Safe


Safe

Jason Statham intimidates Catherine Chan into liking his Facebook page.

(2012) Action (Lionsgate) Jason Statham, Robert John Burke, Chris Sarandon, Catherine Chan, Anson Mount, James Hong, Sandor Tecsy, Joseph Sikora, Igor Jijikine, Reggie Lee, James Colby, Matt O’Toole, Barry Bradford, Jay Giannone. Directed by Boaz Yakin

 

Redemption isn’t easy. It usually requires sacrifice and great risk. You aren’t just handed it; it has to be earned and the greater the transgression, generally the more difficult the redemption.

Luke Wright (Statham) has had what might generously be described as a checkered past. A special forces black ops guy with a set of skills that would make Rambo look like a Disney princess, he had been recruited by the New York City Police Department after 9/11 to help ferret out further terrorist attacks on the Big Apple and eliminate the threats. Permanently.

However he gradually became aware that great corruption had set in his team, led by Captain Wolf (Burke) and Luke blew the whistle. It really didn’t accomplish much other than to get him drummed out of the Force and business as usual resumed. Luke went on to fight in underground MMA fights; however when Luke was enjoined by the Russian mob to take a dive in his fight, the incompetent opponent got himself knocked out before Luke was supposed to take his fall and as a result, the mob murdered his wife and warned him that anyone he befriended would be killed. For several years, Luke lived on the streets alone and anyone who showed him kindness or even attention usually got themselves whacked.

He’d had enough and went to the subway meaning to throw himself in front of a train and finish the job the mob started. However, before he can end it all he sees a little Asian girl being stalked on the platform by the same mobsters who murdered his wife. Unable to stand idly by, he rescues the girl and puts a whole lot of Russian thugs in the morgue.

He discovers the girl’s name is Mei (Chan) and that she’s an orphan gifted with the ability to remember really anything she is told, including really long strings of numbers. She was taken from her home in China by triad boss Han Jiao (Wong) who has set Quan Chang (Lee) to babysit her. Han had recently returned to New York City to give Mei a very long string of numbers to memorize with the instructions that she would soon meet someone who would give her a second very long string of numbers to memorize.

It turns out that one set opens a safe holding $35 million. The other opens a safe that holds a disc containing information of all the Triad’s operations in New York. The Russians will give the contents of one for the contents of the other. The cops want all of it. Everyone’s gunning for this kid and Luke has put himself square in the middle of it.

The results are pretty much carnage; gunfights, martial arts beatdowns, car chases and lots of screaming in Russian, Mandarin and English (well, with a thick New York accent anyway). It’s all good, particularly if you love to see things blow up, things get shot and Jason Statham glowering.

Director Yakin isn’t noted for his action chops but he does a pretty good job here. Action movies need to be kinetic in every sense; the plot has to move along with the action and all things considered, this has a pretty good one. It isn’t anything you haven’t already seen before on either side of the equation – there are no stunts here that take your breath away nor is the plot or story much more than several action classics cobbled together.

Most of those action classics are from the ’70s when the movies tended to be anti-government. Safe harkens back to a day when The Man was literally out to get you and had his goon squads coming down on the innocent, laughing maniacally as they machine gunned innocent civilians. This is little different and only misses big afros, eight track tapes and headbands from those pictures. And maybe Curtis Mayfield on the soundtrack.

Still, Statham is as good at asskicking as any of the 70s heroes (Billy Jack, Shaft, Superfly and so on) and has the Clint Eastwood growl down to boot. The technical end is better as well – this is a pretty good looking film, with plenty of neon, glass breaking and blood spray. Action fans will get their money’s worth and for those who aren’t into action movies? Well, this is as good an introduction to the genre as any but if those sorts of movies aren’t your cup of tea, there isn’t enough else here to really make this worth your while.

REASONS TO GO: Jason Statham kicks ass (as usual). A nice throwback to 70s urban paranoia action flicks.

REASONS TO STAY: Nothing here that you haven’t seen before.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of violence, particularly of the gunshot variety and a fair amount of cursing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie in a three-film distribution deal between Lionsgate and IM Global, an international productions company that specializes in action films. Dredd and Protection being the other two films in the deal.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/14/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100. It’s safe to say the reviews have been pretty mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Witness

CAR CHASE LOVERS: There are three distinct car chase scenes during the film.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Midnight Meat Train


Midnight Meat Train

Bradley Cooper demonstrates the wrong way to get on a subway train.

(2008) Horror (Lionsgate) Bradley Cooper, Brooke Shields, Vinnie Jones, Leslie Bibb, Roger Bart, Peter Jacobson, Barbara Eve Harris, Ted Raimi, Stephanie Mace, Tony Curran, NorA, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Dan Callahan. Directed by Ryuhei Kitamura

 

Big cities hide their secrets zealously. The bigger the city, the more difficult it can be to pry those secrets loose. In a city the size of New York City, it can be well-nigh impossible – and quite deadly to those who even try.

Leon (Cooper) is a photographer who specializes in crime scenes and fairly dark subjects. His girlfriend Maya (Bibb) through her friend Jurgis (Bart) gets Leon an audience with well-known art dealer Susan Hoff (Shields). She likes some of his work but needs Leon to go deeper – get at the truth. Go somewhere dangerous.

And what could be more dangerous than the New York subway after midnight? Certainly model Erika Sakaki (NorA) finds this out first-hand when a group of young toughs surround her, threatening to sexually assault her. Only the timely intervention of Leon pointing out that their whole tete-a-tete is being caught on security camera saves her. She shows her gratitude by allowing him to take a few pictures of her, then plants a kiss on him before getting on her train and heading off into the night.

Except that she never gets off that train. Leon finds out a few days later that she has turned up missing and Leon realizes he may well have been the last person to see her alive. He takes his pictures to the police who are indifferent, so he decides to investigate on his own. While checking out the subway station he sees a hulking, well-dressed man who appeared in his last photo of the missing girl – he was on board the same train as she was when she disappeared. Figuring this can’t be a coincidence, he begins to follow the man.

The man, who we later find out is known as Mahogany (Jones), shows up at a butcher’s shop. He is apparently mute (until the very end of the film when he speaks the only three words of dialogue he has in the movie) and imposing. However, Leon proves to be an inept investigator in one sense; Mahogany soon realizes he’s being stalked. However, Leon does manage to discover that Mahogany is brutally murdering people on the late night trains with a misshapen butcher’s hammer, and then hanging them on portable meat hooks while the subway train goes off on a silent siding.

Now the cat and mouse game gets deadly as both Maya and Jurgis get sucked into Leon’s obsession. Still, there’s an even more terrible secret lurking on that forgotten side track; one which only one of them will walk away from.

This is based on a short story by horror master Clive Barker – in fact it is the very first story in the first volume of his 8-book Books of Blood series. The movie version was announced with great fanfare in 2007 and 2008 as horror fans anticipated what the trailers promised was a taut, mesmerizing gorefest. However, a regime change at Lionsgate saw the film thrown into a series of delaying actions before finally getting about 100 screens, all in dollar theaters rather than in first-run houses before moving quickly to home video.

Horror fans (and Barker) howled in protest at the mistreatment of the film. They have a pretty good case – as horror movies go, this is better than average. It is far from perfect – for one thing, this would have made a pretty good hour-long short on some cable anthology series but the overall story doesn’t really support a full-length feature. It feels sometimes stretched out a bit too thin, particularly the portions where Maya and Jurgis are doing their own investigating.

In addition, Cooper who would find stardom with The Hangover just a year later, was miscast here. He is stiff and somewhat flat; I don’t get the sense that he ever really got a handle on the part. My take is that while Kitamura speaks pretty good English, he might not have necessarily been able to communicate what he wanted precisely to Cooper but that’s just conjecture. It does bring the film down a notch.

Some of the kills use obvious CGI for the blood and gore. Remember the good old days when all that was done with practical effects, make-up and puppets? Some of the CGI gore looks it and when you notice it, it takes you  right out of the environment of the film and it’s much like being awakened from a dream by someone throwing a bucket full of cold water into your face.

That said, there is plenty to like about the film as well. Kitamura is a more than capable director. He takes Barker’s story and translates it beautifully to the screen, combining elements of his own background in J-horror along with Dario Argento-esque Italian horror and throws in Big Apple ‘tude on top of it all, from the haughty snobbery of Shield’s West Village art cognoscenti, the indifference of the cops and media to a series of disappearances going on right under their noses and the cocksure tough guys haunting the streets and subways after dark. It’s a heady mix.

So yes this is flawed but overall there’s much more right with it than not. For one thing, Jones makes an intimidating villain, such a presence here that you wonder if he hasn’t been underutilized in his other films. Bibb, who like Cooper has mostly done comedies to this point, makes a fine scream queen and gets her sexy on in a couple of scenes here. This was one that the studio messed up on – it deserved more than a token contractual obligation release and might have made a good deal more coin than it did had the new regime shown a little more faith in the product but sadly, it seems like the Lionsgate brass has turned their back on the horror genre that essentially built the studio (the Saw and Tyler Perry franchises the twin pedestals that the studio was built on) which makes it all the more ironic that they had gotten into such financial difficulties that they had to merge with Summit earlier this year. Sometimes poetic justice just…happens.

WHY RENT THIS: Combines J-horror with giallo and meets it in the middle with a New York attitude. Jones is at his brooding best.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Cooper is unconvincing as the horror hero. Over-reliance on CGI gore does occasionally jolt one violently out of the mood.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is violence and gore, quite a bit in fact; nudity (most of it grisly), some sex and of course plenty of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of Clive Barker’s paintings are seen hanging in Susan Hoff’s art gallery.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are featurettes on author Clive Barker and actor Vinnie Jones.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3.5M on an unreported production budget; the movie might have made money but then again it might not have.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW:High Fidelity

Shame


Shame

Michael Fassbender reacts when he discovers his mother is attending the premiere for the film.

(2011) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Beharie, Mari-Ange Ramirez, Lucy Walters, Alex Manette, Hannah Ware, Elizabeth Masucci, Rachel Farrar, Loren Omer, Anna Rose Hopkins. Directed by Steve McQueen

 

Sex is one of those things that we Americans have a love-hate relationship with. On the one hand, we have a pornography industry that rakes in billions of dollars annually. On the other, we have a puritanical outlook that relegates sex to the shadows, a shameful thing that is supposed to only take place between husband and wife and then only for procreational purposes, not for enjoyment or pleasure. It’s that ridiculous dichotomy that movies like Shame exploit, this one more eloquently than others.

Brandon (Fassbender) is an affable Irishman who grew up in New Jersey; he is a successful salesman for a high tech firm, living in a posh Chelsea apartment (albeit sparsely furnished) and on the outside, a nice decent sort of fellow.

But when you look at the hard drive of his computer (as happens when his IT group discovers a virus on it) you’ll see enough porn to make Ron Jeremy blush. And thus it is when you look more closely at Brandon. He has a sexual compulsion; he beds as many women as he can, relying on escorts and hookers when there are none available and masturbating constantly when he can’t get a woman – or a man – to hook up with. Sex is constantly on his mind. Commitment, however, is not – he’s never had a romantic relationship that’s lasted longer than a few months.

His sister Sissy (Mulligan) is much the same way but in a needier vein. Whereas Brandon prefers anonymous sex, Sissy wants someone to hold her – anybody and she uses sex as a means to get it. She wants so desperately to be loved that she tries to climb into Brandon’s bed one night. Alone and needy, she stays at her brother’s place for a few days and turns his life upside down. His normal routine is destroyed.

Brandon is getting sweet on one of the gals at his office, the recently separated Marianne (Beharie). However his world is beginning to cave in, as is Sissy’s as the shame of their compulsion begins to prey upon them.

Fassbender and McQueen previously teamed up on Hunger, the movie about IRA activist Bobby Sands who starved himself to death in a British-run prison in 1971. While that movie was about the fall out of fanaticism, this movie is more about baser compulsion. Brandon can’t help himself; he uses sex as a means to feel better about himself.

Both Fassbender and Mulligan turn in terrific performances. Brandon is carrying a load of self-loathing around with him that gives lie to the self-confident veneer he projects to the world. As he sees what he is becoming he deliberately tries to destroy himself. It’s a marvelous performance that is mirrored by Mulligan’s, whose Sissy is undergoing much the same process albeit taking a different route than he does. Sissy is a singer and in one sequence, sings the Frank Sinatra/Liza Minelli standard “New York, New York” so slowly it becomes a dirge rather than a celebration of the Big Apple; instead it becomes an ironic comment on how the dream of making it in New York is a pipe dream at best. It’s an excruciating scene that goes on way too long on purpose; at the time I couldn’t wait for it to end but upon reflection it is a bit of brilliant direction.

There is a rage in Brandon (much of it directed at his sister) that sometimes shows through his carefully created mask and hints at a dark past filled with plenty of skeletons; exactly what they are is never explicitly spelled out but in a way that’s for the best; one is left to wonder what kind of demons drive the two of them and where they came from; an abusive childhood perhaps, or a single traumatic incident?

This is not for everybody. The sex is played out graphically and without flinching; this is perhaps the un-sexiest movie about sex you are ever likely to see. Yes, Brandon is having sex with these women but while his body is being pleasured he never truly enjoys it. That is the nature of compulsions, taking the joy out of things that should be joyful.

Nor is this an indictment of hedonism or the pursuit of sex. It’s merely a portrait of what happens when something good is taken to extremes. This is a movie that will make you squirm (and not always in a good way) and re-examine your values about sex. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

REASONS TO GO: A searing portrait of sexual obsession and of people who seem normal on the surface but are deeply broken. Mulligan and Fassbender are scintillating.

REASONS TO STAY: Those who are easily offended by sex and sexuality will find this abominable.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a lot of graphic sex scenes and plenty of nudity as well as a crapload of foul language; this is in no way, shape or form suitable for the kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The sequence in which Brandon and David watch Lucy sing at the restaurant was shot in real time; the actors hadn’t heard Carey Mulligan sing so their reactions were genuine.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/26/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100. The reviews are uniformly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sex, Lies and Videotape.

FULL FRONTAL LOVERS: Fassbender and nearly every actress in the movie (with the exception of Mulligan) gets naked here and trust me, nothing is left to the imagination.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: The Duchess

Blood: The Last Vampire (2009)


Blood: The Last Vampire
Sailor Moon, eat your heart out!

(Goldwyn) Gianna Jun, Allison Miller, Masiela Lusha, JJ Field, Koyuki, Liam Cunningham, Yasuaki Kurata, Larry Lamb, Andrew Pleavin, Michael Byrne, Colin Salmon. Directed by Chris Nahon

Count me as an admirer of Japanese anime. I enjoy the imaginative worlds created by Japanese animators, as well as the detailed artwork. I also know that there are some faults with the genre overall, with underdeveloped characters and juvenile plots more the norm than the exception. Blood: The Last Vampire started out as an anime back in 2000 and now makes its way to the live action medium.

Saya (Jun) is a demon hunter. Demons have existed hidden on this earth for thousands of year, ever since their most lethal Demon lord Onegin (Koyuki) won an ancient war. However, there have been demon hunters, those who have take out the evil creatures with katana, Japanese swords. Saya’s own father was murdered by Onegin, leaving her in the care of Kato, a respected swordmaster.

However, Saya isn’t just your ordinary demon hunter, oh no. She’s half-vampire, with all the strength and skills that a vampire possesses, but able to walk about in daylight. And about her father? He died 400 years ago and she’s been searching for Onegin ever since. That’s a long time to be pissed off at someone but nobody ever said a woman couldn’t hold a grudge.

These days (or at least circa 1970 when the movie is set) she works for a shadowy agency called The Council who seem to be mostly American. When she kills a demon (as she does on a subway train to open up the movie), they’re the ones who clean up the mess afterwards. Her contact there is a terse ex-CIA operative named Michael (Cunningham) who hands out her assignments.

Her latest one has her undercover at an American naval base school to investigate a rash of vampire killings. She makes friends with Alice McKee (Miller), daughter of the base’s commanding officer General McKee (Lamb) – although why a general would be in command of a naval base is beyond me. Still, Alice runs afoul of a trio of schoolgirls who turn out to be vampires, until Saya saves the day.

In fact, it turns out that the base is full of demons, as is the surrounding town and Saya has her hands full, not only keeping Alice alive but trying to avoid being caught up in Council politics – all with Onegin hovering in the background.

I am not only a fan of anime but also of martial arts movies, and there are plenty of nifty fight scenes here. In fact, if action’s your thing, you’re going to love this movie because it’s essentially non-stop battles, chases and fights. There’s a whole lot of gore, and the seductive sexiness that only comes from a lithe Japanese schoolgirl in a sailor costume.

Unfortunately, the faults that are part of Japanese anime – a lack of solid, realistic characterization and mindless plots – rear their ugly heads here. Other than Saya, most of the characters here are one-dimensional clichés that don’t act in the same manner real people would act, and spout off grade B dialogue in a wooden manner. Some would call this cartoonish, although I think that there are plenty of cartoons that escape this trap.

Jun is one of the best parts of this movie. Alone of all the characters, she has some depth and a little bit of humanity, which is awfully strange to say about a character that’s half-vampire. She has an emotional center that Jun gets across in a way consistent with the character, and it works. I suspect that with a better script, she’d be a candidate for stardom along the lines of a Michelle Yeoh or a Gong Li.

There are an awful lot of special effects here, from wirework actors flying about the air like mosquitoes and demon blood spurting out of wounds like raspberry jam out of a jelly doughnut. The demons in demon form aren’t particularly scary and there are a lot of CGI effects that look about ten years out of date, and for videogames at that.

There isn’t a ton of things to recommend the movie other than the action sequences and Jun, but for those who like that sort of thing this movie is going to be your new best friend. For the rest of us, I can’t help but think that if the filmmakers had just put a little more effort into this it could have been a rather decent movie.

WHY RENT THIS: Some fun action sequences and great wire work. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The characterization is non-existent, the special effects are weak and one gets the sense that the film’s reach exceeded the budget’s grasp.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a whole lot of blood – not all of it human but nonetheless – and flying body parts, as well as some relatively non-scary demonic sorts. Not for the young kids but should be okay for most teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Producer Bill Kong of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was a huge fan of the anime and picked up the rights to make a live action version to be directed by Ronnie Yu. When Pathe, the French distribution company became involved, Yu was kicked upstairs to a producer’s credit and Nahon got the directing chair.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.9M on an unreported production budget; I’m guessing the movie either broke even or lost money.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Day Five of Six Days of Darkness.