REVIEW: Running Scared (2006)


WARNING: Review contains minor spoilers, i.e. things that aren’t surprises but also aren’t in the trailers or TV spots. I would reccomend that you read this AFTER you see the movie, which you should do right away because it’s THE BEST NEW MOVIE OF 2006!

First things first: I owe Paul Walker an apology. I’ve taken my shots at him for pretty much his entire career, and so have the rest of the critics. Guess what? We misjudged him. The man can act, and act quite well, and hold his own as a leading man when properly directed in tandem with a good script. Last week’s “Eight Below” indicated this, “Running Scared” cements it. He’s the real thing, and with a big part in Clint Eastwood’s ambitious Iwo Jima movie(s) “Flags of Our Fathers” on the horizon this could just be HIS year. So, for what it’s worth… yeah, I was wrong.

As for the movie…

Where. The. Hell. Did. This. COME FROM!!?? Wayne Kramer’s previous effort, “The Cooler,” was a clever, small-ish Vegas character caper. Decent little movie, decent little run. But if there was EVER any indication that Mr. Kramer had a movie like “Running Scared” in him, I missed it. And I seriously doubt I’d have missed it. Regardless, lemme be as direct as I can: People, get your ass to the theater right now and SEE THIS MOVIE.

This, folks… this right here is what “exploitation” filmmaking is all about. The mainstream critics are poo-pooing it as “Tarantino-wannabe,” which is proof-positive that they don’t “get” this sort of film the same way they still don’t REALLY get Tarantino and his ilk: This isn’t the kind of film that “school” makes, it’s the kind of film that inspires the kind of films they make. This is real, raw, visionary viscera that draws a bead on the audience’s best and worst reaction triggers and opens fire. It goes brutal where lesser films would play soft, speeds up where lesser films would slow down, prolongs for tension what lesser films would rush through or skip outright. Where lesser films would settle for going over the top, “Running Scared” declares that there is no top. There’s no real way to “prepare” yourself for movies like this, but those of you already immersed in the brilliance of “The Professional,” “Dead or Alive,” “Boondock Saints” or “The Warriors” have a jump on everyone else.

The trailers have already told you the setup: Walker’s Joey Gazelle is a family man who pulls his coin disposing of used weapons for his low-level mafioso pals. Turns out that for “insurance” he’s actually been keeping the guns hidden in his house, a decision that turns disasterous when a unique-looking snub nosed revolver used in the shooting of a dirty cop goes missing and slugs start popping up on the street. Joey hits the Jersey night scene on a mission to find the gun and whoever took it.

This is the essence of exploitation crime thrillers: A simple cops-and-robbers yarn “juiced” with colorful extras for maximum effect. Here, the “extras” turn up courtesy of a paralell storyline the trailers have negated to tell you: The gun was stolen by Joey’s 10 year-old next door neighbor Oleg (Cameron Bright,) best friend to Joey’s son. He’s used it to put a bullet through his meth-addicted, wife-beating monster of a father, Anzo, and now he’s on the run, too. Oh, and Anzo is an on-bad-terms crony of Russian mobsters that Joey’s Italian mafia bosses are in league with.

Downtown New Jersey is not a good place for a 10 year-old to be, especially so Oleg who’s kind of a magnet for trouble: he’s menaced by ghoulish homeless junkies, throttled by drug dealers, makes an enemy of a psychotic pimp, a corrupt cop with an agenda (Chazz Palmentari) has turned a mostly-healed Anzo loose to hunt him down, and he’s largely unaware that Joey is looking for him and might not have his best interests at heart. Child-endangerment hasn’t been this effectively exploited for susepense since “Lemony Snickett.”

This is, absolutely, naked-and-spreading manipulation, and it works: As Joey darts around an ever-unfolding conspiracy involving the missing gun, the two mobs and his “friends;” little Oleg just keeps running from one nail-biter situation to another, with each “escape” descending further and further through ever-worsening levels of depravity and darkness. And when he reaches the bottom… oh, man… does he ever reach the bottom. I won’t tell you what squirming-in-your-seat form of evil incarnate Oleg will have to face down just to escape to the 3rd act, but I’ll tell you that a noteworthy number of my fellow theatre-goers fled at the revelation of it, leaving myself and others to remain in horror and disbelief, wonder where ANY major studio got the stones to let a sophmore director go HERE for a B-plot in a thriller. I don’t disturb easily, but here I sit and my psyche is STILL putting itself back together, folks.

There’s more, much more. You won’t believe the kinds of things Joey is willing to do to people just to extract information from semi-random bit-players… Jack Bauer would call this guy a loose canon. And I’m still in awe that someone actually found a staging ground for a mafia torture scene that I can’t remember ever being used before. Kramer brought his A-game to this, no question.

But this is the best part: It’s smart. Whip-smart, in fact, and clever to boot. With real humanity and depth to the people populating it’s sick, seedy world. Family and friendship dynamics are put through eight different wringers, twists and secrets are revealed at a rapid clip, creating primary characters who are nearly all much different people to us at the end of their story than at the start. Even the rabid, beastial Anzo is afforded both a sad, pathetic “origin” for his rotten ways, and a surprising backstory that turns him into a kind of wretchedly-tragic figure. Red herrings stalk the screen looking like anything but, while what first appear to be worn out genre cliche’s like villians capping henchmen to show off are reworked into slick expository reveals.

Add to all that the creepy, harsh cinematography and super-professional compositions, the smashing free-form bloodletting… the gun battles… the set design… dear lord, THE HOCKEY…

How many more ways can I say this, guys? 2006 is barely two months old and ALREADY I’ve got a likely entry into my top ten list. This is incredible genre filmmaking, and we need more movies like it just like we need more directors with the vision (and balls) of Wayne Kramer. Does some of it feel, when all is said and done, slightly extraneous with an eye on audience-jabbing? Absolutely, but not much and so what? A few twists too many come act 3? Maybe… but it NEVER jumps the rails in any significant way. Good films succeed in spite of oddities and minor flaws, GREAT FILMS succeed because of oddities and “flaws.” This is one of the great ones.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

Footnote: Cameron Bright continues to impress as a young actor, and Kramer makes great use of the young rising talent’s trademark thousand-yard-stare. But for pity’s sake… His last four movies were “Butterfly Effect,” “Godsend,” “Birth” and now this… can’t someone please cast him in a movie he’s old enough to go see?? The poor kid…

Paint it black


We’ve finally got an official, real promotional image from “Spider-Man 3”, and the word for the day is “holy crap!” If Sony’s aim was to cause a fandom eruption, they couldn’t have picked a better initial image:

That’s not the result of grayscale photography, it’s not a fan image. That’s Spidey wearing a BLACK COSTUME. If you’re a fan, you know what they want you to think that means 🙂

The obvious lead-in is “this means Venom,” which is plausible but still not definite. So far ALL we know is he’s wearing black at some point. Hey, y’know when is a good time to start wearing black? When a loved-one dies…

Just sayin’. Realistically, it’s pretty damn hard to imagine it being anything BUT a give or at least a tease at Venom. Think about it: If their FIRST image is a black Spidey-suit, and it’s NOT Venom-related at all, the fanbase who’s goodwill they’re angling for by releasing this would set fire to the screen in a riot of dissapointment. Bearing this is mind… are we SURE that’s Spidey at all, or is this a picture OF Venom? The left arm IS positioned in a way that would serve to “hide” Venom’s telltale mouth…

And hey, if you’re not a fan and want to know what the big deal is, (like, say, if you’re reading this and going “who is Venom?”,) there’s no better time to visit MovieBob’s new sister-site “Geek Speak,” to get EVERYTHING you need to be on the same page as the hardest of hardcore Spider-fans when it comes to “Spider-Man 3” gossip. Just follow the link:

http://moviebob-geekspeak.blogspot.com/2006/02/build-up-to-spider-man-3.html

REVIEW: Eight Below

A sudden medical emergency forces an evacuation of all personel from an Antarctic research base. Space limitations require that the team of eight brave, clever and adorable sled dogs be left behind… for the time being. But when “the biggest storm on record” hits the area hard, “for the time being” becomes “for good.” The dog team must survive on their own, braving the harsh environment, while their devoted human master tries to find a way, any way, to get back to them.

It’d be easy to make a bad movie from such a premise, and Disney especially is notorious for making maudlin, moronic films from such a premise on numerous occasions. But you can believe the hype on this one: “Eight Below” isn’t just good, it’s damn good.

Here’s how it works: Once the plot is in motion, the film turns almost totally observational in it’s approach to the paralell human and animal stories. The lead hero (Paul Walker, who MIGHT just be morphing into some kind of decent actor) isn’t “man on a mission” to get the animals back, he’s determined but also realistic, and his story tracks his slow withdrawal from life over guilt at leaving his team behind.

Likewise, the dogs (six Siberian Huskies and two Malamutes) aren’t “questing” for anything other than basic food and shelter, and their “adventure” is presented both from a dog’s-eye-view of the action and also from (as much as possible) a dog’s “perspective.” There’s no speaking animals, no “Babe” CGI-tweaking or even monologue. The dogs “act like dogs,” in as much as they really do appear to be thinking whatever we’re projecting onto them. As a man of science, naturally, I’m aware that there’s little chance that dogs are actually “sad” or “happy” when they make what we see as a “sad” or “happy” face, but animal-“acting” like this makes it awfully easy to forget that.

The dogs get the bulk of the screen time, in fact. There’s several terrific rescue scenes, of humans by dogs and dogs by dogs, amazing sequences of “tactical” hunting; and a scene of pure comic-tragic poetry where the dogs find themselves enraptured by the Northern Lights. But the “money” moment is an extended, genuinely thrilling action scene featuring a battle for control of a killer whale carcass against a fearsome Leopard Seal, which the dog’s-eye-view filmming and note-perfect staging effectively transform into a more-than-suitable doppleganger for a rampaging T-Rex… or more appropriately one of the “Aliens.”

This is a good adventure movie and a great dog movie. Reccomended.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

Shameless Plug Alert

Just big “pretty please” to check out MovieBob’s new sister-blog, “Geek Speak,” at the following link:

http://moviebob-geekspeak.blogspot.com/

“Geek Speak” will be an updated-when-necessary showcase for detailed columns intended as a public service. Namely, the public service of explaining the intricacies of Geek Culture trends to all the sometime-geeks and non-geeks out there.

Do you have friends, relatives or aquaintances who are geeks? Cinephiles? Trekkies? LARPers? Role-Players? MiSTies? Comic Book junkies? Gamers? Retro Gamers? Do you feel left out of the conversation sometimes? Want to know what the HELL they’re talking about? Is there some big movie that seems to have people ALREADY jazzed up, and you want to know why? You need “GEEK SPEAK,” where each column will cover a currently newsworthy aspect of Geek Culture and lay it out in plain english for YOUR benefit.

The innaugural column has just today gone up, with a detailed rundown of the all the terminology and hype in the rumors about the currently in-production film “Spider-Man 3.” Why is the Spidey-fan in your life so invested? Who’s this “Venom” they keep talking about? Why were people so excited when they saw Dylan Baker in #2? What’s to become of the love story that won over the mainstream audience? Wonder no longer, friend…

That link again is:

http://moviebob-geekspeak.blogspot.com/

If you’ve enjoyed MovieBob, I hope you’ll enjoy this as well!

First image that came to my mind…


All in fun, of course. And we’re all glad the guy apparently wasn’t seriously injured, but seriously… this is with Cheney for a LONG TIME now. This is one of those lasting go-to politician punchlines. This is Ford stumbling. This is Carter getting attacked by the rabbit.

REVIEW: Final Destination 3

If nothing else, the moneymaking “Final Destination” series sports one of the all-time best premises for a horror franchise. Each film is nearly-identitcal in structure: Prior to engaging in some everyday activity, a character is seized by a vision of a horrible accident that causes the deaths of multiple people, themselves included. As a result of this character’s subsequent “freaking out,” they and several others exit said situation and thusly are spared when the horrible accident actually happens! However, the “force” of Death (or fate, or whatever) isn’t about to take such “hiccups” in it’s “who-goes-when-and-how” plan in stride, and the survivors find the universe bending over backwards to wipe them out anyway through ever-more elaborate “accidents.”

Call it John Calvin meets Jason Vorhees, or the ultimate abstraction of the “Black Christmas” unknown-killer phenomenon, but you can’t say it isn’t clever. It’s broad enough to be reworked to infinity with new casts and settings, since the only recurring character is a “force;” but specific enough that it can honestly call itself a functional series. The setup just BEGS for a succession of ante-upping FX-aided “kills;” and while the series has so far avoided the mistake of delving into it directly, there does appear to be some real subtext to the theme of the disaffected youth of a post-Christian America running in terror from… what, exactly? “Death?” Fate? Innevitability? Spirituality itself? I mean, if the object of fear is an all-powerful supernatural force that decides who lives and who dies… has the “Final Destination” series essentially replaced Michael Meyers with God?

Bigger issues aside, this has now led to three watchable, well-made teen-targeted horror films. This go-round, the setting is a rural town, the victims to be are high school seniors just about to graduate and the big accident is a massively-malfunctioning roller coaster. Some new elements crop up, with varying success, like digital photographs that seem to contain clues as to the when and/or why of various deaths, and the usefulness of Google searches in determining whether strange occurances have occured strangely before.

The kill scenes, which is what you’re really paying for in this series, are generally fun. To rattle off highlights would kind of spoil the fun, but machinery and electricity are the favored playthings this time around. And not only this installment, but perhaps the whole series, reaches a kind of ultimate “thats just asking for it” crescendo when our heroes rush to meet the next expected victims and we see that they are… employees at a giant hardware store!

This is fun for the right kind of mood, and reccomended. And while the series presumably could go on forever, it might be best to let it conclude sooner than later. In the first film, the characters were survivors of a massive plane explosion. In the second, it was a highway pileup. Now, we’re down to a rollercoaster flipping over. If they keep this pattern up, the audiences for “Final Destination 4” may have to settle for a guy falling off his bike.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

Note: The film, as I saw it, included a scene involving “clues” to disasters in photographs. Among the evidence offered was an eerie snapshot of the World Trade Center with an airplane shadow (reflection?) appearing on it’s side. The jury’s out on whether this is “too soon” still or not, but the audience I saw with gasped at this more than they did at some of the death scenes.

REVIEW: Firewall

“Home invasion” movies are a subgenre of suspense unto themselves, one of those curious, rigidly-rulebound mutations branching off from it’s mother genre they way “slashers” grew out of horror, “Die Hard but in a _____” grew out of action and “umitigated crap” grew out of romantic comedy.

The “modern” home invasion movie can be traced at least as far back as “Lady in A Cage” (and undoutedly even further,) but the two prime models for the theme as we know it today are 1967’s “Wait Until Dark” and Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs” in 1971. “Dark” featured an ultra-vulnerable (itty-bitty Audrey Hepburn… blind, even!) female lead set upon unknowingly by crooks, while “Dogs” had Dustin Hoffman as a thoroughly-pacifist cityboy forced to revert (or rise?) to raw caveman machismo during an assault on his home by brutish, uber-masculine thugs. Every home invasion yarn spun since essentially retells one or the other, thusly “Firewall” can be aptly described as a techy-take on “Straw Dogs,” with Harrison Ford in the Hoffman role.

This is about more than just setup. “Straw Dogs” and it’s progeny are all powerful and explicitly-masculine nightmares AND fantasies: The nightmare of having the sanctity of the home violated, the family imperiled, etc… but also the fantasy of rescuing said family from peril and restoring said sanctity to the home. The hero MUST be a loving family man, altogether decent but “robbed” by modern technological civilization of opportunities (or day-to-day reasons) to indulge his inner alpha-male. The bad guys MUST be slimier, more-animalistic than the hero to keep the “city versus the jungle” strain going, save for the leader who MUST be in some way similar to the hero so that the conflict can exist on two planes. Attractive wives/daughters MUST be leered at and in imminent threat of sexual-assault, so as the crystalize the territorial core of the conflict.

Here, Ford is head of security for a major bank, and Paul Bettany is the super-slick leader of a high-tech theivery gang who takes the family hostage. He needs Ford’s character’s help to siphon millions in “virtual money” out of the bank’s database, or the family will die. Tick tick tick tick tick tick…

That’s enough to make a servicable thriller out of, and “Firewall” manages this and only this. The most memorable home invasion stories have added elements of intrigue or plumb darker depths of subtext, as “Fight For Your Life!” where the captive family is black and the bad guys are violent racists or “Straw Dogs'” pitch-dark rape subplot. Bettany, certainly, has a great “oh, you BASTARD!” moment toward the middle that’ll have every parent in the audience ready to beat his skull in themselves, but the rest of the film isn’t really interested in attaining a unique, lasting status. It wants to be a functional techno-thriller, a decent “I still kick ass” star-vehicle for Ford destined for a comfy immortality as a basic cable mainstay (“movies for guys who like movies,” as TBS used to call them) and it achieves this.

We know, going in, that most of the film will be marking time in between the initial kidnapping and the 3rd act wherein the bad guys painfully learn what we already know: It’s a bad idea to pick a fight with Indiana Solo. Until then, it’s fun-with-gadgets, as the story has it’s fun coming up with fun ways to build suspense sequences out of webcams, cell-phones and iPods. One “MacGuyver”-ish device the hero rigs up in particular seems like it was a lot of fun to come up with, but also has the whiff of something that’ll have tech-saavy viewers tearing their hair out.

There’s a few more rules to this genre than mentioned above, like that trappings of everday home life such as, say, children’s scattered toys MUST eventually be employed as anti-baddie tools, and that dogs MUST perform, directly or indirectly, key day-saving actions and, most importantly: No matter what the setting of the movie-proper, the final confrontation between would-be alpha males MUST take the form of a punishing slugfest to prove once and for all who’s the real man. Whether “Firewall” adheres as close to these as it does to the others I’ll let you find out on your own.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

REVIEW: When a Stranger Calls (2006)

Sing it if ya’ know it: A teenaged babysitter, all alone at night, is harassed by spooky phone calls from an unknown source. She calls the cops, who agree to put a trace on the calls just in case. It’s only heavy-breathing at first, then direct threats, and then… the cops call back, frantic: Get out! The calls are coming from INSIDE THE HOUSE!!!

I’m not 100% sure whether or not the above urban leged existed or not, or if so in what form, before it was immortalized in the original “When a Stranger Calls” in 1979, but surely it must have, no? It seems too good of a flashlight-under-the-chin slumber party chiller to have originated entirely from a mostly-average late-70s teen horror offering, most notable historically for being the 2nd moneymaking genre-pic to have originally begun production as a sequel to the seminal “Black Christmas” (the first, as any horrorphile worth his weight in karo syrup can tell you, was “Halloween.”)

Make no mistake, the original film’s first act, which contains the actual “babysitter calling” portion, deserves it’s high rank among horror movie moments. Then it becomes a drawn-out detective story, capped by a final round of stalking for the climax. Much of it feels like padding, and it is, a logical corrective to a basic problem with the material: The main setup works as a minimalist campfire tale, but it’s not going to work as a feature.

So guess what the new 2006 remake decides to try and do?

Yes, the new “When a Stranger Calls” opts to make a go for spreading the original film’s first 20 minutes over the length of a whole movie. With no significant additions to the goings-on. That’s right, 90 minutes and change of a high school aged babysitter getting scary phonecalls. On the plus side, NONE of these 90 minutes is ever visualized via a camcorder, which in modern “horror” is a welcome respite.

Give director Simon West (or, rather, his art department) credit, though, for at least attempting a practical solution to the problem of stretching such a bare-bones story to proper length: Faced with having only one main character in one location, they try and turn the location into a co-star in it’s own right. This time around the “action” takes place in an ultra-expensive, ultra-custom house all alone on the shore of a wooded lake; boasting not only motion-sensing lights, conveniently-spooky sculptures and remote-controlled everything… but also a huge, glass-enclosed atrium/coy-pond/parakeet-sanctuary at it’s center. Really. What’s more, it’s layout and lighting-scheme look as though the owners walked into an architecture firm and specifically requested a home as condusive as possible to the requirements of a PG-13 “horror” movie’s heroine/stalker showdown.

Also, we’re informed early on that said stalker’s “M.O.” is to tear victims apart with his bare hands, suggesting (at least) that he’s on the same fitness regimen as Michael Meyers and Jason Vorhees. As expected, guess who will none the less find himself unable to successfully overpower a teenaged girl who appears to weigh maybe 100 lbs soaking-wet?

Y’wanna know what’s REALLY scary? This totally-disposable waste of screentime cost next to nothing (in studio terms) to make, it’s going to make back it’s money and be the #1 film in America this weekend thanks to the PG-13 rating and lack of competition, and the original film got at least one sequel. Brrrr!

FINAL RATING: 2/10