The Belko Experiment


Things are getting a little heated back at the office.

(2016) Horror (BH Tilt/High Top/Orion) John Gallagher Jr., Adria Arjona, Tony Goldwyn, John C. McGinley, Melonie Diaz, Owain Yeoman, Sean Gunn, Brent Sexton, Josh Brener, David Dastmalchian, David Del Rio, Gregg Henry, Michael Rooker, Rusty Schwimmer, Gail Bean, James Earl, Abraham Benrubi, Valentine Miele, Steven Blackehart, Benjamin Byron Davis, Silvia de Dios. Directed by Greg McLean

 

There’s no doubt that the corporate environment in 2017 is as cutthroat as it’s ever been. Ambitious office drones plot their way to promotions that bring them out of the environment of living paycheck to paycheck and into management where they can make some real money; others plot to preserve their place in the pecking order. Either way, the office is no place for the faint of heart.

Belko Corporation is described as a non-profit that helps large companies recruit American workers to South American locations. They have a large tower located outside of Bogota, Colombia – well outside of Bogota. Mike Milch (Gallagher) is a fairly humdrum middle management type who is involved in a clandestine romance with co-worker Leandra Florez (Arjona) as that sort of thing is discouraged by Belko, who somewhat appropriately incorporate the figure of an eye into their corporate logo. It is not stretching things to say that most of the people who work in the building have no clue what they do for the company.

One unremarkable morning Mike drives into work to discover an increased security presence and that all the local Colombian workers are being turned away from work. He thinks nothing of it – until a disembodied voice comes on the PA system to announce that the 80 or so workers remaining in the building must select two among their number to murder – or else double that number would be selected at random. Everyone thinks it’s a practical joke in poor taste – until the heads of four people suddenly explode.

At first believing the carnage to be the work of a random sniper, there is panic as people try to get under cover. That’s when large blowtorch-proof metal doors and shutters encase the building in a steel cocoon. There is no leaving and as the voice informs them that they’ll need to find 20 workers to dispatch to the choir invisible or once again double that number would be random victims.

Quickly the social order begins to devolve. The company’s COO Barry Norris (Goldwyn) tries to preach calm and order until he becomes convinced that the only way to buy time is to do what the voice commands, especially when it becomes apparent that every move they make is being observed (remember the eye?) by the disembodied voice. Joining him are a number of management types who want to maintain control of the situation, including Wendell Dukes (McGinley), the kind of manager nobody ever wants to work under. Mike is trying to keep from having anyone die but his voice is not getting heard in the increasing panic. Before too long things fall completely apart and everyone starts looking out for their own ass if they are to survive the worst workday ever.

The movie was penned by current fan favorite James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2) as a bit of a passion project but it has languished on the shelf while Gunn has been shepherding the two Marvel space operas to money-printing status. He left the property however in the capable hands of Aussie director McLean (Wolf Creek) who does a yeoman job bringing the script to life.

Most of the actors are better known by face than by name and while there is a black comedy element to the proceedings it never gets to the point of silliness which often happens with horror comedies. Of course, this is as allegorical as it gets to what corporate culture has become in terms of treating employees as disposable resources in which salary and benefits are necessary evils and when the need for those workers dissipates, so do the workers.

Rooker, who has become one of Gunn’s go-to guys, excels as a building engineer as does Goldwyn as a boss who is friendly and supportive on the outside but loses any semblance of concern for his employees when the rubber hits the road. Gallagher and Arjona are okay in the lead roles but aren’t particularly memorable. James’ brother Sean is memorable as a stoner and Schwimmer as the office mother hen is strong.

There are a lot of heads exploding here (having to do with a tracking chip that American workers receive in countries where kidnappings are common) and many gruesome deaths by axe to the face or stapler to the skull. I might have wished for a little more variety to the murders – I would imagine in an office environment there would be plenty of supplies that could do some real damage. A little more imagination in this department would have been welcome. It also should be said that those sensitive to gore and carnage will likely have a rough time with The Belko Experiment.

The movie loses momentum in the second half which is basically a survivalist epic and the denouement is a bit disappointing although there are some pop culture references of the blink and you’ll miss them variety that add some richness to the last moments of the movie. I was hoping for a little bit more from the film but to be honest it is solidly entertaining and horror fans looking for something a little bit different could do a lot worse than to look in this direction.

REASONS TO GO: The film is clever, particularly in the first half. Some fine actors turn in strong performances.
REASONS TO STAY: The gore might be a little bit too extreme for some. The film loses steam in the second half.
FAMILY VALUES: Oh my, there’s plenty of gore and violence, profanity, some drug use and brief sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: James Gunn was originally set to direct this from his own screenplay but felt that the violence was not what he needed in his life as he was going through a painful divorce, plus he was also hard at work on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Battle Royale
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: New Chefs on the Block

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New Releases for the Week of March 17, 2017


BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

(Disney) Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Kevin Kline, Emma Thompson, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Stanley Tucci, Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Directed by Bill Condon

This live-action version of the beloved Disney animation contains the classic songs from the original as well as some brand new songs by original composer Alan Mencken and legendary lyricist Tim Rice. We all know the story; an inquisitive young girl rescues her father who has been poking around a castle where he shouldn’t have been and has been captured by a terrible Beast. She offers herself in his stead and stays at the castle where everything is alive – even the candlesticks. What she doesn’t know is that a curse has been laid on the Beast and his castle and time is running out on reversing it. It will take a miracle; after all, how could Beauty ever love a Beast?

See the trailer, interviews, clips, featurette and B-Roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D
Genre: Romantic Fantasy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG (for some action violence, peril and frightening images)

The Belko Experiment

(BH Tilt/Orion/MGM) John Gallagher Jr., Tony Goldwyn, John C. McGinley, Melonie Diaz. A group of American workers are trapped in a high rise where a mysterious voice orders them to kill some of their number – or more of them will be killed at random by the owners. And as things progress, the dog eat dog world of business turns into a deadly game of survival. James Gunn, director of the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 wrote this.

See the trailer and a clip here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Thriller
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for strong bloody violence throughout, language including sexual references, and some drug use)

Kedi

(Oscilloscope Laboratories) Bülent Ustün. Istanbul (not Constantinople) is one of the world’s most ancient cities. They’ve had a tradition over the years of taking care of stray cats as a community. The cats have become an indelible part of Istanbul’s charm and personality. Told from a distinctly feline point of view, this is the viral cat video to end all viral cat videos.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: NR

Land of Mine

(Sony Classics) Roland Møller, Louis Hofmann, Joel Basman, Mikel Boe Følsgaard. As World War II came to a close, German prisoners of war in Denmark are given a daunting task to complete before being allowed to return to their homes. They must clear a beach of literally thousands of land mines that had been placed there by the German army. The painstaking and crazy dangerous work is high stress and the Danes are not terribly happy about having the Germans around at all but slowly the Danes begin to see the Germans differently as the beach is slowly made safe again.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: War
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for violence, some grisly images, and language)

The Last Word

(Bleecker Street) Shirley MacLaine, Amanda Seyfried, Ann’Jewel Lee, Philip Baker Hall. A formidable woman, in the twilight of her life, has been of late reading obituaries of people she knows and finds that the obituary writer is making their somewhat ordinary lives sound extraordinary. She decides that having exerted control over everything her entire life she wants to read her obituary before she actually dies, but to get the kind of write-up she wants she may need to make a few changes. Cinema365 was privileged to be invited to a press screening for this; the review will run tomorrow.

See the trailer, clips and interviews here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: PG-13 (for language)

The Sense of an Ending

(CBS) Jim Broadbent, Charlotte Rampling, Matthew Goode, Emily Mortimer. A recluse who is happy in his quiet existence is confronted with secrets from his past. This will force him to face that his flawed recollections of what actually happened are not the truth about his first love and that he has yet to experience the full consequences of decisions made long ago.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, featurettes and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, a violent image, sexuality, and brief strong language)

The Divergent Series: Insurgent


In the future there will be no chairs.

In the future there will be no chairs.

(2015) Science Fiction (Summit) Kate Winslet, Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Miles Teller, Ansel Elgort, Jai Courtney, Mekhi Phifer, Octavia Spencer, Ashley Judd, Tony Goldwyn, Ray Stevenson, Naomi Watts, Jonny Weston, Daniel Dae Kim, Maggie Q, Suki Waterhouse, Rosa Salazar, Zoe Kravitz, Janet McTeer, Lyndsi LaRose. Directed by Robert Schwentke

These days, dystopian futures seem to be all the rage. No longer does one need to wear shades when viewing the future; we can look forward to darkness, pain, despair and hopelessness. I suppose how we see the future tells us a lot about how we view the present.

For those who don’t remember Divergent or the book series it was based on, the world has been beset by some sort of apocalyptic event and the population has been herded into Chicago and divided into factions according to their gifts – Erudite (intelligence), Amity (peace), Candor (truth), Dauntless (military) and Abignation (service), the latter of which was essentially wiped out at the end of the last movie. There are those who display none of the five qualities; those are called Factionless and live in abject poverty on the edge of society. There are also those who contain two or more qualities – they are called Divergents. Our heroine is one of these.

Speaking of our heroine, now that Tris (Woodley) and her lover Four (James) have foiled the plans of Jeanine (Winslet), the power-mad evil leader of the Erudite faction, they have taken refuge with the pastoral Amity along with Tris’ none-too-brave brother Caleb (Elgort) and the snarky Peter (Teller) who seems to live to push buttons. As for Amity, their leader Johanna (Spencer) is providing them shelter although she’s not entirely happy about it. Jeanine wants to round up the last of the rebellious Dauntless group that has split from the main group that is now commanded by the evil Eric (Courtney) but she seems far more obsessed with a metal box found in the wreckage of the home of Tris’ parents Andrew (Goldwyn) and Natalie (Judd) who both bit the big one in the first film.

That box contains symbols for all five of the factions and seems sealed with even the technology of Erudite unable to penetrate its secrets. Jeanine believes that the box contains a message from the Founders, one which will confirm her campaign to eliminate the Divergents although, ironically enough, it seems that only a Divergent can open the box by passing the simulations of all five of the factions. Naturally Four and Tris are pretty certain that Jeanine must not find out what’s in the box. In the meantime, Jeanine is having Eric and his Dauntless minions shoot nasty little tracking devices that can also allow Jeanine to control the subjects to the point of forcing them to commit suicide.

The odds against Tris and her remaining allies are formidable although she receives an unexpected ally in Factionless who are now being led by, of all people, Four’s mother Evelyn (Watts) who everyone belied was dead and had in fact faked her own death for reasons that are unbelievably flimsy. However, in order to save the Divergents who are being hunted down and forced to undergo the ordeal of the simulations which is killing them off in short order, Tris will have to go to the heart of the beast and face down Jeanine herself.

Somewhat ironically, Insurgent apparently diverges from Victoria Roth’s source novel fairly radically. Being as I’m not familiar with the books, I can’t say whether that’s necessarily a bad thing or not but I can say that the illogical world of the Divergent book series is so full of lapses and plot holes that it’s hard to believe that anyone buys any of this. Any rudimentary student of human nature knows that we are not just one thing; we are many, and to think that keeping all people with a common trait in a society is not a sure way to eliminate conflict. If anything, people with like ways of thinking tend to get in a lot more conflict

The action sequences are pretty good and the special effects are even better, particularly in the sim sequences. There’s definitely plenty of eye candy, particularly for young pre-teen and teen girls who will find young hunks James, Elgort, Teller, Courtney and Phifer making their hearts beat faster than the adrenaline-fueled action scenes.

Unfortunately, one of the movie’s main drawbacks is Woodley. She’s a fine actress as she’s shown in The Descendents but here…I don’t know. She’s supposed to be a strong female role model but she’s stubborn, makes really illogical and foolish choices that put those she’s close to in danger, she wallows in self-pity and she is known to panic occasionally. There are some that will defend her character as being admirable for overcoming her own human frailties and I have to acknowledge that as a salient point, but even so I never really admire Tris so much as feel dismayed by her. Woodley isn’t responsible for the way the character is written but she comes off as shrill here, which is not how Jennifer Lawrence comes off as Katness Everdeen, a female role model who is beset by self-doubt and fear just as much as Tris.

While some of the supporting characters have some depth to them – particularly Spencer and Kim as the leaders of their respective factions Amity and Candor, and Courtney as the deliciously evil Eric – the acting here tends to the scene chewing sort. I can live with that though ahead of the movie’s two most egregious sins; first, that in order for audiences to make sense of this movie you need to either be familiar with the first film or the book series. Those who aren’t are going to have a very hard time following this, so it doesn’t stand on its own very well. Secondly and perhaps more damning is that the movie follows the young adult franchise formula to the “T” – a plucky heroine of strong will is reluctantly put into a heroic role while deeply in love with hunky hero who steps aside to be second banana to his girlfriend who saves the day with her self-sacrifice and love for her man, not to mention wicked fighting skills.

Yeah, you’ve seen it all before and done better than this. This is definitely a step backwards from the more entertaining first film. I really can’t recommend it other than to those who really liked the first movie and are eager to see the franchise played out to its conclusion which, true to recent young adult book series form, will see the final book in the trilogy split into two movies. After this debacle, I’m not sure I want to see either of them.

REASONS TO GO: Some very intense action sequences. Some decent supporting performances by Courtney, Spencer and Kim.
REASONS TO STAY: A lot of over-acting. Requires that you either are familiar with the books or saw the first movie. Too much like other young adult franchises.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of action violence, some foul language and thematic elements and brief sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the first movie was filmed mostly in Chicago (where the action is set), the sequel was mostly filmed in Atlanta.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/30/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 31% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Host (2013)
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: People Like Us

Divergent


Theo James has caught Shailene Woodley in his net.

Theo James has caught Shailene Woodley in his net.

(2014) Science Fiction (Summit) Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet, Jai Courtney, Ashley Judd, Tony Goldwyn, Miles Teller, Zoe Kravitz, Maggie Q, Ray Stevenson, Mekhi Phifer, Ansel Elgort, Ben Lloyd-Hughes, Christian Madsen, Amy Newbold, Ben Lamb, Janet Ulrich Brooks, Clara Burger, Anthony Fleming, Ryan Carr, Alex Hashioka, Will Blagrove, Rotimi, Justine Wachsberger. Directed by Neil Burger

We have a tendency to slot people into boxes. This one is a hothead, that one is a braniac, this one is a stoner, that one is a loser. It is easier for us to compartmentalize people but it doesn’t begin to tell the whole story about someone.

In the dystopian future projected here, this has been taken to the ultimate level. After war has devastated the United States leaving Chicago one of the few inhabitable cities (and that just barely), the surviving population has been divided into five factions centered around a characteristic considered to be a virtue; Abnegation (selflessness), Dauntless (bravery), Candor (honesty), Amity (kindness) and Erudite (intelligent). On Choosing Day, 18 year old citizens must choose one of these factions to belong to. Once the choosing is made, there’s no turning back.

Aiding the candidates is a test which tells them which faction they are best suited for. However when Beatrice (Woodley) who grew up in Abnegation takes the test, she is shocked to discover that her test was inconclusive – she isn’t suited for any one faction. What is more puzzling is the reaction of Tori (Q), the administrator of the test – she is fearful, warning Beatrice to tell no-one of her test results.

On the day of the Choosing Beatrice chooses Dauntless, much to the disappointment of her mom (Judd) and dad (Goldwyn), who are doubly disappointed because Beatrice’s brother Caleb (Elgort) chose Erudite. Beatrice, now going by Tris, is surprised to discover that she and her new friends Christina (Kravitz), Al (Madsen), Will (Lloyd-Hughes) and to a lesser extent the mouthy Candor transfer Peter (Teller) aren’t in yet – Dauntless only takes a percentage of its recruits; the rest are rendered Factionless with nowhere to go.

In charge of their training is the brutal and sadistic Eric (Courtney) who seems to have an immediate dislike of Tris and Four (James), a taciturn trainer who seems far more capable than Eric. Tris, raised among the Amish-like Abnegation, has trouble with the physical requirements but battles as hard as she can. In the meantime she hides her test results, labeling her as Divergent and apparently a threat to the Erudite faction who are actively hunting Divergent citizens down.

As Tris becomes closer and more attracted to Four, she discovers that there are some odd things going on in Dauntless. For one, secret visits by Jeanine (Winslet), leader of the Erudite faction, to Max (Phifer), leader of the Dauntless, and things that don’t add up are going on. Tris quickly realizes she’s involved in a very dangerous game and she doesn’t know the rules. When things go South, Tris discovers a horrifying plot by the Erudite that will take all of her bravery, compassion, honesty, intelligence and kindness to overcome.

Based on a bestselling young adult sci-fi trilogy by Veronica Roth, Summit is eager for this to become their next young adult franchise. Like previous franchises Twilight and The Hunger Games, Divergent is led by a female protagonist who, like Katness Everdeen in the latter series is strong and forced into becoming something of a symbol. Woodley is going to inevitably be compared to Jennifer Lawrence whose Katness has become somewhat iconic. Unfortunately, her performance doesn’t hold up.

It’s not for lack of talent or lack of trying. This simply isn’t the right kind of role for her. Woodley spends most of the movie looking befuddled because her character is largely in the dark about what’s going on around her. There is a gun battle scene near the end of the film when Tris essentially gets hysterical (and to be fair for good reason) but it’s disconcerting to see your lead character and role model fly into a tizzy.

Winslet is likewise wasted in a role in which she is cast as an icy blonde bitch who just wants to rule the world. She is a formidable actress who would have made an equally formidable villain but she’s not really given anything to work with as the focus is more on the young ‘uns. She only gets to let loose in villainous glee late in the film and by then the audience has essentially lost all interest in the character.

Only James really fares well among the lead. He is hunky handsome (or so say some of my younger female friends) and has a good deal of brooding presence. He may well emerge from this film the big star that Woodley should have been although time will tell on that score.

I’m not sure what Roth’s political views are or if she has any but I have to say that the story reads a bit like a wet dream of the far right; the villains of the story are the educated who want to take the freedom of everyone away and take control over every aspect of life because they know better than the rest of us. The military faction are the most free-spirited, running joyfully through the streets of Chicago with big mother-effin’ grins on their faces. I’m sure most military sorts will tell you how much running makes them smile. I could be reading too much into it (and I probably am) but I couldn’t help make the observation.

The old familiar theme of teens feeling like outcasts are also explored. Those who refuse to be pigeonholed are persecuted while those who conform are considered virtuous. Just like high school except on a more global scale.

The effects are pretty decent and there are some nifty action sequences but this is definitely a movie targeted for young adult audiences, particularly the female persuasion. I suspect male audiences will find this less palatable than The Hunger Games. This isn’t a bad movie despite all its shortcomings – I will say I was entertained and most of the audience I saw it with was too – but it didn’t generate in me the excitement that the Jennifer Lawrence series did from the get go. I suspect it will have enough inertia to get the proposed two sequels made but I doubt very much it will become the cultural phenomenon that THG became.

REASONS TO GO: Complex background explained well. Some fine action and effects sequences.

REASONS TO STAY: Woodley a bit of a misstep casting-wise.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a bit of action, some of it intense. There’s also some more adult thematic elements along with implied sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Teller and Woodley are close friends in real life and Woodley had a very hard time during their fight sequences to be aggressive and antagonistic towards him requiring Teller to pull her aside and have a conversation with his former The Spectacular Now co-star.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/25/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Host

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Shuttle

The Last Samurai


The Last Samurai

Tom Cruise teaches modern warfare tactics to the Scientologists.

(2003) Action (Warner Brothers) Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe, William Atherton, Billy Connolly, Tony Goldwyn, Timothy Spall, Masato Harada, Togo Igawa, Shin Koyamada, Hiroyuki Sanada, Koyuki, Shun Sugata, Sosuki Ikematsu, Aoi Minato, Shichinosuke Nakamura. Scott Wilson. Directed by Edward Zwick

 

Over the lives of those who devote themselves to the art of war and a life of dealing death, a question of honor must always hover. For what cause does one fight, kill, die? What can be worth the moral choices of taking another human life?

For Nathan Algren (Cruise), the morality of being a warrior has become murky. A hero of the American Civil War, he has grown disillusioned and bitter, having seen carnage inflicted on women and children by cowardly officers bent more on making names for themselves than fulfilling their mission during the Indian Wars. Algren has become an alcoholic, a shell and a parody of himself, shilling the Winchester rifle and using whiskey to medicate his emotional pain.

For Katsumoto (Watanabe), the morality is clear. A samurai whose life is given in service to his emperor, the world is becoming a colder, crueler place. As Japan moves reluctantly to modernize and traffic with the rest of the world, the changes that are brought into that country are sometimes painful, and Katsumoto can clearly see the end of his way of life approaching. However, his unwavering devotion to his country and the emperor makes him and his kind targets of those who seek to create a new Japan, one that will profit them above all.

Algren is invited to Japan by his former commander Bagley (Goldwyn) and a Japanese railroad magnate Omura (Harada) to modernize the Imperial Japanese Army and teach it to use the weapons of Western war. Emperor Meiji (Nakamura) is enamored of the West and is a little weak, but his mentor, Katsumoto, still has his ear, making him dangerous to Omura and those like him. Katsumoto is trying to get the emperor to rethink his plans, but is ultimately forced from court and into rebellion when Omura’s assassins fail.

Algren at first is little more than a hired hand, but after being captured by Katsumoto, he is brought to a remote mountain village which is Katsumoto’s home, and is exposed to the samurai life and code, and begins to heal, not just from the wounds inflicted in the battle, but also in his spirit, where his pain has been festering for so long. Hired to destroy the samurai, Algren at last joins them, despite facing terrible odds.

The shadow of Akira Kurosawa, one of the greatest directors of all time, is evident here. Director Edmund Zwick (Shakespeare in Love, Glory, Legends of the Fall) was heavily influenced by the man in the director’s chair for such classics as Ran, Rashomon and Yojimbo. In fact, a screening of Seven Samurai when Zwick was 14 provided the young man with a lifelong interest in Japan and in movies as well. In the battle scenes, particularly, Zwick pays the master a great deal of homage in the way he sets his scenes up, although not nearly as poetically and poignantly as did Kurosawa.

This interest in Japan led Zwick to read Ivan Morris’ “The Nobility of Failure,” the account of Saigo Takamori, a real-life samurai in the Meiji court who at first embraced but eventually renounced the modernization of Japan. The roots of The Last Samurai can be found here.

Zwick succeeds in creating a rich landscape of intrigue and honor, as the loyal, honorable samurai are faced with the treacherous, scheming industrialists. There is a love interest as Algren falls for the widow (Koyuki) of a samurai he had slain, and it is there that the two cultures meet most poignantly, and most awkwardly.

Cruise does a difficult job nicely here. In a role that changes from a washed-up, alcoholic, bitter man into a courageous, honorable warrior, Cruise carries both of these facets of the Algren character nicely, and allows us to see the progression from one to the other. Seeing this again reminds me that although he is best known as the charismatic movie star, Tom Cruise can really act when he gets the right part.

Although Cruise is the center of the movie, he is overshadowed by the spectacular performance of Watanabe. Katsumoto is a wise man, a beloved leader and a magnificent tactician, but also melancholy, knowing the life he has loved is slipping away and that he is unlikely to survive its passing. Watanabe is subtle, which is not something Japanese actors are traditionally known for. He creates a character rich in contradictions and complexities, and lights up the screen whenever he’s on it. He would be nominated for an Oscar for his performance and even though he didn’t win, the movie established him in Hollywood where he would go on to roles in major films including Batman Begins.

Character actors Billy Connelly and Timothy Spall also put in solid performances. The battle scenes are truly memorable – this is where the Kurosawa influence most obviously comes into play. Zwick is also very good at establishing a good sense of period. Although the visual Kurosawa references can be a little heavy-handed at times, Zwick wisely chooses to put his own stamp on The Last Samurai, and that’s what makes for a good movie. Sure, there are elements of Ran but there are elements of Glory in the battle sequences as well.

The film has epic, sweeping landscapes, wonderfully staged battle scenes and allows us to view a culture very much misunderstood even to this day, and gives us a chance to see how Japan started on the road into becoming the mega-commercial technological giant it is in the 21st century.

Still, what ultimately makes this an excellent movie is that it is about the journey of the people in it. It is much harder to comprehend the journeys of nations; we can’t relate to them as easily. It is far easier to relate to the growth of individuals, something we are (hopefully) all doing throughout our lives.

WHY RENT THIS: Exquisitely staged battle scenes. Watanabe gives a searing, career making performance. Beautiful Kurosawa-esque cinematography.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Probably about 20 minutes too long.

FAMILY MATTERS: The battle sequences are fairly realistic and might be disturbing for some. There is plenty of bloodshed and some implied sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Although the film implies the Americans trained the Imerial Army, historically it was the Prussians who actually did.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The DVD contains a feature comparin the film to the actual historical events at the time. There’s also footage from the film’s Japanese premiere.  The Blu-Ray adds a text piece onbushido, the code of the samurai.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $456.8M on a production budget of $140M; the movie was a big hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Shogun

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Piranha 3DD

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

New Releases for the Week of January 28, 2011


January 28, 2011
Bless me father, for I have sinned…

THE RITE

(New Line) Anthony Hopkins, Colin O’Donoghue, Alice Braga, Ciaran Hinds, Rutger Hauer, Toby Jones, Marta Gastini, Chris Marquette. Directed by Mikael Hafstrom

A skeptical seminary student is assigned to exorcism school at the Vatican in Rome despite his disbelief in the devil. He is introduced to an unorthodox priest, one who is a veteran in the war against evil who ultimately introduces him to the reality of faith; if you believe in the goodness of God, then you must understand that there is its opposite – evil personified. The young student, so well-versed in the practical, must find his faith in the spiritual or else be condemned to burn in the fires of Hell.

See the trailer, interviews and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Supernatural Horror

Rating: PG-13 (for disturbing thematic material, violence, frightening images and language including sexual references)

 
Another Year

(Sony Classics) Jim Broadbent, Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton, Ruth Sheen. The latest from acclaimed director Mike Leigh examines the relationship of a middle-aged couple through the seasons of their life through triumphs and tragedies, as chronicled by the presence of friends who use the couple as confidantes to their own issues.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard,

Genre: Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for some language)

Biutiful

(Roadside Attractions) Javier Bardem, Maricel Alvarez, Hanaa Bouchaib, Guillermo Estrella. A career criminal in the Barcelona underworld discovers he has a fatal disease. Devoted to his small children, he struggles to find a way to secure their future while suffering from the effects of his illness and staving off the inherent dangers of his chosen career.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Historical Drama

Rating: R (for disturbing images, language, some sexual content, nudity and drug use)

Blue Valentine

(Weinstein) Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams, Mike Vogel, John Dornan. A couple whose marriage is crumbling makes one last desperate attempt to rescue their relationship in a single night. As memories of their courtship color their perceptions of one another, they find refuge in sex and violence which may ultimately be their salvation – or their destruction.

See the trailer, clips and web-only content here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romantic Drama

Rating: R (for strong graphic sexual content, language and a beating)

Casino Jack

(ATO) Kevin Spacey, Barry Pepper, Kelly Preston, Jon Lovitz. The final film of the late George Hickenlooper (a much-respected filmmaker), it chronicles the doings and dealings of Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist who was convicted of financial misdeeds concerning Native American casinos and a cast of characters that even Hollywood couldn’t possibly dream up.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for language and brief nudity)

The Company Men

(Weinstein) Ben Affleck, Kevin Costner, Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper. Three executives are laid off as a result of corporate downsizing. All of them, defined by their success and standing in the corporate world, are forced to redefine themselves, learning to take control of their own lives and adopt more lasting terms of self-definition.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for language and brief nudity)

Dhobi Ghat (Mumbai Diaries)

(UTV Communications) Aamir Khan, Prateik Babbar, Monica Dogra, Kriti Malhotra. An affluent investment banker taking a sabbatical strikes up a friendship with a laundry boy, which even in modern Mumbai is just not done. As the relationship deepens, a friendship with a gifted painter threatens to throw both their worlds into disarray.

See the trailer and featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: NR

The Mechanic

(CBS) Jason Statham, Ben Foster, Donald Sutherland, Tony Goldwyn. A highly skilled assassin is employed by a “company” who then sends them on assignments. When the assassin’s mentor is killed by the company, the assassin takes on his son to teach him the skills of the trade. Together they are going to go after the corrupt elements in the company – if the bosses don’t get to them first. Loosely based on a Charles Bronson movie of the same name.

See the trailer, clips, promos and interviews here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Action Thriller

Rating: R (for strong brutal violence throughout, language, some sexual content and nudity)