Friday, August 30, 2013

Movie Review: "Punisher: War Zone" by David Pretty

I'm gonna let you guys in on a little secret: film criticism is kinda bullshit.

I'm not saying that for shock value or to undermine my own efforts here, I just think that every single movie has a potential audience. Take Punisher War Zone, for example: it's tailor made for people that don’t want their entertainment to get bogged down by such pesky things as plot, character development, decent performances or logic. For the viewer who doesn't want anything to get in the way of their visceral thrills, this movie is pretty much perfect. 

Unfortunately, I'm not one of those people.

As a bona fide, dyed-in-the-wool comic book nerd I've actually read the four-color exploits of the titular character from time to time. For all intents and purposes, The Punisher is Marvel's answer to the cinematic antiheroes of the Seventies like “Dirty” Harry Callahan or Charles Bronson’s Paul Kersey in Death Wish.  As such, his raison d’etre is steeped in the sort of black and white moral simplicity that only comic books (and exploitation films) can get away with.

Frank Castle, a former Vietnam Vet and Special Forces operative, goes nuts when the mob kills his entire family after they witness a gangland slaying. Traumatized by the incident, Castle re-christens himself as The Punisher and then uses his military training to wage a one-man war on crime. Unfortunately, unlike fellow Marvel Universe residents like Daredevil or Spider-Man, The Punisher isn't content to just leave baddies trussed up for the police with his calling card attached. Nope, he just blows their heads off.

In War Zone, The Punisher tangles with his funnybook arch-nemesis Jigsaw, a mob boss so-named because Castle ran his face though a glass-crusher. ¡Ay, caramba! The main plot hook involves Castle mistakenly killing an undercover cop and then trying to make amends to his grieving widow and daughter, who, naturally, remind him of his own slain family. This is actually a pretty decent premise for a Punisher film but director Lexi Alexander and her triumverate of writers (Nick Santora, Matt Holloway and Arthur Marcum) don’t seem to think we have enough of an attention span to give this intriguing set up the attention and respect it deserves.

Things are not all dire, however. I think Ray Stephenson (The Book of Eli, HBO’s Rome) is physically perfect for the role of The Punisher, certainly more so than predecessors Dolph Lungren and Thomas Jane. Occasionally the Irish-born Stephenson's American accent founders a little bit but this is nearly moot since he barely has any dialogue anyway.

Along for the ride is veteran character actor Wayne Knight (T.V.’s Newman from Seinfeld) as The Punisher’s techie pal “Microchip”. The scant few line readings are great but very little time is spent exploring the character or his relationship to Castle. The delightful Julie Benz (Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Darla and Dexter’s squeeze Rita) is also criminally underused as the grieving Angela.

The most entertaining and inadvertently-comedic performance comes courtesy of Dominic West. As the psychotic Jigsaw he's more over the top than a field goal kicked by Superman. Between West and his on-screen brother Doug Hutchinson there’s more goombah-flavored scenery-chewing per capita here then any other film I’ve seen in recent memory. Unfortunately the hack makeup job performed on West trivializes his performance even more. They should have made him virtually impossible to look at but instead West ends up resembling a third-tier Dick Tracy villain on a Mountain Dew bender.

One thing that director Lexi Anderson does nail is The Punisher’s penchant for random and unexpected bursts of violence. Things get knee-slappin' HI-larious after Castle is saddled with a pair of equally-underwritten agents (Colin Salmon and Dash Mihok) who vainly attempt to prevent him from blowing away mobsters at the drop of a hat.  At least the film has a healthy of dollop of gallows humor, making it a great MST3K-style pick for a "it's so bad it's good" movie night.

The action scenes are stylish, inventive, brutal and well-choreographed, but are often undone by dollops of pure, unadulterated goofiness. The set-piece that kicks off the film is a prime example.  When The Punisher starts spinning upside-down on a chandelier, spraying bullets around like the world's most lethal and demented Christmas ornament, the scene becomes a confusing mix of Matrix-flavored awesome and wanton eye-rollery.   

In the comics The Punisher was typically just used as a foil for the good guys and attempts to feature him as a main character often fell flat. There’s a reason for that and Punisher: War Zone certainly shows why. Frank Castle is kind of a one-note character and he doesn’t make for a particularly compelling protagonist.

Tilt: up.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Movie Review: "The Hurt Locker" by David Pretty

We live in an era when cable news is a joke and more people get enraged over Batffleck then they do when they find out that the government is spying on them.  As such, movies like The Hurt Locker are integral our collective awakening.  If people aren't engaged or worried enough to actively research what boots on the ground have to deal with in our modern climate of perpetual war then compulsively watchable motion pictures like this may actually open a few eyes.

If anything, The Hurt Locker certainly isn't a toothless and disposable chunk of hollow info-tainment.  It's actually one of the most tense, realistic and heartbreaking films I've seen in a long time.

The film wastes no time drawing us in.  In a breathless and ultimately tragic preamble, Staff Sergeant Matthew Thompson (Guy Pearce) and his two-man Explosive Ordnance Disposal squad are tasked to investigate a mysterious package lying in a Baghdad street.  Despite following protocol to the letter, a shop vendor suddenly appears out of nowhere and refuses to drop his cell phone.  An IED is detonated, Thompson is killed and instantly we see just how unconventional this conflict is.  Nothing is innocuous, nothing is safe.  Paranoia and disorder are rife. 

Thompson is replaced by a hotshot veteran, Sergeant First Class William James (Jeremy Renner).  Partners Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) are immediately disturbed by his reckless and borderline-suicidal proclivities.  At one point James hops in their humvee and casually drives through a heavily-primed detonation site just to recover a pair of gloves he left behind.  Sanborn and Eldridge are so convinced that their ersatz leader will be the death of them they humor the possibility of setting off a blast "by accident".  

The balance of the story catalogs one head-shaking set-piece after another.  James encounters an inconceivably ghoulish "body cavity bomb".  When a green military shrink is goaded into taking the field for "seasoning" the results are unexpectedly expected.  The group encounter a pack of clueless, trigger-happy mercenaries led by Ralph Fiennes (!) who are collecting dead bodies like baseball cards.  

Based on journalist Mark Boal's experience of being embedded with a real-life EOD team in Iraq for two weeks, many of the things that happen in the film are so insane that you know they probably have some basis in reality.  Take note that there's a distinction between this and William's highly dubious behavior.  I don't care how much of a veteran this guys is, I'd like to think that his renegade actions would see him barred from the military pretty quick.  Such is my naive hope. 

I'm wholeheartedly on board with the film's theme, however, which is nicely encapsulated by the opening quote from journalist Chris Hedges:

"The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug."

Although Will's behavior may seem completely over the top, I also know that scores of young veterans have labored under similar conditions for years.  When you've been marinating in stress, paranoia, and constant danger for your entire formative life, how can you ever be content dealing with the minutia of regular society?  This is embodied in a scene in which Will's wife Connie (Evangeline Lilly) reacts with awkward silence after he recounts the story of an insurgent who lured a crowd of children to him with candy and then detonated a bomb.  It's almost as if she can't even process this sort of first-hand horror.  As such, the film's denouement shouldn't come as a shock to anyone. 

Much hay has been made over the fact that a *GASP!* woman managed to make such a gritty and realistic film.  Speaking as someone who wasn't born yesterday, I've been following Kathryn Bigelow's storied career for decades now.  Anyone who can't see the merits of her earlier work like Near Dark (1987) and Point Break (1991) are either delusional or film snobs.  Having said that, I'm delighted that she's decided to turn his attention towards more controversial and weighty subjects.  In fact, I'm positively chomping at the bit to see Zero Dark Thirty now.   

Normally I'm not a huge fan of hand-held camerawork but given the documentary style approach employed by Bigelow here, the tactic works very well.  In fact, I can't recall a time in which I felt so immersed in a film.  Along with her editors Chris Innis and Bob Murawski, Bigelow manages to inject a sadistic level of tension into the firefights, the IED discoveries and the many stand-offs with deliberately uncommunicative locals.  The sequence in which an innocent Iraqi man is padlocked inside an explosive straight-jacket is shot from so many different perspectives and edited so tightly, the scene is nigh-unbearable.      

Likely because of the script's controversial characters, the military lent no assistance to the production.  In spite of this, the film still looks pretty freakin' authentic to this particular civilian.  This has a lot to do with the fact that The Hurt Locker was shot on location in Jordan, sometimes mere miles away from the Iraqi border.  The buildings, the extras, the props and the sun-bleached environs provide a level of realism rarely matched in contemporary Hollywood films.  The principal actors in particular look like their literally being pulled through a knothole of misery.  

The shell-shocked slo-mo and macro-level shrapnel photography is expertly documented by cinematographer Barry Ackroyd.  The nighttime sequence in which James, Sanborn and Eldridge investigate the scene of a destroyed oil tanker literally looks as if it was shot on location in the bowels of hell.  Again, I can't vouch for the accuracy of the film's military protocol, but the movie itself looks and feels distressingly real.        

The cast is uniformly brilliant.  Jeremy Renner interprets the script brilliantly, delivering an understated yet complex portrait of a damaged soul.  Inhumanly brave and possessed of a coal-black sense of humor, Will comes off like Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon at first.  But as the insane risks start to pile up, we begin to realize that he's borderline suicidal.  Renner expertly navigates though a minefield of repressed emotions and disparate mental states and still presents a character that we give a shit about.  In a vaguely related point, someone needs to get Renner into a Matt Fraction Hawkeye movie pronto.   

In a lesser script, James would be depicted as a one-dimensional jar-head but instead we get an intriguing sub-plot in which Will befriends a boisterous Iraqi kid and then goes rogue after the boy turns up dead.  Later, when William is on leave back home, he secretly confesses to his own newborn son that he has only one love left in his life and he isn't referring to anyone or anything under that roof.  Instantly we reminded of the Chris Hedges quote and we're chilled to the bone.     

Accomplished stage actor Anthony Mackie is also terrific as Sergeant J.T. Sanborn.  Out of the entire cast, you really get the impression that Mackie used the miserable shooting conditions to inspire a seamlessly authentic performance.  In a constant state of high alert over the unpredictable nature of his strange surroundings it's darkly amusing to speculate just how long it will take before Will's antics cause him to crack.  The scene in which he recants his previous hesitation over becoming a father is delivered with such heartfelt resignation it's lingered with me for days.

Baby-faced Brian Geraghty is the perfect portrait of lost innocence.  Not only is Eldridge clearly suffering under the stress of living in an unpredictable war zone, he's also horrified by his own capability to mete out life or death.  His guilt over Thompson's demise is soon compounded after he goads the hapless Cambridge (Christian Camargo) into going out on patrol with them.  When he finally snaps on Will, Geraghty's genuine rage provides a memorably cathartic experience for both himself and the audience.           

I really applaud the makers of The Hurt Locker.  If people in this day and age are too busy, too preoccupied or too apathetic to learn how things really work in this dysfunctional world, then movies like this become a lot more then just simple entertainments.  They could very well be our last line of defense against ignorance and the loss of our collective souls.

                Tilt: up.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Movie Review: "The Good, The Bad and the Ugly" by David Pretty

Although I've only seen a small handful of westerns, I doubt that there are many more out there as meticulously-plotted, well-acted and stylishly-directed as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

Three rogues of varying moral fiber harbor individual clues as the whereabouts of a stolen cash box buried in a mysterious locale.  If they co-operate and pool their knowledge they'll find it with ease, but that also means they'll be forced to split the treasure up three ways.  Naturally, each one of them tries to get a leg up on the other two so they can keep the fortune all to themselves.  This results in a very uneasy alliance as the balance of power careens back and forth.

This motley triumvirate include a laconic and crafty drifter nicknamed Blondie ("The Good"- Clint Eastwood), a ruthless gun-for-hire with the ironic handle of Angel Eyes ("The Bad" - Lee Van Cleef) and a life-long criminal with a penchant for daring escapes and double-crosses called Tuco ("The Ugly" - Eli Wallach).  Despite capture, armed opposition, ill-fortune, betrayal, unexpected complications and even torture, their journey eventually leads to the missing gold and an epic standoff for all the ages.

The movie's mise-en-scène is so surreal and alien that it almost feels like a work of science fiction.  The colorful costumes, striking landscapes, unusual methods of locomotion, noticeable dubbing, vintage buildings, antique firearms, weird characters and bizarre musical cues all add up to a very quirky experience.  Remove the western trappings and Blondie's tale could very well be an early misadventure in the backstory of Han Solo, Mad Max or Snake Plissken.  Indeed, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is one of the earliest and best templates for the now-classic anti-hero story. 

The script is impeccably mapped out and despite the film's prodigious length, it unfolds like an engaging novel.  Every single scene has a purpose: either it propels the yarn forward or serves up some tantalizing details into the history, motivation or temperaments of the characters.  When the screenwriters aren't world-building, they're wowing us with one unexpected revelation after another.  The amount of twists and turns that pile up during the last act of the film will make the average viewer giddy with excitement.    

Despite a budget of just over one million dollars, the film-makers manage to wring an epic amount of scale out of the production.  The wasteful battle between thousands of Rebel and Confederate troops over a single bridge across the Rio Grande is pure spectacle and a poignant comment about the value of human life.  The sets and props are gritty and convincing and the character's costumes are downright iconic.  Ennio Morricone's score is also wildly original, drunkenly careening between darkly amusing, oddly uplifting and downright unnerving.  If you're not whistling the main theme during the end credits you may want to check your pulse. 

The performances are superb.  Clint Eastwood is confident, wily and cool under pressure, even when he's laboring under Tuco's worst abuses.  His indelible portrayal of Blondie inspired an entire generation of action heroes who might not be great conversationalists but they're a crack shot with a rifle.  Lee Van Cleef is a suave, serpentine threat throughout the film and the level of menace and fear he single-handedly generates in the final act is considerable.

Having said all that, the real cause célèbre is Eli Wallach as Tuco.  Vengeful, sneaky and prone to lord his fleeting victories over his opponents, Tuco is willing to do just about anything to weasel his way out of a bind.  Eli Wallach manages to embody this perfectly but he also generates a surprising amount of empathy for the character thanks to some deft touches of humor. 

Wallach's most inspired move is to underscore the character's buffoonery.  As a result, both the audience and Tuco's opponents tend to underestimate him until it's too late.  Although it's tempting write him off as a boorish oaf, there's a lot more to him then meets the eye.  Witness the scene in which he blows away three would-be assassins, all without leaving the comfort of his bath tub!

Of course, most of the plaudits belong to director Sergio Leone.  I really miss the days when you could identify a director just by watching the movie for five minutes.  Leone pioneered such a distinct visual style he really belongs in the same pantheon as Stanley Kubrick, Orson Welles, Martin Scorsese and Stephen Spielberg.  Just by shooting the duelist's eyes in microscopic close-ups, he manages to generate an immediate intimacy between the audience and the characters.

By employing low angles and lingering establishing shots, Leone quickly immerses the viewer in the strange and alien world he's created.  Like all great directors, Leone knew that if you let a camera linger on something as innocuous as a glass of water sitting on a table it will eventually generate an unbearable amount of suspense.  As our surviving "heroes" run out the clock, Leone uses this technique to produce one of the most protracted and agonizing moments of sustained tension in cinema history.
This movie really is a marvel and you owe it to yourself to see it again for the first time thanks to the newly-restored and extended Blu-Ray edition.  That's right, there's now more of this tremendous movie to love!

Tilt: up.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Movie Review: "Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief" by David Pretty

I realize that Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief primarily exists as a commodity but at least it's a reasonably well-made commodity.  Whereas the Harry Potter franchise was an almost incidental hit, it's very likely that author Rick Riordon created this series merely because he noticed that a new generation of kids were ripe for their own publishing phenomenon.  Ergo, he boiler-plated Greek mythology onto elements of J.K. Rowling's universe.

The results are decidedly mixed.  First off, our titular hero (newcomer Logan Lerman) has a lot more edge and attitude than our polite and measured Master Potter.  He's a surly young man who struggles with dyslexia, ADHD and a skeezy creep (Joe Pantoliano) that his mom's been forced to shack up with in order to make ends meet.  During a field trip to a local museum, Percy discovers to his surprise that he can read ancient Greek with ease and has a preternatural affinity for antiquities. 

Soon Percy is beset by a veritable conveyer belt of mythical assassins, all of whom seem to think that he's the one who pilfered Zeus's Lightning Bolt in order to incite civil war in Olympus.  Soon Percy and his mom Sally (Catherine Keener) are whisked away by his High School pal Ron, er...I mean Grover (Brandon T. Jackson), whom we learn is a rather loyal if not unorthodox guardian.  Revelations keep piling up after Grover leads them to, Camp Half-Blood, a clandestine proving ground for the love children of gods and their mortal sperm dumpsters. 

It's soon revealed that Percy is actually a, I mean a demigod; the child of Poseidon and his human mother.  When Sally is captured and whisked off to Hades, Percy vows to rescue her, contrary to the warnings of Dumbledo..., crap, Chiron, the wise centaur played by Pierce Brosnan (?).  Along with Grover, Percy completes his triumvirate of allies by enlisting the aid of Hermio...ARGH! I mean Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), the daughter of Athena.

This hastily-assembled troika then strike forth to locate Persephone's pearls, which will allow them to escape the bonds of Hades after they recover Percy's moms.  Along the way they encounter the world's hottest Gorgon (Uma Thurman), the largest and most incongruous piece of architecture in cinema history, and some great footage for the Las Vegas tourist bureau.

Honestly, there nothing particularly odious or moronic going on in Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief and I certainly think there are much worse things that kids could watch.  At the very least they should learn a little bit about Greek mythology.  Director Chris Columbus completely outclasses his earthbound direction in the first two Harry Potter flicks and he actually creates some moments of genuine spectacle.  For what it's worth, the special effects are also flawless and intense.

Unfortunately the characters are nowhere near as appealing as the Potter gang.  Logan Lerman is pretty white bread when compared to Daniel Radcliffe's Harry, Alexandra Daddario is particularly unmemorable as Annabeth and Brandon T. Jackson's Grover never develops beyond a handful of painfully unfunny lines and some stereotypical personality tics.  Oh, and the sight of Remington Steele's torso grafted onto a horse is just knee-slappin' HI-larious.

In a world that's produced such cinematic pre-teen crap as Crossroads and The Mystical Adventures of Billy Owens you certainly could do far worse than Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief.  Then again, that ain't sayin' too much.

Tilt: down.