The Italian Job (2003)


The Italian Job

That Mini-Cooper could probably fit inside that helicopter with room to spare.

(2003) Action (Paramount) Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron, Edward Norton, Jason Statham, Mos Def, Seth Green, Donald Sutherland, Boris Lee Krutonog, Julie Costello, Gawtti, Franky G, Aaron Speiser, Olek Krupa, Thomas Alexander. Directed by F. Gary Gray

 

It started out as a perfect heist. The brazen pilfering of Venetian gold, misdirection to lead pursuit away, and the recovery of the ill-gotten gains. Better still, this wasn’t the work of mastermind John Bridger (Sutherland), who is looking to get out of the game for good, but of his protégé, Charlie Croker (Wahlberg), who is taking over the crew.

Unexpectedly, they are betrayed by Steve (Norton) one of their own, who wants all the gold for himself. Knowing that Bridger has an aversion to carrying guns, Steve brings a few of his own and uses them. Most of the crew gets away, but John Bridger does not.

Fast forward a few years. The crew has managed to track down the elusive Steve back to Los Angeles, and are just itching for a little payback – not to mention the gold they stole. Left Ear (Mos Def), computer expert Napster (Green) and driver Handsome Rob (Statham) have reunited with Charlie, but they need an expert safecracker to take John’s old role. It so happens that John’s daughter Stella (Theron) has become an excellent safecracker, after a fashion; she is a security consultant who tests the vulnerability of safes for large corporations. She’s not really interested in ill-gotten gains, but it turns out she is very interested in getting revenge on the man who killed her father.

As with most caper movies, there are twists, turns and suspense a-plenty. Some wonderful car chases, some terrific action sequences and a nice bit of poetic justice near the end, although I couldn’t really call it an unexpected twist. Director F. Gary Gray is a bit too heavy-handed for that. He also has too many extraneous characters in the movie. I’m not sure if he’s trying to do some misdirection of his own, but it doesn’t work.

We could have done without the Russian mobsters and the informant, Skinny Pete (Gawtti). Frankly, some of the gang could have used a little more screen time. Gray, however, cast this movie to near-perfection. Green is fast becoming the Steve Buscemi for a new generation; he is nervous, quirky and always entertaining when he is riffing on his own. Statham is perfectly cast as Handsome Rob, the driver. He is absolutely riveting when he is on screen, and while he hasn’t gotten the huge screen star career I thought he was going to when I first saw this, he has managed to carve out a pretty satisfying niche in the action genre and has made some fairly nice films, although there is a lot of b-movie drekk in there as well. Wahlberg is settling into an action-hero niche nicely, although I’ve found him to be one-dimensional at times here but he nicely fills the role of the resourceful mastermind for the purposes of this film.

It is Theron who really caught my notice. Up until this point I’d never been very fond of her – she’sd always seemed kind of prissy in most of the movies I’ve seen her in up until this film, but she really held her own, and quite frankly, she looks better than she ever has at least until Snow White and the Huntsman (I know, I know, I’m a shallow, shallow man). Edward Norton gets to be a smarmy bad guy, a role in which he excels and pretty much perfects here.

The psychology of the movie is a little predictable; father-figure gets gunned down in front of the impressionable eyes of the hero, who seeks justice and gets it without getting his hands dirty. You know that the trigger-happy Norton is going to get his at the end of the movie, but you can’t have the hero getting blood on his hands; Hollywood might be going retro, but the anti-hero is a bit too retro for the tastes of most studios. I think it’s a bit hypocritical to line up Wahlberg as a criminal, but then he’s not a murderer, so he’s not too bad a guy. Of course, I could just be getting too grumpy in my old age.

Some movies should never be remade. Others can benefit from an updating. The 1969 Michael Caine caper movie on which this one is based is not what you would call a classic, but it is a movie of its time. That said, The Italian Job does what another remake, 2001`s Oceans 11 set out to do; take a movie of its time and make it timeless. Oceans 11 succeeded in its attempt, which isn’t as easy as it sounds. The Italian Job doesn’t quite become timeless, but it is an entertaining movie, and as the years have passed it has remained that way. I guess it is timeless after all.

WHY RENT THIS: Great action sequences. Theron emerges as a major star. Fun summer entertainment. Great ensemble.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Wahlberg lacks the charisma I would have liked to have seen here. A little bit predictable.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of violence and a lot of action.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Lyle’s girlfriend at the end of the film is played by Kelly Brook, who was Jason Statham’s actual girlfriend at the time.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is a featurette on Mini-Coopers (which are used extensively in the chase sequence) and on the actors two weeks in drivers school (they did a lot of their own driving stunts).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $176.1M on a $60M production budget; the film was a hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Oceans 11

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: A Beautiful Life

John Carter


 

John Carter

Taylor Kitsch is stunned when Lynn Collins gives him the box office numbers.

(2012) Science Fiction (Disney) Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, Dominic West, Willem Dafoe, James Purefoy, Daryl Sabara, Polly Walker, Bryan Cranston, Thomas Hayden Church, Rupert Frazer, Nicholas Woodeson, David Schwimmer, Jon Favreau. Directed by Andrew Stanton

 

As a young boy my father introduced me to Edgar Rice Burroughs and his Tarzan books. I read all of them eagerly, but it was the Barsoom series that intrigued me the most. I wasn’t alone in this – notable writers such as Ray Bradbury and Robert A. Heinlein were also heavily influenced by the books, as was scientist Carl Sagan. It has taken more than 79 years of development – from a proposed feature length animation – for the book to finally make the screen.

There is good reason for that. Burroughs had a terrific imagination but was not a gifted writer in many ways. His books were more like travelogues, particularly this series and the plot meandered quite a bit. I can imagine potential screenwriters being plenty frustrated by the lack of inertia as they tried to adapt A Princess of Mars, the first book in the series. At last however, they managed to and the result is one of the more anticipated movies of the Spring.

Ned Burroughs (Sabara) is summoned to the home of his Uncle only to find out that he had passed away shortly before Ned arrived. The instructions left for Ned were cryptic; his Uncle wished to be buried in a crypt that could only be opened from the inside, and a journal was entrusted to Ned which was not to be read for two years.

Ned being a compliant sort follows his Uncle’s wishes to the letter and then begins to read the journal. His uncle, John Carter (Kitsch) had been a cavalry officer in the American Civil War and a good one – but his side had lost. Carter had lost a lot more than that however; his wife and daughter perished in a fire while he was away from his Virginia farm and the grief-stricken Carter went West to find his fortune, a cave of gold that would set him up for life.

He finds that cave, but a lot more as well; a strange bald man with an amulet that transports Carter to Mars accidentally. Well, at first he doesn’t realize he’s on Mars; he just thinks he’s in the desert somewhere. Oddly, he is able to leap great distances (owing to the gravity). Carter is found and captured by green men with four arms and tusks who call themselves Tharks. This particular group is led by Tars Tarkas (Dafoe),who spares Carter because of his amazing leaping ability which Tarkas thinks might be useful. Carter, however, isn’t disposed towards fighting for anybody. He is given to Sola (Morton), a Thark who has a somewhat checkered past but like Tarkas, a good heart.

There is a civil war going on here as well, between two city-states – Helium, led by the noble Tardos Mors (Hinds) and Zodanga, led by the bloodthirsty Sab Than (West). The Zodangans have developed a high tech energy beam that is a devastating weapon wiping out most of the navy of Helium. In order to put the war to a halt, Mors offers Sab Than his own daughter in marriage – Dejah Thoris (Collins).

Despite being a princess, Dejah Thoris is also quite the scientist and warrior herself, not to mention having a will of her own. She has her own ideas of what she wants for her life and they don’t include being married to a bloodthirsty tyrant she has no feelings for. So she does the sensible thing – she runs away. Her intended also does the sensible thing – engages in a battle with her floating barge and shoots it down. She is saved by John Carter and his new friends the Tharks. Seeing how strong he is and how high he can jump gives her ideas – ideas that can lead to an end to war but on Helium’s terms.

However, unbeknownst to either of them there are factions within the Tharks who have a vested interest in Carter meeting an untimely end. Also the Zodangans are getting aid by a mysterious group of wizards who mean to maintain the balance on Mars the old-fashioned way – by installing a puppet dictator who will put an end to strife and rule over the dying planet with an iron fist. However, their plans won’t come to fruition if John Carter has anything to do with it.

Stanton is known for his work with animated features at Pixar – he has already directed Finding Nemo and Wall-E, the latter one of my favorite movies of the last few years. This is his first live feature (although given that a good chunk of his cast is CGI as is much of his environment, it isn’t far from an animated feature) and he acquits himself fairly well. He knows how to tell a good story.

The trouble is, A Princess of Mars isn’t a particularly good story. Once you get past the novelty of being transported to Mars, Carter doesn’t really do a whole lot other than fight and give stirring speeches and Thoris is little more than a damsel in distress. At least both characters are better written here, particularly Thoris.

The problem is that Taylor Kitsch, best-known for his work in “Friday Night Lights,” doesn’t carry the character well. Sure he looks good shirtless (which Carter is for most of the movie) but honestly the movie needs a lead who can do more than jump and posture. John Carter needs to inspire confidence and project heroism and Kitsch does neither. Bill Goodykoontz of the Arizona Republic characterized him as “generic” and that is a perfect description of his performance.

Collins fares better. She might be guilty of trying too hard sometimes but at least she doesn’t phone her performance in (as others do here). She at least makes her character memorable which is hard to do in a movie like this sort.

Too often these days adventure/action films of this sort place an overreliance on special effects and little or none on character. What point is there to all these pretty images if we don’t care about the characters who inhabit them? Sure, the cities and aircraft of Barsoom (Mars) are amazing to look at. The Tharks are impressively realistic. The interiors are sufficiently alien. The movie looks nice.

The action sequences are pretty fine as well, from an arena scene in which Tars Tarkas, Sola and Carter fight a Martian white ape (which is gigantic, furry and not at all ape-like) to a battle aboard a barge where Carter goes leaping about like the Incredible Hulk. That leaping, by the way, is a little bit distracting – it looks silly in places.

Still, while definitely flawed it’s kind of fun as well. If your expectations are too high you’re bound to be disappointed – and quite frankly being a fan of the original novel, I had hoped for better even though I shouldn’t have. After all, as I said earlier, this isn’t an easy story to film.

That doesn’t mean this isn’t worth seeing though, and it most certainly is. There is a lot to admire here, from the vistas and cityscapes to the old-fashioned swashbuckling. Yeah, there are ray guns and swords and sorcery and flying ships and bare-chested heroes – I just wish there might have been a bit more to the characters as well.

REASONS TO GO: Lots of swashbuckling action. Some pretty nifty CG effects.

REASONS TO STAY: Little to no substance. Battle sequences often confusing.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of action and violence, not to mention a good deal of royal blue blood and ichors.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the movie was filmed in Utah because of its barren landscape with unusual rock formations giving it an otherworldly look. Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote A Princess of Mars on which the movie is based while residing in Utah.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/19/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 51% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100. The reviews are about as mixed as you can get them.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

DOG LOVERS: You wouldn’t think there would be dogs on Mars but there is an adorable dog-like creature that runs unbelievably fast. Like, autobahn fast.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: A Thousand Words

Cowboys & Aliens


Cowboys & Aliens

If these townsfolk had seen Battlestar: Gallactica they'd be running and screaming by now.

(2011) Sci-Fi Western (DreamWorks/Universal) Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, Adam Beach, Paul Dano, Noah Ringer, Keith Carradine, Clancy Brown, Ana de la Reguera, Abigail Spencer, Toby Huss, Walton Goggins, Raoul Trujillo. Directed by Jon Favreau

We all know that stagecoaches belong in Westerns and starships in Sci-Fi movies and never the twain shall meet. Why that is, I’m not sure – but at last the twain have actually met.

A stranger (Craig) wakes up in the badlands of the New Mexico territory circa 1873. He has no idea where he is and no memory of who he is. He also has a strange shackle on his wrist and a strange wound in his side that is still bleeding but half-cauterized. He is immediately beset by a trio of bounty hunters but apparently he knows how to fight and he definitely knows how to kill, besting the three of them, stealing their clothes, their gold, one of their horses and their dog.

He rides into the town of Absolution, and enters a house on the outskirts to freshen up. The owner of the house, Preacher Meacham (Brown) takes exception to this but eventually warms up to the lost lamb and helps stitch up his wound.

Later on, Percy Dolarhyde (Dano) goes on a drunken rampage shooting up the town, despite attempts by Nat Colorado (Beach), the right-hand man of Percy’s father to placate him, and the pleas for clemency by saloon owner Doc (Rockwell) and his wife Maria (De la Reguera). That’s Doc’s wife, not Percy’s by the way.

Percy accidentally shoots a sheriff’s deputy and the stranger eventually subdues him. Sheriff Taggart (Carradine) recognizes the stranger from a wanted poster; he’s Jake Lonergan, a notorious stagecoach bandit and murderer. Taggart’s attempts to capture Lonergan appear to be going south when a mysterious beautiful woman, Ella Swenson (Wilde) clocks Lonergan with a 2×4 and knocks him cold.

Meanwhile, Percy’s father, Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Ford) is investigating some of his cattle who have been burned along with his men who have gone missing when word reaches him that his son has been arrested. The wealthy and powerful Colonel Dolarhyde rides into town with Nat and a posse of his men to go take his son out of custody and also to remove Lonergan, who had most recently stolen a shipment of Dolarhyde’s gold.  

Things are just about to get ugly when they are interrupted by the appearance of strange lights in the sky. Those lights turn out to be alien spaceships which launch concussive fireballs into the town, knocking over buildings but harming nobody. That might be because the aliens are abducting the townspeople, including Percy, Maria and Sheriff Taggart. The day is saved somewhat by Lonergan, whose shackle hides a weapon that takes down one of the alien ships. It turns out that is the only effective weapon against them, so when Colonel Dolarhyde wants to go rescue his son and the other townspeople, he insists that Lonergan go with them.

Lonergan has no such plan however and rides off on his own to find out who he is and why he has this metal doo-hickey on his wrist. The secret of his identity may rest with the mysterious Ella and the mystery of who Jake Lonergan is and what happened to him may hold the key to saving the world from these nasty aliens.

Favreau is currently riding high as one of comicdom’s fan favorites on the strength of Iron Man and its sequel. While his latest film is ostensibly based on the Platinum Studios comic of the same name, in reality it shares little in common besides the title.

Favreau had originally wanted to cast Robert Downey Jr. in the lead role but when he had to bow out to work on Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows Daniel Craig was cast instead and a fine bit of luck that was. Craig is far better at the Eastwood-like mysterious stranger than I think Downey would have been and he interacts with Ford in a much more believable manner.

Having Ford and Craig as your leads in a Western is about as fortuitous casting as it gets. Ford in particular is gruff and curmudgeonly, snarling and barking like a dog but having something of a puppy heart deep down. Craig, James Bond aside, is an excellent action hero and while Favreau has characterized Ford as the modern John Wayne, I think a case could be made for Craig as a modern Gary Cooper as well.

Overall, the cast is pretty nifty with Brown taking high marks as the Preacher who may look like a missing cough drop brother but has a surprisingly modern take on faith. Dano gets some of the best comic bits as the sniveling son of the wealthy rancher (a cliché that he helped make palatable here) and Wilde is surprisingly good as the mysterious woman – I hadn’t seen much of her work but now I’ll definitely be looking forward to seeing more of her in future roles. Beach is one of my favorite character actors ever since he emerged in Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers (he also grew up in Winnipeg which adds further points) and he continues to impress here. Sam Rockwell, one of the better actors working today, has a minor role that Rockwell underplays nicely. Having the sheriff’s nephew along for the posse’s ride is unnecessary and ridiculous – his part could have easily have been taken by a teenager or an adult. You don’t need a kid in every single film to save the day y’know.

The western vistas of New Mexico look great on the big screen here and three cheers to Favreau for resisting the studio’s pressure to film this in 3D. I think the movie benefitted by being left in traditional 2D and the bright sunlit canyons and badlands look better without the polarized lens of the modern 3D glasses.

The action sequences are at times amazing, with CGI alien ships going at Apaches and gunslingers going full-tilt on horseback. The aliens themselves are plenty scary, with a sturdy shell-like carapace, recessed hands and a real cruelty and lust for gold. Think of them as intergalactic versions of bankers and mortgage company CEOs. Okay, maybe they’re not that evil.

At the end of the day, a movie like this has to be fun and for the most part it is – the ratio of action to exposition should have leaned a little heavier towards the former but there is still enough of it to make this worth your while. If you don’t go for Westerns, the sci-fi element might be enough to make it palatable while if you don’t like sci-fi, you might take comfort in the western elements instead. If you don’t like either one, well, this is good enough filmmaking for you to check out anyway. I had hoped for a little bit better, but it is entertaining nonetheless.

REASONS TO GO: Ford and Craig provide plenty of star power and Wilde, Rockwell, Beach, Dano and Brown provide fine support. Interesting mash-up of genres.

REASONS TO STAY: Action sequences are great but too far between. The kid is completely unnecessary here.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence and bloodshed, some disturbing creature effects, a little bit of partial nudity and some kids in jeopardy – the very young will probably get nightmares out of this.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first comic book from Platinum Studios to be adapted to the big screen; this is the third comic adaptation from DreamWorks (after The Road to Perdition and Over the Hedge).

HOME OR THEATER: This is definitely a summer popcorn flick meant to be seen in a multiplex.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Crazy, Stupid, Love