Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Random Movie: Boogie Nights (1997)

Written by: PBF

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights is inspired by, loosely based on or whatever you want to call it, the life of porn star John Holmes (at times, it even directly lifts dialogue from interviews with Holmes that appeared in a later documentary in which featured Anderson) . While the two are similar, it is more so a fictitious depiction of the lives of some folks in the porn industry during the 70s and 80s. It does have some true elements to it, such as the movement to get porn to convert from film to videotape. Ultimately, it is an examination of several people’s lives as they move in and out of the adult film world.

The main story of this film revolves around Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg), a 17 year old who works at a car wash by day and a nightclub at…well, night. Eddie believes that everyone has one special thing that they are blessed with. His special thing happens to be a penis that hangs around 13 inches or so. The particular nightclub that he works for, happens to be frequented by a porn director, Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds). Jack convinces Eddie to come to his home and ultimately audition for him by having sex with Rollergirl (Heather Graham). He changes his name to Dirk Diggler and as he becomes a star in the adult film world, much like a rock star, the more money he makes, the more ego, drugs and recklessness consume him. We witness an engrossing journey of a young man as he tries to handle the pressure of fame and people’s fascination with large appendages.

In addition to this main story, the film is comprised of many vignettes that focus on the lives of other characters (porn actors/crew). Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly) is a magician, Buck Swope (Don Cheadle) wants to open an electronics store and struggles to find his identity, Little Bill (William H. Macy) is constantly walking in on his wife fucking someone else, and many other stories. While vignettes are naturally isolated, P.T.A. does quite an excellent job of wandering between the straightforward narrative in to a vignette and then back.

Every single person in this film is excellent. Everyone has a very natural, and at times almost improvisational delivery of their dialogue that is quite pleasing. John C. Reilly gives his best performance in this film. At his first appearance he does his “ham and cheese” routine but as the film progresses, he demonstrates that he is actually quite gifted beyond being a staple in an Adam McKay project (although I am fine with that). In particular, there is a scene in which Dirk, Reed and their fellow drug addict Todd (Thomas Jane) attempt to rob a drug dealer. All three of them are quite brilliant in this scene as they react to multiple nerve wracking occurrences. There is a moment in which Wahlberg is staring off and the camera lingers on him for what seems like an eternity and there is absolutely no indication of what he is thinking about (although you can infer many things). It is just as hypnotic for the viewer as it seems to be for Diggler.

Anderson’s direction is very satisfying. He goes for the handheld camera and it works quite well, especially as we follow people from behind as they walk. His script is also filled with delightful subtleties that couples with the camera work, make it seem like a documentary rather than a scripted film.

I can’t really say a negative thing about this film. Puck would delight in that Julianne Moore is also in it, and her performance is just as great as everyone else’s. A truly brilliant film indeed.

Random Movie: Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995)

I don’t have air conditioning in my car. This makes commuting rather uncomfortable especially last week as a blistering heat wave across the country produced temperatures in the 100s. See the images on the top and side of this post? Click one and help Puck have AC. Anyways, on insanely hot days, I almost always think of Die Hard with a Vengeance as it is a movie that almost makes you sweat from the heat atop the New York City streets. Let’s disregard that a lot of the film was made in South Carolina. But I’m rambling now, so let’s get on with the review.

When I reviewed Die Hard some time ago, it had been a while since seeing it. Thus, I was captivated at the sheer brilliance of it all, not just for a “mindless” action film, but because it is a damn solid story that pretty much built all the action movie tropes still in use today. It’s second sequel though, DHWAV for short, gives Hollywood a damn fine template for creating a action sequel that is not downright insulting to the viewer (cough… Speed 2).

In his review of this film, Roger Ebert lamented that while movies of previous years were satisfied with one or two major action scenes, “now there are movies that are essentially nothing but sensational stunt sequences.” While a smidgeon of action may have met the audience’s expectations a few decades ago, everything is bigger, badder, and louder in our constant struggle to outdo our predecessors. That is where movies like Salt come in with a huge disparity between dialogue and action to the detriment of the former. DHWAV isn’t as reflective or character driven as the original blockbuster that spawned it but it sure makes up for that it balls-to-the-wall action that is the pinnacle of “edge-of-your-seat” cinema.

Writer Jonathan Hensleigh reportedly developed the story as a standalone film and only later was it tweaked to fit in with the Die Hard franchise. Compare that to Die Hard 2, which sucks because it is a shameless retread of the original. Right off the bat, that fixes a number of problems with the second. In this one, John McClane (Bruce Willis) is obviously back, but he is now in New York again, separated again and just shy of being kicked off the police force. When after the second did McClane and Holly start feuding again? Why is he on suspension now (surely, his loose cannon persona would have come forward by now)? How many hours a day does McClane watch Captain Kangaroo? These pressing questions are not even address here, but they aren’t even asked. Perhaps as a way of divorcing the film from the lackluster previous entry, you really need to know nothing going into this film other than there was a first movie called Die Hard.

Sure, there is the fact that Simon (Jeremy Irons) is the brother of the first film’s villain that may be nice to know. But it’s hardly required since the revenge angle is quickly dropped by the antagonist himself. Instead, Simon is the best/worst example of a mercenary: he is perturbed that McClane took his brother skydiving without a parachute but he really just wants the billions of dollars in gold located at the NY Fed branch. Simon has intricate and sometimes scary objectives for McClane, but only to get him out of the way, nothing more. And Hensleigh’s script works so well because the scenes of McClane and Zeus (Samuel L. Jackson) bickering back and forth while solving the riddles are mostly extraneous but they add much more to the story than most films of this genre do.

Yes, it can be said that Jackson plays the same loud-mouthed character in every film and this one is no exception. But Zeus is such a fun character with his insights, his yelling, and his racist-radar (racar?) that make him an endearing character with a real arc as he goes from angry bystander, to angry unwilling participant, to angry hero. Reginald VelJohnson‘s presence is not missed. And Willis seems to have been phoning in the same performance for a number of years but here he proves that McClane is an action hero along the lines of … well, McClane is his own breed of smart-ass, tough-as-nails NYPD cop. Sometime between the original and this film, McClane has become supercop who can manage to be everywhere when he needs to, get out of impossible situations unscathed, and always save the day. It is a departure from the relatively humble McClane from the first but, oh well. I’m sure Die Hard 2 was the cause of that.

Regardless of the almost non-existent factual basis for the story, the action, or the horrific “German” spoken in the movie, returning director John McTiernan is able to pack in so much that there really is no time to process any of the quips. Once the beginning credits end, the movie starts with a bang and does not let up until the end, save for the scenes between McClane and Zeus early on which add a needed sense of levity. It’s a shame that McTiernan has not done much recently (likely due to some … legal issues) since his resume is much less checkered that other renowned directors. The man knows how to make an action film click and has a method which make even the expected (since I have seen this movie far more than I care to admit) still worrisome as it is ongoing.

With such a strong story and action sequences, Die Hard with a Vengeance could likely have been over three hours without growing tiresome. The ending is a bit of a letdown since it seems so pedestrian and separate from the rest of the film. That ending though is allegedly a tacked-on studio demand but even it’s presence does not diminish the greatness of this movie. The first Die Hard is a classic in its own right and easily in the top 3 action movies ever made. DHWAV is damn close to matching its excellence, even in its own way.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Random Movie: Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

Marvel has had a pretty good batting average since taking their films in-house a few years ago beginning with the lauded Iron Man. Even though their latest films have not lived up to that high standard (in fairness, that's not an easy task), their output has been consistently on the good side with Thor and the latest Hulk movie both being quite enjoyable. Of course, the big draw is next year's Avengers, the super-superhero movie which will hopefully find a way to congeal all of these wildly different comic book protagonists in a cohesive sense. The last stop before Avengers though is the first Avenger: Captain America.

I should not need to preface this review by saying I know squat about the comic series; this should be assumed by now. Captain America was created in the early 1940s but rose in popularity during World War II for obvious reasons. The comic, as well as the film center around Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a scrawny kid from Brooklyn, who desperately wants to join the military but is rejected due to his lack of physical prowess as well as a laundry list of other ailments. He sees yet another rubber stamp denying his entry into greatness but Rogers is undeterred and attempts enlisting again and again hoping for a different outcome. All seems bleak for the barely 100 pound runt until Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a brilliant German scientist approaches him with a solution. Rogers is taken to training under the watch of Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) and Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) to determine if he is suitable for an experimental program.

When asked why he was chosen, Erskine tells Rogers that he was not chosen because of his physique but because of his character and his bravery. Rogers wants nothing more than to serve his country and fight in WWII and with the help of a serum developed Erskine and inventor Howard Stark, he becomes a super-soldier with abilities far exceeding his counterparts. He takes the name of Captain America and goes from hawking war bonds in stage shows to running down members of Hydra, a diabolical subsect of the Nazi party led by Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving). Schmidt, also known as Red Skull, previously underwent an early version of Erskine's compound which only enhanced his evilness and fueled a desire to destroy the established nations of the world.

Even compared to the previous Marvel films, Captain America is a more genuine tale seemingly plucked from a decade from long ago, and not just the because of the awesomely created 1940s set pieces. Erskine asks Rogers before enlistening if he wants to kill Nazis. He remarks that he does not want to kill anyone, but he hates bullies. We see a brief moment before the transformation of Rogers getting pummeled by a much larger man yet he refuses to run away. The main draw of the story is the notion that this underdog with a heart of gold is the key to defeating the evil in the world. All of the cast, mostly Evans, play their characters very straightforward without an underlying hint of facetiousness. While it makes the film not quite as fun as Iron Man, it gives it more credibility than just a jaunt in the shallow summer movie world.

This year was a risky proposition with a glut of superhero movies coming out almost seemingly back-to-back. Fortunately, as this is (as far as I can tell) the last comic book tale this year, it closes off with a bang. Director Joe Johnston took great care in assembling all the facets of the film from the excellent design of the 1940s Marvel universe, to the high-tech gadgets and weapons that no one seems really fazed by, but especially with the cast which is one of the best ensembles I have seen in this type of film. Especially noteworthy were Jones, who could probably play a grizzled old man in his sleep yet is more than enthusiastic, and Weaving who plays an awesome bad guy no matter what the film. Given the story and the time period, several moments could have easily veered into the overly patriotic or the overly fantastical, but Johnston keeps that reeled in.

We still have a few more big films to go this summer, but thus far Captain America is the one to beat. It hearkens back to a bygone era, not just of movie making but of fully developed and likable characters, rousing action pieces, and helmed by a director who isn't afraid to let you see what the hell is going on. It may not have as much emotional depth as I would have liked and it has a really odd structure to the story, but if those are the only things holding this back, you can tell we have a winner.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Random Movie: The Adjustment Bureau (2011)

I was going to write an opening paragraph along the lines that many women I know have proclaimed that The Adjustment Bureau is good movie. I figured I would just allude to it and move right along but only after making an off-hand statement that women have different tastes than I and this did not seem the type of film (Matt Damon and his alleged “hunkiness” notwithstanding) that the female subsect of society would be interested in. But that would make me seem like a mid-twentieth century pig. And I would be completely wrong as you can possibly surmise from the categories listed above.

I don’t necessarily have a problem with “romance” movies. They just are not designed with my sensibilities in mind. I can still objectively review them from a critical standpoint to determine if they are completely bland and unsurprisingly (not unlike Love and Other Drugs) or a remarkably decent story merely concocted around a lovey-dovey tale like this film. Written and directed by George Nolfi, the film is based on a Philip K. Dick short story called Adjustment Team. I have not read the story (this comes as a surprise?) thus I am not sure if the wishy-washy sentimentality was present in the original, or just filled in by the filmmakers to avoid the wrath of thousands of moviegoers conditioned to accept the lowest common denominator in stories, especially those regarding the L word.

At its core, The Adjustment Bureau is a fine film. Matt Damon is quite charismatic as David Norris, the young hotshot would-be senator from New York. As he works out his concession speech in despair over the crushing defeat, David meets Elise (Blunt) who turns his frown upside-down with an encouraging talk and a passionate kiss. She soon is chased out of the hotel by security but David cannot shake her from his thoughts. After a “chance” reunion a few weeks later, David gets her number but quickly loses it as he discovers that a secretive team of … something not human, apparently has fumbled and David was not supposed to see her ever again.

David is sat down by the bland-looking gentlemen of the titular organization for a bit of exposition. The men act as real-life choreographers, putting people in certain places with certain events set to occur to shape their subjects’ path through life. David responds by declaring that he has free will. One of the inconspicuously dressed men informs him that he is free to his choice of toothpaste or beverage but the real heavy lifting is left up to this group. They tell him to never reveal their identity to anyone else for fear of a “reboot,” essentially erasing his memories and personality. Well, that’s actually a pretty good definition of a reboot.

Expectedly, there is a lot of talk about free will and destiny. David is determined to prove he can shape his own life even with a bureaucracy attempting to prevent that. These are the same guys in suits who declare that their period of intervention brought the Renaissance and the Enlightenment while mankind flying solo crafted the Dark Ages and WWI. Really, all it stands to illustrate is that David is madly in love with Elise and will stop at nothing to be with her. So, essentially it boils down to just about every other damn love story I’ve seen, except this time with sci-fi elements! Damon and Blunt are great in their roles and fortunately exert a lot of chemistry in their scenes together. There is a lot of heartache for both characters during the film and their interactions sell that quite well. The suits in the Bureau are not necessarily menacing, only in a “man following orders” sort of way.

Without going into spoiler-y specifics, the film closes with a not-quite “happily ever after” sort of ending, but it is pretty darn close. It feels very cheesy and directed at the romantic-seeking audience base that the movie caters to (not the marketing though as I recall). It’s all well and good but the end almost negates all of the drama and conflict from the preceding 100 minutes or so in a syrupy-sweet way that struck me as odd. For his directorial debut, Nolfi does an admirable job crafting sympathetic characters in a movie that normally I would be less inclined to watch. He touched on some deep meanings about life and humanity but wasted those on a story not worthy of such depth.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Mini Scum: The Lincoln Lawyer (2011)

What can I say? I am a glutton for courtroom dramas even though they seem to all end the same. Matthew McConaughey plays the titular lawyer who spends his time defending the less-than-innocent. If you took an episode of The Practice and bred it with an episode of Law & Order, I suspect this is pretty close to the outcome. Some of the twists in the story are okay, even if they are given away by the previews, but this ultimately seems like a by the book legal thriller. It doesn’t help that McConaughey’s presence invokes A Time to Kill, a much more effective drama. There is a lot of talent that goes untapped from William H. Macy to the still smokin’ Marisa Tomei but the story featuring the possibly guilty rich boy Ryan Phillippe is short on surprises, even though Phillippe seems to be trying to prove he is a real actor.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Random Movie: Exit 33 (2011)

Written by: PBF

Exit 33 will be released to DVD on August 2 via Breaking Glass Pictures. It is directed by Tommy Brunswick and stars Kane Hodder. You may remember Hodder from his role as the best Jason Voorhees ever (in arguably the worst installments of that franchise). He has also appeared in Adam Green’s Hatchet films (and many others).

A small group of friends (some travelling alone, some together) are going to their 5 year high school reunion. On their way, they come across Ike’s Last Chance Gas. In addition to owning the gas station, Ike (Hodder) is a bit of a taxidermist and also makes a fine venison jerky. His deer heads and jerky can be found in his store. This station lies off of Exit 33, which not often used (despite the 9 or so visitors in one night). Ike and his store seem a bit creepy. For good reason. Ike is deeply troubled and has a terrible secret. Unfortunately for some of his patrons, they find out exactly what it is.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Random Movie: Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)

If you would have told me a few months ago that I would have liked Transformers: Dark of the Moon, I would have laughed heartily. Yet, I begrudingly must say that this Transformers movie is a staple in action cinema and … a pretty good movie to boot. Well, maybe I won’t go that far ...

I was going to write full reviews of the preceding two movies but out of laziness and an inability to sit through the entirety of both, I did not. I can summarize though. The first was a decent action movie wrapped around some of the most annoyingly cliched characters ever put to film. It was passable. The second was an insult, not only to the senses but also to anyone who has ever found any movie (Weekend at Bernie’s not withstanding) thought-provoking. TF2 was a train-wreck, mostly in story, but that was quickly talked off as a by-product of the writer’s strike that year. That would make sense then if the entire film was ad-libbed on the day of shooting.

I guess at this point, we can forget about any notion of a Transformers movie based on the rose-colored glasses of nostaglia that many hold for the original animated series and film. The most we can hope for is a decent movie which does not dig the series’ grave any deeper. Yet, with Michael Bay still at the helm and writer Ehren Krueger taking over the duties of crafting terrible dialogue scenes around the still-awesome robot destruction, something magical happened. There is an old saying that goes “even a broken watch is right twice a day.” I will expand that to “and even Michael Bay can craft a solid film once in a while.”

Sam (Shia LaBeouf) is still pretty bratty at the onset of the film as he is looking for a highfaluting job after graduating college and getting a medal from the POTUS. He feels he should be more important since he played a part in saving the world a couple of times. Cry me a river, dickface! His girlfriend Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, and a marked improvement over Megan Fox) works for some rich a-hole in Washington, D.C. His parents are still annoying and in the middle of everything. So … yeah. Sam is feeling insecure and that’s our A-story.

The other plot point, as if it mattered, centers around an Autobot ship that crash-landed on the moon many decades ago. It carried Sentinel Prime and his great invention to stop all the feuding that now the Decepticons want which the Autobots must thwart from acquiring. This, of course, leads to all of the action, explosions, mechanical carnage, and senseless civilian causalities that the first two films made famous. The final sequence (and by sequence, I mean the final third of this damn near three hour movie) is set in Chicago where the Autobots and Decepticons duke it out and cause a shitload of property damage to stop the impending destruction of … the Earth or something.

To be fair, my chief complaints about the first two films were corrected here. The characters are not as annoying and one-dimensional, the action is kicked up a notch, and even the story has a few twists that are quite overplayed, but still effective. The biggest compliment that I can give to the film is that I could actually tell what the fuck is going on. It was widely reported that Bay had to tone down his ADD-inducing, camera-whipping-around style for the sake of the 3D effects which means that the only headaches you will get is from the 3D. And even the 3D was the best I have seen in theaters. Granted, I’ve been limited to Piranha, Saw, and Drive Angry so I might not be an expert but the effects in general and especially the 3D were worth the trillion dollars I’m sure this thing costed.

Still, even with the addition of high-class actors like John Malkovich and Frances McDormand, this is not a Nolan or Coen Brothers film. Just like before, it is still way too long, features far too many meaningless characters, and is still hung up on Sam and his girl of the week as they sort through their problems as opposed to 150 minutes of robots kicking ass. Like I said, we’re not going to get that movie until a decent reboot happens but this is still a movie that defies all of the negatives going against it. I walked into the theater, with my sad 3D glasses in hand, waiting to completely hate this movie. Yet, between the cast, the effects, the story, or just sheer fucking luck, a good movie actually prevailed.

I hesitate to write a review of a Transformers movie this positive. It goes against the fiber of my being. It may destroy the shreds of credibility I have in this biz. But, regardless, it is the best Bay film in a while and the best Transformers movie ever. I will go watch Inception now. If I hate it, you know something is amiss.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Random Movie: Speed (1994)

I may have said it before, but let me reiterate: 1994 was a huge year in movies for a young Puck. Today’s random movie was one of the apexes of my love for movies. I saw Speed in theaters only once but I more than made up for it when it was released on VHS (ahh, nostalgia). Within a week, I was quoting the movie verbatim to all of my discerning middle school friends. They thought I was a loon. Perhaps they were right. But then again, Speed kicks ass. So, I claim victory even if none of them will know it.

Almost immediately, Speed kicks off with a rather enthralling opening that is actually relevant with rest of the movie! A mad bomber has rigged a downtown L.A. elevator with a bomb that spells doom for the dozen or so passengers on board. With some quick thinking by S.W.A.T. members Jack (Keanu Reeves) and Harry (Jeff Daniels), the bomber’s plans are thwarted and the passengers saved with the bomber allegedly blowing himself up once the jig is up.

Sometime later, Mr. Bomber notifies Jack that he has planted a bomb on a bus. That bus cannot drop below 50 MPH or else it will explode. This proves quite difficult in L.A. traffic with random baby carriages, school children, and inept cops trying their damnedest to make that bus blow up. It is a simple concept, to which there have been many copycats (anyone else remember the insanely ludicrous Chill Factor with Cuba and Skeet?), but Speed excels where many other films have failed.

In a perfect world, Speed would be regarded as a tentpole of the action genre like Die Hard is. It certainly helps that director Jan de Bont was director of photography on said action tentpole film as well as many other highly regarded pictures. Throughout the run time, the kinetic feel is quite engrossing with the constant threat of harm and the cat and mouse game between the cops and the bomber (Dennis Hopper). Hell, I’ve seen this more times than I care to admit and even some of the sequences such as Jack’s entrance to the bus or the freeway jump are crafted so nicely as to defy you to be ambivalent during them.

Keanu has caught a lot of flack over the years with his emotionless, wooden acting but this is likely the role he was born to play (Neo notwithstanding). In fact, I can only think of Keanu belting out timeless lines like “shoot the hostage” or “yeah, but I’m taller” with the absurdly subdued emotions that his character calls for. Sandra Bullock as the makeshift bus driver Annie is frantic, yet sweet and funny as the perfect candidate for what a leading Hollywood actress should be (well, before Speed 2 that is).

The best part of the acting front though is hands-down Hopper. Howard Payne, the bomber, is frustrated and demented and Hopper nails that persona with all the over-the-top acting he can muster. In any other movie, his performance would be laughable. But the biggest strength of Speed is that it is played serious even though the story is quite implausible. That makes Payne merely another colorful character in this implausible universe.

And unlike many big action movies, Speed is, for the most part, grounded in some semblance of reality. The threat is bizarre, but conceivable and other than the aforementioned bus jump, there is little else in the film that makes you stop and think, “wait, that didn’t make ANY damn sense.” Compare it to a “Cobra-stole-the-warhead” alarm or random action heroes outrunning huge explosions (take your pick for which movie) and Speed is one the same footing as Die Hard with an average Joe stuck in an guy stuck in an unparalleled situation.

Since action movies typically have a “check your brain at the door” mentality about them, those that don’t adhere to that only stand out more prominently. As such, with such a great combination of story, cast, and crew, Speed is far better than it has any right to be.