Sunday, January 30, 2011

'The Mechanic' 2011

This was the first film I saw in the last two weeks and it was fine as far as it went. The main problem was my expectations. I enjoy Jason Statham in many movies. He is a good go to tough guy and when I first heard about the movie I thought this was a pretty good bit of casting. One of my students in the summer Interpersonal class, got a chance to see this back in July at a test screening. He was not particularly enthusiastic, but I still had very high hopes. He did not know that it was a remake and this is fundamental to my difficulty relating to some of my students. They are often bright and friendly but many have no sense of the past. It is as if the world started when they became conscious of music or TV. The other day, the name of Billy Dee Williams came up in class and I said "Lando Calrissian", someone quipped, "how did you come up with that?", as if it were an obscure referent. Even the Star wars movies are somewhat abstract to many of them. So how could any of them appreciate the great Charles Bronson, a guy they would see as their great grandfather, based on age alone. And so it was that most people seeing this movie will have no expectation because they have no knowledge of what came before. This is probably a good thing for the current movies success but a bummer for those drawn in by the original.

In the summer blog, I mentioned the Mechanic as a film I knew almost by heart. It was not on the list of summer movies I wrote about, but every time Charles Bronson is mentioned, "The Mechanic" is one of my go to images. The 2011 model is serviceable as an action film with some interesting twists, but it lacks the tension of the original. In the opening, there is a clever assassination, but we don't see it set up, there is no suspense, and although we can appreciate afterwords the originality of the approach, it doesn't set up the main character very well. All we learn is that he is ruthless and maybe a little too smart. In the original film, we see the first hit set up, we watch as the victim strolls through a set of ordinary activities as he is being stalked. We get a bird's eye view of the daily minutiae that makes up his life. The assassin, also watches, we see him planning but we do not immediately understand how he is going to carry out that kill. Then, we marvel at the clever way the observations have been followed and the murder committed. All of this is done without any dialogue, and our silent killer tells us more about his personality with thirty seconds of squeezing a ball of paraffin wax, than we get in an hour and a half with the new guy. This is another difference between film makers of today and those of the past. The screenwriter for the new version follows the story beats, but misses the nuance of the story. The action is jacked up quite a bit at the loss of suspense.

There is one good suspense scene in today's movie. Arthur Bishop, the title character, has taken on an apprentice,Steve, one that is loath to follow directions and is trying to make a mark for himself and get a little battle scarred along the way. Three weeks of set up is designed to get him close to another contract killer that is the subject of the current assignment. When the young apprentice backs away from the original plan, there is uncertainty as to how it will be resolved. A tough and brutal fight ensues and there is good reason to believe the outcome will be a disaster. Steve is played by Ben Foster in a crazy eyed manner reminiscent of the same kind of sidekick role he had in the remake of 3:10 to Yuma a couple of years ago. He had less screen time in that film, but was a more vivid character than the troubled psycho he plays in this film.

I did like the update that was done on the story in regards to the relationship between Bishop and the man who he works for and is destined to become a target. There is a greater sense of clarity concerning why he would care about the apprentice, but while it was more logical that the original it was less interesting. The consequences in the second half make a more driven plot element than the original, but the revenge theme is a well worn trope. Character is critical to making us care about the outcome when the protagonist is a bad guy, and the apprentice is a psycho. Statham's version of Arthur Bishop has some of the same quirks as in the original, but he does not sell it. The music, the car, the woman he has sex with, are all just costumes for him to put on, they do not seem like they are real. Bronson may have had a stoic face, but he sold isolation, superiority and menace without having to paint it on.

The contemporary music, and the style of shooting is solid. The movie has been put together well by people that are competent, but the script and the acting are the weak links in the film. I have been quoting an annoying line used by Jan Michael Vincent in the first version for more that thirty-five years. His character was an interesting jerk, but it was clear he was always an irritating guy from the way he delivered the lines. I cannot remember a single sentence from the movie today. There was nothing clever in the dialogue, and the acting consisted of character traits rather than true character. If the original had never existed, this movie might seem better, as it is, there is little to recommend it except for strict lovers of hard action. They screw around with the ending, so it is so much less memorable that the first film, and as a result deserves it's lesser status.

Here's a trailer for the retitled original: Enjoy

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Green Hornet

This movie was a little iffy when I first heard of the lead and that there was a comedy angle to it. I was pleasantly surprised that it worked as well as it did. The original Green Hornet was a pulp character from the old days of radio, so there is not going to be the same kind of geek reverence for the characters that most superheros in movies now get. The vast majority of older people that remember the Green Hornet do not recall the radio show but instead think of the TV series that was spun off of the Batman TV show in the mid-sixties. That show was mostly forgettable except for the actor that played the Hornet's sidekick, a guy named Bruce Lee.

In the new film, the Kato character is the one with most of the great moves. He is a co-equal and in many aspects superior to the titular character. Both of these guys are in over their heads, but only Kato knows it and has any idea how to get them out of it. If you want a serious superhero movie wait for one of the many that are coming this summer, the Green Hornet is an action-comedy, with a lot of the slacker humor that you would expect from Seth Rogan. The martial arts work provided by Jay Choi is solid, but it is all CG enhanced with a variety of visual effects. This is done largely to take advantage of 3-D technology that was used to present the film with. The acting and acrobatics are fine but the cool factor that came from Bruce Lee kicking butt by himself is largely missing.

Most of the story is boiler plate hero stuff, so there are no big surprises. The bad guy is not very well fleshed out but Christoph Walsh, our current winner of best supporting actor in "Inglorious Basterds ", does what he can to make him interesting and fun. If you are not a fan of Seth Rogan's brand of humor, you will not care much for this picture. On the other hand, if you have found him funny in anything, this should go down pretty well. I think he has been a little overexposed in the last few years, so by focusing on this movie and not showing up in every other comedy opening in the last twelve months, he gave us enough of a break to appreciate this work. I was very entertained and enjoyed the movie for what it was. There are several bits of humor that are great sight gags and also enough verbal bi-play to make you need to pay attention to the dialogue.

The supporting cast is good, although you can tell from the first time you meet him that one of the bad guys is indeed a bad guy. Tom Wilkerson is only in the movie for a few brief scenes, and his character is not really pleasant, but you know he is a class act. I think we spent a minute trying to confirm that James Franco was in the movie. I guess after Pineapple Express he and Seth are buddies. Cameron Diaz is third billed and does almost nothing. She is not bad, she is mostly superfluous to the plot.

It will not win any awards, and you may not remember much about it after you have seen it, but while in the theater, you will be pleased. We saw it in 3-D and the effects work pretty well. I did not think that the 3-D was essential to any of the story or humor, but it did not hurt my eyes and there were a couple of scenes that benefit from some eye-popping moments. The movie looks well made, there is no aura of cheapness about it. The color tones with the Hornet and Kato, driving around town do a good job creating a little bit of mystery and panache. At the end of the day, it is still a story about a doofus that tries to be a hero ("Kick Ass" anyone?), and the toys that he uses to accomplish this.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Peter Yates Director Rest In Peace

Any of you that read the Summer Blog will remember that Mr. Yates did three of the movies that I wrote on last summer.

He also did the fantastic Bullitt and a movie I remember enjoying that received a great deal of critical acclaim, the Dresser. He has passed away and there is good reason to mourn his loss.

Here is a brief Obit from Empire:

Peter Yates 1928-2011

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Fighter

This was a fine film with a dramatic story and heartbreaking performances. The fact that it based on a true story is pretty amazing given the parallels to Rocky. We get a redemption story and a love story put together most effectively. On top of this you have a dramatic family story. The volatility of the relationships are a bit discomforting, I know families have their ups and downs, but the language, and tone in some of these scenes leaves you wondering how they manage to survive living together without killing each other.

Clearly this will be a contender for all kinds of awards, but in one category it will not be competing with any other film. Christian Bale will be the consensus winner of every award for best supporting actor by the time the Academy awards come around. His body language, face and dialect are spot on. The crack addict that he has become is the sad embodiment of every mother's fears. What was once beautiful and full of life, becomes a parody of that life and a shadow hanging over the loved ones that are reluctant to deal with it. This is the showier roll in the movie, and one might think that Bale is getting credit for the part and not the performance. His work here is the equal of Daniel Day Lewis in "My Left Foot", a technical marvel but a heart and soul as well. There is a brief clip in the credits of the real person that he plays, and you can see just exactly how he nails this part.

Everyone else is also solid. Mark Wahlberg is very good and deserves notice for a more subtle performance but one that is actually the center of the film. It is his character's life that is being changed by the decisions around him. I love my brother, but we have never had the kind of relationship that I see in many stories of this type. There is hero worship and trauma, and frustration. This knockabout family is so involved in each others life that it is a bit claustrophobic. Micky,the character played by Wahlberg, is suffocating under the thumb of a loving but domineering family. When he asserts himself, all sorts of tension that was previously there bubbles to the surface, and Wahlberg makes you feel the conflict he is faced with.

The two leading female characters are both fully formed characterizations also. Melissa Leto as Micky's Mother is fierce and terrifying. Amy Adams plays his love interest and she loses nothing in comparison in the fierce department. Adams is also a lot more of a sexual being in this movie then she has been in other films, and she sells it well. Sometimes she may be acting with her costume, but her face manages to sell the clothes also. There is a fantastic scene with Bale and Leto in the car, that simply consists of the lines from a Bee Gees song, but it will break your heart.

This was a well told story, the choices that are made by the director seem really sold. The incidental music feels spot on. I never noticed the actors struggling with the accents that are so typical of the region. Of course Wahlberg comes by his naturally, but again, Bale is amazing. It was an easier movie to enjoy then I thought it would be, because although there is darkness, there is also a substantial amount of light that gives hope to everyone in the end.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011


I am going to try to keep the blog this year on the movies I see in theaters. This will make it easy for me to keep track of what I have seen and be able to share with anyone that asks me my opinion. We are three days into the year and it is starting off great. I am going to be trying to catch up with the movies from the last couple of months that will be up for awards. I was a bit leery about 127 Hours because there is clearly a tough scene in the movie for anyone to get through. It is not a spoiler to mention it since this is a true story and the events in it were widely reported, but as important as it is I don't want to draw attention to it at the expense of everything else in the movie. This film is about so much more than the dramatic climax of the movie. There is inspiration, humor and hope in many of the moments that lead up to that event. There is also despair, sadness and a sense of loss.

The world is full of people that live in a different culture than mine. I love the outdoors but I am not an outdoors man. Nature is amazing, but I can enjoy it from the car window or a convenient picnic table. I use to backpack when in high school but we never went off the grid like so many extreme sports people do. I think they are a little crazy, but more power to them. Aron, the adventurer in this story is a guy that will casually drive out to the middle of no where in the middle of the night, and then ride his bike out even further. He is not really irresponsible but he is impetuous. He is well equipped for what he plans on doing but the plan clearly does not go as planned. I was impressed by the drive he shows and the moxie that the hikers he encounters show. They all are a lot more energetic than I am, One of the great things about movies is they let you see worlds you would not encounter in your normal experience. The canyons they explore and the area that he bikes through are really beautiful. It was a little odd to see the disclaimer at the end that tells us that no one should be biking in this area, I suppose that this is why Aron leaves his bike at one point but it was sort of interesting.

Danny Boyle, the director of this movie has make several films that I have enjoyed and admired immensely. I have not been able to bring myself to see Trainspotting, but almost everything else he has made is something I spent some time with. This movie is such a simple story, that you wonder how it can be turned into a film at all. The title tells you that you are waiting for a climax that is a long way off. Trying to make that interesting is where the challenge for the film maker comes in. They succeed admirably, with a long introductory section prior to the accident that left our hero trapped. Then they kick it up a notch with a combination of memory, hallucination, dreams, and video clips. All of them are haunting, some of them are truly disturbing, and one of them becomes the catalyst for the desperate act that saves Aron in the end. That whole vision provides the heart of the movie. As a character, Aron is likable enough and cute in an offbeat sort of manner, but he is a blank space that each of us can project on and the when we do, we are likely to lose hope. It is when Aron projects a future that we have our hope restored. I am a sentimentalist. I am moved by songs, images, stories and words. To me a movie succeeds if it can effectively move me and this movie did.

James Franco is very effective at taking a part that is eighty percent visual in nature and making us believe it. The sections where he has dialogue are worthwhile, but it is his face and body language that makes this performance special. He is helped by great use of camera and lighting as well as visual effects that enhance the mood but do not replace our main focus on the man at the center of this story.
Actors are peculiar creatures, they practice skills that each of us use on a daily basis, but they have to do it in artificial conditions. The pretending also has to fit with the story telling instead of being histrionic in nature. Franco does what is needed exceptionally well. When the horrifying scene finally arrives, it is all the more difficult for us because we have taken this journey with our lead.

I don't know that this movie will have a high repeatability quotient to it. I want to share it with my friends and family, but there are aspects of the story that might be hard to go through multiple times. If the admiration and awe that I felt at the end of the movie is any indication, those who see this for the first time will be glad they did. I hope that when I see it again, I can be moved in the same ways. That is the true test of this kind of film for me, will I be as inspired the sixth time I see it as I was the first? I hope so.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Biggest Wastes of Time in 2010

Some of these movies were merely disappointing. I go into every film I see wanting to love it. It is tough to spend 10 or 12 bucks to see something that you wish you had skipped. The thought always pops in my head, "Wow, what could I have seen instead that would have been a better choice?" On the other hand, some movies just piss me off. They take a great idea and screw it up, or there is a good movie that is messed up by a single bad element, and some of them just star Will Ferrel.

This is one of those innocuous movies that promised more than it delivered and as a result was a disappointment. Steve Carrel and Tina Fey should have been hysterical and they were barely pleasant. Their gifts were not properly used and the movie turns into a loud chase film that could have featured anyone. Mark Wallberg was fine, but his main contribution was the display of his abs and you got that in the trailer and commercials.

This movie does feature Tom Selleck so it is not a complete waste. The idea is not bad, but Ashton Kutcher is miscast, he is not believable as a spy or a tough guy and Katherine Hiegl is about to exhaust all the goodwill I got from her on "27 Dresses", a film that was better than it should have been because of her. The cute meet couple on the run from spies genre had three entries this year, "Killers", "Knight and Day", and "The Tourist". Tom Cruise is the only one that came out of this still looking like a movie star. This film features the worst poster of the year, it looks like nothing and says nothing.

I should have known better but it was a romantic comedy for the sweethearts weekend and everyone else in the family wanted to see it. Not bad but not good and there are so many people in it that it should have been better. Of course that is usually a warning sign, a big cast in an ensemble piece and none of them is featured, it screams out "Program Filler". You won't hate yourself for seeing it unless you skipped a chance to see "Kick Ass" one more time, and then you will be depressed.

I have a big crush on Amanda Seyfreid, she is a doll and I thought the real star of last year's "Jennifer's Body". So it pains me to say that she was wasted in this. Again, I don't have high hopes for amazing experiences at a standard romantic comedy, but I do count on the stars to charm me for a couple of hours. Since I am already in her pocket, why didn't it work? Mainly it failed because the story had no surprises, it was told entirely in the trailer. I need a little suspense even if I know in the end everything is going to work out. The better movie would have featured a real story about Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero.

Too much CGI, Too Much Jake Gyllanhall and Too Cookie-Cutter. The setting is fine but the movie is so frantic and there are so many action shots that are just digital manipulation that I did not give a damn. Ben Kinglsey needs to get a good movie again, he has done way too many of these things just to get paid. If the looks of a movie were all that mattered, this and "Tron Legacy" would be on the top ten list, but you need more than just some great art director's vision to make a story work.

This one was maybe the biggest disappointment of the year, I had looked forward to it from the time it was announced and the first images sucked me into hoping for something really special. The 3D was one of the first times I've been irritated at the process from the get go. The edges looked muddy and the eye-popping visuals did not pop. I might like this better if I saw a 2D version, but then there is still the problem of the story. Not much of "Alice in Wonderland" except for the characters is in the movie. It becomes a retread of the Chronicles of Narnia, without the bland personality of that series. Johnny Depp barely made an impression in the role of the Hatter. This is the first movie on this list that pissed me off rather than just disappointing me.

Another 3D miss, no wait it wasn't in 3-D, so why did they make it?. I saw the first Nightmare with Dolores in 1984, we sat in the back row of the United Artists Theater in Pasadena and were creep-ed out and loved it. This I saw with Amanda, and it just sort of sat there. I like Jackie Earle Haily in the Freddy Kruger role, but the story was not really told in a fresh way and there is almost nothing I remember about the new characters. I don't object to remakes, but you need a reason to do them, and there was no reason here at all.

I almost forgot I saw this, and I did forget what it was called for ten minutes. That is a frustration because I like Wes Craven films in general and horror films are a guilty pleasure that rarely disappoint me. This movie was in 3-D for no particular reason, and the characters are motivated by exactly the same justification. Amanda and I saw it and we were the only ones in the theater, the lights came on during the last fifteen minutes and it barely distracted from the bunch of nothing that was going on up on the screen. I cannot remember a single face from any actor in the movie. This is the second Wes Craven inspired film on my list, Wes you better payoff on "Scream 4" or there will be hell to pay (but not me anymore).

Probably the stupidest movie I've seen in the last ten years. The poster image and trailers promise freaky awesome concepts and scares, and it delivers on none of that. It comes down to angels battling each other with machine guns for no particular reason. There was no suspense, no real horror and no point to it all. I wanted my money back immediately and I want the two hours back so I could go see something less crappy.

My pick for the worst movie of the year. I think Will Ferrel has been fine in the past, but I do not like Anchorman at all. This role takes whatever charm Ron Burgundy supposedly had, and drains it from Ferrel so that he is just loud, dull and boring. I heard people in the theater laughing when I saw it, and I turned around to see what they were doing that was so funny because they could not be laughing at stuff going on in the movie. Humor is a very particular taste, some people enjoy the strangest things. I think I'm one of those people, I laugh out loud at stuff others have not appreciated in the same theater with me. My response to this movie was exactly the opposite. I smiled once and never laughed at anything. This may very well be the last Will Ferrel Movie I ever subject myself to.