"Game OverThinker" update

FYI, I’ve added the latest episode(s) over at the “Game OverThinker” blog and the YouTubes. Happily, this little side-project has really started to “blow up” over the last few weeks. Take a peek if you’re so inclined…

Episode Five:

Episode Six:

REVIEW: Pathology

Hardcore horror fans are reflexively distrustful of theatrically-released films at this point. So goes the logic, anything that doesn’t arrive with angry protesters on it’s heels or circulating-legends of how much ‘good stuff’ got cut out to get an R just won’t be worth the time. While not without basis, this mistrust means that on occassion worthwhile entries that might HELP the genre’s theatrical-reputation like “Pathology” wind up having to wait for DVD to get deserved attention. Too bad.

This is a slicked-up new spin on the “mad doctor” theme, wherein the godlike power/perspective afforded to Men of Medicine drives some practitioners to amorality and unspeakable acts – the sort of films Vincent Price turned out by the dozens once upon a time. Here, the medicine in question is Forensic Pathology (thanks again, “CSI!”) via our hero (Milo Ventimiglia) a rising-star Pathology prodigy doing his residency at a prestigious hospital while awaiting marriage to his super-rich super-hot fiance (Alyssa Milano.) Upon arriving, he discovers that the residents all live/work in fear of an elite clique of brilliant, hard-partying young super-docs led by Gallo (Michael Weston.)

Not only do Gallo’s crew torment the other residents with all the cruel subtlety of the villians from “Mean Girls” along with flaunting drug-fueled hedonism after hours (both the male and female members toss Lauren Lee Smith’s seemingly-nymphomaniacal redhead temptress back and forth like a softball)… their REAL kick is an elaborate murder game by which one member of the team creatively-murders a deserving (or maybe not..) victim and challenges the others to figure out how they pulled it off. Soon enough, our hero is drawn into their world for the intellectual challenge, the goading of the very Tyler Durden-like Dr. Gallo and a quickly-out-of-hand infatuation with the Smith’s insatiable seductress.

Now thats a nice, nasty premise for a thriller if I ever heard one. The script comes courtesy of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, who between this and their debut collaboration “Crank” are setting themselves up as masters of creative excuses to wallow in movie-mayhem. “Pathology” is good-looking bad people doing horrid things for their (and our) amusement; and as far as that goes it’s a damn fine exercise in that particular subgenre. You get nasty murders, nastier autopsies and then the infrequent elaborate kinky sex scene – often all staged around the same medical equipment. Ew. But it’s all engaging enough that it’s hard to stop looking.

That said, yeah… it’s not QUITE as nuts as it needs to be, though I’ve got to say there’s a moment of blunt, hammer-force visual poetry involving a certain character’s autopsy near the end that’s damn near the kind of diseased-genius that you used to only be find in Luis Bunuel movies (you’ll know it when you see it.) This is no classic, but it’s not for lack of trying – and I bet it finds more than a few fans among ACTUAL Pathology residents.


REVIEW: The Forbidden Kingdom

To Hong Kong action fans, the concept of seeing Jackie Chan and Jet Li appear in a one-on-one fight sequence – to say nothing of an entire FILM – together has always come with a set of hypothetical questions, first and foremost being “what sort of film?” The high-concept comedy stunt-spectaculars that Chan is the king of? The harder-edged action-thrillers where Li more often finds himself? The old-school throwbacks where both have staked solid ground? The martial-arts genre is surprisingly diverse. One thing that can be certain, “American-Produced Family Film Where They Co-Star Opposite a Time-Displaced Teenaged Kid” was never at the top of the list. But, here we are, and THIS is the film that bring’s us Kung-Fu cinema’s most anticipated matchup since Bruce Lee met Chuck Norris in “Return of The Dragon.”

Now, it’s not so much that either man oughtn’t be making movies for children. Chan’s ouvre tends to play family-friendly as a rule, and Li has done films acting opposite kids before (though few Westerners would call “New Legend of Shaolin” a family flick, trust me.) No, the concern – at least among those serious enough about such things to be concerned – was that two living legends of Chinese action cinema would have their historic clash in yet another weak, watered-down Western imitation (or worse, PARODY) of their native genre.

It brings me no small measure of satisfaction to be able to report that THIS concern, at least, is essentially unfounded: If anything, “The Forbidden Kingdom” may be TOO Chinese for it’s own good. While the story itself isn’t the most original ever concieved in the broad strokes, in the details it’s so tightly-packed with Eastern mysticism and mythology and it starts to resemble “Legend of Zu.” Genre fans, let me put it this way: When The Monkey King enters the plot, the film doesn’t stop to explain to the American audiences who, exactly, he is.

The technical star of the piece is Michael Angarano, the rising star younger fans may recall from the criminally-overlooked “Sky High.” Here he’s Jason, a bullied Boston teenager who worships the vintage Kung-Fu movies he buys from an elderly Chinatown shopkeep (Jackie Chan in startling old-age makeup.) During a robbery of the shop by local bullies, he ends up in the middle of the fray trying to protect a valuable antique fighting-staff… and finds himself (and said staff) yanked back into a mythical version of Ancient China and in the company of a wandering kung-fu master (Chan again, here inhabiting a version of his famous “Drunken Master” characterization as folk hero Taoist saint Lu Yan) who believes the boy is here to (you guessed it) Fulfill The Prophecy.

Short version: The Magic Staff is the weapon of The Monkey King (Jet Li plus some more surprising makeup work) a legendary hero who was turned into stone by the Jade Warlord, who has since ruled the land as a tyrant for hundreds of years. The Staff must be returned to Monkey King in order to free him, a task to which beautiful assassin Golden Sparrow (Yifei Liu, which I’m thoroughly convinced means “holy SHIT!” in Mandarin) and the mysterious fighter Silent Monk (Li again, looking like himself) offer their services. You may also have guessed that returning the staff means walking right into the Jade Warlord’s stronghold on Five Elements Mountain – their paths blocked by master-assassin White-Haired Demoness (Li Bing Bing, who is approximately as hot as her name is fun to say) – and that reviving Monkey King is also Jason’s only hope of returning home.

Okay, okay. YES, it’s “The Wizard of Oz” crossed with “Journey Into The West.” And if you think you already know whether or not Jason will get home AND exactly what will occur when he does… yeah, you’re probably right. I’m not of the mind that this counts as any kind of serious flaw – children’s films and kung-fu movies are both, if nothing else, case-studies in the proper usage of formula-plotting. The answers to the two important questions are as follows: It’s a terrific, fun little movie and (most importantly) Chan and Li’s centerpiece one-on-one dustup is one for the books.

Going back, I’m still struck as to just HOW hard the film works to NOT cheapen the cultural-iconography it’s mining. Li’s turn as the Monkey King is absent from the American marketing entirely, likely because the iconic character (one of the most important figures in Chinese mythology and martial-arts fantasy films) A.) isn’t well known here and B.) the interpretation of him seen here is as traditional as one can get… and some American fans of Li’s harder-edged work likely aren’t prepared to see him wearing simian facial hair and performing “playful chimpanzee” pantomime. His native fans, though, are probably going to go (literally) ape for this, as it’s the kind of work he doesn’t do nearly enough and throws himself into it with gusto.

Meanwhile, the supporting cast (of characters) start to look like a Chinese version of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Not only is Chan’s Lu Yan a historical folk hero, Golden Sparrow and the Demoness are re-interpretations of characters that both appeared in golden-age kung-fu film and literature. Only the hardest of hardcore fans are going to catch this stateside, and it doesn’t detract from the movie-proper, but this kind of genuine respect for the genre and it’s origins from the Weinsteins of all producers is damn impressive – to the point that you almost forget that the Chinese characters living IN CHINA are primarily speaking English (or trying to, and it’s probably a mistake handing most of the exposition to Chan, but no matter.)

Hardcore kung-fu fans? Don’t let the rating and the kids-fantasy aspect turn you off – it’s a damn good bit of work. Family-filmgoers? Believe the hype: It’s the kung-fu movie you can take the kids to without worry AND enjoy yourself.


REVIEW: Forgetting Sarah Marshall

“Forgetting Sarah Marshall” arrives under the banner of the Judd Apatow Takeover of Hollywood, and runs in roughly the standard Apatow “house style” (short version: Male-centric romantic-comedy with scatology increased to the proportionate dimensions of the emotional angst) but owes more credit to it’s writer/star Jason Stegel, who hear quite literally redefines the concept of an actor “baring his soul” to the camera. Not only does he now-famously appear onscreen fully nude, he turns in an achingly real and affecting performance – throwing himself before the audience unguarded and unafraid. He’s a star.

He casts himself in the evidently semi-autobiographical role of Peter Bretter, a 30-something slacker musician earning a tidy-enough living composing the cheezy music for a CSI-style TV show who’s beautiful rising-star lead actress Sarah Marshall (Kristin Bell) he’s dating as the film opens… with their breakup. Or, rather, her unceremonious dumping of him. Encouraged by his best bud (Bill Hader) to soothe himself with one night stands but finding them insufficient, he tries for Plan B: A Hawaiin vacation to a cozy resort… which he quickly discovers is ALSO where Sarah has shacked-up with her new squeeze, swarthy British pop singer Aldous Snow (Russel Brand.) On the bright side, he develops an instant rapport with sexy resort employee Rachel (Mila Kunis.)

You can probably plot the movie out on your own from there – there’s nothing terribly surprising in the broad strokes, as the whole point of this new strain of y-chromosome rom-coms is to go through the standard motions from the guy’s perspective. The surprises are in the details, mainly in Stegel’s refusal to cast anyone as a straight-on villain: Even the seemingly built-to-hate Snow winds up perversely endearing in his oblivious self-satisfaction. And while Sarah is eventually a decidedly unlikable figure, she’s also essentially human.

Getting into any more of it would only be possible by giving away the jokes, including a climax that comes about as far out of left field as one can get in a romantic comedy and still be on tera-firmer. But you should absolutely check it out especially if you liked “Knocked Up” or “Forty Year-Old Virgin.”


REVIEW: Prom Night (2008)

Nobody gives a damn about the original “Prom Night,” other than it being one of the two non-“Halloween” slasher flicks Jamie Lee Curtis was in, cementing her status as “The Scream Queen.” It was a formula “Friday the 13th” riff, nothing special about it. The new film (it shares NOTHING but the title, so it’s not really a “remake”) is more of the same, save that the style-set being lifted is from the Argento playbook (pretty victims, opulent location, no-nonsense knife-wielding stalker) this time around.

Depressingly, the setup – when regarded in the form of a plot-outline, at least – has the makings of a totally workable thriller: Three years ago, a High School teacher developed a psychotic crush on a young female student and wound up murdering her family – while she was hiding, paralyzed with fear. Cut to present, she’s about to graduate and on her way to Prom, and he’s broken out of jail and hunting her down. At the hotel where the bash is going down, he steals into the room rented by her and her companions and hunkers down to wait for them.

That’s it. There’s your setup for the movie: Bad man with a knife waiting somewhere the good guys are innevitably heading toward. Five-word plot synopsis: “Don’t Go Into The Room!” What’s more, it serves as a blunt but functional bit of teen-slasher symbolism: The Hotel Room exists for the purposes of sex, drugs and/or drinking – aka DEATH in slasher-movie lingo – and, naturally, thats exactly where death is LITERALLY waiting. The “good kids” just want to stay down at the dance (read: the innocence of youth) while the “bad kids” are eagerly anticipating heading up to The Room.

So… solid setup, working premise, tidy symbolism. Most horror films would be emboldened by having that much to work from… but “Prom Night” is content to stay on autopilot and deliver the most forgettable, uninteresting product possible. It’s not scary, the acting is completely dull, and the PG-13 rating negates the only real purpose for such a time-waster to exist.

There is no reason to see this movie, period.


REVIEW: Street Kings

Navy vet turned writer/director David Ayer has been flying steadily under the radar for awhile now as a go-to guy for rough-edged L.A.-set crime thrillers, doing screenplay duties for “Training Day,” “The Fast & The Furious,” “SWAT,” “Dark Blue” and his directorial debut “Harsh Times.” That last film showed a keen eye for the sun-bleached haze of the urban West Coast, and the others have displayed a great ear for the sharp, violent language of the same – both serve him well (though he’s now working from a script by James Ellroy and Kurt Wimmer from Ellroy’s novel) in “Street Kings,” a pitch-black police thriller that ranks as one of the most solid offerings in the genre since “Narc.”

It should be said early that, while he gamely trudges onto screen looking impressively disshevled and doesn’t pull out any of his familiar tics or signature inflections, Keanu Reeves still looks and sounds a bit too much like Keanu Reeves to seem immediately plausible as Detective Tom Ludlow – an amoral, rule-breaking, damn-near-sociopathic L.A. uber-cop – but after awhile it stops mattering. He wouldn’t be anyone’s first choice to play what amounts to “Dirty Harry with an innebriated moral-compass,” but he ultimately makes it work.

Ludlow is the risk-taking pointman for an elite LAPD Vice unit tasked by Captain Wander (Forrest Whitaker) to use any means necessary to wipe out the city’s most violent offenders. The unit employs Ludlow, notorious as “the last of the Ghetto Gunfighters,” as a kind of one-man SEAL team: Able to shoot it out with entire housefuls of gangsters, plant evidence, arrange bodies and liberate hostages before anyone else – especially the dogged Internal Affairs chief (Hugh Laurie) – even gets there.

Things turn ugly(er) when IA and some of the city’s less morally-flexible officers start making things difficult for Wander’s rights-violating crew. When one “trouble making” cop is cut down in a suspicious gangland hit and Ludlow happens to be on the scene, favors get called-in to avoid the appearance of shady-doings by all and wagons get circled. All save for Ludlow himself, who may finally be snapping under the weight of his own guilt and sets out to solve the murder himself… putting him in deep with the city’s deadliest criminals and potentially on the wrong-side of the corrupt, violent squad he helped create.

So, it’s “Training Day” meets “L.A. Confidential,” yeah. But I can think of WORSE movies to combine. You don’t finally get a modern classic, but it’s entertaining as all hell and packed with good actors cutting loose on frequently over-the-top roles – Whittaker, in particular, seems to be about to turn back into Idi Amin at any moment. Couple this with a twisty plot and visceral action, and I’m calling this one a reccomendation.


REVIEW: The Ruins (2008)

Another group of attractive American twenty-somethings enjoying vacation in the tourist-y part of the third world opt to venture off the marked trails in search of something “pretty cool” and wind up getting brutally tortured and slaughtered in the middle of nowhere. As narrative tweaks go, the fact that this time around the perpetrators of the bloodletting are carnivorous monster plants is damn near novel enough to make you forget your basically watching “Turistas” again… assuming you were one of the five or six people who saw and/or remembers seeings “Turistas” in the first place. Call it “The Hills Have Ivy.”

The ruins of the title are an ancient Mayan sacrificial pyramid which happens to be inhabited by a meat-eating strain of crawling-ivy. Lining up to be plantfood are a pair of token foriegners, a med school student, two semi-interchangable hotties (one to get naked, one to not, guess who survives) and a nominally more pro-active guy with a beard. The gory stuff kicks off when they make the mistake of stepping onto the pyramid and find themselves beset by Angry Villagers who’re rather insistent about keeping the killer plants – and anyone who goes near them – contained.

So, it’s a vacation-gone-to-hell movie with a whopper of a twist (especially once we start seeing some of the stranger extra powers the monster-plant has up it’s.. petals? stamen?) but it’s unsparing with the bloodletting, merciless with the close-ups and pretty darn smart about the mechanics of horror filmmaking. What makes it inch toward something a bit more is the odd (and probably mostly-coincidental) way it’s plotting eventually starts to resemble a gonzo cross between a modern gore-shocker and an old-timey “jungle adventure” potboiler, right down to the details like the nasty natives doing their thing with bows and arrows and even having “search for the missing archaeologist” as the impetus to seek the ruins in the first place. I half expected Johnny Weissmuller to step out of the bushes… carrying a chainsaw.

It’s finally a little too in love with it’s own pseudo-realism. Carter Smith (directing from a script by Scott B. Smith adapting his own book) was previously best known as a fashion photographer, so it’s somewhat surprising to see him aiming for the stark, spare documentary-style approach. There’s a solid sampling of standout sequences, but just when it looks like the film is ready to cut loose and go as bonkers as a killer-plant movie generally ought to go it’s over. The aspiration to gritty verisimilitude is admirable, but guys… you’re making a movie about man-eating plants, not an installment of “John Adams.” It’s okay to have a little more FUN with it.

Still, it’s a pretty-good movie with killer plants, which makes it a good Killer Plant Movie. And when was the last time we had one of those? A for effort, if nothing else.


Announcing "The Game OverThinker" blog!

With today’s new post of the newest “OverThinker” spot, I’m rolling-out the feature’s new Blog unto itself. From now on, The Game OverThinker spots will be posted there with links here to announce new postings. It’s possible that there’ll also be written material there as well, but for now just give the eps a look and tell you’re friends 😉

The new blog and the new episode (titled “The End of The World as Wii Know It”) are right here: http://gameoverthinker.blogspot.com/