Monday, January 31, 2011

ANIMAL KINGDOM (2010) - Australians are a shady bunch.

Depending on the kinds of movies you're into, you might have heard about Australian director David Michôd's crime/family drama before it got all the positive buzz during the current awards season. If so, then good for you. Go grab yourself a cookie and pat yourself on the back. You've confirmed your good taste in films. If you haven't heard a peep about the movie, then consider yourself lucky - Animal Kingdom is one of the best movies of 2010 and you'll be able to see it without any spoilers whatsoever.

Being a teenager is hard. Having a family full of murderers and drug dealers doesn't help.
Based on true events, Animal Kingdom is centered on Joshua "J" Cody (newcomer James Frecheville), a teenager facing the challenge of growing up in one of the most notorious criminal families in Australia. The film opens with the death of his mother, as J explains to the paramedics that his mom took one heroin shot too many. Left with nowhere to go, J telephones his grandmother Janine "Smurf" Cody, who assures him everything will be alright, and invites him to stay at her home. Janine (Jackie Weaver) is matriarch of the Cody family, which includes her three sons: Darren (Luke Ford), who's about the same age as J, drug-dealing Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), and the oldest and most unstable of the bunch, Pope (Ben Mendelhson). Pope is a psychopath, pure and simple, wanted by the police on several charges. Sometimes, family just isn't all its cracked up to be.

Janine - part time grandma, full time murdering, conniving bitch.
J is initially welcomed by his uncles and grandmother, and does his best to settle in and become part of the family. He spends a lot of time with his girlfriend, and finds a role model of sorts to look up to in Baz Brown (Joel Edgerton), Pope's best friend and partner in crime. Baz is almost like another brother to the Cody boys, but has been looking forward to moving away from the criminal business and going clean by investing in stocks. He does his best to help the young J to adapt himself to the wild, difficult lifestyle that the Cody family goes through on a daily basis. Baz meets up with Pope at a supermarket, where he tells him of his plans, while a nervous Pope thinks his options over. The police are all over him, and it's clear that the pressure has been making an already unstable person even more dangerous. Baz makes his way to his car when he is ambushed and shot in cold blood by police. Pope sees the shooting and runs back home, knowing that the cops were looking for him in the first place.

Guy Pearce is about the only actor in this flick most Americans will recognize.
The tension in the family finally explodes, as Pope and Darren come up with a plan to avenge Baz's death. They order J to steal a car and leave it a few blocks away, knowing that the police will respond once it's been called in. When two officers arrive on the scene, Pope and Darren come out from the shadows and murder them. Events spiral out of control, as police arrive to investigate the killings and start interrogations. Suspicions within the family start to simmer, as no one knows where J's allegiance lies, especially after Officer Leckie (Guy Pearce) takes a special interest in J's case and begins to genuinely fear for the kid's safety.

Pope enjoys long walks on the beach, the Beatles, and killing people.
The cast, which aside from Guy Pearce is probably unknown in the U.S., is mesmerizing. Jackie Weaver got an Oscar nomination for her role, and if you stick around to watch the entire movie, it'll be clear why. Her character is evil personified, and that's all I'll say without giving any spoilers. Everyone else does an outstanding job, including Frecheville who has to play the innocent, troubled J in a role that relies so much on his co-stars. The real stand out is the story, though. It's unpredictable, gritty, keeps the viewer guessing, and for my liking, one of the best of the year.

By the time the end credits roll, Animal Kingdom will have thrown several twists and some fantastic scenes at the screen. The pacing is kind of slower than most American movies, but there is a wicked intensity throughout the whole movie that never seems to let down. My main criticism would be the tendency to use music and slow motion too much during parts, which only serves to add melodrama when none is really needed. Some of the accents might be a bit hard to understand as well, but it'd be a tiny nitpick of an otherwise fantastic movie.

TL;DR - Aussie kid tries to survive his evil family. No kangaroos in this one. - 9/10

Sunday, January 23, 2011

127 HOURS (2010) - Worth giving your right arm for....

Until 2009, British director Danny Boyle had made quite a name for himself directing good movies like Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, and one of my favorite sci-fi films, Sunshine. It was that year though, that made Danny Boyle blow up in fame since his little movie about Indian kids jumping around in poop puddles and becoming game show contestants hit the big time at the Oscars. Slumdog Millionaire. Remember? You might have heard of it. In any case, Boyle is known for his intense, hectic approach to films and there is always a raw, vibrant nature attached to whatever subject he takes on. Which is good news for 127 Hours, since it tells the story of a guy who gets trapped by a boulder, and cuts his damn arm off. Sounds intense to me, but hey, I live in the suburbs. Your mileage may vary.

The lucky bastard meets Kate Mara on a random hike. Yes, I mad.
Aron Ralston (James Franco) is a 28-year old mountain climber who lives as if he's got hardly a care in the world. Armed with his mountain bike, hiking gear, some water and a bit of food he sets out to explore the remote Blue John Canyon in Colorado. Something about the fact that Aron neglects to tell any of his friends or family where he's going tells you he's a bit of an idiot. You can just smell trouble coming his way. He arrives at the canyon, and comes across two girls (played by Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn), who are apparently lost, and Aron being the helpful  carefree guy that he is, offers to be their guide for a bit. Together they do a bit of spelunking, leading up to a great scene inside a huge pool inside a cave. The girls are amused with Aron, but have their suspicions that he might just be insane. I'd agree with them.

Who's the lucky one now, sucker?
After taking a few Myspace pictures  (or whatever you kids are using these days) with the chicks, they invite him to their party later that night. Aron says he'll drop by and check it out, and goes off on his own, waving goodbye and as usual, not telling them where he's off to. Flash forward a couple minutes, and Aron is made to pay for being such a colossal dumbasss. He looses his footing while climbing across a rock fracture, falls, and while trying to save himself, grabs onto a huge rock which ends up falling and smashing his right arm. Pinned to the canyon wall by this hulking boulder, running low on water, and with no means of escape. Aron tries to chip away at the rock with his cheap knife to no avail; that damn rock isn't going nowhere and he knows it.

Obviously not the best time to forget your satellite phone.
Nothing I could say about the movie or no amount of screenshots would be accurate enough to describe what a marvelous movie this is. Danny Boyle pulls no punches with his film making. His camera moves in ways you wouldn't expect, he uses light and color inventively and creates a fantastic sense of tension and claustrophobia in the canyon scenes. To keep a viewer's interest with such a limited subject is no small feat. By the time Aron makes the ballsy decision to amputate his own arm with a dull pocketknife, you've been in the canyon with him. (A word for the squeamish: the part where he cuts off his arm is gnarly. Tendons, bone, muscle, nerves, all shown pretty graphically.) We have a front row seat to witness the deterioration of mind and body to the point that he can barely deal with his situation. What's there to say about Franco? He pulls off the performance of a lifetime. Completely disappears into his role and does the hard job of making you feel empathic towards a guy who has no one to blame for his trouble but himself. The indomitable will to live that he starts to develop near the end of the movie is just great. Thrilling, thrilling stuff.

The last 30 minutes are nonstop adrenaline.
127 Hours is one of the best movies of the year. It's equal parts adventure, action movie, drama and thriller. Danny Boyle has pulled another masterpiece out of his bag of tricks, and James Franco finally puts his acting chops to good use in a fantastic role. Don't miss it.

TL;DR - Man trapped by boulder. Man cuts off arm. Story makes for most  thrilling movie of 2010 - 10/10

Saturday, January 22, 2011

3:10 TO YUMA (2007) - Batman, Maximus, and the Old West.

Westerns don't really get much love these days, which is sad considering that it's one of the classic movie genres and for decades a reliable supplier of much on-screen badassery and general mayhem. It's understandable in a way, since the typical Western lends itself well to slower pacing and methodical storytelling. Also, after watching Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, you'd think there wasn't any reason to make another western again. Truth is, the last decade has seen a bit of a comeback for this type of movie, mostly as remakes. 2010 had the Coen brothers try their hand at a remake of sorts with True Grit, and back in 2007 we were treated to a good, old fashioned Western with 3:10 to Yuma (remake of a 1957 flick), which features, like any movie set in the Old West ought to, plenty of fightin', murderin', thievin', and drinkin'.

I bet  y'all didn't know Batman could build time machines...
Dan Evans (Christian Bale/Bruce Wayne) is a poor son of a bitch. He lost a leg in the Civil War while fighting for the Union. He lives with his wife and two sons on a modest farm in Arizona, has plenty of unpaid debts, his younger son is sick, and his oldest kid and wife don't really think much of him. The film opens with some local hoodlums, working for a wealthy landowner to who Dan owes money, burning down the family's barn,  destroying most of the feed for the family's cattle, and condemning them to starvation. The next day Evans takes his boys with him to try and round up their cows, when they accidentally come across a bloody robbery on a stagecoach by the notorious Ben Wade (Russell Crowe).

A Gatling gun in the first ten minutes. Always a great sign.
Wade and his ruthless, deranged right hand man Charlie Prince (Ben Foster) have just knocked over an armored stagecoach belonging to a railroad company, and defended by Pinkerton guards. Among them is the veteran Byron McElroy (Peter Fonda), who has been chasing Ben Wade and his boys for quite a while. As they stumble upon the scene of the robbery, Wade's gang notices Evans and his boys on the ridge, and inform them that they best be on their way and forget what they saw, or else.

In the nearby town of Bisby, and while the rest of his gang is away, Wade is captured by the local sheriff. Haasty arrangements are made to make sure that Wade is sent off to jail at once, where he'll surely be executed. The only problem is that Wade's gang is due back in town any minute, and they sure as hell won't be too happy to see their boss in shackles. Another problem? The sheriff doesn't have enough men to safely transport Wade. Evans steps up and offers his help, in exchange for $200 in order to help pay his debts. Evans leaves his boys at home, telling them to care for the farm and their mother. The terms are agreed and the crew sets out to make sure they get Wade on the titular 3:10 train to Yuma at all costs.

Charlie (Ben Foster) is a psychopath. The weird ginger beard gives him away.
In no time at all, the rest of the gang, now led by Charlie, realize Wade has been captured and immediately start chasing the group. With only a few trained shooters, a wounded Pinkerton, and a local veterinarian (Alan Tudyk, of Firefly and Serenity fame), Evans and his group have incredibly hard odds ahead of them. To make things worse, Evans' oldest son William tags along despite his father's orders, and they've all got no choice but to continue. A race to the finish ensues, with Wade's crew of blooded killers hot on their heels and plenty of hurdles ahead of them, as they face tough terrain and Indian ambushes.

Every Western needs a bar scene were ethanol is ingested by the gallon.
The first time I saw 3:10 was a great experience. I hadn't seen such an enjoyable Western since Unforgiven, and this flick is all that a modern take on this classic genre should be. It pulls no punches with its violent content and the lifestyle it depicts. There's no glamor or finesse about the way these bastards conduct their business. The acting is great on all parts, with a strong Bale performance and the dependable Crowe putting his own trademark on his role. The standouts were without a doubt Ben Foster as the batshit insane Charlie Prince, who is every bit a murderous psychopath as you'd expect from the guy, and Peter Fonda as McElroy, the experienced old gun who's done it all and seen it all. What else is there to say about the movie that wouldn't be better explained by watching it? The scenery is fantastic, the music fitting and the story holds up well enough to keep the running time flashing by.

3:10 to Yuma is a rare treat. It's a good modern Western, of which there are few, and even as a pure action movie it holds up remarkably well. One of Bale's best roles, with compelling action and a thrilling finale. Even the opening with its fast paced stagecoach hold up is great stuff. If you haven't seen 3:10, you're missing out on one hell of a movie. Watch it, and you won't regret it. If you're in the mood for the genre, or you have an unexplained Christian Bale obsession like my sister, you owe it to yourself.

TL;DR - Bale. Crowe. Fonda. Foster. Six shooters. Chases. Shootouts. The Old West. What the hell more could you ask for? - 9/10

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

RED (2010) - Old people. Lots of guns. Plenty of fun.

 Bruce Willis has been a pretty dependable guy when it comes to action movies. Sure, he's done his share of weak movies like The Kid and that craptacular Hudson Hawk, but one look at his resume shows he's been faithful to the shooting/punching/stabbing school of film. After all, the guy coined "Yippy-kay-yay motherf*cker!" as his catchphrase. Anyways, the Red trailer looked promising enough: a good cast, decent action scenes, and some funny lines. I regretted not catching it while it was in theaters, so on to the DVD it was.

Bald Bruce Willis is best Bruce Willis.
Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) was once the CIA's top spy, and a legend in the intelligence community. But times change and people get old, seeing as how now Frank is retired old man, living off his pension alone. The only excitement in his life comes from flirting over the phone with Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker) who works at the pensions office. Sarah lives a pretty boring life herself, since it seems she can't get a decent date to save her life and also lives alone. Frank's life gets exciting all of a sudden as a bunch of goons toting assault rifles (god bless the NRA) shoot the hell out of his house. Frank doesn't take any shit though, and breaks a few necks and shoots the rest of the team. He realizes that because of his phone calls with Sarah, whoever is trying to kill him will probably try and hurt her as well. Off to Kansas City he goes, and laughs follow as he breaks into her house to convince her to come with him.

Yeah, Malkovich is wearing a plastic bag. No one knows why.
Frank and Sarah go off to round up Frank's old spy crew, which consists of Joe (Morgan Freeman), Marvin (an awesomely deranged John Malkovich) and Victoria (Helen Mirren), who are probably in danger themselves. They soon realize that a job from the past is coming back to haunt them, and some powerful people want them dead. In addition, they have to deal with another CIA assassin, some asshole named Cooper (Karl Urban) who's been ordered to kill Frank. The story then obviously gets more complicated as the KGB gets involved, the US government, and god knows who else gets their hands dirty. It's all a good excuse to see Helen Mirren shoot dudes in the head with a rifle or John Malkovich blow up people in half with grenades.

Is it weird that picture is actually kind of hot?
Red is fun. It's a lot of fun actually. Seeing the trailer a few months back it was clear to me that you'd have to be a pretty cold-hearted bastard to not laugh at the sight of a wonderfully deranged John Malkovich toting an enormous revolver in one hand and a stuffed pig in the other. Or seeing Morgan Freeman dressed up as an African dictator. Red is at its best when bullets are flying around and the wisecracking is at full notch. The story however, is needlessly confusing at times, and the forced backstory/twist on one of the main characters (I won't spoil... that's not how I roll) is hokey and drags the movie down around the half way mark. It's a shame, because Malkovich and Mary-Louise Parker nail their parts and Willis is back on his usual good form.

John Malkovich with a stuffed pink pig. Pretty tame stuff by his standards...
To be completely honest, Red wasn't as great as I was expecting it to be, which is a damn shame since it has a good ensemble cast and it's fair share of cool sequences (the cop car shootout and CIA headquarters raid are stand outs). It just didn't quite hit the spot like it should have. Maybe I'm too jaded from having seen so many terrible movies lately that I've become some sort of Greg Kinnear-like asshole. I've no problem admitting though: Red is a fresh, funny attempt to pump some life into the action-comedy genre which has given the movie world some absolute shitfests in recent years. Beggars can't be choosers, now can they?

TL;DR - Eternally bald Bruce Willis and his retiree posse bust plenty of caps, but leave you wanting for more - 7/10

Saturday, January 15, 2011

CHAIN REACTION (1996) - Keanu outruns a nuclear blast. Twice.

A word of warning to you, the readers: if you hate Keanu Reeves with every single fiber of your body and a passion that burns brighter than a thousand red giant stars, avoid this movie like you'd avoid Bubba in the jail showers. This isn't just a Keanu Reeves movie. This is the Keanu-est movie ever made. You might be thinking, " but, Guy Movie Blogger, surely you jest!" But sadly, no. He displays the same constipated look in every scene. He delivers every line with his world famous expressionless, monotone voice. Best of all, he looks bored to death regardless of the situation. A friend gets shot? Poker face. Car gets stolen? Poker face. His nipples catch fire? Poker face.

Even a shit-tastic movie can be slightly improved by Rachel Weisz.
As is typical in most 90s action movies masquerading as thrillers, Chain Reaction tries to pretend it's a smart movie and deals with government conspiracies and throws some science mumbo jumbo about cold fusion at you. Eddie Kasalivich (Keanu Reeves) is a machinist at the University of Chicago, working alongside physicist and obvious love interest Lily Sinclair (Rachel Weisz) as part of a team trying to create bubble fusion as a means to provide for a plentiful and cheap supply of clean energy. Leading the project is Paul Shannon (God... err, Morgan Freeman) who seems to be a big wig of some sort and has all the hook ups with the government for funding the experiments. Staying up late to work, Eddie discovers a breakthrough for the experimental machine, and with Eddie's machine parts, the next day the team celebrates their first stable bubble fusion reaction.

The team breaks out the Dom Perignon and get smashed drunk to enjoy their success. There is however, something rotten in the state of Denmark, as they say.The party ends and, Eddie, being the gentleman that he is, walks the wasted Lily home after her piece of crap Volvo refuses to start. After taking her drunk ass home, he heads back to the lab to get his motorcycle. Arriving at the compound, Eddie investigates the alarms going off inside, and finds his mentor Dr. Alistair dead and another researcher, Dr. Chen (an Asian guy, in case you were wondering) missing. Even worse, the fusion reactor set to explode in a matter of minutes. Eddie makes a run for it and hops on his bike, speeding away from the lab until the reactor explodes in a huge atomic blast, which he then outruns on his motorcycle.

Keanu Reeves outrunning a nuclear explosion while constipated. How's that for multitasking?
After a few square blocks of prime Chicago real estate are reduced to rubble, the FBI show up to investigate, and the first to be questioned is poor Eddie. Leading the investigation is Agent Ford (Fred Ward) and his fat assistant who I will not bother to name, seeing as all he does in the movie is be fat and nod or agree with whatever Agent Ford says.  Eddie is released and meets up with Lily, where they soon realize that someone is framing them for the explosion and murder of Dr. Alistair. Money and messages to China are planted at their places, and they're forced to reach out to the program director Paul Shannon for help. Shannon urges them to surrender, but they refuse and are soon on the run, avoiding the FBI and trying to clear their names at the same time. Shannon seems to be involved in shady stuff, and it's ultimately up to Eddie and Lily to find out who was behind the attack and how they can be stopped.

Fred Ward trying his best to be Tommy Lee Jones. Note the fat man in the background.
The protagonist has been framed? One of his closest friends murdered? An ally may not be what he seems? A tough cop on his trail? Hmmm... that sounds eerily familiar to this little ditty of a blockbuster called The Fugitive. Except of course, that Andrew Davis directed both of these movies, and was apparently happy to take liberal chunks out of that movie to make this one. It mostly works, in the sense that Chain Reaction has good scenes with plenty of tension and action, and the chase scenes are well done. Everything else just seems like a tired rehash of stuff you've seen before. There's only so many ways this kind of story can be told, and unless the guys behind the camera take a ballsy approach like in No Country For Old Men, a movie like this can't help but feel derivative. I'd say the only real highlight of the movie is Morgan Freeman, who makes any scene feel a lot more important than it really is by virtue of his badass voice.

Brian Cox arguing with God.
The best way one could describe Chain Reaction is by saying that it's a lot like eating a bag of Doritos. It's lightly filling and pretty enjoyable even though you know they're bad for you. After you're done, you're left wondering why the hell you just ate them and trying to figure out how to get that damn Nacho Cheese residue off your fingers. Chain Reaction tries really hard to be The Fugitive and to make a Harrison Ford out of Keanu. It fails on both counts, especially in the later. For god's sake, a beach ball has more charisma than Keanu in this flick. As a way to kill off a few boring hours though, you could do a whole lot worse. After all, you could be watching Burlesque...

TL;DR - Keanu discovers fusion. Keanu never smiles. Keanu runs from things. - 5/10

Saturday, January 8, 2011

BURIED (2010) - Being buried alive sucks. Even if you're Ryan Reynolds.

It seems like Ryan Reynolds has apparently made a career out of romantic comedies. Go to a Blockbuster (if there's any still around) and walk over to the romance aisle and close your eyes. Pick out a random DVD and there's a good chance it'll have his face with a quirky smile, his arm around some chick, and a fantastic title like Definitely, Maybe. If you're really lucky, the cover might even have some kids on it. Luckily, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Now that he's becoming richer and more famous, he's been taking on better (better as in, more fighting, shooting, exploding things, etc) roles like Deadpool, a Blade sequel and the upcoming Green Lantern.

Even Ryan Reynolds gotta eat...
Buried is one of his latest movies, and is simply one of the most tense and exciting movies to come out in 2010. Normally when you hear the words "foreign" and "Indie," you think of shitty dramas or some hipster art film about a girl who collects dead birds and falls in love with a gay record store owner. Thankfully, there's no need for such worrying here.  The premise of the movie is simple enough: Paul Conroy is an American truck driver, working as a contractor in war torn Iraq. He wakes up one day, much to his chagrin, inside a fucking coffin. Spanish director Rodrigo Cortés manages to make 94 minutes of a guy stuck inside a box seem like a roller coaster ride. ¡Viva España!

Buried alive with no decent games on your phone. What the hell could be worse?
The movie starts with no introduction and no explanation. Paul wakes up in the pitch black, fumbles around and has a panic attack. He finds his lighter, flicks it on, and to his horror realizes he is inside a coffin. At first, he has absolutely no idea why he's been.... well, you know, buried alive. To his surprise, his BlackBerry is still on him. Piece by piece he manages to recreate what happened to him the day. He remembers that the convoy he was driving in was ambushed by insurgents. The rest of the drivers were murdered, and Paul had such shit luck the Iraqis decided to have a good laugh and bury him alive. He manages to get in contact with the FBI, his employers, and eventually his wife. Things however, might not be exactly as they seem. At first, no one believes his story. His employers are somewhat sketchy, the FBI investigator doesn't sound too convincing, and to make things worse, he gets a phone call from the asshole terrorist who put him in the box to begin with. Oh yeah, the guy wants a $5 million ransom or he'll let Paul suffocate to death.

Claustrophobic? Sucks to be you, Paul...
Paul will have to deal with the FBI trying to find him, the terrorists trying to get their ransom, his employers trying to wash their hands of the whole ordeal, and the slow death of his cell phone battery. There's a few good twists around the halfway part of the movie that had me wanting to high five someone. Needless to say, this is an intense movie. Scenes move quickly, and things begin to spiral out of control at what seems to be a frantic pace. Reynolds does a great job with his role, as we see Paul run through the whole gamut of emotions you'd expect from some poor average guy stuck in the middle of some Middle Eastern hellhole, buried in a box underground and tortured over the phone by a gruff voiced Iraqi. Despite the limited setting, the camera moves around a lot, and there are some very cool scenes inside the coffin, which contrasts nicely with the drama that comes from Paul's phone conversations.

Although it's somewhat of an unknown indie film, Buried was among the best movies of 2010 - it stuck to its premise very well and delivered a fresh take on the thriller genre that lately has been turning out loads of crap upon crap. It's fun. It's thrilling. It's somewhat unpredictable. Reynolds does a stand-up job and keeps your attention despite the fact you'd expect people would get sick of seeing a single face throughout the entire movie. The pacing is very fast, the tension very well done, and the ending was one of the most satisfying I've seen in a long while. It's a shame this flick went under the radar for most people. Definitely recommended.

TL;DR - Buried alive in the Iraqi desert by terrorists with only a cellphone for company. Damn what a rush - 8.5/10