Friday, January 28, 2011

'The Mechanic' Movie Review

Just to get this out of the way up front, Simon West’s (yes, the guy responsible for “Con Air”, which I love dearly, but will never claim is a good movie) “The Mechanic”, starring Jason Statham and Ben Foster, is a remake of Michael Winner’s 1972 film, starring Charles Bronson and Jan-Michael Vincent. I love the original (I have a dog named Bronson for Christ’s sake), and have been wildly skeptical of the new jack revamp of a film that I hold near and dear. The trailers and images that were released made “The Mechanic 2011” look suspiciously like a run-of-the-mill action film, and the fact that CBS Films tucked the release in at the tail end of the January dead zone did not bode well. Needless to say, my worry increased steadily as the release date approached.

Now that that I’ve written that disclaimer, I have to say that I actually rather enjoyed “The Mechanic 2011”. It is far from perfect, and there are a few moments that might make one cringe, but overall, it stays close to the story of the original (there are a few glaring changes, but I’m going to try to stay away from spoilers as much as I can), and remains true to the tough guy, badass nature of the source material.

Statham plays Arthur Bishop, a “mechanic”, which, much like the term “cleaner” in “Leon”, is code for assassin. He is the best at what he does, meticulous, thorough, clean, and efficient. Most of his jobs look like accidental deaths, and no one ever knows he was there. He’s also isolated and lonely, living a reclusive life listening to LPs in his bayou estate. In the days of the original, Bishop was a unique character, and the lonesome hitman had yet to become an overused type. The only connections, you can’t call them friends, Bishop has in this world are his mentor Harry (Donald Sutherland), and a prostitute (Mini Anden) he frequents. She’s one of the only women in “The Mechanic” (the other is a woman Ben Foster’s character bangs in a back alley, it’s obvious who the target audience is here), and doesn’t even believe that Bishop’s real name is Arthur.

When Bishop is commissioned to hit Harry, he’s conflicted, but ultimately completes the assignment with a professional touch, making it look like a random New Orleans car jacking gone bad. Harry’s estranged son Steve (Foster) shows up to deal the death of his father. He has a vicious streak, and an unfocused hankering for vengeance, and ultimately Bishop takes the troubled youngster under his wing, teaching him the ways of his trade. The two are a contrast in styles. Bishop is all subtly and quiet precision, whereas Steve is brash and hot headed, prone to being contrary simply for the sake of being difficult, but the two form a bond, and start working together after a sweet training montage full of gunfire and exploding cinderblocks.

Statham really only does one thing, but he does that one thing well, and I generally like this one thing that he does. He’s one of the few actors making this type of film and not being relegated to the direct to video market (not that that’s a bad thing, DTV is where some of the best action films are being made). This isn’t the wild, fast-paced, FX heavy action of filmmakers like Michael Bay, “The Mechanic” is a throwback to earlier films, films like the original, driven by tough as leather characters being tough, and Statham is a nice fit for the lead. Sure he’s balding and has a funny accent, but he’s also a decent badass, and finds a perfect balance with Foster, who brings some nice things to the table as well. Steve has a smartass, gallows humor to him, but even though he breaks up the serious atmosphere with a few laughs for punctuation, you can also see the emotional undercurrent in his character. He puts up a tough front about the death of his father, but you know that the barrier is a defense mechanism and that he has no idea how to cope except through eruptions of violence.

Speaking of violence, “The Mechanic” is certainly doesn’t shy away from brutality. There are a couple of moments that border on being hard to watch, like when Steve goes fishing for carjackers, hoping to catch the one who murdered his father.

One thing I’ll say about the end, don’t worry, it doesn’t give much away, is that there are a bunch of unnecessary explosions. It’s like they got close to the end of the shoot, looked around, realized they were under budget, and decided, what the hell, let’s blow some shit up, and then they did.

“The Mechanic” doesn’t break any new ground, and it isn’t perfect, there are a couple moments that skew towards being James Bond-ish (though thankfully they pull back from that quickly), but it delivers almost everything I want out of a movie like this. When I think of the original, the first word that springs to mind is badass, and as far as I’m concerned, West, Statham, Foster, and crew did a pretty good job capturing that in their remake, staying true to the roots of the story. I walked out of the theater pretty satisfied. And other fans of this genre of tough guy action will notice multiple references to “Die Hard”, as well as a tip of the cap to “Rolling Thunder”, so it has that going for it.

One final thing, when are movie villains going to learn that when you kill the hero’s hobo friend, especially if that hero is a professional killer, it’s only going to piss him off? I’ve never killed anyone, and even I know that.

'The Rite' Movie Review

Here is the biggest problem with “The Rite”. It’s about exorcisms, and every exorcism movie from now until the end of time is going to be measured against “The Exorcist”, an unfair comparison because as you all know, “The Exorcist” is the scariest movie of all time (at least in this hack’s humble opinion, and I am right and you are wrong, unless you agree with me, then you’re right, too). That said, Mikael Håfström’s new horror film handles itself pretty well, for most of the movie at least.

“The Rite” is the story of Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue), a reluctant seminary student. In his family, ruled by patriarch Rutger Hauer, you’re either a mortician or a priest, so Michael goes through four years of priest boot camp, only to pull out in the final moments before becoming an actual priest. You’d think before going through all that training, hesitantly or otherwise, you’d have definite answers to a few key questions, like, “do I believe in God?” But that’s now how Michael rolls, he’s just sick of sewing corpse’s mouths shut, and painting dead women’s fingernails in the basement of his family home, and this is his only other option. After a freak accident, where Michael is compelled to give last rights to a dying girl, one of his professor priests basically blackmails Michael, or at least strong arms him, into taking a crash course on exorcism in Rome. The Catholic Church has decided to combat rising reports of demonic possession by placing a certified exorcist in each diesis, hence the creation of an exorcism school.

Michael is a skeptic who believes more in science and psychology than claims of possession, and he gives voice to his doubts. His antics earn him scowling looks from nuns and reprimands from his teachers, though along the way he does befriend Angeline (Alice Braga), a journalist who is taking the class just to see what all the hubbub is about. Eventually Michael is such a pest that Father Xavier (Cirián Hinds), the head of the program, sends him off to see Father Lucas (Anthony Hopkins), an exorcism rock star. Lucas has unconventional methods, but he gets results. Over the years he’s officiated more than 2000 “soul liberations”, most successful, but the real question is at what cost does he achieve his end? And is it worth it? While Lucas treats a pregnant 16-year old (Marta Gastini) who pukes up crucifixion nails and speaks in tongues, Michael watches, projecting his lack of faith onto the proceedings, trying to figure out if he’s being conned or not. This portion of the film calls to mind buddy cop movies where the rookie rides along with the seasoned vet, trying to figure out the game. Is Lucas an authentic warrior in the battle against the devil, or is he a cheap shyster who has a very literal bag of tricks (a bag that is occasionally full of frogs)?

Hopkins gives a great performance as Lucas, for most of the movie. He is by turns deeply faithful and profoundly heretical, grimly serious and wryly funny, and he’s not above answering his cell phone mid-exorcism. Near the end, however, he goes off the deep end. O’Donoghue is passable as Michael. The cynical, almost cocky, guise he wears fits his disbelief, and when he begins to come around, realizing the true nature of the forces he may or may not be dealing with, his demeanor changes to one on of the frightened young man that he is. Braga’s character is completely unnecessary. “The Rite” is based on a book by Rome-based journalist Matt Baglio, who, like Angeline, actually went through an exorcism course, but the only real purpose she serves in the story, aside from adding a pretty female presence, is to give Michael an exorcism appropriate version of the “big game” speech so he can get pumped up to go exorcise, woo! Other than that, she serves no real function in the film.

Through the first two-thirds, maybe even three-fourths of the movie, “The Rite” is solid. It’s not great or original, you’ve seen the young girl possessed by the devil many times on film, but it’s at least decent. There are some jumpy moments, the atmosphere is tense and spooky, and the look and sound design of the film help create an overall feeling of dread. Religious imagery abounds, which you well know always amplifies the creepiness factor, and Håfström uses the streets and architecture (and McDonald’s product placement) of Rome to great effect. Add to that a story where you, like Michael, aren’t sure if you should believe or remain skeptical, and what you have in front of you seems to be a worthwhile religious horror movie. You’re trucking along, watching “The Rite”, and enjoying it well enough, but then, as you’ve probably gathered at this point, things start to go wrong, horribly wrong, and they keep going wrong, and by the end things have gone completely off the rails. Though you do get to see Anthony Hopkins backhand a small child, which is something, the film simply loses it, becoming a silly cliché, with Hopkins chewing up scenery like a mule, and an ending that is nothing short of maddening.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

'Stone' Movie Review

With a cast that includes names like Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, and Milla Jovovich, it would be natural for you to expect a certain level of quality from a film (okay, maybe Milla Jovovich doesn’t automatically equal lofty expectations). But “Stone”, in which these three actors form the core, underperforms at every turn. It’s a little bit like watching the Seattle Mariners this past season. On paper they looked poised to make cause a ruckus and challenge for their division crown, but during the year every player on the roster had career lows, seeming statistical anomalies. “Stone” has pretentions towards being a film of great import, but watching it, you understand why it was never in more than 125 theaters at a single time. It simply isn’t very good.

You find out what kind of guy Jack Mabry (De Niro) is in the first scene, when his wife Madylyn (Frances Conroy) tries to leave their loveless marriage, and he hangs their young daughter out a second story window, threatening to drop the girl unless Madylyn stays. Thus he blackmails his wife into decade after decade of dead, stifling existence, where all she can do is drink, chain smoke, and play poker with the girls. That first scene colors the entire film. De Niro does the same thing it seems he always does these days, he stares intensely and doesn’t say much, and that’s supposed to be enough. You can never root for him because you are all too well aware what a huge pile of crap he is. Supposedly he has inner demons, but all he does is drink, buying two bottles of whisky at a time, and watch the golf channel, and no other aspects of his psyche are ever explored. When he cheats on his wife, you’re not surprised, but you don’t actually care either.

Norton is Gerald “Stone” Creeson, an arsonist who is up for parole. He has cornrows that somehow make him look like a basketball player, and he talks with an exaggerated, faux I’m-from-the-street accent that is amusing at first, but grating after the initial few minutes. He rambles on and on incessantly, and you don’t blame Jack, who happens to be Stone’s parole officer, for getting irritated with him. Stone also has a wife Lucetta (Jovovich), who is deeply devoted to him, though she’s banging a dude with a ponytail, and even willing to seduce Jack.

“Stone” tries to be a tense psychological thriller, where two men play a cat and mouse game with each other, toying with the other’s mind while you wonder who is really pulling one over on whom. Stone is supposed to be a devious puppet master, but he has what appears to be a nervous breakdown/religious epiphany in the middle of the film while watching a guy get shanked to death in front of him (at the same time Jack and Lucetta are having sex, in a scene that is constructed, on a surface level, like one of Martin Sheen’s dark moments in “Apocalypse Now”), and seems to lose interest in his own story. All the while it’s pounded into you that Jack and Stone are really a lot more alike than either of them think. They both have desires, regrets, poor decision making skills, and want to jump Milla Jovovich’s bones. However, the reality of “Stone” is that it’s an uneven mess, full of scrambled religious messages, and an awkward running theme of symbolic “sounds”.

The four main characters—Jack, Stone, Lucetta, and Madylyn—are interesting, at least where they are when the story begins, but director John Curran doesn’t utilize them. Instead of building towards a climax, the film falls into a middling holding pattern and hangs out there for most of the film. The tension never increases beyond a certain point, the psychological warfare never intensifies, the crazy femme fatale isn’t all that crazy, she’s a wing-nut for sure, but never feels dangerous. “Stone” is a movie that is defined more by what it doesn’t do rather than by what it does. It putters around in the middle of the road, and at the end, all you can do is shrug and move on.

“Stone” hits DVD today, if you’re interested, and the only extra feature is a six-minute making of documentary.

Friday, January 14, 2011

'The Green Hornet' Movie Review

Going into the new adaptation of the 1960s TV show “The Green Hornet”, you’re likely to wonder, was it really necessary to make this movie in 3D? The answer is, no, not really. Director Michel Gondry has some fun with it, mostly during Kato’s (Jay Chou) fight scenes. Aside from that, however, the 3D presentation adds little to movie beyond the awkwardness of trying to make a cumbersome pair of 3D glasses sit comfortably on your face. Gondry’s inventive visual style is on display throughout the film—most notably in a great shot that splits and follows two characters, then splits again, and again and again, until a single shot has branched out exponentially—but never in a way that justifies the post-production 3D conversion. “The Green Hornet” is not a movie that is enhanced by 3D.

That pesky rant out of the way, “The Green Hornet” is better than expected. It isn’t mind blowing, and it certainly could have been better, but overall, it’s a fun, entertaining take on a superhero movie. Having said that, if you’re not a fan of Seth Rogan, and a lot of you aren’t, you might want to skip this movie. Rogan’s fingerprints are even more prominent that Gondry’s, and it is more Rogan’s (and his writing partner Evan Goldberg) film than anyone else’s.

Rogan plays Britt Reid, a spoiled rich kid who’s never done anything more worthwhile than throw kickass parties in his entire life. When his stern, newspaper publisher father (Tom Wilkinson) dies, Britt is forced to make some grown up decisions. An encounter with his father’s mechanic/barista Kato (Chou), leads to them becoming superheroes, though superheroes masquerading as villains in order to infiltrate the criminal underworld, which is controlled exclusively by Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz). Thus, The Green Hornet is born. Mostly the masked crime fighters drive around in a sweet bulletproof car with lots of guns and rockets and a flamethrower, trying to figure out what the hell they’re doing.

“The Green Hornet” is best in the scenes between Rogan and Chou. The two have a chemistry that fuels a natural back and forth, which turns to chippy bickering as the pressure of secret identities and vigilantism creates a rift in their friendship. It’s good that these interactions work, because that’s where the majority of the film is spent. Again, this is very much in line with everything that Seth Rogan is identified with, so if you’re not a fan. . . But if you can get past that and stomach Rogan for a while it’s worth it since almost all of his scenes are with Kato, and Chou’s Kato is the best character in the entire movie. Kato is a welcome surprise, with a understated smart-ass aspect to his personality that could almost be mistaken for innocence or naïveté if not for the mischievous glint in his eye.

The other place where “The Green Hornet” succeeds pretty well is in the in the action. In the TV show Bruce Lee, who is of course the greatest on screen martial artist of all time, played Kato. Those are big shoes to fill, and while he is no Bruce Lee, Chou is a passable badass. Once you get into the heart of the film, after all the building blocks are in place and the exposition is taken care of, which happens with merciful quickness, there are car chases and fist fights galore. And thankfully where these clashes are concerned, Gondry wisely places Chou front and center, leaving Rogan to skulk on the periphery.

While the action and momentum of the plot are enough to propel you past the smaller hiccups and potholes in the story, there are a number of places where the pace of “The Green Hornet” drags. The primary culprit is the subplot dealing with Britt’s secretary Lenore Case (Cameron Diaz), an awkward attempt to have some semblance of a love interest. The character is a completely unnecessary plot complication, totally uninteresting, and only serves to drive a wedge between Britt and Kato, and to introduce a clumsy theme about responsibility and integrity in media. It doesn’t fit with the rest of the movie, and is never developed any further than to say there should be more ideals and responsibility in journalism.

Christoph Waltz is also a disappointment, which, in itself, is a disappointment. The issue is not so much with his performance, as with the character of Chudnofsky. He controls all crime in Los Angeles, no small feat, and in his first scene, which also features a great cameo from James Franco, he seems like he is going to be a hardcore, scary as hell villain. Only that’s not the case. Chudnofsky is more concerned with people viewing him as scary than actually being scary. Basically he wants people to be afraid of him the way a nerdy kid wants the cool kids to like him. He’s more of a cartoon than a badguy. Rogan and Goldberg should have made Chudnofsky a straight-up, stone-cold killer instead of a neurotic, soft-spoken criminal overlord. You know Waltz can pull off that role, and it would provide a nice counter to the silliness that permeates the Britt/Kato dynamic. That sort of balance would have helped “The Green Hornet” immensely.

Though there are problems, and the whole thing is pretty uneven, “The Green Hornet” is a reasonable success. It’s a fun movie that is visually interesting even in small moments, like when Gondry moves his camera across a stream of newspapers flowing off of the presses, or into Kato’s brain as he is about to dismantle a group of armed thugs. Beyond that, “The Green Hornet” is a decently entertaining film, and nothing more spectacular than that.

'The Dilemma' Movie Review

Dedicated bachelor Ronny Valentine (Vince Vaughn) has a problem. After finally deciding to propose to his longtime girlfriend, Beth (a woefully underused Jennifer Connelly) he is looking for the perfect place to propose to her, only instead of finding this magical romantic wonderland, he sees Geneva (Winona Ryder), the wife of his best friend and business partner, Nick Brannen (Kevin James), making out with some random dude. How can Ronny tell Nick that his wife is running around on him? Nick is super high strung to begin with, so much so that he has a long and troubled history with stomach ulcers, and to make maters worse, the pair have a make or break business deal to contend with (they’ve been handed the task of making an electric car that sounds like a muscle car so people can drive an environmentally responsible vehicle without feeling like a pussy. Yup.). That’s the story of the mess that is Ron Howard’s new film, “The Dilemma”. It’s a thin premise to begin with, one that becomes even more flimsy as the movie goes on.

Much like Ronny, “The Dilemma” has problems. Ronny is the typical Vaughn character, a fast-talking charmer who has always been able to talk his way out of tight situations, and watching him endlessly wrestle with his predicament is about as interesting as, well, watching someone wrestle with a tough decision. He waffles back and forth. Does he tell Nick, ruin his life, and send him over the edge into a nervous breakdown? Does he let Nick live in ignorance? Is Nick all that innocent himself? By the time you find Ronny talking to God on the bench at a bus stop, you’re about to pull off your own fingernails. The story plods on like this for a while, and just when you think you know think that the movie has finally picked a direction, it wanders off on one of many tangents. In trying to accomplish a wide array of goals, it doesn’t accomplish anything.

Because it’s a Ron Howard movie, “The Dilemma” can’t just be a light-hearted comedy, and transitions into heavy-handed over sentimentality, becoming a simplified cautionary tale about how everyone really should be honest with each other all the time. Ronny is a recovering gambling addict, and when he starts acting strange everyone assumes that he’s off the wagon, so to speak. Then he begins to suspect that Beth is cheating on him, and so on and so on. After a while the whole thing becomes tedious and predictable, and at 118 minutes, is at least 30 minutes longer than it needs to be. There are a few chuckles, but overall the comedy is toothless and weak. Vaughn is funny in the exact same way that he always is, and you get the feeling that you’ve seen this all before.

Who has ever said that Channing Tatum is the best part of any movie? But you know what? He is the best part of “The Dilemma”. The scenes between Ronny and Zip (Tatum), the guy Geneva is boning on the side, are hands down the high points of the film. When you boil it down, “The Dilemma” is little more than one great scene surrounded by meh. Scratch that, Queen Latifah, as a Dodge executive, is hilarious, though ultimately pointless. She exists for no other reason than to provide a deadline for Ronny and Nick, but makes the most of her limited screen time, stealing every scene by yelling loudly about her “lady wood” and saying things like, “I want to bang your brain.” (Amusing Side Bar: One guy at the screening had to explain to his mother what ‘lady wood’ is.)

You should also prepare to be annoyed by endless, sports metaphors (apparently life is a lot like hockey and football, who knew?), but at least you get to see Clint Howard in the obligatory weird-little-man role that he has in all of his brother’s films, so that’s fun. “The Dilemma” is not a bad movie; it simply misses every mark that it aims for. Not quite a comedy with dramatic elements, not fully a drama with funny moments, it’s not really anything.

Friday, January 7, 2011

'Season of the Witch' Movie Review

“Season of the Witch” has been a long time coming. The film has been in some stage of production in one form or another since 2000 when Bragi F. Schut first wrote the script. Originally scheduled for a March 2010 release, then again in October 2010, “Season of the Witch” finally hits theaters at the tail end of the first week of 2011. And goddamn if it wasn’t worth the wait. In reality “Season of the Witch” isn’t all that good, but it’s not all that good in the most entertaining way possible. Completely mis-marketed as an epic, 14th century adventure, this is one of the funniest, most ridiculous movies to come out in a long time. There are times when “Season” borders on slapstick, and even more moments when you fully expect the entire cast of “Monty Python” poke their heads around a corner.

Behmen (Nicolas Cage) and his old-timey bro Felson (Ron Perlman) are knights of the Crusades, which means most of what they do entails killing lots of people. In fact, after quick prologue where some witches are strung up, the movie gives you a sweet montage of epic, slow-motion battles. Not a bad way to begin a movie. After growing tired of the hypocrisy of the church, which compels them to kill innocent people in the name of god, the two knights desert their holy quest. The old friends walk the earth, only to find a land ravaged by a mysterious plague that leaves victims looking more silly than frightening. Less than a month later, Behmen and Felson are discovered, arrested, and forced to help transport an accused witch (Claire Foy) to a monastery for trial. A priest (Stephen Campbell Moore), a knight (Ulrich Thomsen), and a petty thief named Hagamar the Swindler (Stephen Graham) accompany them on their journey. The whole set up sounds like the beginning of a joke. Their crew also has a young hanger on, Kay (Robert Sheehan), who looks like a cross between James Franco and the guy who played Warren in “Empire Records”, only with scraggly, pubescent facial hair.

“Season of the Witch” fails miserably as a serious adventure film. It’s like a SyFy movie, where nothing quite looks real. The dirtiness and grime are never dirty, nor grimy enough to appear authentic. Think about a western where everyone has perfect teeth, or a post-apocalyptic movie where all the men are clean-shaven, and you’re on the right track. However, a few minutes in, you realize that’s not the movie they were trying to make. The cast, especially Perlman, is having a blast. He plays the entire film with a wink and a smirk, and delivers a constant stream of one-liners. And we’re talking Schwarzenegger in “Commando” or “Predator” one-liners. When Behmen remarks that they haven’t seen a soul all day, Felson replies, “Keep your souls, let me find a chicken.” Cage bug-eyes his way through the entire film, almost daring you to take it seriously. Everyone is well aware of how absurd this is, and instead of fighting it, the entire cast dives in headfirst and wallows in it’s own crapulence, which makes the film all the more delightful.

The pace bogs down for a bit in the middle, where the story attempts to get dire and grave, but fortunately, you are never far removed from a fight scene, Ron Perlman cracking wise, or the story becoming so overly serious that the only rational response is to raucous laughter. By the time you get to the climax, “Season of the Witch” has fully descended into madness. Without spoiling things, just know that this includes winged demons, zombie monks, and back-to-back “Jaws” and “Ghostbusters” references. You can almost tell the exact moment where they gave up trying to be serious and decided to get rad instead.

Somehow “Season of the Witch” survives a mediocre premise, poorly executed CGI, and questionable acting. Watching it will require some giant leaps of faith, and drinking a little bit during a viewing will only enhance the experience, but it is way more fun than you ever expected it to be. It’s cheesy and dumb, but it’s also bat-shit crazy and really entertaining. If you want to be amused for 90 minutes, watch “Season of the Witch”, you’ll come out of the experience laughing and loving Ron Perlman more than you already should.