Sunday, February 28, 2010

REVIEW: From Paris with Love

2010 Action
Starring:  John Travolta, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Kasia Smutniak
Written by Adi Hasak, Luc Besson
Directed by Pierre Morel

With the first trailer I saw of From Paris with Love –heck, from the first I heard of the film period- my thoughts were Complete Waste of Time and Money; Travolta? No thanks. Besson Producing? Empty stunts display. Pierre Morel, I admit, stunned me with the very effective and cool Taken. But I still went into this one, kicking and screaming. MAN was I on the wrong track!

Story follows planted agency academic James Reece who’s biding his time posing as an Embassy aide in France while doing boring support assignments until he gets the big call. Which comes in the form of Charlie Wax, an over-the-top “cleaner” who’s gun-blazing methods leave Reece hanging on the edge of his wits by turning a simple driving job into a full-on war of two against hundreds.

My one mistake for putting off on this one –and without interest- was trusting the opinion of Roger Ebert who pretty much laid down how the film’s marketing made me feel. Lots of respect for the big guy whom I constantly quote in saying a review is nothing more than one person’s opinion, but in this case I’ll counter-quote with my buddy Biggeoff’s saying: we’re not movie critics, we’re movie lovers, and I strongly feel Ebert watched too many movies to just appreciate the pure fun of something like this. Not an Oscar winner by any means, but completely out-of-the-blue entertainment and thrill ride.

I never thought I’d be writing this again after the last decade and some, but the film’s greatest strength is John friggin Travolta, who plays as many tricks on the audience as his character does his partner. All throughout the film he sets us up to believe him the usual American action film cowboy cliché but keeps spinning it out at the last second to reveal something else entirely; his messing around with the genre echoes the same of the entire movie. This isn’t a grudge film about a dark anti-hero out to face his demons because of a bad upbringing or any traumatic s**t that happened to him; it’s simply a guy who absolutely loves what he does and does it better than anyone: blowing bad-guy brains out. Simple as that.

Sounds idiotic and mindless except the execution is so well paced and anti-conventional while following the usual basic rules that from the first twist Charlie Wax pulls on us we’re completely taken into his ride and are left wanting for more. Co-star Jonathan Rhys-Meyers does the smart thing in emulating the audience – just going along from hit to hit, without over-acting and like Trav avoiding clichés of a character played out thousands of time on the screen.

The “big” plot twist I have to admit seeing from a mile away – literally, I knew what it was 5 minutes into the film. But by the time it actually happened I didn’t care anymore, I was having too much fun enjoying an actual Travolta performance of guts and fun to care about criticizing this thing. So much that the ending, which obviously points to an eventual franchise, left me sad knowing it was over AND that the film’s quite poor box-office will not allow such a sequel to happen. Although it’s a Besson film and not a Hollywood profit excuse, so who knows, maybe Charlie Wax will dazzle me again.

I really wish Travolta had turned down most of the crap he’s been doing since his initial career resurgence as Vincent Vega and Chilli Palmer 16 years ago; movies like this one would probably have had a much better chance of being appreciated without prejudice.  But no, he had to sign on for Wild Hogs 2... come on dude – leave the Disney waste behind and give us more of Charlie Wax! My two cents: I’ll take From Paris with Love over every Tony Scott waste of celluloid any day of the week.

Final Word: 8/10

Thursday, February 25, 2010

REVIEW: Ninja Assassin

2010 Action/Martial Arts
StarringRain, Naomie Harris, Rick Yune, Sho Kosugi, Ben Miles
Written by Matthew Sand
Directed by James McTiegue
Back in the 80s of my childhood, a spectacular idiot once asked me why I liked that era’s cheesy Ninja movies so much.  “But dear brother,” I told him, “it’s because they’re extremely fun”. Were I to in any way still dwell around that particular person today, I sadly would not defend Ninja Assassin with such gusto.

In the politically correct setting of Europol, a nosy department researcher does what no one else in a millennia could’ve: uncover a secret network or traditional high-priced assassins called Ninjas. Such a discovery would bring her quick death if it wasn’t for protection from a rogue member of the organisation bent on tearing it down. And that is the story, not even in a nutshell...

It had been a long time since international audiences were treated to an actual bona fide (and good) Ninja film, and a big-budget one with the Wachowski siblings and Joel silver producing sounds mighty sweet on paper; suffice it to say I wanted to like it. But what I got was the Ninja equivalent of Star trek The Motion Picture: a 10-minute story for a 2-hour movie. Even worse, it caters to the Twilight crowds with quasi permanence of the star’s 6-pack onscreen!

Speaking of him, I can’t say I know much about Koeran super-star Rain (come one dude – even Leaf Phoenix kept enough brain cells to swap for a normal name) but from watching the film I CAN tell three things. One: the dude’s had a 2-day crash course in English which allows him to flatten-out the few funny bits in his already scarce lines. Two: even a guy can’t help be amazed by the sweetness of the sweat on his perfect abs. And three: the guy has low-to-no chemistry with his lovely co-star Naomie Harris. Sad for her; she’s good enough to have deserved better exposure.

Casting-wise, the film does one thing absolutely right in bringing back 80s genre icon Shô Kosugi. The veteran actor demonstrates a confidence onscreen and impressive moves for a guy his age that made me wonder why the heck he hadn’t done a movie in 17 years. His memorable villain makes the other antagonist, the perpetually typecast Ricky Yun, look like a cardboard cut-out – who even whimpers when he’s about to get killed. Fearless Ninja, riiiiight...

As for fight scenes –it IS a Ninja movie after all- no hesitation in saying they are quite spectacular. I least I guess they are; sometimes hard to make things out in the permanently dark settings punctuated by over-CG’d blood spurts. Kudos to Quentin for going low-fi with Kill Bill’s haemoglobin! Superb choereography still, but serves only to point out the non-existence of any sort of story. Half the film consists in rapidly-annoying flashbacks to the hero’s harsh training while the rest is both leads running from other Ninjas for God knows what reason.

If made for $15M by an upstart director, I probably would’ve been lighter on the sarcasm and heavier on the praise since the film does give a high-octane does of gory martial. But coming from James McTiegue with the Wach sibs and Warner behind him, I expected a lot more quality – or at least a really entertaining film. Neither were present in the screening room when I was.

Story has it the Wachowskis, unhappy with the shooting script, asked the great J. Michael Starczinsky to rewrite it all a mere 6 weeks before production start. Easy to guess what Mike wrote: His name, on the back of a check to endorse it. No other explanation as to how this awesome writer’s involvement couldn’t churn out better results.
Final Word: 5/10

REVIEW: Tenure

2010 Dramatic Comedy
StarringLuke Wilson, Gretchen Moll, David Koechner, Bob Gunton
Written by Mike Million
Directed by Mike Million
You never should have very high expectations for a straight-to-DVD release, unless it’s a labor of love from an indie director who hand-picked passionate performers and previously went the festivals route. Still not Big Studio aesthetics, but sometimes you find a little gem that you’d like to keep around on your shelf to wash away some turgid Gerard Butler rom-com or other.

After over a decade of teaching in various colleges and always being denied tenure, Charlie Thurber feels he’s facing his ultimate chance with the rural college he’s been at for 3 years. Before reaching his goal though, he’ll need to deal with an over-imposing best friend, a very demanding father and an attractive new department rival.

To be honest I thought Luke Wilson had washed out since he hasn’t been a key player in a major release for a long time –save for an awesome cameo in the equally awesome 3:10 to Yuma. But seeing him chew his scenery in this one indicates the dude simply wanted to keep to the kind of smaller and more heartfelt projects that made him in the first place, like Bottle Rocket or Rushmore. Probably doesn’t help that he always plays Luke Wilson or a close variation, but when the part calls for it he’s a charismatic watch.

The rest of the cast fits equally just as well, especially the great Bob Gunton (Put your faith in the Lord,  your a** belongs to me!) easily given here his best role since Greg The Bunny got prematurely trashed.  Gretchen Moll’s warm and gorgeous smile is a welcome sight, and Sasha Alexander’s small part again begs the question why she’s never given bigger ones.  Only stumbling block is David Koechner, who’s made such a complete a career at portraying annoying dimwits that he just ruins it for me whenever he appears in a film. What can I say – he rubs me the wrong way! Even more in this case as way too much time is devoted to his ill-advised antics than to the more interesting rivalry/friendship between Wilson and Moll’s characters.

That might also be the film’s ultimate short-coming; setting and scope promise an interesting inner look at not only college life viewed from the teacher’s eyes, but at the choices offered and made as one’s thirties start weighing with the knowledge that dreams and and exuberance of younger days are long gone. It should be about still learning to grown up when you’ve stopped growing a while ago, but instead it’s mostly about a poor shmoe trying to save his career and salvage his life while everybody else either help badly or not at all.

On the other  hand, ill-fated comedy aside. The viewer is treated to a slice of life in a microcosm of a small town that recalls fantastic (and admittedly greater) Nobody’s Fool  -  movie and book.  Many pit falls are side-stepped to avoid veering into insidious rom-com territory and even some of the annoyances can still come off as sweet and quietly inspiring. Especially the end twist, which honestly I should’ve seen coming but didn’t, all to the greater advantage of the film.

Tenure ultimately feels and looks like a very-small budgeted movie intended for shelves, but as shuch fares muc h better than most other entries in that same situation. It turns out the kind of film to keep close by on a shelf to be re-watched whenever the mood feels right for something sweet, mild and warm. And in any case, a good first effort f by director Mike Million. I do recommend checking it out when it hits the stores on April 13. Or right now at Blockbuster exclusively. Yeah, they're still opened - I was surprised too!

Final Word: 7.5/10

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

REVIEW: Percy Jackson/The Lightning Thief

2010 Fantasy/Adventure
StarringLogan Lerman, Alexandra Daddario, Brandon T. Jackson, Pierce Brosnan
Written by Craig Titley, Chris Columbus
Directed by Chris Columbus

The Lightning Thief isn’t so much entertaining as it is distracting, from watching the three young stars constantly trying to figure out what they should be doing due to a quite apparent lack of proper direction. Can’t say I blame them; they showed up thinking they’d be doing a Percy Jackson film but found themselves on the set of “Chris Columbus Does PG Fantasy for the Twilight Crowd”. Be advised: I did not like the film. 

Stuck in a middle class life he hates, trouble student Percy Jackson learns from meeting a nefarious creature (his teacher...) that he is the son of the Greek sea God and is targeted by other Gods as having stolen Zeus’ mighty thunderbolt. But that doesn’t matter to him ‘cause his mom was abducted by the Underworld dude. The young man will race on a quest to find her before all Olympus break loose. Or someone notices his 5 o’clock shadow.

From the get-go, Percy Jackson has been fingered by all as a Fox’s attempt to secure some Harry Potter business. But Percy isn’t a Potter knock-off; he comes from a book written 11 years before the first potter was published and jumped in a movie that believes its own self unworthy of a franchise, so much that most of the plot points from the book are nowhere to be found, and the story ends on a note which inspires little care if another of those is ever made. Even though the initial novel sets up the next 4 quite beautifully.

The film’s run time of about 100 minutes seems to forbid cast and crew to develop plot and characters in favour of a pace that moves things along at all cost. Visuals are stunning and the action keeps coming, but lots of it makes little sense, save for the characters – we don’t know WHY they’re haulin’ a**, but they sure are! Half the film is devoted to set up the rest, but none of it deserves much attention, nor $95M in financing. 

Casting could’ve turned that tide, especially one that looks so cool on paper, but only once or twice has this one got it right; Pierce Brosnan as the benevolent teacher and guide Chiron is pretty much the best thing in the film, albeit of extremely short presence. The rest of ‘em are no match for a hasty script and eye-candy direction; Sean bean as Zeus sounds cool but looks so bored it hurts, just as Kevin McKidd offers quite a wimpy Poseidon for such a square-jaw actor. Steve Coogan, I fear not in saying this, must be glad a third Museum film will soon come to wash out his pitiful Hades (shoulda taken notes from James Woods’ voice work in the Disney ani), and the actual villain is a such a de-clawed dork that even my gerbil could kick his butt. And my friggin gerbil’s dead!

As for star Logan Lerman, the kid’s got good looks and slick moves, but he’s just not what that character required; this hero should’ve had to discover and earn his valor, not pass Go and collect $200. If my Box-Office prediction continues to be true for this film, Lerman did well to knock on Sony’s door about Spiderman- Percy J might not be back in theatres anytime soon.

Of course my own dislike of the film comes from loving the books so much, and finding that most it was contradicted or disregarded –especially the incredible research and author Rick Riordan’s unique dialogs. But then again, should the guy who just previously directed I Love You Beth Cooper really be expected to bring on the next huge cash cow? 

The Lightning Thief isn’t such a bad film per se, but one that should’ve been superb , even with half the CG budget. We get instead a semi-cute PG action flick understandably dumped in the February wasteland and soon to find its place on discount shelves between Catch That Kid and Agent Cody Banks. *shivers*