Saturday, May 30, 2009

Gran Torino (2008)

Movie quotes:
"Well, I think you’re an overeducated, 27 year old virgin who likes to hold the hand of old ladies who are superstitious, and promises them eternity."
- Walt (Clint Eastwood) to young priest

Sue (Ahney Her): We’re having a barbecue, you wanna come over?
Walt: What do you think?
Sue: There’s tons of food!
Walt: Yeah, just keep your hands off my dog.

"Oh, no. No, no more. No more, c’mon, no more…I…no more, please, no more, this that chicken dumpling thing you brought the other…alright."
- Walt to women bearing food gifts

Walt: See, now go out, come back and talk to him, and, it ain’t rocket science, for Chrissake.
Thao (Bee Vang): Yeah, but, I don’t have a job, a car, or a girlfriend.
Barber (John Carroll Lynch) Jesus. I should have blown his head off when I had the chance.
Walt: Yeah. Maybe so. Now okay, I want you to turn around, and go outside, and come back, and don’t talk about having no job, no car, no girlfriend, no future, no dick, okay? Just…turn around and go.

Priest (Christopher Carley): What can I do for you, Mr. Kowalski?
Walt: I’m here for a confession.
Priest: Oh, Lord Jesus, what have you done?
Walt: Nothin’, you just take it easy now.
Priest: What are you up to?
Walt: Are you gonna give me a confession or not?

At a glance:
Clint Eastwood directs and stars in this small but effective drama about a bitter and prejudiced Korean War veteran and widower who forms a reluctant friendship with his Asian neighbors

Our review (with spoilers):
Walt (Clint Eastwood) is a bitter old man. He just lost his wife. We never get to meet her, but I would assume that she was his lifeline into the social world, a gentler soul who softened Walt’s prejudice and anger toward the world, and the one person who was able to love him, despite his faults. Without her, he is happy to be isolated, making himself unapproachable to his family and to the young parish priest who made a promise to his wife to look after him. Walt remains on, alone in a small house, in a neighborhood that has become a ghetto. Surrounded by Asian families, Walt either ignores them or actively keeps them at bay with aggressiveness. When Thao, the young Asian boy next door, is almost kidnapped by a local gang, Walt steps in, brandishing one of his Korean War rifles. Walt only intervenes because the battle spills over the property line onto his lawn. Walt scares the gang away with his crazy bloody-mindedness, and, with this act, becomes an unexpected and reluctant hero to the boy, his family, and the other Asian families in the neighborhood. Slowly, Walt and Thao develop a father/son type relationship, with Walt teaching Thao about life (in his own unique way), lending him tools, and finding him a job. When Thao continues to be bullied by the gang, Walt starts taking things into his own hands and intervenes in a kind of geriatric Dirty Harry style, but this just escalates the violence.

This often quiet, sometimes humorous, and occasionally explosive film features one of the most vibrant, sincere performances Eastwood has delivered in years. Make no mistake: this is a film parable; it has no aspirations to be a true story (at least, that’s not how I read it). Eastwood’s transformation from hateful bigot to tolerant, respectful neighbor happens way too fast. Walt’s resolution ties things up too easily, especially after a point had been made earlier in the film that the Hmong people ‘knew how to keep their mouths shut’). Still, by tackling a much smaller story, Eastwood has succeeded where he sometimes fails. It’s a dream role for Eastwood; he gets to cuss it up and be the quintessential liberated bigot, then transform into almost a god-like martyr. But I reckon he deserves it. Rating: 3 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"The kind of movie Don Siegel and Sam Fuller used to make, a blunt but perceptive slice of American discontent filtered through the prism of B-movie conventions."
- Maitland McDonagh (Miss FlickChick)

 "What the film aches for is a challenge worthy of the monster Eastwood effortlessly inhabits."
- James Christopher (Times [UK])

Monday, May 25, 2009

Defiance (2008)

Movie quotes:
Tuvia (Daniel Craig): What did you do?
Isaac (Mark Feuerstein): I suppose you’d have to say I was – am – an intellectual.
Zus (Liev Schreiber): This is a job?

"Our revenge is to live. We may be hunted like animals but we will not become animals. We have all chosen this - to live free, like human beings, for as long as we can. Each day of freedom is a victory. And if we die trying to live, at least we die like human beings."
- Tuvia

At a glance:
Based on a true holocaust story of Jewish survivors hiding in the forests of Belarussia, Defiance benefits from solid performances in an emotional war setting, and is only occasionally set back by Hollywood contrivances

Our review:
During the Second World War, two Jewish brothers are forced to hide in the Belarussia woods when their family is killed by the Nazis. They are joined by hundreds of other Jews, all looking for a safe haven. Zus (Live Schreiber) would probably be happy to leave these lost souls, but Tuvia (Daniel Craig) feels the need to protect and provide for them. They build a forest camp and attempt to hide from vengeful locals from whom they’ve ‘borrowed’ food, and from always vigilant German patrols. There is conflict as well between the two brothers. Zus favors a hard line approach to survival, advocating acts of revenge and the killing of potential threats. Tuvia, perhaps the more natural leader of men, wants to impose a strict set of ethics on their endeavors to ensure they do not end up as morally tainted as their enemies.

Although framed within a ‘true’ story of Jewish persecution, the guts of this tale is the conflict between brothers, and later, the internal conflicts within the greater group of forest dwellers, and their battles against the perils of winter and shortages of food and medicine.

There’s nothing wrong with Defiance. It’s a solid war/survival movie. In such a drama-rich setting, and bolstered by its ‘true war story’ roots, Defiance felt like it could have achieved more than it does. Perhaps it suffers from a slightly uninspired screenplay riddled with one too many clich├ęs. Perhaps some of the plot points feel like the work of a screenwriter, not of a real group of war refugees. For example, one of Tuvia’s rules is ‘no pregnancies’. He doesn’t feel they can provide for the needs of babies. Well, first of all, this doesn’t allow for any women who might already be pregnant when they arrive there (of course, this very situation comes up later). Second, newborn babies receive all they need to survive from their mothers for at least the first 6 months of their life. And finally, these survivors could be living in the forest for a long time – perhaps for the rest of their lives. What is the point of just surviving if there are no children to carry on after they are gone?

Still, Defiance does get most things right. The brothers’ relationship is solid, and perhaps the movie would have benefited if Zus had not gone missing for a big chunk of the film. Tuvia is an intriguing character; I wondered why, for example, he fought so hard to maintain a level of dignity, yet he made no move to stop his people from beating the captured German soldier to death. Likewise, Zus’s character is also thought-provoking. In wartime, are violent, semi-sadistic people like him of high value? His acts of heroism were enabled at least partly by his lust for revenge and his tolerance/love of killing.

There are also excellent performances across the board, and director Edward Zwick creates a sincere and believable mood and place in time using visual imagery. That’s not something that’s easy to do, and yet he’s done it here, and he’s done it before (in The Siege). Rating: 3 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"A harrowing story of bravery and survival, Defiance tells it Hollywood-style. Still, somehow the true-story courage bleeds through the at-times hokey formula scripting."
- Ross Anthony (Hollywood Report Card)

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Star Trek (2009)

Movie quotes:
”I like this ship! It's exciting!”
- Scotty (Simon Pegg)

Kirk (Chris Pine): Are you afraid or aren't you?
Spock (Zachary Quinto): I will not allow you to lecture me.
Kirk: Then why don't you stop me?

"You've always had a hard time finding your place in this world, haven't you? Never knowing your true worth. You can settle for less in ordinary life, or do you feel like you were meant for something better? Something special."
- Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) to James Kirk

"Your father was captain of a starship for twelve minutes. He saved 800 lives, including yours. I dare you to do better. Enlist in Starfleet."
- Christopher Pike to James Kirk

McCoy (Karl Urban): We've got no Captain and no First Officer to replace him.
Kirk: Yeah, we do.

At a glance:
Director J. J. Abrams rejuvenates the Star Trek franchise with a vibrant, supercharged, action-oriented story that still holds respect for Trek history, and finds time for resonant character interaction

Our review:
(SPOILERS follow) A Romulan named Nero (Eric Bana) witnesses the total annihilation of his home planet by a supernova, and is thrown into a frenzy of anger directed at Ambassador Spock (Leonard Nimoy) whom he deems at fault for not acting qiockly enough to avert the disaster. Rifted back in time (along with Spock), he focuses solely on revenge; standing in his way is Spock’s younger self (Zachary Quinto) and Spock’s new commanding officer, James T. Kirk (Chris Pine).

This is J. J. Abrams’ frenetic, high budget, high volume, almost pure action reinvention of the Star Trek universe, cleverly constructed in an alternate timeline, so as to avoid any attacks against its continuity and adherence to canon. Co-written by Robert Orci (an admitted Trekker) and Alex Kurtzman, the script and story is well-structured to provide plenty of moments of heroism and redemption, with occasional dips into light humor. Abrams went for a very claustrophobic direction style, and probably too many beatings of Kirk, but, overall, the direction adds to the movement and excitement.

I’ll leave a more detailed critique of the special effects to those who focus more on these things; for me, the money spent was evident, and the earth-based effects were good, but I found most of the space-based effects to be too dark and muddled for my taste.

I tend to relate to the character moments, anyway; these are in the minority, but the ones that are there are effective, and true to the known history of the characters. Spock and Kirk are the focus; the remaining cast gets much smaller parts, although, gratefully, each has a crucial role to play. Eric Bana is suitably evil as the villain Nero; there’s good supporting work by Bruce Greenwood as Admiral Pike, whose commanding voice lends credence to even such far-fetched plot points as appointing a disbanded cadet as First Officer based almost solely on his pedigree and potential. And while we’re on dodgy plot points, Kirk’s easy manipulation of Spock’s anger felt almost like an original series moment, except that, of course, it was an older version of Spock himself that suggested the strategy to Kirk, and who would know better. Rating: 3 of 4

Other reviewers said:
“An epic adventure that deftly captures the spirit of the original series, while succeeding utterly in charting a new course.”
-Julian Roman (MovieWeb)

“The happy result is action-friendly, nerd-friendly, and fundamentally optimistic.”
-Carrie Rickey (Philadelphia Inquirer)

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Killshot (2008)

Movie quotes:
Richie Nix (Joseph Gordon-Levitt): You ever work with anyone before?
Blackbird (Mickey Rourke): My brothers. One is in prison forever, and my kid brother is dead. You remind me of him – he was a stupid guy.

"Looks like you’re gonna have trouble with this one. He might shoot the wrong bird."
- Lionel (Aldred Montoya)

FBI real estate agent (Steve Cumyn): If the neighbors ask, you paid about 200 thousand dollars for it.
Donna (Diane Lane): It looks more like 150 to me.

"They’ll be a slight delay in the divorce proceedings while the couple hide out from the killers."
- Wayne (Thomas Jane)

At a glance:
Mickey Rourke gives a powerful performance  as an aging, all-business hit man teaming with an out of control young thug to terrorize a recently divorced couple

Our review:
Blackbird (Mickey Rourke) is just another in the neverending parade of hit men who are doing that elusive last big job before they retire. Unfortunately, Blackbird is overzealous on that last job; he not only shoots the mark, but also the mark’s female visitor – and she was working for his client. Suddenly, there is a price on his head, and his visit to his small home town of Algonac, Michigan is lengthened. And yet, even if he wasn’t a wanted man, he is marked as something evil and is not welcome in his home town. With time to kill, he teams up with Richie, a brash, young and stupid hood who reminds him of his deceased little brother. Their little caper backfires, and Blackbird and Richie try to cover their tracks by killing the recently Carmen (Diane Lane) and Wayne (Thomas Jane), a recently divorced couple that identified them. Even witness protection does not provide adequate safety for these two; they must defend themselves, and in the process, put their trial separation on hold.

I’ve gotten into heaps of trouble in the past when I review movies where the protagonists are basically evil with no redeeming qualities. Forgive me, but I don’t like these types of movies; I was raised on 1940s Hollywood fare and got used to the old Code. For example, in Surveillance, the two serial killers kill only because they get tremendous joy out of it, and it invigorates their love life. Blackbird isn’t on that level; he’s a businessman, a killing machine, who ties up loose ends by making sure that there are no witnesses to his work, even if those witnesses are innocents. He’s not sadistic like, say, Javier Bardem’s character in No Country For Old Men; on the other hand, and gratefully so, he’s not imbued with some kind of Hollywood Hitman Moral Code. He's a self-preservationist. And he tutors Richie into something worse than he was before they met; like Blackbird, Richie will now kill any loose ends, rather than just offing people who upset him. Still, if you’re looking for an upside, Blackbird cleans up his own work when he sees what he has created in Richie.

In the end (MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW) Blackbird proves not to be a very efficient killing machine at all. Offended by the behavior of Richie, he shoots him a bit prematurely – it probably would have made more sense to do this after the confrontation with Wayne. Despite Richie’s offensive behavior toward Carmen, he still would have protected Blackbird’s back in a fire fight. And again, it would have made sense to kill Carmen as soon as Wayne arrived. She was of no more use, and that’s what cold-blooded hit men do.

Rourke’s character is not as compelling and does not have the resonance of his turn as an aging wrestler in The Wrestler; nonetheless, it is a compelling performance. We want to know more about why this man is what he is: was it his troubled childhood, or a single incident? But this is left to our imagination.

Rating: 2.75 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"It's ultimately Rourke who makes the film worth watching."
-Bill Goodykoontz (Arizona Republic)