Monday, June 30, 2008

And now, a very different kind of comic book movie: "Unbreakable"

Now here's a movie that can get people talking. You thought there were arguments over Ang Lee's "Hulk?" Try a comic book movie that (a) isn't based on an actual comic book and (b) is far from your normal comic-book pacing. Which is to say, slow. I still don't know whether that's good or bad, but it was definitely different.

"Unbreakable" was M. Night Shyamamamamamamamamamalan's first movie after his breakout hit, "The Sixth Sense." Like that movie, there's Bruce Willis and a twist ending. It's also mostly gray in color and deliberate in plot. But most folks didn't eat this one up like the other one, maybe because there was no precocious lad peering at the deceased.

Willis is David Dunn, a security guard who miraculously survives a train crash that kills everyone else on board. A rather peculiar fellow who owns an art gallery and loves comic books (Samuel J. Jackson) takes an interest in Dunn, thinking his survival portends some kind of superpower. Dunn says pound sand, yet can't stop thinking about past events in his life that point to a similar conclusion. Or maybe he's nuts, too.

It's all pretty intriguing. Or boring. Honestly, it's hard to tell. But I will say this: After seeing this several years ago, I kept thinking about it, and wondering if it was better than I thought while watching it. There really isn't much action, per se. And dammit if everyone doesn't seem to be moping around too much. But it's thoughtful, and if you go into it thinking of it as a graphic novel of sorts, it makes sense. It also helped greatly this time around that the movie was edited to fit into two hours on SciFi. Maybe they didn't take out that much content -- the original running time was 106 minutes -- but it did seem a little shorter, which helped.

So yeah, this movie kind of gets a bad rap. Yes, it requires patience. Yes, Willis is overly morose. Yes, Jackson gets a little too loopy at the end -- "Most times they're friends, like you and me!" But this is worth seeing as a counterpoint to the typical superhero movie that asks us to quickly accept a guy with strange powers before he starts the rock-em, sock-em. Once more, it holds up quite well considering the craptastic stuff M. has been dishing out lately. Seriously ... what's happening, Night?

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Less Ang Lee, more angry: "The Incredible Hulk"

Yep, got out to another movie not long ago. As is my custom, anything I see on the big screen during these limited windows needs to be something of a spectacle. So it was that "Iron Man" gave way to "The Incredible Hulk." Still want to squeeze in "Indiana Jones" and "Wanted," and "Hancock" and "The Dark Knight" are right around the corner. (Maybe "Tropic Thunder," too. We'll see what the reviews are like.)

You know the story here: After apparently everyone was bummed out about Mr. Sensitive Brokeback Guy's attempt at telling the Hulk story five years ago, Marvel moved ahead with this version. The idea, I heard, was more action and less thinky-think. Of course, that didn't keep star Edward Norton from pushing for a longer cut with more introspection. He lost that battle, and it's probably a good thing.

Our plot: After a military experiment goes wrong -- namely by turning Bruce Banner into a green monster -- our hero flees to the Brazil, where he hides out, lays low ... whatever it takes to keep from getting his Hulk on. Unfortunately, a tiny mistake allows the military -- led by William Hurt with the wrong color of hair -- to track down Banner. Heading the assault is Tim Roth, a Brit on loan to the U.S. and intrigued when Banner disappears and the Hulk shows up. Hey, I would be, too.

Banner makes his way back to the states, where his love, Liv Tyler -- a fellow scientist(!) -- lives. More hijinks ensue, with Roth wanting to get some of Hulk's mojo inside his own body. You know what that means: Showdown!

In all, not too bad a story. I liked the overview of how Eddie N. went bad during the credits. That saved some time and threw us into the "present day." True, it took a while for some of the action to get going, and we don't get a good look at the Hulk until about an hour into the movie. I know, because I checked my watch. By and large, though, there was probably enough boom-boom -- the clash on the college campus was the best -- for the allotted time, which was about right at less than two hours.

There's also a fair amount to harp on, though. First, the BIG SHOWDOWN is pretty much the same type of thing as in "Iron Man" ... and almost every other comic-book movie. I was definitely left wanting there. Before that, it's safe to say nobody is doing their best acting here. Tyler isn't horrible, but ... c'mon, a scientist? No. She makes Jennifer Connelley look like Robert Oppenheimer. Hurt also wasn't right for his part. Didn't help that his hair and mustache kept making me think of Sam Elliott, his counterpart in the '03 version.

Roth is OK, I guess, although there were a couple of scenes of him in uniform that made me think, "No way that guy's a soldier." Unbalanced? Sure. A soldier? No. As for Norton, he's fine. Can't say he dazzled me more than Eric Bana, and he kind of came across as a twitchy teen at times. That's his schtick in general, I know, and it was a little off here. Not a problem, but not great.

In the end, I'd really like to see the '03 "Hulk" again to see if it's that bad. I didn't think so then, and I suspect it simply has gotten a bad rap. As such, people probably are praising this one a little more than they should. It's merely OK -- worth watching on the big screen but no match for the recent "Spider-Man" movies (well, except for "3") or the reimagined Batman. There's a nice little twist or "a-ha" at the end, but I'm guessing Norton was scarier in "American History X," or at least "Death to Smoochy."

Monday, June 23, 2008

Definitely not amateur hour: "The Professionals"

Not sure if this is the best Western I've seen, but it probably was the one I enjoyed the most. Yeah, more than "Young Guns." (Kidding. "Young Guns 2" actually was the shiznit.)

Loyal readers -- all five of you -- know I'm a little indifferent when it come to the dustiest of genres. Unlike baby boomers, Gen-Xers generally just don't have the same affinity for watching guys play cowboys and Indians/bandits. That's a broad brush on both fronts, true. But like I've said before, by the time I got to watching movies, Westerns seemed boring. I mean, the Old West was long gone! Now outer space ... that's where it was at. And once again, that's the kind of thinking that leads someone to spend good money on "Event Horizon." Whew.

Had it been playing in a theater, I would have gladly shelled out hard cash for "The Professionals." Seriously, if you're like me, you should see this movie. Consider it more serious than "The Magnificent Seven" and less melancholy than "The Wild Bunch." That's maybe the perfect mix. Really, this may be my new favorite Western. Wow.

Our story: Four rogues of sorts are hired by a Texas millionaire to go fetch his wife, whom a Mexican bandit leader/revolutionary apparently snatched and took across the border. Sounds simple, right? As we know, it never is. First, a couple of our heroes have ties to the bandit leader. Second, the millionaire may not be totally on the up and up. Third, the woman is Claudia Cardinale, who pretty much gives me a heart attack every time I see her. Woof.

Rockin' good cast here. Lee Marvin plays the group's leader, and I haven't liked him this much since "Bad Day at Black Rock," or maybe "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." This is a bigger role, but he doesn't get carried away with it. Not too intense, not too glib. Just right.

His buddy is Burt Lancaster, who never had done all that much for me and initially turned me off here. Just something about when he goes all Moonlight Graham on us, pausing and looking off in the distance and rambling. But I warmed up to Burt fast enough, mainly because he embraces the rapscallion role. Call it a Han Solo thing. He doesn't have to worry about being in charge yet can be a hero all the same. The role is even more notable given that Lancaster already had won an Oscar and been nominated for two others. Hell, he's over 50 years old here! Doesn't matter. He's pretty good. Also gets some great lines.

Rounding out our gang are Robert Ryan -- whom I'm appreciating more with each movie I see him in -- as a horse wrangler and Woody Strode as a tracker who's pretty good with a bow and arrow. Ralph "Randolph Duke" Bellamy is the millionaire, and Jack Palance -- whom I never recognized -- is the bandit leader. All those guys are solid in their roles, too, as is Cardinale as the femme fatale. Really ... oh my.

What I liked best about this movie were (a) the story, which had just the right amount of twists and turns, right up to the end, and (b) the dialogue. Whereas "Seven" was too cute and "Bunch" was too somber, "The Professionals" has some sharp dialogue without getting too corny. It also gives its characters enough depth without lingering too long and bringing the action to a halt. And rather than being soft, having a woman at the center of things actually distinguishes it quite well from "Bunch.

Maybe I'm being a little glowing, but I don't know ... almost everything just felt right to me. And did I mention the dialogue? These might not come across as well on your monitor, but, in closing, consider these gems:

Maria: Go to hell.
Dolworth: Yes ma'am. (Pause) I'm on my way.

Rico: Certain women have a way of changing boys into men and some men back into boys.

Rico: You're gonna have to get over this nasty habit of always losing your pants. It's not dignified.
Dolworth: It's drafty, too.

Dolworth: That's a lot of woman there. Beautiful, classy, and guts. Hard enough to kill ya and soft enough to change ya.

Rico: So what else is on your mind besides hundred-proof women, ninety-proof whiskey and 14-carat gold?
Dolworth: Amigo, you just wrote my epitaph!

(And maybe best of all ... )

Grant: You bastard.
Rico: Yes, sir. In my case an accident of birth. But you, sir, you're a self-made man.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Violence is never the answer. Well, unless the question was really stupid.

Another trio of movies for your (dis)approval, spanning more than 25 years and taking place on three different continents. Yes, welcome to Movievangelist World Cinema. Hell, we've even got subtitles!

The title would make more sense if she wore an patch: "The Eye"

Otherwise, why wasn't it called "The Eyes?"

Regardless, this isn't the Jessica Alba suckfest that came out earlier this year. Heard that one blew, but that the original Hong Kong version was decent. That's what we're dealing with here, and it's solid, even if you have to read the movie.

A young woman who has been blind since an early age has cornea transplant surgery. Voila! She can see ... some creepy sh*t. Mainly it's dead people, or people about to be dead. This weirds her out, of course, but at least she isn't as annoying as the kid from "The Sixth Sense."

(Had to stop and think who that was. Oh yeah ... Haley Joel Osment. Puberty's a b*tch, man.)

We eventually learn what the deal is, and all in all, the story works. Some genuine chills here without resorting to too much gross-out stuff. And just when you think everything is OK, some more bad stuff goes down. Pretty good storytelling by the Pang Brothers, and too bad the tale has been sullied by Little Miss Alba's version.

Just not much of a budget: "Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane"

I had been curious about this movie ever since seeing "Narc," the movie that got director Joe Carnahan noticed. This small-budget film preceded that, featuring no big names -- Carnahan is a lead -- some quick cuts, a bunch of jabbbering and generally low production values. That said, it's not bad.

Carnahan and his partner at a crappy used-car lot aren't having much luck selling cars. Kind of surprising, since both are rather unappealing guys. Then comes a deal they can't resist: keep a classic Pontiac LeMans convertible on the lot for a couple of days, and collect $250,000. What can go wrong? Glad you asked. As you guessed, the dopes decide to get cute. Never mind that everyone else who has touched the car has found trouble breathing. Things don't turn out so well for our heroes, either.

There's a clear Tarantino influence here, but that's all right. True, some of the dialogue is dumb. But some of it is funny. I actually thought Carnahan was OK, and it's a shame there isn't a quotes file on IMDB. And hell, if the budget really was only $7,300, you could do a lot worse than this -- from the script to the acting to the story. These guys put the "Clerks" crew to shame.

I might have cut these guys off at five or six: "The Dirty Dozen"

Here's a movie that comes on TCM all the time and that I recorded once or twice before but never got around to watching. Finally took care of that a week or so ago, but I'm not sure I'm better for it.

The story is simple: An Army major is ordered during WWII to train 12 convicts -- some sentenced to death -- and form a unit that can attack the Nazis at a French chateau. Why? Because the Army doesn't want to waste any real soliders on this silliness. Oh, and because the major (Lee Marvin) has pretty much p*ssed everyone else off.

The big thing here is the cast. Along with Marvin, there's Ernest Borgnine as a general and Robert Ryan as a colonel; these three get together again after "Bad Day at Black Rock" a dozen years earlier. Convicts include a noble Charles Bronson, a kooky Telly Savalas, a stoic Jim Brown (yeah, the football star), a young Donald Sutherland, and Trini "Lemon Tree" Lopez, whose casting seems to defy logic. The guy can sing, though.

Who am I missing? Oh yeah ... John Cassavetes, the best thing in the movie. We learn from the start that his character is a troublemaker -- even for these guys -- which obviously means he'll come around. Cassavetes easily outshines the others as the story drags on and on. Even when it's time for the bang-bang, that takes a long time to get going.

While there's some nasty stuff at the end, it takes way too much time to get there. Part of my problem may be the difference in eras; this kind of epic might have been more appreciated in '67. Then again, I've seen other long movies from long ago, and they didn't bore me as much. I guess the idea was for us to become invested in these characters. But ... there's a dozen of them! You could have taken 2 1/2 days, and I still wouldn't have kept Gilpin and Lever straight.

My advice: Pay attention when Cassavetes and Savalas are on screen, and when Marvin and Bronson are together. Otherwise, have something to read until the fireworks start at the end.

Monday, June 16, 2008

But this guy didn't look much like a hip-hop star: "Citizen Kane"

What's that? It's "Kanye?" Oh ... my bad.

Perhaps you've heard of this film, often perched at or near the top of most "Best Films of All Time" lists. I know I've seen this once before, maybe in a college film class. But that, sadly, was a long time ago -- ahhh, college -- and when the movie came calling via TCM, it seemed time to give Orson Welles' masterpiece another shot.

Our story: The death of an insanely rich man who ran a newspaper empire and built his own personal Camelot triggers a search for what really made him tick. The key, news outlets think, is figuring out what his last word meant. That word, we all know, was "Rosebud." Cue the smashed snow globe.

Welles plays Charles Foster Kane through the years, and has generally been hailed as a genius for how he, at the tender age of 25, directed "Citizen Kane." It's kind of hard to tell today, but the overview at the start, the use of flashbacks, the camera angles ... all that apparently was new-age stuff in 1941. And never mind the basic story, which tracks the rise of a young man who stumbles into money and becomes the stuff presidents are made of, only to come crashing down and find himself alone. Oh, the tragedy.

I kid, of course. "Kane" remains impressive on many levels, and is worth seeing if only to appreciate Welles' skill as a director and his portrayal of an egomanic over multiple decades. It's also nice how things come full circle in a couple of ways, including that whole "Rosebud" business.

Does that make it the (trumpets, please) BEST MOVIE EVER MADE? Eh, not for me. I'd probably go with "The Godfather." Among the older movies, "Casablanca," while dated, might sneak past "Kane," especially when it comes to repeat viewings. What I'm really waiting for, however, is the AFI to get their sh*t together and finally give "Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo" the props it so richly deserves. I mean, it's not like Orson Welles can pull off a radical headspin.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Thankfully, we were spared the milk bottles filled with pee: "The Hoax"

I mean, I don't care how authentic Scorsese and DiCaprio wanted to be with "The Aviator." I did not need to see that as evidence of how far off the rails Howard Hughes went.

In "The Hoax," Hughes has already gone bonkers and hidden himself away. That leaves us to see him through archive footage, hear him on the phone and watch Richard Gere ape him as part of a big scam to net fame and fortune. And all without Cate Blanchett's annoying Katharine Hepburn imitation. Score!

Our story -- based on actual events, mind you -- has Gerbil Boy playing Clifford Irving, a writer who isn't struggling but wants to stay safely on the publisher teat. After his second-rate Philip Roth novel is rejected, he tells his publisher that Howard Hughes wants him to write his autobiography. Wow! Just one thing: Irving is full of sh*t.

Turns out he and a researcher buddy (a nervous Alfred Molina) are going to fake the whole thing -- cobbling together Hughes' recollections through various research and interviews, including old fart Eli Wallach. Irving's wife (Marcia Gay Harden, playing Swiss) helps him some, although they've got issues -- namely his refusal to stop sticking his d*ck inside Julie Delpy, a French tart who also wants fame and fortune.

Besides Hope Davis, who plays Irving's book contact, big guns on the publishing side include Stanley "I Work a Lot" Tucci as the top dog and Zeljko Ivanek -- a classic "That Guy" -- as the head of Life magazine. As the process goes on, they become rightfully suspicious, despite all of Gere and Molina's machinations. There's some good stuff there, from Molina flying to Mexico to send a letter to the publisher to Gere arranging for a "visit" from Hughes that falls through at the last minute. Dumb luck, that!

I didn't know a thing about this Irving-Hughes thing before "The Hoax" came out, and while some of the stuff on screen is far from accurate -- Irving apparently lived in the Mediterranean, not near New York City -- it was neat to know what I was seeing was loosely based on something that actually happened. That's wild, man.

And Gere pulls his weight, too. He's slick at first, then gets more desperate, dragging down multiple people as he comes unhinged. He comes close to going over the top a couple of times but is mostly spot-on. Say what you will about the guy ... he's done some decent work. Not sure this will push his Adventures in the Rodent Kingdom out of the first paragraph of his obit, but it's a step in the right direction.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

You really couldn't pick three more random movies

Seriously. Just wait. Not sure how I managed to see these particular "films" in close succession. Guess I'm just eclectic like a muthaf*cka.

Woof: "Year of the Dog."

I gotta stop listening to my wife. She said this movie got decent reviews. OK, maybe it did. Not her fault, I guess. But it still blew.

Molly Shannon of SNL fame is a woman who loves her little beagle and slowly goes off the rails when he dies. She tries replacing him with another dog, then getting together with both John C. Reilly and Peter Saaaaarrrrsssgaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrd, before going bonkers with the animal-lovin'. Let's just say you might want to hide the company checkbook and watch your step in her living room.

Shannon actually is decent, but her character and the whole chain of events are rather silly. This movie was first one directed by Mike White, who wrote "Nacho Libre," "The School of Rock" and "The Good Girl" after first winning notice with "Chuck and Buck," another tale of a whacked-out person (played by White) with a scary fixation. Good to see he's come full circle. And by good, I mean bad.

Or was it really John Cusack killing those guys?: "Ripley's Game"

I stumbled across this movie on IMDb a while back and was surprised to see a sort-of sequel to "The Talented Mr. Ripley." I actually thought the Matt Damon-impersonator-gay-murderer tale wasn't bad, and I was curious to see how John Malkovich played Ripley as an older fellow still knocking around Italy.

The answer: not bad. The Malkovich mannerisms are in full swing, and some of the more droll lines come off quite well in his deadpan delivery. In this story, our man Ripley -- peeved at a Brit (Dougray Scott) who slighted him at a party -- decides to manipulate the guy into commiting a murder. Alas, the situation gets out of control, and Ripley has to intervene, showing how much of a sociopath (with a heart of gold) he really is.

Kind of a weird story overall, and Scott's character was more than a little annoying. But Ray Winstone adds color as a past associate of Ripley's, and Lena Headey is cute as Scott's wife. Then there's Malkovich being Malkovich, which is rarely boring. All in all, a decent, lower-key companion piece to the more well-known Damon turn.

It would be another decade before Timmy finally found redemption with "Beautiful Girls": "Turk 182!"

Yes ... "Turk 182!" What's more disheartening -- that it was actually on TV, or that I watched it? Wait, don't answer that.

Hear me out. I remember when this movie came out thinking that the idea of a kid splashing graffiti all over New York was pretty cool. Of course, I was 12. I'd like to think I've matured since then. Sitting through "Turk 182!" last week gives me hope.

As you may recall, Robert Urich -- poor, poor Robert Urich -- is a NYC firefighter who rushes from a bar to a fire to rescue a kid, only to get hurt. Denied his health benefits by the city, Urich is mad. His little brother, played by Timothy "This Will Make You Forget I Won an Oscar" Hutton, is even madder -- enough so that he copies some anti-mayor graffiti and starts putting it everywhere.

Oh, it's all so crazy! Except not really. Aside from a subway train, a football stadium scoreboard and the coup de grace -- the Queensboro Bridge -- we see Turk's escapades only through news accounts. My, how the kid gets around! Of course he won't get caught! And never mind how he's making a living while goofing off!

As painful as it was listening to Hutton and Urich's over-the-top Noo Yawk accents, suffering through Peter "Frank Barone" Boyle playing the heavy and watching Robert Culp's half-note performance as the mayor, I maybe felt the most sorry for Darren McGavin. Two years removed from "A Christmas Story," McGavin is asked to drop into the story, be all folksy and -- ta-daaa -- solve the case. It really was quite agonizing, watching "The Old Man" slog through this crap. He should have got some kind of award. A major award!

(All together now ... "frah-jee-layyyyy" ... )

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Good thing they weren't waiting for a plane: "3:10 to Yuma" (x 2)

Otherwise, they would have been stuck in Contention for a couple of days.

Here's the story of how I came to see the two versions of this western back-to-back: After missing out on the remake with Russell Crowe when it was in theaters last year, I managed to TiVo the 1957 original a few months back. Then it was just a matter of waiting for the remake to come out of DVD. Once it was headed to my house, I could safely sit down for the original, knowing a comparison was forthcoming.

The story remains largely the same despite the 50-year gap: After a gang robs a stagecoach and kills someone, the head guy ends up captured in town. A posse sets out to take him to another town where the bad guy can be put on the train to Yuma and locked away in prison. Hard up for cash, a local rancher enlists for the job of escorting the prisoner, whose buddies hope to liberate him before that train shows up. Action! Excitement! Tumbleweeds!

To cover both versions, let's look at key roles and aspects, then render a verdict.

Our hero: Van Heflin in the original, Christian Bale in the remake. Heflin, whom I've seen in "Shane" and I'm not sure anything else, comes across as plenty noble, and does a good job showing how the bad guy gets under his skin at times. He also has a face kind of like a catcher's mitt, which makes him seem a decent guy. Bale isn't as pretty as in other movies, and is given an amputated leg, to boot. (Pa dum dum.) While he has more of a backstory here -- and no question the guy can act -- I found him a tad whiny and overly moody, maybe trying too hard.

His kid: No need to ID the actors. What you need to know is that the rancher's older son is given a lot more screen time the second time around. Unfortunately, the attempt to highlight the father-son dynamic and expand on the kid's idol worship of the bandit is too much. I also didn't like the kid playing such a key role a couple of times in saving his dad's bacon. Once, maybe. After that, you're just testing me.

The villain: Maybe the most interesting discussion here. Russell Crowe gets top billing in the newer version, and yeah, he makes a decent outlaw. I liked him way back in "The Quick and the Dead." He also gets more to do that his counterpart in the original, including plenty of hero moments. Those bothered me, but I didn't mind Crowe himself. That said, I really liked Glenn Ford as the original gang leader. First, I was surprised to see Glenn "Blackboard Jungle" Ford as a bad guy. I mean, he was Superman's foster dad! But he pulls it off with the right amount of mischief and devil-may-care attitude without laying it on too thick. In both movies, this character gets the best lines -- some of them unchanged 50 years later. Yeah ... I liked what Ford did with this, and I believed him more.

The mean sidekick: One good thing about the original is that there's some decent cold-blooded killing, often courtesy of the villain's main henchman. Richard Jaeckel in No. 1 is definitely the more subtle performance, which fits well with the overall tone. In the remake, Ben Foster is more psychotic, which is a mixed bag. The wild-eyed thing is fun for a while, and I did like him asking, "You all some kind of posse?" But he's really just a cartoon. I don't know ... maybe that's all this character needs to be.

The look: Not much contest here. The original offers some good wide shots and all, but it's black and white and -- I could be wrong -- is not generally hailed as one of the great-looking westerns. The remake may not go down in history as a visual stunner, but the West looks plenty authentic here, and good scenery in general.

The action: Similar difference to the above, but that's not all good. While the original has its deliberate moments, that makes the gunfights a little dramatic. The fate of the town drunk also was a little more chilling than I expected. There's a lot more bang-bang in the newer version, but that also gave a feel of stringing together a story in between the shoot-em-up parts. It doesn't help that the big blowout at the end is rather ridiculous.

The length: Here's the biggest problem. While the old version is a crisp 90 minutes, the new one clocks in at two hours. That 30 minutes is unnecessary, and I'm not sure if it's director James Mangold's fault -- I think he's merely OK and maybe a bit overrated -- or simply a product of Hollywood. Either way, the remake does drag at times, even with the extra firepower. And really, while Peter Fonda is fine and all, devoting so much time to a Pinkerton agent doesn't really add much to the original story.

The verdict: I'll take the first version, which zipped along just fine, with a nice balance of action and introspection. The leads were both a little more convincing and on-target than the big stars of today, and the story isn't sidetracked by a pesky kid, a Pinkerton agent or extra incidents meant to make us sympathize with the bad guy. Would have been interesting to see how a straight-up remake worked, but I'm guessing today's actors might have balked at losing screen time in favor of a quicker pace. Maybe Mangold can release a director's cut that's shorter than the theatrical version. Has that ever happened? There's a first time for everything, I guess.