Posts Tagged ‘Thriller’

MOVIE: Nightcrawler (2014)

February 26, 2015

nightcralwerLos Angeles denizen Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a petty thief with a nasty streak looking for his next big score. One night while out punching people and taking their watches, he comes across the scene of an accident, and is fascinated to see a group of freelance “newsmen” there with cameras, filming the carnage.  After a brief conversation with one of them (Bill Paxton), Lou learns just how lucrative the gig can be and quickly arms himself with a camcorder and police scanner.

Almost immediately, he manages to score some footage he’s able to sell to a blood-and-gore-thirsty news director, Nina (Rene Russo), desperate to raise her station’s ratings before she gets fired. She’s impressed enough to hand him a check for a couple of hundred bucks and thus a new career for Louis is born.

As it turns out, his life of not giving a crap about anybody else around him turns out to be a handy asset in his new biz, called “nightcrawling” because, it appears, everyone who does it is a big slithery worm only coming out after dark.  Methodical to the extreme, and a lover of self-help books and TED talk equivalents, Lou soon develops a complex business plan, which he begins to share in motivational poster-style quotables with his new “intern,” the hopeless Rick (Riz Ahmed), a homeless kid desperate and dumb enough to be willing to do just about anything for $30 a night.

Then one night, Lou crosses the line — he moves a body to get a better angle on the shot.  It ends up being so effective, he can’t resist going to greater and greater lengths to catch the perfect grisly footage, finally even breaking into a murder scene right after the killers leave and just before the cops arrive in order to get close-ups on the carnage. Meanwhile, Rick is growing first a set of balls and then a niggling sense of moral unease, just as Nina is starting to make the horrified realization she has joined forces with an absolute sociopath — one who is so outrageously good at what he does she doesn’t dare defy him lest he take his footage and its sky-high ratings somewhere else. Oh, moral complexity: why you gotta be so morally complex?

This was a pretty entertaining, well-crafted film, though it’s not one I’m likely to watch ever again.  Of the players involved, Riz Ahmed is by far the most interesting, both as an actor and in terms of his character in the story.   I have no idea if “nightcrawling” is an actual “thing” in TV news, especially since I thought the FCC had some pretty strict rules about showing real-life shotgun wounds in HD at 6pm. Then again, they don’t say “If it bleeds, it leads” for nuthin’, after all.  Still, I’m not entirely sure what the point of the film was, really, since the idea that American TV news watchers are all sickos who love seeing the suffering of others in technicolor is hardly revelatory.  Plus, there’s always something vaguely dissatisfying (for me, anyway) about a movie in which the yucky people win.

Nevertheless, this one is definitely worth a rental if you like crime thrillers — both my husband and I enjoyed it for what it was.  Solid entertainment on a Saturday night; you could do a lot worse for $3.99.

[Netflix it | Buy/Rent at Amazon]

Genre: Drama, Thriller
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Bill Paxton, Riz Ahmed

MOVIE: Black Rock (2012)

February 14, 2014

blackrockI wasn’t expecting much from this movie — it’d been on my radar for about a year now, and I’d even gone as far as watching the preview a few times. But though it sounded like a female take on the movie Deliverance, a concept I found promising in theory, I read a few reviews that said that was pretty much ALL it was.  That it didn’t go any further than that — just a straight-up “campers attacked in woods by rednecks” with no attempt to  explore any larger ideas.

When it turned up on a blogger’s list of his favorite horror movies of the year, though, I decided to give up and give in (though I’d argue this isn’t a horror movie at all — it’s a thriller.  There’s a difference. No, srsly, there is. THIS IS IMPORTANT. (Okay, not really.)).

Oddly enough, the critiques of Black Rock I’d read got it backwards, in my opinion — the problem with this movie isn’t that it makes no attempt to explore any larger ideas, it’s that it tries too hard to explore larger ideas and fails to pull it off.

The story is about three young women, Abby, Lou, and Sarah — best friends since childhood until two of them got into a massive fight and quit speaking to each other.  In an attempt to mend the rift, Sarah tricks the other two into joining her for a camping trip on Black Rock, a remote island off the coast of Maine where the girls had camped many times before as kids.   After an initial round of, “If SHE’S going, I’M staying!,” Lou and Abby finally give in and the three women head out for their trip.

Back when they were girls, they’d buried a time capsule on the island, drawing themselves a rudimentary map so they could go back as adults and  dig it up.  Sarah’s plan to “rebond” Abby and Lou involves spending their first afternoon tracking the capsule down.  But the plan backfires when, after hours of hiking (and bickering), they can’t find the damn X marking the damn spot.  Finally, they give up for the night, build a fire, and pitch their tent.

They’re just settling in when they hear a noise from the ridge above them.  Suddenly, three men appear — a group of hunters armed with rifles.  After exchanging a few words, Abby realizes one of the hunters, a dude named Henry, is the brother of an old high school classmate of hers.  So she invites the fellas down to the beach to hang out and pass a bottle around.

The evening starts out fun, as the gang eats, drinks, and gets to know one another.  But things get a bit tense when it’s revealed that the three men are Army buddies who, just a few weeks prior, had been dishonorably discharged from duty in the Middle East after Henry had carried out some kind of act of unsanctioned violence.  When Derek and Alex say they credited Henry’s act with saving their lives, though, the women relax again. Surely the military just overreacted about whatever it was,. These fellas seem like good guys! Here, pass me the whiskey, glug, glug!

Not long after, Abby has one drink too many and begins to flirt shamelessly with Henry.  Seductively, she invites him to join her for a walk in the (now completely dark) woods, and he agrees with a wink at the others around the campfire.  Back in the trees, Abby starts to kiss Henry, but when he presses her for more, she changes her mind and says she wants to return to the group.  Only, Henry isn’t taking no for an answer, and as he pushes her down to the ground, she picks up a rock and bashes him over the head, accidentally killing him.

When Henry’s pals find out what happened, there’s no sympathy for the bruised and battered Abby.  Instead, they both go absolutely apeshit.  Soon, the girls are running for their lives, trapped on a tiny island with no way to contact the outside world.  You can pretty much take the story from there.

Black Rock is not a terrible movie — it’s entertaining enough.  But it has some pretty major flaws. To begin with, there’s nothing unique about any of the female characters — they play very strongly into stereotype, right down to the (over) peppering of their dialogue with the filler word “like” (which, frankly, really started to grate on me by the end).  Nor is there anything terribly compelling about their relationship with each other.

Even worse, while the movie attempts to make a very obvious point about a woman’s right to say no at any stage during a sexual encounter (no matter how much she’s been flirting), I think the writer (Mark Duplass, director/star Katie Aselton’s husband) thought he was doing more with that concept than he actually managed to accomplish.  The other women are all quick to dismiss her feelings of guilt (of course it’s not your fault! you did nothing wrong!), but ultimately, both Abby and her friends are SEVERELY punished for her actions. I’m not sure that was QUITE the take-home message we were supposed to be getting.

I was also really bothered by the characterization of the men, which was completely nuance-free.  There’s no attempt to make them seem like actual thinking, feeling human beings — they’re just rapist, murdering monsters, which makes them about as interesting as, say, Michael Myers.  There’s plenty of room in this film for thoughtful characterizations on both sides of the gender bar, but none of that happens.

And, man, don’t even get me started on the completely bizarro scene in which the women get soaking wet and strip completely naked when they start to get cold — in the dark, in the middle of the woods, while being chased by violent rapist murderers.  Riiiiiight.  While that might make sense from a survival perspective, when they end up later running off, boobs a’flyin’, without taking their clothes with them, all that plot device’s legitimacy and integrity runs off with them.  No woman being chased by violent bad guys would be so willing to be completely unclothed for that long, to be that physically exposed.  At a minimum, I think underwear would stay firmly in place. This just didn’t make any sense, which made it feel either like an attempt to get the attention of the males in the audience, or, more likely, an attempt on the part of the (male) writer to make some kind of point about the women’s confidence in their bodies, their selves.  Perhaps we were supposed to think of them as strong Amazonian warriors, refusing to conform to society’s mores for women?  Only, it really only ended up feeling extremely awkward and nonsensical, and more than a little disturbing.  I honestly don’t quite know what to make of that scene, but it sure bugged me.

But, you know, whatever.  The biggest problem with this movie is that I got the sense from it quickly that it was trying to give a “feminist” spin to a fairly classic tale, making some kind of big, important point about women (or maybe about women in film).  But when you try to do something like that and it’s clear you just don’t get it, that makes your movie a lot worse than if you’d just stuck with straight-on, boring ol’ action thrills.

They really should’ve stuck with straight-on, boring ol’ action thrills, is what I’m saying.

In any case, it’s not unwatchable.  Which is more than I can say for some of Lake Bell’s other movies.  So there you go.

[Netflix it | Amazon Buy/Rent]

Genre: Thriller
Cast: Katie Aselton, Lake Bell, Kate Bosworth, Will Bouvier, Jay Paulson, Anslem Richardson, Carl K. Aselton III

MOVIE: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011)

January 12, 2012

My first thought as the opening credits to this spy thriller began was, “Wow, what a cast!”  Gary Oldman, Benedict “Sherlock” Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, Ciarán Hinds, Tom Hardy, and John Hurt?  Holy crazy bananas, Batman!

Not five minutes later, though, the cast was all but forgotten — this movie sucked me in immediately, and the actors, Oldman in particular, are so tremendously good I stopped thinking about them as real people and instead became fully engrossed in their roles.

For those who have never read the John le Carré novel, or seen earlier versions of the story on the screen, it’s about a mole in British Intelligence in 1973 and is the first in a series le Carré wrote about an older British spy named George Smiley.  The movie opens with a British secret agent, Jim Prideaux, being sent to Hungary to meet with a Hungarian general who wants to sell information to the UK.  The operation is blown, though, when the Russians get information about when and where it’s taking place and open fire, leaving Prideaux bleeding on the ground.

Word gets back to British Intelligence, and, amid the international hoopla that follows, the current head of the organization, known as “Control” (Hurt), and his number one agent, Smiley (Oldman) are forced into retirement (Control dying soon after of natural causes).  Bosses shift around, things settle, and a group of the top agents, known as the Circus, begin work on a new project that involves obtaining high-level Soviet intelligence material and then trading it to the US government for secrets of their own, a project whose real endgame Control and Smiley had long been suspicious of: Operation Witchcraft.

When Oliver Lacon, the civil servant in charge of intelligence, hears an allegation that there’s a leak in the Circus, he goes outside the group to bring in an independent investigator — George Smiley.  As Smiley begins to dig into the timeline, interview the various players, and build up evidence, he discovers that Control’s real reason for having sent Prideaux to Hungary was to reveal the mole’s identity.  He breaks into Control’s old apartment and there finds a set of chess pieces labeled with the photos and code names for each of his suspects:  Tinker, Tailor, Soldier. . . and Spy.

Though the plot is complex and difficult to follow at times (there’s a lot of jumping around in time, for one thing, without much in the way of assistance in keeping track), I never found this frustrating.  Instead, it’s what kept me glued to my seat, riveted by the multi-layered story unfolding on the screen.  The acting is incredible — when Gary Oldman is good, he is so very, very good, I must say — and the pacing is perfect.  By the end, I was squirming in my seat, anxious and paranoid — is HE the mole?  Is HE?  Is it SMILEY?  And I’ve read the book!  (Though, granted, I read it nearly 20 years ago. . .)

This is a great movie to see if you’re in the mood for a bit of a brain game, and one I have no doubt will get even better with multiple viewings.  Definitely recommended, and I hope they make at least one more of the Smiley books into a film with the same cast.  So much more fun than Bond!

[Prequeue it at Netflix | View trailer]

Genre:  Thriller, Spy
Cast:  Gary Oldman, Kathy Burke, Benedict Cumberbatch, David Dencik, Colin Firth, Stephen Graham, Ciarán Hinds, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones

MOVIE: Dream House (2011)

October 28, 2011

Okay, so, the good news:  this movie isn’t nearly as bad as its trailer makes it look.  While it’s pretty much every bit as cheeseorama and predictable as it seems, it at least makes a good effort to veer slightly off the usual track at the end, something I appreciated enough to forgive it, a little anyway, for its ridiculous, silly everything-elses.

The story is about a successful big city publication house editor, Will Atenton (Daniel Craig), who has just quit his job and moved his wife Libby (Rachel Weisz) and two young daughters to a big house in a small town, where he plans to write a book and spend more time being a dad.  Fans of movies like this one know that moving a big city person to a small town neighborhood so they can focus on writing is something that just NEVER goes well for anyone (I can think of a dozen thrillers/horror movies that start out exactly that same way).  You either go crazy (The Shining) or some kind of evil comes and gets you (Straw Dogs and countless others).

It’s not long before the family learns they’ve been duped by their realtor, who failed to inform them that the house was the site of a horrific murder/attempted-suicide just a few years before.  A man killed both his kids and his wife, and then shot himself in the head, surviving the wound just barely, and he’s been in a psychiatric hospital ever since.  The neighbors think the house is cursed and stay away (one previous resident even warns Will that living in the house made him kill his own family. Apparently, he’s been let out of prison because he has terminal cancer, by the way, which:  what?).  But one of them, Ann (Naomi Watts), seems to know more than the others about the murders and makes an effort, albeit a hesitant one, to welcome Will to the neighborhood.

Creeped out but practical, the Atentons decide not to tell their kids about the house’s history (asking Ann’s teenage daughter to watch what she says within ear shot), and plan to make the best of it:  new coats of paint, smooches in the kitchen, the housewarming works.

Until, of course, stranger and stranger things begin to happen.

If you’ve seen the trailer — or any one of the gazillion movies just like this one — you already know Daniel Craig is the murderous father, and his family is simply a manifestation of his traumatized imagination.  (This is not a spoiler, by the way — it’s IN THE TRAILER.)  But as he begins to remember the truth, a twist comes into play that turns the usual arc of these sorts of flicks on its ear.  Is it a brilliant twist?  Nope.  However, it’s not terrible either, and, man, major points to the writer/director for not just lazily riding this out the way I expected them to.

If you’re on the fence about checking this one out, and you have a thing for the naked male form, then I should also tell you there is an unintentionally hilarious moment in this movie where Daniel Craig hears a noise downstairs and gets out of bed to investigate.  As he throws the covers back and rises to his feet, the camera zooms in so closely the only thing you see is his naked torso, all six-packed and chisel-y.  After seeing similar close-ups of his butt in chaps in Cowboys & Aliens (MORE THAN ONE, I should add!), I gotta wonder:  does Daniel Craig know he’s being cast these days more for his body than his acting ability?  Because, really, he’s not much of an actor — he’s pretty much always the same dude, and I confess that dude is sort of getting old for me.  But man, I would — and will — happily continue to shell out nine bucks for a big-screen ticket to more shots like that one.  MROWL.

For most of you, though, I think maybe waiting for DVD would be reasonable.  This little thriller is entertaining enough, but nothing to write home about.  (Hi, Mom!)

[Prequeue at Netflix | View trailer]

Genre:  Horror, Thriller
Cast:  Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz, Naomi Watts, Marton Csokas, Claire Geare, Taylor Geare, Rachel G. Fox, Elias Koteas

MOVIE: The Debt (2011)

October 7, 2011

This incredibly entertaining (though requiring a bit of a “suspend your disbelief” attitude) movie tells the story of a group of Mossad agents who, in 1966, were given the task of taking out the hiding-in-East-Berlin “Surgeon of Birkenau,” Dieter Vogol, and who, 30 years later, find themselves caught in a lie that could be their undoing.

First, the 1966:  Experienced agent Stefan (Marton Csokas) has teamed up with younger agent David (Sam Worthington, who: borrrrring!) after finally having tracked Vogol down.  When they discover he’s an OB/GYN in Berlin, they request the assistance of a female agent, and are sent Rachel (Jessica Chastain), who looks like you could knock her over with a good sneeze, but who instead is a martial arts master who would probably pop you in the chin while she yelled “GESUNDHEIT, ALREADY” in your face (she’s bad ass, is what I’m saying — I liked her immensely).

Their plan forms quickly:  Rachel and David will pose as a married couple having trouble conceiving a child, get inside the clinic, and then kidnap Vogol.  From there, with the help of the Israeli government, they’ll smuggle him onto a train and back into West Berlin, where he’ll be taken away and tried for war crimes.  Rachel goes to a few (extremely creepy) appointments first, to get the lay of the land, so to speak, and then successfully manages to inject Vogol with a sedative, claiming he had a heart attack during the exam, while David and Stefan pose as ambulance drivers to whisk him off to the “hospital.”

At first, the plan goes smoothly, until a screw-up at the train depot leaves them stuck with Vogol indefinitely.  If they can’t get him out of East Berlin, their only choice is to take him home and hide him until they can.   And so they do, managing to keep him alive for weeks on end, despite the fact they all desperately want to kill him every time he opens his disgusting anti-Semitic mouth.

But one night, everything goes wrong and Vogol gets loose, knocking Rachel down, slicing open her face, and running out into the street.  Rachel manages to crawl to her gun, takes aim at his back through the open window and. . .

Cut to present day, and the now-older Rachel (Helen Mirren) is attending a  book release party for her daughter, who has written a book about the group’s extraordinary capture of Dieter Vogol.  Stefan (Tom Wilkinson) shows up, but there’s no sign of David (Ciarán Hinds) and when Rachel learns he committed suicide earlier that same day, she demands to know what Stefan knows — because he clearly knows something.  And that’s when we, the audience, learn the truth about Vogol and what happened to him after he fled that apartment thirty years ago.  It’s a truth that could ruin Rachel and Stefan’s lives, the lives of their daughter and her family (oh yeah, I left the love triangle part out — blah blah Rachel loves David but has sex with Stefan, she gets preggers, blah blah etc., yawn) and devastate Israel in general.  And it’s a truth Stefan wants to keep hidden, at any cost, and that only Rachel is physical able to erase.

Though there were many elements of the story that seemed a little too unbelievable or coincidental, I was absolutely riveted by this movie from start to finish.  The scenes from 1966 are thrilling and pack a strong emotional wallop as well (try to imagine, if you will, getting a pelvic exam from a monster — not once, but thrice).  And while the present-day scenes were much less evocative for me, the acting prowess of the stars of that half of the film is undeniable.  I mean, come on:  Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, and Ciarán Hinds?  If they were the only three actors in any movie ever again, I’d be perfectly content.

This is not a flawless film, but I was surprised by how deeply engrossed I was in  it.  Never a dull moment, and lots of truly good ones to boot.

Definitely recommended, though you’re safe waiting for DVD, I would say.  Ciarán Hinds on the big screen is a lovely, lovely thing, but, you know, then he gets hit by a bus.

(SPOILER, I guess, except I usually don’t count anything that happens in the first 15 minutes of a film terribly spoilery.)

Incidentally, how do you pronounce the name Ciarán?  I keep meaning to look that up and not getting around to it.  And have any of you seen the original Israeli film?  Worth checking out?

[Prequeue at Netflix | View trailer]

Genre: Thriller
Cast:  Helen Mirren, Sam Worthington, Jessica Chastain, Jesper Christensen, Marton Csokas, Ciarán Hinds, Tom Wilkinson, Romi Aboulafia, Melinda Korcsog

MOVIE: Dot the I (2003)

September 30, 2011

My husband isn’t a big movie watcher, so when he comes home with a DVD he’s rented, it’s kind of a big deal.  Getting to hang out with him on the couch and watch a flick is a rare treat, so I’m always game for anything he picks out.

By the time we got around to watching this British film, a few days after he rented it, he couldn’t remember anything about the plot description other than the fact someone quoted on the DVD box had compared it to Memento.  That plus the opening credits, featuring names like Gael García Bernal and James D’Arcy, though, and I was IN.

The first hour definitely had us puzzled, but not in a Memento sort of way.  It was more a “Memento?!” sort of way, as in: since when is Memento a somewhat cheesy, wholly predictable (albeit sweet) romance about a love triangle?  You see, the story initially appears to be about a feisty young Spanish woman, Carmen, who has just gotten engaged to her wealthy, if a bit dull, British boyfriend Barnaby (D’Arcy).  They’ve only been dating six months, but he’s clearly crazy for her.  And she?  Well, she’s done “passion” before and that guy ended up hurting her.  At least Barnaby is kind.  Close enough, she decides.

“Close enough,” that is, until she meets Brazilian sweetheart Kit Winter (Bernal, in his first English-speaking role) on her “hen night” (bachelorette party).   For Kit, it’s love at first sight, and he soon starts showing up at her workplace, asking her out for coffee, and then accidentally getting her fired (oops).  At first, Carmen resists, wanting to stay where she is — at peace with her decision to marry Barnaby and get on with her life.  But she can’t deny a powerful spark between herself and Kit, and her resistance ends up being futile (SHE IS BORG) (she is not really Borg).  The night she and Barnaby marry, they have a massive fight and Barnaby angrily tells her to leave.  Carmen runs to Kit for comfort, and, well, you and your imagination can take it from there.  (Hint: smooches.)

That scene, though, is when this movie suddenly flips onto its ear and becomes another beast entirely.  I ain’t sayin’ a word about what comes next, but while I still don’t quite see the Memento connection, I did find the multiple plot twists in the last act pretty crafty.  They’re wickedly mean-spirited too, but while psychological cruelty exhibited at the end of this film is something I usually have a hard time watching (I’m cool with chopping people’s heads off with chain saws, but shame and humiliation is excruciatingly painful for me to watch), the movie is clearly meant to be darkly comic, and the end turns the whole thing into more of a revenge fable than a movie about true human nastiness.  It was more deliciously evil than “my god, people SUCK” evil.  For me, anyway.

Though the beginning of this film is a little on the clunky, cutesy side, the sharp shifts in the last twenty minutes made the kissy-kissy stuff worth sitting through (though, in retrospect, I’d’ say the end was a bit on the overdone side — still, it was certainly fun in the moment).  Plus, I love Gael García Bernal, and I totally have a huge girl-crush on Natalia Verbeke’s delightfully dimpled grin now as well.  SHE. IS. ADORABLE.

Surprisingly entertaining and well worth a rental if you can track it down.  Trust me, you’ll never see the end coming.  No-ho-ho way.  (To see it coming, you’d have to be a viciously evil bastard yourself, and surely none of MY readers are viciously evil bastards.  Right?  RIGHT?!)

Recommended!  Watch it with someone you love.  Or something.

[Netflix it | Buy it]

Genre:  Thriller, Romance?
Cast:  Gael García Bernal, Natalia Verbeke, James D’Arcy, Tom Hardy, Charlie Cox, Yves Aubert

MOVIE: The Lincoln Laywer (2011)

March 31, 2011

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a decent legal thriller, and even longer since I’ve seen Matthew McConaughey in anything particularly good, so when reviews of this movie came out and many of my favorite critics said it was fun, I was game.

And fun it is.  While the plot is nothing terribly original and definitely has a few weak spots (for example, when your friend is murdered while investigating something specific, it’s a pretty safe bet that the something-specific is what got him killed — you might want to start there, dummy), overall I found the film really entertaining and McConaughey thoroughly charming as its star.

Matty plays Mick Halter, a rich LA defense lawyer whose office is the back seat of his Lincoln town car, and whose license plate sums up both his track record and his cocky personality:  NTGUILTY.

He mostly specializes in getting bad guys off, living in perpetual fear of the day he’s forced to defend an innocent man and fails.  But when his pal Val (John Leguizamo), a bail bondsman, asks him to take the case of a super-rich young man accused of assault (Ryan Phillippe), Mick quickly realizes his greatest fear may be coming to pass.  The kid, Louis Roulet, seems innocent — his story makes sense, the woman accusing him is a known prostitute trying to get enough money to get out of the biz, and there’s even security camera footage that supports Louis’s description of what went down.

Things get complicated, though, when Mick discovers a connection between this case and one of his old ones.  A man he’d defended years ago and talked into taking a plea for a life sentence — in an attempt to avoid the death penalty — was accused of a crime that looked and sounded a lot like the crime Louis is accused of.  What’s the connection?  Who’s innocent and who’s guilty?  One?  Both?  Someone else altogether?

Though all the “twists” at the end were predictable and all-too-familiar to anyone who reads mysteries regularly (this flick’s based on a novel by Michael Connelly, by the way), I still found this movie good escapist fun.  McConaughey is great in this kind of part — intelligent, arrogant, and thrown for a loop — and the casting of Marisa Tomei, a middle-aged woman with wrinkles and everything!, as Mick’s ex-wife and occasional lover was utterly refreshing.  How nice to see a movie about a handsome guy dating a woman HIS OWN AGE!  Hear that, Harrison Ford?  Yeah, whatever, dude.

All in all, definitely a great way to spend an afternoon.  You can probably wait for the DVD to come out, since there’s nothing that spectacular about it visually, but it’s definitely worth watching somewhere, some how, some day for sure.  Recommended!

[Prequeue at Netflix | View trailer]

Genre:  Thriller
Cast:  Matthew McConaughey, Marisa Tomei, Ryan Phillippe, William H. Macy, Josh Lucas, John Leguizamo, Michael Peña, Bob Gunton, Frances Fisher, Bryan Cranston

MOVIE: Unknown (2011)

February 28, 2011

This movie was almost universally panned by reviewers when it first hit theaters a few weeks ago.  But most of the reviews I read, especially Ebert’s, made it sound so bad it might actually be good, which is really all it takes to get my butt into a theater seat.

I spent most of the movie nodding in agreement while ticking off each one of Ebert’s criticisms in my head.  Until I got to the end, that is, when suddenly, all those complaints were completely resolved by a twist that I, personally, found  satisfyingly unexpected.  That made me wonder:  Did Ebert actually stay until the end?  Because in the context of what happens in the last 20 minutes or so, his review makes almost no sense whatsoever.

Huh.  Maybe he fell asleep.  I suppose I can’t really blame him for that.

Anyway, look, you know this isn’t going to be a great movie, right?  I mean, it’s an action flick about a guy who gets conked on the head and loses his memory — it’s not a “film.”   Nevertheless, despite some truly boring acting on the part of January Jones (has she EVER done anything interesting?  Why does she still have a job?), I found it to be fairly well-acted and entertaining.

Liam Neeson plays a doctor, Martin Harris, traveling to Berlin with his boring wife (Jones — why he couldn’t have a wife his own age is beyond me, but whatever, Hollywood) for a conference.  His briefcase gets left behind at the airport, so he leaves his wife at the hotel to check in while he climbs back into a cab to go fetch it.  On the way back, though, the cab gets into an accident, and Harris ends up in a coma for four days.

When he wakes up, he finds he’s been replaced by an impostor (Aidan Quinn), a man everyone says is the real Martin Harris, including his wife.  Meanwhile, a group of bad guys are after him, trying to take him out — mostly a bad thing except for the part where it at least lets him know he’s not crazy.  Right?  RIGHT?

There are a lot of car chases, loads of silly dialogue, and all the other kinds of stuff you’d expect from a thriller of this nature.  But it was exactly the sort of movie I was in the mood for, and I definitely got what I wanted from it:  two hours of satisfying entertainment.  You could do a lot worse, is what I’m saying.

And Ebert:  you’re fired.  (Ha ha!  Just kidding, man.  I still love you.)

[Prequeue it at Netflix | View trailer]

Genre:  Thriller
Cast: Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, January Jones, Aidan Quinn, Bruno Ganz, Frank Langella,

MOVIE: Buried (2010)

October 9, 2010

The Good: This movie opens with a completely black screen.  Absolute darkness.  No sights, no sounds.  And dark and silent it stays for what feels like an eternity (especially if you, like me, are alone in an empty theater — THE CREEPS!).

Then, slowly, a few tiny noises.  Crane forward, tip your ear toward the screen (even though it’s in surround sound so this motion makes little sense), and you’ll pick up the rasp of a breath.  Then, louder: gasping. Followed quickly by the indescribable yet undeniable sound of recognition that something is wrong.  That, in turn, leads to furious panting, the sound of feet, knees, and elbows banging against wood, and then panicked screams, gradually fading back into a more practical calm.

Cue the extremely distinctive sound of a Zippo lighter, followed by light, followed by the face of Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds), who has just woken up to find himself buried in a wooden coffin with only the Zippo, a flask of something drinkable, a cell phone, and a pencil in there with him.

Good goddamn.  Now that’s how you start a movie.

The Bad:  Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from there.  As the story unfolds, we learn that Paul is a civilian contractor driving trucks in Iraq.  Earlier that day, his convoy was attacked by insurgents who shot nearly all his colleagues right in front of him.  Guns going off all around him, Paul got whomped in the head by something and fell to the ground unconscious.  And that’s the last thing he remembers before waking up in the box:  one hell of a few final moments in the light.

As he begins putting the cell phone to use, he eventually learns he’s being held hostage, buried underground by those same insurgents, who are now demanding $1 million in exchange for his life.

That’s all I’m going to tell you about the plot of this one, because I think if you go into it knowing too much about the story, you won’t find much else to hold your attention.  It’s a 90-minute movie shot entirely inside a dark box, after all — there isn’t much more to it than the gradual unraveling of a tale.

I will say, though, that Ryan Reynolds, an actor who’s never really been on my radar before, does an impressive job here, and his performance is the only thing that makes it worth seeing through to the end.  The other actors — the voices on the other end of the phone — are mediocre at best, and the story itself is pretty much same-same.

My biggest problem with the film, though, was that I felt like by the end, after riding out the worst 90 minutes of Conroy’s life right there with him in the dark, I should’ve left feeling like I knew him.  At least a little.  But no — not so much.   I cared about him, thanks to Reynolds’s effective emoting, but I didn’t know him.  I didn’t connect to him.  And that just ain’t right somehow.  That’s a scriptwriting flaw, if you ask me, and it’s a big one.

And so, overall, I think the best thing I can say about Buried is that it’s an interesting exercise in minimalistic set design.  There was a lot of camera skill on display — a lot of cinematic creativity — but not much more than that, I’m afraid.

Score:  B for effort, MEH for effect.

[Prequeue at Netflix | View trailer]

Genre:  Thriller
Cast:  Ryan Reynolds and a wooden box

MOVIE: The Town (2010)

September 30, 2010

I went into this film expecting it to blow me away.  After all, Gone Baby Gone completely knocked my socks off back in 2007.  It was, in fact, the movie that finally made me stop rolling my eyes at Ben Affleck after years and years (and yeeeears!) of rolling my eyes at Ben Affleck.  And now he’s back to direct another film set in Boston, a town I adore and one I know he knows inside and out?  Bring it on.  I am IN.  Between 2007 and 2010, I’m sure he’s learned a gazillion new things about filmmaking, and I was definitely eager to find out what they were.

Alas, it seems that what Affleck learned in his time away from the rear-end of a camera was that thoughtful, creative movies don’t make money; movies that blow a lot of shit up do.  Another one lost to the tired traditions of Hollywood blockbusters?  I won’t write him off just yet, but I will confess to being extremely disappointed.

The Town is set in Charlestown, a neighborhood of Boston.  It opens by telling us Charlestown is the “bank robbery capital” of America, with the trade being somewhat of a local tradition, passed down from generation to generation.

Cut to the film’s first robbery scene, where a group of men wearing Skeletor masks burst into a local bank, waving guns around and yelling about the time — you know, just like you’ve seen bank robbers do a million times in movies and TV shows.  They get one of the bank employees, a pretty young woman named Claire (Rebecca Hall, who reminds me of Molly Ringwald, for some reason) to open the safe and, at the last minute, one of the robbers grabs her and drags her out with them as a hostage.  They manage to escape, keeping Claire blindfolded the whole time, and once they get away, they let her go on a local beach, telling her to walk forward, keeping her blindfold on, until her toes hit the water.

Back to safety, we learn the robbers are best friends going way back, led by Doug McCrae (Affleck), the brains of the operation, and energized by the frenetic, almost ADD-like behavior of Doug’s like-a-brotha’ friend James Coughlin (a fantastic, almost unrecognizable Jeremy Renner).

James is a bit on the loose cannon side — he’s the one who took Claire hostage on a whim, something Doug wasn’t too pleased about.  He’s aggressive, impulsive, and hard to reason with.  Doug, on the other hand, plans carefully, ponders heartfully, and is about to get a taste of a life he never even knew he wanted.

Worried Claire might’ve seen something she could use to identify them, Doug decides to stage what the movie biz calls a “meet cute.”  He follows her around until she’s heads into a laundromat and then sort of “accidentally” introduces himself to her, asking if she has any quarters for the machines.  Thoroughly charmed by him, Claire ends up agreeing to go out with him for coffee.  Before he knows it, Doug’s in love, getting his first real bite of what “normal” life is like, and greatly wanting more.

And here’s where the movie goes from good to glarrrrbbbbghargh! (<– industry term).

This film had so many great things going for it:  an incredible cast, a setting with loads of personality all its own, a strong story backbone, and characters that were truly intriguing:  Doug, the conflicted smart guy with the troubled past; Doug’s father (Chris Cooper), who is in prison for robbery himself and clearly has a complicated relationship with his son; Doug’s friend James, trouble heading for disaster; and Claire, who’s about to find out her boyfriend is the same guy who put a bag over her head and stuffed her into a van.

At first, it looked like all these elements were going to come together absolutely brilliantly into a movie that looked closely at intricately built relationships, weighty family histories, and the pressures of background and tradition.  But all of a sudden, the movie inexplicably dropped most of these more interesting elements and devolved into standard bank robber stuff, turning away from the more “thoughty” parts of the story and instead diving head-first into a series of shoot-outs, car chases, the works.

We never even see Doug’s father again — that entire scene felt like a throwaway to me — and other things that seemed to be major plot elements didn’t make much sense either (like James’s tattoo — he’s so careful before a robbery he scrubs his skin down to remove any old cells that might leave behind DNA, but neither he nor Doug  think to cover up his extremely unique neck tattoo?  Baloney.).  Frankly, even the relationship drama between Claire and Doug ends up taking a pretty boringly all-too-familiar route.   Absolutely everything about the story ends up being completely predictable, with nary an original bone to be had.  Major disappointment.

That said, The Town is extremely well-crafted and it’s certainly beautifully shot.  The scenes of Boston are absolutely wonderful (especially the scenes set in Fenway Park — man, that must’ve been a dream come true for Affleck).

All in all, though, this movie felt more like a made-for-TV flick than a feature film made by a man we all know can do better.

Time to get some courage, Mr. Affleck, sir.  Balls to the wall on the next one, you got me, ya chowdahead?  You can do it.  And I can wait.

[Prequeue at Netflix | View trailer]

Genre:  Thriller, Crime
Cast:  Ben Affleck, Rebecca Hall, Jon Hamm, Jeremy Renner, Blake Lively, Slaine, Owen Burke, Titus Welliver, Pete Postlethwaite, Chris Cooper