REVIEW: The Kingdom (2007)

Here’s the basic problems facing you if you’re trying to make military-related action films in Hollywood. Firstly, the old wars are getting played out. Now that the post-Russert “You rule, grammy and grampy!” resurgence of WWII films is starting to crest, The Great War will have been revisited in every concievable way for awhile now. WWI isn’t fast-paced enough, and even our SMART youngsters have trouble telling you what it was about. Ditto the Veitnam genre. The Civil War hasn’t made for a great film in years (no, Ron Maxwell’s crap doesn’t count) and the Revolutionary War… well, “The Patriot” for better or worse is kinda hard to top.

Secondly, doing it “current” means engaging the thus-far rather uncinematic War on Terror. Seriously, all political thorniness aside, the current war as film fodder is problematic: “Us” the high-tech war machine as good guys versus gruff, cave-dwelling improvisors as the bad guys cuts hard against the good-guy/bad-guy grain of the last decade or so of action movies: WE’RE supposed to be John Rambo, making an arsenal out of sticks and mud while the bad guys are supposed to be all slick and heavily-armed. Nevermind the fact that too much of our polarized country is going to either see or demand to see any War on Terror film as some kind of referendum one way or the other on Iraq and the Bushies – no genuinely good movie will ever be anti-war enough for “liberals” or “pro-American” enough for “conservatives.”

How, then, one makes a good War on Terror action film is a puzzle that “The Kingdom” sets out to solve and – surprise, surprise – it mostly succeeds. The key, it seems, is in taking a two-directional long view of the situation: Bush, Iraq and Red vs. Blue states loom large right now; but Islamic Fundamentalist terrorism and the world issues it drives/ties-into has been around and will continue to be around longer. It’s this bigger picture (driven-home by a stunning pre-credit sequence encapsulating American/Saudi relations from the discovery of oil to 9-11 in bullet-point format) that drives the events of the story, and enables it to sidestep the murky territory of messages and moral lessons in favor of mining the circumstances for drama and suspense. As a result, we have the first really solid American “War on Terrorism” movie that won’t feel dated once Iraq has (one way or another) concluded.

In many ways, the film plays out as though “CSI: Miami” and “24” had baby – and then sent it to Finishing School to curb it of (most) of it’s baser instincts. It’s a fish-out-of-water cop story with an international scope and a Secular West meets Islamic Middle-East hook, with a tight focus on what the culture-clash in question results-in as opposed to what it “means” or how it makes one “feel.” A horrifically cruel series of terrorist attacks on the living-areas of American oil workers and their families in Saudi Arabia raises the ire of an FBI forensics team (Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman and Chris Cooper) when a mutual friend turns up among the victims. Despite stonewalling by superiors, they semi-legally slip into The Kingdom with a small window of time to try and get some answers and possibly seek out Abu-Hamza, the terror kingpin believed to have planned the attacks.

That’s all easier said than done, of course, or there’d be no movie: As if the expected troubles of trying to process evidence under the auspices of the strict social and religious customs of the society (Garner’s female-hood invites glares, Bateman’s passport has an Israeli stamp, and how DO you perform an autopsy when a non-believer can’t touch the body of a dead Muslim?) aren’t enough, the investigation as a whole is initially hamstrung by the tricky political navigations the Saudi princes have to make in regards to their volatile citizenry. Luckily, the Americans have a sympathetic ally in Colonel Al-Ghazi, (Arab-Israeli actor Ashraf Barhom,) a tough and highly-intelligent Saudi police officer who wants to ice Abu-Hamza AND strains against the forces preventing him from doing so every bit as much as the Americans.

All the more impressive since he’s working amid such a talented overall cast, let me echo the sentiments of just about everyone who’s been to see this so far and state that Barhom just about walks off with the entire movie – he’s a STAR. Equal parts calm, collected detective; reluctant-but-efficient beaurocrat and gunslinging action hero, Al Ghazi may just be the first great, fully-realized, three-dimensional Muslim good guy character of post-911 Hollywood. This is no ethnic sidekick, nor is he a politically correct “wise foreign sage” cliche. He’s essentially the moral center of the movie: The guy who not only aims to do the right thing, but also to do it the right way.

The refreshing no demonizing, no-idealizing, no-bullshit-PERIOD take extends to the film’s overall approach to it’s setting and it’s indiginous culture: The ‘differences’ of Saudi Arabia are played, certainly, for exotica but not so much for outright shock or message-mongering. The callous scrutiny and sexism of the culture toward Garner’s character is noted, depicted and (by Al Ghazi) lamented… but there’s no showy speech about how wrong it is or about how we need to “respect other cultures” instead – it’s there, she dislikes it, most of the audience will agree, but it’s just an element of the plot. The film is more concerned with how this issue will impact the investigation than it is with the larger religious/political questions it raises. I still can’t get over how pleasant it actually is to go see a terrorism movie that ISN’T just a longform essay on either the evils of Islam OR a conspiracy-piece about Big Oil and Halliburton.

Great cast playing great characters, interesting story in a fascinating setting, killer opening, smooth police-procedural second act, visceral action climax and a devastating final coda – this is one of the best action/dramas of the year. Yeah, if your a “conservative” hoping to see a kill-em-all campaign-commercial about the need to stay in Iraq OR if your a “liberal” hoping to see the evil imperialist/capitalist white-male-power-structure Americans ‘get it;’ you’re probably not going to like it. But, then again, if you’re THAT kinda crazy on either side, you’re probably a pretty miserable person to begin with. Those of you with clear heads regardless of party affiliation who’re aching for a DAMN GOOD actioner with brains to match? Get out there and see this.


September 24, 2007

On September 24, 2007, an evil man took the stage to speak at Columbia University. A psychopath. A thug. Leader of nation that murders dissidents, jails reporters and imposes the death penalty for ‘impure’ women’s clothing or homosexuality. An enemy of the United States who supplies weapons to Iraqis used to kill American soldiers. Who has threatened to destroy the nation of Israel for reasons not exceeding the practice of it’s citizens of the “incorrect” religion. Who subscribes to a strain of religious fundamentalism that dictates the need to jump-start worldwide Armageddon.

For days leading up to this, the “conservative” pundit class had been excoriating Columbia for inviting Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak. “Liberal college students!” “Traitors!” “America-Haters!” Then the actual event got under way…

…and everyone, from the university president on down, essentially stood Ahmadinejad up on the stage and threw tomatoes at him. The president called him a petty tyrant without the intellectual honesty to answer their questions. The assembled students laughed in his face. They made a fool of him, dressing him down in front of a worldwide audience.

Set aside the fact that the right-wing talking heads owe Columbia an appology, though they most certainly do. Something extraordinary may have happened here. We may have seen the first real sign of International Politics in the age of “The Daily Show.” Faced with a figure of Hitlerian ambitions and outright evil, these kids did what years of Jedi Training under Steven Colbert, Jon Stewart, “Borat” and “South Park” had prepared them to do: They tore evil a new rhetorical asshole. They mocked him. Derrided him. They dealt him a punishing media-age blow by robbing him, violently, of that which all like him desire most: Respect and fear.

This guy stands at his podium and postures like a man who needs to be feared and revered, and a bunch of snarky American college kids told him, loudly, that he’s not. You’re a JOKE, and we are not afraid of you.

I love my country. This is why.

REVIEW: Eastern Promises

Sometimes, honestly, it can get a bit bothersome to be “the movie guy” in your place of business, or circle of friends, or family gathering. Usually, these times involve those instances when a question about a movie becomes so automatic and ubiquitous that you already know it’s about to be asked just based on who’s asking and what the movie is.

So, in the spirit of that, to my female readers: YES, you can his penis. Will that be all? It will? Groovy. Moving on…

“Eastern Promises” is probably the leanest movie of actual substance to come along in some time. It’s so efficient and to-the-point, but (thanks largely to it’s actors) so fundamentally alive that the best descriptive I can find for it would be biomechanical, which given that the director is David Cronenberg seems entirely appropriate. There’s not an ounce of fat on this – every scene moves the story ahead, every line reveals something of vital importance about the story or the people in it, every fact we hear is important, every character has a specific and important role to play, everything means something. There’s no stopping to smell the roses, no larger or broader themes to explore, no loose threads to leave for interpretation. Even a fairly “wowzer” third-act twist that anywhere else would be the key to blowing open a whole other “grander” level to the proceedings is here just a part of the machinery: It makes sense, fits perfectly with what we’ve already seen, and propels the story ahead to the next point.

Which, all told, makes it kind of a pain in the neck to review. I mean, c’mon David… think of us critics. We NEED extraneous digressions, vauge open-to-interpretation loose ends and subtle, small-detail hints to give us something to write all flowery and academic about. Why, you go and make something so bullshit-free and efficient all we can really do is tell the people what it’s about and whether or not we think it’s any good. Hmph! You’re just a mean ol’ Canadian spoilsport, is what you are 🙂

The story involves transplanted Russian immigrants and their families in London. Hospital midwife Anna (Naomi Watts) has placed in her care the newborn baby of dead, drugged-addicted Russian girl who’s diary reveals (after Anna has it translated, as she doesn’t speak Russian herself) that she was involved in the human-smuggling operations of the Vor v Zakone; a dangerous branch of the Russian mafia. This places the child, Anna and her family in danger – especially since, while seeking translators, Anna has unknowingly already gotten dangerously close to the local Vor leadership: Deceptively-gentle restauranture Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and his psychotic son Kirill (Vincent Cassell.) She’s also caught the attention of the enigmatic Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) Kirill’s chauffer/bodyguard – and he’s caught her’s.

This all unspools with, as mentioned previously, a certain mechanical innevitability. Save for one significant reveal, there’s never any question as to what’s going on, what the stakes are and what eventually has to happen – it’s all a matter of when and how. Credit Cronenberg for understanding how to wring all that can be wrung in terms of drama and suspense from material that isn’t about to offer up “extras” on anything – there’s no room for loligagging, but he knows just when to end a scene and when to draw one out to the maximum. The result: Not a single scene of dialogue or exposition goes on a fraction longer than it needs to, while other sequences like two decidedly un-slick throat-slitting murders (violent sawing instead of kung-fu-quick slice n’ go) and a brutal knife/fist/wrestling fight between Nikolai and two attackers in a bathhouse become hugely-memorable setpieces. The bathhouse fight, in particular, is one of the most visceral and exciting brawls to hit screens all year, a (literal) knockout scene that makes the overrated “realism” of the “Bourne” series’ action scenes look like so much shakycam’d flailing.

Credit also the actors, who may be in a no-frills crime picture but committ to their roles as though they’re in a nothing-but-breathing-room character peice. These are fully-developed, richly-characterized beings who carry the full implication of lives and experiences outside the frame – even if the film-proper isn’t at all interested in exploring them. Take notice, folks: It’s work like this, not talking-head fests, where acting from the inside out really pays off.

Um… yeah. Like I said, not much else to be said beyond that. Russian Mob movie. Well made. Well acted. Go see it.


REVIEW: Resident Evil: Extinction

That the “Resident Evil” movies are actually getting BETTER as it goes on is kind of quaint and alarming at the same time – alarming because you realize that “Extinction,” a mostly-solid ‘not bad’ had two LESSER entries still make enough money to justify it’s existence; but quaint simply for the notion that a mini-tentpole action franchise is still being executed at a workmanlike level where trial-and-error/learning-from-mistakes growth is going on organically between sequels. The original entry was simply dreafully, the second hugely entertaining but largely because of it’s “whatever” vibe of startling-ineptitude… and now here’s number three, a competently-made action/horror/scifi hybrid B-movie in it’s own right. If they keep this pace up, in a few more sequels they’ll make an entirely good movie.

Loosely following the broad plot-outlines of a long-running series of survival-horror video games, the series revolves around the sinister machinations of The Umbrella Corporation; a biotech conglomerate apparently powerful enough to build massive underground cities for research and keep private satellites in orbit even though the only thing we’ve been shown that they sell (in jokey ads for the second sequel) are high-tech anti-aging drugs. A chemical component of said drugs called the T-Virus, ostensibly designed to revive dead tissue, wound up doing it’s job so well that it’s caused a standard-issue Romero-esque zombie outbreak.

The living-dead and other assorted mutants ALSO unleashed by Umbrella’s cavalier research overran a subteranean city in #1, a whole city in #2, and now in #3 they’ve taken over the planet and (somehow) turned it into “Mad Max” land in the span of a few years. Pockets of humanity roam the deserts looking for supplies and trying not to get eaten, while what’s left of Umbrella toils safely in their underground shelter as the wicked Dr. Isaacs tries to find a “cure” for zombie-dom – or, rather, since it’s Umbrella after all he’s mostly trying to “domesticate” them in order to create a slave-race. Umbrella, evidently, got it’s biotech feet wet in the conversion of lemons to lemonade. Give it credit where credit is due for finding SOME fresh material in the drained Zombie genre by focusing on the death of a humanity-deprived planet as opposed to the undead hordes.

In any case, Isaacs believes that the key to his ‘cure’ is the unique blood of series-heroine Alice, (still-stunning Milla Jovovich, again securing her crown as THE queen of B-movie action heroines,) who has been turned into a telekinetic superhuman by Umbrella meddling and now stalks the wasteland doing telekinetic superhuman stuff. When she hooks up with a convoy of human survivors in the ruins of Las Vegas, it puts her back on Umbrella’s radar and sets up a confrontation between the good guys, an Umbrella-loosed hit-squad of Barry Bonds juiced zombies and eventually Dr. Isaacs himself – who seems to be going mad(er) with power.

Bad news first: Sorry, game fans, Alice is once again the prime focus and game heroes like Claire Redfield (Ali Larter) do the supporting gig. Things still look a bit on the cheap side, at least for a theatrical film. Mike Epps’ annoying, ebonics-spewing caricature from #2 is still hanging around. “Tyrant” isn’t nearly as much fun a monster as “Nemesis” was. Someone has made the (baffling) decision that Jovovich’s closeups required digital-airbrushing, resulting in odd-looking shifts from shot-to-shot where she switches from being an insanely-gorgeous human to an insanely-gorgeous digital manequin.

Good news: As movies about spectacular-looking women kicking the tar out of zombies go, it doesn’t get much better than this. Underrated genre veteran Russell Mulcahy (“Highlander,” “Razorback,” “The Shadow“) is easily the most talented filmmaker to tackle the franchise yet. Larter holds her own and looks great doing it. Oded Fehr, the mas-macho Israeli action guy from “The Mummy” and “Sleeper Cell”) is back in an expanded role. “Tyrant” LOOKS a lot less cheezy than “Nemesis” did.

Yes, fine, this is at best a goofy diversion of a movie, “best of the series” and all. Yes, you’re going to get a more intellectually-uplifting, spiritually-satisfying experience going to “Eastern Promises” or “In The Valley of Elah.” But if diversion of junk-food fun are what strikes your fancy, and you’re perhaps not QUITE after the dizzying, mainling-pure-caffeine high of “Dragon Wars” (or you already saw it) this’ll probably do it for you.


REVIEW: The Brave One (2007)

A brief rundown of the sights and sounds awaiting you in “The Brave One:”

“I WANT MY DOG BACK!!!!!” BLAM!! (Yup! Somehow STILL in the movie despite being such a laugh-generator in the trailers.)

Jodie Foster, upon being told she “doesn’t have the right” to vigilantism: “YES I DOOOOOOO!!!”

Terrance Howard, in a performance that suggests someone has dared him to try and do his “solemn, stoic dude tryin’ hard not to cry” vocal bit for an entire movie.


Foster-as-vigilante’s only confidant, an older African woman, imparts sage-like wisdom about how “they give the children guns” in the old country. Because in bad “important” movies, every single person from Africa PERSONALLY experienced horrible violence, which has turned them into Gandalf and filled them with the singular desire to act as deeply-accented consciences to white people.

“You shouldn’t smoke, it’ll kill you.” “I don’t care.” “Lots of ways to die. YOU gotta find a way to LIVE.”

Jodie Foster stalking the neon-lit streets of New York after dark, hunting down scum to blow away while reading from Emily Dickinson in voiceover.


If nothing else, you’ve gotta hand it to director Neil Jordan: When he’s shoveling bullshit, he’s using both hands. “The Brave One” a deathly-dull, horribly formulaic Lifetime-level script that slogs across the screen with all the energy and visual stimulant of a Z-grade “Law & Order” imitator. Every cliche of the revenge genre is mined and put to use, but drained of all life and vigor. Foster either looks like she’s sleepwalking (it’s supposed to pass for PTSD “numbness”) or she’s bellowing in over the top ACTING!!! moments so hysterical they’d get you thrown off of an Uwe Boll movie. The overall vibe, that of an attempted deconstruction of the “Death Wish” model, would reek of pretention if it weren’t so hollow as to negate even an EFFORT toward pretense. Guys, listen: Making a lifeless clone of an “unserious” movie and plugging a take-this-movie-seriously actress into the lead isn’t “deconstruction” – it’s just making a bad movie. In this case, it’s making one of the worst “serious” films of the year.

Maybe it wouldn’t read quite as bad had we not already seen a vastly superior “Death Wish” reworking in the criminally-underpraised “Death Sentence” earlier this year. That film actually succeeded in finding new life in the genre by ripping out any semblance of sociology or “message” and focusing on the breakdown of a lead character’s psyche – following Kevin Bacon’s collapsing sanity into the darkest abyss… and then beyond it. With “The Brave One,” sadly, we’re right back to square one with Foster (in her default mode of seething semi-tomboyish indignance) filling the creaky genre-mandatory role of the naive “liberal” forced to confront grim “reality.” This year’s model: Erica Bain (“BAIN?” We’re goin’ there? Really?) the host of an NPR-style radio show in which she loving pines for “the good old days” of edgy, ugly/beautiful pre-Giuliani cleanup New York.

The business surrounding Erica’s show, for the record, is the closest the film ever comes to establishing a coherent or even interesting theme: That of a bitter-raised middle finger to the romanticizing of war-zone era NYC. It’s thusly meant to carry some note of irony when, after another day of waxing nostalgiac for the days of Punk Club scuzz and “Eloise,” Erica and her fiancee have a horrific encounter with a very “old New York” element: Jumped by a gang of thugs (one of whom is recording the attack with a video camera to help add chaos to the editing – way to think outside the box, huh?) during a midnight park walk, both are savagely beaten and the fiancee winds up dead.

Suddenly, Erica’s beloved city is feeling mighty dark and unsafe, and it’s not long (in fact, it’s quick enough to strain believability) before she’s buying herself an illegal handgun (“30 days? I WON’T SURVIVE 30 DAYS!!!!”) and morphing into a steely-eyed urban crimefighter. She starts out blowing away burglars and muggers, then quickly moves up to rapists and organized-crime kingpins before remebering to track down her initial attackers so that the film can stage one of the goofiest endings since “The Village.”

She can have her dog… I want my MONEY back.


REVIEW: Dragon Wars

Assigning a numerical rating is the hardest part of writing any one of these reviews, and even harder to explain. That’s why, when an example comes along that offers an easy insight as to how I arrive at these numbers, I feel a certain obligation to reveal it. So, then: “Dragon Wars,” a hugely successful Korean-made (but American-set and English-speaking) giant-monster blockbuster, features a sequence in which a gigantic monster serpent easily the size of several city blocks coils it’s way up a skyscraper and does battle with a fleet of armed Apache attack choppers – NO MOVIE WHERE THAT HAPPENS CAN GO BELOW A “5.” It’s that simple. There could be NOTHING else of value or worth in the entire enterprise and it would STILL be at least average, because it has a giant snake wrapped around a building fighting helicopters.

There’s a period in the 2nd act when “Dragon Wars” achieves, if only for a brief time, a kind of transcendant greatness that some overall “better” films can only dream of: Buraki, the above-mentioned giant snake, wraps himself around the above-mentioned Los Angeles skyscraper. Down below in the streets, a combined force of SWAT troops, LAPD cops, Army troops and a squad of tanks engaged in a pitched battle with the Atrox Warriors – Buraki-worshipping evil soldiers clad in gleaming silver armor, astride dinosaur-like steeds and backed up by waves of lumbering slug/lizard behemoths with cannons mounted on their backs. Above, a flock of winged, dragon-like Bulcos engage in dizzying dogfights with attack-choppers. Fireballs are spewed. Giant monsters throw rows of cars about like piles of dry leaves. Swords clash with bullets. Monster-launched missiles tear through concrete.

It is, all by itself, instantly one of the single greatest scenes of monsters attacking a major city in motion picture history – fit to be displayed alongside “King Kong’s” New York rampage, “Godzilla’s” first seige of Tokyo or the genre-defining attack of “The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms” Rhedosaurus. It’s a revelation, a symphony of sights genre fans have been waiting to see for as long as they’ve BEEN genre fans. “Transformers,” a far, FAR less delightful offering of giant-creatures tearing up urbania, WISHES it could be this portion of “Dragon Wars.” If the rest of the film was able to measure up to this one glorious stretch of it’s running time, we’d be looking at a modern classic right now.

Well… it doesn’t, and so we’re not. Truth be told, there are HUGE parts to the film that are laughably goofy, much of it borne from a palpable language barrier between the Korean filmmakers and their primarily American cast. It’s labyrinthine, destiny-centered, flashback-ladden plot makes only the barest semblance of sense. And so we’re presented in-whole a kind of raw-chaos mashup of elements: One-part gloriously-realized fantasy-infused creature feature, one-part unintentional-camp train wreck resembling nothing so much as one of the lesser “Highlander” installments. And yet, like some strange accident of evolution, the ridiculous result WORKS. It darts back and forth between hillariously-awful action-movie stock scenes and jaw-droppingly awesome giant-monster action, and BOTH paths are hugely entertaining in their own way – go for the dragons, stay for the howler dialogue and mind-bending exposition.

Some six full years in the making by Korean comedy icon turned FX-film groundbreaker Hyung Rae Shim (late of the far inferior “Yongarry” remake years ago,) the film does feature an interesting (if insanely over-complicated) setup. The central plot revolves around ancient Korea and The Imoogi, a species of king-sized snake monsters who wish to evolve into proper Dragons (of the flying, ribbon-shaped Asian variety) and can only do so via the sacrifice of specially-destined young virgins. There’s also an evil Imoogi, Buraki, who wants to devour the gal and claim Dragon-hood for himself and has enlisted an army of followers to help him out (exactly WHY a seemingly-immortal super-serpent NEEDS help is a little vauge.) The whole operation hit a snag 500 years ago when a warrior fell in love with his sacrifice-to-be charge, and the two did themselves in rather than submit to the attacking Buraki. They’ve both been reincarnated as 20-somethings in modern day L.A., and right around the time destiny rears it’s head again Buraki and Company are already about the business of tearing the place apart looking for The Girl. Most of this information is imparted to us by Robert Forster (!!!) as a reincarnated, shape-shifting Korean warrior monk who owns an antique shop. Really.

Despite the central presence of the big-bad Buraki, “Dragon Wars” has less in common with Godzilla than it does with the kitchen-sink lunacy of the Ray Harryhausen “Sinbad” films – right down the dizzying menagerie of beasties and the one-damn-thing-after-another plotting. In a way, it’s somewhat unfortunate that the bulk of “Dragon Wars” media blitz has focused on older audiences. While it’s true that grownup monster geeks and fans of “what the HELL??” moviemaking will likely find a new guilty pleasure here, the real proper audience for this is kids. Fast-paced, not terribly gruesome and stuffed to the gills with monsters and magic, this film will be MANA to any young lover of monsters/dragons/dinosaurs for whom wooden acting and psyche-melting dialogue are infinitely forgivable in the face of colossal monster battles or armored, dragon-riding baddies charging against a phalanx of tanks.

Had this film existed when I was around 7, no force on Earth could’ve kept me from watching it into memorization. To the current generation of film geeks this will be an instant “camp” cult hit… but for the NEXT generation it’s going to be a seminal title – non-monster-related parts that don’t hold up notwithstanding. At the showing I attended, a pair of young boys sat a few rows ahead of me along with an older woman (probably a grandmother to one one or both of them); and while the grownups (myself included) were laughing like hyenas for much of it, these kids were enraptured. Got a kid in your family that collects toy Dinosaurs or seeks out Godzilla flicks on TV? Take him or her to see this, you’ll be their hero.

Folks, I’ll be honest. I’ve had a massive downer of a week. Crappy time at work. Rainy weather. Just a big long “man does adulthood tend to SUCK” time… and “Dragon Wars” was exactly the tonic I needed. A huge-scale giant-monster B-movie complete with MST3K-worthy acting for laughs and extended sequences of fantasy/creature warfare for genuine thrills. I was laughing, I was applauding and, at times, I may as well have been ten years old again, amazed to be seeing Monster Movie scenes that I thought would only ever exist in my dreams. I’m not sure (though I’d hope) if director Shim’s human characters would be less spectacularly dopey when his crew speaks the same language as his cast, but he’s proven himself a prodigy at arranging sequences of giant monster carnage – and he gave me MORE than I wanted and EXACTLY what I needed.


REVIEW: Shoot ‘Em Up

In the period in which I did my time as an art student, “mixed media” junk-art was big. Maybe it still is, I dunno, I don’t live in that world anymore. For those of you who’ve NEVER lived there, the basic idea of the stuff is to make something that looks as much as possible like it got mashed together “organically” (translation: “by accident”) yet wound up looking in some way compelling. You’re already thinking, “sounds easy, just bash some crap around and bullshit a rationale for it,” but that’s not exactly true: Most of the professors could always see through that, or at least were good guesses as to which of us were likely to pull it. (::raises hand::) No, the “trick” was to actually do your best BUT, if you made an actual mistake, to pass it off as one of the many “intentional mistakes” making up the greater piece. If you were REALLY ballsy, or if you were a woman and suspected that the professor harbored an ambition of sleeping with you, you might even get away with “that wasn’t the original intention, but it wound up opening new possibilities so I kept it in.”

Short version: The two inherent problem with art-imitating-junk are, #1: It can be tough to tell how much is imitation and how much is just junk, and #2: It can be even tougher to argue how much it, if at all, it ought to “matter.” (all-time champion “textbook case” movie of this type: “Attack of The Killer Tomatoes.”) Consider: If a fellow shows up tommorrow with the cure for cancer, does it really make any difference if he found it through years of dogged, meticulous research or if he just spilled the “wrong” random chemicals into the same kettle?

In this particular case, we can take a certain amount of weight off the issue immediately by confirming right off the bat that “Shoot ‘Em Up” is, in cinematic terms, most definately NOT the cure for cancer. It’s not even really the cure for a hangnail. Or even acne. In fact, if it WERE some kind of medicine, it likely wouldn’t even be very effective against mild heartburn. Despite the requisite Internet hype, this is NOT the “next level,” “perfect example,” “ultimate extrapolation” etc. of ANYTHING. Even amid it’s own genre, it’s not nearly as good as the two “Transporter” films. But it IS art-imitating-junk, and thus it does beg the troublesome “how much” and “does it matter” queries.

For analysis, it’s best to start with the “junk” in question. Though it’s obvious from the setup – black-clad gunslinger (Clive Owen) protects baby from army of killers – that actionphile writer/director Michael Davis has “studied under” John Woo, along with most of the other “Asian Masters” of the genre (the supremely icky “evil scheme” and the particular fetish that Monica Bellucci’s “hooker with a heart of gold” heroine specializes in indicate he’s also “up” on his Takeshi Miike and Chan Wook-Park) but those are generally ‘good’ action movies…

…And “Shoot ‘Em Up’s” ambition, seemingly, is to be a BAD one. After about ten minutes or so it becomes clear that the film is charging, fully-aware and with great commitment (or maybe not, but lets not get ahead of ourselves), away from Woo and into the realm of “Double Team,” “Tango & Cash,” “Stone Cold” and the collective filmography of Lorenzo Lamas: The land of “so bad it’s good” disasterpieces action-adoring movie geeks prize for their grand-scale “are you KIDDING ME???” spectacle of unintentional hilarity. These are the “heights” “Shoot ‘Em Up” hits, but the sticky-wicket is that it appears to go there on purpose: The difference between this film and a genuine-article like “Half Past Dead” is the difference between seeing a skateboarder hurt himself in a funny (to you) way while attempting what was meant to be a cool trick and seeing Johnny Knoxville hurt himself in a funny (to him AND you) way while attempting to hurt himself in a funny way.

And believe me, “Shoot ‘Em Up” has it’s so-bad-it’s-good action movie bases covered: The gunfights make no logical sense, defy all known physics and involve a nigh-superhuman hero who never misses a shot tearing through waves of bullet-magnet henchmen who couldn’t shoot a legless elephant. It shamelessly thrusts vulnerable targets (pregnant women, babies) into great danger in order to provide the suspense an un-killable hero lacks. The good guy has a “cute tic,” in this case he’s constantly chomping carrots a’la the similarly-unstoppable Bugs Bunny (get it??), and caps off his most impressive kills with groaner one-liners. The bad guy (Paul Giamatti) speaks Smartypants Supervillian Condescension fluently to his henchmen. Exposition on things we’ve already figured out is delivered with thudding literalism, usually in ADR voiceover.

It’s obvious that Davis intends most or possibly all of this to be a lark, a self-parody joke to his fellow genre devotees. The trouble arises in how difficult it seems to be to sort out how much of the “funny” is there intentionally and how much happened organically. Example: Of course the hero’s insistance on post-kill punchlines is an in-joke, but is the fact that the jokes are stunningly bad PART of the joke or just honest-to-God bad writing? Ditto some of the just-plain-awful straight dialogue. On the one hand, it’s hard to imagine that any film that has a character say of the hero “I figured out who you hate most: yourself” and NOT be doing so as satire, but on the other hand I DID see “Transformers” so I guess it’s possible. On the OTHER hand, strongest possible evidence that this is all one big joke: Amid all the massively fetishized (hell, outright sexualized) footage of firearms and their workings, “Shoot ‘Em Up” eventually positions itself as, I shit you not, a pro gun-control message movie. For real.

So, which is it? Art-imitating-junk or junk-masquerading-as-art-imitating-junk? Overall, my guess would be that it’s a lot more of Option #1 than most of it’s detractors will admit, but ALSO a lot more of Option #2 than it’s makers will readily “cop” to. The more uneasy question is whether or not the answer matters. “Shoot ‘Em Up” is a so-bad-it’s-good junkfood action epic of absolutely no nutritional value, and on that level I enjoyed it the same way I enjoy “The Adventures of Ford Fairlane” or “3000 Miles to Graceland.” If all, or even MOST, of it’s eye-poppingly ridiculous execution was an intentional mash-note to bottom-shelf action trash, Michael Davis just might be an expert genre-analyst/satirist. If it’s often startling (seeming) ineptitude really IS ineptitude, then he could be ::shudder:: another Uwe Boll. But, so what? If I liked the final product, and I did with reservations; and if others hated it, does the “intent” really make a substantive difference for EITHER opinion? A like is, after all, a like and dislike is still a dislike.

How can YOU expect to react? Well, I can think of at least quick test. The Brian Bosworth vehicle “Stone Cold” is one of the silliest, dumbest, most inane action movies ever produced. I love it to death, and bought it the first day it was out on DVD. If you know of this movie, also bought it or WILL buy it now that you know the DVD is out, you’ll probably have a good time with “Shoot ‘Em Up”… though possibly not the good time you were intended to.


REVIEW: 3:10 to Yuma (2007)

The reason that “3:10 to Yuma” is the best thing to happen to the Western genre in a good while is that it’s not trying to be the best thing to happen to the Western genre in a good while. Ever since “The Wild Bunch,” nearly every Western that’s come out has either been trying to “deconstruct,” “revise” or “examine” the genre, and every OTHER Western has been attemtping to counteract those efforts through re-mythologizing. Now, for the first time since “Tombstone,” we’ve got a Western that isn’t asking to be judged as anything other than what it is: A pretty damn good action/drama that happens to be set in the Old West. Is it going to be the movie that turns old-school cowboys into the “new” superheroes? No, and I’m grateful that it knows better than to bother.

Christian Bale has the lead as Dan Evans, a one-legged (Civil War wound) rancher who’s impotent innability to make the land work or fend off the Railroad Company goons trying to run him off it is (possibly) starting to cost him the patience of his wife and has (definately) already cost him the respect of his eldest son – who prefers as a role-model Ben Wade, a notorious outlaw he’s read about it dime-store paperbacks. As it turns out, the ACTUAL Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) has recently led his gang of brutal thieves into the area for a coach robbery. Wade is one of those inherently-brilliant improvisational supercrooks who’s always cool, collected and Zen in the manner of someone who’s thinking ten steps ahead of everyone else, to the point that he barely registers mild annoyance when a posse of Pinkertons (overheard at the screening: “Dude, which guy is Pinkerton?”) and a crotchety Bounty Hunter (Peter Fonda!!) bust him in Evans’ cozy little county.

Problematically, Wade’s gang is comprised of super-dangerous cutthroats who tend to go a little feral without The Boss around to guide them. Even MORE problematically, while they’d be trouble enough scattered to the four winds, Wade’s full-blown-psycho of a Second in Command (Ben Foster) is more than a little… um.. well, obsessed with his mentor, and opts to hold the wolfpack together as a lethal-force rescue squad that announces doom to any town that keeps them from Wade. With this imminent attack acting as a ticking clock, a posse forms to transport Wade to a secure train bound for Yuma Prison. Seeking reward money to settle his debts, Evans joins the team. Seeking Ben Wade and the chance to prove his mettle, Evans’ son follows.

So, it’s a “prisoner transport” movie, Old West style. Works for me. You’ll not be too surprised, I trust, to learn that it’s really about the psychological duel between Crowe and Bale – urbane, witty criminal versus earthy, emotionally-scarred honest farmer; both of whom are carrying baggage and secrets. and, really, thats all there is to “report.” There’s no straining for shocking twists or groundbreaking metaphor – it’s a “set up and go” action picture, plain and simple.

There’s exciting chases, big gun battles, encounters with Indian raiders and sadistic Railroad workers, macho battles-of-will and a big climactic shootout in the middle of a not-precisely-lawful town. The stuff Western genre-pics are made of, done well with good actors and a tight little script. In many ways, it reminds me of a “cowboy version” of “The Departed,” another deceptively “classical” genre film that became a crowd-pleaser and Oscar winner. Don’t even think of it as a “Western,” think of it as a “Cowboy Movie.” And enjoy.



If you spend any amount of time in the video-game centric corners of the Web, you’ve likely heard of or experienced the work of James Rolfe, better known as “The Angry Nintendo (now more broadly Video Game) Nerd.” Short version: Relentlessly-profane, disturbingly-informative reviews/trashings/history-lessons on old-school video games of the deserved-obscure and/or famously-awful variety, posted semi-regularly to GameTrailers and the glorious

Part of what’s made The Nerd an online fixture is that his rants and raves have a certain intimately familiarity to his fans: If you’re one of the millions of now-grown gamers who grew up as Rolfe seems to have, i.e. a child-of-the-80s firmly-ensconsed in the video game culture of the time – especially the Nintendo-branded variety, some or even most of his digressions will awaken some pretty powerful nostalgia in you. It has for me, but never so much as his most recent posting in which The Nerd sets aside (mostly) the anger for a pure-nostalgia look back at “Nintendo Power,” the Nintendo-published magazine/company P.R. machine that was MASSIVELY popular in it’s day and retains a cult following even still.

It seems corny, but I got literally misty watching The Nerd reminisce in detail over the strange ads, letters, etc. of the magazine… which as a kid I would read each of to the point of memorization. Literally every single thing he mentions here I recall, vividly, with accompanying memories tied to it. Some good, some not so. I remember getting my Issue #1. I remember “Howard & Nester.” I remember the LETTERS he reads from the letters page. I know, silly… but I found myself honestly moved by this short little webisode. So I’m tossing the clip and link on here, just to share and also to do my part to introduce more people to The Nerd. Give this guy a look, he’s a lot of fun:

Thank you, Angry Nintendo Nerd, for a truly pleasant entry into what has been an increasingly mezzo-mezzo sort of week.