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The A-Team (2010)

“Overkill is underrated,” quips Col. Hannibal Smith (Liam Neeson) in this big-screen adaptation of the 1980s hit TV show of the same name. And appropriately enough, like its source material, The A-Team is the very definition of mindless action. It’s completely shallow, goofy, yet over plotted and occasionally too serious for its own good, but like the A-team, the movie delivers when it counts. There is an undeniable pleasure in watching professionals work together, hatch a plan, and then watch that plan come to fruition. The A-Team is like an ADD-child because it can rarely sit still; five minutes won’t pass before something blows up. Writer/director Joe Carnahan (Smokin’ Aces) makes sure to keep things flying on screen so that the audience won’t stop and think about the multitude of plot holes and absurdities. The signature sequence that sums up the movie best is when the A-Team boys have escaped a downed aircraft by hiding inside a tank with parachutes attached. As they tumble back to earth they must try to “fly that tank” to land properly. It’s ridiculous on its face but rather entertaining. But the movie has its tongue firmly planted in cheek, even when it comes time to incorporate the show’s signature catch phrases (you could make an effective drinking game for the amount of utterances of “fool,” and, “I love it when a plan comes together”). The A-Team is overblown, silly, high-octane B-movie that obliterates your senses and thinking abilities, which means it successfully captures the spirit of the TV show.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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Next (2007)

Nicolas Cage, channeling Tom Hanks’ greasy mullet in The Da Vinci Code, can see his own future but only two minutes ahead. Based on a Phillip K. Dick something or other (does it really matter at this point?), this half-baked sci-fi thriller keeps shooting itself in the foot by retreating back in time to reveal, over and over, that what was just shown was merely Cage seeing his future. Now it’s do-over time, hooray. This tricky concept is given little thought and Next hews close to tired thriller clich├ęs and formulaic trappings. There’s the hot girl dragged into the fray (Jessica Biel, pretty but pointless), the shady government agents that need Cage’s help but don’t fully trust him, and the nondescript bad guys with a hidden nuke. Next had potential for disposable escapist entertainment, but man do they blow it big time. For a 90-minute film, there’s way too much setup and not nearly enough payoff. There’s about a grand total of two action sequences for the entire film, neither very good, and then the movie utterly collapses as half of it folds in on itself as one of Cage’s visions. In the blink of an eye, half of the movie we watch is erased; it’s a freakin’ cheat, especially when the movie slouches to a close right after. This easily forgettable sci-fi bobble is another nail in Cage’s coffin as a reliable actor.

Nate’s Grade: C-

The Illusionist (2006)

The Illusionist is a satisfying, well-staged period piece con game. It’s set in 1900 Vienna (though everyone’s accents sound British to me) and revolves around Eisenheim (Edward Norton), a magician that truly dazzles the crowds and leaves his skeptics guessing. He becomes a monstrous hit with tricks like making an orange tree grow from a seed and having butterflies carry handkerchiefs. The city’s Chief Inspector (Paul Giamatti) is a fan but also inquiring on counts of fraud. Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) is planning to marry the beautiful duchess Sophie (Jessica Biel). Little does the prince know that Eisenheim and Sophie were childhood friends forbidden to see each other because of class differences. It’s been 15 years since they last saw one another but they’re making up for lost time. The Prince sets the Inspector to ensnare the lovers and shut down Eisenheim.

The movie has a very interesting character relationship between Eisenheim and the Chief Inspector. They have a friendly, respectful relationship, with the Inspector pleading with Eisenheim not to force his hand. The Inspector enjoys magic and showmanship, but he also knows what backs he has to scratch to keep his title. I found the frustrating friendship and admiration between Eisenheim and the Inspector to be meatier than the forbidden love angle that drives the story. The Illusionist has the air of a historical romance, but it’s really more about these two men and their bond.

Giamatti has a very strong role and plays all the different shades of his well-trodden man who still keeps hold of his ethics when he’s told to look the other way. He’s just as an important a character and Giamatti has completely wiped my memory of Lady in Water (not that he had to atone for it). Norton is easily one of our greatest actors, but in The Illusionist he underplays too much, slightly smiling his way through an altogether stale performance. I know part of his acting requires a reserved knowledge, since he is setting up those around him. I just felt that anyone else could have played the role the same, with or without a teenage goatee. Biel holds her own, which is something I never would have thought possible amongst celebrated Oscar-nominees. Her role is pivotal but small and doesn’t require much speaking, but all things considered she does pleasantly surprise. Maybe there is an actress somewhere in that pinup body.

The Illusionist, like its title practitioner, knows that an audience loves to be fooled, but only for so long. A magician is the perfect profession to showcase a con game, and writer/director Neil Burger crafts an intriguingly enjoyable tale where we do want to know how they did it. Burger knows how to misdirect but also how to stretch a small budget to create a rich dramatic environment. I don’t know if the explain-a-lot-in-a-minute ending does a disservice to the film or not, but I was happy to get some answers even if they were a tad predictable. That’s the whole thing with magic — we want to know but we love being confounded.

This is an extremely well made indie period film. The production design is astute and often times foreboding, like the Prince’s hallway completely filled with deer heads whose antlers form a really creepy canopy. The special effects are used judiciously and have more impact than the mega budget Hollywood summer spectacles. The Illusionist is a nice example of a character driven mystery that seems to be overlooked all too often today. This is an engaging, satisfying, and handsome movie that entertains by hooking into our curiosity to know how the trick is done.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Cellular (2004)

Cellular, a new thriller, relies on the simple device of a cell phone for the crux of its plot. With cell phones becoming ever more present, and ever more an eyesore in our daily lives, it was only a matter of time before they had their own movie. They’ve slimmed down from their heavier 1980s days, and become more useful, allowing one to surf the Web, take candid pictures of people in gyms, and are able to ring in the tone of the new hot rap song of the week. The premise for Cellular may be pitch-perfect for our modern society, but will an audience answer its call?

Jessica Martin (Kim Basinger) is a high school biology teacher caught up in some scary events. She’s been kidnapped by a gruff man (Jason Statham), and locked in an attic. She’s informed that her son and husband will be found and kidnapped, unless she tells him what he wants to know. Unfortunately, she’s clueless as to what her kidnappers want. There is a wall phone in the attic, and one kidnapper smashes it with a sledgehammer and walks away satisfied. Jessica goes to work re-configuring the shattered phone pieces, tapping wires until she can reach out and touch somebody.

Ryan (Chris Evans) is a hunky beach bum who’s chastised by his ex (Jessica Biel, I know, I didn’t believe it too) for being too irresponsible. He’s driving around in his cool ride when he gets a panicky phone call from, you guessed it, Jessica. At first he thinks it’s a practical joke until he overhears her kidnappers threaten her. Reluctant to help, Jessica asks him to stop the kidnappers from reaching her family. Ryan runs around town all day scrambling to help Jessica’s family and solve the case. He also enlists the help of a retiring police officer (William H. Macy), who’d rather open a day spa than do desk work.

The premise for Cellular is near-genius and provides an abundance of smart, problematic possibilities. Ryan runs around and is always in danger of losing the signal. At one moment his cell phone is about to die from low battery charge. Another time the lines get crossed. Every step seems believable and the characters’ reactions seem credible. With Cellular, the audience thinks along with the characters step-by-step. When Ryan encounters stumbling blocks, the audience is with him in solving them, and this makes for a very engaging and thrilling movie.

The acting in thrillers is usually a minimal speed bump but the actors in Cellular do fine work. Basinger attempts to make up for her role in The Door in the Floor and plays harried and teary like a pro, but her best moments are when she uses her biology teacher know-how in precarious situations. She’s like a female MacGyver. Cellular is really a coming-out for Evans as a leading man. He’s had small roles before in The Perfect Score and Not Another Teen Movie, but this is his first leading-man role, and he handles the running, shouting, and panting with aplomb. Statham does his usually fine work of sneering and acting menacing. It’s also fun to watch William H. Macy, usually playing an every-man or a sadsack loser, play a bloodhound cop that morphs into an action hero.

The pacing in Cellular is breakneck. In the first 10 minutes, we witness Jessica’s kidnapping, and the momentum built up from that point is exhilarating. There is rarely a moment to catch your breath in Cellular. The action sequences are exciting but not redundant, and the tension readily mounts, especially when the audience is given more information than our heroes. There’s also some fun jabs at our country’s cell phone lifestyle.

Director David R. Ellis worked as a stunt coordinator for 20 years, before advancing into the director?s chair and helming 2003’s schlocky gore-fest Final Destination 2. Ellis knows how to keep his plot moving, and something is always happening in Cellular to draw our attention or to push us on edge. Cellular was written by Larry Cohen, who also penned Phone Booth and probably won’t rest until he’s the Robert Rodat of telecommunications (Rodat wrote Saving Private Ryan and The Patriot, and seems destined to write a movie about every American war). Might I envision an erotic thriller with the “Can you hear me now?” Verizon guy just around the corner? Only time will tell.

As with any thriller, there are going to be lapses in logic that have the possibility of stopping the story dead in its tracks. Cellular‘s biggest logic loophole occurs right at the start, and if you can get behind it then you can enjoy the rest of the ride. Instead of smashing a telephone, why not yank it out of the wall and fully decommission it? Or, even better, why leave your kidnapped victim in a room, out of your sight, with a phone? Would it not have been easier to just tie her to a chair in plain sight? The mind boggles. The real answer we all know, of course, is because then we wouldn’t have a movie. There’s also a sequence late in the film where the bad guys discuss their evil plan on cell phones, which seems a tad careless considering anyone with a police scanner could listen in. As I said, gaps of logic are expected in this movie terrain and it’s your ability to rise above them that will determine if you enjoy the film.

Cellular is a thriller that dials the right numbers. It may have some gaps in logic, but it delivers when it comes to sharp suspense, smart action and a great premise. Fans of action thrillers should lick their lips with what Cellular has to offer. Just remember to keep your cell phones turned off during the movie, unless, of course, you’re surfing the Web, sneaking pictures of some girl, or jammin’ to the rap song of the week.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Rules of Attraction (2002)

The Rules of Attraction is based on Bret Easton Ellis’ hedonistic 80s novel about boozing coked-out, aloof teenagers and their rampant debauchery. Roger Avary was Quentin Tarantino’s writing partner for years, with an Oscar sitting at home for co-writing Pulp Fiction. As a director Avary lays the visual gloss on thick utilizing camera tricks like split-screens and having entire sequences run backwards. While Ellis’ source material is rather empty, echoing the collegiate friendships bonded over substances or social lubricants, Avary does his best to represent the dazed world of college. Not the Tara Reid-integrated college of Van Wilder mind you.

We open with Lauren (Shannyn Sossamon) getting coldly deflowered by some drunk “townie” while the film buff she had her eyes on videotapes it. She’s just broken up with the bisexual and apathetic Paul (Ian Somerhalder), and both are interested in the dealing sociopath Sean Bateman (James Van Der Beek), a self-described emotional vampire. Lauren keeps a picture book of venereal diseases to ward her from her wayward sexual urges. Her roommate Lara (Jessica Biel) needs no such book. Our introduction of Lara has her dancing down a hall, liquor bottle in each fist, bedding an entire sports team. Some attractions connect, many don’t. But the fun is watching the characters interact in their own seedy, yet often hilarious ways.

The best thing that The Rules of Attraction has going for it is its about-face, against-type casting. The film is populated with the WB’s lineup of clear-skinned goody-two-shoes getting a chance to cut loose. Van Der Beek broods like a predatory hawk and bursts with spontaneous rage. Biel sexes it up as a cocaine-addicted harlot who asks if she’s “anorexic skinny” or “bulimic skinny.” Even Fred-Wonder-Years-Savage shows up briefly to shoot up between his toes! We’re along way from the creek, Dawson Leary.

The adults of this world are no better than the kids. Eric Stoltz has an extended cameo of a duplicitous professor offering a higher GPA if any coeds are willing to go down on their morals. Swoosie Kurtz and Faye Dunaway show us that pill-popping ditherheads may likely breed drug-addled teenagers.

Attraction may have the most disturbing suicide I’ve ever witnessed in film. After having her advances rejected a woman slips into the bathtub, razor in hand. The scene is as unsettling as it is because the camera hangs on the poor woman’s face every second and we gradually see the life spill out of her as the music becomes distorted, not letting us escape the discomfort.

Some of Avary’s surface artifice works perfectly, like Victor’s whirlwind account of an entire semester in Europe. Some of the visual fireworks are distractions to the three-person narrative but the film is always alive with energy, even when it’s depressing you. What The Rules of Attraction does get right is the irrational nature of attraction. Each character is trying to fill an inaccessible void with what they think is love but will often settle for sex, drugs, or both.

The Rules of Attraction is made up of unlikable, miserable characters that effectively do nothing but find new ways to be miserable. It constantly straddles the line of exploitation and excess but maintains its footing. The movie is entirely vapid but it is indeed an indulgently fun yet depraved ride. If you’re looking for degeneracy instead of life affirmation, then The Rules of Attraction is your ticket.

Nate’s Grade: B

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