Sunday, June 24, 2012

Safe House (2012)

Directed By: Daniel Espinosa
Starring: Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Shepard

Ryan Reynolds stars as Matt Weston, the low-ranking CIA field operative who is eagerly trying to prove his worth to his superiors.  Weston is tasked with a mundane job of being the caretaker of a CIA "Safe House" in Capetown, South Africa. After a rogue former CIA agent named Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) turns himself in to the American Consulate, he is brought to the Safe House for interrogation by the CIA. The safe house is then raided by an unknown criminal force in an attempt to get to Frost. Weston takes custody of Frost and must get him to another safe house without the both of them getting killed. Weston also must try to figure out who the inside source is who has betrayed him. At one point in the plot, it is revealed that the reason why the "bad guys" are trying to kill Frost is because has secret documents in his possession that can bring down not only the leaders of the CIA, but also the leaders of every other world agency involved with them.

David Espinosa's spy/action thriller, Safe House might as well be entitled "The Bourne- Whatever." While the idea for the movie is good, and it contains an A-List cast, this film is nothing but 115 minutes of a lot of guys trying to kill two other guys, with little or no narrative cohesion. Washington and Reynolds virtually have little "acting" time together; their scenes have the pair doing a lot of running, jumping, fighting, shooting, and stabbing, but their dialogue is limited at best.

Despite Weston not having amnesia (or being an assassin), this film is Bourne-influenced in every way...from the grainy, handheld photography to the chaotic hand-to-hand combat in foreign locales, and the break-neck car chases.  The only thing missing from this film is Matt Damon (or Jeremy Renner.)  The existence of possible sinister government forces and the juxtaposition between their conference room scheming and Weston’s visceral fight for survival echoes all the trademarks of The Bourne Trilogy.  Swap Joan Allen for Vera Farmiga, and   Brian Cox for Brendan Gleeson, and lo and behold- you have Safe House. 

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Thin Ice (2011)

Directed by: Jill Sprecher
Starring: Greg Kinnear, Billy Crudup, Alan Arkin, David Harbour

We meet Mickey Prohaska (Greg Kinnear) at an insurance convention where he lectures on how to strike up conversations  (asking people if the have the time.) While at the convention, Mickey meets a woman who cons him out of his wallet, stealing nearly $20,000 in credit cards. Also while at the convention, he meets a fellow insurance agent named Bob Egan (David Harbour.) Mickey hires Bob to come work for him back in Kenosha, Wisconsin. We are then introduced to an old farmer named Gorvy Hauer. Gorvy purchases an insurance policy from Mickey and Bob. When Mickey learns that Gorvy posses an antique violin that could be worth millions, the plot thickens as Mickey tries to steal the violin. A locksmith named Randy (Billy Crudup) is called to Gorvy's home, where he learns that Mickey is trying to steal the violin.  Mickey becomes Randy's unwilling partner in crime when Randy blackmails him.

 When I first heard of this movie, I couldn't wait to see it for many reasons. First, the plot of the story was enough to capture my attention: murder, deception, blackmail...everything I love in a suspense/thriller movie. Plus, the story takes place in the state of Wisconsin, AKA "Cheesland", a place I hold very near and dear to my heart. Unfortunately, this film fell short of what it was trying to deliver, which was basically a rip off of the Coen Brothers memorable film, Fargo (1996.)  While the film isn't completely awful, and it does have its funny/quirky moments, the narrative is much too predictable and does not engage the audience. Greg Kinnear is convincing enough as the spineless insurance salesman; but he also wants to be a nice guy, and his character is conflicted.  Kinnear's character of Mickey has a conscience, unlike William H. Macy's character of Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo, who was a heartless coward. There was no mistaking Jerry Lundegaard for being a spineless snake. But in this film, I was unsure if Mickey was really a nice guy or a slimy coward. The explanation of the plot at the end of the film provides little consolation to a narrative that wasn't really coherent in the first place. Thin Ice is quite a befitting name for this film, because that is pretty much where it stands...ready to fall through.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Django (1966)

Directed by: Sergio Corbucci

Starring: Franco Nero, Jose Bodalo, Loredana Nusciak, Eduardo Fajardo,

Italian Director Sergio Leone made cinematic history with the film A Fistful of Dollars (1964.) The film starred (a then unknown) Clint Eastwood, who played the character of a "Man With No Name", a lonesome drifter, if you will. A Fistful of Dollars spawned a whole new genre of film:"The Spaghetti Western." These  Western Films usually took place around the civil war, and were produced by Italian Filmmakers, starring Italian Actors, and filmed in either Italy or Spain. Sergio Leonne had the market cornered in this genre, but there were a few other Italian Directors who made their mark with the Spaghetti Western, one of them was Sergio Corbucci with his 1966 hit, Django.

Django (Franco Nero) is an ex-Union Soldier drifting from place to place, all the while dragging a coffin behind him; he has a checkered past which haunts him, but is never revealed what it's about.  Django rescues a prostitute named Maria (Loredana Nusciak) from being murdered by a group of racist, hooded-outlaws.  Django takes Maria to a deserted town, where he finds a local war is taking place between the Mexicans, led by General Hugo Rodriguez (Jose Bodalo) and the racist outlaws led by Major Jackson (Eduardo Fajardo.)  When Django is confronted by Jackson, he finally reveals what he is carrying in his coffin: a giant machine gun. After wiping out half of Jackson's men with said machine gun, Django makes a deal with Rodriguez and the Mexicans to steal all the gold that Jackson has stored in his camp. Together, the Mexicans and Django steal the riches from Jackson, but Django's ulterior motives are soon revealed, as he double-crosses General Rodriguez. Django has now played both sides of the war to his advantage, but he will pay a serious price for it in the end.

What makes this film comparable to Leone's "Man with No Name" series is the fact that Franco Nero carries the film, much like Eastwood did in Leone's films.  Just like Eastwood, Django is the "anti-hero", a loner who doesn't back down and knows how to play both sides of a conflict to get what he wants. Django is a master gun-slinger, and has a score to settle with somebody, just like Eastwood did in the "Man With No Name" series.  The musical score composed by Luis Bacalov makes the film resonate within you, much like Ennio Morriconne's score did for The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966.) The sound of ricocheting bullets in this film are a tell-tale sign of the Spaghetti Western, which that alone makes it stand out from an American-Made Western film, no matter when it was made.

The graphic violence in this film was unprecedented for its time. By today's standards, it is relatively mild, but for 1966 it was considered appalling.  The "ear-severing" scene was supposed to be cut from the original film, and it led to the film being banned in several countries, including the UK until 1993.  For a fan of the Spaghetti Western genre, Django is a must see.

Side note: Quentin Taratino's upcoming film, Django Unchained (2012) has nothing to do with this film, other than the fact that he uses the name for the title and leading role. There is however, a small cameo appearance made by Franco Nero. Here is a sneak peek at what is sure to be another Tarantino Masterpiece:

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Hell and Back Again (2011)

Documentary Film
Directed by: Danfung Dennis

Nearing the end of a six month tour of duty in Afghanistan, Marine Sgt. Nathan Harris is severely wounded by enemy sniper fire. The sniper's bullet "blows half his ass off," as he describes it. 

Equipped with a customized Steadicam, filmmaker Danfung Dennis was embedded with Harris and the rest of his platoon, Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, when they were dropped behind enemy lines in Southern Afghanistan back in 2009. From the very start of the mission we witness the Marines fighting what seems to be a "ghost-like" enemy. The Taliban are not seen in the film, but the exchange of gunfire is real, as one of Harris' men are killed in the first hour of fighting on day one. Dennis got to know Harris while he was filming the combat footage, and continues the film in North Carolina when Harris returns home to recover from his wounds. The narrative jumps back ad forth between the combat footage and Harris' grueling recovery process; moreover, his return to civilian life.

It becomes crystal clear very early in the film that the "hell" of war does not stop on the battlefield.  The film documents Harris at home, dealing not only with his injuries, but also trying to cope with everyday life in American Society.  Signs of post-traumatic stress become evident with Harris when everyday annoyances like trying to find a parking space at a crowded WalMart frustrate him beyond what the average person would feel in the same situation. The injuries sustained by Harris are described and shown in graphic detail not only by the scars he has (which he reveals several times in the film), but also by the recovery process itself. Harris can not walk without the use of a cane or walker, the physical therapy he has to endure seems more painful than the injury itself.  Harris becomes dependent (even addicted) to the heavy narcotic pain medication he is on.  If there is anyone who deserves the title of "hero" in this film, it should be Harris' wife, Ashley. After surgery and rehab, Ashley is charged with the day-to-day care of her husband. She is the one who helps him with everything: from helping him get dressed to picking up his medications at the pharmacy.  It is clear that Ashley is afraid for (and at times of) her husband. She states that although she does love her husband, "there are times when he is almost like a different man."

In the combat footage of the film, Harris displays a natural ability to lead his men, not by unsung characteristics of heroism, but because he knows his job and he believes in the cause he is fighting for.  He is clearly a professional leader on the battlefield.  The scenes of Harris back home however, show an injured,  depressed, and immature kid who has an obvious unhealthy obsession with handguns. He is shown several times at home simulating Russian-Roulette, and incessantly loading and unloading a handgun which he "keeps loaded under his mattress." A veteran of three combat tours, Harris recounts how at age 18 he was the prototypical Marine who "just wanted to kill people." Now in his mid 20s, Harris reflects that being a Marine isn't as simple as just killing people. Harris wants to return to the front lines with his men; but, by the end of the film it becomes apparent to him what the audience already knows... that his injuries will prevent that from ever happening.

Was Harris' "hell" fighting in the war? or was it when he came "back?" That is the question that is left unanswered with words, but certainly not by the actions documented in this great film that unquestionably deserved a 2012 Oscar nomination for best documentary feature.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Act of Valor (2012)

Directed by:  Mike McCoy, Scott Waugh
Starring:  Alex Veadov, Roselyn Sanchez, Jason Cottle

In the opening introductory statement of Act of Valor, directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh make note  to the audience how they were embedded with an actual Navy SEALs unit while doing research for the film. Their experience with the SEALs influenced them in their decision not to have professional actors portraying the key roles in the film. In fact if you read the credits, there are none listed for the characters of the SEALs.  Their identities are kept confidential.  

Although the film is fictitious, it is "based on real acts of valor."  The film starts with a CIA operative (Roselyn Sanchez) who is kidnapped and the SEAL team is dispatched to rescue her from a jungle compound. The plot thickens when the SEALs discover that the kidnapping is tied into a wealthy drug smuggler named Christo (Alex Veadov.)  Christo teams up with a terrorist (Jason Cottle) to smuggle Jihadists into the United States through Drug Cartels in Mexico with the intent of "making 9/11 look like a walk in the park."

This film is pure non-stop action, with countless special effects.  What makes the film stand out from other military-action based films is the acting...or I should say lack there of on the part of the SEAL team. Since the parts were played by active-duty SEALs, it is obvious that they lacked any sort of acting training, but that doesn't really matter because they didn't have to do any kind of dramatic stretch to make their characters believable. The dialogue of the SEALs is deeply engrossed in military jargon that the layperson may not understand, but it's not necessary to in order to understand what is going on in the narrative of the film.  It should also be noted that the original intent of the film was to be used as a military recruitment/training film...and that's just how it plays out, even up to the ending scene of the full-dress military funeral.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The 70's Road Movie

While this blog is mainly dedicated to new theatrical and DVD releases, I am also a huge classic film buff. So, from time to time I am going to dedicate a post to some of my favorite classics. The 1970s were a great time for American Cinema. Restrictions faced by film makers of earlier decades had loosened up.  Hollywood was now re-born with a new wave of independent film makers who were now free of the "studio system."  Some of the greatest genre of film came about in the 1970s.  The late 60s and early 70s brought about "The Muscle Car," and with that "The Road Movie" was essentially born. Three movies come to mind when I think of the classic 1970s Road Movie: Two Lane Blacktop (1971),  Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1974), and Vanishing Point (1971.)

Dennis Wilson and James Taylor were two icons of the 1970s. They epitomized everything about that, drugs and rock-and roll.  As musicians, both Wilson and Taylor were natural actors, and it's a shame that neither one starred in a single movie following this cult classic. Traveling across the country in a rebuilt '55 Chevy, "The Driver" (Taylor) and "The Mechanic" (Wilson) pick up a young female hitchhiker, known only as "The Girl" (Laurie Bird.) Actually, the girl just jumps into the car without even asking, and the the three of them make their journey across the southern part of the United States.  They make money by racing other muscle cars in small towns along the way. The trio runs into "GTO" (Warren Oates) aptly named after the car he drives, and they challenge him to a race to Washington DC. The first car to reach the destination wins the pink-slip of the loser's car.

Two Lane Blacktop is mostly about the race between the '55 Chevy and GTO. What's odd though, is that no one seems to want to win. They keep stopping to help each other out along the road, almost as if the road would be a lonelier place without the other.  A sub-plot of the film is the relationship the three men have with the girl.  The Mechanic, who seems the most care-free of the group, could really care less if he has any sort of relationship with the girl; however, The Driver and GTO both seem to be vying for the girl's attention. The title song to the soundtrack, "Me and Bobby McGee" fits in superbly with the plight of the girl, especially towards the end of the film when it becomes apparent that the girl has moved on emotionally (and then physically) from Driver and GTO. If you listen to the lyrics of the song, you'll find that the story about "Me and Bobby McGee" takes place out on the open road of America, just like the plot of this film.  Side-note: "Me and Bobby McGee" was written (and performed in this film) by Kris Kristofferson. He stated in a 2007 interview with Two Lane Blacktop Director Monte Hellman that the song is  associated with his former lover, Janis Joplin- especially the line "somewhere near Salinas, Lord I let her slip away."

If I had to guess who the protagonist of this film was, I would have to say that it was the road. Shot in sequence and on location, the back-road gas stations, motels, and burger joints paint the backdrop of the settings and the narrative of this film.

Directed by John Hough and starring Peter Fonda, Susan George, and Adam Roarke, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry was more than just a road movie. Larry (Fonda) and Deke (Roarke) are small time car racing duo who rob a grocery store and plan on using the money to break into the NASCAR Circuit.  Just like in Two Lane Blacktop, the plot essentially has the two same characters: a driver, and his mechanic...except in this film, said driver and mechanic are also criminals.  They were good at only two things: racing and stealing. Their plan to escape after the robbery goes awry when Larry's one-night stand, Mary decides to tag along for the ride. Pursued by the local Sheriff, Everett Franklin (Vic Morrow) and his redneck band of deputies, the plot takes you on a wild ride through back country roads.

What I love about this movie is that the action is real. The stunts for this film were performed by actual stuntmen, including Fonda.  When a car crashed, it actually crashed- there was no CGI enhancement simulating the crash or explosion. People actually risked their lives filming a movie like this...something you don't see in today's movies. It's no surprise that this film was an inspiration for Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof (2007.)  The narrative of this movie is all about fast cars, fast women, and being held down by "the man."  If you're looking for an adrenaline-filled muscle car flick with non-stop action, then Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry is the film for you.

Another inspiration to Quentin Tarantino is Vanishing Point.

Kowalski (Barry Newman) is a Vietnam Vet. He is also a dishonored ex-cop and a failed race car driver.  He is hired by a drive-away service to deliver a 1970 Dodge Challenger from Denver to San Francisco. There is one catch: he takes a bet to get the car delivered in fifteen hours.  Kowalski is chased time and again by police, but outruns them.  Throughout his journey, Kowalski is guided by a blind radio disc jockey- Supersoul (Cleavon Little.) Kowalski's mission gains a cult-like following from people as the word spreads across the radio waves by Supersoul.

Zipping across the country, Kowalski becomes the Anti-Hero. You get the feeling that Kowalski is (or at least once was) a good man who has been slighted by "the man" or "the system." His encounters with the police, tambourine-rattling faith healers, gay hitchhikers, and naked hippie chicks support this in the narrative.  What captures the viewer in this film is that Kowalski's journey becomes transcendental, and the rendezvous with the junction at the film's climax becomes his "Vanishing Point."  

Vanishing Point is another film that isn't about dialogue. This film is basic. It's about thrills and chills...and pills. If you strip this film down, it's basically a bad B-Movie; but the action will keep you bolted to your seat to see what happens at the "Vanishing Point." 

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Brake (2012)

Directed by: Gabe Torres
Starring: Stephen Dorff, Chyler Leigh, Tom Berenger

What appears to be a random kidnapping, turns into so much more in Gabe Torres' latest crime thriller, Brake. Jeremy Reins (Dorff) wakes up in a large plexiglass box, and locked inside the trunk of a car. The box has a neon clock-timer at the top of it that keeps counting down time. The questions start from the onset: Who is Jeremy? Moreover, why is he being kidnapped? Without giving away too much of the plot, it turns out that Jeremy is a Special Agent in the US Secret Service. Agent Reins has been kidnapped by terrorists who want an answer to a question that only he knows the answer to. He is then driven from location to location and the stress of his situation increases as his captors keep torturing and pressing him to give up the answer to their question.  Other than the ending, the majority of the film (and I mean just about all of it) is a lone performance by Stephen Dorff. The rest of the characters in the plot are introduced through their voices on a cell phone and CB radio that are in the trunk.

The narrative and the character has striking similarities to Ryan Reynolds and his role in Buried (2010.) As a matter of fact, the lone-actor trapped in some sort of claustrophobic predicament has almost become a whole new genre of in point: James Franco in 127 hours (2010) and Adrien Brody in Wrecked (2010.) Although, unlike those films Franco and Brody weren't being held hostage, but the narrative of the aforementioned films all centered on a solo character. However, in this film Dorff manages to pull off the "one-man play" rather well by keeping the audience engaged in what is happening to him; not an easy task since he is the only character in the dialogue of the film.  The climactic twist in the plot at the end will dispel any preconceived notion that the viewer has on how the film was going to end.