Thursday, October 14, 2010

RED

Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) is retired. He lives on a quiet street in Ohio where all the houses look the same, and where all his neighbors say hello and make sure that their garbage cans line up perfectly with the curb. On the surface everything is idyllic, but in reality he is bored as hell. The only pleasure he gets in life are the regular phone calls to Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), who answers the phone at the pension office. Frank rips up his checks and pretends they didn’t arrive so he has an excuse to talk to her. Both are lonely individuals who rely on their truncated conversations to brighten up their respective days.

When a heavily armed hit squad busts into Frank’s home in the middle of the night, and he easily dispatches them, you start to wonder, what exactly did Frank Moses retire from? Turns out he was a CIA operative. And from the looks of things, he was pretty damn good at his job. His duties included assassinations, toppling governments, starting wars, ending wars, and all manner of shady black-ops. His file is a foot thick, and more is blacked out than visible.

Someone, somewhere has designated Frank “RED”, or “Retired Extremely Dangerous”, which is where the movie gets its name, and slated him for execution. Frank begins what amounts to a cross-country road trip where he picks up Sarah, and reassembles his old team that includes Joe (Morgan Freeman), Marvin (John Malkovich), and Victoria (Helen Mirren). Together they try to unravel the tangled web of lies and misinformation, and discover who exactly wants them dead and why, doing battle with Agent Cooper (Karl Urban) the entire time.

While the basic plot to “RED” is pretty standard espionage movie fare, with all the usual bells and whistles and plot twists, two things set it apart. The first is the humor. A dry, gallows humor runs throughout. The characters crack jokes and make light of their situation, but it is the sad comedy of people well aware that they’ll likely die horribly, and very soon. “RED” is funny, but with an air of tragedy at the same time.

What really drives the movie, what really makes it a lot of fun, isn’t the action. There is plenty of that, and it is good enough, but at the heart of the movie are the characters and their shared chemistry. Willis is perfect as Frank. This is the type of part that he is the best at, smart-ass tough guys with a good heart and a soft spot, the kind of guy who can take apart a team of trained assassins, crack a joke, and fall in love with a pretty girl all at the same time. Freeman is always good, and brings a wry smoothness to Joe. He may be 80, and have terminal cancer, but he’ll put a bullet in you with a smile on his face.

Watching Mirren, with her elevated civility and British charm, fire an enormous, belt-fed machine gun, is one of the true joys of “RED”. Malkovich steals every scene he’s in, and plays the severely paranoid Marvin, who isn’t really paranoid at all (they are after him), like a manic, sociopathic child. He lugs around a stuffed pink pig, pouts in the background when scolded, and takes a giddy, infantile pleasure in his violence.

You couldn’t imagine a better cast if you tried. From top to bottom everyone is top notch, even the supporting players. Parker is a bored, friendless woman swept up in the romantic adventure of it all; Urban is great as the conflicted company man; the perpetually phenomenal Brian Cox shows up as a Russian agent, who happens to be a hopeless romantic; Ernest Borgnine is a riot as the keeper of the CIA’s most secret secrets; and Richard Dreyfuss plays a scheming arms dealer.

Director Robert Schwentke doesn’t interfere much, and lets the ensemble do their thing, which is the right approach. At times “RED” is similar in feel to the “Oceans” movies, where the star power of the cast takes center stage, and the film is more about that rather than the actual plot. At other times it takes on the personality of a confrontational, high noon western.

“RED” is based on the Warren Ellis comic of the same name, and while the film retains a few of the key story elements, it has evolved into something entirely different. Ellis’ story a straight-ahead revenge tale where Frank kills everyone who knows of his existence in order to stay hidden and retired. It is dark and brutal. Sarah exists in the comic, but Joe, Marvin, and Victoria are nowhere to be found. However, Wildstorm did put out four single-issue, self-contained stories, one for each of the four main characters, that serve as prequels to the movie.

Writer’s Jon and Erich Hoeber definitely cartooned things up for the film, adding levity that isn’t there in the comic. Their approach works well, it is just different. You don’t need to be familiar with “RED” the comic to enjoy “RED” the movie. In fact, if they called it something different, and maybe changed Frank’s name, you probably wouldn’t even realize they originated in the same place.

“RED” isn’t a perfect movie, but it is pretty awesome, and thoroughly entertaining from start to finish. There are enough bullets to wage a small war, frantic hand-to-hand combat, and a ton of explosions. While those are all good enough reasons to see it, the real fun occurs between Frank, Sarah, Joe, Victoria, and Marvin, especially Marvin.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Wrong Turn at Tahoe

In his first movie, “P2”, Franck Khalfoun created a decently crafted, low-budget, direct-to-video thriller that caught some people’s attention, at least enough attention to land names like Cuba Gooding Jr., Harvey Keitel, and Miguel Ferrar for his second movie “Wrong Turn at Tahoe”. Okay, Miguel Ferrer may not be a huge catch, but he’s still rad.

Joshua (Gooding Jr.) collects outstanding debts for the mob, and tells you early on that all he has to live for is revenge. He is calm and level headed about his duties, while his partner Mickey (Johnny Messner) prefers to slap his victims around. Joshua, in his surface tranquility, winds up being the most intimidating of the two. He isn’t going to scream at you or rough you up, and he won’t enjoy fucking you up. This isn’t personal, this is business, this is his job. But that won’t stop him from burning the bottom of your feet with a hotplate.

Joshua works for Vincent (Ferrer), a middle-tier gangster. The two have been together for years. Vincent trusts Joshua implicitly, and Joshua in turn, is fiercely loyal to his boss. When word comes down that Frankie Tahoe (Noel G.), a local drug dealer, wants Vincent dead, they pay him a visit and take care of him that time tested way that gangsters have, by throwing him in a deep hole in the middle of nowhere.

You start to wonder about the accuracy of Joshua’s revenge statement when he talks to his kid, who lives in some undisclosed place, on the phone. Obviously he has motivations beyond simple revenge, though they are never fully explored, and he even tries to quit his job so he can be with his son, a move that doesn’t exactly work out.

Unfortunately for Joshua and Vincent, Frankie Tahoe wasn’t an independent operator. He worked for Nino (Keitel), who just happens to be the biggest damn crime kingpin around. Vincent tries to cut Joshua loose and deal with the situation on his own, but Joshua, ever devoted, insists on accompanying him on one last ride.

“Wrong Turn at Tahoe” is built on secrets and lies, like a good crime movie should be, and the real story is how the players deal with the consequences of these deceptions. A quiet tension hovers over the story and the characters, and is matched by the dark, grimy feel and style. The main characters are interesting and well drawn, and it is worth watching for the cryptic back and forth between Ferrer and Keitel, two different brands of badass, where they compare their situation and themselves to various aspects of “Jaws”. And a guy gets choked to death with an American flag, that’s a nice touch.

This is a well-acted movie, and the construction and camera movement are meticulous and interesting. The muted color palate of cold blues, sickly greens, and monochromatic grays may be standard for a crime movie these days, but everything about the film is put together very well. While that may be the case, there are issues that hold “Wrong Turn at Tahoe” back, all of which are connected to first-time writer Eddie Nickerson’s script.

Quirky characters are fine, personality ticks make can make someone interesting and set them apart, but everyone in Nickerson’s script has a cute little twitch to them. For example, it’s not enough that Jeff (Michael Sean Tighe) be a sketchy junkie who has been friends with Vincent since they were kids, he has to be convinced that aliens abducted him. Of course the wingnut believes in extraterrestrials. On top of being forced and omnipresent, the idiosyncrasies aren’t unique enough to make them remarkable at all. The alien thing is bland and groan inducing.

In a similar vein, the dialogue is too clever for its own good. If one or two, or hell, even all three central characters, talked like they talk, it would be fine. You spend enough time with all of them that each has their own manner of speech, their own cadence, and all of them are intelligent, so it makes sense that what they say is quick and cunning. The banter between the main guys even works in moments when it probably shouldn’t, like when Keitel and Ferrer are shooting at each other in the kitchen and talking about protein shakes.

But like the quirks, the script piles it on too thick, and everyone in the entire film is always on point, full of wit, sarcasm, and adroit turns of phrase. That means everyone from the thuggish guard at Frankie Tahoe’s club, to the quartet of thick-necked goons playing Scrabble, who only exist to be slaughtered, are full of razor-edged quips and jaunty repartee. After a while everyone sounds the same.

“Wrong Turn at Tahoe” is a decent enough movie, especially amidst the throngs of low-budget DTV crime flicks. It isn’t at the top of the heap, especially given the steadily increasing quality of films in the DTV market, but if his first two films are any indication, Khalfoun is going to make some very badass films in the near future.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Human Centipede (First Sequence)

As an actor, what do you say when your agent tells you that you’re up for a part, but that the part involves your face being attached to another actor’s ass for most of the movie? That probably doesn’t come up often, but it must have when writer/director Tom Six was casting his horror film “The Human Centipede (First Sequence)”.

“The Human Centipede (First Sequence)” is the “the most fucked up movie ever” of the moment. The movie has become so much of a pop culture phenomenon that it has its very own porno spoof. That’s a good way to judge if a film has truly hit the mainstream or not, that and if they spoof it at some MTV awards show.

The movie begins with a creepy guy in a trench coat and sunglasses shooting a trucker who is trying to drop a deuce in the woods. Then you meet two sorority girls who are clubbing their way across Europe. They’re obnoxious, vapid, and arrogantly American, the type of people who think speaking English loud and slow makes it understandable to people who don’t speak English. They’re the female equivalent of the bros from “Hostel”. Right away you want something awful to happen to them. You’ll feel bad about that later.

The set up is pretty standard horror movie fare. On their way to meet a cute German waiter, Lindsay (Ashley C. Williams) and Jennie (Ashlynn Yennie) get a flat tire on a lonely stretch of desolate road in the middle of rainstorm. Of course their cell phones don’t work, cell phones never work in horror movies. The propagation of mobile devices has indelibly altered the landscape of horror cinema. Now every film has to have a scene that explains why the characters don’t just get on their phones and call for help or tell someone where they are. These moments are now almost obligatory.

After wandering around in the woods for a while, Lindsay and Jennie have the horrible luck to knock on the door of Dr. Heiter (Dieter Laser, who looks like Christopher Walken’s emaciated cousin), a Nazi-esque mad scientist, who drugs them and straps them to hospital beds in his basement. Heiter also happens to be the creepy trench coat guy from earlier, and the trucker, who wanted nothing more than to crap in peace, is tied up next to them. Before long the trucker is killed and replaced with a Japanese man (Akihiro Kitamura).

Heiter made a reputation and fortune separating Siamese twins, but now he has different aspirations. His god complex has grown so out of control that now he dreams of creating a human centipede by sewing people together, mouth to ass. Though he claims to be a famous surgeon his surgery skills are somewhat suspect since every time they show him slicing human flesh it is obvious his cuts aren’t all that smooth.

Here is the main problem with “The Human Centipede”. It claims to be sick and perverse, it pretends to be psychologically horrifying, but in reality, it’s just a silly, middle of the road horror movie. Heiter is a cartoonish villain, much more ridiculous than frightening. Seriously, he’s got an overhead projector and gives a detailed presentation about how he’s going to stitch his victims together. There are a lot more laughs than you would think, but they’re not all intentional. If you have much experience with horror as a genre, you’re probably going to laugh every time Heiter pauses to flare his nostrils and glare, which happens every few minutes.

The movie isn’t even as twisted as it wants to be, which is saying something about a movie where the main plot point is a bunch of people who’ve had their lips stitched to another person’s rectum. There is little blood and gore, and Six does a decent job of implying things rather than overtly showing everything, which is what keeps this from being torture porn. The most disgusting thing in the movie is actually a close up of a steak.

The movie is the most tense and suspenseful when Lindsay is trying to escape, but that is a five-minute sequence in the middle of the movie, and it is over too quickly. This is where you start to feel sympathy for the heroines. Sure they may be intolerable and abrasive as people, but you can’t help but feel bad for them, kidnapped, tortured, and sewn together with a stranger.

Honestly, the movie feels over after about an hour. After that the centipede is complete, and most of what follows feels tacked on and forced, like the filmmakers weren’t sure what to do next.

For a few minutes, right near the end, “The Human Centipede” does verge on completely amazing. So much so that it almost makes up for having to wait through the mediocre film that precedes it. But before it can redeem the film, before it can make the movie awesome, they totally fuck it up. It is so awesome for just a moment then they waste it. The moment creeps right up to the precipice of being incredible, but then blows the opportunity with some nonsense that comes out of nowhere. Telling you what happens would give away too much, but they ruin what could have and should have been the best part of the movie.

In the end, “The Human Centipede” is decent, but it didn’t blow me away. The idea is cool, and there are moments where Six almost pulls it off, but it isn’t nearly as horrifying, grotesque, or shocking as people make it out to be. Though it isn’t horrible, it is also is far from great. It is just okay and doesn’t seem worthy of all of the buzz and hype.

The DVD comes with a deleted scene that is deleted because it is idiotic. It involves Heiter dancing around like a jackass as the Human Centipede cries behind him. If the scene had been in the finished film it would have sent the whole thing tumbling down into a pit of absurdity. The collection of behind the scenes footage is just that, a reel of out of context video from the set that doesn’t add much. Film of a Foley session is interesting if you’ve never seen that sort of thing, and some casting tapes are included.

The best bonus features are an interview and feature-length commentary with Six. He has an obvious affection for his film, and doesn’t take it too seriously. Nothing would have been more off-putting than had he sat there for 90-minutes talking about how great the movie is and how it is the sickest thing ever. Listening to him is both engaging and entertaining, and it makes me want to watch the sequel, which he promises will be so over the top even the most misshapen, jaded viewers will have trouble watching it. Supposedly there will be a twelve-person centipede.

A lot of hardcore horror fans are probably going to love this, while novices will find it stomach churning and repulsive. It is better than most recent American horror, but I still think it is just okay.


Sunday, October 3, 2010

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole

How come the most genuinely affecting, emotional movies I’ve seen this year have been animated kids movies? First it was “How To Train Your Dragon”, and now we’ve got Zack Snyder’s “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole”.

Snyder should stick to this genre. Before he was down with owls, “Dawn of the Dead” was by far his best movie, but it is nothing more than a decent spin on a classic that is exponentially better. “300” is overrated and annoying (at least in my humble opinion, I know there are a lot of fans out there). And “Watchmen” looks good, but is ultimately an empty adaptation of the comic.

With “Legends”, despite the generic title they came up with, Snyder crafts a story with moving characters, tension, drama, action, adventure, highs, lows, and a surprisingly dark tone. Even though it is intended for kids, the film has a predominantly sinister feel. There is danger and death all over the place. The villains are frightening, the threats are very real, and it reminded me of films like “The Dark Crystal”, in that there is the definite possibility that everything might not work out in the end.

Soren (Jim Sturgess) is a young owl. He lives in a tree with his parents, his brother Kludd (Ryan Kwanten), and his baby sister. His father, voiced by Hugo Weaving, tells the boys the epic tales about the Guardians of Ga’Hoole, a cadre of noble owls who protect the owl kingdom, and once defeated and banished an evil king who was trying to wreck up the joint.

Soren is a dreamer. He latches onto his father’s stories, accepts them as absolute truth, and longs to do something great and epic. Kludd is a more skeptical. You can tell right away he’s a dick. He’s one of those spoiled brats who thinks the whole world is against him and his life is so hard even though he has it easy.

The boys are too young to fly for real, but one night they sneak out to practice gliding from branch to branch, and because Kludd is a tool, they wind up plummeting to ground and almost get eaten by some sort of red-eyed, rat-monkey-badger creature. Because Soren is the noble one who believes in things like honor, he saves Kludd while Kludd leaves his brother in harms way. Told you he was a dick.

Before they get torn to shreds, two big owls swoop down out of nowhere and scoop them up. For minute you think everything is going to be okay, but things don’t work out like that in this movie, and it turns out that the young owls have just been kidnapped and are about to become slaves.

The kidnapping owls work for Metalbeak (Joel Edgerton), the evil king from the Guardian myths, and his mate Nyra (Helen Mirren). He is the leader of what amount to a gang of white-supremacist owls, and spouts Nazi-like rhetoric while wearing a creepy metal mask. One thing this movie teaches you about owls is how skilled they are at metallurgy. Hell, the group is called “The Pure Ones”. Before they can be brainwashed, Soren and his new friend Gylfie (Emily Barclay) learn to fly and are able to escape to search for the Guardians. Kludd, however, is seduced by the power offered by these racists, and chooses to stay and become the equivalent of a storm trooper, and I don’t mean that in the “Star Wars” sense.

On their journey Soren and Gylfie assemble an unlikely collection of fellow travelers, including a burrow owl, a snake, and warrior-poet owl with a lute. After an arduous flight, and an encounter with a psychedelic echidna, they finally locate the Guardians, and the ultimate confrontation is set in motion.

The story is full of intrigue, betrayal, and deceit, and the overwhelming point is that war is hell, no matter what you’re fighting for. When Soren meets his hero, the legendary Ezylryb (Geoffrey Rush), he discovers a broken down old owl covered in scars and disfigured by battle. You don’t fight, he says, because it is glamorous, you fight because it is right.

The animation is beautiful, and Snyder’s shtick, the excessive, painful slow motion that he is so fond of, actually serves to accentuate that. When Soren flies through a raging storm, the film slows down so you can see every single feather ruffle, and every single one of the swirling raindrops. There are obvious parallels with the look of “Avatar”, but “Legend of the Guardians” actually has a good story to support the incredible visuals.

There are two serious problems with the film, and the first is the biggest. “The Guardians of Ga’Hoole” is a series of children’s books by Kathryn Lasky. The film is based on the first three of those books, and the action is obviously very compressed to fit into 90 minutes. On one hand, this means that the plot is always going going going, which helps keep younger crowds engaged, but on the other hand, it means that there are a lot of things that are glossed over quickly.

Snyder gives you what you need to care about the main characters and keep you interested on a surface level, but there are moments where it would have been nice to have things developed, and where you can tell that, in the books, there is much more time spent. Because of this, the story never goes as deep as it could have, and, as is a trend with Snyder’s movies, it feels a little light in the end. That is a shame because there is a world of potential here. “Legends” is still really good, and still a movie you should see, but it could have been even better.

Most of the movie has this wonderful, epic score, full of orchestral instrumentation that completely fits the epic nature of the film. Then, right smack in the middle, is one of the worst songs ever written by some douche bag with a synthesizer who calls himself Owl City. It’s awful. Jesus fucking Christ, it’s the most vapid, watered down Death Cab For Cutie (which is already pretty watered down to begin with) knock off, and it clashes with everything else in the movie, which is well done and classy.