Monthly Archives: February 2006

Running Scared (2006)

Running Scared is ridiculous, perverse, puerile, so over the top you forget where the top was, and yet it works within its own uncompromising universe. Writer/director Wayne Kramer (The Cooler) has a singular point of view so that while the out-there theatrics pile up, you feel like nothing is exactly out of bounds. The crux of the movie centers around a low-level mobster Joey (Paul Walker) trying to retrieve a gun that his kid neighbor stole and used. This gun was last used in a shootout involving dirty cops led by Chazz Palminteri. Joey needs to find it before the mob gets him, the dirty cops put the pieces together, and then Kramer even introduces more threats, like pimps, the Russian mafia, and in the movie?s most bizarre subplot, killer pederasts that look like normal people (one of the more disturbing elements is the fact they have star ratings on their home-made child porn).

The missing gun is really a McGuffin for a wild night with wild characters and extreme antics. Running Scared succeeds both as gaudy, trashy, dirty boy’s-night-out fun, as well as a wink-wink parody of the Tarantino-esque crime capers (stylized gun fights, pop culture soliloquies, quirky characters, anti-heroes, brutal violence, gratuitous nudity, weird coincidences, outlandish irony). You’ll know whether or not you’re along the film’s relentless, highly graphic wavelength early on. Running Scared opens with an incredibly bloody shootout and then quickly transitions into some surprisingly near graphic sex, as Joey wishes to service his wife (Vera Farmiga) right on top of their washer. Running Scared‘s unpredictability is its greatest asset, though a late character revelation meant to make an audience view Joey as a good guy seems forced and negates the chase for the stolen gun. I also swear … this had to be the most times I have ever heard the F-word in a film (current champ is Nil by Mouth at 470 at 3.9 a minute).

This is one movie that has to be seen to be believed. It’s so over-the-top in near everything it does, it’s nearly awe-inspiring. I knew I was in good hands when Kramer included the gratuitous sit down at a strip club … and had his strippers be bottomless as well. That’s someone who knows what movie they’re aiming for, and with Running Scared, it looks like Kramer is having his own fun playing with the bombast.

Nate’s Grade: B

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Freedomland (2006)

There’s one thing I’m going to remember about Freedomland more than anything — seeing this movie cost me about $300. Allow me to explain. Upon returning home from seeing this terrible film, I received an e-mail from a friend alerting me that a secret code had been floating around the Internet. This code was to be used at Amazon.com, and when punched in at the check-out, your order would be free as long as it totaled over 80 dollars. Just as I was about to check out with over $300 of goods the window closed and the code was no longer working. If I had not seen Freedomland then I would have gotten this news earlier and would have been able to obtain my booty. Alas, I did see Freedomland, a drama that attempts to shed light on racial woes. Movie mogul Joe Roth, the head of Revolutions Studios, doesn’t direct movies fairly often and when he does they’re not great (America’s Sweethearts, Christmas with the Kranks). I knew exactly what I was getting into when I entered the theater; I just didn’t know it was going to cost me $300.

In 1999 New Jersey , Brenda (Julianne Moore) walked dazed and bloodies through an urban neighborhood to a hospital. She tells detective Lorenzo Council (Samuel L. Jackson) that she was the victim of a car jacking while she was traveling through an urban area. She says a black man threw her from her car and drove off. Brenda’s four-year-old son Cody is still in the car. This sets the neighboring communities abuzz. Brenda’s hot-headed cop brother (Ron Eldard) is ready to turn the black projects and high rises upside down, unafraid of whom he may harass. The black community is in an uproar over the treatment, succinctly pointing out that many black children go missing but the news vans and police cars only come out when the missing happens to be white (for further proof, look to the still ongoing coverage of Natalee Halloway). Karen (Edie Falco) runs a team of mothers who volunteer nationwide to help find missing children. Lorenzo has his own doubts about Brenda and the details of her story.

Plain and simple, Freedomland just does not have enough story to justify its existence. It goes nowhere and practically drifts to its long-awaited conclusion. You’ll see the light at the end of the tunnel around the halfway mark, and then Freedomland limps to its foreseeable ending, devoid of any twists and turns that aren’t telegraphed a mile away. It got so pathetic that I was actually hoping, against all odds, there’d be some gonzo M. Night Shyamalan-esque twist at the very end to jar me out of my complacency. No such luck. The marketing folks of Freedomland seemed to advertise a twist ending, which is hard to believe since everything plays out exactly like you?d first suspect. Moore’s overacting hysteria makes the audience doubt her from the start; plus the fact that Brenda’s like, “Oh yeah, I almost forgot, my SON is in the hijacked car.”

This is a movie so mishandled by Roth that every moment feels false, and when it doesn’t feel false it feels trite and awkward. Take a moment when Lorenzo takes Brenda to an empty urban high-rise. He?s got her pinned in a corner, very literally, and is pressing to know if she killed her kid. The framing of the scene would almost suggest something quasi-romantic, with Lorenzo leaning very closely into Brenda and his arm against the wall beside her. At the very least, it?s really intrusive. And then at the end of Brenda’s “he was all I got” monologue the two actors seem to just stare at each other, like they’re mentally waiting to hear the word “Cut.” The weird framing and the editing make the scene feel amateurish.

But Roth doesn’t stop there. Freedomland itself is a gigantic mislead, and the old abandoned building has about five minutes of total screen time. It’s not enough to even qualify as a red herring, let alone justify it as a movie title. Apparently, this building has been rotting in the woods for decades, and yet Lorenzo lets a large volunteer search party just trounce around inside. I’m pretty sure any policeman worth their salt would need to get a team to make sure the building was structurally sound before letting civilians snoop around in a potential crime scene. That’s not enough stupidity. Later while the people are exploring the Freedomland building, Karen says the floorboards may give way at any moment, and then she leaves Brenda by herself with said unreliable floorboards. Do these people even understand what they’re doing?

Freedomland seems so message-hungry and preoccupied with making some Big Statement that it forgets to be entertaining. Roth is clueless how to juggle all his plot elements, letting the racial tensions turn both sides into offensive stereotypes. The white cops have short fuses and have no hesitation to assault innocent black people (they’d be suspended and then reviewed). The black community in Freedomland, while seeming to have nothing better to do than assemble and shout at the police, stir up their community ills whenever the plot deems it necessary. Some black people are seen setting the community’s own property on fire, swept up in the rising air of a riot. Rafik, a youth given a lot of foreshadowing, instigates the riot and an entire wall of angry black faces proceeds, never mind that this brash decision results in many innocent people being beaten. The movie seems to say that all blacks are victims or instigators. Freedomland is so earnest to be earnest that it misses the mark when it comes to all the details. How else to explain why the film is inexplicably set in 1999. Someone didn’t tell the film’s costume designer, because Rafik is wearing a “G-Unit” shirt, a rap group that didn’t come into light until after 50 Cent’s commercial rise in 2003.

Perhaps the film’s ending is Roth?s biggest misfire. Lorenzo visits Cody?s shallow grave, now festooned with flowers and personal messages. He reads one that says, basically, “Cody’s death made us all look beyond our differences and realize what we have in common, the ability to feel sad.” What? Is Roth actually justifying the death of a child and subsequent racial fallout as being medicine for society’s ills? This seems ridiculous to me, especially after sitting through two hours of a movie where no one came together, unless you’re talking about the human connection of fist-to-face.

The acting in Freedomland is so unrestrained and shows another of Roth?s directorial weaknesses. Moore, always so reliable a performer, goes out of her mind and gives what should be the worst performance of her career. She’s so over the top, so Looney tunes, so wildly out of control with no bearing, she’s practically bouncing off the walls; it’s kind of embarrassing to watch. Her hysterical theatrics provide several moments of unintentional laughter, particularly a moment where Lorenzo is interrogating her and she just blurts out, “I love you.” Freedomland does her no service by handing her some dreadful dialogue and drawn out monologues. I think it may be time for Moore to star in something a little happier instead of more movies where she’s predominantly crying or grieving. And is it me, or does it seem like Moore has a habit of losing her kids in movies (maybe she should start tethering them to her waist)? Note to Julianne Moore: just because you get to cry and scream doesn’t mean you should take the role. Did you actually read the script to Freedomland?

Jackson, left directionless with an underdeveloped character, reverts to his standard operating procedure when it comes to authority figures … namely staring and yelling. Lorenzo has some character traits (asthma, a son in prison) that are either dropped or have no payoff or insight toward his character. He?s a cop in the middle of it all, and yet Freedomland feels like just having Jackson as an actor should cover the characterization part. At this point, Jackson can do these roles in his sleep.

Falco, far more subdued than everyone else in a very yell-heavy movie, leaves the biggest impression and gives the movie life when she’s onscreen. Falco’s character is what Freedomland should have been based around, not Moore’s shrieking loon of a mother. Falco has the film’s only great moment, effortlessly shifting a story about her own loss and need for closure back to Brenda. The patience and control Falco has in that scene only reminds me how much I need The Sopranos back on the air.

Freedomland is so starved to say something grandiose about racial tensions that it neglects being entertaining. When the movie is entertaining, it’s mainly because of the wild, embarrassing overacting and the nonsensical human behavior. At its worst, Freedomland is offensive to cops and blacks and moviegoers in general with working grey matter, at its best Freedomland is a muddled, incompetently directed movie that drifts unchallenged toward its expected and welcomed end. Roth should leave directing to people that have a better feel for taking control of actors, material, and editing. For those that said the racially-charged Crash lacked tact, I invite them to take a trip to Freedomland. It’s trite, it’s dull, it’s funny when it’s not meant to be, and it’s one of the worst films of 2006.

Nate’s Grade: D+

The Matador (2005)

This is an adequate movie that doesn’t really resonate because at its heart it feels like a lot of interesting ideas and characters that are languished with a sitcom plot. I never thought Pierce Brosnan’s performance as the aging hit man was as funny as the film thought it was. The Matador is actually a more interesting movie than funny or amusing. The movie doesn’t go deep enough; the story isn’t as refined as it could be, and there are so few set pieces that this flick could have worked as a play. The end feels a bit too tidy and asks Greg Kinnear’s ordinary husband character to act out of character. There?s an extended talk in The Matador between Kinnear and his wife and Brosnan upon his unexpected visit, and it feels like a sitcom like the wacky neighbor next door has come over and hatched a hilarious scheme. I enjoyed the characters but they really just sit and stew in a really weak story. The characters are richly drawn but have nowhere to go.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005)

The brilliance of this Oscar-nominated documentary is how distills a complicated, math-heavy scandal and makes it so easily digestible. The Enron tale really is a story calling out for the medium of film, relying on sound bytes, testimonials, public statements, interviews, video clips, and director Alex Gibny masterfully orchestrates the telling. The film is insightful, informative, and incredibly entertaining. It’s a real pleasure to watch, and you’ll be left scratching your head at how certain economic laws are even possible. If you are confused by the Enron scandal or know little to nothing about the biggest corporate scandal of our times (Enron was the seventh biggest corp. at one point), spend two hours of your life and watch this excellent film.

Nate’s Grade: A

Millions (2005)

This movie feels like someone is projecting straight from the bountiful imagination of a child. It’s wildly whimsical and fantastical; it’s a fantasy film and a family film that never falters into treacle. Director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) of all people has crafted a masterful living fantasy with great emotional heft. I was left very teary by the end and have remained so with repeat viewings. Millions has great visuals, great acting, and is a great movie.

Nate’s Grade: A

Final Destination 3 (2006)

Isn’t the title Final Destination 3 itself problematic? How could it be final if it’s the third? It reminds me of 1998’s terrible I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, which wasn’t even correct with the film’s time setting (it must be stated that a 2006 sequel, and I’m not kidding, will be called I’ll Always Know What You Did Last Summer). Perhaps the best title comes from the worst movie of all time, Manos: The Hands of Fate, notoriously lampooned on Mystery Science Theater 3000. “Manos” is actually Spanish for “hands,” so the title is Hands: The Hands of Fate. Titles are fun. Oh yes. Final Destination 3, on the other hand, isn’t really fun.

A senior class is partying and enjoying the thrill rides of an amusement park. There’s an especially menacing looking roller coaster begging to be ridden by teenagers. There’s even a giant devil in front of the ride’s entrance. The ride fills up with your general high school characters (popular snots, Goth kids, cocky jocks, etc.) and then the safety bars become loose, flinging riders this way and that to splatter against broken rails and track. It’s all so horrifying … but it’s just a vision of Wendy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). She goes into hysterics and gets off the coaster before it ships out. Other students follow her, including Kevin (Ryan Merriman), the boyfriend of Wendy’s best friend. Sure enough, the coaster crashes, those on it die, and death has been averted. For now. Just like previous installments, death seeks out the souls that escaped its cold clutches. Now death is taking out the survivors in the order they would have died and Wendy and Kevin must try and figure out a plan before it gets to them.

Let’s not mince words, the true star of the Final Destination franchise is death itself. The appeal rests entirely on the fiendish, outlandishly complicated deaths and the misdirection over what will prove deadly. The audience is holding their breath for the next spectacular death. There’s a certain fatalism linked to this, knowing that the entertainment value is witnessing teens eventually get sliced and diced. But the franchise’s appeal also seems to be its downfall. The Final Destination films are stuck trying to out top themselves, and each film opens with a big centerpiece of disaster that inevitably serves as the film’s best moment. The rest of the movies never seem to match the opening melee, and it’s generally not a good idea for a movie to peek in the first reel.

Admirably, Final Destination 3 doesn’t even waste time with having its batch of characters theorize how to outfox the specter of death. We just watch, one after the other, the bloody, clever deaths like an assembly line of carnage. Final Destination 3 knows what its audience wants. Curiously, there’s no parental or police presence at all, even after the mounting coincidental deaths. Seriously, everywhere that Wendy and Kevin go, death is right beside them. Probably the funniest tidbit in Final Destination 3 is that shortly after another failed attempt to warn a doomed teen, Wendy and Kevin are in different, non-bloody clothes as they walk back to their car. They actually brought a change of clothes just in case. That’s hilarious. Little else seems amusing (the 9/11 reference is overwhelmingly tacky).

I once thought that the Final Destination concept could live forever in the annuls of horror, but the seams are definitely starting to show with this franchise. In 2000 it was fresh and unpredictable, and now it just seems exhausted and old hat. I thought the third film regaining the original writers and director would infuse Final Destination 3 with a bit more imagination. I was wrong. Glen Morgan and James Wong seem to go overboard to sate their blood-hungry audience, creating the most gruesome, torturous deaths yet. Seeing people eviscerated is one thing, but tantalizingly lingering on the sight of a busty teen being cooked alive, her skin boiling and exploding from the heat, is too much. It’s like this time death is really pissed, saying, “I gotta go through all this again!” The movie feels too mean-spirited, too vengeful, and a shade too cynical. I think the concept feels spent and even Morgan and Wong realize this, which is why they ratchet up the gore because the suspense is gone. The “gotcha” ending was pitch-perfect in the first Final Destination, but now it’s just another expectation feebly met.

Of course, all the characters (with the possible exception of Kevin) are nitwits, horn dogs, jerks, and just plain unlikable, which make rooting for their demise easier. There’s no subtlety here either. The two shallow, popular girls are incredibly shallow and ridiculously stupid. The idiot pervert has a one-track mind that never takes a break. They’re all stock, they’re all one-note, and there’s even a moment where the token black character says, “That’s what I’m talkin’ about!” No wonder death is the star. At least in the previous Final Destination flicks you felt like the kids deserved a fighting chance.

There is one neat addition to the formula. On the night of the accident, Wendy took several pictures and each photograph predicts that person’s demise. This allows the audience to try to decode the clues they’re given and correctly guess the next horrific death. It’s the most fun aspect of the franchise.

Final Destination 3 knows exactly what its audience wants, which is more of the same preposterously complicated deaths. The concept once felt fresh but now it seems worn out. I doubt new blood could revive this franchise because audience expectation has become too demanding. We already know the rules and know the characters can’t really escape death, so the only lasting suspense is what will kill them, and even that is fleeting. The return of creators Glen Morgan and James Wong still can’t infuse the right touches of imagination. It’s more grisly teenage carnage, nothing more, nothing less, nothing special anymore. Fans of the previous Final Destination flicks will likely find some entertainment, but the movie feels creatively spent. It’s probably time for this sadistic peep show to bow out before things get even uglier.

Nate’s Grade: C

Firewall (2006)

I’ve seen commercials for Firewall, a new techno-thriller, attached to various TV programs. What’s peculiar is that the commercials are all centered on what Harrison Ford’s character drives in the film. The announcer even says, “See the new Chrysler in … Firewall.” The weird part is that I’ve seen more commercials pimping the movie’s car than the movie itself, like the film is an afterthought to the product placement. With such an inconsistent, stupid, cookie-cutter Hollywood thriller that Firewall is, I’d expect nothing less.

Jack Stanfield (Ford) is a bank security expert living in Seattle. He’s got a loving wife Beth (Virginia Madsen), a teenage daughter and young son, and his bank is about to merge with a larger conglomerate. Before it does, though, Jack takes a meeting with Bill Cox (Paul Bettany) who has a very important business proposition. Jack will waltz into the bank he’s been working at for 20 years and wire $100 million dollars to Cox’s offshore bank account. If Jack fails, the men currently holding his family hostage in Jack’s home will kill them. To secure their safety, Jack must work different sides, infiltrating his own bank and breaking his own system, all the while trying not to get caught and trying to save his family.

The film is so cookie-cutter and filled with obvious and/or useless plot details. In the opening minutes we’re introduced to a remote controlled car that disrupts video frequencies. Of course we know this will come into play later. The opening minutes of Firewall set up all the film’s subplots that will be tidily tied up but only after being ignored. So little of this film feels fleshed out. Firewall seems to think that just having its villain be British is enough. Beth is an architect and designed the family home they’re now held hostage in. Surely this plot point will have greater significance than a toy car. Nope, nothing ever happens as a result of this extraneous detail.

Ford looks so bored and he does little to hide it. Once again he’s that reticent hero called into action in the name of his family. He really isn’t given much to do and his action sequences are short bursts that involve a lot of him falling down, even when he’s besting a bad guy. A perfect example of how bad the writing is, and how lame they’ve made Ford’s character, is an exchange between Jack and Henry (Robert Patrick) shortly after Ford has liquidated his company of millions. Henry confronts him and says, “You’re not going anywhere. You’re staying here!” And Jack says, like a whiny kid told to eat his vegetables, “No I’mmmm NOT!” Firewall, this is your hero.

The antagonists are another example of how poorly written Firewall is. The villains are incredibly inept on all levels. Their entire plan is kaput from minute one because they didn’t bother to check that the bank was merging and changing its security access panels. Bill basically points to Jack and says, “You come up with a plan now.” The villains need the hero to come up with their scheme, how rich. The bad guys come across like they just took night classes in How to Take Hostages and Extort Money 101. Somewhere Bill must have skipped a few classes because he makes some boneheaded decisions. He kills one of his own men for getting tricked by Jack during surveillance. I suppose he?s trying to make an example but why, if you’re holding people hostage, would you decrease your numbers from five to four? Now you have one less person to get things in line. Bill also must have missed a psychological review to screen out that old Hollywood favorite, the one reluctant kidnapper who’s nice. Did Bill put this thing together through an ad in a newspaper?

Then there’s the dog. Why on earth did the bad guys take the dog with them when they moved the family? It just so happens that the dog has a GPS tracking device on its collar. It’s a plot contrivance so Jack can find his family, but it makes no sense. These big bad men will kill one of their own but take the dog along too? Bill and the gang didn’t have to kill the dog but taking him doesn’t add up. It’s like a serial killer alphabetizing your CD collection.

The whole hostage situation is laughable. Bill’s thugs turn a hostage situation into a bed and breakfast, implausibly letting the family roam around the house, watch TV, do whatever really. Bill even makes pancakes for Jack’s kids, that bastard. The most threatening Bill ever gets is when he offers a peanut butter cookie to Jack’s peanut-allergy kid. Dastardly and, oh yeah, the kid didn’t have to choose to eat what the bad guy gave him! This is the worst hostage siege ever. It is insultingly ridiculous. Madsen is annoying as she tries shaming her captors, proclaiming motherly advice. Firewall‘s chances of thrills are spoiled by inept bad guys and the family being in laughably staged peril.

The heist itself is given such lip-service that it almost becomes incidental. It plays for a total of maybe five minutes onscreen and lacks any thrills. Why should there be thrills if Jack came up with it? There no reversals, no setbacks, no complications, no nothing. Firewall needed to be run through a typewriter a few more times, work out a punchier screenplay that actually turns the heist into something tense.

Firewall should have played more like a cat and mouse game, with Jack and Bill battling for supremacy. Instead, Firewall feels emblematic of every other stupidly plotted thriller Hollywood feels it can feed to a mass audience because it slaps a star in it. This is shamefully mediocre, stupid, and, above all else, rather boring. Firewall is your typical disposable Hollywood thriller-of-the-week, just with more tech jargon that Ford looks pained to even speak. If you replaced Ford and Bettany with, say Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Corbin Bernsen, you’d have a movie fit to air late night on TV when the only people awake would be insomniacs. Finally, then, Firewall would have found its rightful audience.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Crash (2005)

A searing look at race relations and a powerful human drama at that. This flick has some of the sharpest memories I’ve had from any movie all year, particularly the relationship between a Hispanic locksmith (Michael Pena) and his daughter and a special invisible cloak. Their first scene, where he talks her out of hiding under her bed, is one of the most beautifully written short scenes I have ever witnessed. A late scene involving the two of them knocked the wind out of me completely and is the most vivid moviegoing moment of all 2005 for me. Every character has at least one great moment, though time is not spaced equally amongst this large ensemble. Crash has the intriguing practice of introducing near every character spouting some kind of racist diatribe, and then the movie spend the rest of its running time opening you up to these characters and getting to like them. Writer/director Paul Haggis has such a natural ear for terse, realistic dialogue that can really define characters with such brevity. A fine movie, despite the overarching coincidences.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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