Fighting (2009)

“Fighting’s” comically on-the-nose title is the only remotely interesting thing about it. It’s a completely predictable story, acted-out with stock characters, uninterestingly shot and punctuated by boring action scenes. It’s a case study in why similarly low-rent films of the past tended to crank ONE element (usually the violence, the sex or a hot-button “hook” theme) up to eleven for saleability, earning the moniker of “exploitation films.”

The good guy is Channing Tatum (still well-ensconsed in his niche as the “teen hearthrob for girls who men who look like, well, men”) as a homeless(?) Southern dude selling bootlegs in NYC and getting into impromptu street fights with the other riff-raff. Said fights are observed by a pro-hustler (Terrance Howard) who scoops the kid up and introduces him to the world of bare-knuckle street-fighting for cash. You will be unsurprised to learn that the film follows them through a series of fights in various colorful (and escalatingly-wealthy) neighborhoods against area-appropriate opponents (a Japanese hotel/brothel’s champion is… A KARATE MASTER!!! Wow! What an angle…) You will be similarly unsurprised when, early on, Our Hero meets the circuit’s reigning champ and – whod’a’thunk it? – he turns out to be an Old Rival from his past who recognizes him and taunts him with vauge allusions to the Dark Secrets of where and how he picked up his prodigious punching powers. There’s also A Girl, who in accordance with The Ancient Laws of such things possesses The Heart of Gold, The Career of Dubiousness, The Child of Illegitimacy and, yes, even The Grandma of Ethnic Humorousness. This is the kind of plotting that’d make Joseph Campbell eat a bullet.

Now, better movies have been made from worse elements – usually by the aforementioned “eleven-ing” of some tangential attribute – usually the action scenes but occasionally the acting. “The Karate Kid” is novelly-characterized enough to make you forget your just watching “Rocky” again, “Ong Bak’s” lead guy can jump nine feet in the air and knee a guy in the forehead, you get the idea. “Fighting,” unfortunately, has delusions of serious drama, so it elects not to show off either.

The fight scenes are uniformly bland, the result of going for a semblance of absolute realism: Most of the fights quickly descend into improvised wrestling on the floor, hits to the face usually end things, etc. This worked out fine in “Redbelt” where the “fights” were quick, brutal punctuation marks for interesting drama. Here? You’re slogging through knee-deep cliches to get to the fights, and then they’re just as dull.

As for the acting… the seemingly upscale casting doesn’t end up doing it any favors. Tatum’s character is basically Lil’ Abner – a stuttering “aw shucks” hillbilly with fists of steel – while Howard is stuck doing his “world-weary-dude-always-on-the-verge-of-bawling” bit; which means that MOST of the film’s big dialogue scenes happen between two characters who mumble and half-start through 90% of their lines. It’s like watching a pair of stroke victims compete in a Brando impersonating contest.

Obsessed (2009)

It’s the Plot Outline that Would Not Die: Hotshot young newly-married businessman draws the attention of an Office Hottie, Office Hottie turns out to be crazy stalker, marital problems arise, stalker goes even CRAZIER. This neatly summarizes a baffling number of films, almost all uniformly lousy, descending in an unbroken line from an insanely-overrated 80s potboiler called “Fatal Attraction.” “Obsessed” doesn’t do a damn thing to change up the gameplan, and it doesn’t even have the balls for any murdered pets of even actual infidelity. OH! Except for one thing: Our good-guy married couple (Idris Elba and Beyonce Knowles) happen to be black, and stalker gal (Ali Larter) happens to be white. And leggy. And blonde. Yeah. Well, if nothing else, I’ve gotta hand it to whoever in the production had the solid exploitation-flick sense to get that this seemingly simple wrinkle would be all it’d take to turn an otherwise unremarkable “Attraction”-rip into potential of-the-moment blockbuster: It’s “Oh No She Di’int! – The Movie.”

Too bad it sucks regardless, huh?

Aside from the respectably unexpected note that no one IN the film makes any reference to (or seems otherwise aware of) the racial-tension “hook” at play, there’s not a single new idea or noteworthy moment to be had in what finally adds up to 2 hours of filler in between an “Oooooh….” setup and the innevitable “take THAT, bitch!!!” finale. I’m at least compelled to salute the film for, if nothing else, offering up a rare unironic portrayal of an upscale black couple… even if the “hook” means that they still ultimately give the only interesting role to the white girl. Ah, well.

Structurally, it’s something of a mess suggesting heavy post-production tinkering: The P.O.V. belongs to Elba’s hapless husband character for the entire first two acts, relegating Knowles to a one note second-fiddle for almost the whole story… which, of course, serves to make the third act – where Elba suddenly turns innefectual and is hustled quickly offscreen so that the two ladies can slug it out after Beyonce’s out-of-nowhere metamorphosis into the Avenging Angel of Wronged Black Womanhood (“You think you crazy? I’ll SHOW ya’ CRAAAAZY!” she headbounce-and-spits into the phone) – seem abrupt and out of sync.

No need to bother, really.

Miss California

So… this happened:

Short version: Someone evidently thought it’d be high comedy (they were right!) to ask the beaming plasticene f*ck-dolls at the Miss USA pageant questions about complex issues of political policy, which led to gossip-blogging irritant Perez Hilton – acting as a judge in this case – ask Miss California Carrie Prejean about gay marriage, which led the robotically-sexy young lady to give the crowd her best Anita Bryant impression. In any case, she didn’t win, and now someone has decided this is the Culture War Skirmish of the week.

Egh… Perez Hilton versus a plausibly-homophobic beauty pageant contestant. It’s likr the “Destroy All Monsters” of utterly worthless human flotsam. The big “to do” has come down to the issue of whether or not holding this particular opinion “cost” her the crown, something thats become somewhat difficult to deny since Hilton keeps saying (and then un-saying) that, in fact, it did. Oh, dear…

Me? I’d have voted her down, too. Here’s the thing: Last time I checked, the overriding point of this is to pick the best-looking woman in America, yes? Well, to me, answer like that makes her less hot. Plain and simple. Oh, she’s GORGEOUS, don’t get me wrong… there’s no bigger buzzkill in the world than a smokin’ hot chick who turns out to be uptight about sex – it’s always either a tease or a trap. When you hear that kinda “square”-ness coming out of a face that pretty, it means your wasting your time: Woman like that usually gives the best handjob in five counties, sure, but if your looking for anything MORE than that it’s gonna cost you a big-ass diamond and one HELL of a lopsided pre-nup.

Or maybe I just don’t like her for forcing me to even KIND OF “side” with Perez Hilton. Either one works…

Crank 2: High Voltage

Here’s the easiest, most trite-yet-true call any critic will make this year: If you liked (or, at least, “appreciated”) “Crank,” you will feel largely the same was about it’s sequel. It’s as simple as that. The only mandatory note of caution is that, since the first film’s impact (such as it was) had a lot to do with the way it arrived as a bolt from the blue with no real warning as to just how insane and yet alarmingly well-made it was, the sequel is almost by-design going to be ever so slightly less mind-blowing because… well, this time you kinda of know what to expect. Give it credit, at least, for swinging for the fences in it’s attempts to one-up it’s predecessor.

For catchup’s sake: “Crank” was a one-part celebration, one-part satiric deconstruction, one-part adrenaline-injection of yer basic “boy vs. the world” macho action epics; specifically the type in which it’s star – British character actor turned surprise B-movie action god Jason Statham – was/is currently making his bones. It related the purported “final day” of one Chev Chelios, your basic unstoppable one-man-army hitman antihero who awoke to find himself injected with a lethal poison that will kill him unless he kept his adrenaline constantly ramped up – requiring him to use everything from pain, drugs, caffeine, sex and whatever else you could imagine to keep himself alive long enough to take revenge on his “killers.” The story climaxed with what appeared to be Chelios’ spectacular “death,” but you know how action heroes are…

The first film had energy and style to spare, but whether or not it was meant to be anything other than “awesome” is largely in doubt. If you WERE to go looking for a sense of presentation theory, I suppose a good way to describe it would be that the film seems to imagine a theoretical “ideal audience member” for itself in the form of a mad-at-the-world teenaged boy and views itself through “his” eyes: Chelios wreaks bloody havoc through a “people and things who piss me off in L.A.” obstacle course in which everyone and everything has it’s worst foot forward practically begging to be throttled, and our view of it is a multimedia blitz of pounding music, gratuitous sleaze, dehumanizing caricatures of every race, gender and lifestyle to be found and a smattering of video game sound effects.

In the sequel, Chelios is “saved” from his death by a gang of Chinese Triad organ-thieves who want to steal his demonstrably-unkillable heart for mysterious purposes. Outfitted with an artificial heart that requires constant replenishment of electricity, Chev is once again off-and-running across the City of Angels to punch his way to retrieving his “property,” stopping only long enough to electrocute himself in whatever oddball way can be found to keep on kicking. Along with the Triads and a rival Latino gang with it’s own agenda to fight and Bai Ling as what is either the most offensive Asian female character in modern film history OR a bloody-brilliant satire of stereotypical Asian female roles in Hollywood movies, just about every minor character who survived the first film (and some who didn’t) are back for another round as well.

It’s not really a complicated thing, guys: Either you WANT to see likable action lead “Double Dragon” his way through nightmare visions of the day-to-day annoyances of sharing urbania with the rest of humanity with an almost Troma-level disregard for basic decency visualized in a manner so impressionistic it borders on the outright surreality one might expect from a Michel Gondry or Jan Svankmajer piece (at least one fight scene briefly morphs into a 100% different genre and visual style that’s destined to make it a “no, really!” classic) or you DON’T.

One thing I CAN offer in it’s favor is that, for all it’s “fuck-everyone-and-everything” bluster it’s consistently hard to figure which targets filmmakers Neveldine and Taylor aim to skewer and which they aim to (in their own way) celebrate: At one point, a big-bossomed stripper participating (topless) in a gun battle takes a nonlethal bullet to the chest and, rather than blood, we’re treated to the sight (and sound) of liquid silicon erupting from her punctured implants… on the other hand, Chelios’ eventual backup is an army of musclebound, leather-clad African American gay/S&M bikers who arrive on-scene in a thunderingly-heroic manner usual reserved for literal cavalry. If nothing else, it’s a genuinely peculiar blend of screw-the-world misanthropy and quasi-progressive caricature-subversion. There’s certainly nothing else quite like it out there right now.

Dragonball: Evolution

Wow, what a dud. Badly-acted, inanely-scripted, edited into oblivion and heavily reliant on special effects that wouldn’t pass muster in the kind of 2nd tier Hong Kong (or Bollywood, for that matter) cash-in in otherwise best resembles; this would be a shoo-in for a lot of year-end “worst” lists save for the fact that no one but hardcore “Dragonball” fans will take much notice of it now OR remember it a week from now. It’s not just a bad movie – it’s a dull, lifeless one.

Let’s be clear, though: There’s ABSOLUTELY no reason for anyone to see this unless they’re already a devotee of Akira Toriyama’s seminal manga/anime franchise… and even then it can only possibly be of interest as a curiousity item for fans who feel like watching the unwieldy result of trying to rework Toriyama’s offbeat scifi-fantasy spoof of Chinese mythology and martial-arts manga into the framework of an American superhero movie – primarily “Spider-Man.”

The original “Dragonball” applied a gonzo sheen to the ancient Classical Chinese novel “Journey to the West.” Taking place in a vaugely futuristic world of magic, monsters and kung-fu; it followed the friends and associates of gadget-girl Bulma and Goku – a hyperactive feral child with superhuman fighting skills, mysterious powers and a dubious origin – on their quest to collect seven lost “Dragonballs” with which one can summon a dragon and make a wish. The new film keeps that basic outline but moves the premise to a world dissapointingly closer to our own, reimagines Goku as a power-concealing undercover nerd in High School a’la Peter Parker and bumps eventual-baddie Piccolo to the forefront early on.

The “international” cast does what it can in what amounts to another fundamentally-empty Fox cheapie hoping to cash-in on a name brand. James Marsters comes off the best under heavy makeup as Piccolo, while Chow Yun Fat (seriously?) looks like he’s having fun as lecherous martial arts teacher Master Roshi and Emmy Rossum deftly approximates anime sex-appeal in a ridiculous hairdo. Justin Chatwin as Goku is very nearly the least interesting male lead since Robert Pattinson in “Twilight.”

Skip it.

Observe & Report

Let me join the choir of broken records on this one: DON’T read this or any other review, just go see it before the “secret” gets out. If there’s any justice in the world, this film is about to leave theaters full of people who showed up for a second go at “Paul Blart” (which really isn’t bad and doesn’t deserve the slagging it’s getting in comparison to this superior but largely unrelated film) shell-shocked and rattled like nothing they’ve experienced in recent memory. Don’t you wanna be there for that?



For those of you who either ignored the above advice or took it and just came back, here we go:

In the broadest sense, O&R is a grim subversion of the current most-reliable comedy trend: Movies about socially-inept, comically-derranged man-children living in their own deluded world where their meager job or position is of huge importance – even though they’re largely incompetent at it – but who are basically harmless and thus likable in their wackiness (see: 95% of Adam Sandler movies). O&R changes-up the game with a diabolically-simple swap – removing the “incompetent” part. And the “harmless” part.

Seth Rogen’s Ronnie Barnhardt is an overzealous mall security guard who envisions himself as the Dirty Harry (or is it Maniac Cop?) of commercial-district suburbia, and up to a point that’s about as funny as you’d expect… except that he’s NOT inept or incapable: He’s FREAKISHLY “good” at what he thinks his job is. He’s a crack shot with his beloved gun collection, he’s in surprisingly spry shape for his, er.. “shape,” he’s got a creepy talent for earning fealty from other small-time malcontents and – most importantly – he’s a very REAL physical threat to those who cross him. This is no endearingly-disconnected goofball, this is a bona-fide psychopath BARELY kept in check by bipolar meds. That’s the gag: The other characters don’t know everything “we” know, so they keep treating him like an over-imaginative dork while the audience knows the frightening truth that Ronnie really IS the tormented lethal-weapon he thinks he is… in fact, he’s even worse than that: Ronnie thinks he’s Harry Callahan, but he’s REALLY Travis Bickle.

Events conspire to push Ronnie’s hero fantasies over the edge: A trenchcoat-clad “flasher” is tormenting girls at the mall, including his longtime crush Brandi (Anna Faris as possibly the best “unlikable” female lead in a decade or more.) Ronnie elects himself chosen by providence the bring the “case” to a close, leading him to butt heads with the real police (Ray Liotta), make his move on Brandi and go off his meds. None of these things are good, but the bigger problem is that their consequences can’t STOP him: Ronnie is NOT a guy who self-destructs – his psychopathy explodes outward, anhilating those around him but leaving him relatively unscathed and oblivious.

The film itself is somewhat imperfect. It sometimes seems to drop off-tempo jokes into scenes just so there can BE a joke, and it’s ending possibly goes on one or two beats too long (you may be too shocked to care at first glance, however.) But it’s made brilliant by it’s fearless sensibilities, it’s rather “Watchmen”-like examination of the kind of lunatic that actually takes to vigilantism and its performances – including a scene-stealing a possibly career-changing comic turn from Michael Pena.

Honestly, I’m actually a bit disturbed at how “relatable” Ronnie is at some moments. By the time the film wraps up we know he’s lethally-unstable, a stalker, a racist, potentially a date rapist… but there’s a certain real “vengence of the underdog” angle to his delusions that from certain angles you (or, at least I) could halfway sympathize with. At one point he and Pena team up to lay a horrifically-violent beating on a gaggle of grade school aged skateboard-punks and, well… on the one hand I “understand” that this is meant as a further clue as to how far-gone Ronnie is, but on OTHER hand I have worked in a mall and damned if I didn’t get a MASSIVE vicarious thrill watching him break a board over one of the little brats skulls. I think this is part of why the film works, though – this ISN’T a fantasy of a crazy guy, this is a crazy guy who exists by the thousands all over the place and maybe to a degree inside more people than would like to admit it.

Final Rating: 9/10

Busy busy busy…

Yikes, looks like I missed some days. Ah, well, here we go…

God, but I hate this franchise even as I like most of the people in it. This new fourth installment acts as though #2 never happened (while a brief character-cameo in the first scenes establishes that #3 has YET to happen) reuniting the main cast from the first for what turns out to be a pretty generic smuggling caper. The most interesting part is ruminating on how much has changed since the original, when Paul Walker was a blandly-irritating youth icon in the Tiger Beat mold, Michelle Rodriguez was still riding the wave of post-“Girlfight” hype and Vin Diesel was a new star just starting to emerge into “name status.” Now, eight years later, Walker is cementing status as a “grown” star with offbeat projects like “Running Scared,” Rodriguez has spent the recent past better known as a tabloid fixture for arrests and bisexual adventurism than as an actress, while Diesel is still trying to pick up the pieces of a career that followed bad advice into “next big thing” action heroism and ran smack into a wall. Sadly, Jordana Brewster (also back) remains a criminally unappreciated actress.

It’s a story about a rich (but not rich enough, it turns out) high-minded college grad who’s forced by financial circumstance to spend a summer working at a creaky amusement park in his hometown. There, he meets (can ya guess?) an interesting crop of quirky but endearing characters and falls hard for a girl who (betcha can’t guess!) is as hard-bitten and experienced as he is naive (aww, how’d ya guess?) but is hiding a secret pain. Okay, so originality isn’t it’s strong suit, but it’s the details that count: What at first looks to be the umpteenth knockoff of Caddyshack gets it’s mileage from making it’s stock characters just real enough to feel surprising even though all the beats you’re expecting are there. Kristen Stewart is the standout as the female lead – she’s so good in this it makes me even sadder to think about what appearing in the awful “Twilight” series is potentially going to do to her career.

Told you so

So, evidently Jackie Earl Haley is Platinum Dune’s new Freddy Krueger.

Called it!

This is big, BIG news for Haley – a few years ago he was a beyond-forgotten former child star (from the original “Bad News Bears”) only to re-emerge back onto the scene with extraordinary roles in “All The Kings Men” and “Little Children;” and now in 2009 he’s the unquestioned breakout star of “Watchmen” and set to take the lead role in a major studio franchise film. The guy’s a terrific actor, and he deserves all this success and more.

EVERY “spooky guy” actor in the business was on the short-list for Krueger, so it’s a pretty big coup for him… but I’m thinking it’s actually Platinum Dunes “lucking out” in this case: “Watchmen” has turned Haley into a GOD in the eyes of the buzz-controlling Film Geek audience that would otherwise have been bound to raise an entire production-runup’s worth of negative noise at the idea of anyone other than Robert Englund playing Freddy.

In any case, I’m REALLY happy for the guy. It’s just, y’know, a shame that the movie is still going to suck 😉

Oh, and hey: Here’s the newest OverThinker piece – Part I of a Sonic The Hedgehog overview: