Sunday, September 27, 2009

"Surrogates" / "Ong-bak 2: The Beginning"

Surrogates - Directed by Jonathan Mostow, starring Bruce Willis, James Cromwell, Radha Mitchell, and Ving Rhames - Rated PG-13

Surrogates isn't perfect (it's far from it, actually), but it's good enough for The Evil Kurgan.

Surrogates, Bruce Willis’ latest, is an entertaining, yet unoriginal and problematic, sci-fi film. It takes place about fifteen years in the future, where robotic surrogates handle the day to day life for 99% of the world’s population, while their owners control them from their homes. Think of the world like a live action chat room, where everyone can choose what they look like.

First off, if you liked I, Robot, then you’ll probably like Surrogates. The similarities between the two films delve into rip off territory. There is a giant corporation that owns and distributes all of the surrogates. There is an unlikely murder that could topple the entire system. The main character doesn’t like the way the surrogates have changed the world. The most glaring similarity, however, is a casting decision. James Cromwell, who played the father of robotics in I, Robot, basically plays the same character in Surrogates. It’s impossible to ignore the connections.

Unoriginality aside, the film does not hold up well under close scrutiny. To start, that 99% statistic is quite ridiculous. Surrogates are not free or given out by the government. Are we to believe that almost everyone in the world can afford even a low end model of a surrogate? I somehow doubt that third world countries faced with massive poverty and starvation would be able to embrace the surrogate lifestyle.

On top of the 99% stat the film also makes the claim that crime has nearly disappeared. I’m sorry if this sounds cynical, but I think that if people were able to live their lives through robotic entities they would be more likely to engage in illegal activities, since morality would go out the window with some people since actual humans aren’t being harmed.

I could go into more and more problems with the scenario of the film, but there is one more issue I need to point out. Ving Rhames, who plays an anti-surrogate human rights leader, already has a goofy look (the usually bald actor sports a massive beard and dreadlocks) but every time he speaks, even when he’s giving a radio address, he holds his hands up like Ricky Bobby during his first interview in Talladega Nights. When you see it, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. Because of that, I just could not take his character seriously.

Even with these issues, I still liked this film. I’m a fan of Bruce Willis and he does his beat-up hero thing here. It’s nothing new and I’m fine with that. No one pulls off the bloodied and grizzled look better than Willis.

But Willis doesn’t start off grizzled. Like everyone else in the film, he has a surrogate. The surrogate looks a bit shiny and fake (and the hair looks kind of out of place) and he is clean cut, with no imperfections to be seen. And that is the look of the film, which is unsettling, in a good way. Everyone looks like they are straight off a runway, dressed in the finest clothing. While their operators look haggard, never leaving the house.

This presents, as most sci-fi films do, some social commentary. In this case, the question asked is: What constitutes life? Surrogates make things easier and everyone is beautiful, so why should you ever leave the house? This could be applied to today’s culture in a way. The separate lives that people live on the internet in social applications and chat rooms. At what point is the line crossed? At what point to people accept Facebook and MySpace as a substitute for actual socialization? Is this really that serious of a problem? Probably not. But a good sci-fi movie makes you at least consider where our current society could end up.

Surrogates presents a possible future to a ridiculous scale that could have been fixed by just saying the United States had embraced surrogates, or at least drop the percentage down to a more realistic number. Seriously, even the internet is not used by 99% of the population. So if you can’t afford internet service, how are you going to afford your own robot? I mention the statistic problem again because it hurts any meaning the film tries to present.

I was able to ignore the faults for the most part and I found Surrogates to be entertaining. The style of the film helps out a bit as well. The short runtime (88 minutes) was nice as well since these types of movies can get bloated. Surrogates is a good film, but if the screenwriters had spent more time thinking about the world they were creating, then they could’ve ended up with a great film.

Ong-bak 2: The Beginning - Directed by and starring Tony Jaa - Rated R

Just too much story and not enough fighting.

This, like World's Greatest Dad, was released on video on demand services before it starts its limited theatrical run. I was looking forward to this because I am a huge fan of Jaa's previous films (Ong-bak and The Protector [Tom yum goong]) and I expected this film to be just as full of impressive fight sequences and stunts as Jaa's other work. I came away disappointed, however.

First off, even though this movie has the number 2 in the title, it is not a sequel. The first film took place in the present day with Jaa elbowing and kneeing his way through a crime syndicate. This one takes place centuries ago. That was the first red flag for me. I am just not into the Asian historical epics anymore since the flood of them after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon came out. I certainly didn't want to see Tony Jaa trying his hand out in the genre, since it requires sword fighting and other weapon based martial arts. Don't get me wrong, Jaa is impressive with a sword, it's just that his stunt work is impressive because it looks like he is really hurting people when he knees them in the face whereas a sword slash requires film trickery (or skulduggery, if you will).

The film does have plenty of hand to hand combat and it looks great. But rather than trying to outdo himself with even greater fights, Jaa decides to add more story. That's a huge problem, since the story is kind of a mess. Plus, who cares about story in a Tony Jaa movie?

I'm not saying this movie is awful or anything, it just focuses too much on the story. Under usual circumstances that wouldn't be considered a bad thing. But hey, I just want to see Tony Jaa deliver beatdown after beatdown, I don't really care why he's delivering it. If you're a fan, wait for this on DVD, if you have no idea who Tony Jaa is, then do yourself a favor and check out the first Ong-bak or Tom yum goong, you won't be disappointed.

Monday, September 21, 2009

"The Informant!"

The Informant! - Directed by Steven Soderbergh, starring Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, and Joel McHale - Rated R

I don't have a line or anything for this one, I just liked it a lot.

The Informant!, the latest film from director Steven Soderbergh (Ocean’s 11), is a strangely funny take on corporate whistleblower movies like Michael Mann’s The Insider. This isn’t a spoof movie or anything, though. It’s actually based on the true story of Mark Whitacre, a VP of an agri-business company that has been involved in price fixing, who turned FBI informant on his company, ADM, in the early to mid 90’s. Based on that short synopsis alone, the film doesn’t scream comedy. In fact, if you look into the true story (which I wouldn’t advise doing until after you’ve seen the film) you’ll see that the story is somewhat tragic and that Whitacre is more troubled than funny.

For the purposes of the film version of Whitacre’s story, however, he is certainly a more light hearted character. Normally, a film like this would feature tense scenes with shady business leaders and veiled death threats aimed at the informant. Instead, we get a goofy mustachioed Matt Damon, who fantasizes about playing a part in Michael Crichton novels and movies. The evil corporation doesn’t really come off as evil and it’s hard to get behind a story involving the price fixing of lysine (one of those chemicals that we never hear of, but ingest daily). Sure, the fact that companies were setting prices while consumers paid more is upsetting, but the story seems better suited for an episode of “60 Minutes” rather than a feature film. The filmmakers saw a comedy in that story, though, and it’s a good thing they did.

Whitacre goes through his business life and his spy life in a slightly bumbling manner. His thoughts are rambling and sometimes these voiceover thoughts actually drown out conversations in the movie. Every single random thought is quite funny, though. Example: “Polar bears would blend in completely if not for that black nose. I wonder how they figured that out. Maybe looking at other bears, or seeing their reflection? I don’t know. That seems like an awful of thinking for a bear.” To hear a monologue like that in between scenes in which a business executive is secretly recording price fixing meetings is so strange and original that it has to be funny.

As usual with a part like this, the character is only as funny as the actor and Matt Damon is perfect in this. In my opinion, it’s his finest work yet. He is so naïve in his delivery of lines like, “Once this all blows over, I’ll still be okay with the company, right?” and he makes such idiotic and childish faces throughout the film that you get behind him in the story, even when things start to get a little darker in the second half. The title sequence and marketing materials claim “Matt Damon is The Informant!” I can’t think of a better way to sum up how great his performance is in this film.

The supporting cast is impressive as well. Scott Bakula is entertaining as FBI agent Brian Shepard. Joel McHale (of “Talk Soup” fame) is an interesting choice as a fellow FBI agent and while he doesn’t have many funny lines, McHale makes up for it in the disbelieving stares he gives in response to Whitacre’s claims. And look for some interesting cameos from people like Patton Oswalt and the Smothers Brothers.

The comedy is a bit out there and so is the style. Even though Soderbergh sometimes makes mainstream movies that doesn’t mean they are devoid of style. The Informant! is no exception. Think of the Ocean’s trilogy and you’ll have the right idea of the look and sound of the movie. Soderbergh uses soft lighting and colors that give the film an interesting look at times. And the choice of music is quite strange and a bit overbearing at times. I heard someone compare the music to an Austin Powers movie and I have to agree. It’s a weird choice, but the musical cues are funny at times. Aside from the music choice, though, the style does place the film distinctly in the early to mid 90’s. From the clothes to the way the film was shot you get the impression that this story is taking place about fifteen years ago.

If you’re like me, you find stories like The Insider interesting, but they make for boring films. I know that most people consider that film to be a masterpiece, but I thought it dragged along. Apparently Steven Soderbergh shares this opinion because he took a true story with parallels to The Insider and turned it into an entertaining, albeit strange, comedy with an ironic exclamation point in the title. The Informant! could’ve been another boring masterpiece, but with Soderbergh’s direction and Damon’s performance, it ended up being a hilarious movie.

Monday, September 14, 2009

"Sin Nombre" / "The Last House on the Left" / "Crank 2: High Voltage"

Sin Nombre - Written and directed by Cary Fukunaga, starring Édgar Flores, Paulina Gaitan, and Tenoch Huerta - Rated R

Chigurh was enthralled by the gang aspect of this film.

Sin Nombre ("Without a Name") is an interesting, powerful, and occasionally brutal film about gangs in Central America (and Mexico) and the journey illegal immigrants undertake to make it to the United States. But it's not just about those two things because if it was then it would be better suited as a documentary. It's also about how love can make even a hardened gang member grow a conscience and how even though the masses of people outside of America trying to make it in may just be a number to most, they each have their own story and reason for making such a risky trek. Maybe that second part sounds a bit too pretentious and political or liberal or whatever, but the gang member aspect interested me immensely.

Now, I'm not one of those people that idolizes gangs and thirsts for knowledge about the Crips and the Bloods (I personally prefer watching the fictionalized Italian and Irish gangsters from New York), but the gang represented here (Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13) interested me instantly with their tattooed faces and brutal tactics (early on a new young member is "jumped" into the gang and is then forced to kill a rival gang member). But it isn't just the brutality. It's the character of Willy/Casper (real name/gang name). He starts off like your typical gang member; he steals whatever he can get his hands on, seems to have no problem killing, and has as much reverence for his gang as most people do for their religion. That kind of blind devotion to rampant and seemingly pointless gang wars usually makes me hate a character instantly. I found Willy sympathetic, however. He does reform, in a way, and if there has to be a good guy in the film, it would be him. It's more than that, though. Willy comes across as a human being and a moral one at that. I doubt many people would call this film hopeful, but I find some in his character and it really sets this film apart.

I may have glossed over the illegal immigrant aspect of this film and I don't want to downplay that story at all, but I just found the gang story much more interesting and moving. That's not to say the immigrant side is done poorly or is uninteresting. The journey, which takes place mainly atop trains travelling through Mexico, does feature some of the best images from the film.

I have to add that this film shattered my expectations early on. I thought this movie would dwell on the journey to America, or the the tension between the gang leader and Willy, both of which could make an entire movie unto themselves. But this movie kept things moving quickly. It introduced a situation and moved on from it. It was refreshing to see a foreign language film do that. Usually movies like this beat you over the head with misery, and while this film certainly isn't a happy one, it's not out to ruin your day, either.

The scenes atop the train and a dash of style here and there (a knockout scene in particular) make the movie stand out a bit, but this a much more character driven film and I was glad that it didn't try to get too flashy. So check this out if you want a look into gang life and the journey of illegal immigrants.

The Last House on the Left - Directed by Dennis Iliadis, starring Tony Goldwyn, Sara Paxton, and Garret Dillahunt - Unrated (Rated R cut available also)

The Kurgan enjoyed this home invasion flick a bit more than the others out there.

The Last House on the Left is the disturbingly brutal remake of the Wes Craven film of the same name. I never watched the original, so this review will not be a comparison piece at all. The film, about a group of criminals (led by Dillahunt) who terrorize a family in a secluded lake area, isn't exactly a classic, but it does have its moments. I'm usually apprehensive about the sub-genre of horror that deals with lunatics randomly assaulting a family with no clear goal in mind. I know some people dig movies like that, I'm just not one of them. This film, however, made a bit more sense to me. For starters, the young woman of the family (Paxton) and her friend stumble across the crazies (which is how I choose to refer to them) first, rather than the crazies showing up out of nowhere knocking on the window. Then the crazies seemingly stumble onto the young woman's house, where a little bit of tension is created, before it gets really violent.

I'm not going to go into detail on this one. You know what you're in for with a movie like this and The Last House on the Left doesn't disappoint. The standouts (good and bad) include a much talked about creepy and uncomfortable rape scene (aren't they all, though?), some satisfying violence including a garbage disposal, and a ridiculous, but hilarious, scene involving a microwave. Aside from that, what can I say? There's a reason movies like this aren't screened for professional critics when they are released. No one cares what a critic has to say about a horror/terror movie. So why am I wasting my time? I really just wanted to point out that garbage disposal and microwave part. But I guess I could mention that it's good to see Aaron Paul (from AMC's Breaking Bad) getting some film work and I've become a fan of Dillahunt since The Assassination of Jesse James and No Country for Old Men. I must say, though, I wish he would stick to less psychotic characters.

Crank: High Voltage - Written and directed by Neveldine/Taylor, starring Jason Statham, Amy Smart, and Clifton Collins, Jr. - Rated R

I can't think of a more fitting representation of a crappy movie involving electricity.

Speaking of movies not screened for critics and my opinion not mattering one bit, here's a little something on Crank: High Voltage. It's stupid, incredibly stupid. But that's what you should expect if you watched the first one. I seem to remember slightly enjoying the first one, though and I found almost no enjoyment with this one. It's too idiotic, the action is filmed in such a way that I can't tell what's happening most of the time, Amy Smart looks more like a meth addict than usual, Statham is starting to wear thin, and Clifton Collins, Jr. is wasted in his unfunny over the top role. I only mention this film because of one random scene featuring Glenn Howerton from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. I don't want to give it away, since the end of the scene might provide the only enjoyment you get from this film (as it did for me), but if you want to skip the other 93 minutes of the film here's a link to a crappy quality youtube video of the scene. But hey, if you really liked the first one, you'll probably disagree with me completely and love every minute.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

"Extract" / "Tyson"

Extract - Written and directed by Mike Judge, starring Jason Bateman, Mila Kunis, and Ben Affleck - Rated R

A Kurgan for now, but this one might age into a Chigurh.

Extract, the latest from Mike Judge, is a low key, strange comedy that may not reach the cult status of Office Space, but is still a very enjoyable film. The story isn't traditional by any means. Jason Bateman plays Joel, the owner of an extract company who is just going through the motions, hoping to sell the company and get out of the rut he is in. Before that can happen, though, a freak accident involving the loss of one and near loss of the other ("it's barely hanging on") of a worker Step's testicles (Clifton Collins, Jr., an increasingly enjoyable actor), slows down the sale of the company.

Enter Mila Kunis as con artist Cindy. She makes sure the accident turns into a lawsuit so she can swindle as much money out of Step as possible. Meanwhile, she flirts away with Joel, leaving him to believe that all he really needs is some infidelity to make things better. This is where Joel's bartender buddy, Dean (Affleck), comes into play. He's the pill popping devil on Joel's shoulder and he makes for some of the funniest dialogue in the movie. But it's not that loud, weird funny of a Will Ferrel comedy. It's the little things. The slow taking of a drink away after accidentally giving Joel a horse tranquilizer. His claim that he takes Xanax for the common head cold. There are a few lines that stand out, but for the most part the conversations in general bring the laughs.

That's not to say that Affleck is the only funny thing here. David Koechner is perfect as the annoying neighbor and his character has an amazingly funny pay off. Bateman is funny as well, in kind of the same way Ron Livingston was funny in Office Space. He's a decent enough guy, who gets pushed to the edge and makes some questionable decisions along the way and his subdued reactions are great. Kristen Wiig is okay in the film, but I would say her performance is only notable because she isn't playing a copy of one of her SNL characters. J. K. Simmons is amusing, but I honestly expected his scenes to be funnier. It seemed like I would chuckle a bit at a few of his lines not because they were funny, but because I really wanted them to be funny.

That pretty much sums up the film for me. I wanted it to be hilarious, but it turned out to be just funny. I think this film will sink in after a couple more viewings on DVD, though. This is why Mike Judge's films don't do well at the box office. People don't come out telling all their friends, "You've GOT to see this!" They come out saying, "It was funny, I guess." It's only a year of two later before people realize just how funny it was.

I don't want to sound like I didn't like this movie or anything, though. The bong scene is hilarious with the exaggerated smoke and the hilarious music cues during Bateman's stoned conversation with a creepy pot dealer. Rory, the grindcore band member, is a funny character and Mike Judge's cameo is amusing. And I cannot stress enough how funny Affleck is in this. You just won't hear anyone quoting him or any other character anytime soon. But is there anything wrong with that? It actually makes me feel a little warm inside knowing that I was one of the few to watch Extract when it first came out, because I know it will resonate a lot longer than it's box office take might indicate. It may not end up being another Office Space, but it's still a comedy everybody should check out.

Tyson - Directed by James Toback - Rated R

A Chigurh for this powerfully entertaining documentary.

Tyson is the critically acclaimed documentary about the troubled boxer from director James Toback, who finally allowed his interest in Tyson to come to fruition in the form of a full blown feature (he has cast Tyson two of his last three features). I wasn't sure about this movie because I wasn't sure about Tyson himself. Tyson was destroying people in the ring when I was quite young, so all I remember about him is the lisping, slightly high pitched voice, the rape conviction, his increasingly strange weigh in threats ("I'm gonna eat your children, praise be to Allah.") and the ear biting fiasco. So my image of the man wasn't exactly positive going in. This is not to imply that I think Tyson is a great man after seeing this movie or anything, but I do find him a bit more sympathetic.

Tyson had an interesting life, starting off as a street thug and then picking up boxing in a juvenile correction facility. The fact that he was so talented that he could go from ripping off drug dealers to boxing in the Olympics in just a few years is fascinating. Tyson tells this story in very entertaining ways. His speech has always been a bit hard to understand, but it's his choice of words that left an impression on me. He talks about how much likes women, then says that he must "conquer" them. He picks up these rarely used words ("luminary" and, my favorite, "skulduggery") and uses them in such a manner that I had to look them up a few times to see what they meant and if they were used properly. It turns out he does use them properly, but let's face it, skulduggery is a funny word (and I plan to use it every day for the rest of my life now). It's not only his vocabulary that adds to his personality. Tyson seems to struggle with every sentence and whenever he gets emotional, like when discussing deceased trainer Cus D'Amato, he can barely talk. I have to admit, I felt sympathy every time he teared up.

Toback unnecessarily complicates things at times, though. He uses this overlapping audio track that is simply annoying at times. The film works much better when it's Tyson on his own in front of a stationary camera. Toback did pick some great archival footage for the film, though. Someone like me, who didn't get to see Tyson's early fights, will be amazed at the power Tyson once had in the ring. The guy was a beast, and it makes it all that more sad that he fell so far from grace. I never thought I'd write a sentence like my previous one, but this film, and Tyson himself, make it easy to, maybe not get on his side, but to see things from his point of view. It certainly helps that Tyson himself acknowledges the mistakes he made, but that's not the only reason to sympathize with him. Tyson proves to be more than just a punchline and/or a psycho. It turns out that he's a person, troubled though he may be.

Tyson is an interesting and, more importantly, entertaining documentary. Check it out even if you hate the guy, you might feel differently when it's over.