The question of what is the difference between a "terrorist" and a "freedom fighter" is one that has been asked many times during our current war situation. It is also one of the questions at the core of Catch a Fire. Set in 1980 Apartheid-era South Africa, the film follows a man's journey from casual on looker to someone who becomes involved, and is labeled as both a threat and a hero by the different people around him. Who is right, it is hard to say. Director Phillip Noyce (Patriot Games) and screenwriter Shawn Slovo (Captain Corelli's Mandolin) wisely look at the story from both sides, so that there are no true heroes or villains. The characters on both sides are fighting for what they believe in, and we the audience are left to our own devices to decide who is right in the end.
As the story opens, Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke from Antwone Fisher and Friday Night Lights) is a man who chooses to ignore the rebellion going on around him in South Africa, mostly to protect himself and his family. He has a good job as an oil refinery foreman, a sympathetic wife (Bonnie Henna) and two young daughters. His life takes a drastic turn when some extremists set off a bomb at his refinery. Patrick is arrested and brought in for questioning by an investigator named Nic Vos (Tim Robbins). Because Patrick was visiting a woman that he's been having a secret affair with the night of the explosion, he is forced to lie, and his story of where he was at the time does not check out. The investigators continue to push harder for a confession, going so far as to also detain and torture Patrick's wife and some of his co-workers. Patrick is eventually set free, as the forced confession he gives to save his wife does not match how the perpetrators broke into the refinery, but he is obviously changed forever by his experience in captivity. Feeling he can no longer sit on the side lines and pretend his country and his people are not in turmoil, Patrick leaves everything behind to join a rebel group fighting for liberation, and slowly starts to become what Nic Vos initially wrongfully accused him of being.
For the first hour or so, Catch a Fire is an intelligent and thrilling drama about a man being pushed to extremes. Although it never quite falls apart, the more action and suspense-filled second half does not have quite the emotional intensity of the first. Still, what we have here is a fine film that explores both sides of a very tricky issue. When we first meet Patrick, he is a man with a good life, though he seems to be taking a large risk with his occasional meetings with the woman in his life, who just happens to have a son that they both secretly share. Despite his secret life, he is a man who does not want to rock the boat. He is polite and courteous to the superiors that his fellow black Africans are rebelling against, simply because he wants to protect himself and his family. Some of his co-workers accuse him of being an "Uncle Tom" because of his overly gracious behavior around those who obviously do not respect him in the least, but he believes things will be better if he just pretends there is no problem in his homeland. When he is arrested and sees the cruelty of his captors first hand, his rage builds to a point that he no longer cares what happens to him. We watch his rage build to such a boiling point that he is able to give up his family in order to join the underground army of radicals. Patrick is a clearly defined character whose personality makes a visible change during the course of the film. A lot of this has to do with the award-worthy performance of Derek Luke, who is able to bring about the right amount of quiet desperation and visible rage that the character needs. Luke is able to show the shift in personality in a subtle and masterful performance that wisely knows how to draw the audience into the character without resorting to melodramatics or bellowing line reading like a lesser actor would handle the role.
Equally commendable is the character of Nic Vos, both in the way he has been written, and in the performance of Tim Robbins. Even though the story is told from Patrick's point of view mostly, the screenplay is wise not to vilify or demonize the character of his main opponent. Nic Vos is a family man, and is not only doing his job, but is also trying to do whatever it takes to protect his teenage daughters who are stuck in a very hostile land. He seems to be the most rational of the men who question Patrick during his prison term, and he is also the one to see through the forced confession that Patrick is made to give. Although he performs some terrible actions during the film, we get the sense that Nic is only doing it to protect himself and those that he loves, making him almost sympathetic at times. The screenplay is able to handle the tricky balance of the character of not making him completely unlikeable, while also not making him misunderstood. He knows what he's doing, and he's doing it because he feels he is right. The performance from Tim Robbins is just as good as Luke's, as not only does he perform a near flawless accent for his character, but his is able to make Nic Vos into a three dimensional and interesting character who intrigues us. It's almost a shame that Robbins and Luke have so few scenes together, as they play off against each other well with their very different roles and motivations.
Outside of the two leads, the main stand out is Bonnie Henna who brings a certain kind of quiet dignity as Precious, Patrick's wife. She has her suspicions about her husband's actions and thoughts, and tries her best to support him for as long as she can. Although her role is somewhat minor, she is a powerful presence in just about every scene she's in, saying so much simply with her expressful face and eyes, often without saying a word. All of the major characters are so fascinating that it almost feels like a cop out when the movie becomes a standard "race against the clock" thriller during the later half. It's not enough to ruin the film, but one wonders just how much the movie could have been if it had stuck with the powerful human drama of the first hour or so before it turns to shootouts and chase scenes. The film's very last final moments before the end credits also feel a bit tacked on, as if the studio was desperate to add some hope at the end of a somewhat sad story, but they at least give us a rare glimpse into the life of the actual Patrick Chamusso. Other noteworthy elements of the film include the cinematography by Garry Phillips, which uses the South African landscape and cities to great effect in order to showcase the different lives of the two men who drive the story, and the soundtrack that features a number of stirring songs of rebellion in many scenes.
By the time Catch a Fire is over, the question of what constitutes a terrorist or a freedom fighter is left undetermined, and quite frankly, I think that's the way it should be. Everyone in this movie fights for their own beliefs, and we are simply along for the ride, observing all sides. That it leaves its own question somewhat up to debate is a bold move on the part of the filmmakers, and one that is sure to inspire conversation from anyone who decides to see this film. There have been a lot of films released lately about turmoil in Africa such as The Constant Gardener and The Last King of Scotland, but of those films, this is the first one to actually look at the situation mostly through the eyes of an African. Catch a Fire makes a lot of right moves, and although it's not quite perfect, it still manages to stick with the viewer long after the end credits have wound down.
With most film franchises, having three rapid-fire entries released exactly one year apart of each other is almost a certain sign of creative bankruptcy. Credit must be given to the crew behind the Saw films that, although the idea may not be as fresh as it was back in 2004, the latest entry still manages to come across as an actual continuation of the story, rather than shoveling another sequel onto screens just to make money. Saw III concludes the story of the notorious Jigsaw, and in turn, also fills in some of the gaps and plot holes that the earlier entries suffered from. Yes, you still need a great level of disbelief in order to buy the overall premise of the franchise, but having seen the series as a whole, I now have a lot of respect for the franchise. Saw III may not be the best entry in the series, but it's still a strong enough of a wrap up to be mostly satisfying for those who have been following the trilogy from the beginning.
Ailing madman "Jigsaw" (Tobin Bell) is reaching the end of his reign of terror as he slowly succumbs to the disease that has controlled his life the past couple years, but he's not going out quietly. His young assistant Amanda (Shawnee Smith) has been carrying on his work, and now is desperately trying to keep her mentor alive. She kidnaps a doctor with a troubled homelife named Lynn (Bahar Soomekh from Crash), brings her to their secret hideout, and forces the doctor to perform some impromptu surgery in order to keep Jigsaw alive. It is literally a game of life or death, as Amanda has placed a gruesome device to Lynn's neck that will explode if Lynn tries to escape or if Jigsaw's heart stops beating. Her life is also directly connected to another man who is also currently undergoing a series of "games" set up by the psychotic pair. The man is Jeff (Angus MacFadyen), a father whose son was hit by a drunk driver years ago, and who has been dreaming vivid fantasies of extracting revenge upon not just the driver responsible, but on the Judge who gave the man such a short sentence. Jeff is forced to undergo a series of trials where he will be faced with the people whom he has hated the past couple years, and must decide if they should die or if he should grant them forgiveness. As the story unfolds, unanswered questions will finally be resolved, and both victims will race against time and their own moral beliefs in order to stay alive.
Returning director Darren Lynn Bousman and screenwriter Leigh Whannell seem to have finally found the proper tone and pace for Saw III. Gone are the lengthy police investigation subplots that sometimes dragged down the action in the last two films, and in their place is an extremely tense and sometimes very uncomfortable film experience. The Saw series has always been rather bleak in tone and atmosphere, but this entry takes things to an entirely new level all together. It certainly raises the bar in terms of gore and violence, and pushes the limits of just where an R-rating ends and an NC-17 begins. From an emergency operation procedure where Lynn is forced to expose part of Jigsaw's brain by slicing open a piece of his skull with power tools, to one of the more unfortunate victims who has her rib cage busted open early on by a torture device, this movie shows it all in graphic detail, pushing the envelope in what could be considered acceptable in a mainstream horror film. And yet, unlike equally gory films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, this film is not just about violence or torture. What's always made the Saw franchise chilling to me is how Jigsaw is a very fragile and human villain, rather than a lumbering homicidal madman like Leatherface. He is cold, he is calculating, and he brings a certain amount of twisted logic to his actions. The character has always fascinated me as a villain, and although this movie doesn't go too deep into his madness, it does touch upon a few interesting aspects via flashbacks of his earlier life, and on some of his past victims. The film's opening 20 minutes or so linger a bit too heavily on the gore, with literally one "torture trap" scene after another. But once the story kicks in, the movie finds its footing, and becomes a worthy successor to the earlier films.
A lot of Jigsaw's success for me as a character has always been the performance by Tobin Bell. His disease makes him vulnerable and almost pathetic, yet there is obviously a very evil mind lurking within. He is cunning and intelligent, and the way Bell plays him in such a mild mannered and almost rational light is downright chilling. Shawnee Smith as secondary villain Amanda isn't quite as successful, mainly because the movie doesn't develop her very well. She seems to almost have romantic feelings toward her "mentor", but the movie doesn't dig deep enough into their relationship to explain much further than that. On the other side of the fence, there are the two main victims of the story. Bahar Soomekh is the stronger of the two, mainly because she is able to come across as more sympathetic and likeable. Angus MacFadyen's Jeff, on the other hand, seems harder to relate to mainly since the film focuses less on him, and he doesn't even seem to have many lines of dialogue in the entire film itself. Both storylines, however, are equally suspenseful as they are both trapped in their individual games of death with the madman. The film keeps itself centered almost squarely on these four characters, and when they all collide during the climax, it is appropriately chilling, if not more than a little convoluted with the large number of revelations that keep on popping up one after another.
Indeed, Saw III sometimes comes across as a bit too convoluted for its own good. The film piles on the flashbacks, especially near the end. While some of the flashbacks are helpful, there are some that are almost laughable, because they flash back to something that happened a minute or two ago. Either they figure the audience suffers from short term memory loss, or they got a little crazy in the editing room. And while the Saw franchise has always had a dark and murky look, this movie seems so dark as to be incoherent at times. Maybe it's just me, but I don't remember the earlier entries being so dark that it was sometimes hard to tell what was going on. During Jeff's "game", he is left a series of messages on note cards and written on doors, and I often found them hard to read due to the weak lighting, or the fact that everything seemed to be in such dark shadows. And while this most certainly can't be helped after three films released one after another in such a short span, the series has started to lose its luster by now. While still disturbing and chilling, I think the franchise has run its course. It's smart that this movie tries to wrap everything up before the films wear out their welcome, and if Lionsgate is smart, they'll leave it at this instead of trying to find a way to milk more money out of it.
Saw III may not be great, but it's a lot better than most horror films on their second sequel. Heck, this movie is better than it has any right to be given the circumstances it finds itself under. Somehow, the filmmakers have managed to rush out a horror sequel, and not make it seem like a rush job. They have done this not only once, but twice. To them, I say kudos. They've pulled off something few others can claim. While it's not an example of classic horror, Saw III has enough to intrigue the average viewer, while supplying more than enough violence for the gore hounds that will undoubtedly flock to this film opening weekend. It's definitely a cut above some other recent entries in the genre, and that's something horror fans simply cannot ignore.
With the amount of praise and awards that was heaped upon Clint Eastwood's last directorial effort, Million Dollar Baby (a film I was more than a little fond of), it's only obvious that his follow up film would be under close scrutiny by critics. Flags of Our Fathers does not pack quite as huge of an emotional jolt as Baby did, but that does not make it any less of a movie, just one that follows in the footsteps a little too closely of some other fine films. The battle sequences seem to owe a great debt to Saving Private Ryan, which perhaps is no surprise seeing as though Steven Spielberg produced this film alongside Eastwood. Where the movie is able to rise above the usual World War II cliches is in its central storyline that talks about a nation desperate for a glimmer of hope in a war that many people are losing faith in. The similarities between our current war situation are obvious, and Eastwood is able to tell the story of three men caught up in a media frenzy with heart and compassion, instead of sap and manipulation.
Flags of Our Fathers attempts to tell the true story behind the famous photograph that inspired the US war effort when hope was starting to fade. The photo in question concerned a group of soldiers working together to raise an American flag atop a mountain during the Battle of Iwo Jima. Three men who were present that day, and helped raise a second replacement flag, are brought home and treated as heroes. They are medical officer John "Doc" Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), glory seeking Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and sorrowful Native American soldier Ira Hayes (Adam Beach). The men have been sent on a promotional tour to help raise money for the war effort, and increase sales in Bonds. Of course, the men are haunted by the memories of the Battle, and the truth behind what really happened the day the flag was raised. They are made to keep quiet by the media and their superiors, as their very image and the story of their actions has swelled up patriotism in the American people. The film follows the three men as they react to the fame thrust upon them in different ways, and the impact that the event had on their lives.
The film is not so much a war movie, as it is a story about morality and how the government can twist a single moment into something far greater in order to stir up support for a cause many people have grown weary of. The screenplay by William Broyles, Jr (Jarhead) and Paul Haggis (Crash, The Last Kiss) focuses on each of these three men and their different reactions to the war. This is when the film is at its best. Watching the three men smile for the cameras in each publicity event, we can see the nervousness in their eyes. They know that they are not the heroes that the media is selling them as, but yet, just what defines a hero anyway? It is a word that can mean one thing to so many different people. Are the men who died during the attack on Iwo Jima the true heroes? Are these three men heroes for helping raise support for a cause that has been dwindling? Are the other men featured in the photo who lost their lives afterward the heroes? The movie offers no easy answers, and allows us to reach our own conclusions. As the men make their way across the US, different moments stir memories. The most striking sequence occurs when one of the men sees an ice cream mold in the shape of the flag photo having strawberry flavored topping poured over it, almost making the "soldiers" in the mold look like they are bleeding. In the wrong hands, something like this could come across as manipulative or a case of bombastic imagery. But Eastwood knows not to dwell on the symbolism, and just let the image hit hard like it should.
It is during the war sequences that Flags of Our Fathers falters just a little and begins to lose its focus. While the scenes are shot well enough, they do not have quite as much emotional impact as the sequences set back home, mainly because the movie keeps us at an emotional distance from a vast majority of the soldiers. The action is often frantic and confusing, and though I think this was intentional on Eastwood's part, it also sometimes makes it hard to make out the individual people. There are scenes where the three men back home weep over fallen friends, and talk of how they were the real heroes instead of them. But, since we know little of their relationship on or off the battlefield, these moments do not resonate quite as strongly. Even if the war sequences don't hit as hard as they should, they are beautifully shot mainly in grays and blacks. The scenes that take place back home are shot almost like a 1940s film with intentionally somewhat muted colors at times it seems. It is one of the more beautiful films to hit the big screen this year, and the cinematography is almost certainly award worthy. Also of note is Eastwood's own music score which he composed for the film. The music is simplistic, mainly relying on one basic theme, but it is subtle and does not overpower the action up there on the screen.
The performances are top notch, as is to be expected. Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford and Adam Beach all give fine turns as their respective characters. The main standout is Beach, who gets the strongest developed character of the three as a tortured Native American soldier who must not only deal with the memories of his actions during his battle, but also with how people react to him both as a "hero" and because of his heritage. His story generates the most emotion out of the three main characters, and he gets the best moments throughout the film. Phillippe and Bradford give good performances, but their characters don't get quite as many strong moments as Beach. This is mainly due to the fact that the screenplay does not dig quite as deep into their characters as I would have liked. They're fine as they are, but I was bothered a little by the fact that the movie seems to almost gloss over their outcome, especially Bradford and his character's reaction to the fame he once enjoyed drying up once the war effort is over, and he is no longer in the spotlight.
If I seem to be slightly negative to Flags of Our Fathers, forgive me, for that is not my intention. Much like another film I reviewed this weekend, The Prestige, the film is fine as it is, but could have been even better had the film dug a bit deeper. I hold Eastwood to high standards, and he was mostly able to come through. The film is just too familiar for its own good in certain spots, especially with a mainly pointless wrap around segment set in the present day that centers on the son of one of the men writing a book about the incident. Though a bit cliched at times, Flags of Our Fathers is still worth saluting for a number of fine scenes and performances.
Last year around this time, there was a family drama released about a girl and her horse called Dreamer. It was nothing spectacular, but it had some winning performances, a good heart, and was mostly able to avoid coming across as too melodramatic or sappy. Now we have Flicka, a remake/update of a classic story that covers many of the same themes as the earlier film, yet does so in a way that is so heavy-handed and over the top that it crushes the featherweight story that it tries to tell with its own self-importance. Director Michael Mayer (A Home at the End of the World) stages each scene so dramatically that you'd think the characters were talking about lives hanging in the balance, rather than wondering if a teenage girl should attempt to tame a wild mustang horse. Too silly and melodramatic for adults, while at the same time being too leisurely paced and old fashioned for most kids, Flicka will most likely appeal solely to young girls in the single digits who are nuts about horses.
Fiery teenage girl Katy McLaughlin (played by 27-year old Alison Lohman) has a lot of problems. She's flunking out of school, she can't seem to connect with her emotionally distant father, Rob (country singer Tim McGraw), and worst of all, her dad is starting to have thoughts about selling the land that makes up their ranch home where they breed horses. Katy is a free spirited girl who doesn't follow the rules, and thinks she has found a soul mate when she discovers a wild mustang running free in the mountains nearby. Determined to befriend and tame the creature, Katy strikes up a slow and uneasy bond with the wild horse, whom she names Flicka. Rob, however, is set in his ways that a mustang is bad news for a ranch, and wants to sell the horse to a local rodeo. Knowing that her dad would never accept the special bond she shares with Flicka, Katy is determined to do whatever it takes to keep her new friend by her side, even if it means disobeying every rule he has placed before her.
Flicka is a story that has been told numerous times, and seems just as outdated and worn as the cliches that it tries to pass off as an actual plot. From the wooden and stilted dialogue, to the overly dramatic acting and line delivery, the film becomes almost unintentionally comical, especially when the characters start trying to pass off lines like "She's got mustang blood, just like our daughter" as serious pieces of dialogue. The paper thin plot is your standard "troubled girl finds horse, troubled girl befriends horse, troubled girl loses horse, troubled girl risks life to get horse back" plot that's been around since the days of the old Lassie pictures. Sure, the book this film is based on is pretty old, but screenwriters Mark Rosenthal and Lawrence Konner (Mona Lisa's Smile) really should have made more an effort to update the story, or at least add in some material to make the movie more interesting. The family conflict between father and daughter that is supposed to drive the main plot is too underdeveloped to get us involved, and not even an attack by a mountain lion that seems to come out of nowhere and puts Flicka's life in danger could draw heartbreak from a notorious sentimental fool (especially when it comes to animal films) like myself. This is most likely due to the fact that we never get a good glimpse at this seemingly unbreakable bond that girl and horse are supposed to share, so much so that it seems to almost reach psychic levels. (There's a scene late in the film where Katy almost seems to be calling out telepathically to the creature while in a fevered state.) Most of the sequences concerning Katy and Flicka are montages set to pop music or popular country songs, and the dialogue between the two doesn't go much deeper than "Good girl, Flicka", so when young Katy is brought to tears at the prospect of the horse possibly being taken away, we watch with casual indifference and wonder why she's so upset.
It's a problem that carries all throughout Flicka, as not one single character is interesting or engaging. The father, Rob, as played by Tim McGraw, comes across as overly shallow and emotionally distant. This is because McGraw plays the part so stone faced and with as little emotion as possible until the screenplay forces him to break down in tears and sob over how much he loves Katy. Maria Bello as his wife gets a couple of tender scenes with both McGraw and Lohman, but since her individual relationship with both characters is never quite established as well as it should be, the scenes do not resonate with us. And then there is young Alison Lohman in the lead role. While she is amazingly successful at passing herself off as a 16-year old for a woman her age, every line she recites is drenched in over the top melodrama, and talks like no teenage girl I have ever met in my life. Whether she's waxing poetic on the nature of horses in a series of overwrought voice over monologues that keep on popping up throughout the movie, or if she's sobbing as she tries to convince her father not to sell Flicka to the rodeo, she takes the part a bit too seriously, and seems to forget that she's acting in a movie intended for children. Girls will likely be able to relate to her character's love of animals, but she talks like she stepped out of some 1940s romantic melodrama, and gives a performance so over the top that it would feel right at home in one as well. The bombastic and overly emotional music score that hits us over the head in each and every scene doesn't help matters either. Because the movie takes itself so ridiculously seriously, there's just no fun to be found in Flicka.
I have no idea what kind of audience Flicka was aiming for. Kids are likely to be bored, and only overly sentimental adults will find themselves wrapped up in the film's plotless and moldy plot structure that's been around for years. The film offers no joy or surprises, and the only positive I can think of is the cinematography by J. Michael Muro that captures the Wyoming countryside quite beautifully. As a tool to sell soundtrack albums, the movie is successful, as I happened to hear an elderly couple talking to each other about how they want to buy the CD while waking out of the theater. But as a movie that tries to make us feel or care about the characters, Flicka fails in just about every way. Put this one out to pasture, or better yet, put it out of its misery.
Much like a magic trick, The Prestige is a movie that takes an ordinary thing (in this case, a storyline centering around a rivalry between two people of the same craft), and then twists it with a large number of tricks and acts of sleight of hand. The audience needs to pay attention, or they will be left wondering what happened, and just how the characters in the movie pulled the feat off. Co-writer and director Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins, Insomnia) has created a perplexing and intriguing revenge drama set in the world of magic and illusions. The film is brilliant in its depiction of mood, atmosphere, and getting us lost in its story and the world of tricks that the characters live in. Where it is slightly less successful is in digging deeper into these characters. While still a highly satisfying experience, when it's all over, you still feel like The Prestige doesn't have as much up its sleeve as you initially thought.
Set mainly in late 19th Century London, the story revolves around a pair of young aspiring magicians who, as the story begins, are studying under an acclaimed master by the name of Cutter (Michael Caine). These men are Robert (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred (Christian Bale). One night, a magic trick goes horribly wrong, causing the lovely young assistant (Piper Perabo), who just happens to be Robert's wife, to lose her life in front of an audience. Worst of all, it would seem that Alfred may or may not have been the cause. This begins a bitter and lifelong rivalry as the two men go their separate ways, bent on not only discovering the ultimate magic trick, but in also destroying each other's lives, both professionally and personally. It begins by attempting to sabotage one another's act, and quickly escalates when they both fall for the same woman (Scarlet Johansson). The feud becomes an all-consuming obsession for both to see the other fall, and as they will soon learn, obsession comes with a price greater than any monetary value.
Many people have compared The Prestige to a film released just months ago called The Illusionist, which also apparently dealt with a pair of rival magicians. I have not seen this film, so I cannot say how closely the two resemble each other. What I can say is that The Prestige is an intriguing story of revenge and obsession as these two characters devote their lives to one-upping and destroying each other. The film's strongest trait is its depiction of the world that magicians live in, and the secrets of their trade. When the movie is taking a behind the scenes look at the business of the two men, and everything that goes into their tricks, it is completely fascinating. Screenwriters Christopher and Jonathan Nolan know how to play the audience, just like a fine magician should. From the appropriately foggy old-world atmosphere, to the stage performances that both give throughout the story, there is a certain air of mystery that immediately captures your intention almost from the very opening shot. The film is told somewhat out of sequence, so that we are left wondering during the film's opening moments, only to delight us when the realization comes to light later on. Telling a film out of sequence successfully is certainly a tricky thing, but for the most part, The Prestige handles it in a way so that it seems appropriate instead of gimmicky.
I only wish the storytelling was as wonderful underneath as it appears to be on its surface. Unfortunately, the revenge storyline that drives the main characters throughout the film is quite shallow, making them come across as spoiled, immature children rather than adults. While the movie gives us a fine start to the personal feud with the death of Robert's wife on stage, afterward, it becomes a bit harder to swallow that these men would carry such a massive grudge against one another, so much so that they would go to such extremes as to literally attempt to destroy each other's lives. A lot of this has to do with the fact that the screenplay keeps us at a curious distance from truly getting to know the characters. There is a love triangle subplot concerning an assistant of Robert's (Scarlet Johansson) who is sent to spy on Alfred, and winds up developing feelings for her boss' rival. Unfortunately, very little is done with this, and Johansson's character disappears quite abruptly from the film. Alfred is married with a child, and his affair with the woman, and the affect that it has on his family strangely does not play as large of a role in the story as one think it would or should. In fact, the character of Alfred's wife seems so underdeveloped, popping in and out of the story at random, that the final outcome of her story arc does not hit the audience as hard as the filmmakers probably intended. All the pieces are there for great drama, and since the movie does not dig deep enough, it comes across as simply good drama that could have been great if it just went a bit further.
If the characters are a bit hard to relate to on the written page, due to their somewhat underdeveloped personalities, at least the performances are here to take our minds off that fact at least while we're watching it. Both Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale are in top form as the feuding magicians. The film wisely does not take sides. This is a story where both men are driven by jealousy and rage, and although Jackman comes across as the more likeable of the two, even he does not escape unscathed. They are both complex characters, and although their rivalry may not be developed as deep as I would have liked, they are still believable in their relationship and their individual performances. Scarlet Johansson is also able to rise above her somewhat underwritten character, and create a vulnerable female character caught in the middle of a war between two men she has feelings for. While its true that her individual relationships with both characters could have been explained more, her scenes with both Jackman and Bale hold enough passion during the fleeting glimpses that we do see of their relationships. Rounding out the main cast is Michael Caine as the master to both men, who brings both warmth and sometimes humor to his performance.
The spell that this film casts cannot be denied. You are enthralled by The Prestige while you are watching it, but when you take away the illusions and the smoke and mirrors, you find that there is less than you initially thought. I am giving this film a recommendation nonetheless, because I think it is an enjoyable film as it is. It's just one that could have been even better if it dug a bit deeper. Still, it moves at a brisk pace despite the just over two hour running time, it's entertaining, and it knows how to get you involved in a way that few films can. In the end, The Prestige is mostly successful sleight of hand that leaves you craving more.
Every once in a while, a movie comes along that pretty much tells you what you're in for the second the studio logo fades away. As soon as the 20th Century Fox logo and fanfare is wrapped up, what's the first thing we see in The Marine? We see professional wrestler, John Cena, dressed in a Marine uniform (the only time we will see him in uniform the whole film), saluting us, in front of an image of a waving American flag that has been badly inserted behind him with limited green screen technology. It kind of looks like a recruitment commercial that was made by people who just didn't care. But wait, it gets better! As soon as this image fades out, we're whisked away to far away Iraq where some American soldiers are being tortured by some Al Qaeda terrorist scum. Fortunately, John Cena's character literally comes bursting through a brick wall, automatic weapon drawn, and starts blowing away every single terrorist in sight. Yes, folks, welcome to The Marine, the second attempt by the WWE to break into the world of motion pictures, after their previous horror attempt, See No Evil, flopped at the box office. They've moved on to dumb action movies, and before the movie was even two minutes old, I knew this was going to be a very long 90 minutes.
As I'm sure you can tell by that opening paragraph, John Cena plays a soldier who is pretty much a one-man army, harkening back to the days of Rambo and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Commando. His character is named John Triton, and after pretty much single-handedly destroying an entire terrorist cell in less than three minutes without suffering a single scratch, our hero is discharged for not following orders and waiting for the rest of his squad to arrive. John is sent home where his loving wife Kate (Kelly Carlson) is waiting for him to return. John tries to settle into a comfortable desk job as a security guard at an office building, but gosh darn it, you just can't expect a guy to be satisfied with a desk job after bursting through a brick wall and killing hundreds of people in the name of his country! John gets a little fired up while trying to escort an obnoxious guy out of the building (by throwing him out a window, of course), and winds up getting fired. Surprisingly, Kate is not mad at her husband's violent mood swings or actions. She instead suggests they take a road trip together. And so, the happy couple head out for a day of fun and frolic, only to have to make an emergency pit stop at a gas station. Unfortunately, this is the same gas station where psychotic jewel thief Rome (Robert Patrick) and his gang of criminals just happen to be filling up their getaway car. When a police officer sets Rome off, the villain starts shooting people and takes poor Kate hostage! What's a one-man army to do? Go after those scumbags that kidnapped his wife, kill a lot of people, and then yes, kill even more people.
That's pretty much The Marine all wrapped up for you right there. The movie obviously tried to bring back a bit of spotlight to the long-forgotten 80s action film. A simpler time when John Rambo could fly back to Vietnam, rescue some POWs, blow up a lot of stuff, and everyone loved him for it. Of course, action films have evolved since those days, for better or worse. While I do think a movie in this style could still be fun, the way The Marine does it is all wrong. This movie is so ludicrously over the top that I had a hard time believing that this movie was even set on planet Earth. I certainly have a hard time believing that the character of John Triton is one of our kind. Aside from being able to destroy an entire terrorist army before most people finish stretching and yawning, the guy can survive an explosion when the building he's inside gets blown up. He simply walks right out of the massive explosion without a single solitary burn or bruise, nor any explanation as to how the hoo-hey he survived when everyone else in the building obviously died. He can also be shot at about 30 million times while driving full speed down a highway, and not suffer a single wound. He can plummet hundreds of feet to the ground, and immediately stand up and walk it right off. He can take multiple plows to the head, and still come back for more. Heck, the guy even takes a sledgehammer to the back and doesn't even blink! John Triton's not a Marine, he's a visitor from flippin' Krypton!! The movie never displays his ability to bend metal with his bare hands, but considering all the other feats the movie showcases, I really would not be surprised. I would not be an honest critic, however, if I did not say I found some unintentional amusement out of how over the top this film is. By the time John Triton was able to be shot at by numerous guns and still keep on going, I could no longer hold back the laughter that was building up within me. This movie is supremely dumb, and almost enjoyably so. Note the key word here - "almost".
What holds The Marine back from becoming a total guilty pleasure classic is when the movie tries to actually be funny. No, John Triton doesn't get any one-liners unfortunately. Heck, the guy barely speaks through most of the movie, he's too busy killing people and defying human endurance. Most of the film's "comedy" comes from the villains. Yep, they're people who murder innocent people for money, and they're the comic relief. Such examples include head villain Rome having a very serious phone call with someone, informing them of his demands, only to get another call on call waiting. He switches over from the important call, and places an order for Cable TV on the other line. Another example of the bright wit of this movie is when one of the villain rather suddenly out of the blue shares a time when he went to summer camp as a child, and supposedly tried some "sexual experimentation" with one of the camp counselors. Um...ha ha? Seriously, this movie is funnier when it's trying to take itself seriously than when it tries to make the audience laugh. Further insult is the absolutely atrocious music score provided by Don Davis. Taking inspiration from everything from James Horner's score for Titanic (John and Kate's love theme) to something that sounds like it literally come out of an old Looney Tunes short (played, oddly enough, when the main villain is hitting on John's wife), this is one of the worst film scores I've ever heard, and every scene that accompanies it is made even worse for it. What could have been a fun, dumb movie quickly becomes torturous thanks to some of first-time director John Bonito's decisions, such as filming many sequences in slow motion when it is not needed, or having the fight scenes edited so ineptly in order to avoid an R-rating that we can barely tell what's going on. Not that the screenplay by Michelle Gallagher and Alan B. McElroy isn't partly to blame. They can't think of anything for their hero to do other than to have him run through a swamp and randomly kill or beat up whoever he encounters along the way.
Do I really need to say anything about the acting? Is there anyone reading this who is on pins and needles waiting to know if John Cena is to be the next breakout star in the world of wrestlers turned film stars? Well, if you are one of those people, I will be to the point...Nope. Just about any action star could pull off the kind of stuff The Marine asks of him, and since he gets to display no personality or emotion other than murderous rage, he doesn't really get to stretch his acting muscles here. Andre the Giant's position as the best movie performance by a wrestler for his work in The Princess Bride is still safe and secure. (Although Hulk Hogan's cameo in Gremlins 2 comes in a close second...) As for the rest of the cast, well, Kelly Carlson mainly plays the role of the frightened hostage, aside from one scene where she actually gets to kick the ass of one of the villains for about a minute. Oh, and she apparently hails from whatever planet John Triton comes from, because she can not only be physically abused numerous times without showing a single sign of physical pain, but she can also survive a truck catching on fire and plummeting into a body of water. On the villains' side, Robert Patrick pretty much gives the same wiseguy "comic" evil performance he gave in 1993's forgettable video game adaptation film, Double Dragon. The rest of the characters are pretty much all human targets for John Cena or Robert Patrick to kill, so they don't really matter.
Okay, obviously The Marine is not supposed to be art. It's trash, and it knows it. But, even trash entertainment has to be entertaining. The Marine has its dumb fun moments, but not enough to warrant a visit to the theater or even a rental. I'm sure this movie will be a regular feature on Cable TV in a year or two, so you can easily hold out until then. What does the future hold for Mr. Cena? Well, unless he can follow the path of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and work his way into some real roles, I can't see him going far on this path. He's best to sticking with what he does best. As someone else so elegantly once said, when it comes to John Cena, I've "Cena" enough.
2004's The Grudge was not a favorite of mine, but at least it was a simple story about a girl, a haunted house, and a pair of ghosts who seeked to kill anyone who set foot within it. In comparison, The Grudge 2 seems downright top heavy. What was once a simple ghost story seems to have expanded into a complex and convoluted series of linked plots that are filled with too many holes and don't make much sense when exposed to the light of logic. It would seem that returning director Takashi Shimizu (who also directed the original Japanese film that inspired the US franchise) wanted to expand his own story, and in doing so, may wind up losing his own fans. Though competently made and watchable, The Grudge 2 is just too complex for its own good.
The film cuts back and forth between three separate storylines, all set during different time periods. Its central plot takes place two years ago shortly after the events of the original film. Previous heroine Karen (Sarah Michelle Gellar) has been hospitalized after trying to burn down the haunted house that caused her so much grief the first time around. Her sister Aubrey (Amber Tamblyn) is sent to Japan by their ailing mother to bring Karen back home to the States. Unfortunately, before the two sisters can have a truly happy reunion, Karen is thrown off the roof of the hospital by the vengeful female spirit who tormented her throughout the first movie. With Aubrey's sister dead (a trauma she seems to quickly walk off), she decides to investigate the house and the truth behind what happened with the help of a local journalist named Eason (Edison Chen).
In two supporting subplots, both set in the present day, we learn that the dreaded curse of the house may be spreading. First we get a story that follows three students from an International High School in Japan. When two stuck up girls (Teresa Palmer and Japanese pop star Misako Uno) dare their shy and meek friend Allison (Arielle Kebbel) to enter the notorious house, they unknowingly set off a chain of events that may lead to the evil entities within escaping from the confines of the house. It would certainly seem that way, for on the other side of the world in Chicago, a young boy named Jake (Matthew Knight) begins to notice people in his apartment building acting very strangely, including his father (Christopher Cousins) and new stepmom (Jennifer Beals). Could the curse be spreading, and is it too late to stop it?
The Grudge 2 seems to follow that faithful old rule of sequels in trying to take everything that made the first film successful, and crank it up. Screenwriter Stephen Susco certainly gives us more of those vengeful ghosts, and has them popping up in the darndest of places. They're under desks, they're on tabletops, they're in the shower of the girls' locker room, they're in books, they're in a discarded pile of clothes, they're coming out of the walls, they're in phone booths, they're on a bus, they're in the shadows, they're under the bed covers...I don't think any movie monster has ever got around quite as much as these two do, and though it may sound somewhat comical having these ghosts pop up seemingly everywhere, it does kind of create an ominous feel that you're not safe no matter where you go. Where Susco's screenplay starts to falter is in explaining itself. The movie is told out of sequence for one thing, with the film constantly jumping back and forth between three entirely different stories and time periods. Oh, and there are flashbacks too, which take us even further back. Though I never became completely lost, I still felt like my mind was running to try to keep track of it all, and keep who's who straight. Horror films should not be about trying to sort out the details of the plot. They should be simple, fun, and a form of escapism. While any of the three stories would work as individual stories (even if the central one concerning Karen's sister is a mere rehash of the original film's main plot), they don't quite come together as a coherent single entity due to the fact that the film feels the need to jump about its plots at random and with little warning.
Even if the film is a structural disaster, filmmaker Shimizu knows how to craft an impressive looking picture to take our minds off of it. He uses primarily dark colors or dimly-lit interiors, yet the picture quality is never murky or muddled. He knows how to use the darkness and shadows to his advantage, creating some beautiful yet ominous imagery that stick around in your mind more than anything that happens in the movie itself. He's very good at using exotic locations around Japan to the film's advantage, as well as portraying something simple and everyday as an apartment complex in Chicago in an increasingly ominous light as the curse slowly overtakes its tenants. The scares featured in this movie are also mostly effective, with some genuinely creepy set pieces taking place in a guidance counselor's office, a love hotel, and in the apartments. With so many recent horror movies focused so much on torture and having its cast rolling around in blood and muck, it's somewhat refreshing that The Grudge 2 tries to create scares out of its environment instead.
Where Shimizu is slightly less successful is with his cast. Taking over for Gellar, Amber Tamblyn is a passable heroine, but she doesn't seem as deep as she should be. We know she's had some past issues with her sister and her mother, but other than this, we know very little of the emotions that tie the two sisters together. The way that she seems to go on with her life quite shortly after Karen practices her diving skills off the roof of a hospital onto the pavement below is somewhat disturbing. In fact, everyone in this storyline seems like they're going through the motions, most likely because they know there's nothing new in this half of the movie. It is the storyline about the three teenage schoolgirls that holds the best performances. Arielle Kebbel gets some good scenes as a girl who only wanted to belong, and winds up paying the price. She is able to bring more emotion and feeling to her character than Tamblyn is, and almost makes you wish the film had focused on her instead. The final plot holds a mixed bag of performances. While young Matthew Knight makes for a suitable protagonist, some of the other actors leave less of an impression, especially Jennifer Beals as his new mom. Many people have wondered where her career went after Flashdance, and she seems to be wondering the exact same thing in many of her scenes.
The Grudge 2 is a movie that gives the audience what it wants, but doesn't offer a lot of sense or coherency to go with it. In trying to tie these three stories together, the film winds up giving us more questions than answers. Maybe the screenplay should have narrowed its focus a little, or dropped the rehashed storyline concerning Karen's sister entirely. To its credit, the film does not disrespect the original, and those who liked that are sure to find something to like here. It just could have been and should have been so much more.
For a while now, there has been a popular trend to create phony Internet trailers for past movies, re-editing the scenes so that they appear to be something completely different. For example, there is a popular fake trailer on line that tries to pass Stephen King's The Shining as a romantic comedy. All they do is rearrange the footage, taking the dialogue in completely different context from what it's supposed to be, set it to Peter Gabriel music, and the effect is pulled off quite amazingly. While watching Man of the Year, I often wondered if whoever was behind that fake trailer was hired by Universal to do the ad campaign for this film. The film's trailer and commercials would lead you to believe it is a light-hearted comedy about a comedian who runs for President and wins. What the ads do not tell you is that everything that surrounds this storyline is a deadly serious political thriller and drama. This uneven tone between laughs and tension prevents the film from reaching its full potential, and leaves the viewer confused over just what kind of movie writer-director Barry Levinson (Rain Man, Good Morning Vietnam) was trying to make.
Late night political talk show comic Tom Dobbs (Robin Williams) makes an unexpected independent bid for the Presidency after an audience member speaks up during a taping of his show that he should run for President. He hits the campaign trail, and after giving an impressive and impassioned speech about the problems with the current political system at the National Debate, his popularity rises in the polls. When Election Day comes, he pulls off a surprise victory over both the Republican and Democratic candidates. However, system software analyst Eleanor Green (Laura Linney) does not buy the results. She personally worked on the computer voting system that was used in the election, and knows that there was a faulty glitch. The CEO of the company (Rick Roberts) and his right-hand man (Jeff Goldblum) will do anything to keep her quiet, as if the glitch went public, they would be ruined. With mysterious men constantly in pursuit of her, Eleanor becomes paranoid, uncertain of whom to trust, and only knows that she must let the truth be told.
To call Man of the Year schizophrenic would be an understatement. It's one half Robin Williams improvised comedy routine, and one half The Manchurian Candidate. Needless to say, the two formulas don't mix together, leaving the viewer very confused and let down. Too bad, there's a great movie lurking about Levinson's messy screenplay, and it shows itself from time to time. While Williams' comedy routine is largely hit or miss, the dramatic storyline that surrounds it has a number of good moments that hint at a much better movie. The character of Eleanor is a very interesting and complex character, both in the way she is written and in Linney's performance. She knows she has to do the right thing, and inform both Dobbs and the nation about the glitch, but at the same time, she is conflicted. She thinks Dobbs would be good for the country, as she agrees with his ideals. And the more she gets to know him and actually spend time with him, the more she begins to question whether it would be better to just stay silent and let the public believe a lie. I wish the movie could have spent more time on this angle, as it's very well developed, and the somewhat shaky relationship she develops with Dobbs during the course of the film is sweet and genuine.
But then the movie has to switch gears now and then, and let Williams do his usual manic comedy routine. While some of his jokes are actually funny, they feel like they have no place in this movie, and completely take us out of the drama of the situation at hand. Levinson was able to balance Williams' comedy and the drama of the situation in his earlier film, Good Morning Vietnam, but here he seems a bit less sure. The comedy almost seems to be shoehorned in, as if he didn't know which way he wanted to go with his script and the movie itself. The scenes following Dobbs' campaign team are not quite as interesting as the main conspiracy plot, because they seem less real. The characters that Dobbs surround himself with seem more like frat boy partiers and pranksters rather than a serious campaign crew. It's like they walked in from a completely different movie. Williams gets a couple good scenes with Christopher Walken, who plays his manager, but most of the scenes involving Williams has him playing for the camera and doing his improv. His relationship with Linney's character is interesting, yet ultimately undernourished, as the movie seems to be more interested in having him be funny than in concentrating on the actual plot at hand. Therefore, he often comes across as a distraction than an actual character in the plot. Funny, since the entire plot revolves around him.
Man of the Year is a movie of moments. There are a number of good moments that would be great in a different movie, but just don't gel with the story the filmmakers are trying to tell. Christopher Walken gets some great moments, stand up comic Lewis Black (from TV's The Daily Show and Accepted) gets a couple good lines as Dobbs' head writer, and even Williams gets some good laughs, even if some of his political humor seems awfully dated. (Are people still telling jokes about Bill Clinton's affair?) The dramatic side of the film has even more moments, most of them belonging to Laura Linney. She has a scene in the company cafeteria where she is under the influence of drugs that were forcefully injected into her that is both terrifying and heartbreaking. Equally heartbreaking and jarring is that almost as soon as this scene is over, we're back to Williams joking and mugging to the camera. Later scenes where her character is literally running for her life from mysterious assailants trying to silence her are thrilling and intense. That's what makes Man of the Year so frustrating. You want to love it, but the film's continuous indecision on its own tone holds you back from doing so.
In a year already filled with mis-marketed comedies (The Break Up and Click being the best examples), Man of the Year's ad campaign is so far off the mark you have to wonder what the person who approved it was thinking. Maybe they thought the Robin Williams comedy angle would bring in more people, thus creating a bigger opening weekend. But, when the truth of this film is revealed, I think it will really hurt this film's chances at the box office. Those looking for a laugh will wonder why they're watching a political thriller, and those looking for drama will wonder why they're watching Robin Williams' latest stand up act. This movie deserved a consistent tone, because there's a very good film lying somewhere in the jumbled mess that Levinson has given us. Maybe someone with a clearer vision should have been at the helm. Man of the Year may be somewhat of a failure, but at least it's one that is interesting to watch and has some good ideas. Now if only those ideas could come together, we'd have a movie.
When I reviewed the remake of TheTexas Chainsaw Massacre a couple years ago for a message board, I stated that it was not a horror movie. Horror films can do so much more than just scare us. They can excite us, make us laugh, and thrill us. The 2003 version did none of those things. I referred to it as a "pointless, plotless freak show that is intended only to gross out and torture its young cast and audience". Needless to say, my spirits were not exactly lifting to the heavens when I heard another film, much less a prequel, was in the works. So, here I am reviewing The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, and obviously director Jonathan Liebesman (Darkness Falls) saw no reason to improve on imperfection. In fact, I'm almost tempted to just write a new plot synopsis, then copy and paste my old review from three years ago, since both films are pretty much the same thing. But, because I have more respect for anyone reading this, I will do my best not to repeat myself, hard as it will be.
Set in 1969, the film follows legendary movie monster, Thomas "Leatherface" Hewitt (Andrew Bryniarski) from his humble beginnings working at a slaughterhouse, to the psychotic madman he became in the original film and its remake. When the small Texas town that Thomas and his family live in dries up and the slaughterhouse closes shop, the Hewitt family finds themselves forced to resort to drastic measures in order to keep on living in their broken down Southern mansion home. The family resorts to cannibalism, with the sadistic head of the Hewitt clan (R. Lee Ermey) posing as the local Sheriff, and bringing unsuspecting people driving through town to their home to be slaughtered by Thomas, and then eaten by the family. The latest potential victims for the deranged family are a group of four young people who are driving cross country for one last joy ride before two of the guys in the group head off to fight in Vietnam. Our heroes include brothers Eric (Matthew Bomer) and Dean (Taylor Handley), along with their respective girlfriends, Chrissie (Jordana Brewster) and Bailey (Diora Baird). When they are involved in a car accident, and three of them wind up trapped in the Hewitt family home, it's up to Chrissie to find a way inside to rescue her friends, and find a way to escape the nightmare she's trapped in.
Much like the original remake, not to mention this year's remake of The Hills Have Eyes, The Beginning cares not one single bit about creating any genuine thrills, scares, or tension. All it wants to do is cover its entire cast with blood, sweat, grime, mud and dirt, and have them parade in front of the camera before they get tortured and killed by the deformed maniac. Since the movie can think of nothing scary to do, it relies time and time again on the same old tired "jump scares" where somebody pops up seemingly out of nowhere, and the soundtrack blasts a loud sound in a futile attempt to make the audience jump. Not only can you predict these moments coming from a mile away, but some of them just don't make a lick of sense. You would think that a lumbering giant of a man armed with an industrial strength chainsaw would make a bit more noise, thus making it a bit harder for the villain to surprise his victims, let alone suddenly pop up in the back seats of cars without any warning. Leatherface has obviously mastered the art of teleportation as well if this movie is any indication, as there were a couple moments where I just could not figure out how the heck he got around so quickly. I know, I know, it's a slasher movie. I'm not supposed to be asking these sort of questions. If movies like this tried to make sense, they'd be over in 15 minutes or so. But, when you're faced with a movie as pointless as this (It's a prequel to a remake that's almost exactly like the remake!), you're forced to find other ways to entertain yourself, since the movie doesn't want to. So, I started trying to figure out how Leatherface gets around so fast, and how he can possibly sneak up on people, especially since when he sometimes pops up, he already has his chainsaw going. How the victim and us the audience didn't hear that chainsaw until he was literally right in front of us, I'd really like to know.
As is to be expected, the characters are one-note, trite, and about as deep as a puddle. What is less expected is just how boring most of them are. I don't know how you make a family of deranged Texas cannibals boring, but somehow screenwriter Sheldon Turner (2005's The Longest Yard remake) manages to do just that. That's a real shame, because the sadistic Sheriff character was one of the few bright spots of the original remake, thanks mostly to the wonderful performance by R. Lee Ermey. Here, Ermey seems to be giving it his all, but his character isn't quite as memorable as he was the last time around. He lacks the dark sense of humor that made him stand out. Oh, it's still there in some form (a scene where he tortures one of the young travelers by beating him while forcing him to do push ups is one of the few scenes that stand out in this film), but he just doesn't have the same spark as before. The rest of the evil family may as well be props on the set, as all they do is sit around and very seldom interact with any of the other characters. Heck, even Leatherface makes only random appearances when it's time for someone to die, then goes back to whatever it was he was doing before. For a movie that's supposed to explain the origins about this famous monster and his family, it sure doesn't dig deep. We see how Leatherface got his trademark weapon, how he got his flesh mask, and that's about it. So much more could have been explained, and the idiotic screenplay wastes every opportunity given, opting instead to give us more blood-splattered youths crawling around in the muck.
As for the heroes, very little needs to be said, as they exist simply to be future victims. We get some hint of turmoil between brothers Eric and Dean early on. Dean doesn't want to go to Vietnam, and is thinking about going to Mexico with his girlfriend in order to dodge the draft. Eric is about to set out on his second tour, and is an overly patriotic supporter of the war. Their personalities are bound to clash, but just as the drama is about to unfold, they smash into a cow crossing the road (splattering blood all over the windshield and everyone inside the vehicle, of course), and are kidnapped by the family. Why the movie even bothers setting up this plot point when it's not even going to do anything with it, your guess is as good as mine. It fools us into thinking there's actually going to be some kind of point, only to snatch it away, and turn the characters into your standard splatter victims. The lead character of Chrissy is so underdeveloped that you're literally left wondering why the movie decided to follow her. She has no personality or character traits, other than the fact that she happened to be the girlfriend to one of the brothers, and happened to avoid detection after the accident, because she got thrown out of the vehicle after it crashed. Wouldn't it have made more sense to have the brothers be the main characters trying to rescue their girlfriends since, you know, the movie spends the opening 20 minutes building a conflict between them that is almost entirely forgotten about as soon as the blood starts splattering on the screen? I guess it doesn't matter, as none of the young actors are required to display any real acting ability. They just have to scream and walk around covered in blood and mud. Despite all this, the four actors still show more acting skill combined than Jessica Simpson's entire performance in Employee of the Month, so I guess they can take comfort in that.
I really want to know when did slasher movies start having the fun taken out of them? They used to be somewhat tongue in cheek, or at least they knew how to come up with some creative kills that would make you laugh and shake your head at the very sight of them. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning takes itself way too seriously, and seems to think that it's a story we're actually supposed to care about. And yet, there is nothing on display to care about. It is a vast, empty void of nothingness that sucks away 90 minutes worth of time from its audience, and leaves them absolutely nothing to take home with them. There is no fun to be had here, no thrills, and no genuine scares. The great slasher films know how to leave an impression and stick with you. Even if you wind up laughing over how cheesy the whole movie was, it's still an impression! All I felt at the end of this movie was the feeling that the filmmakers had too much time on their hands to make a movie like this
In his review of the Olsen Twins' film, New York Minute, film critic Roger Ebert theorized that teenage girls like the Olsens because they can picture themselves being them. What he meant is that the Olsens don't exactly show anything in terms of talent that your average girl off the street couldn't also do. The same perhaps could be said of Jessica Simpson, a woman who has shown very little talent in terms of both singing (her main claim to fame), and now acting, where she made her universally panned debut in last summer's Dukes of Hazzard film. (Unless you count the numerous commercials she appeared in shilling junk food with Muppets, and even then, her acting talents were upstaged by Miss Piggy and Animal.) Her performance in the new comedy, Employee of the Month, can best be compared to a deer caught in the headlights. Sometimes it seems as if she doesn't even know she's supposed to be in a movie and acting. That's okay, though, no one else in this movie really tries either. Amateurish in just about every way, the best thing that can be said about Employee of the Month is that as bad as it is, it still could have been much worse.
30+ year old slacker, Zack Bradley (Dane Cook), has had no dreams or ambitions since he lost it all 10 years ago trying to make a fortune on the Internet. He's held the same dead end job for years, working as a box boy for a local discount warehouse store, and has no aspirations to improve his life anytime soon. That all changes when the lovely Amy (Jessica Simpson) joins the store's team as a cashier. When an employee friend tells him that Amy has a history of dating guys who won the Employee of the Month Award at her past jobs, Zack for the first time feels true passion for his work, and decides to impress the girl with his new attitude. Unfortunately, this puts him directly at odds with his personal rival, Vince Downey (Dax Shepard), a smarmy and egotistical cashier who has won the Award at Zack's store the past 17 times in a row, and also has his eyes on Amy. When Zack becomes so wrapped up in showing up his rival and winning Amy's heart, he doesn't even realize when he starts to lose his own identity and his friends in his single-minded quest.
From the flat and lifeless direction by actor-turned-director, Greg Coolidge, to the screenplay that can barely muster laughter above a chuckle, Employee of the Month is about as stale as a comedy can get. Never mind the fact that we have another pointlessly long comedy that for some reason somebody felt that it needed to be nearly two hours long. (Is there no such thing as editing anymore in Hollywood? What's next, a three hour remake of Police Academy?) The film is so scattershot and slapped together that I'm willing to believe just about any script could be sold. Let's take a look at that premise, shall we? So, this Amy girl only dates guys who win Employee of the Month. In the real world, people would see her for the shallow and attention-grubbing little witch that she is. In the world of this movie, she's a kind, caring soul who is able to see the real beauty behind the slacker Zack, and reject the advances of the much more well off and evil Vince. But wait, if she likes Zack for who he is as this movie would want us to believe, then why he is trying so hard to win the Employee of the Month title? Did the writers not ask themselves this obvious question during the weekend they obviously spent hammering out the screenplay? Doesn't that make the whole competition and rivalry between Zack and Vince completely pointless, other than the fact there would be no movie whatsoever if they didn't? When it comes to Idiot Plots, this one takes the cake.
But wait, there's more! If Amy's a cashier, why does the movie never depict her doing anything that resembles work? Every scene she's in, she's on break or it appears to be her day off. She never deals with a single customer, nor does she ever run an item through a scanner. Actually, Zack and Vince seem to be the only guys in the entire store who do any work. The rest of the cast are a crew of one-note comic characters that include a legally blind eye glasses specialist played by comedian Andy Dick, an angry midget who runs the company and likes to beat up on his brother the store manager, a mentally challenged black security guard, and Zack's best friend played by comedian Harland Williams who doesn't even seem to have an identifiable job, despite the fact he's wearing the store uniform, and just stands around commenting on the action around him. The only character who manages to get anything close to a chuckle is Vince's little Yes Man underling played by Efren Ramirez from Napoleon Dynamite. Despite the fact that many of the actors who appear in this film have done some strong comic work in the past, either in stand up or in film, the movie has no idea what to do with them, so they just go through the motions, giving as minimal of an effort as possible.
The lead cast don't come off much better, and that's thanks mainly to the fact that Dane Cook is just plain unlikeable in the lead role. With his scruffy beard and narrow eyes, he looks more like a thug than a likeable romantic lead that we're supposed to be rooting for. Dax Shepard gets a couple moments of potential as the villain, but the material the script gives him doesn't allow him to truly go as far with the character as he should. He always seems close to be doing something funny, but then the script holds him back, and just squanders his potential. And then there is Jessica Simpson, who proves that her performance in Dukes of Hazzard was not a fluke, and that she really does not deserve to have an acting career. Her idea of acting is to stare vacantly into the camera, hoping the others on screen will act for her, look confused when someone is talking to her, or flash her smile. Her character is barely developed, with the fact that she has big ears being the only thing we learn about Amy besides the fact that she likes to date the Employee of the Month. There's even a moment in the film where someone calls out her name, and it takes her a couple seconds for her to even realize she's being spoken to. Someone either needs to hire this girl an acting coach, or just realize she has no observable talent for performing in her current state. Her "romantic" scenes with Dane Cook have all the spark and passion of a loveless relationship on the brink of a messy divorce. Maybe the director failed to tell her she's supposed to like this guy.
While Employee of the Month is not the worst comedy I've seen this year, that does not excuse the fact that a budget and good talent was wasted on something so insignificant and mediocre. The movie obviously aspired to be a parody of mind-numbing labor in the tradition of Office Space and Clerks. Instead, it comes across as completely forgettable fluff that doesn't even have the decency to be even remotely interesting. This Employee of the Month certainly won't win any awards, unless the annual Razzies decide to "honor" Miss Simpson's performance.
When a great director returns to form after a series of slightly disappointing films, critics and fans tend to get a little bit overly excited. Such is the case with Martin Scorsese and his latest offering to audiences, The Departed. The film has been met with Oscar talk, and hyped to the heavens with critics slinging such lofty phrases as "masterpiece" and "Scorsese's best film since Goodfellas". No movie could ever live up to that kind of hype, and while it certainly tries, The Departed falls just a bit short. Don't get me wrong, it's a very good movie, and is more than worthy of your hard-earned movie dollar. The movie just takes a little while to find solid footing, and the final 10 or 15 minutes aren't as clever as the movie seems to think it is. Still, we've got some wonderful performances on display, and a legendary filmmaker returning to the kind of material that he excels in. Die-hard fans of Scorsese are bound to have a ball, while everyone else should see it for what it is - a lofty film with a few faults, but still manages to make a lasting impression and stay afloat, despite a butt-numbing running time of two and a half hours.
A remake of a Chinese film from four years ago, the film covers two young police officers leading very different lives, but actually share much in common, and whose lives are destined to collide. On one side, we have Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), a hard-edged and stressed out cop who has been assigned to go undercover and infiltrate one of the most dangerous and notorious criminal gangs working in Boston, led by the equally dangerous and notorious Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). Billy is forced to hide his identity and his entire lifestyle the entire time he is in Frank's presence, passing himself off as a hardened ex-con. The pressures of pretending to be something he's not 24-7, along with the pressure of knowing that he could be discovered at any time by one of Frank's men, begins to push Billy close to the edge of insanity. On the other side, we have another officer named Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), a dirty cop who actually is working for Frank Costello for real, and for years has secretly been helping Costello's gang stay one step ahead of the police. When the Police Chief (Martin Sheen) and his right-hand man (Mark Wahlberg) begin to suspect that there is a mole somewhere in the police department, they wind up hiring Colin to sniff out the guilty party. The inevitable confrontation that the movie builds to between the two very different young cops will lead to everyone's loyalties at the police department and in Costello's criminal gang being questioned.
Despite its lengthy running time, The Departed at least knows how to make just about every minute count. The film moves at a constantly brisk pace, slowing down just long enough for us to get to know the characters a little bit more. The screenplay by William Monaham knows how to juggle some very complex characters, morbidly dark humor, human drama, and some pretty well done and intense shootout sequences. This combined with the expert direction of Scorsese and the airtight editing of his longtime contributor, Thelma Schoonmaker, helps lift the film to higher levels than it would reach if someone else was involved. The movie takes a little while to truly get moving, but once it does, it moves like a speeding train and literally does not stop. There really is a lot to admire in this movie and how it was made. Nothing seems to have been left to chance, not even the soundtrack, which includes a number of classic rock numbers by The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and many others. With so many movies using popular music only to back up montages these days, it's refreshing to see a movie that actually knows how to use songs to enhance a scene, rather than simply to sell a tie-in soundtrack album. From beginning to end, you can see the care that Scorsese and crew have taken in making this film look great, sound great, and leave a lasting impression on viewers.
The only thing that holds The Departed back from true greatness are a couple problems with the script. The character of Billy, though fine in his finished form, seemed to be missing something. We never quite learn why he would be so willing to accept such a dangerous mission and give up his entire life. We never truly get to see the life he left behind, because he's constantly on the job in this movie. It's something I didn't really think of until after the film was over, but it would have been nice to see a little bit more of his life before he was forced to hide his identity. As mentioned earlier, the film also takes a little while to find the pace that the rest of the movie will follow. Though never boring, the movie does stumble a little bit with some areas that aren't as well developed as others, particularly the relationship that both Billy and Colin have with a female psychiatrist played by Vera Farmiga. And then there is the film's final act, which I would dare not spoil for you, but came across as being overly clever. It's almost like all of a sudden Scorsese and writer Monaham started laughing at us, and saying, "Hey, bet you didn't see this coming!" Unfortunately, it's not quite as smart or unexpected as it seems to think it is. As the climax goes on, I started anticipating what was going to happen, and I started to find myself being right. Throughout the film, the scenes of brutal violence was at least paced well and set far apart enough from each other so that it didn't become repetitive. During The Departed's final moments, the movie starts to resemble an overly violent bloodbath, loses all sense of character, and simply becomes interested in throwing us off guard and shocking us with violence. A movie this good deserved a better exit than an overly desperate attempt to surprise us.
Still, until the movie falls apart in a flow of blood and bullets, the film works thanks in no small part to the phenomenal cast that seem to be having the time of their lives. Jack Nicholson in particular as the twisted crime boss Frank Costello delivers a performance that will probably be remembered alongside some of his other more iconic "deranged" performances like in The Shining and the original Batman film. This is plainly his movie, and he seems to know it, taking every scene he's in and almost making you forget about everything else. Nicholson is timeless, and I hope we won't have to wait another three years for his next performance. Though none of the rest of the cast are able to quite live up to Nicholson (Who could, really?), they are all able to deliver fine and nuanced performances. Leonardo DiCaprio continues to rise above the teen girl sensation status he unfairly gained with Titanic. He's always been a true actor, ever since he was a teen, and this is yet another fine performance. Matt Damon, as the morally corrupt officer, gives his best performance in a long time. He is able to bring a certain amount of sinisterness to his usual charm, making him a truly detestable character, and I mean that in the best way. The other main standout is Mark Wahlberg as the foulmouthed right hand to the police department's head. He has a couple of choice scenes with both Martin Sheen and Alec Baldwin, and helps make us forget his recent uninspired film, Invincible. Yeah, the character is a bit underwritten, but his performance helps make the character stand out more than he would if someone else was in the role.
The best way I can describe The Departed is that it is a nearly-great film. All the elements are there, but the script needed probably just one more rewrite before going before the cameras. Still, considering some of the stuff that's been clogging up theater space these past few months, The Departed is a movie that you simply can't ignore and are bound to enjoy. You can tell that everyone definitely tried and cared about making this movie memorable. I was slightly disappointed when the end credits started to roll, but only just a little. I thought more about this movie afterward than any other recent film, and that alone is worth something. It hasn't knocked United 93 off as my favorite film of the year so far, but I admire it for trying.
If one were to watch An Officer and a Gentlemen, Top Gun, or the numerous other military underdog movies out there, make a list of everything that happened in those movies, and then go see The Guardian, it is almost a sure bet you would be checking off the same things all over again. As I mentioned in my review of Gridiron Gang just a few weeks ago, I don't mind overly cliched films as long as they are done well. And while The Guardian is definitely done well, thanks to some strong direction by Andrew Davis (Holes, The Fugitive), it comes across as robotic and stiff where it really counts in the characters and their relationships. The movie knows all the right notes to hit, but it doesn't know how to hit them in such a way to make us care. With a dragged out running time of nearly two and a half hours, the film starts to wear out its welcome about a half hour early.
Veteran Coast Guard Chief Ben Randall (Kevin Costner) has been saving lives and swimming through dangerous waters for years, but his career seems to be on the downward spiral when one of his rescue missions goes wrong and winds up costing the lives of the rest of the crew. With the memory of the failed mission haunting his dreams, and his long-time wife Helen (Sela Ward) leaving him, Ben feels as though he is washed up. His understanding Captain (Clancy Brown) thinks Ben just needs some time out of the field of action, and assigns him to be a teacher for some new recruits at the training center. Of the young students that Ben is assigned, one of them sticks out, a flashy and cocky young man named Jake Fischer (Ashton Kutcher). Jake was a champion swimmer in high school, and was given scholarships to hundreds of highly regarded schools, but gave them up to join the Coast Guard for reasons that only he seems to know. The film follows the relationship of Ben and Jake as they start as rivals, learn to bond with each other, become partners, and learn to rely on each other in actual rescue situations as well as battling their own inner demons.
Given some of Andrew Davis' past credits, it's certainly no surprise that The Guardian is well done all around. The film looks good, the highlights being the water rescue scenes, which are appropriately intense and brutal. The cast is nothing special particularly, but no one offends, and everyone seems to give at least a decent performance. Yes, even Ashton Kutcher, who I'm still not fully convinced of his merits as a dramatic actor. Then again, I don't think much of him as a comedic actor either. Where The Guardian falters is not in its style, but rather what lies underneath. The screenplay by Ron L. Brinkerhoff is so depressingly run of the mill that just about anyone who has watched a movie of its kind before should be able to figure out what's going to happen almost instantly. We get a variety of training montages, we get the required bar fight scene, we get the girl who reluctantly falls in love with the cocky young cadet, we get the teacher and the student who hate each other at first, but soon realize that they're really not that different at heart...All of this we've seen before, and quite frankly we've seen done much better. It certainly doesn't help that the movie almost seems to beg us to recall the other films it uses for inspiration. When Kevin Costner's character is putting Ashton Kutcher's character through a variety of brutal and humiliating tests, and screams at him, "Why don't you just quit?", I literally expected Kutcher to scream "Because I have nowhere else to go!" like Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentlemen. The Guardian never finds its own unique voice, and is content to just trot out one cliche after another.
As I mentioned earlier, a cliched story can be forgiven if the characters are likeable. Unfortunately for us, the characters who populate this story are just as cookie cutter and mundane as the storytelling. Characters come and go as they please, often without any explanation. We're told that very few of the students who attend the Coast Guard Training Center graduate, and the movie tries to display this by showing Ben's class getting smaller and smaller with each scene. Unfortunately, we never get to know anything about any of the students aside from Jake and one of his friends who is on his third attempt to pass the training course after failing it previous years, so we don't feel anything when they show the class getting smaller, nor do we feel anything when the proud graduates are standing up there on the stage. We also never really get a truly successful transition in Ben and Jake's relationship that turns them from almost enemies to trusted partners. There is a scene where the two open up to each other about Jake's past, and why he joined the Coast Guard, but it certainly doesn't explain why Costner's character would not only keep Kutcher in his class, but also why they would drive to a local bar and get in a fight together. Maybe it's a strange form of male bonding. Whatever the case, I never bought their relationship for a second, nor did I care if any of the students up there on the screen made it to Graduation Day.
For a movie that has nothing new to say, it certainly takes up a lot of time to say it. The 135 minutes that make up The Guardian are mostly filled with training montages (some of which seem to suddenly stop instead of actually ending), and scenes of Costner and Kutcher getting on each other's nerves, then bonding. There are a number of scenes in this movie that could have been edited out without any sacrifice to the story or the movie itself. It also doesn't help that this film suffers from "false ending syndrome". You know, the kind of movie that fools you into thinking it's over, you start to reach for your things, only to have a new scene pop up on the screen, and you scramble to put your stuff back down? This movie has not one, but two false endings. The image fades out, you wait for the credits, and they just don't come. It's almost like the movie is playing a prank on you. It's a shame the movie doesn't know when to quit, because the longer it goes, the more ludicrous it becomes. By the time it was actually over, I started to wonder why we needed those past 20 minutes, when what happened before it would have sufficed as a passable conclusion.
Is The Guardian a total failure? Not particularly. There are some strong action sequences, and the performances don't disappoint. They're just surrounded by long patches where nothing really important happens, but the movie keeps on insisting that we watch it. Before long, it starts to resemble less a movie and more a promotional film for the U.S. Coast Guard. I'm sure this film will be a major crowd pleaser judging by the reaction of the audience I saw the film with. It just never moved me emotionally in the way it obviously so desperately wanted to. Maybe The Guardian tries too hard. Quite frankly, I wish it had tried just a bit harder at making us care about the characters, instead of concentrating on being such a cliched and manipulative patriotic film.
I am a rabid movie fan since 1984 who calls them as he sees them. Sometimes harsh, but always honest, I offer my 'reel opinions' on today's films. I don't get money for my reviews, and I have to pay to get into every movie I see (even the really awful ones), so what you will see here is the true reaction of a man who is passionate about film. - Ryan Cullen