first foray (apparently) out of a mental institution…and then simply lose track of her whereabouts.

And these are the things I can mention without getting too heavily into spoilers.

Still, the film presented a very strong and mind-bending story.  Perhaps if the script had been worked on a little more, and perhaps if the film had been focused more on Vera Cruz’s point of view and her attempts to uncover the mystery around her, I think the film might have worked a lot better.  Nonetheless, if you’re interested in taking a journey into some genuinely bizarre story directions, The Skin I Live In might well be for you.  Note however, the film is rated “R” for good reason.

White Lightning (1973) a (very) belated review

Back in the 1970’s Burt Reynolds was easily one of the biggest movie stars in Hollywood.  Quite an accomplishment considering some of his rivals included such heavy weights as Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, etc. etc.

Today, he is probably best known for two movies/roles:  The wannabe outdoorsman Lewis in the 1972 adaptation of James Dickey’s novel Deliverance and the 1977 action/comedy Smokey and the Bandit.  But his success in the movies, of course, wasn’t limited to just those two roles.

Perhaps falling a hair under those two films (at least in terms of recognizability) are his “Gator” films, 1973’s White Lightning and its 1976 sequel Gator.  A recent episode of Archer (catch it if you can, it is quite hilarious, an animated spy version of Reno 911) had Burt Reynolds as a “guest”, and one of the more amusing comments by the show’s dazed protagonist was his pitch to Burt Reynolds to make a sequel to Gator, and Burt noting that the movie was a sequel.

Which brings us back to White Lightning.  Watching the film recently was an interesting experience.  The passage of time may have dulled some of the movie’s more exciting set pieces (mostly involving car chases), but the Burt Reynolds charisma shines very bright in this film.  The plot is simple enough:  Gator McKlusky (Reynolds) is “good ol’ Southern boy”, a bootlegger currently in jail serving a small sentence.  He’s due out in a year or two, but when word comes that his younger brother was found dead, he is filled with righteous fury.  And when the rumor comes that his death was the result of the action of Sheriff J. C. Connors (Ned Beatty), he agrees to go undercover with the Feds to take the man down.

What follows is Gator’s attempts to infiltrate the moonshining organization in Connors’ town.  But when Connors gets wind he has a Fed infiltrator in his territory, things go from bad to worse.

I have to admit, while I enjoyed White Lightning, I found Gator an overall better film, if only because the villain in the later film, played by Jerry Reed (who would join up with Burt Reynolds once again in Smokey and the Bandit in a very, very different role!), was soooo much more detestable than Ned Beatty’s Sheriff Connors.

Still, one has to admit that watching White Lightning you see the very beginning of things that were to come.  Turn the movie’s plot a little this way -and into comedy with even more car mayhem- and you have Smokey and the Bandit.  Turn the film a little that way -and make it more of a drama- and you have Justified.

So, if you’re interested in movie history and would like to see something that may well have influenced works that even today entertain us, you could do a lot worse than check out White Lightning.

Edge of Darkness (2010) a (mildly) belated review

Way back in the mid-1980’s and while looking through a newspaper I found a very positive review for Edge of Darkness, a mini-series that was scheduled to air on PBS.  The premise was intriguing:  A British police officer’s daughter is murdered and, in his subsequent investigation of the matter, discovers a toxic cesspool of government corruption linked to nuclear research.  I watched the series when it aired back then and though my memories of it are vague after the passage of time, I distinctly recall liking it quite a bit.  I also really, really liked Joe Don Baker’s performance within the series as Darius Jedburgh, a shady CIA operative/fixer who, over the course of the series, became a delightfully unpredictable wild-card.

Years passed and, in 2010, I heard that the mini-series’ original director, Martin Campbell, was working on a movie remake of the mini-series with Mel Gibson in the title role.  I was intrigued.  I’ve been a fan of Mr. Gibson’s work since first seeing him in the incredible Mad Max 2 aka The Road Warrior when it first hit theaters way back in 1981.  Of late, I’ve been equally shocked by some of the lurid details regarding his personal life.  Still, I was interested in seeing the film but, of course, didn’t find the time to do so when it was initially released to theaters.  Yesterday, I finally had a chance to see it and did just that.

The 2010 film version of Edge of Darkness retains the same general plot involving police officer Thomas Craven’s (Mel Gibson) search for his daughter’s murderers and the way it eventually ties in to a shady nuclear research facility and equally shady politicians.  The movie’s setting has been changed, transplanting the story for no discernible reason from England to Boston.

While watching the film’s first half, I thought things were unfolding quite well.  The central mystery was set up and Mr. Gibson does well providing a Boston accent and acting both filled with equal parts grief and rage as he investigates his daughter’s murder.  Unfortunately, in the film’s second half the story suffers from compressing too much material to fit the parameters of a theatrical release.  The original Edge of Darkness mini-series had the luxury of five and a half hours to tell its story.  The movie, which clocks in at just under two hours, simply doesn’t have enough time to flesh out characters and situations and provide a good wrap up in that short a period of time.

The character who suffers the greatest from this compressed storytelling is, unfortunately, the character that to me was the most intriguing in the mini-series: Darius Jedburgh.  In the movie, the role is played with considerable menace by Ray Winstone.  Unfortunately in the movie he isn’t given anywhere near enough time to develop.  In the mini-series, Craven and Jedburgh meet many times and become something of an odd-couple while pursuing the mystery of Craven’s daughter’s death.  In the movie, they meet up a total of two times.  There is more story presented with Jedburgh, but it involves his own reactions to his “bosses” and isn’t nearly as compelling as it could have been.  Anyone who hasn’t seen the original mini-series and therefore isn’t aware of how important the character of Jedburgh was in it can be forgiven for wondering just why he was present in this film at all.  He simply isn’t as necessary to this version of the story and, sadly, could well have been cut out entirely in favor of more time with Mel Gibson’s Craven.

In conclusion, what you have with the 2010 version of Edge of Darkness is a movie that starts well but simply can’t present as much plot as the original mini-series, devolving into a rather standard “good guy takes on the bad guys” story before reaching its admittedly very emotional conclusion.  Two stars out of four.

And here’s Jedburgh and Craven’s first meeting from the original mini-series: