Shoot ’em Up


Shoot 'em Up

Paul Giamatti finds Clive Owen's mid-afternoon snack of a carrot and a baby bottle disturbing.

(2007) Action Comedy (New Line) Clive Owen, Paul Giamatti, Monica Bellucci, Stephen McHattie, Greg Bryk, Daniel Pilon, Ramona Pringle, Julian Richards, Tony Munch, Scott McCord, Wiley M. Pickett, Stephen R. Hart, Laura de Carteret. Directed by Michael Davis.

Sometimes, a mindless action movie is just the ticket. It allows you to sink back into your sofa or lounge seat with a b bowl of popcorn in your lap and a 2-litre bottle of soda on your coffee table and just switch your brain to “off.” Shoot ‘Em Up is just the ticket for those seeking escape.

Mr. Smith (Owen) is just minding his own business, sitting at a bus stop and eating a carrot when he sees a pregnant woman (Pringle) scurrying by him, obviously in distress and pain. Moments later a sinister black car squeals around the corner and slams into a parked car. A man (Pickett) gets out, roaring threats and obscenities, and follows her down a dark alley, throwing a sneered “What are you looking at?” to the innocent bystander. Once the man cocks a gun, the innocent bystander stands with a sigh, and says “Bloody hell!” in a resigned voice. Thus he turns from innocent bystander to Good Samaritan, all in the space of a two-word phrase. That’s just good writing (not to mention good acting). In any case, he heads in, and starts killing people; Death by shooting, death by stabbing, death by carrot (more than once). Soon, there are all sorts of killers in the room, led by the over-the-top Mr. Hertz (Giamatti) who may not be Avis but is certainly trying harder to get the job done; I think we see more of Mr. Giamatti’s teeth than we do in any other single movie, as his expression is almost perpetually a rabid snarl. Smith enlists the aid of a lactating hooker (Bellucci) to help him keep the baby fed, but essentially they are in a running gun battle from here on in.

That’s essentially all the plot you need for Shoot ‘Em Up. Yeah, there’s a bit more back story with a senator running for president on a gun control platform who has a special relationship with the baby and his/her mother and a corrupt gun manufacturer, but that’s all window dressing anyway. All you need to know is that bullets fly, cars crash, buildings explode and people are chopped into Alpo in all sorts of entertaining and disgusting ways. You will see blood, baby poop and strained carrot. You’ll see a neon sign turned into a means of personal insult between Hertz and Smith. You’ll see executions, breasts, torture, people falling out of airplanes, broken bones, spurting wounds and thugs getting shot in the ass. In fact, you’ll hear a lot of expletives, a lot of them. What you won’t find here is a dull moment.

Director Davis to date had only directed a handful of movies, the best-known of which was the indie comedy Eight Days a Week, none of which would really prepare anyone for this movie. His hyperkinetic style is very reminiscent of John Woo and other Hong Kong actioners (which is fitting, since his cinematographer is the great Peter Pau, whose credits include Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Bride with White Hair). Davis and Pau rarely stoop to clichés, such as the super slo-mo leap, or the bullet time dodge. Nope, things keep hopping from start to finish. There is rarely time for breath (although there is a pretty hot sex scene to break things up).

Owen, on the heels of Sin City and Children of Men has developed into quite the action star. His hangdog face belies the tough guy within, and he is certainly as tough as they come here. He’s smooth and unflappable; no wonder he was a frontrunner for the vacant James Bond part that eventually went to Daniel Craig. Giamatti plays the anti-Cleveland Heep, an assassin with no conscience, no remorse and absolutely relentless in pursuit of his target. He makes a surprisingly good villain. Those who thought that the Matrix series didn’t feature enough of Bellucci will be more than satisfied here.

Don’t go into the theater expecting much in the way of plot or character. Few of the folks appearing onscreen are actually given names, and there’s a good reason for that. The thing here, people, is the action sequences, and these are executed to perfection. Shoot ‘Em Up is just that, a poster child for truth in titling. It’s loud, unapologetically masculine and relentlessly kinetic. You may not be illuminated when you exit the theater, but I almost guarantee you’ll be entertained.

WHY RENT THIS: Non-stop hyperkinetic but perfectly executed action sequences.  Lots of breasts for the guys, lots of Clive Owen for the ladies. Unexpected wit.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Plot? What plot? Relentlessly bloody and over-the-top. Doesn’t just push the edge, it obliterates it and then urinates on it for good measure.

FAMILY VALUES: A ton of violence (if that wasn’t made clear in the review), some strong sexuality and nudity, and a profusion of profanity. Bring the kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The infant who played the baby was cast before he was even born; a woman who was expecting twins agreed to allow her newborns to be used in the film.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There are some special effects test shots and animatics but otherwise none worth mentioning.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $26.8M on a $39M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio

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The Private Lives of Pippa Lee


Keanu Reeves pretends to listen to what Robin Wright Penn is saying.

(2009) Dramedy (Screen Media) Robin Wright Penn, Keanu Reeves, Alan Arkin, Blake Lively, Maria Bello, Monica Bellucci, Julianne Moore, Winona Ryder, Shirley Knight, Mike Binder, Zoe Kazan, Ryan McDonald. Directed by Rebecca Miller

What lies beneath the veneer of a pleasant suburban life isn’t always what you think it might be. A Martha Stewart-perfect housewife may have a sordid past; indeed, so may we all.

Pippa Lee (Wright Penn) appears to be that perfect wife and mother. She is an impressive cook, has raised two adult children and keeps her home immaculate. She is married to Herb (Arkin), a semi-retired publishing magnate who lives life with perhaps more gusto than he should; after all, he’s pushing 80. The two have moved to an upscale Connecticut retirement home even though Pippa is far from retirement age.

While friend Sam Shapiro (Binder) toasts her as an enigma in a complimentary way, Pippa doesn’t find it to be  a compliment. She’d rather be known, as she says on the voiceover. An enigma can be relegated, set aside, ignored, taken for granted. In many ways, Pippa is all of those things. In many ways, she chose those as a refuge from a life that was a little bit more wild once upon a time.

Her life has never been an easy one. She grew up (portrayed by Lively as the young Pippa) in a home dominated by her drug-addicted mom Suky (Bello) and eventually escaped her psychotic mom’s embraces to go live with her kind-hearted lesbian aunt – at least until her aunt’s girlfriend (Moore), a photographer who specializes in lesbian sadomasochistic pornography, decides to have Pippa pose for a few shots.

Pippa goes on to live on the fringes of society in the places where young women indulge in drug use and random sex. She would seem to be headed on the same self-destructive path of her mother had it not been for a chance encounter with Herb at a party, even though Herb is married to a frightfully high-strung European named Gigi (Belluci). Herb and Pippa begin an affair that leads Herb to ask for a divorce, which leads to a rather shocking denouement.

In the present, she is placed in a position that gives her far too much free time to consider what she’s given up for this comfortable life. She confides in a neighbor (Ryder) who goes on strange but amusing crying jags and begins a romantic flirtation with Chris (Reeves), the honest-to-a-fault son of another neighbor (Knight) who is going through a shiftless phase at the moment (Chris, not his mom). That seems to be just what the doctor ordered for Pippa – until her entire world is shattered.

Miller directed this from a novel that she herself wrote. She has shown in some of her previous films (Angela, The Ballad of Jack and Rose) a keen eye for the female viewpoint and for women’s issues in general. Not that this is an issue film as such – while Pippa does have issues, they aren’t any that would get a charity fund. It’s more of a character study.

Wright Penn, who after the filming of this movie divorced Sean Penn and dropped the Penn from her name, gives one of her more compelling performances, which is saying something considering some of the roles she’s assayed over the past 20 years. I believe her to be the best actress working who’s never been nominated for an Oscar; I suspect had this movie gotten distribution from a bigger studio, she might just have given up that dubious distinction.

When you consider the impressive cast behind her (who all do a terrific job by the way) it’s a wonder that a major (or at least a midsize studio) didn’t pick this up, but perhaps they might have had some of the same qualms about the movie I did. I found that the flashbacks were a bit jarring in places, giving the movie a kind of choppy feel. The flow between Pippa’s previous lives and her present one never feels organic, making the movie feel oddly unsatisfying.

I will give Miller props for not taking the easy path with this and degenerating into schmaltz and treacle. This isn’t soap opera fare to say the least; while you may feel sorry for Pippa, you never for a moment get the impression she feels sorry for herself. I believe this is meant to be a look at the complexities of a specific woman and point out that even the most accomplished and apparently successful people didn’t get there without cost. Sometimes they pay a heavy price for the lives they lead; Miller, who is the daughter of playwright Arthur Miller, undoubtedly knows that better than most.

WHY RENT THIS: Wright gives a splendid performance and gets some real support from a fine cast. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie is disjointed at times and the flow can be a bit rough. Some of the movie’s raw emotional scenes left me unmoved.

FAMILY VALUES: The movie has a decent amount of sexual situations including some brief nudity. There’s also a scene of drug use and some coarse language throughout.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Julianne Moore spent only two days filming her part.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Entertainment journalists lob up some softball questions in what appears to be footage from a press junket.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.7M on an unreported production budget; the film probably lost money.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: TRON: Legacy

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice


The Sorcerer's Apprentice

Alfred Molina is disturbed to discover that Nicolas Cage has blue balls.

(Disney) Nicolas Cage, Jay Baruchel, Alfred Molina, Teresa Palmer, Monica Bellucci, Toby Kebbell, Alice Krige, Omar Benson Miller, Jake Cherry, James A. Stephens, Gregory Woo, Peyton Roi List, Nicole Ehringer, Ian McShane (voice). Directed by Jon Turtletaub

 The world is a magical place, even the parts we can see. There exists a whole world, however, that we can’t, one in which the impossible is commonplace, and in that world good battles evil incessantly, barely in the lead although not without cost.

Balthazar Blake (Cage) is one of the three apprentices to Merlin (Stephens) – yes, that one – back in 840 AD, along with Veronica (Bellucci) and Horvath (Molina). All of them are in conflict with Morgana le Fay (Krige), who wants to enslave the world by using a spell called The Rising, which will raise the dead into an army for her. She probably should have put in a call to George A. Romero.

Horvath betrays his fellows and Veronica takes a bullet for Balthazar, winding up imprisoned along with Morgana in a grimhold, a nesting doll that acts like a prison. As the years roll by, Balthazar adds more of Morgana’s followers to the grimhold as additional layers to the doll until he finally captures Horvath himself.

But Balthazar’s work is far from done. The dying Merlin told Balthazar that only one sorcerer can truly destroy Morgana and it is Balthazar’s job to find him. It only takes about 1200 years, but Balthazar finally locates him. Talk about determination!

Young Dave (Cherry) goes on a school field trip and spends most of it trying to get the attention of a comely young blonde named Becky Barnes (List), whom he asks in a note if she’s interested in him as a friend or a girlfriend. Becky checks the appropriate box, but a coincidental wind blows the note all the way to a curio shop named Arcana Cabana which is run by – you guessed it – Balthazar. Using the test of a dragon ring, Balthazar realizes that Dave is the one he’s looking for; the Prime Merlinian. Note to writers: where do you come up with these names? It sounds like something dreamed up by a panel of math geeks at an MIT calculus conference.

Because he’s nine (or ten, depending on who you ask) years old, Dave manages to release Horvath from the nesting doll…err, grimhold, and all Hades breaks loose. Balthazar and Horvath manage to be sucked into a magical urn that will hold them for ten years to the day. Why? Just because.

Ten years later, the adult Dave (Baruchel) is a physics nerd at NYU when he runs into old flame Becky (Palmer) when he runs a physics primer for English majors, which is an idea which no doubt the administrators at NYU are scratching their heads and wondering “wha…?” about. Although apparently without a job and no visible means of support, Dave has placed several eight-foot Tesla coils together in an unauthorized lab in a subway turnaround. Why? Just because.

Of course, now the two wizards are out of their urn and looking for that grimhold, Balthazar so that he can protect the world and potentially destroy Morgana once and for all, and Horvath because he wants to resurrect Morgana and destroy the world. Why? Just because.

Balthazar knows he needs to teach Dave the basics of magic and quickly because (queue serious music) the fate of the world rests in his hands. Why? Just…oh you know what comes next.

The trio of producer Jerry Bruckheimer, director Turtletaub and Cage has previously teamed up in the two National Treasure movies, which I found to be a seriously entertaining take on the Indiana Jones movies. This one is less effective although it still remains entertaining. This movie is a bit of a mash-up between genres, an action movie blended with a fantasy movie, sort of like Harry Potter in Die Hard. Expelliarmus mothereffer!

Cage and Molina are effective here, and you get the feeling there is a bit of a nudge and a wink in their work. They spend most of the movie lobbing plasma balls and one-liners at one another. Baruchel is less effective for me. He is the perennial dweeb in movies over the last few years, and I can understand why he was cast – Dave is certainly a science nerd. However, his hunched over posture, perpetual whining coupled with his inability to make intelligent choices, made it very hard for me to root for him. I was kind of hoping that Cage would turn him into a newt and save the day.

There is plenty of eye candy and most of it is pretty decent, although there’s a ton of plasma balls, fire streams and lightning bolts hurtling around. Some real cool sequences include a Chinese dragon (which while it was chasing Dave, made me think inadvertently of the much better movie How to Train a Dragon which featured Baruchel’s voice) and a steel eagle from the Chrysler building. There is also an homage to the sequence in Fantasia that inspired this movie which I enjoyed.

The trouble with movies about magic is that sorcerer’s should be pretty much invincible, particularly ones as powerful as these. For example, there is an extended car chase sequence in the last third of the movie; very well done, but it seemed to be fairly pedestrian. They could have easily done a chase with something more imaginative – invisible horses, beams of light, anything – and you would think that a sorcerer could wave his arms and turn the car into a mule.

Similarly, a crucial plot point involves Becky moving a satellite dish so that a spell can go awry. Wouldn’t the sorcerer casting the spell be able to move the satellite dish back into place? After all, they’ve been moving objects telekinetically throughout the movie.

But I digress. Anyone going to a movie like this and expecting Scorsese is a lunatic. This is Bruckheimer, and he excels at movies that entertain on a visceral level rather than inspire or educate, and that’s fine folks – we all need mindless entertainment once in awhile. However, I would have expected a movie about magic to be more, well, magical. Definitely this is entertaining, but it could have been done so much better with a bit more imagination.

REASONS TO GO: Cage and Molina do some pretty solid work here. The eye candy is effective.

REASONS TO STAY: Baruchel is a bit too whiny and foolish to get behind as a heroic lead. The whole car chase sequence seemed unnecessary and could have been handled more imaginatively.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of fantasy violence and some scenes of brief sexuality, but for the most part should be okay for audiences of all ages, although some of the creatures might be a little scary for the littlest of kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character of Abigail Williams is based on an actual person who was accused of being a witch in Salem, Massachusetts in the 17th century, ran away and was never heard from again.

HOME OR THEATER: There are enough sequences that have the gee-whiz factor that I give a slight nod towards seeing it in the theater.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: My Life in Ruins