Sunday, April 25, 2010

"44 Inch Chest"

44 Inch Chest - Directed by Malcolm Venville, written by Louis Mellis and David Scinto, starring Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Ian McShane, Stephen Dillane, and Tom Wilkinson - Rated R (Available on Blu-ray and DVD)

This movie had some real potential, but it ended up forgettable.

When I first read about this film I was nearly salivating: the cast was unbelievable and it was written by the writers behind Sexy Beast. Did it live up to my expectations? Not really. This is not to say that 44 Inch Chest is a terrible movie, it's just not what I was expecting.

The film is about Colin Diamond, a recently cuckolded man who, with four of his friends, has to decide whether or not to kill his wife's new lover. I suppose I should have known this wasn't going to be Sexy Beast part two from this setup alone. This film is much more pyschological (though Sexy Beast does have some psychological elements). This may be considered a SPOILER, but it turns out that this is one of those films where you're not sure what it real and what isn't. Personally, I always go with the straightforward explanation. If something happens on screen, then it really did happen...unless there is a strong suggestion that reality is a bit off. There are scenes that are definitely in Colin's head in this one, but I think it's up to the viewer if the rest of the film is.

The reason it's possible to interpret the film in different ways is because Colin is an absolute mess. The film introduces this very well. The opening scene slowly shows the aftermath of a fight in Colin's living room. The camera works its way through the destruction as "Without You" by Harry Nilsson plays. The camera comes to a stop on Ray Winstone laying on the ground, a blank stare on his face. Then Colin is collected by his friends, who then kidnap his wife's lover, and place him inside an armoir (or chest, if you will) in what looks like some kind of safe house. The set up is very Hitchcockian and has a play-like quality to it as well. That may be why I can see the more psychological side.

In or outside of Colin's head, whichever you prefer, there are other characters and they play off of each other quite well. Tom Wilkinson seems to be the voice of reason in the group. Stephen Dillane plays a slightly untrustworthy friend (the weakest character of the group in my opinion). Ian McShane is the calm, charismatic, and lucky member of the group. And John Hurt is the cranky elder who expects bold action from Colin.

John Hurt is definitely the best part of the film. I could listen to his outbursts for an entire film. His back and forth with every character is hilarious. McShane is right there with him, though. He plays cool as good as anyone. His story of winning a sizable amount at a casino is my favorite scene in the film. Wilkinson does a fine job, but as the voice of reason, he doesn't get anything interesting to say or do, which is very unfortunate. I would go so far to say that he is wasted in this film.

Winstone is very convincing in this. He plays an emotionally destroyed man to perfection. It's not just outbursts and fake sobbing. It's in the facial expressions. You can see the anguish in his eyes in every scene. The film hinges on his performance and he carries it well.

The problem here is that the story is a bit boring. I guess the writers thought of this as well because the film is filled with anecdotes. It seems every character gets their own little side story to tell. That's fine, and the stories are interesting, but the problem is that the character developing side stories were far more entertaining than the main plot. I wish this film was just about the day to day workings of this group. I don't call them a gang because I'm not sure if they are a gang. It is obvious they have a history together, but a history of what? And Colin, aside from being a distraught husband, has no discernible characteristics. He's a very boring character.

As strange as it may sound, I wish this film had been more like a typical, unoriginal gangster movie. Make it about a heist or something. It can still be a character driven film without the adultery plot. Maybe that takes away the possibility of a theory or two about the movie but so be it. I don't think that this movie earns a dissection.

So the film tries to be deep. Some viewers may buy into it, but I didn't. With this cast the film really should have had a lighter tone or a sharper focus on a more interesting character. Instead, it's a passable effort with a very good moment or two. I'll be recommending Sexy Beast to people for the rest of my life, I'll probably forget what 44 Inch Chest was about by the end of the year.

Sunday, April 18, 2010


Kick-Ass - Co-written and directed by Matthew Vaughn, starring Aaron Johnson, Chloe Moretz, Mark Strong, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and Nicolas Cage - Rated R

(I apologize in advance for how cheesy this wordplay is, but I can't resist): "Kick-Ass" kicks ass.

Comic book movies are a dime a dozen these days, but Kick-Ass is a bit different. It’s a comic book movie that acknowledges comic books. The self referential factor allows the film to be much funnier than its typically serious counterparts. This doesn’t mean Kick-Ass is a flat out comedy. It still features plenty of vicious action and extreme vulgarity, and I loved every minute of it.

Kick-Ass is about Dave Lizewski, a comic book reading high school kid who dares to ask, “Why hasn’t anyone ever tried to be a superhero?” Obviously, Dave decides to try it out himself, so he creates the alter ego Kick Ass and “tries” to fight crime. The only problem is that Kick Ass isn’t very good at his work, but that doesn’t stop him from becoming an internet sensation which propels him into some serious crime fighting.

The serious crime going on involves a mobster running drugs through a lumber business front. The mobster himself (Mark Strong in yet another good performance) and his son (Christopher Mintz-Plasse aka McLovin’) are interesting enough, but it’s their nemeses that are the real stars of Kick-Ass.

Big Daddy (played with great fun by Nicolas Cage) and Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz) are doing some vigilante work of their own, but they are a bit more serious, and deadly, about it. This is the aspect of the movie that might rub some people the wrong way. Hit Girl is actually a little girl…and she cusses like a sailor while she kills dozens of bad guys in increasingly inventive and gory ways. The character didn’t bother me, but then again I’m not easily offended by movies. Kick-Ass, though rated R, is a relatively lighthearted movie. In other words, it’s not to be taken very seriously.

Hit Girl is a very entertaining part of the film, but it’s Big Daddy that stole the show. Cage is a well known comic book geek and he gets to let his inner geek shine through in this one. Big Daddy is not just a well trained killing machine; he is also an amateur comic book artist, which makes him a little bit of a dork. When he’s in his costume, he talks in a stilted serious tone, his attempt at sounding like the heroes he idolizes. In fact, Cage was doing an Adam West impression to go along with his Batman-like costume. Some might find it weird, but I found it hilarious.

The film hinges on one performance, though. How good could Kick-Ass be if the title character was played by a terrible actor? Thankfully, the filmmakers chose Aaron Johnson, who is perfect on every level in the role. He was completely convincing throughout the entire film, especially in the non-hero moments. A good portion of the movie is about being a teenager. The dorky teenager plot has been done to death, but Aaron Johnson, along with his buddies (the amusing Clark Duke and Evan Peters), keeps things amusing. I expect Johnson’s star to rise even more in the near future.

The filmmaking is quite impressive as well. Director Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake, Stardust) took this on as a passion project, getting the financing on his own because he knew that no studio would put up the cash for it. His love of the source material is evident through the entire film. Vaughn’s style conveys the tone of the comic book perfectly. He also proves that he can handle action scenes in creative ways.

Usually, a film establishes an action style early on and sticks with it. That’s not a terrible thing, but it can make a film kind of boring. Kick-Ass mixes things up a bit. Sure, there is a fairly standard, though brutal, style used throughout, but there are also more creative moments as well. My personal favorite was the scene in which Big Daddy singlehandedly takes out a warehouse of goons. The camera movement coupled with the jarring vibrations with each gunshot made for a very cool sequence. There are other examples, but the point is that this film tries a bit harder than most to be visually interesting and it succeeds.

Kick-Ass is one of the best comic book movies I’ve ever seen, but mainly because it’s aware of other comic book movies, if that makes any sense. I imagine all dorks, a term I regularly apply to myself, will love the film. But you don’t have to be well versed in the comic book world to enjoy it. It still has all the regular elements of the comic book movie blockbusters; it just has a sense of humor, and a great one at that. Kick-Ass is a flat out crowd-pleaser and unless you have hang-ups regarding foul-mouthed murderous little girls, you will probably love it.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

"Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans"

*A note regarding the title: the case of the DVD for this film features the title as you see it here, but the title in the actual film is "The Bad Lieutenant - Port of Call: New Orleans." I'm just sticking with the case title because that's how I've seen it written up elsewhere.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans - Directed by Werner Herzog, starring Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer, and Xzibit - Rated R

Cage is as crazy as the Kurgan in this one.

This is a weird one. First off, the title. It makes it sound like this is a remake, sequel, or re-imagining of the Abel Ferrara film from the 90s starring Harvey Keitel. It's certainly similar on a basic level. Cage is indeed a bad lieutenant and he has problems with drugs and gambling, just like Keitel did in the original. But Cage has a name here, Terence McDonagh, whereas Keitel's character went nameless. It's similar enough in basic plot points to share the title Bad Lieutenant I suppose, but it is vastly different tonally.

The Ferrara film is quite serious and very disturbing. Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant is not a straightforward comedy or anything, but it is certainly not as cerebral as Ferrara's film. This is not a bad thing. In fact, I wish all "remakes" were like this. Why make the same exact movie again? Instead, Herzog and Cage have collaborated to make something really special. I call this movie special because there are so many different ways to look at it. Here are the main four, in my opinion.

#1 - Bad Lieutenant can be taken as a serious police drama with a few wacky moments. There is a surprisingly linear plot involving a drug lord and a murder investigation. If you watch it like that, though, I think most people will see it as a failure.

#2 - This film can be seen as a hallucinogenic drug trip movie, as well. Cage sees iguanas that don't exist. He sees a person's soul dancing. And a couple times I felt the fourth wall was broken. Then there are the reptiles. Every time a reptile appears, Herzog gets ground level with it, and observes the action from the animal's point of view. There's a message in there somewhere, but it's more trippy than philosophical.

#3 - Some people have claimed that this film is actually a parody of typical cop dramas. I can see where that idea shows up. There are some very cheesy elements to this film. It's the little things that caught my attention: the fact that every cop calls every suspect "son," the reaction shots of the officers as they're told about a suspect, etc. And there are clich├ęs aplenty in the story. A corrupt cop at the end of his rope is not the most original story out there. But I can understand people not buying into the parody aspect. It does sound like I'm making excuses to like a film from a seasoned director. Maybe that's the case, but I'm always going to give a proven director the benefit of the doubt when it comes to things like this. I truly believe that any cheesy aspect of this film is completely intentional. (SPOILER ALERT) I think most people will agree with me when they see the scene near the end in which every plotline is resolved in a matter of seconds. The scene is shot somewhat from Cage's perspective and you get this, "Is this really happening?" vibe from it. It's such terrible screenwriting that it has to be done on purpose to get the viewer thinking about what has just happened. To further the idea that the audience has just watched a type of parody, Cage looks directly into the camera and laughs at the very end as if he's in on some joke that's just been pulled.

#4 - The best way to look at this film, however, is as a Nicolas Cage showcase and just go with it. I'm a Cage fan (I honestly enjoy The Wicker Man because of his over the top/strange performance), so regardless of everything else in this film, I knew from the start that I would love it. He brings the crazy in this one and it's fantastic. In the middle of the film he switches to some kind of Jimmy Stewart accent here and there. His character's chronic back pain coupled with extreme drug abuse might explain the change, but it's not consistent. It's just weird and I loved it. His voicework and his typical antics aside, Cage delivers an interesting physical performance as well.

Werner Herzog collaborated with the strange and amazing Klaus Kinski a number of times before that actor's death. Here, I think Cage is channeling Kinski, physically. He skulks around (due to his back pain) much like Kinski in Aguirre. More importantly, Cage perfectly mimics Kinski's death stare. The stare that makes it seem like he is on the verge of freaking out at any moment. I hope that Herzog and Cage make more films together, because I can imagine great things in the future from these two.

The supporting cast is impressive in this film, but they all just seemed boring compared to Cage. Kilmer is decent in his few scenes, and I enjoyed Michael Shannon's short role. But Shea Whigam and Brad Dourif were the most amusing side characters as a threatening john and a bookie, respectively.

Of course, when Herzog is involved there's going to more going on in the film than just acting. His camerawork is great as usual. He has this seemingly effortless ability to give his films a dreamlike/meandering quality. There are no "wow" takes or anything, but the camerawork is still more interesting than in a typical film.

So Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is a bit of a difficult film, not because it has an overly complicated plot or anything, but because there are so many different ways to look at it. I suggest giving it a chance no matter how you interpret it. Because even if you hate it, you'll at least get to see Nicolas Cage crazy up the screen; and who doesn't enjoy that?

Thursday, April 1, 2010

"Clash of the Titans"

Clash of the Titans - Directed by Louis Leterrier, starring Sam Worthington, Gemma Arterton, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, and Mads Mikkelsen - Rated PG-13

Only the Kurgan could take on a beast like the Kraken.

I don’t have a nostalgic feeling towards the original Clash of the Titans (1981). I re-watched it recently and just couldn’t get past the cheesy stop-motion animation. Some people may a have a special place in their heart for the campy film about Perseus and the Greek gods, but not me. I was very excited to see a big budget remake of this film and I suppose I’m glad they did it.

Clash of the Titans is about demigod Perseus (Sam Worthington) and his quest to stop the dreaded Kraken (a mindless and extremely powerful monster) from destroying the city of Argos and its princess, Andromeda. His quest takes him from peril to peril, with the gods interfering and helping out along the way.

That’s really all you need to know. Clash is basically a Greek mythology action movie and it certainly delivers on the action. The best moments of the film are when Perseus and his crew and battling giant scorpions, Medusa, and other assorted monsters. The action is pretty easy to follow for the most part, but I thought the 3D hindered it at times. 3D is great for the slow motion moments, but when a fast sword fight is going on, it’s hard to stay focused. Generally, a ton of slow motion is a negative aspect of a film. With Clash of the Titans however, I wish there was much more.

The 3D is what really bothered me, I guess. I’m not a true believer in the format just yet. Yes, Avatar looked great and I was definitely impressed with the use of 3D in that film. But Avatar was shot in 3D. This film, like Alice in Wonderland (another film I had a lukewarm 3D reaction to), was converted to 3D and it shows. For the most part, I think 3D is a gimmick and I hope it passes soon. I don’t think you’ll be missing much if you see this in a regular 2D presentation.

So the action is great and the last half hour is very entertaining, but there’s really not much here. I don’t expect a great character driven drama when I go to see a movie like Clash, but there should at least be a little bit of character development. Perseus is a pretty bland character. He has determination, but aside from that, he’s just there, screaming and killing everything he sees. I was actually more interested in the soldiers traveling with him, especially Draco (Mads Mikkelsen, Casino Royale). But that may be because I find Mikkelsen to be a much better actor than Worthington.

Don’t get me wrong, Worthington has screen presence, but there’s not much beneath the surface. If he’s wise, he’ll stick with action films. The rest of the cast, however, does some decent work. Liam Neeson is a great choice for Zeus. I think he may be the only actor out there that can yell, “Release the Kraken!” and be taken seriously. Ralph Fiennes makes a good Hades, as well. His raspy delivery enhances every scene he is in. The one bit of casting that made no sense to me, however, is that of Danny Huston as Poseidon. Huston is not exactly an A-list star, but he’s a fine actor and all he gets to do in this film is stand next to Zeus. I think he has one line of dialogue. All I can assume is that he gave a performance that ended up being cut due to time.

Acting isn’t terribly important in a film like this, though. The computer effects are what matter the most. Think about it, what is more important: Worthington being a convincing Perseus or a realistic Kraken? I can get past a bland performance, but I would have a problem with a crappy Kraken. Thankfully, Clash features some decent effects. They aren’t groundbreaking and some of them come close to being cartoonish, but they work.

I mentioned that I’m not a fan of the original film, but there is at least one reference to the original film that made me laugh. Bubo, the mechanical owl from the 1981 film does make an appearance in the film. The owl doesn’t factor into the film much (thankfully), but it’s still a funny little nod to the original.

Speaking of funny, this film makes quite a few attempts at comic relief. The previews lead you to believe you’re going to see a brutal epic along the lines of 300. This film is not nearly as serious as that blockbuster. The soldiers with Perseus try to lighten the mood throughout and I was fine with it. Some people may find it a bit too goofy here and there, however.

Clash of the Titans is not a great action epic, nor is it a campy look into the world of Greek mythology. It is a pretty standard action film with some impressive moments. I suggest checking it out if you want to get your action fill before the big summer movies start rolling out.