Monday, November 29, 2010

'Due Date' Review

You know what’s funny? Masturbating dogs. Masturbating dogs are funny. At least I think so, and so do the folks behind “Due Date”, the new comedy from director Todd Phillips. This is Phillips’ latest take on a road-trip comedy, something he already tackled ten years ago with the aptly titled “Road Trip”. “Due Date” is certainly the funnier of the two, though it falls far short of Phillips’ last film, “The Hangover”. That’s probably an unfair comparison, since they’re two very different movies. While the humor in “Due Date” is juvenile in nature, it is not nearly as raunchy or puerile as in “The Hangover”.

While “The Hangover” basks in it’s over the top ridiculousness, “Due Date” plays everything pretty straight. Robert Downey Jr. does what he does best, play an affluent, smarmy, asshole, this time named Peter Highman. Peter is an architect in Atlanta on business. His plan is to fly home, where his very pregnant wife (Michelle Monaghan) is about to give birth to their first child. That’s his plan, at least until an airport encounter with Ethan Tremblay, played by Zach Galifianakis, doing what he does best, playing the awkward, oblivious guy with zero social skills, though it’s more tolerable than usual this time around. Ethan is close to Galifianakis’ characters in everything else, but in “Due Date” he is more of a real person, rather than a cartoon, and actually carries some emotional weight instead of simply being an absurd buffoon.

Ethan is infuriatingly clueless, and through a series of mishaps, gets both he and Peter kicked off their plane and placed on the no-fly list. All of Peter’s belongings are still on the plane, including his wallet and ID, so, with no other options, he begrudgingly accepts a cross-country ride with Ethan, his French Bulldog, Sonny (the aforementioned masturbating dog), and the remains of Ethan’s father in a coffee can. As you can imagine, hilarity ensues as this incarnation of the “Odd Couple” makes their way across the country. Ethan gets Peter shot, arrested, and pummeled, among other things.

There are some really, really funny moments in “Due Date”, and Phillips and the writers do a solid job of balancing the laughs with weightier moments that make you actually care about these characters. Peter has anger management issues that manifest themselves in a variety of uniquely hilarious ways. He’s not afraid to punch an annoying child in the stomach, fight a guy in a wheelchair, or spit on a small dog. While most of the comedy is pretty original, you’ll see some things coming. Use your imagination, and you can figure out exactly what is going to happen with the ashes in the coffee can.

One of the great things about road trip movies is that you along the way you get to stop and have encounters with all sorts of interesting characters, and Phillips and company make full use of these possibilities, providing some fun cameos. Matt Walsh and Rza show up as TSA agents, Juliette Lewis is hippy-dippy medical marijuana distributor, Danny McBride is the wheelchair bound Iraq veteran, and Jamie Foxx plays an old friend of Peter, who may or may not be fucking his wife. These actors show up for a scene, have a good time, and disappear into the rearview mirror, leaving Peter and Ethan alone in the confines of their rented Subaru Impreza.

“Due Date” doesn’t blaze any new trails, and the story is definitely the weak spot. It’s “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” light. Downey Jr. and Galifianakis have a decent chemistry, but it could be developed further—the tender moments come too easily and without merit. While it is funnier than most movies, especially most of those in theaters right now, “Due Date” doesn’t have a lot of staying power. Sure, it’s already made a crap load of money, and it is worth seeing, but you’re not going to quote lines for the next six months like you were with “The Hangover”, and it isn’t something you’ll feel the need to watch over and over until you can recite it verbatim.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

'Faster' Review

While there are parts of “Faster” that are wonderful, there is so much unfulfilled potential that the film ultimately fails to deliver. The set up is so promising—a convict known only as Driver (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, again proving himself to be a competent movie badass) gets out of prison after ten years, accompanied by one of the best theme songs of all time, “Good-bye My Friend” by Guido and Maurizio De Angeles (the song is the main theme from “Street Law”, a 70s Italian crime starring Franco Nero). He picks up a sweet muscle car, a big gun with big bullets, and a list of names of people to kill. Immediately, he walks into a building and blasts a hole in the head of that ginger guy who played a Crip in “Colors” (Courtney Gaines). Billy Bob Thornton is the grizzled, beaten down, ten-days-from-retirement cop who, along with Carla Gugino, tries to track down and stop Driver.

Who doesn’t want to watch that movie? Sure it has a silly name, and sure, there are some tough guy lines, like “God can’t save you from me”, that will illicit a theater wide chuckle, but if director George Tillman Jr., and screenwriters Joe and Tony Gayton, had stuck with this main set up, “Faster” would have been one of the best action movies in recent memory. Think “Death Wish” got drunk and had a baby with “Vanishing Point”—revenge and fast cars. It wouldn’t have broken any new ground, but it would have been exactly what you want a throwback action/revenge movie to be.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen. Instead of staying with the core of the film, The Rock scowling and unleashing an angry stream of white hot vengeance, there are a number poorly executed subplots. Apparently being a corrupt, junkie cop isn’t enough, as Billy Bob also has an estranged ex-wife (Moon Bloodgood), an ex-junkie herself, that he is trying to reconcile with, and a chubby son who sucks at baseball (this dynamic is an awkward recreation of his role in “Bad Santa”). And that’s not all. If that was it, you could deal with it, and “Faster” would still rule. But it doesn’t stop there. There’s also the story of a neurotic killer (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), known only as Killer, and his girlfriend (Maggie Grace). Killer is an adrenalin junkie who kills for the thrill not the money, and brags about things like “conquering” yoga. Some shadowy mystery voice on the other end of the phone hires him to stop Driver.

These asides completely derail the momentum of the film. When “Faster” remains with The Rock, it is a magnificent mix of gunplay, car chases, and a nice ice-pick fight in a stripclub bathroom. You get a few glimpses into Driver’s past, moments that could have added some emotional weight to his actions and his quest for revenge, but instead time is squandered on listening to Killer talk to his therapist on his Blue Tooth, or Billy Bob telling his son that he sucks at baseball, too. You think the filmmakers are setting these three men on a collision course, but that, also, fails to deliver, and the entire movie unravels at the end.

The people involved with “Faster” are obviously fans of the genre, and set out to create a badass homage to 70s revenge and action films, but there is too much wasted time wasted on unnecessary subplots that just don’t fit or add anything to the movie. The frustrating thing is that this movie is so close to being incredible in many ways, though ultimately there are too many misspent opportunities for “Faster” to achieve it’s full potential.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

'The Disappearance of Alice Creed' Review

The plot of “The Disappearance of Alice Creed” is simple. Two ex-cons, Vic (Eddie Marsan) and Danny (Martin Compston), kidnap a young woman named Alice Creed (Gemma Arterton), the estranged daughter of a wealthy man. They hold her in a nondescript apartment that they soundproofed and set up to serve as a makeshift prison cell while they wait for their ransom. They have an airtight plan, and are meticulous down to every last detail, even devising a set of hand signals so Alice can tell them when her bladder is full.

Everything about the film screams minimalism. There are only three actors in the film, and only a small handful of sets. Most of the action takes place in a single, sparsely furnished room. Hell, for the first ten minutes of the movie there is only one word of dialogue, and that word is “okay.” This bare bones approach benefits the film. It forces the weight to rest on the actors, which in this case is a good thing. All of these characters could easily have descended into cliché, but excellent performances, coupled with writer/director J Blakeson’s deft approach, save you from something you’ve already seen. Marsan’s Vic, a seasoned, detail oriented alpha male criminal, meshes well with Compston’s Danny, young and handsome, who is seemingly overwhelmed by their situation, but in reality is playing an angle. Arterton does a nice turn in a part that could have easily been nothing more than a crying, damsel in distress, and she displays an expansive range, appropriate to her dire, confusing, situation.

Like with any good crime story, there is so much more going on than just the surface kidnapping. There are twisted, behind the scenes histories between the three characters, which Blakeson carefully doles out. Everyone has an ulterior motive, and everyone has something extra that they are trying to weasel out of the situation. Escalating tensions and heightened emotions breed conflict and discord, which ultimately drive the plot forward.

There are two large twists in “The Disappearance of Alice Creed”, two places where the story takes drastic turns. The first one works well. It happens organically and is believable. Blakeson is careful not to simply dump an “aha” moment on you and leave it at that. When he reveals the wrinkle he spends time to fully justify it, both to viewers and the characters. He convinces you, and wins you over. Now the second twist, that’s a different story. Unnecessary and awkward, it doesn’t work at all, feels contrived, and will likely leave you yelling, “oh, come on”, at the screen. They should have just let the story play out as it was.

The good thing is that, as the film builds towards the climax, if you can just accept it and move on, the second twist will fade into the background and become part of landscape. It is all too rare for a film that postures as a suspenseful thriller to actually be either of those things, but again, Blakeson delivers. Watching the characters thrash around in the twisted mess they’ve created for themselves, you actually wonder how everything is going to work out. Who is lying to whom? Who knows the other one is lying? Who’s plotting something of their own? What are they going to do? What are these individuals actually capable of?

“The Disappearance of Alice Creed” isn’t a perfect movie, there are some obvious problems and things that don’t work, and it is over plotted, but for the most part, Blakeson does a lot with a little. The performances are good, and despite the limited settings, the movie never feels stale or stagnant. He squeezes every last drop out of everything he has, and the end result is an entertaining, suspenseful, thriller.

The DVD comes with a nice collection of bonus material, and includes a reel of outtakes, the theatrical trailer, and a comparison between the storyboards and a finished scene. There is a deleted scene, with optional director commentary, an extended scene, with optional director commentary, and a feature length commentary track. The commentary with the deleted and extended scenes is actually interesting. Not only does Blakeson go into why the scenes were cut, but he also talks about his choices he made visually, about how the camera work changes along with the scene as it builds and intensifies.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

'Hunt to Kill' Review

Director Keoni Waxman has carved out quite a niche for himself in the direct-to-video action movie market, working with such genre luminaries as Steven Seagal and Dolph Lundgren. He’s not trying to make great art, he’s trying to make entertaining action films that kick a little ass. His latest, “Hunt to Kill”, is almost there.

This time around, Waxman teams up with former professional wrestler turned movie tough guy, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. Austin is great at one thing, being hard and scary. In movies like “The Expendables” and “Damage” he pulls off a pretty awesome, believable, badass. He has the size and the don’t-fuck-with-me scowl, and though he’s not a slick, highly trained fighter, his I’m-bigger-stronger-and-badder-than-you style harkens back to a time when an action hero could get away with being just a brawler. That’s what Austin’s good at. What he still needs to work on is the whole acting thing. His icy glare and gravel-throated fuck-you’s can only carry a film so far. If used correctly it can work, or in a supporting role he can be a nice fit, but when asked to carry the emotional weight of a movie, even a movie like “Hunt to Kill” that’s a little light in that department, he leaves something to be desired.

Austin plays Jim Rhodes, a Texas border patrol agent. When his partner (Eric Roberts) is killed during a meth lab explosion, Rhodes and his daughter Kim (Marie Avgeropoulos) move to Montana. At the same time this is happening, a group of criminals, led by Banks (Gil Bellows) robs a casino in Reno. One of their group, Lawson (Michael Hogan, “Battlestar Galactica”), double crosses them, tries to blow up their hideout, and steals the untraceable bonds that they just stole. What a dick. But it doesn’t work. The bomb doesn’t go off, and he makes a run for the Canadian border with Banks and company hot on his heels.

Now, Rhodes and Kim have a troubled relationship. She hates the woods and her redneck father, and acts out by shoplifting in town. Rhodes goes to pick her up at the sheriff’s office after she gets arrested, but guess who is already there, looking for someone to guide them into the woods? That’s right, Banks. They kill the sheriff, kidnap Kim, and force Rhodes to guide them into the woods after Lawson.

“Hunt to Kill” is a little bit “Cliffhanger”, and a little bit “Commando”. Frank Hannah’s (who wrote “Damage”) script tries to make Austin into Schwarzenegger by giving him quippy little one-liners akin to Arnold’s “Stick around” from “Predator”. Most of these don’t work, but when Rhodes says, “Catch”, then shoots a guy with an arrow, it is pretty damn funny. The plot is flimsy at best, and a lot of awkward, illogical things happen. For instance, soaking wet, in the middle of the woods, dehydrated, hungry, and freezing, Crab (Adrian Holmes of “Supervolcano” and “Stonehenge Apocalypse” fame), one of the bad guys, knocks a member of his own team then tries to rape Kim while everyone else is like ten feet away.

Much like the characters, the movie stumbles around in the woods for a while. Austin is out of his element trying to play the concerned father, Bellows’ performance is overwrought to the point of being laughable, and the rest of the acting is questionable at best. Former kickboxer Gary Daniels is another one of the villains, and the third “Expendables” alum in the film. He and Austin have a good brawl in the middle, but overall it takes some intestinal fortitude to get through.

That said, while it may take a while to get there, and take a few questionable turns along the way, the last third of the film is fully worth waiting for. Once Austin has a crossbow, and goes through a sweet, “Predator”-like preparing-for-battle-in-the-woods montage, things move quickly in the right direction. By the time he starts in on the proper level or vengeance, you’ve thankfully forgotten the first two-thirds of “Hunt to Kill”. Everything you want is here, homemade spears, an abandoned warehouse final showdown, an axe/shovel fight, falling down a comically long flight of stairs, and many other gems. Over the course of the film Austin is shot, stabbed, beaten, thrown off a cliff, almost drowned, almost blown up, kicked in the nards, and generally abused in every conceivable way, like a true action movie badass should be.

One question I have that is only sort of related: Is there really such a thing as untraceable bonds? They pop up fairly often in movies as something to steal, “Die Hard” is a prime example, and it seems like a bad idea to make something with that much value that can’t be tracked. So, if you lose them you’re just screwed? If you can’t trace them or link them to anything, how do you gain access to the money they represent after you’ve stolen them? Does part of high-level-thief-training cover that? This is an important question to ask, something I’ve always wondered throughout my movie viewing life.

The “Hunt to Kill” DVD comes with a making of feature that is notable chiefly because Gil Bellows seems like he’s high during his interview. He’s smiley and mellow and talks kind of slow, and he hugs two other cast members at one point. It’s amusing. The commentary track with Waxman and actor Michael Eklund is pretty decent, better than most. They definitely have a good time talking about the film, which makes it engaging to watch and listen to.