Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Two Nicolas Cage Movies: Bangkok Dangerous, Lord of War

It's always interesting to see someone at their craft. When a movie brings you into a different world, or in this case job, we get to go somewhere we've never been.

Nicolas Cage is a hitman in Bangkok Dangerous, but he's tired. Tired of being alone, eating alone, talking to no one except for lackeys whom he will later kill. You can see how this would get to be old. So he plans one last job -- actually, four of them, all in Bangkok. No rules, dense Bangkok.

This has been done before (e.g., Pierce Brosnan in The Matador), and this really isn't a different take on it, except that we feel sorry for him, even a little bit, as he seems as trapped in his profession as any of us. Cage's hitman deals with his loneliness in a different way, taking on a student, a slick Thai messenger who has a few of his own tricks.

There are surprisingly few exciting action scenes in this movie. And the denouement, the big battle at the end of the flick, is Bangkok Boring.

Lord of War features Nicolas Cage as a gun dealer.

"Can you get me a gun like Rambo?"
"Rambo 1, 2 or 3?" Cage asks.
Looking worried, the soldier answers, "I've only seen 1."
Cage: "Ah, the M-16."

Dialogue is sharp like this, very funny, almost all the way through. Plot, schmlot. Who cares? Bring on the guns. Tell us how billions of dollars worth of weapons, tanks, etc., left the Ukraine after the Cold War ended. How countries of Africa became the recipients. Fascinating.

And there's a brilliant montage in the beginning, as the credits roll, showing the journey of a bullet. The journey Cage's character takes in this story, the story of an arms dealer when government agents are barreling down on him, is just as interesting.

Thumb's up for Lord of War, thumb's down for Bangkok Dangerous.


The western is back.

Appaloosa was a labor of love, we understand, for actor/director/producer Ed Harris, who plays the lead role of Virgil Cole. Along with his sidekick, Everett Hitch, played by Viggo Mortensen, the two offer themselves to the town of Appaloosa in the late 1880's as law enforcement officers when the sheriff and his posse fail to return from the property of a local rancher (Jeremy Irons).

You know who's in charge here. Hitch gives deference to Cole constantly, allowing him to decide what their role is, what job they'll take, who they'll kill and when. It's not an easy job, but they've been working together for the last 12 years, which shows how good they've been at their job.

However, everything that's normal for them is upended when the widow Mrs. French (Renee Zellweger) appears on the scene with but a dollar in her possession.

This is a fascinating story -- actually, it's not the story that's so terribly fascinating as the interplay of the two men. Because, actually, it's a love story between the men. We see how they work together, how they trust each other and how that trust has been built, how they adapt in a changing situation. The west was changing rapidly, and the legal system not always the most just of systems. They knew they could rely on each other when nobody else was following their code.

The characterizations are rich, and Harris and Mortensen are perfect in these roles. I've actually never seen Harris so good, and we know, after decades of moviework, that he's good. This isn't Mortensen's most complex role, but it's one he fills wonderfully. Viggo Mortensen, in my opinion, is one of America's finest contemporary actors.

It's not a perfect movie, not the perfect western, but it's a fascinating account of two men faced with growing older and an American west that is changing, too.

Thumb's up.

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Max Payne

There are numerous problems with this latest of Mark Walhberg's dramas.

The camera is in love with action, slowing it down to a snail's crawl to show us just how Max is able to get into the perfect position for his shot. And how the guy attacking him can get off three shots to Max's one, which is already in the air -- which is impossible. Stick figures run rampant in this movie adaptation of a video game. And the plot, while an interesting take, is presented in a confusing way.

Still, it's shot beautifully. It's Gotham City in its snowiest. Its scenes take on that black-and-white, caught-in-the-headlights kind of glow.

And the actors are interesting, if not terribly emotional in playing these paper-thin roles. It's great to see Beau Bridges, who is very good here, as the man Max appeals to when he's being framed for a murder or two, including his long-time partner on the force.

And Mila Kunis has come a long way from That Seventies Show. She's no buffoon here, and I predict a nice, long future for her in acting.

It's an interesting movie with a new slant on an old plot, and the actors are worth watching. But there are obstacles along the way. This movie could've benefitted from a more coherent story, a sense of humor here and there, and fewer characters, which would help the confusion factor. The Fan Boys will love it, but the rest of us will notice the missing parts.

Thumb's up, minimally.


Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Eagle Eye

There are so many movies that are derivative of other movies and novels. This is one of those. However, to tell you what it's derivative OF might give away plot points, and I'd rather not do that since that's about all you've got to enjoy in this movie.

Jerry (Shia LaBeouf), a scruffy guy who's just getting by at a minor job, and Rachel (Michelle Monaghan), a newly single mom, are thrown together when a voice over a cell phone tells them they must obey. Almost the entire movie is made up of scenes at a dizzying pace while we watch Jerry and Rachel travel on rail, car, plane as law enforcement tries to catch up with them. In the meantime, the two get in an argument with each other, a miracle since they're running the entire time, and there's little to like about either except for the stars' personalities.

The questions all this action raises: why, what, when, and more importantly, who is this voice?

The movie ends up being a mishmash of action with little rationality. We don't really know why Jerry and Rachel have been thrown together, to what purpose. We never quite get the motivation, especially for Jerry. Why doesn't he just walk away? The statement he gives about his brother just doesn't make any sense.

It's actually a good cast here. LaBeouf is a very good actor, getting better each project. Monaghan is steady and believable. Billy Bob Thornton as a senior FBI agent is very grounding, terrific. And there are several others -- Michael Chiklis, Rosario Dawson -- we really don't see enough of.

But it's a good cast misspent. The plot meanders with the action, and the last few scenes, while substantial, don't explain enough of the gaping holes of logic left in their wake.

Thumb's down.


Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Ice Age: The Meltdown

I caught a little of this movie on HBO one night, and figured I had to see the whole thing.

First of all, let me say that Ice Age in blu-ray is stunning. You can see every strand of fur on the woolly mammoth.

The dialogue is very funny. There are very few wasted lines here. And one sequence doesn't have any dialogue at all -- pieces interwoven through the Ice Age: Meltdown story about a squirrel (I think) named Scrat and his constant battle for an acorn. Very, very funny. I laughed out loud through these segments, and hoped they'd come back soon.

The story itself is very good. I won't bore you with the details. I thought the voices were very effective, especially John Leguizamo as a sloth trying to gain respect. Ray Romano as the male woolly mammoth, however, is Ray Romano. You feel like you're watching an extension of Everybody Loves Raymond. It's very distracting, and very New York.

But that aside, this is a very entertaining movie for both adult and child.

Thumb's up.

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We try to see all of Nicolas Cage's movies. First, to see how this academy-award winner is doing. Secondly, to see how bad his choices are sometimes. His choices, however, are always interesting. While I didn't entirely enjoy Ghost Rider, I could appreciate specific parts of it and understand what appealed to him about the project itself.

The premise of his latest movie, Next, is that a man can see two minutes into the future. That's it. Not great, huh? But enough to often slip by the police or whomever else is trying to do him wrong. It's an interesting premise. And the movie offers a thrilling opening.

Cris Johnson is a bit-rate magician in Las Vegas. Some of his tricks are sleight-of-hand, but some are real. Thankfully the movie doesn't spend a lot of time on Cris' gig, but goes right to the blackjack table. Of course, we'd all like to win like he does, but few of us would be as cautious, winning just a few thousand at a time. Nothing showy. But, still, someone's watching, and he escapes, leading the police through a crazy car chase through Vegas.

One piece of his gift, however, is that, when a certain girl is involved (played by Jessica Biel), he can see more into the future than just a few minutes. He just hasn't met her yet. Cris' eventual meeting with her and their adventures together are what make up the real story.

I must say that, in spite of myself, I really enjoyed this movie. Cage himself is always watchable, and you never quite know what he's going to do. I would have found him charming if a bit spooky, which is exactly how Biel's character responds to him. He's still got it, the ability to read a line and imbue it with several meanings at once, all of them ironic.

And the writing of Next is wonderfully deft. The dialogue was sometimes stupid, but the layers of plot were interesting even though there appeared to be a hole or two in the logic of the whole thing.

Next is thoroughly entertaining from beginning to end, and the payoff is more than I had hoped. Add to that Cage's still potent acting ability, Biel's up-and-coming acting chops, and the appearance of Julianne Moore as a hardass FBI agent, and you have one thrilling movie.

Thumb's up.

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Friday, January 09, 2009

The Day the Earth Stood Still

Why do all the aliens only come to the United States? Are there no other countries that appeal to them? I'm just sayin'...

Stuff blowing up. Great special effects. Unfortunately, that's just about all there is to the modern The Day the Earth Stood Still.

We miss the old version. Sure, it was a talkfest, but the talk was between great actors Michael Rennie and Patricia Neal. I'm afraid Keanu Reeves and Jennifer Connelly, try as they might, can't measure up. One improvement, however, is Jaden Smith as Connelly's stepson. He is miles above young Billy Gray in the acting department. And, because Jaden is a little older, we get that pre-teen angst which seems pretty true to life.

The beginning is a homerun in my estimation. Dr. Benson, an astrobiologist (Connelly), is spirited away at night by the military to join other scientists to deal with the fact that an asteroid is speeding toward Manhattan at a rate that can't be stopped. As it turns out, it's Klaatu (Reeves), and when shot by an eager soldier, he's rescued by Gort, who, in this version, is a bit more organic. But huge.

But Klaatu doesn't want to be rescued. Apparently he wants to be taken into custody and never seen again. Actually, that's just the beginning of rational breakdowns for this movie. However, the whole set-up of Klaatu coming to earth, and scientists discovering just what he's about, is terrific.

But it only goes down from there. After Klaatu escapes, the movie almost virtually stops even though he's in motion. There are one or two interesting scenes, especially concerning the earth's planned demise, but they don't go anywhere.

In the original, we had Patricia Neal's character saved by Gort, and she stops him from destroying the planet a bit too soon. That's skipped over in this version. And Klaatu's (Rennie) big speech to the United Nations, a moment of drama that proved to be the end of the movie, is nowhere to be found in the modern version. As a consequence, the movie ends without anyone in power knowing why Klaatu was there in the first place. It ends quietly, without a whimper. Except from the audience.

The original didn't have really cool special effects, like the Giants stadium being disintegrated, but it did have pacing and drama, all the things missing in this miscast and goalless outing.

Thumb's down.

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Thursday, January 08, 2009

Babylon A.D.

Whatever happened to Vin Diesel? Loved him in Pitch Black, he stole the movie in 2 Fast, 2 Furious, but became a victim of his own hype in XXX. Never mind The Chronicles of Riddick: I couldn't even begin to tell you what that movie was about.

Diesel stars in Babylon A.D., which is about....hmmm. Well, you lost me again. This movie is a lot like Children of Men, only without the intelligence, without the sense.

I've always liked Diesel's anti-hero shtick, and he does it very well here. He's the tired mercenary with a heart of gold hidden somewhere under a world-weary exterior. He really wants to leave violent and poor Russia and return home to New York. He's suddenly given the chance to do so by a prosthetic-laden Gerard Depardieu (I know, I know: you're thinking, this is the one guy who doesn't need a fake nose). Diesel's mission is to deliver a strangely gifted girl and her guardian nun from a Mongolian monastery to New York City.

Just the presence of Michelle Yeoh gives this movie some instant class and weight. She plays the nun who may embrace peace but who isn't weak, especially when the nun is a martial arts expert. And it's sheer delicious delight to see Charlotte Rampling toward the end of the movie as the leader of a weird religious group. When Rampling yells at her group for their incompetency, or slaps her chauffeur because he delivered some bad news, well, it's Cruella deVille time all over again.

I did enjoy the rather lengthy sequence of the three working together to escape, it seems, the whole world of mercenaries as they're trying to get to their destination. You have the feeling, however, that entire scenes were lost in the cutting, as there's an abruptness to it, especially at the end. And, at the end, you do expect a payoff that would tell us what the girl is all about, and what this movie, for that matter, is all about.

I mean, we could expect that, but we'd be wrong. There's a lot of build-up to a lot of nothing. And, at the end of this film, we become world-weary, just like Vin Diesel. We're still hoping for him to fulfill his promise.

Thumb's down.


Friday, January 02, 2009

Ghost Town

About this time of year I'm looking for a romantic comedy. Something that has a story that's a bit unusual -- you know, something we haven't seen before -- some witty repartee, people who are worth caring about. And one more thing: it goes somewhere. At the end, we feel an emotional impact. Is that too much to ask?

Comedies I've seen lately, like Bedtime Stories, are witless, amorphous nothings, with no emotional attachment. Oh, my movie review kingdom for a comedy that isn't strained and characters who are brought to life with true talent.

I think I've found it. Ghost Town is not just a good movie, but I would say one of the best of 2008. (Okay, maybe not in the top 5, but surely in the top 10.)

Bertram Pincus leads the life we all believe dentists lead: soulless, boring, people-less. He's pushed people away so effectively, they don't even bother talking to him any more, not in the office, not in the elevator of his apartment building. One day while he's receiving that dreaded colonoscopy (in a very funny sequence between Ricky Gervais' Pincus and the hospital nurse), he dies for 7 minutes. This event apparently allows him to see people who are already dead, but who are still roaming the earth trying to solve their problem.

They're persistent, these ghosts. Annoying. Worse than real people in that they can walk through walls. However, one of the ghosts, Frank (played by Greg Kinnear) enlists Pincus to help him dissuade his wife (played by Tea Leoni) of her latest boyfriend because he's a golddigger. Pincus agrees to help if Frank can get rid of the old lady who wants him to help her talk to her daughters, and the man who wants his daughter to find her lost stuffed animal, and ad infinitum.

But as familiar as this story sounds (Ghost, Groundhog Day, Sixth Sense...maybe even Topper), those elements don't tell us where this story is leading. Gervais' character seems so tic-laden, so befuddled, that he seems beyond redemption. And yet, we see the points in the story that lead precisely to that moment, and we feel it with him.

The cast is wonderful. Greg Kinnear is no longer that baby-faced lovable guy he used to always portray, but is headed toward deeper territory in his later roles. He's very effective as the irritating dead husband who may have a secret or two up his invisible sleeve. Tea Leoni is really the best I've ever seen her -- and I've always enjoyed her characterizations, even in dismal movies -- and we again laugh at her and with her whether she's knee-deep in a discussion about Egyptology or wrestling with her great Dane. And Ricky Gervais is the embodiment of the modern successful comic: true comic timing, an almost improvisational delivery (or one that feels like it), and the ability to make a visceral connection with the audience.

I don't know why no one went to see this movie when it was out in the theatres. Bad title? Bad marketing? Who knows. But it's now available on DVD, and is a masterpiece of a comedy done right.

Thumb's up.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Best Movies of 2008

This has to be an incomplete list, as I haven't seen all of the possible movies yet. I haven't yet seen Kristin Scott Thomas, or either of Kate Winslet's films, or Eastwood's latest. But for right now, the first day of 2009, I can say, these are my mental greats of the year, in no particular order.

Wall*E. Who would have predicted that such a fabulous, heart-warming film would come from a robot who is programmed to only do one useless skill, an insect who follows him around, and a probe by the name of Eve? Many have written off the second half of the film as a completely different film and a boring one at that, but I saw it as an environmental warning to us all.

The Dark Knight. This is almost the perfect picture, featuring Heath Ledger as the bad guy and Batman as the supposedly good guy who doesn't always stick to his own moral code as he loses his way. Thanks to his supporters, he finds it, but with great difficulty. And, of course, the movie is a reminder of a great talent who slipped away.

Milk. The screenplay picks the exactly right sliver of time in Harvey Milk's life to show us, and all the denizens of Castro Street. It's positively brilliant. Sean Penn inhabits Milk to the extent that you forget who's playing him.

I fear this movie came out so long ago that audiences will forget its ability to show us Los Angeles in the '20's and a powerful screenplay by Joe Straczynski. The film shows us how absolute power can corrupt within itself, and how citizens can fight back.

Slumdog Millionaire. You want suffering and then uplifting? Do you want to be taken to a place you've always wondered about but know you're too soft to endure? Then step into the world of Slumdog Millionaire, the feel-good movie of the year.