Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Resident Evil: Afterlife

I finally got around to seeing “Resident Evil: Afterlife” the other day, but to be quite honest, it’s taken me a while to write about it because I kind of forgot about it. It wasn’t very good. Not that the other installments in the series were mind-blowing or anything, but this new chapter is the weakest, even though it is by far the most popular and most three-dimensional to date. The whole thing is pretty forgettable.

The movie starts with Alice (Mila Jovovich) wreaking havoc on the underground Tokyo headquarters of the Umbrella Corporation. This is the vengeance she promised at the end of the last film. To be more precise, it is a whole bunch of Alices in black spandex and swords hacking Japanese security guards to bits while director Paul W.S. Anderson throws things at your face. Again, at the end of the last movie she found a bunch of Alice clones to use as her own private army. There are explosions, gunfire, slo-mo, and all the usual bells and whistles.

The real Alice blows up Umbrella HQ, and we jump ahead six months. Alice is flying around in a little World War II era plane, looking for her friends, one of whom is named K-Mart (again, from the previous film) in Alaska. Supposedly there is a city called Arcadia where there is no zombie plague and everything is all hunky dory. When she arrives at the coordinates she finds the helicopter her friends took off in, but no sign of anyone. Actually, that’s not true, she does find Claire (Ali Larter), but she’s been given some drug that makes her forget everything. Disheartened, the two make their way down the west coast, looking for survivors.

In LA a handful of survivors holed up in a prison, surrounded by legions of the undead. Somehow Alice is able to land the plane on the roof. And I’m going to stop writing about this because I’m bored. The story is really generic and bland. They have to find a way to escape, and like any good zombie movie, the zombies aren’t the only monsters they have to worry about. Who saw that coming?

Like I said, I didn’t expect much, but I thought there would be some cool 3D at least. This is the type of movie that I usually enjoy the most in 3D, schlocky, fun horror where random things fly out of the screen for no apparent reason. And there are a couple of cool things, like when Alice sticks her shotgun through a curtain of falling water, but they are few and far between. Roughly half of the movie is in slow motion, which ruins things suddenly shooting at you. It’s just not the same when the axe flying out of the screen is moving really, really slow. You know in cartoons when Bugs Bunny is looking at his watch, tapping his foot, waiting for something to happen? It’s like that.

“Resident Evil: Afterlife” is like MacGruber in that as soon as I walked out of the theater it was completely gone from my consciousness. I felt no need to say anything about it or ever actually think about it again, and I feel like devoting any more of my time to writing about it would be an egregious waste. Hell, I might not even go back and proofread this, so I apologize for any typos and obvious grammatical errors.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Hawaii Five-0 (2010)

“Hawaii Five-0” was actually kind of good. Not like “Justified” good, but given the incredibly low expectations I had going in, the first episode was a pleasant surprise.

Len Wiseman, who is responsible for most of the “Underworld” movies, as well as “Live Free or Die Hard”, directed the pilot episode, and it definitely has that big-budget action movie feel. Creators Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman of “Fringe” fame, along with other creator Peter M. Lenkov (who wrote “Demolition Man”!) know what their audience wants, and don’t waste any time getting there. Within the first four minutes there are helicopters, terrorists, explosions, gun battles, torture, AND William Sadler. I was hooked before the credits even rolled. I’m simple folk.

Steve McGarrett (Alex O’Loughlin) is a military specialist who hunts down terrorists and other bad guys. When you meet him he’s just captured one (Norman Reedus), a major arms dealer. He gets a phone call from the bad guy’s brother, also a bad guy, who is holding McGarrett’s father (William Sadler) hostage. There is an ambush and Terrorist One winds up dead. Consequently Terrorist Two shoots William Sadler in the head. So much for my hopes that he would be a regular character.

McGarrett goes to Hawaii to bury his father, who was a decorated cop, and the governor of the state (Jean Smart) makes him an offer he can’t refuse. She will essentially give him carte blanche to head up a special task force to hunt down his father’s murderer and others of his ilk. She wants the terrorist scum out of her little island paradise.

Detective Danny “Dano” Williams (Scott Caan) just transferred to Hawaii from New Jersey. He hates the beach and sun, and likes cities with skyscrapers, but he moved to be close to his daughter. His ex-wife (when she calls Dano’s phone the ringtone is the music from “Psycho”) married some rich asshole. He’s the type of guy who always has to one-up the actual father. For example, the kid likes rabbits, so Dano buys her a giant stuffed rabbit, but before he can give it to her, step dad gives her a real bunny, which of course trumps any stuffed creature. It’s that kind of situation. If you’ve watched many movies you’re well aware of the type.

Dano is new to the island, an outsider with no hope of solving anything, and he is the one assigned to the McGarrett murder, a clear indication that someone is not interested in seeing this case cleared.

McGarrett and Dano reluctantly team up, and through their head butting banter develop a begrudging respect for each other. No matter what they think of the other on a personal level, they’re both good at their job. Joining them on their merry way is Chin Ho Kelly (Daniel Dae Kim), a disgraced ex-cop who was accused of taking bribes, though McGarrett’s father always had his back, and his cousin Kona (Grace Park, who spends most of her time on screen in a bikini or her underwear), a rookie, who is a feminized version of Kono from the original series.

There is a ton of action, some good back and forth, and even with all of the exposition and back-story necessary in a pilot, the dialogue never gets too out of control. O’Loughlin isn’t much of an actor, which will probably become an issue as the show progresses, but for now you can overlook that, and Caan, Park, and Kim are all solid. Caan is most likely going to run away with the spotlight. The chemistry between the main cadre of actors works well, and you can see how it will drive the story further down the line. And even if something is bothersome, you never have to wait long for another moment of action or eye candy. In this single episode there are multiple gunfights, both of the protagonists get pretty fucked up, and there is some quality hand-to-hand combat. Not to mention a few solid tough guy lines that I won’t ruin for you.

After a single episode the show has promise, and, for now at least, I’ll keep watching.

One thing that I appreciate is that the creators help onto the distinctive, original theme song. They kept it simple, cashing in some nostalgia points to be sure, but I appreciate that nod to the source material.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Town

Ben Affleck has made some questionable career choices. “Pearl Harbor” is the funniest movie ever made, though not intended to be; he completely destroyed “Daredevil”; and then came “Gigli” and “Jersey Girl”. The whole J-Lo thing is where public opinion really began to desert him. I’m sure they all sounded like good ideas at the time, but in retrospect I’ll bet he’d like a few of those back. But he was on “Voyage of the Mimi”. So even in the dark days I secretly rooted for him.

He’s got an Oscar for the “Good Will Hunting” script, but I’ll admit that when he moved to start directing movies I was surprised, and skeptical. As it turns out, he’s not bad at it. His new movie, “The Town” is a solid outing for a second film.

The cast is full of hot right now actors, including Jeremy Renner, who is everywhere, Jon Hamm, who is equally good on “Mad Men” and “30 Rock”, Blake Lively, and Rebecca Hall. And if you add Pete Postlethwaite to the mix, you’ve automatically got my attention. The performances are as good as you would expect given the caliber of talent involved.

The film looks great. It obviously owes a lot to movies like “Mystic River” and “The Departed”, but if you’re going to bite someone’s directorial style, Clint Eastwood and Martin Scorsese aren’t bad places to start.

“The Town” has a nice feel and atmosphere, and Affleck, who also adapted Chuck Hogan’s novel “Prince of Thieves” with Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard, makes full use of Boston as a setting. There are a lot of aerial shots of the labyrinthine streets, the twisting, claustrophobic avenues, and Fenway Park even gets some face time. Now don’t get me wrong, “The Town” is a good movie, I can’t say that it isn’t, but it isn’t anything special, it isn’t anything beyond just good. It is gritty and violent, and the building blocks for something awesome are there, but the story trips it up.

Apparently the Boston neighborhood Charlestown breeds bank robbers, it’s a family trade passed down from generation to generation. Doug MacRay (Affleck) is one of them. He tried to play professional hockey, but pissed all of his chances away on drugs and fighting. Now he and his crew, including childhood friend Gem (Renner), knock over armored cars for Fergie the Florist (Postlethwaite), a local gangster.

In the process of taking down a bank, they pick up Claire (Hall) as hostage. They release her, but take her ID in case she talks to the cops. Problems arise when they discover that Claire is from the neighborhood, so Doug decides to look in on her to make sure that she can’t identify them. She is traumatized by the ordeal, and, true to form, Doug falls for her, much to the chagrin of his boys. Adam Frawley (Hamm) is the FBI agent who is driven almost fanatically by his desire to take these guys down. It becomes a twisted world of lies, crime, and betrayal.

It isn’t a bad plot, but it is completely predictable. If you’ve seen the trailers and have even a vague idea of what it is about, they you’ll know what is going to happen. The story unfolds exactly as you expect.

“The Town” is disappointing because you know it could have been so much better. It could have been something you’d rave to your friends about. There is tension, drama, emotion, and action (there is a nice chase scene in the middle), and the frequent use of spooky masks. When Doug goes to Gem and says, “I need you to come with me, you can’t ever ask me why, and we’re going to hurt some people,” the moment is up there with the most badass things I’ve seen on screen in recent days. All the elements are in place, but it just never quite gets there. It is frustrating because it is so close to being incredible.

“The Town” could have soared alongside the best modern crime thrillers, but the story is too banal to distinguish it. Still, it is good, and definitely worth a watch, though I wouldn’t rush out to the theater to see it, but good—one syllable, flat, no inflection—is the best I can say about it. However, if this is a sign of things to come, Affleck is going to be responsible for some awesome movies before too long.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Spartacus: Blood and Sand

So much screaming and stabbing. That is the basic premise behind the first season of “Spartacus: Blood and Sand”. The parts that involve neither stabbing nor screaming are built around naked breasts, beheadings, eruptions of blood, and intrigue.

The R-Rated Starz series is a retelling of the tale of Spartacus, a gladiator who led a slave rebellion in ancient Rome. Aside from the actual war, little is known about Spartacus the man, a detail that works in the producers favor and allows them to play fast and loose with the facts. The result is a ridiculous, violent melodrama. Imagine if “Gladiator” somehow had a baby with “300”, and the child was raised in “Melrose Place”. From the very beginning the series is nonstop, limb severing, backstabbing mayhem.

Spartacus (Andy Whitfield) is a Thracian who loves the hell out of his wife, Sura (Erin Cummings). In order to get the Romans to help them kill their enemies, the Thracians agree to suit up and go a-warring with them. Claudius Glaber (Craig Parker), the leader of the Roman Troops, betrays them, and their village is left defenseless. Spartacus incites his countrymen to desert in order to save their families from rape and pillage. He saves his wife, but their reunion is cut short when Glaber apprehends him. Sura is sold into slavery, and Spartacus is sentenced to death in the arena of Capua. Instead of dying like he was supposed to, Spartacus hacks his would be executioners to bits in front of a ravenous crowd.

Batiatus (John Hannah) runs a Ludus, which is where gladiators are trained, that has fallen on hard times. Driven by greed and an unquenchable thirst for power, fed by his wife Lucretia (Lucy Lawless), he sees an opportunity to make some cash. He buys Spartacus to capitalize on his sudden popularity, and tries to turn him into a legitimate gladiator.

Spartacus wants nothing more than to reunite with his wife, but the only way for him to accomplish this is to fight and win. In his way are Crixus (Manu Bennett), the current champion, and Doctore (Peter Mensah), a slave and former gladiator who trains the men.

Sex and violence fuel “Spartacus”. It is stuffed full of ripped dudes, women willing to take their tops off, and cascading waves of blood. At one point it rains blood. Everyone has an ulterior motive, everyone is out for number one, and it turns into a tangled web. This is the bloodiest soap opera you’ll ever see. Everything is a matter of life, death, love, lust, and betrayal.

The whole show is shot on greenscreen, and instead of trying to make everything look realistic, the filmmakers use the enhanced backdrops to augment the already heightened melodrama. Sunsets are more than red, the Ludus clings to the side of a massive cliff overlooking Capua, and the zealous crowds are epic in scope. The fights are full of slow motion leaping, where the combatants float through the air with swords drawn and battle cries on their lips. When some poor fool’s head is lopped off, blood spews over the camera. Everything element of “Spartacus” is over the top.

Initially the absurdity can be overwhelming and make the show difficult to watch. You get it. You’ve seen “300”. They’ve seen “300”. And they liked “300” a lot. Over time it does get better, and there is an honest-to-god story between moments of sex and violence. But until then the fight scenes are plentiful, and though completely preposterous, are fun to watch.

Creator and head writer Steven S. DeKnight does a decent job making the characters more than just caricatures. It takes some time, but they do get there. Despite a singularity of purpose, Spartacus is more complex than that. Crixus may be a jackass, but he is also capable of tenderness. Doctore carries the mental wounds of his only defeat, and driven by a sense of honor and duty, he longs to return the once great Ludus to its former glory. Even Batiatus and Lucretia aren’t completely without redemption. Hannah tries to bring some dignity to the series, but you can tell that he gave up after a while. No show with this many boobs can be classy. There is an almost “Showgirls” level of nudity. And what the hell, you get to see a slave jerk off Lucy Lawless, so that’s something.

One high point is the episode “The Thing In The Pit”, where, desperate for money, Batiatus enters Spartacus in a series of underground fights. There are no rules, no honor, and no glory in victory, only survival and money. One combatant cuts off the faces of his victims, who he kills with a giant hammer, and wears them like masks. The climactic scene is also pretty incredible. By that point you don’t think there is anything else they can do, but then they go completely nuts and pull out all the stops.

“Spartacus: Blood and Sand” is ludicrous and vulgar. There are many slights against men’s genitals (the phrase “Jupiter’s cock” is a common profanity), lots of sex, tons of brutal fights, and multiple scenes of guys shaving every part of their body. At times it is almost unwatchable, but at others it is a great deal of fun. The more you watch, the more twisted the plot gets, and as a result it becomes more entertaining. Sex is imminent, treachery lurks around every corner, and a violent death awaits everyone.

The DVD comes in a slick package, and in addition to the thirteen episodes there is a glut of bonus material. A number of episodes have commentary tracks, and one nice thing is that it is not always the same people. It is a good mix of behind the scenes voices, like writers, producers, and directors, as well as a cross section of the cast. There are a lot of different dynamics and perspectives, which makes the tracks interesting.

Also included are nine featurettes. They range from three to fifteen minutes long, and cover everything from general behind the scenes stuff, to the “Gladiator Camp” that the primary actors attended in order to learn how to fight and get huge. There are looks at various aspects of the special effects, and another where the producers talk about how, while they wanted to tell a historical story, they didn’t let pesky little things like facts get in their way. One extra that is nothing more than all of the most violent moments edited together, condensed into a single, greatest hits collection of brutality.

Filming of the second season was delayed due to star Andy Whitfield’s battle with lymphoma.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Damage

I’m a sucker for movies starring professional wrestlers. I have been since Hulk Hogan popped up in “Rocky III”. “No Holds Barred” and “They Live” only solidified it a few years later. I don’t claim that they’re all good, but, especially in recent days, they tend to be of a genre that I enjoy, chiefly low budget action that is driven by one central badass. They’re throwbacks to the 80s when it was assumed that the toughest guy in the room was automatically the biggest. Guys like Stallone or Schwarzenegger would have played these parts back in the day.

Out of the current crop of wrestling superstars kicking ass and taking names, The Rock has had the most success, having transcended his squared circle notoriety and become a big-time action star. He even got most of us to refer to him by his actual name. That’s no small feat. John Cena has his moments in “The Marine”, but his acting chops are too negligible to be taken too seriously, and he’s too baby faced to be taken seriously as a real tough guy.

Stone Cold Steve Austin on the other hand. That dude is awesome. He just looks like he’ll beat your ass and enjoy it, which is a quality I look for in my action heroes—if he met me, would he slap me? He has a mean sounding voice, and an I-don’t-take-no-shit kind of attitude. In addition to being a hulking beast-man, Austin has one of those faces that lets him play good guys and bad guys with equal ease. He can play a smaller part and make them memorable, like in “The Expendables”, but he can also carry a movie, like with “The Stranger” or “The Condemned” (which I totally liked the first time I saw it, but on subsequent viewings I realized how awful it really is, with the exception of Austin). And his characters always have ridiculous names like Paine, Jake Cage, and Hugo Panzer.

In “Damage” Austin again proves that he can power an entire movie, and have a silly sounding tough guy name. John Brickner (Austin) served four years in a Washington prison for manslaughter, and now that he’s out he just wants to keep his head down and try to fix his life. He’s got a shitty construction job for an asshole boss who rips him off because he’s a ex-con, and one night, alone at a bar drinking a beer, he bounces some entitled rich guy turd (you can tell he’s an entitled rich guy turd just by looking at him) who is hassling sexy-lady waitress Frankie (Laura Vandervoort, who looks like some creepy mix of Christina Ricci and Charlize Theron). This leads to a second job, and also brings him to the attention of Reno (Walton Goggins), Frankie’s boyfriend, a small time con artist slash underground fight promoter.

Reno offers Brickner some fights, but he declines. He’s not looking to get rich; he just wants to stay right. This is hard to do, however, because Veronica (Lynda Boyd) tracks him down. She was the wife of the man Brickner killed, and also wrote the letter to the parole board that got him out. Her eight-year-old daughter needs a heart transplant, and they need $250,000 to get it. She helped spring Brickner so he could get the money for her, and the only way he can do that is to take Reno up on his offer and start fighting. That’s the twist, from the set up you assume “Damage” is going to be a revenge movie, but instead he’s fighting to save a little girl.

Austin is good as the guy who just wants to be left alone, but who has no choice. His motives are pure, but he’s still a badass who says awesome shit like, “What you know about me could fit in the crack of my ass,” and “Don’t let the door hit ya where the good lord split ya.” Killing a man changed him, it haunts him, and he assumes, will follow him for the rest of his life. I like my heroes strong, silent, and tormented by their pasts. Goggins, who I love more and more every time I see him, takes what could have been stereotypical part of the fast-talking bullshit artist who doesn’t know when to shut up and is in debt to some bad people, and makes it fun, and at the same time gives it a surprising emotional depth. He may be a bug-eyed weirdo, but the man can act his ass off. Vandervoort and Boyd are also both really good as the damaged waitress and the mother driven to the brink, respectively.

The performances are really what save “Damage” from being generic. It is a pretty standard plot, almost the same as “Blood and Bone”, and Jean-Claude Van Damme made this movie at least four times that I can think of (“Lionheart”, “The Quest”, “Bloodsport”, “Kickboxer”, “Street Fighter”, okay, I was wrong, he made this movie at least five times).

Bucking the recent trend of movies seeking to capitalize on the popularity of MMA, the fighters in “Damage” aren’t portrayed as highly skilled warriors, they’re barroom brawlers and street fighters, and the fights reflect that. They’re just two big dudes throwing down, and while I can appreciate that, the fights get a bit samey after awhile. But the fights all seem to have little themes. There is a “dog match”, where angry dogs are tied up around the fighters and serve as a de facto fence, and another where instead of a fence they have an octagon of cars. There is also the obligatory fight in the bottom of an empty swimming pool, which is my favorite.

“Damage” gets its name from the damage that each character carries. As the Deacon (Donnelly Rhodes), the elder statesman of underground fighting, says, everyone has debts. It can be cheesy, and is more than a little formulaic, but it is a solid tough guy action movie. It is worth watching Austin, Goggins, and Vandervoort interact. And Austin is a guy I welcome into the small, but gradually increasing cadre of current movie badasses. He has a lot of promise in that realm, and I think the sky is the limit.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Machete

I’m on a pretty good roll lately as far as movies being exactly what I want them to be. “The Expendables” was a solid attempt to recreate a 1980s style action flick driven by a big name, or many big names in this particular case. “Piranha 3D” was completely over the top fun, full of tens of thousands of gallons of fake blood, and equally fake naked breasts. Both did exactly what I wanted them to do, and I enjoyed them thoroughly. Robert Rodriguez’s “Machete” fits nicely alongside those two films.

Going into “Machete” you know what to expect, and you know you want to see. You want to see things like a giant, heavily tattooed, beast-man hack people up with a comically large machete. Rodriguez and co-director Ethan Maniquis do not disappoint on that front. Before the credits, Machete (perennial supporting player, general badass, and the most awesomely grizzled man ever, Danny Trejo) severs more heads than you can count, and lops off a hand holding a revolver, picks it up, fires it with the hand still gripping the gun, and discards it because he prefers the up close and personal feel of killing a man with a large knife. Then he runs around for a while with a naked woman over his shoulder and, you guessed it, a machete in his other hand. It is the perfect way to begin a movie.

“Machete” is an even better take on the drive-in/grindhouse style of than Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror”. When you first saw the fake “Machete” trailer you said to your buddies, “Man, wouldn’t it be rad if that was a real movie?”, but you secretly thought that there was no way a full-length feature could live up the condensed mayhem of the trailer. Well, I’m here to tell you that it can, does, and goes even farther than your warped little mind ever dreamed.

Machete is a Federale who is driven by honor and what is right rather than what the law and his corrupt bosses tell him to do. This leads him astray of drug kingpin Torrez, played by Steven Seagal, who, despite his ridiculous Mexican accent, is pretty great in this role. Torrez is in cahoots with Booth (Jeff Fahey) who is in cahoots with Senator John McLaughlin (Robert DeNiro, who is having a blast) who is in cahoots with Stillman (Detective Sonny Fucking Crockett himself, Don Johnson), a vigilante border guard.

Machete is betrayed by his government, his family is murdered, and he is left for dead. He makes his way across the border into Texas with help from the Network, a group headed by Michelle Rodriguez as a mysterious revolutionary figure, that helps people sneak into the US, and is run out of a taco truck. Rodriguez with an eye-patch and a big ass gun is one of the most absurdly hot things I’ve ever seen movies.

Machete is hired by Booth to assassinate the Senator, only to be betrayed yet again. He is set up and has to go underground in order to sate his thirst for vengeance. Jessica Alba shows up as a conflicted immigration officer, Cheech Marin is a priest/Machete’s brother, Tom Savini plays a hitman with a 1-800 hotline, and Lindsey Lohan is, well, a caricature of herself as a meth addicted party-girl porn-star.

“Machete” starts out at a dead run and doesn’t bother to slow down. There is a lot of story for a movie that never goes more than a few minutes between moments of absurd and brutal violence, like Machete swinging from a goon’s entrails, and the characters aren’t as flat as you might expect given the genre and tone.

Rodriguez has a keen eye for action. Even in his insanely low-budget “El Mariachi” his framing and camera moves add a stylistic flourish that is missing in a lot of modern action films. He likes to actually show the action, and even when scenes move at a frenetic pace they are clear and fluid instead of jumbled and confusing. It is a nice change from muddy fight scenes full of disorienting, rapid-fire editing.

At one point there is even a fleet of tricked out low-riders that bring to mind “Mad Max” style battlewagons with hydraulics.

My only knock on “Machete” is the CGI gore. Instead of using physical effects, which is weird since there’s a makeup guru like Tom Savini in the cast, they rely on digital gunshot wounds and machetes piercing through torsos. Unfortunately this is getting more and more prevalent these days, so I’m pretty sure it’s just something I’ll have to get used to.

Aside from that one complaint, “Machete” has everything I could possibly want—hot women, big guns, scary dudes, shootouts, knife fights, torture, and completely unnecessary explosions. It feels like exactly the type of movie that Rodriguez and company set out to make. I want to see it at a drive-in as part of a double feature with “Piranha 3D”.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Solitary Man


In movies there is often a certain romance associated with people who live every day like it may be their last, who live like there is no tomorrow. Film celebrates those people who just say fuck it, seize the day, and go after what they want with reckless abandon. The dark comedy “Solitary Man” ventures show the other side of that. It shows the loneliness, the broken relationships, the burned bridges, and the pain left behind.

Ben Kalmen (Michael Douglas) is a wildly successful, fast-talking car salesman who isn’t afraid to fight a college Frisbee golfer. During a routine checkup his doctor notices an irregularity in his EKG. Instead of letting the doctor run more tests, Ben walks out the door to live like he wants until his heart explodes in his chest.

Six and a half years later, Ben’s life is in the crapper. He’s divorced from his wife (Susan Sarandon) because of numerous infidelities, got busted for scamming auto manufacturers, barely has a relationship with his daughter (Jenna Fischer) and grandson, is dating a woman (Mary-Louise Parker) just because of her business connections, and he tries to bang every 19 year-old he stumbles across.

He’s a lecherous bastard who’s been able to coast along on his charm and charisma, but things take a sharp downward turn when he accompanies Allyson (Imogen Poots), his girlfriend’s daughter, on a visit to his alma mater in Boston. There he meets Cheston (Jesse Eisenberg), a geeky loner for Ben to mentor in the ways of love, and has a one-night stand with Allyson.

That’s critical mass. Right there is where the accumulation of all the horrible things he has done in is life finally begins to overshadow his magnetism, and people become unwilling to tolerate his bullshit. His girlfriend kicks him to the curb, his daughter won’t float him money for rent, his ex-wife makes if very clear that she has moved on, he has no reputation left to lean on, and his attempt to open a new dealership falls flat. Ben goes from a guy with his name on a college library to working in a sandwich shop for Danny DeVito and drunkenly hitting on co-eds at frat parties.

Douglas is terrific as an aging man whose life unravels because of the choices he made. His work is up there with his most memorable roles, like “Wall Street”, “Falling Down”, and “Wonder Boys”. He does awful things that take him to the brink of being unredeemable, but he manages to be personable and engaging the entire time. In other hands Ben might have been beyond rescue, but Douglas infuses him with a humanity that underlies, and eventually shine through the surface arrogance.

The rest of cast is great, as you would expect from the names involved. Poots stands her ground admirably in her scenes with Douglas, and once again Eisenberg shows that he’s like Michael Cera with range. Even the one-off, single scene characters are well cast. I guess when Michael Douglas is your star and Stephen Soderberg is one of your producers, people want to be in your movie.

“Solitary Man” is pretty good, but despite the level of talent and the quality of the performances involved, the story is too uneven and scattered for the film to take that next step up in quality. It’s fine for the early part of the movie, it can ride on Douglas’s shoulders, but after a while the lack of focus and narrative thrust catch up, and the movie starts to drag. In that way the story mimics Ben. It is engaging at first, and you find yourself drawn in, but eventually being slick and charming isn’t enough. If directors David Levien and Brian Koppelman (who wrote the script) had pared down some of the peripheral threads, it would have given the film a more even flow, the pace would have been better, and instead of being just pretty good, it could have been something really special.

The DVD comes with a run-of-the-mill behind-the-scenes feature where the cast and crew say nice things about each other without actually saying anything. The commentary track with Levien, Koppelman, and their buddy, Douglas McGrath, who has a line or two in the film, is fun. It is mostly the three of them shooting the shit, talking about their process, and exchanging anecdotes.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Salt

Wait a minute. The bad guys in “Salt” are Cold War era Russians? Really? I kind of like that. I kind of like that a lot. They’re throwback villains that take me back to the movies of my youth where the Russians were like the default setting for cinematic evildoers. It’s an interesting choice for an action film in 2010, but I’m behind it.

“Salt” has things that work for it, but it also has things working against it. I’ve always thought Angelina Jolie is passable as an action star. She’s not totally badass, but I don’t avoid an action movie just because she’s in it, and this is no exception. She plays Evelyn Salt, a CIA agent who specializes Russia. When a defector walks into the agency’s secret front and says a Soviet sleeper agent named Evelyn Salt will try to kill the Russian president, all hell breaks loose, and Salt is forced to run for it. Her nemesis, Agent Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and her partner, Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber), give chase.

One of the two biggest problems with “Salt” is that Kurt Wimmer’s script thinks it is way more intelligent than it is. The story tries to be part “Manchurian Candidate”, part “Mission: Impossible”, and part “James Bond”, and there are obvious elements lifted from all of those, and more. Then there are the endless, needless twists. She’s good, she’s bad, she’s a patriot, she’s a sleeper agent, you know, you don’t know, you stop caring. The attempts to be mysterious are obvious, and tedious, and after a while they feel like they’re lifted directly from a how-to-write-plot-twists manual. At it’s best, “Salt” is nothing more than a decent action movie, but it pretends to be something much more.

Add to that a clunky love story that is supposed to justify Salt’s ultimate decision, but doesn’t, and you start to get frustrated. The script makes the assumption that any love interest, no matter how underdeveloped, is enough to turn the tide of a lifetime of conditioning and preparation. It’s far too easy.

The second issue is one that a lot of modern action movies have. For an action movie, director Phillip Noyce shows a shockingly small amount of the action. There is an extended chase scene early on where the majority of the shots are close ups on Salt as she flees, juxtaposed with shots of Schreiber and Ejiofor as they pursue her. Instead of letting the action play out onscreen, most of it is blocked out by the confines of the frame, or completely cut up into dozens of little pieces. For instance, one time when Salt leaps to safety, a simple, single jump takes four edits. In reality it is nothing more than a series of flashes that tricks your mind into thinking it saw someone do something.

While I have a problem with being sheltered from witnessing action like this, there is still enough to “Salt” to make it worth a look. There is a sequence where she hops from the top of one moving truck to another, over and over again, like everyone’s favorite pixilated amphibian in an adrenaline-fueled game of “Frogger”. And there is a scene where, shackled, Salt wraps her chains around a dude’s neck, and throws herself over a railing to choke him. That’s pretty badass.

“Salt” may not be as smart as it wants to be, and there are some enormous problems with the script and the direction, but if you go in looking for an entertaining action flick, and not an elaborate psychological mind-fuck, then it is worth watching. It’s fast enough to propel you past some of the potholes, and it is an enjoyable movie, but nothing more than that.