Monday, June 29, 2009

"Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" / "Year One" / "Waltz with Bashir"

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen - Directed by Michael Bay, starring Shia LeBeouf, Megan Fox, and John Turturro - Rated PG-13

The Kurgan has some issues with this movie, but giant robots constantly fighting more than make up for it.

The new Transformers movie is basically more of the same, emphasis on more. More action, more robots, more CG, more Megan Fox, more comedy, and about twenty more minutes in length. If you’re a fan of the first film, then more is a good thing, for the most part. I enjoyed this film, but I think the first film is better. For me, more doesn’t necessarily mean better.

I suppose my main problem with the movie is the lack of character development and down time. In the first movie, we had to be introduced to each character so there was a bit of downtime that allowed us to get to know the characters. For example, Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBeouf) was shown to be kind of a loser with slightly off-balance parents and Lennox (Josh Duhamel) had a newborn baby he was waiting to get home to. In other words, there were traits and situations the audience might be able to identify with. This time around, there’s no time for that. There is no mention of Lennox’s family and Sam is treated more as some kind of destined hero rather than an awkward young man. Fine, people change and all that, but I would still like it all to slow down here and there. But every slow moment is only used for comedic relief. This is where Sam’s parents come in. Sure, his mom was a bit goofy in the first film, but apparently the stress of knowing about alien robots over the past two years has caused her to completely lose it. Don’t get me wrong, some of the comedy works; I just think they went a bit too crazy with her.

The lack of character development leads to more action, of course. This is where the film works best: giant robots pummeling each other in lengthy fight scenes. The robots look amazing and the fights are visually and audibly impressive (especially on IMAX). There were times when I couldn’t tell which robot was winning the fights, but I didn’t really care because it looked so great. The action scenes in the forest and on location at the Great Pyramids are both worth the price of admission alone. All of my problems really turn to nitpicks when I stack them against the action sequences. That said, I still want to address a few more issues.

The director, Michael Bay, needs to calm down. I get the feeling from watching this film that Bay is extremely energetic and most likely hates silence being still. His camera movements during an early scene between Sam and Makaela (Megan Fox) nearly made me dizzy due to the fast, rotating camera. Simple scenes dealing with relationships do not need noticeable camera movements. Maybe if they were arguing or something, a camera movement might add to the mood of the scene. But Bay’s camera movements contradict what the scene is about. It’s almost as if he was watching the scene happen with a stationary camera, proclaimed “I’m bored!” and commenced to running the camera in circles around the actors just to keep himself interested.

Bay also needs to learn how to limit the length of his films. The first movie was quite long as far as action movies go clocking in at 144 minutes, but this film is even longer at 151 minutes (160 minutes on IMAX). I’m okay with long movies, but big action movies like this are better off ending at the 2 hour mark.

One last issue that needs to be addressed is the controversy over the supposedly racist transformer twins in the film. They have been described as “jive-talking black stereotypes” in other reviews and in countless articles on the internet. It’s already getting old, but I feel the need to weigh in on this. Decide for yourself, but I argue that claiming a “jive-talking” alien robot is meant to be a black character is racist in itself. Are we to assume the other robots are white? They are robots from outer space! People looking for racism in mindless entertainment like this have too much time on their hands, anyway.

I referred to Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen as mindless and that is why I have not given a plot synopsis for the film. Let’s face it: did anyone go into this film expecting a compelling story? Robots fight in this movie. That’s all you need to know. If that’s something that sounds entertaining to you, then you’ll have fun with this one, but maybe not as much fun as the first time around.

I want to expand a bit and talk about the Transformers themselves in this film. The returning autobots are still cool, especially Optimus Prime. The new ones are decent, though the Fallen was pretty weak, in my opinion. But Devastator (the huge vacuum type robot from the preview) was awesome. Every full IMAX scene featuring Devastator was simple amazing. By full IMAX scene I mean that some of the action scenes were filmed with IMAX cameras and took up more of the screen than the rest of the movie. I noticed it when it switched back and forth, but I didn’t have a problem with it. More on IMAX: the movie is longer in IMAX due to extended fight scenes.

Year One - Directed by Harold Ramis, starring Jack Black, Michael Cera, and David Cross - Rated PG-13

I'll try not to make this a regular thing, but I was torn between Commodus and Kurgan with this one.

Year One is the movie that looks like a caveman movie based on its previews, but is really a comedic retelling of biblical stories. It’s about Oh (Cera) and Zed (Black), two hunter/gatherers on a trek to find their place in the biblical world, and hopefully hook up with beautiful women along the way. I hadn’t really planned on watching Year One in the theater, but it was playing locally and I had nothing better to do. It’s no masterpiece, but I certainly don’t consider it a waste of money. The referential jokes dealing with hunter/gatherer societies and bible stories like Cain and Abel are more miss than hit, but when they hit, they are quite funny. It’s just that so many miss and miss hard. But in the long run, I remember the funny moments and the misses don’t stick out so much. But that might just be because there are so many of them.

Quite a bit of this movie depends on the actors and I must say that Jack Black and Michael Cera save it. If you’re a fan of Jack Black, then you’ll probably like him in this. I know that some people have issues with him, but he’s actually a little toned down in this one which allowed him to work better with Cera. Michael Cera gets on my nerves in most of his roles lately. I liked him in Superbad, but when he started playing that character over and over again I got tired of it very quickly. I don’t know what it is, but I enjoyed him in this. I actually found him funnier than Jack Black. Maybe it’s that his character type works better in an unlikely environment. Either way, both leads worked for me in this one.

Year One is incredibly stupid throughout, but there are worse movies out there. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it, though. There were some lengthy stretches in which I didn’t laugh and that’s never good when you’re watching a comedy. But some of the bigger laughs (like Michael Cera being in the awkward situation of needing to urinate while hanging upside down) even it out. I would say that most people need to wait for the DVD for this one.

Waltz with Bashir - Directed by Ari Folman - Rated R

Chigurh found the story in this documentary compelling on its own, but the animation adds serious style that makes this a great film.

Waltz with Bashir is the Israeli film about the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. It’s really an animated documentary in which the director, Ari, tries to remember his involvement with the war in general and with two massacres specifically. The animation really sets this film apart and I found that it served the story quite well. It never came across as forced style or anything. The animation, for one, makes it much easier financially to recreate scenes of warfare. It also helps to create a surreal feeling of war that brings up memories of classics like Apocalypse Now.

I’m really at a loss trying to describe this film. My words cannot do the animation justice. It’s certainly not traditional animation and it’s not rotoscoping (a la A Scanner Darkly). It’s just interesting and it looks great. What I really want to say is that the animation is simply cool and it makes this film stand out.

I can’t really get into performances here since it really is a documentary. But I can talk about how compelling the story is. The whole repressed memory aspect of it creates a mystery that really hooked me early on. I don’t want to give anything away, but I will say that the mystery adds up to a very compelling and sad ending. I thought the animation played a factor in this because (slight SPOILER) when the film goes from animation to actual footage it is very jarring, especially when we’re shown the image of the dead child the soldier described. This was an amazing surprisingly effective film.

All that said, animation does not mean kid friendly. This is rated R and that’s because of war violence of course, but there is also quite a bit of animated nudity that might throw some people off. It’s never gratuitous, though (some may claim that the scene with an officer watching a porno is gratuitous, but if you pay attention, you can see the plot point at work when a car model is mentioned, which shows that they were looking for intel from the film). Just a little warning in case some people out there don’t notice the R rating.

Lastly, I watched this with the original audio track (which is in Hebrew), not realizing that there is an English dub track. I can’t vouch for the quality of it, but I would imagine it’s suitable and I certainly suggest it since it frees up your eyes to fully take in the animation rather than trying to read and watch at the same time.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

How Rocky Balboa Single-Handedly Ended the Cold War

*You really need to watch Rocky IV to understand any of this, so SPOILERS for Rocky IV throughout*

Remember Rocky IV? It's one of my favorite movies of all time. I'm not being sarcastic or anything. I remember watching this when I was a kid and loving every minute of it. Because of fond memories and my ability to laugh at what are now very cheesy things, I still consider this as one of my favorite movies. The overlong Apollo Creed intro featuring James Brown? Hilarious. That pointless robot (an 80's staple) for Paulie's birthday that gets its own introduction? I still laugh when I hear it say, "happybirthdaypaulie." But this isn't all about my love for Rocky IV, it's about how Rocky won over the entire Soviet Union with his fists and convinced them that anyone can change as long as that change is from communism to capitalism, although it might not be as simple as that if you stop and think about it.

First, I want to cover all of the setup for this clash between cultures. The most obvious example is that of the opposing boxing gloves at the beginning of the film, one American, the other Soviet. They clash and explode. No one ever claimed that the Rocky films were subtle. There is a bit of foreshadowing right before they blow up, though. Either from faulty pyrotechnics or deliberate foreshadowing, the Soviet glove clearly breaks apart before the full explosion. The attentive viewer now knows what is going to happen (as if anyone has ever went into a Rocky sequel wondering how it would end).

"Will you protect me from the Commies,
obligatory '80s movie robot?"
One more example of obvious foreshadowing is the Survivor song, "Burning Heart." Rocky movies have always had a reputation for inspirational songs featured during montages and this film is no exception. But that Survivor song, obviously written specifically for the film, pretty much lays out the entire plot. Here's a sample of some of the lyrics: "two worlds collide...rival much at stake...freedom's up against the ropes...does the crowd it east versus west or man against man...can any nation stand alone?" So if there was any question as to whether this movie was really about the Cold War, Survivor just answered it.

Apollo's entrance is further evidence of the clash. Maybe it was just an excuse to have James Brown in the movie and play up Apollo's vanity. I like to think that it was meant as an example of how decadent American life is. James Brown does sing, "Living in America" for the extravagant entrance. It was basically a show intended only for the Russians. Check this out, you commies! We're livin' it up over here! Rocky doesn't seem to be having as much fun with it as Apollo, though. He looks very uncomfortable with it all. It might be because he's embarrassed for Apollo or he thinks Apollo isn't taking the fight seriously. Or it might be because Rocky is as sickened by the decadence as much as the communists are.

Rocky's all about the decadence of capitalism early in the film. He drives an expensive car. He buys Paulie a mostly worthless robot. His kid has what looks to be a top of the line 1985 video camera. Does he need all of this crap? This would be a stretch of an idea if all we got to back that up was an uncomfortable look during a James Brown song. It becomes a completely valid theory when Rocky decides to fight Ivan Drago in Russia...on Christmas, the apex of capitalist holidays.

"Yo, I don't need no steroids...well, I do, but my my character don't!"
This is where Drago enters into the mix and creates a strange inverse to Rocky. While in Russia, Rocky goes all natural. He runs up mountains, lifts rocks and wagons, chops firewood, jumps rope, grows a beard, etc. What is that communist Drago up to all this time? He's in a state of the art training facility with a team of doctors and trainers watching his every move. He uses sophisticated computer technology and wacky treadmills that incline to what looks like a complete vertical angle. Oh, and he's juicing. So who's the American/capitalist anyway? (Click here for the video of the montage.)

It starts to look like Rocky is the real hero of the proletariat even more as the fight gets underway. He arrives to no entrance music with a determined look etched onto his face. Drago, on the other hand, gets a giant painting of himself unveiled during the national anthem (or Communist Party anthem, whatever that song is, I'm not sure). During the fight, the crowd loves Drago and hates Rocky. But that scrappy American works his magic on the crowd and by the end, the communist crowd is chanting the name of an American hero. Rocky only became that hero by experiencing a communist lifestyle, though. So it's not a clear victory for capitalism, but it's certainly not a win for communism, either. Like the Survivor song asks, "can any nation stand alone?" It appears that they cannot and Rocky proved that point with his fists.
"Listen to my brain-damaged words, Soviet Union! Base your foreign policy on my post-fight ramblings!"

The answer isn't that simple, though. Rocky sends some major mixed signals with his final speech and the movie itself complicates things during the fight by cutting back to Rocky's kid here and there. First off, Rocky gives the speech near the end (to this day I wonder if that Russian translator converted Rocky's broken English verbatim) in which he talks about how he changed and everyone can change. The speech even brings the representatives of the Communist Party in attendance to their feet in applause; way to go, Rock! The message is quite clear: let's work together and end the Cold War before it gets serious. But Rocky says all this while draped with the American flag, knowing full well that he's about to head back to his mansion. Did he really learn anything while training in Russia? Or did he simply learn that living in the miserable cold with no wise-cracking robot is no damn fun at all? Maybe it's the latter. Stallone as the director hammers home the capitalist idea earlier on, though. Whenever he cuts to Rocky's son watching the fight on TV, we see the robot again...dressed up as Santa Claus. I know it's not an official symbol or anything, but what says capitalism more than a robot dressed as Santa?

There's the final answer from Rocky IV: tear down that wall "youse guys are behind" and put a McDonald's up over there. But we'll work together to build it, east and west, hand in hand. Rocky IV may not be as black and white as once believed when dealing with the Cold War, but one thing is certain: Rocky Balboa single-handedly ended it...on film, at least.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

"Rachel Getting Married" / "House of Games" / Crappy Classic: "Reign of Fire"

Rachel Getting Married - Directed by Jonathan Demme, starring Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt, and Bill Irwin - Rated R

Too many parts of this film were as pointless as Bruce Banner's Dad's superpowers.

First off, a movie like Rachel Getting Married would usually not be my top review for the week, but the pickings have been getting slim lately. The only DVD release this week that I would consider reviewing was the new Friday the 13th, but I already reviewed that when it came out in theaters. And the main releases in the theater this past weekend were Year One and The Proposal and I didn't have much interest in either of those films. So rather than wait until the new Transformers comes out this coming week, I decided to go with this film since it featured an Oscar-nominated performance from Anne Hathaway and even though I tend to disagree with the Academy, I still feel some sort of obligation to check out the nominations.

Rachel Getting Married is about Kym (Hathaway), a troubled young woman who gets out of rehab for the weekend for her sister's wedding. As you can imagine, the film is one tense family moment after another. At first this annoyed me quite a bit. Watching a family yell and cry every five minutes is pointlessly miserable unless you have an interest in the characters. It's just that my interest wasn't established until an hour or so into the movie. At first, I didn't care why Kym was in rehab or why she felt the need to be so confrontational and demand the attention of everyone at all times. I don't know what it is, but after seeing these characters interact for an extended amount of time, I started to care about what was going on with them.

Don't get me wrong, though. This movie is mediocre at best even when it is slightly interesting. There are far too many useless wedding scenes. I know it has the word 'married' in the title, but that doesn't mean you have to go all Deer Hunter and through in forty-five minutes of footage that advances the story in way at all. This movie is about Kym, despite her sister Rachel's name in the title, but Demme keeps in all this material about the wedding. You get these long, boring scenes of people giving congratulatory speeches to the married couple, but nothing is gained from it aside from establishing an example of what to say for when Kym takes her turn and makes a mess of herself. I suppose you could argue that the longer the set up the bigger the payoff, but it didn't work for me. I just wanted to fast forward to a scene that had something to do with the story.

Usually, a largely pointless and boring movie like this is saved by a nominated performance, but Hathaway's performance, while good, is no match for those long, torturous montages of pointlessness. She does make things a bit easier to watch, though. I liked the whole character gimmick of constantly smoking a cigarette (though it was done better by Gwyneth Paltrow in The Royal Tenenbaums) and she handles some very heavy emotional scenes realistically. But watching someone cry and break down a lot doesn't make a movie more entertaining to me. So this movie isn't for everybody (it certainly isn't for me), but if you're into watching families have emotional breakdowns and you reall love the goings on of weddings, then give it a try.

House of Games - Directed by David Mamet, starring Joe Mantegna, Lindsay Crouse, and Ricky Jay - Rated R

This con movie had the Kurgan fooled a couple times, and that's good enough for him.

Once again, a very slow week for me, new-movie wise. Which is why the second review this week is over a con movie from 1987. I had never even heard of this movie until a few weeks ago when all the podcasts I listen to were reviewing the new Rian Johnson film, The Brothers Bloom (which I will eventually review myself, but I'm in southern Indiana and small releases never venture closer than three hours away), which is a con movie. All of these podcasters were talking about their favorite con movies and this movie showed up on multiple lists, so I gave it a try and since I liked it and I have nothing else to review, here it is.

House of Games is about a successful psychiatrist (Crouse) who, through one of her patients, gets involved with a group of con artists, led by Joe Mantegna. Like all con movies, this movie has its surprises and its fun moments, like learning how to steal small amounts of money by sending telegrams. If you're into movies in which you spend your time wondering what character to trust, then this is for you. It is certainly a top rate con movie. The cons are good and you might get fooled along with some of the other characters and that's all you can really ask for in a movie like this.

That's not to say that the rest of the movie isn't good as well. The cast does well, Mantegna being the most entertaining, and Ricky Jay stands out in his short scene during a poker game. David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross, Redbelt) isn't a fancy director or anything, but his dialogue is always entertaining and it almost always makes sense. In other words, a character never says something that seems unnatural or forced. I know he's always praised for the dialogue and it can get old, but I think the praise is deserved in this situation. Try this movie out if you have a slow week like I just had and want some good con artist fun.

Crappy Classic: Reign of Fire - Directed by Rob Bowman, starring Christian Bale, Matthew McConaughey, and Gerard Butler - Rated PG-13

Chigurh might not care for the dumb factor, but he knows good apocalyptic action when he sees it.

When I first saw a preview for this 2002 dragon hunting movie, I thought it was going to be pretty stupid. I was right. This is a dumb movie and if you try to take it serious, you might end up hating it. But I grew to love this movie because it does contain some very entertaining, ridiculous action. When I hear 'dragon hunting' I instantly think stupid, but when I see it, I have to admit it's very fun to watch.
Reign of Fire takes place after the dragons have reclaimed the planet, so it contains plenty of apocalyptic survival type stuff which is a bit interesting. I'm not a fan of long drawn out explanations of survival, but when they work some action into it, it works. Example: we get a few conversations about how they grow food to survive and everything, but when they have to go and stop a fellow survivor from picking the crop too early, the dragons show up to make it all a bit more interesting.

The cast is fun as well. Christian Bale does his serious thing, but he gets to do it in his native British accent, which instantly makes him cooler in my book. I don't know what it is, but when he yells out orders or tries to change somebody's mind, the accent makes it authentic. It's too bad Batman isn't a British character. The best part of the cast, however, is McConaughey. I know, I know. He's the shirtless joke of the movie world lately (though I thought he was great in Tropic Thunder), but this was seven years ago and he actually tried acting this time. He's gruff and severe instead of light-hearted and laid back. His shaved head and thick beard do wonders at breaking the expectations an audience may have created. If you give this movie a chance, I'm sure you'll be pleasantly surprised with his performance.

This film delivers on all the action you could hope for, it has a quality cast who take the ridiculous premise seriously, and the constant gray tint creates an ash-covered style that really creates a feeling of bleakness. As stupid as the movie might sound, it is actually a very entertaining and fun action/sci-fi movie.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Power of the Director's Cut: "Kingdom of Heaven"

Kingdom of Heaven

This week’s article is about the director’s cut of the crusades movie, Kingdom of Heaven. This is not going to be a comparison of the director’s cut to the theatrical cut, so I pretty much have to include SPOILERS throughout. I’m going to write about the additional scenes and how they relate to the overall story so if you haven’t seen both cuts or at least the director’s cut, I advise you to do so before you read any further (both versions are available on Netflix).

I recently re-watched Kingdom of Heaven and felt the need to write about the awful situation Ridley Scott was put in upon this film’s initial release. Scott, no stranger to studio interference (Blade Runner), released Kingdom of Heaven in 2005 to a mixed critical reaction and a mediocre domestic box office gross ($47 million total, though it did end up with a profit after $164 million foreign). The studio basically forced him to cut it down as short as possible while keeping every bit of action intact, even if it meant the story had to be sacrificed. I liked the movie when I saw it in the theater, but I did have my problems with it. Some characters needed to be fleshed out and even at 144 minutes, it seemed rushed. Plenty of great Ridley Scott action, though. If you’ve seen Gladiator then you know that Mr. Scott enjoys spurts and fountains of blood, miserable arrow deaths, and he loves to add sprays of dirt into battle scenes. So you get all of that alongside a wonderful cast, some amazing visuals, and the main idea about war over religion is still maintained, though it’s told a bit more poetically in the director’s cut.

Now on to the changes. The first, and most important, addition to the film involves Sibylla’s (Eva Green) son. In the theatrical cut, he does not exist. I recall walking out of the theatre four years ago wondering why Sibylla went so damn crazy near the end. So Balian (Orlando Bloom) didn’t marry her and her estranged husband Guy de Lusignan (played deviously by Martin Csokas) got to be king of Jerusalem. Yeah, that kind of sucks since he is a bloodthirsty moron destined to ruin the peace that her brother, Baldwin IV (the leper king, voiced by Edward Norton doing a Marlon Brando impression) created. I understand she might feel a little responsible since she had to give Guy the crown, but why did she have to shave her head and turn into a recluse for the last half hour of the movie? I finally got my answer when I saw the director’s cut. She had a son who started to show symptoms of leprosy after he was crowned king. Rather than put him 
through a life like that of her tortured brother, she decided to kill him. Now that is certainly a reason to go a bit crazy for awhile.

Sibylla is not the only character that gets more attention. I had a problem with Balian’s character in the first cut. I don’t mind Bloom’s performance (though many hate it), but I didn’t like the fact that he’s a blacksmith in France, but when he gets to Jerusalem he’s some kind of genius when it comes to siege warfare. In the new cut, though, there is a simple, short sequence of dialogue in which we learn that Balian has designed siege warfare devices and been at war before. Why those thirty seconds had to be cut is beyond me. One more addition that is notable: Balian kills a local priest near the beginning, which gives him reason to flee along with his father, Godfrey (Liam Neeson, in yet another doomed mentor role). It is certainly understandable for Balian to go into a rage since the priest took a necklace from Balian’s wife’s dead body. But it still seemed to be a bit of an overreaction (wouldn’t a simple beat down have sufficed?). In the new cut, we find out that the priest is Balian’s brother and there is even a scene with him hitting Balian, telling him that he never fights back.

Godfrey’s crew gets a few more scenes as well, but it’s the Hospitaler (David Thewlis, in one of his three roles that ends in decapitation) who becomes very interesting. A new scene involving a burning bush and the Hospitaler disappearing in the middle of the desert hints at a deeper religious plot. He was already something of a guide to Balian, but when you add the mystical elements to his character, it opens up much more discussion about the role of religion in the film.

There are more differences, but those mentioned above are the most important in my opinion (check Wikipedia for every single difference). But almost all of the changes turn this once decent movie into something amazingly epic. I am not a fan of every change, though. The overture and entr’acte music scenes may add a bit of an old school epic feel, but I found them pointless. And the music in general seems a bit out place at times in the new cut, but that’s a very small complaint when compared to everything this film accomplishes.

I don’t want to make this a full blown review or anything, but I do want to mention a few more things I like about this movie and acknowledge some issues I’ve read that people have with the film. First, this film looks great. Scott creates so many amazing shots (both practical and CG) on the battlefield. There are some things done with the color and amount of sunlight when Saladin and Baldwin IV meet that adds something that might normally be a plain scene. I’m also a big fan of Scott’s use of blood. That might sound stupid or childish, but I think that Scott uses gore a bit more artistically than one might assume. When Guy slashes in battle and his crazed face is covered in blood that shows us the extent of his bloodlust. It’s not about the gore. Well, not completely, anyway. It also says a bit about the character, not to mention the effect it has in showing the brutality of war. I also have to mention that I love any movie in which people yell out, “Blasphemy!” and “God wills it!” Not sure, why, but when the term “God wills it” is used to promote death and violence, it makes me laugh.

The only issue I want to cover concerning negative reactions to the movie is the idea that this is an anti-Christian film. Aside from the obvious fact that the Hospitaler becomes a Christ-like character in the new cut, there are many other instances that show that this movie’s message isn’t about the Christians being evil and wrong, while the Muslims are good and noble. There are plenty of examples to demonize and glorify each side. The Muslims are quite violent and are shown to be merciless at times. Christians are shown in the same light, though there is more 

focus on the negative aspects of Christian soldiers, but that is simply historically correct as far as the Crusades go. The Christians did show up and start killing people in God’s name without showing much mercy. And Saladin really did let the Christians of Jerusalem go free (though some had to pay) when he took back the city. So maybe Scott is against Christianity because of the historical story he wanted to tell, but I don’t think that’s the point. The point of this film, to me, is that killing in the name of religion is ridiculous. But since it’s told from the Christian perspective, it’s going to contain more villainous Christian characters. And maybe that line at the end about war in the Middle East still going on is a bit heavy handed, but it does bring up the issue of religion and war and how no one has really learned any lessons from it yet.

Are many of these ideas evident in the theatrical cut? Sure, but the power of the director’s cut is that it turns Kingdom of Heaven into a better movie, which means any ideas presented by it are a bit more legitimate.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

"The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3" / "The International" / Crappy Classic: "Doom"

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 - Directed by Tony Scott, starring Denzel Washington, John Travolta, and John Turturro - Rated R

The Kurgan thinks Travolta was born to play the bad guy.

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is a loud, hectic, mostly entertaining remake of the 1974 cult classic of the same name. I'm not going to spend the entire review comparing the two movies (I'm sure there are other reviews that handle the comparison anyway and the message boards can fill you in on the differences) but I do want to point out that the original is a superior film filled with tension and the new version is a bit light on the tense moments, but it is much more entertaining. Now on to this version and this version only.

Pelham 1 2 3 is about a subway heist in which Walter Garber (Washington), a demoted dispatcher, has to play hostage negotiator to John Travolta's bipolar Ryder. This film could have ended up being quite boring if it had stuck to the cliché mechanics of a hostage film. Instead, we get a lot of great dialogue between Garber and Ryder. Sure, there are the typical, required elements here like countdowns and threats to kill hostages, but the film deals with them quickly rather than dwelling on them. In other words, the film doesn't stick with the hostages too much, which is refreshing. Ryder refers to his hostages at commodities at one point and that's the way this film treats them. They just represent a required part of the story and there is no real need to get to know any of them. Normally, a statement like that would mean that this movie is pointless since the viewer doesn't care if the hostages are saved. That might be true, but the characters make up for the lack of empathy felt for the nameless hostages.

But the characters are only as good as the actors portraying them. Denzel Washington is going through the motions with this one, but that's not really a bad thing since he is consistently great in everything he's in. He just doesn't stick out or prove to be the anchor of this film. Travolta, on the other hand, boosts this film out of mediocrity. He has played amusing villains before and he proves here that he is as good as ever at being bad. Every encounter between Garber and Ryder is entertaining and funny. There is usually more hatred on display in negotiator situations, but since Washington's character is not a cop it leaves it open for the two to engage in more of a banter than a hostile conversation. Travolta breathes life into the film when Tony Scott's direction (more on that later) cannot. His constant, vulgar rants never get old. The rest of the cast (Luiz Guzman and John Turturro) don't have much to do although James Gandolfini is amusing as the mayor of New York City.

Travolta makes things interesting throughout, but director Tony Scott (Man on Fire, Domino) does his best to make this movie stand out as well. Sometimes he gets out of control and it all gets a bit too hectic. The camera moves too quickly for too long and the sound is overbearing during any scene featuring a moving car or people getting on and off the subway. But those moments are short and they certainly don't ruin the film. For the most part I am a fan of Scott's other attempts at style. The occasional freeze frame with the countdown was cool and Scott is great at finding one or two songs to use in his films to great effect (Jay Z's "99 Problems" in this). Some of the more annoying elements that Scott throws in there might hurt your eyes and your ears but it's not unbearable and it does tend to keep the viewer alert.

Pelham 1 2 3 is no classic, but it is at least memorable thanks to John Travolta's energetic performance. So if you want a slow boiler of a film filled with old school tension; watch the original. If you want some entertainment, although loud and chaotic at times, check this version out.

The International - Directed by Tom Tykwer, starring Clive Owen, Naomi Watts, and Armen Mueller-Stahl - Rated R

Commodus enjoyed the shootout, but soon forgot what it was all about.

Not much to say on this one. The main thing The International is known for is a lengthy shoot out scene that takes place in the Guggenheim. That scene is quite impressive but it is not representative of this movie at all. This is not an action movie. It's called The International and it is basically all about international intrigue. Owen (who pretty much sleepwalks through this, which may have been the point, but I'm getting tired of seeing him act like this) plays an Interpol agent who is working in conjunction with the New York D.A.'s office (represented by Watts) to try and takedown a bank that is trying to control the supply of arms to third world countries at war. Of course it's much more complicated than that, but if you're into assassinations and the dark goings on of corporations then you should be entertained. If all that stuff about banks and corporations bores you, then just check out the scene on youtube. I am one of those people that dig evil corporation movies so I liked this movie. But I doubt that I'll remember much about it apart from the shootout a month from now. I think this film will have the same fate as Ronin, which is typically only revered for a chase sequence. I do want to mention one more thing, though, that makes this movie stand out to me: they actually track someone's shoe print, which is something I haven't seen for awhile.

Crappy Classic: Doom - Directed by Andrzej Bartkowiak, starring Karl Urban, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, and Rosamund Pike - Rated R

The Kurgan thinks that "FPS" sequence is very cool.

Doom was kind of cast aside after its theatrical run only to mentioned as the death rattle of The Rock's attempt at becoming an action star. So far, the critics have been right: The Rock is now only known as Dwayne Johnson and he's only made comedies and family friendly films since Doom (well, he also made Southland Tales, but I don't know what to call that, but it's certainly not an action movie). I plan on writing a full post on why Dwayne Johnson should give the action star thing another try, so I'll focus more on this movie in general and less on Johnson's work.

Doom is based on the video game series of the same name and deals with futuristic space marines battling horrific monsters that have travelled through a portal on Mars. Okay okay, let's not dwell on the story. But if you ever played the game, there should be something here for you. The film has plenty of gruesome action and it's not all that quick cut crappy action in which you can't tell who's winning a fight until it's already over. It's that nice, deliberate action that we all grew up with back when the viewer got to see the action rather than get an attempt to place us in the middle of the fight, which is way too disorienting. All ranting aside, the action is done well here and it's done in an unashamedly R-rated fashion.

Aside from that, the performances are what you'd expect. Karl Urban is good for making intense faces and yelling orders. And The Rock conveys the badass warrior quality pretty well. But it's later on (SPOILER), after he turns evil, when things get really fun. For one thing, it's funny to hear The Rock drop the f-bomb, but it's also entertaining to see him get brutal and play the bad guy.

But what really sets this movie apart for me, what makes it a "classic," is the lenghty first person shooter sequence. First off, first person shooter (FPS) refers to the type of video game in which the view is supposed to be like playing through a character's eyes and this is always shown with a gun at the bottom of the screen. This film attempts to recreate that style for a sequence near the end and I was very impressed by it. Click here if you just want to check out that scene to see what I'm talking about (the music is changed for youtube, but it's the visuals that really matter anyway.

I know that space marines and monsters on Mars and video game adaptations may not equal "classic" to most people (or even "crappy classic" for most people), but it does to me. I enjoy mindless action and if that action is handled well and the filmmakers try to add something interesting to it and all of this is backed up by a screen presence that gave up on action far too early, then it's pretty good in my book.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

How "Predator" Foreshadowed the War on Terror

Predator is a manly movie, quite possibly the manliest damn movie ever made. Right from the start you know you’re watching a movie that’s about to OD on testosterone. When Arnold Schwarzenegger and Carl Weathers greet each other with a hand clasp that sounds like a shotgun blast, with their arms all greased up and impossibly muscled up, you know you’re in for a badass action movie made just for the guys. Did all that sound gay? Maybe it is. I never really thought of it like that until I typed “their arms all greased up.” 300 was called homoerotic, too. Whatever. Guys like movies that feature buff dudes killing everything around them. So homoeroticism and action movies go hand in hand. But I’m going to skip all that since that’s a theory that’s been discussed before. I’m also going to lay off the manliness of Predator, which is something else that has been established for years. I just wanted to get both of those aspects of the film out of the way for my ideas concerning Predator: terrorism and politics. But to reiterate the awesomeness of Predator one more time: remember that scene when all of the guys just start firing blindly into the jungle for about five minutes? God, that was great. Anyway…

I want to get into a theory I’ve been thinking about lately. To be honest, I was planning on writing this article for awhile and I was going to focus on the future governors in the film and how funny it is to watch Predator and realize that TWO governors (Arnold and Jesse the Body) and one gubernatorial candidate (Sonny Landham, aka Billy, ran and lost in Kentucky) are in this great, gory action movie. While thinking about that, I started to realize that you could compare this movie to the political situation in the Middle East. Usually I am against theories that say this character represents Bush and this character is Cheney and all of these people represent Al Qaeda. When I read/hear theories like that I tune out because that takes all the fun out of what should be enjoyable movies.

I was thinking along those lines when I tried to apply a terrorism connection to Predator. This is a Cold War movie. The guys mention Afghanistan (obviously not concerning the present war) in reference to the Russian war with that country in which American support led to Taliban control and terrorism. That mention meant little when this film was released in 1987. It was just a topical reference to American involvement in that war. It was about the Cold War and this movie didn’t hide the fact that it took place in the middle of the Cold War in Latin America. So there were no hidden meanings to any of it. It was a straightforward setup that would eventually lead into a hardcore battle with an alien headhunter. But, today, that alien headhunter can be seen as so much more.

Watching the movie today, when I hear the Afghanistan line, I don’t think about Russians fighting there. I think about our current war in that country and how it all got started due to terrorism. It makes sense anyway since the war on terror is basically the new Cold War with terrorists instead of Communists. So now terrorism is on my mind. If you think about terrorist tactics while you watch this film, you’ll see Predator in a new light. SPOILER warning (though if you’ve read this far I’m pretty sure you’ve seen Predator). The commandos fight an enemy that is literally invisible. These guys are fighting blind, hence the five minute shootout aimed at nothing. This is like bombing a country; aiming at targets that might harbor the enemy. Shooting blindly. Also, you can’t hit this enemy at his home. He’s an alien, so unless you master interstellar travel, his homeland is safe. Sure, terrorists aren’t interstellar beings, but they don’t really have home countries, either. At least, they don’t have home countries that acknowledge them. So attacking their “homeland” is counterproductive and/or not possible. To finish this laughable theory, you have the alien’s last line of defense: suicide bombing. The predator is basically defeated, but does he just lie there and die? No way. He’s going to take out his enemy one way or another and what better way than to set off a gigantic bomb, taking himself out along with any enemy near him. And isn’t that powerful explosion representative of a nuclear weapon? That source of power we so greatly fear will end up in terrorist hands? I know it’s heavy handed. I know if you watch this movie and try to make connections like that it might take the enjoyment out of it. I still enjoy it, though.

I think I can still enjoy this movie because all of these connections I mentioned were probably not considered when it was made. I’ve only been able to apply them after the fact. If the movie had set out to preach about the war on terror then I would probably roll my eyes every scene. But it didn’t set out to do that, so I can apply my own ideas to it to keep it interesting and maybe convince a few people to watch it again. You might not see things the way I see them, but you’ll probably forget all about it after a few explosions. And you’ll definitely forget all about it when you get to that scene when Carl Weathers gets his arm blown off, but his severed arm is still firing the gun. Remember that part? Awesome. Wait, what point was I trying to make?

Sunday, June 7, 2009

"The Hangover" / "Killshot"

The Hangover - Directed by Todd Phillips, starring Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, and Zach Galifianakis - Rated R

The Kurgan loves movies about debauchery.

The Hangover, despite a slow start, is a downright hilarious comedy that is a welcome change from all the big summer movie fare. This movie doesn’t pretend to be anything it’s not. It is an R-rated comedy about a bachelor party gone wrong in Las Vegas. You can imagine the glorification of debauchery that ensues.

It all starts with Doug (Justin Bartha of National Treasure fame) getting fitted for a tux with his off-balance future brother-in-law, Alan (Zach Galifianakis in what is sure to be a breakout role). Doug and Allan then head off to pick up schoolteacher buddy Phil (the hilarious Bradley Cooper) and dentist pal Stu (Ed Helms). The four head off to Vegas for a drunken, but well intentioned bachelor party. So you have to wade through the expository stuff, like how Stu is afraid to stand up to his controlling girlfriend, Allan could be a problem if he drinks too much, and Phil can’t wait to get out of school and forget he has a job or a family, so you can get to the best part: the morning after the party. That’s when the guys lose the groom.

This turns the film into a funny detective film. Phil, the assumed leader of the trio, even takes down notes as they try to backtrack their steps from the night before. The detective aspect is what sets this film apart. I found it hilarious as the guys bribed witnesses and questioned bystanders to try and figure out such mysteries as why they have a tiger and a baby in their hotel room and why they came back to the hotel in a stolen police car.

I don’t want to go into any more details than I have already since parts of this film (such as the taser scene) lost their luster for me since I had seen the preview so many times. But this is not one of those movies where every funny scene is in the previews, though one or two of the funniest moments are in the preview. There are consistent laughs throughout the film and the story is actually interesting, which is a bit rare for a comedy of this nature.

Of course the jokes are only as funny as the people telling them and this cast handles them all well. I must reiterate how funny Galifianakis is in this. This is a comedian who knows how to sacrifice his body for comedy. His jutting gut and bushy beard make him a funny sight, and it helps that he can act as well. Ed Helms, he of the prominent missing tooth, makes full use of his sight gag by regularly giving a big toothy smile which makes the gap blatantly obvious in each scene. He looks so unaware of the missing tooth that the joke never got old for me. Bradley Cooper is the one holding it all together and he has a certain charisma that really gets the audience rooting for these guys to find their lost friend.

I need to say something about the makeup department for this film as well. I normally don’t pay attention to this type of thing (unless it’s a zombie movie), but they did an amazing job in roughing these guys up. Just by looking at the three of them when they wake up in the trashed hotel suite you can tell that they have had a very long night. It adds to the hilarity of the film when you can just look at a character’s face and chuckle a bit.

The makeup is not the only sense of style in this film, though. Director Todd Phillips (Old School) manages to squeeze in a few of his trademarks: the band from Old School that performed the curse-laden version of “Total Eclipse of the Heart” makes an appearance, the song choice is dead on and very funny at times, and the director himself makes his obligatory mustachioed cameo. Phillips also manages to throw in a few amusing references to other Vegas-based films like Casino and Swingers.

Aside from those slight examples of style, this is your basic raunchy comedy, but it doesn’t make apologies for that. Instead it embraces it, and that’s what makes The Hangover so funny.

Killshot - Directed by John Madden, starring Mickey Rourke, Thomas Jane, Diane Lane, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt - Rated R

Commodus thought this was worthy of a theatrical release, but that doesn't mean it's great.

Killshot is one of those movies that has been completed for years and got shelved for some reason. Usually that means the movie is awful and the studio is waiting to dump it and release it for tax purposes only. Killshot was dumped (I saw a preview for this more than a year and a half ago), but it's not because it's awful. It's not a masterpiece by any means, but it should've had a chance in theaters.

This movie, adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel, is about a hitman (Rourke) who is getting old and out of touch with the business and the troubled couple he happens upon (Jane and Lane). Diane Lane gets a good look at his face, so Rourke is determined to kill both of them to keep from getting caught. Mickey Rourke does a good job as a menacing hitman and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is great as his redneck/loudmouth partner. Though Lane and Thomas Jane seem to be going through the motions.

The story seems to go on a bit longer than it has to, even though there are entertaining scenes. But Rourke and Gordon-Levitt can't save this film from mediocrity. There isn't a real sense of danger in the pursuit of the married couple. I didn't really care one way or the other about who beat who. It was all just...numb. And John Madden tried to add a bit of style (mainly through the opening credits), but there's something missing from the story. I guess I was expecting some sort of emotion or something, but something more interesting and entertaining would have done. Maybe the film should have been all about Rourke and Gordon-Levitt and just left Thomas Jane and Diane Lane as side characters. That would have been much more fascinating, and probably more entertaining as well. But this movie is still worth a watch, even if the studio doesn't think so.

For Wednesday: An article about Predator; the politics of it (both metaphorical and actual) and the sheer manliness of it.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

"Revolutionary Road" / "Defiance" / Crappy Classic: "Rock Star"

Revolutionary Road - Directed by Sam Mendes, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, and Michael Shannon - Rated R

This film's look at relationships and suburban life is as brutal as Chigurh.

Revolutionary Road is the film about a suburban couple, Frank and April Wheeler, dealing with the problems of a troubled marriage in the 1950's. This is basically a two hour long movie about an extremely rough patch in a relationship, but there are deeper issues about suburban life in general and what is an acceptable middleground between being bold and moving to Europe to start over (which is the plan the Wheelers hatch early on) and staying in suburbia and learning how to make something out of that life rather than become encompassed by the surroundings. Depending on whether those issues sound interesting or too depressing for a film will determine whether or not you enjoy this one. I, for one, found it interesting enough to get past the more miserable aspects.

The idea of watching Dicaprio and Winslet argue for an extended amount of time may not sound interesting, but the script (adapted from the classic Richard Yates novel of the same name) handles their relationship so realistically that it makes it compelling. There were so many times when, during an argument, one of them would yell out exactly what I was thinking. Usually, bad relationships in movies are either too black and white, or too vague to be realistic. The Wheelers have problems and the audience is going to hear about them, but they are not simple problems. In other words, I cannot imagine the audience really taking sides in this one. Both Frank and April do questionable and deceitful things. This didn't make me hate both of them or anything, though, it just allowed me to understand them better. This film does not ahy away from delving into characters.

Normally, a movie that takes place in the 1950's will paint this picture of the perfect family and how great things were back then. Which is to say that character development is nonexistent since there is no such thing as the perfect family. So it's very refreshing to see the curtain pulled back on a 1950's suburb and see that people may put on their happy faces and be completely fake in social situations, but they still interact when they take the masks off, too.

Speaking of the 1950's aspect, this movie looks great. There is a great amount of detail in the clothing and the sets that really adds to the realism, which is very important because the viewer needs to believe that this is taking place in the 50's or the power of the story will start to deteriorate. That might be why I like the period aspect of this film, or it might just be my love of 1950's life. The constant smoking (even by pregnant women), the lunch break drinking, and the little bar area everybody has in their living room with an always filled bucket of ice. I don't want to go too deep with this since that is what life used to be like for some people, but I don't think it's a stretch to say that these people felt a constant need to drink to try and deal with the mundane lives they lived.

Era aside, these characters need something else to make them interesting: actors. Dicaprio has been turning in great performance after great performance and this film is no different. He fits naturally into the timeframe and he makes for a convincing, angry husband. Winslet is in the same boat. The only difference is she finally got the Oscar this year (though it was for The Reader, but it could have been for either film in my opinion). Kathy Bates does well as the annoying realtor, but it's Michael Shannon, who plays her mentally disturbed son, who shines here. He's basically the bulls**t detector for this film. Whenever he interacts with the Wheelers, there is this look of skepticism on his face and he points out what everybody is thinking. It's just fun to watch Shannon make everyone around him cringe.

Michael Shannon and the rest of the cast turn in entertaining performances, but I'm not sure I would call this an entertaining film. Once again, it may just depress some people, but I found it interesting. I can't stress enough about the other issues of this film. Mendes put in those meandering scenes of daily life for both Frank and April for a reason. And the score amplifies the mood of each of those scenes (in particular the shot of hundreds of businessmen, all dressed similar, slowly walking to their boring office jobs). I could go, but it's better to just watch it and experience each issue for yourself. You might not enjoy it, but it should make you think.

*I just wanted to add that if you are interested by this film at all, read the book. The book is able to delve into issues not possible on film, though this is one of the more faithful adaptations out there.

Defiance - Directed by Edward Zwick, starring Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, and Alexa Davalos - Rated R

This one is as plain as Commodus.

I'll keep this one short. I've been a fan of Edward Zwick's work lately (The Last Samurai, Blood Diamond), so I had high expectations for this. All I can say is that this movie is quite plain. It is based on a true story of Jews fighting back and surviving in the forests of Eastern Europe during World War II. I found the aspect of Jews fighting back to be interesting, since they are almost always shown to be completely helpless in other WWII films. In this film, they are not sitting around waiting for an army to save them, they are training to fight for themselves. Alongside this storyline is the struggle of two brothers (Craig and Schreiber) who clash over how to fight back. If this storyline had been more compelling, I might have been more interested, but it didn't really feel like much was at stake when they argued. And even though this is a true story, you can't help but compare it to Schindler's List. A couple scenes seem to be taken directly from that film (a wedding scene comes to mind, and the score at times sounded like it was taken directly from the Spielberg film). I thought that the filmmakers should have at least realized that and made some cuts and changes. Aside from those problems, you get the typical survival scenes; people getting sick, hungry, pregnant, people fighting for power, people questioning if they are any better than those wanting to kill them. All compelling, but all of it has been done before, and in a more interesting way. But this film is decent and contains a few impressive war scenes near the end. I was just hoping for more.

Crappy Classic: Rock Star - Directed by Stephen Herek, starring Mark Walhberg, Jennifer Aniston, and Dominic West - Rated R

The Kurgan likes to rock out, and you should too.

Rock Star may be able to be considered a forgotten classic as well, since I rarely hear anything about this movie. I've always been surprised at the lack of attention this film gets and even more surprised by some of the negative reactions to it. The movie, as you can guess from the title, is about Chris Cole (Wahlberg) and his dream of being in a famous rock band. He gets his chance in a story based on what actually happened with Judas Priest. Chris' favorite band, Steel Dragon, gives out a casting call for a new lead singer and Chris is perfect, since he's been pretending to be their lead singer in a tribute band for the past few years anyway. Once he gets the job, the audience is taken on a hilarious and entertaining ride in the world of 80's metal music.

Of course, that means it's montage time. But when a montage is done well, it's great for a movie. The montages here lead to some funny elements as you see what life on the road is like for a rock star. So there are plenty of partying scenes, all set to great music from that era. The original music made for this film is surprisingly good as well (I heartily recommend picking up the soundtrack). Along with the music, you get some funny characters (Timothy Olyphant is great as the guitarist in the tribute band) and when they clash, literally, it leads to some funny stuff. I'm not sure what everyone else was wanting from this film, but I was very entertained. I can't pinpoint what makes this film so good (hence the unfocused rambling above), so just do yourself a favor and check this movie out, you might be surprised.

Also, metal fans should keep their eyes open for Zakk Wylde (from Ozzy's band and Black Label Society, who has a hilarious line about hunting), Jeff Pilson (of Dokken fame), Jason Bonham (John Bonham's son), and many others. If you're into that type of music, it's cool to see those guys in a movie.

Next: The Hangover, Killshot, and maybe a third review, maybe not.