Stake Land


Some sizzle for this stake.

Some sizzle for this stake.

(2010) Horror (IFC) Connor Paolo, Nick Damici, Danielle Harris, Kelly McGillis, Marianne Hagan, Stuart Radin, Adam Scarimbolo, Michael Cerveris, Sean Nelson, Larry Fessenden, Chance Kelly, Jean Brassard, Phyllis Bash, Bonnie Dennison, Ellis Cahill, James Godwin, Heather Robb, Vonia Arslanian, Gregory Jones, Traci Hovel. Directed by Jim Mickle

One of the things about a good movie is that it will often take things that work in one genre and transfer it into another and create if not necessarily a hybrid, then at least a new take on an old form. Movies like that can occasional inspire entire new genres but more often than not end up as being inspired entries in an old one.

Stake Land takes elements of post-apocalyptic Westerns and zombie apocalypse films and fuses them into the vampire film, adding a big dollop of Cormac McCarthy to the mix. Here young and somewhat naive teen Martin (Paolo) whose name is a tip o’ the hat to George A. Romero’s sole vampire film to date is taken under the wing a vampire killer known only as Mister (Damici, who co-wrote the film with Mickle). You see, a plague that turns people into mindless ravening vampires who are as much zombie as vampire has ravaged the United States. There are a few safety zones but mostly those who can move around are headed for Canada for a community called New Eden which is, as rumor has it, vampire-free. Stories like that can lend hope to the hopeless as the Resident Evil films have shown.

The humans that remain aren’t always any better than the hordes of vampires. Hardcore cults that seem to be somewhat like conservative Christian metaphors seem eager to help the apocalypse along in hopes of scoring brownie points with God, dropping planeloads of the undead into towns in maybe the ultimate terrorism dick move.

 

As Mister teaches Martin how to survive in this world which is often harsh and cruel, they pick up a few strays including a pregnant teen (Harris) that Martin takes a shine to, an ex-Marine (Nelson) and a nun (McGillis). In a movie with an attitude like this one, don’t expect a happy ending although you can be sure it won’t be so bleak that you want to take the disc and smash it against the wall.

Mickle is an adept filmmaker who takes his visual cues from Terrance Malick. This is as good-looking a horror film cinematically speaking as you’re likely to ever see. Filmed in real life industrial wastelands that are essentially abandoned and empty, the look of the film is authentic, of a society that is dying slowly but inevitably and those who remain are desperate to escape, so much so that they’re willing to take rumor to heart.

The cast is largely unknown although some might remember McGillis from some pretty decent films in the 80s including Top Gun, Witness and The Accused, Nelson from Fresh and Harris from Rob Zombie’s Halloween reboots. The acting is essentially solid and the effects mainly practical. In some ways you’ll be reminded of The Walking Dead although that TV series isn’t as dark if you can believe that.

While the movie is for the most part familiar, with elements taken from things as disparate as the Mad Max movies and Near Dark to the aforementioned Walking Dead and McCarthy’s The Road, there is enough here that works to make it worth seeking out, particularly if you’re into post-apocalyptic horror. Hidden gems like this are why guys like me start blogs like this.

WHY RENT THIS: Atmospheric with an appealing post-Apocalyptic aesthetic that trades zombies for vampires.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Nothing particularly innovative here; feels like a bunch of things were cobbled from a bunch of films albeit a bunch of good films.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violent bloodsucking gore and goodness as well as a cornucopia of foul language and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While filming a fire scene on a studio set, the flames got out of control and burned not only the set down but the studio stage as well. While nobody was hurt and production resumed the next day, equipment was flown in from all over the world to replace that which was lost in the fire.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are production video diaries which also include a Q&A from the Toronto Film Festival screening of the film, as well as a feature called Prequels in which seven actors from the film give some brief insights into their lives just before shooting on the production started.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $33,245 on a $625,000 production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (Stream/DVD rental/Blu-Ray Rental), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (unavailable), Target Ticket (unavailable)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Daybreakers
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Penguins of Madagascar

John Wick


Sometimes, Keanu Reeves wonders if he shouldn't have taken the other pill.

Sometimes, Keanu Reeves wonders if he shouldn’t have taken the other pill.

(2014) Action (Lionsgate) Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Willem Dafoe, Dean Winters, Adrianne Palicki, Omer Barnea, Toby Leonard Moore, Daniel Bernhardt, Bridget Moynahan, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane, Bridget Regan, Lance Reddick, Keith Jardine, Tait Fletcher, Kazy Tauginas, Alexander Frekey, Thomas Sadoski, Randall Duk Kim, Kevin Nash, Clarke Peters, Gameela Wright. Directed by Chad Stahelski

If action movies teach us anything, it’s that you don’t mess with a man’s family. You DEFINITELY don’t mess with his car. But if you steal his car and kill his dog? Not a good idea, even if you’re the son of a Russian mobster.

But that’s just what Iosef Tarasov (Allen) does. But it’s not the act itself that pisses off his father Viggo (Nyqvist). It’s who he did it to. Check out this conversation the Russian mobster had with Aurelio (Leguizamo), the owner of a chop shop;
VIGGO: I understand that you struck my son.
AURELIO: He stole John Wick’s car and killed his dog.
*pause*
VIGGO: Oh.
*click*

There are some things you just do not do. You don’t walk on Superman’s cape. You don’t spit into the wind. And you do not steal the car and kill the dog of John Wick (Reeves), particularly when the dog was the last gift from his recently deceased wife (Moynahan). Who is John Wick may you ask? He’s a retired contract killer. He’s the sort who can walk into a room and kill three guys with a pencil. That’s right, a pencil. If you want someone who is untouchable dead and in the ground, you’d call John Wick. There wasn’t anyone he couldn’t kill. Even other contract killers were terrified of him; that’s why they call him The Boogey Man. And not the one that KC and the Sunshine Band sang about either.

Viggo knows that John Wick won’t stop at his son; he’ll go after his entire organization, everyone who ever knew his son and a lot of people who didn’t. John Wick is like the ice age; where he comes through nobody lives. The only people who like John Wick are funeral directors. You get the general idea.

And that’s all you need to know about the plot. Mainly the movie goes from one action sequence to another. Director Chad Stahelski comes from a stuntman background (he was in fact Reeves’ stunt double in The Matrix) and his experience shows. The fight sequences are mind-blowing, perfectly choreographed and exciting as hell. They are most definitely the highlight of the film, kinetic whirling dervishes of leaping assassins and flying bullets.

Reeves, never the most charismatic of actors under the best of circumstances, has a role that really plays to his strengths here. John Wick rarely shows any emotion, although he has one speech to Viggo late in the movie where all his rage seethes out of him like a terrible demonic presence and Reeves actually does an outstanding job with it. He is also a fairly graceful action hero, and is said to have performed about 90% of the stunts himself.

The supporting cast is very able, with Palicki showing her fangs as a gleeful assassin, Nyqvist showing his villain chops and Dafoe has a role as a kind of Zen Yoda-like assassin/mentor for John Wick. McShane, Leguizamo and Reddick are reliable and Alfie Allen, Theon Greyjoy on Game of Thrones, may be setting himself up for a career portraying men the audience would like to see die painfully.

If you go looking for something that breaks the action film mold, well, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any of that here – or anywhere else given the state of action movies in 2014. There isn’t much of a plot (the revenge thing has been done to death) but the action is so outstanding that you don’t much care. There is a place in this world for mindless entertainment and as that kind of movie goes John Wick is better than most.

REASONS TO GO: Amazing action sequences. Right in Reeves’ wheelhouse.
REASONS TO STAY: Kind of a series of action sequences in search of a plot.
FAMILY VALUES: A ton of violence, some of it bloody. Loads of foul language. Some drug use as well. Dog cruelty may be upsetting to some.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fifth time Reeves has played a character named John in the movies.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/12/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Mechanic (2011)
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Small Town Murder Songs

Joe (2013)


Joe has his sights set on opening that there can of whoopass.

Joe has his sights set on opening that there can of whoopass.

(2013) Drama (Roadside Attractions) Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Gary Poulter, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Adriene Mishler, Brian Mays, AJ Wilson McPhaul, Sue Rock, Heather Kafka, Brenda Isaacs Booth, Anna Niemtschk, Elbert Evan Hill III, Milton Fountain, Roderick L. Polk, Aaron Spivey-Sorrells, John Daws, Kay Epperson, Lico Reyes, Erin Reed, Dana Freitag. Directed by David Gordon Green

florida-film-festival-2014We are none of us born perfect and some of us come into the world with more obstacles than others to achieve perfection. We still plug away nonetheless, eking out our place in the world and trying to make a life that we can call our own.

Joe Ransom (Cage) is an ex-con with a hair-trigger temper. He is trying the straight and narrow as the boss of a crew that poisons trees so that a developer can come in and snatch the land for rock bottom prices, then raze it and do what they like with it. It’s illegal as hell, but it’s the most honest living Joe can find.

He drinks and smokes too much and from time to time gets into bar fights, particularly with a lout named Willie Russell (Blevins) who shoots Joe in the shoulder in retaliation. Joe takes up with hookers and drives a battered old truck, occasionally running in with the law and getting bailed out by his old friend Earl (McPhaul) who knows that despite the rough edges Joe is basically a decent sort.

One day a young teenage boy named Gary (Sheridan) shows up looking for work along with his father Wade (Poulter). The dad is an absolute disaster; a raging alcoholic who beats his son up and takes the money he earns to buy cigarettes and booze. Gary on the other hand is a hard worker who impresses Joe from the get-go and the not easily impressed Joe takes the boy under his wing somewhat and becomes a mentor to him.

Certainly Gary could easily be headed on the same freight train that his father is riding but even the exceedingly imperfect Joe is more of a role model than his dad. Of course this doesn’t sit well with Wade who meets up with Willie Russell who after further humiliation from Joe is ready for something even more violent.

Cage in recent years has achieved the kind of notoriety that no actor wants – for excessive scene-chewing and taking on roles in movies that are wildly forgettable or worse. Here in one performance he very nearly erases a decade of performances that are simply put not worthy of a man of Cage’s talent. This is the Nicolas Cage whose movies I looked forward to seeing; this is the guy who won Oscars and charmed critics with his offbeat charisma. Those who have been disappointed by his recent run of B, C and D movies can rejoice that he’s finally been given a role deserving of him.

Sheridan continues his hot streak of excellent roles in mainly Southern gothic films. As in Mud he has a first-rate adult actor to work with and one gets the sense that Sheridan is learning well from watching pros like Cage and Matthew McConaughey at work. One gets the sense that he is going to be around for a good long time and may well be the most decorated actor of the 2020s.

Green, like Cage, had a little bit of a career hiccup after a promising start; it seems likely that he knew that he wasn’t doing his best work and took a step back and started where he came from – the indie drama. This is his best work in awhile, the fine Prince Avalanche notwithstanding. He captures the sordid desperation of the very lowest and impoverished classes in rural Texas and allows them their own brand of dignity. These aren’t people you may hang out with or even want to, but Green gives them more respect than other directors might have been willing to in the same position. Kudos to him for that much.

This can be tough going in places. The sordid existence of Joe, Gary, Wade and Willie Russell may be too much grit for some but those willing to stick it out will be rewarded with a real gem of a movie.

REASONS TO GO: Cage’s best performance in years. Gritty and unpleasant but always compelling.

REASONS TO STAY: The ugliness can be overwhelming.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some fairly disturbing stuff including depictions of child abuse and alcoholism, violence, foul language and strong sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Poulter, who passed away two months after filming concluded, was actually a homeless man with a history of alcoholism and violent behavior when cast by Green, who is known for casting local non-professionals in his movies.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/22/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mud

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: The Lunchbox

Star Trek Into Darkness


Alice Eve and Chris Pine try to out-blonde each other.

Alice Eve and Chris Pine try to out-blonde each other.

(2013) Science Fiction (Paramount) Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Benedict Cumberbatch, Karl Urban, John Cho, Bruce Greenwood, Alice Eve, Peter Weller, Simon Pegg, Anton Yelchin, Noel Clarke, Nazneen Contractor, Amanda Foreman, Jay Scully, Jonathan H. Dixon, Aisha Hinds, Joseph Gatt, Deep Roy, Anjini Taneja Azhar. Directed by J.J. Abrams

The trouble with taking on an icon is that the bar is impossibly high. You’re not going to please everybody, particularly the diehard old guard fans of the franchise. The fever pitch of shrieking outrage usually begins with the second film in the reboot. J.J. Abrams knows that better than most; he has had his fingers in the hands of three beloved franchises – Mission: Impossible, Star Wars and Star Trek.

This is his second film in the reboot of the Trek franchise. The first got some grudging respect from the notoriously difficult-to-please Trek fandom who might very well turn their noses up if Gene Roddenberry were resurrected and turned up to direct a new Trek movie.

The new film starts out with a terrorist attack in London, ramps up with a conspiracy to militarize Starfleet’s science and exploration mission (think of NASA with missiles and bombs) and finishes up with the appearance of a familiar foe.

Normally I’m one to describe the plot in great detail, but I think I’m going to abstain this time – for one thing, I found that knowing little about what was to occur in the movie made it far more delightful. Knowledgeable Trekkers and those fairly familiar with the canon of the original series will find lots of references here, from Harry Mudd to Transwarp drive to tribbles. There is also a great deal of referencing one of the original series most popular episodes and most beloved films but not exactly as you might remember it.

Abrams has re-energized the franchise without a doubt. Part of the success of the reboot has to do with the casting – each of the choices are spot on. Pine in particular takes the essence of Captain Kirk created by William Shatner and loses some of the mannerisms that made the character a bit of a parody in later years. Pine understands the basics of the legendary Captain – the recklessness, the ego, the brilliant strategic mind and the penchant for womanizing, but takes out the quirks – the stunted speech patterns, the over-reaction reactions and the writers have kindly aided his cause by giving Kirk fewer pronouncements and more self-analysis.

Quinto also makes a terrific Spock, although I noticed in this movie that his jaw seemed a bit more set and he looked a little less like the original Spock in a lot of ways, but he does capture the constant war between the emotional human side and the cold, logical Vulcan in him. The trauma of Vulcan’s fate in the last film weighs heavily on him, although he doesn’t show it.

The relationship between Spock and Uhura is an interesting one, given that this is a recent invention. Zoe Saldana gives the character a little more action-orientation than Nichelle Nichols did in her day; I like also that the writers give her a lot more to do than being a glorified answering machine. She is much more a member of the team than she was in the original series, where much of the planning, decision making and risk taking was done by the male members of the crew. You’ve come a long way, baby.

Cho is a worthy successor to George Takei as Sulu. One of the great regrets I have when it comes to Star Trek is that we never really got to see too much of Sulu as Captain – in the couple of instances when we did see it Takei was amazing. Cho gets an opportunity to take command as Sulu and makes the most of it; I’m kind of hoping we see Cho in a spin-off someday.

Pegg is one of the world’s outstanding comic actors and while Scotty becomes more of a comic figure than he was in the original series (although depicted as a heavy drinker he had his share of drunk moments that James Doohan played beautifully) the main thrust of his character is his brilliance as an engineer and we get that from Pegg as well, although he is a bit more willful than the original Scotty and in one of the new film’s most underrated scenes stands right up to Kirk, something I don’t recall seeing the character ever do before but was a welcome moment here.

There are also “guest” characters; Greenwood as Pike is a bit of a mentor and a lot more of a father figure to Kirk. Alice Eve is gorgeous and plays her pivotal character as a lot more than you might guess from the surface – and the writers leave room for future glimpses of her character. Peter Weller, who had a couple of appearances on the Enterprise TV series, plays an admiral here whose character might remind long-time fans of an admiral who had a small but pivotal role in one of the last movies featuring the original crew.

That leads us to Benedict Cumberbatch whose character is…well, not who he appears to be. Fans of the original series will doubtlessly guess early on who he actually is but for now let us say that he is a brilliant adversary worthy of Kirk and Spock and whose appearance is done in what I believe is the proper way – coming into the series sideways, making the surprise all the more pleasant (although again savvy Trekkers will either know from Internet chatter who he is or guess based on the clues the filmmakers give us early on). Cumberbatch is an up-and-coming actor who looks to have a brilliant career ahead of him, and based on this film is already getting some scrutiny for some plum roles in franchise films. Before you know it this man is going to be one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. Bet on it.

The stakes are higher here and the effects are as crazy good as they were in the last Star Trek film. I chose not to see it in 3D – who wants to see those annoying lens flares in 3D? – and I think that’s a wise choice. Some of the scenes are set in pretty dark places and the 3D glasses will only make it murkier. Besides, I didn’t get the sense that 3D would have added anything to the experience.

I liked the movie just a smidge less than the first one; what pleased me most is that the filmmakers are developing the characters in just the right way to set up more thoughtful episodes in the future. While there was some underlying commentary about the militarization of space, the usefulness of drones and of terrorism in general, this is still a little more action-oriented than fans of the original series may like but that does make the movie more palatable to non-fans. Oh, and you get to see Klingons too.

In my review of the first film I wondered if Abrams could repeat his successful reboot in the second film. The answer is a resounding yes. This is great entertainment not only for Trekkers but for general audiences as well, managing to thread the line nicely. Certainly this bodes well for the future of the franchise and with the 50th anniversary of Trek’s debut in 1966 only a few short years away, one can only be hopeful that there are a lot more places for the crew of the Enterprise to boldly go.

REASONS TO GO: Pine turning out to be an excellent Kirk and the rest of the supporting cast works well also. Nice effects, battle sequences and stunts.

REASONS TO STAY: The story is a little bit all over the place.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some pretty intense battle sequences in space as well as some pretty nifty fisticuffs.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Christopher Doohan, the son of the original Scotty (the late James Doohan), makes a cameo appearance as a transporter technician working alongside the current Scotty in the transporter room.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/23/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100; pretty impressive reviews for a Star Trek film.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Avatar

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Russian Ark

Love Crime (Crime d’amour)


All the showers in the world won't wash out the stains left by a love crime.

All the showers in the world won’t wash out the stains left by a love crime.

(2010) Thriller (Sundance Select) Ludovine Sagnier, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Patrick Mills, Guillaume Marquet, Gerald Laroche, Julien Rochefort, Olivier Rabourdin, Marie Guillard, Stephane Roquet, Frederic Venant, Jean-Marie Juan, Suzanne Renaud. Directed by Alain Corneau

Power is intoxicating. You can’t get enough of it, particularly in the corporate world. Women are often thought to be above those power games that men play, but that’s not always particularly true.

Christine (Scott-Thomas) is a high-ranking executive with a multi-national American company. She sometimes brings her work home with her as well as her hard-working assistant Isabelle Guerin (Sagnier). The two women seem to be on very friendly terms, with Christine giving her protégé a scarf and Isabelle working long into the night for her boss.

But the affection is just a ploy. Christine takes credit for Isabelle’s ideas and in retaliation Isabelle sleeps with Christine’s boyfriend. Things start to escalate and soon it becomes apparent that Isabelle is far from the sweet, shy thing that she makes herself out to be. Something’s got to give and when it does it’s going to be extreme.

I’m keeping the plot points pretty minimal as I want you to be deliciously surprised by them as I was. This is the kind of thriller I dig on; taking unexpected twists but not coming from out of left field – you realize by the time the movie ends that all the clues and signs were there in plain sight . You just weren’t paying attention. At least I wasn’t.

Sagnier is a pixie-like French actress with one of those faces that will look almost childlike when she’s an old woman and certainly now while she’s 30-ish she looks considerably younger and innocent which is part of why she is perfectly cast here. She is sexy and competent, but she seems vulnerable and naive which is quite complimentary. It’s a complete and confident performance; she’s a major star in France and has done a few movies out here but has yet to really make an impact on the radar of American film audiences.

Scott-Thomas has actually become a big star in France although she continues to do English-language films from time to time. She is pushing 50, but that doesn’t prevent Gallic audiences to see her as sexy and seductive. American audiences seem to have a harder time with women of that age coming off as sexual; our age bias is a little disappointing because Scott-Thomas certainly is an attractive and sensual woman at any age.

The French excel at sexy; erotic thrillers have been pumped out by American directors for decades now (mostly on direct to home video) but they tend to push the overt sex scenes over seduction, using well-worn clichés to advance the story line  rather than coming up with clever twists of their own. The cat and mouse game between Christine and Isabelle takes a sudden turn that comes as a surprise unless you are very observant early on (or read a dumbass review spoiling the twist) but that’s not the really great part of the film – what happens afterwards and how one of the characters handles the situation they are left in is simply brilliant.

The title can be taken a couple of different ways which I’m not sure that Corneau intended – I’m not sure that the French title which this is directly taken from translates in the same way but I love that it can be interpreted as a crime of love, or someone who loves crime. That’s the kind of thing you roll over in your head in a movie like this. To put it bluntly, this is a movie that requires a little bit of brainpower to truly enjoy properly and not everyone wants to put in that kind of effort, which I can understand. However those who like their thrillers smart and sexy should seek this one out.

WHY RENT THIS: Sagnier is stellar. Really well-written story.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Requires a good deal of attention to pick up on the film’s subtle clues and hints – some viewers may not want to invest the effort.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sexuality, some sudden and brutal violence, and adult situations not to mention a bit of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Corneau’s last film and was released posthumously after his death from cancer on August 30, 2010; the film also was remade by director Brian dePalma as Passion.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3.6M on a $9.1M production budget; the movie was a box office disappointment.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Deathtrap

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Rabbit-Proof Fence

Cinema Paradiso (Nuovo Cinema Paradiso)


Cinema Paradiso

Movies are magic!

(1988) Drama (Miramax) Jacques Perrin, Philippe Noiret, Salvatore Cascio, Agnese Nano, Marco Leonardi, Antonella Attili, Pupella Maggio, Isa Danielli, Leonardo Trieste, Roberta Lina, Leo Gullotta, Enzo Cannavale, Nicola Di Pinto, Nino Terzo. Directed by Giusseppe Tornatore

 

Some movies are so personal to the director that you feel like you are getting a glimpse of their very soul. Those movies can be a mixed blessing, but in other cases they become timeless classics that change your point of view forever.

Cinema Paradiso is one such film. It charts the journey of Salvatore “Toto” Di Vita who as an adult (Perrin) gets a phone call from his mother that his childhood mentor Alfredo (Noiret) has passed away. He returns to his home town in Sicily, a small village where the 20th century arrived kicking and screaming.

As a boy (Cascio) he waited in vain for his father to come back from the war. He soon found something to be fascinated by – the town’s only movie theater which is basically the only source of entertainment for the village. He is taken under the wing of Alfredo, who allows him to watch movies from the projection booth. There he learns the language of cinema – of close ups and cross cuts, of montage and flashback.

But the idyllic life of a small town takes a dark turn when a fire robs Alfredo of his sight – and it would have been more had it not been for the courage and quick thinking of Toto. As a teenager (Leonardi) he takes over the projectionist duties with the help and guidance of his mentor. He also develops a crush on Elena (Nano), a blue-eyed blonde who confounds and bedevils him, but also excites and inspires him.

He will reach a point in his life in which he will need to make a decision to go or stay – to remain the conduit of dreams in his little village, or to become a maker of dreams. We know what he chooses but why he goes down the path he takes…well, it is not exactly what you might expect.

This was the 1989 Best Foreign Film Academy Award winner, and deservedly so. Oscar doesn’t always get these things right but they sure did here. This film is a classic, a once in a lifetime movie that not only gives us a sense of nostalgia for why we love the movies but a sense of sadness for the roads not taken.

Tornatore brilliantly cast three different actors for the same role. They don’t really look much alike, but they certainly all channeled the essence of Toto. I don’t know if Perrin, Cascio and Leonardi had much communication before filming began but the performances sure come off as if they did. The three actors are seamless in changing from one to the other – and never at any point do you feel as if you’re seeing the interpretation of a role but three actors playing the same person at different points in his life. It’s amazing to see and critical to the success of the film.

There are moments of pure magic – such as Alfredo projecting the movie on a building across the square after the theater has closed for the night, or a montage of kissing scenes that were cut from the movies at the behest of the village priest who every week meticulously sat through each film, ringing a bell whenever he wanted Alfredo to snip a scene out.

Hollywood has often viewed small town life through a rose-colored lens and it’s kind of comforting to know that Rome has the same lens in place. This is a film that moves you and touches you. Even if you didn’t live a life anywhere near what Toto did you will certainly find elements of the story that will resonate with you. Cinema Paradiso isn’t just about the movies – it’s about life, and maybe that’s why we love the movies so much because at the end of the day, that’s what all movies are about in some way shape or form.

The original cut oddly enough is not the one shown in America initially. The Weinsteins made some cuts and it is that version that won the Oscar. Later, they released it briefly in its original uncut form. Strangely, like Roger Ebert, I prefer the cut version. The original one feels a bit overlong to me although it does give a good deal more insight into the Elena-Toto romance and what happened to it. You should certainly see it if you loved the American version of it, but it requires a more patient European personality I think.

WHY RENT THIS: A marvelous look at the meaning of home for better and for worse and of the place of movies and magic in it.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Runs a little bit long, particularly the director’s cut edition.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a bit of sexuality on the director’s cut and a disturbing scene of a fire in both editions.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Samples of dialogue from the movie can be heard in the Dream Theater song “Take the Time.”

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The DVD collector’s edition includes both the theatrical and director cuts of the film as well as recipe cards for dishes inspired by the film as well as the Food Network show in which Michael Chiarello discussed the film and the dishes he created around it. Because the rights to the director’s cut edition lie with a different studio, the Blu-Ray version of the film includes only the shorter theatrical cut and none of the extras (including the commentaries and featurettes) found on the DVD so you might be better off finding the collector’s edition on eBay.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $12.4M on an unreported production budget; the movie was in all likelihood a hit (as we only have domestic box office figures).

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Picture Show

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: The Odd Life of Timothy Green

Killer Elite


Killer Elite

A couple of dusty badasses.

(2011) Action Thriller (Open Road) Jason Statham, Clive Owen, Robert De Niro, Yvonne Strahovski, Dominic Purcell, Aden Young, Ben Mendelsohn, Lachy Hulme, Firass Dirani, Grant Bowler, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Rodney Afif, Michael Dorman. Directed by Gary McKendry

Revenge is a dish best served cold, or so it is said. There is also a saying that if you seek revenge, you’re also seeking your own death.

Danny Bryce (Statham) is a member of the British Special Air Services (SAS), one of the elite forces of counter-espionage in the world, right up there with the Israeli MOSSAD and the U.S. Army Rangers/Navy Seals. He works on a team with his mentor Hunter (De Niro) and general fixer Davies (Purcell). While on assignment in Mexico, Danny inadvertently kills his target in front of his young son. Disgusted by his own actions, he decides to quit the game.

Some years later, Danny – now living in Australia and romancing local farmer Anne (Strahovski) gets a letter essentially informing him that Hunter has been captured and airline tickets are sent. Danny is met in some Godforsaken Middle Eastern country by Agent (Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a travel agent and middleman for mercenaries.

It turns out that Hunter had taken a job for Sheikh Amr (Afif) who at one time had ruled Oman. He had been deposed, mostly due to the efforts of the British SAS who had also been responsible for the death of three of his sons. Now that the Sheikh is dying, he wants those responsible to be brought to justice (i.e. killed) and their confessions taped. Oh, and their deaths must look like accidents. If Danny fails to do this or the Sheikh dies before all three men are killed, the Sheikh’s remaining son (Dirani) will execute Hunter.

Throwing a monkey wrench into the proceedings is another former SAS agent, Spike Logan (Owen) who works at the behest of a secret society of other former SAS agents known as the Feathermen, because as one dryly informs him, their touch is as light as a feather, meaning they kill subtly and without announcing their presence. All three of the targets are members and when Harris (Hulme), the first name on the list is killed, a war is literally underway between Danny and his team (which includes Davies) and Logan and the Feathermen – with political ramifications that neither Logan and Danny have any clue about.

This is reportedly based on a true story; the producers say that both in the advertising for the movie and in the movie itself. This should be taken with a grain of salt. The author of the original, Ranulph Fiennes (who is played in the movie by Dion Mills in a small role) claims first-hand knowledge of the events and called the book he wrote on the subject (“The Feathermen” which he dubbed “factional” as a blurring of fact and fiction and which the movie is listed as “inspired by) although there has been much controversy as to whether his story was cut from whole cloth.

To me that is less important as to whether the story captures the attention of the viewers. To a certain extent, this one does, although some of the ins and outs seem unnecessary and vague. In fact, there are a whole lot of twists involving the various factions – the British government, the Feathermen, Danny’s group. At times I found myself simply noting and disregarding.

This is Jason Statham’s movie, which is a good and bad thing. Statham has an enormous charisma and of all the action heroes working today might well be the most likable. He has some limitations as an actor – at least, he hasn’t been pushed yet to exceed the range he’s displayed thus far – but what he does do he does well and he’s never better at it than he is here. He’s tough, he’s remorseless and he isn’t exactly a chatterbox. He’s also fiercely loyal and will walk through fire for a friend.

Owen is also a very likable actor and when he’s on his game, he’s as good as anyone. Unfortunately this isn’t one of his better parts; the character is written in kind of a scattershot fashion and for a brilliant strategist he is a little slow on the uptake. De Niro is sort of an afterthought, here more or less for marquee value; he more or less phones it in. Yvonne Strahovski from TV’s “Chuck” gets to use her native Australian accent in a fairly mundane role; there are brighter and better parts in store for her than this.

This is a pretty basic and entertaining action thriller but it certainly is flawed. It isn’t going to alter your perception or even stay long in your memory once you’ve seen it, but it will keep you entertained for the time you’re watching it and there could be worse testimonials than that.

REASONS TO GO: Some awesome action sequences and Statham at his best.

REASONS TO STAY: Nolan and De Niro are both almost afterthoughts. Some of the period look is jarring.

FAMILY VALUES: Very strong violence, lots of bad words and some sexuality and nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sir Ranulph Fiennes, author of the book this is based on, is cited by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s greatest living explorer.

HOME OR THEATER: Some of the action sequences will be more impressive on the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Tucker and Dale vs. Evil

Eragon


Eragon

Eragon asks Sephira for a light which proves to be a mistake.

(2006) Fantasy (20th Century Fox) Ed Speleers, Jeremy Irons, Robert Carlyle, John Malkovich, Rachel Weisz (voice), Sienna Guillory, Garret Hedlund, Alun Armstrong, Djimon Honsou, Chris Egan, Gary Lewis, Richard Rifkin, Stephen Speirs, Joss Stone.  Directed by Stefen Fangmeier

Since the advent of Harry Potter and the onscreen Lord of the Rings trilogy Hollywood has been scrambling to cash in on the fantasy bandwagon. Whereas young adult fantasy fiction has all but dominated bestseller charts, other than J.K. Rowling’s juggernaut that hasn’t translated to box office gold as of yet.

This challenger for the title starts in the magical land of Alagaesia, although the inhabitants thereof would find little magic in their lot. Once a prosperous, kindly land, it has sunk into darkness and despair. Where once wise and just Dragon Riders maintained peace and justice, a despotic King rules with an iron fist. The most terrible thing is that Galbatorix (Malkovich) was once a Dragon Rider himself, but he betrayed and slew all the dragons save one egg, which his sorcerer Durza (Carlyle) is unable to destroy. The egg waits patiently for a Rider to bond with it before it will hatch.

In a feat of daring, Princess Arya (Guillory) steals the egg. With the King’s guards and his pet sorcerer hot on her trail, she finally runs out of time. Summoning the last of her strength, she uses a magic spell to transport the egg out of danger. The spell leaves her exhausted and she is captured by Durza.

Eragon (Speleers), a young farm boy, is out hunting when a bright light attracts his attention. He finds a bright blue stone, the like of which he’s never seen before. When he touches it, it burns him in a strange, reptilian pattern on his palm. He decides not to tell his Uncle Garrow (Armstrong) about what he has found, but rather goes into town to try to sell the item. When the shopkeeper finds out that Eragon picked it up in the King’s Preserve, he turns pale and tells him to get it out of the village at once lest it bring ruin on them all.

Disappointed, Eragon is sitting in the local tavern when he overhears Brom (Irons), the village whacko, talk about the near mythical Dragon Riders. This is broken up by King’s Guards, who don’t like the mention of the Riders. Eragon goes home to discover that what he thought was a stone was in fact an egg and it has hatched – a dragon. The dragon grows remarkably quickly into adulthood, and to Eragon’s astonishment, he discovers he can hear the dragon’s thoughts. She tells him her name is Sephira (Weisz) and that he is her rider.

Confused, Eragon seeks out the only man who seems to know anything about dragons – Brom. When Brom finally is convinced that Eragon is not lying, he warns him that his life is in danger – the King will want him and his dragon slain. Eragon realizes that his Uncle Garrow is in mortal danger and races back for the farm, but is too late. Garrow has been murdered. The two must flee, and Brom is dead set on taking Eragon to the Varden, rebels against the King who live in inaccessible mountains. Durza, however, is hot on their trail and his spies are everywhere. Eragon is hot-headed and impulsive, and clashes with Brom at nearly every turn. Add to that visions of Arya that move Eragon to seek her out with some urgency and it looks like his destiny to reclaim justice and peace for Alagaesia may end before it begins.

The big knock on this movie has been that it borrows quite heavily from both The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars mythologies. Quite frankly, the story of Eragon seems to have been lifted from the original Star Wars virtually intact. That’s not a sin in and of itself; both of those stories were plundered from mythologies even more ancient than their own. Still, Eragon doesn’t seem to have any sort of fresh perspective to the tale; instead, this seems to be a re-telling more than anything. One has to keep in mind that original author Christopher Paolini was a teenager at the time; for his age he’s a terrific writer but let’s face it – he’s got a long way to go to be up there with Tolkein, Brooks and Jordan. Still, you have to give the kid some slack.

To the good, it has some nice performances from Irons, Carlyle and Malkovich. Speleers doesn’t do spectacularly well, but he at least fares better than the wholly wooden performance of Hayden Christensen in the second Star Wars trilogy. The CG dragon Sephira is also magnificent; she looks like a cross between a bird and a dinosaur, and comes off as a magnificent creature with an underlying personality. She’s half the reason to see the movie.

As fantasy movies go, this one doesn’t fare too badly thanks largely to some of the veteran actors in it who at least give it the old college try, even if the material is somewhat cliche and unremarkable. However, if you’re looking for another Lord of the Rings or even another Harry Potter, look elsewhere. Fox hedged their bets by only committing to filming the first book. I didn’t see a particular reason to continue with the second, and unless the box office picks up and I would imagine the accountants at Fox won’t either.

WHY RENT THIS: Spectacular CGI dragon and sterling performances from Irons, Malkovich and Carlyle.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Uninspired, derivative storyline lifting unashamedly from Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. Speleers doesn’t make a particularly charismatic leading man.

FAMILY MATTERS: There are some semi-graphic battle sequences, a few images that aren’t for the squeamish and some fantasy violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Alex Pettyfer was offered the role but turned it down because the movie was filming in Budapest and he was afraid of flying, a fear he has since gotten over.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There’s an interview with Paolini on the trilogy of books he has written (for which Eragon is the first) as well as a look at the second book in the triology (which would never be filmed and doesn’t look like it will be anytime soon).  This is available only on the two-disc DVD and Blu-Ray editions.

FINAL BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $249.5M on a $100M production budget; the movie was only slightly profitable.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Insidious

The Mechanic (2011)


The Mechanic

Jason Statham wants to renegotiate his fee.

(2011) Action (CBS) Jason Statham, Ben Foster, Tony Goldwyn, Donald Sutherland, Jeff Chase, Mini Anden, James Logan, Joshua Bridgewater, Mark Anthony Nutter, John McConnell, Lara Grice, Ada Michelle Loridans, Eddie Fernandez, Lance Nichols, J.D. Evermore. Directed by Simon West

Being an assassin is a lonely business. Killing people for hire tends to breed a certain amount of paranoia into one’s makeup; meticulous planning leads to success in this world, and those who allow a human interaction into the mix are just begging for trouble.

Arthur Bishop (Statham) is the best in the world at what he does. He’s a mechanic, a professional hitman who takes care of problems. He is adept at any sort of hit; be it one that looks like an accident or natural occurrence, or one that sends a message. He is employed by a shadowy company that rents out hired killers to wealthy clients, although Bishop’s hits are apparently only criminals and terrorists. As John Cusack said in a similar role in Grosse Point Blank, “If I show up at your door, chances are you did something to deserve it.”

After taking care of a Columbian drug lord (Logan) in a typically efficient and professional manner, Bishop returns home to New Orleans to meet with his mentor and corporate contact Harry McKenna (Sutherland) to receive his payment. The two banter about like old friends, which they are; bitching about corporate politics and Harry’s somewhat useless son Steve (Foster) from whom he is estranged. Bishop then goes home to his gorgeous house on the bayou which is accessible only by boat

Not long thereafter Harry meets an untimely end. Bishop is none too thrilled about it, but he has issues to take care of. Harry’s son Steve also shows up, angry at the world and ready to take out a random carjacker (Bridgewater) in the wrong place at the wrong time. Bishop shows up just in time to avert a stupid act of vengeance that would have ruined Steve’s life and agrees to take him on as a protégé. He trains him not only in the skill of firing weapons but in the art of killing. He even takes him along on the job to watch him kill a gunrunner (Evermore), a kind of “take your surrogate kid to work day” exercise.

The two then go after a couple of victims on their own, a rival mechanic (Chase) and a preacher/cult leader named Vaughn (McConnell). Due to Steve’s sloppiness and inability to follow instructions, they both turn messy. About then they discover that the death of Steve’s dad was ordered by Dean (Goldwyn), a high-ranking executive of the company which coupled with the botched assignments makes them a corporate liability. The mechanics become problems for other mechanics to fix. Can they get to Dean before he gets to them?

This is a remake of a 1972 film with Charles Bronson in the title role and Jan-Michael Vincent as Steve. That one, directed by frequent Bronson collaborator Michael Winner, was much more noir than this and like many films from the era had a somewhat fatalistic atmosphere. Some of the conceits of that movie don’t really translate well to this era of filmmaking, so the movie is different (although not radically so) than the original.

Director West, who has a mentor of his own in Michael Bay (West is best known for directing Con Air), is a strong action director and knows how to appeal to the hearts of men everywhere. There is nary a woman to be seen except as hookers (Anden) and victims (Grice and Loridans, whose arm Bishop threatens to stuff down a garbage disposal to motivate her dad for information).

Jason Statham was a wise bit of casting. Like Bronson, he plays it close to the vest emotionally. He conveys amusement with a little half-smile and annoyance with a half-frown. He is the perfect ice cold killer, which is what the character needs to be. He bares his chest and then some in the opening moments of the film, and ladies will get a nice up close look at nearly all of him later in the movie; for the guys, he kicks ass without ever breaking a sweat. However, it must be said he has the best stubble beard in the business.

Foster is an up-and-coming actor who already has an Oscar nomination under his belt; although this is most assuredly not going to win him his next one, I think that he’s going to win gold in that department in the very near future. He gives Steve menace and vulnerability at once, as well as a sexual ambiguity that adds some spice to the role. It’s a magnificent portrayal and well worth the price of admission for his performance alone.

The movie is a bit too workmanlike. My problem with it is that Bishop is so good that even when things go south you never get a sense that he’s in danger. He always seems to be two or three steps ahead of everybody else. He’s a bit like Superman in that regard; Superman is so strong and so invulnerable that it’s pretty hard to convey a sense of jeopardy. Bishop needs a really strong opponent and there isn’t one in the movie. No kryptonite here, either.

Still, it’s got all the elements you need in an action film – fast pacing, great stunts, things blowing up, a couple of hot naked (or nearly naked) babes and lots and lots of guns. While action movies have less cachet since the era of Schwarzenegger and Stallone, this one at least is a decent enough entry in the genre. Action fans will certainly be satisfied.

REASONS TO GO: Some decent action sequences. Foster is really good in his role. There may be no better action star at the moment than Jason Statham.

REASONS TO STAY: You rarely get a sense that there is any danger for Arthur Bishop – he’s almost too good for there to be a sense of jeopardy here.

FAMILY VALUES: As you might expect in a movie about an assassin, there’s lots of violence and a couple of disturbing on-screen murders. There’s also plenty of foul language, some nudity and sexuality as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sarah, the role played by Anden, was played by Jill Ireland in the original 1972 version (Ireland was then-wife to Charles Bronson). The character in that movie had no name and was listed in the credits as “The Girl.” 

HOME OR THEATER: The action sequences don’t have that epic a quality to them; the explosions might work better on the big screen. As far as I’m concerned, it’s all a matter of personal preference whether or not you want to see it at home or in a theater; you make the call.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Way Back