Saturday, July 16, 2011

UNDER SIEGE 2: DARK TERRITORY (1995) - Seagal's back

I always had a soft spot for Steven Seagal despite all the crap he's gotten over the years about his poor acting and his refusal to cut off that stupid ponytail. His big break, which would also turn out to be his only really good action movie, was 1992's Under Siege. I loved that one as a kid, and it remains a guilty pleasure of mine. After the success of the movie, a sequel was inevitable. Unfortunately, Under Siege 2 lacks a lot of the stuff that made the first flick such a fun action movie, and was is mostly a rehash of tired ideas.

Family vacations are never dull when Seagal is your uncle.
Immediately after the opening credits, we see the Air Force is testing out a secret new satellite. After trying out the super high-resolution cameras by zooming in on a sunbathing chick's boobs, the generals seem pleased with their new weapon's abilities. Our hero Casey Ryback (Steven Seagal) has retired from the Navy and has decided to take his niece Sarah (Katherine Heigl), whose parents were killed in a plane crash, on a cross country train trip to take her mind off things. Of course things go terribly wrong, and a team of terrorists hijack their train almost immediately and start killing off passengers and crew. The gang is Travis Dane (Eric Bogosian), the guy who originally built the satellite and was later scorned by the government.

Dane - one of the most boring and most annoying villains of the 90s.
After faking his own death, he now plans to blackmail the government with his satellite baby. It turns out that the sat is in fact a space weapon capable of creating earthquakes, and Dane shows he's the real deal by starting a quake in China. The government is helpless since as long as the train is mobile, they can't track Dane's signals. Fortunately for America and the good guys, Casey Muthafucking Ryback is on the train, and he won't be having any of Dane's shenanigans. Casey takes it upon himself to make sure that he rescues his niece and delivers some much needed punishment to the terrorists.

The albino henchman was a nice touch. Note the bad guy from The Mask behind him.
As far as acting is concerned, with Seagal you get what you see. Every line is delivered in his trademark half-whispered style and since he does most of his talking with his fists, it's not all that bad. After watching this movie, I'm convinced that Under Siege 2 is Katherine Heigl's most memorable work, since just about everything else she's done is even worse than this flick. As far as ass kicking is concerned, Seagal delivers as usual. He stabs, shoots, throat punches, chokes and groin kicks legions of terrorist baddies without breaking a sweat or ruffling his ponytail.

Look closely: that's Seagal face-kicking a dude off a moving train.
He delivers an impressive amount of violence and some memorable kills. My personal favorite being during the finale when he shuts a helicopter door on an unlucky S.O.B. hanging on for dear life, slicing off his fingers as he falls into a blazing inferno below. Classy stuff. And speaking of bad guys, Dane's crew is a real bunch of assholes. They happily murder anyone they see fit, and do evil things like tell crying babies to shut up, throw people off of moving trains, interrupt sex scenes, and even shoot a guy's boom box. Dane himself isn't really a memorable villain (aside from the fact that he sounds like Tom Bergeron), which is a shame since the first movie had the great Tommy Lee Jones and Gary Busey villains.

Epic Seagal finishing movie incoming.
The dialogue is laughably bad at times, and most of the movie's attempts at one liners fall pretty flat. The movie's only saving grace is the fact that Seagal lays down some serious ass kicking throughout the movie. Again, nothing really memorable, but it's passable. You can't really say the same of most of Seagal's later movies. Compared to some of those, Under Siege 2 is a gem but that's not saying much. Stick with first one.

TL;DR - Typical Seagal action but without the first one's fun factor - 5/10

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

THE ENEMY BELOW (1957) - Awesome naval war flick

The 50s was a great decade for war movies. With WWII still fresh in people's minds and the easy pickings for villains (everyone hates the Nazis), the studios churned out tons of war movies. A lot of them were crap, but thankfully there were some real gems in the mix. The Enemy Below is one of them. I'd say it is the best submarine movie ever made aside from 1981's Das Boot. The setting is the Atlantic Ocean as the Second World War rages on and Nazi Germany's dreaded U-boats are sinking American ships at an alarming rate. The fate of the war rests in the hands of the Allied sailors as they fight a brutal naval war against Hitler's deadly submarines.

Filmed aboard real subs and ships and with real bombs going off. Awesome.
The destroyer USS Haynes is alone in the vast Atlantic and on the prowl, looking for Hitler's submarines.  Aboard the Haynes, the bored sailors go about their daily tasks and complain about their lack of combat action. Everybody wants to get their chance to hunt some Nazis down. Rumors spread about the ship's new captain, since some of the men are worried that the skipper Captain Murrell (Robert Mitchum), an ex-reserve officer whose last ship was torpedoed, might not have what it takes to lead the ship. Suddenly, the sonar room detects an unknown contact. Fearing that it might be a German sub, Captain Murrell is brought to the bridge.

Robert Mitchum as the smart and determined skipper.
Below the water, a U-boat silently stalks the the destroyer. Commanding the sub is Kapitan von Stolberg (Curt J├╝rgens), an experienced and battle-hardened man with nerves of steel. Von Stolberg is a veteran of World War I, has lost both his sons to the war, has no love for Hitler or his cronies, and has become disillusioned with the war and the state of his beloved Germany. Nonetheless, he is totally committed to ensuring that his men come home safely and complete their grim mission. He is Captain Murrell's worst nightmare - a master at tactics, fearless, and an overall cool cat.

Sneaky Nazi bastards...
A tense, dangerous game of cat and mouse begins as the Americans try to pin-point the location of the U-boat, while the Germans do their best to avoid being blown to bits. The hours turn to days as the two captains out fox each other in their desperate attempts to gain the upper hand. The morale of both ships begins to suffer from the tension of the deadly game of hide and seek, as the U-boat tries to hide from the American sonar and dodges the endless depth charge barrages, and the American frustration grows as the Germans refuse to give in. Some of the best scenes in the movie don't need explosions to create excitement. They come from the thrill of the chase, as both crews plan and pull off their attacks and react to their enemy, knowing that a single mistake will likely end up killing them.

A likable German in a WWII movie? Say it ain't so!
Filmed in the good old days of practical effects and with the Navy's help, The Enemy Below boasts some impressive action scenes. As the Haynes bears down on the Germans, they rain down murderous depth charge attacks on the Nazi sub. These scenes are filmed with real depth bombs going off, while the underwater scenes are convincingly done with models that hold up pretty well even today. The acting from Mitchum and Jurgens is top notch. They're both great at portraying the reluctant but determined hero types, and aside from some sappy, emotional scenes at the end, they mostly eat up the screen.

This will not end well.
The Enemy Below is a damn good war movie, and despite the ending, which I found to be a bit too sentimental, it's got plenty of thrills and holds up well as an action movie even today. It set the standard for all the other naval combat movies that followed, and newer flicks like Crimson Tide, U-571 and Hunt for Red October all draw from it. Mitchum and Jurgens are in top form, the action scenes are realistic and it has a sense of realism that was untouchable until the definitive sub movie of all time Das Boot came out decades later. A true classic.

TL;DR - Riveting, epic battle between Nazis and Americans on the high seas - 9/10

Sunday, July 10, 2011

ALIEN VS. PREDATOR (2004) - Making aliens boring.

I remember the first time that I was genuinely scared out of my wits by a movie. As a 12 year old, I'd already seen all sorts of scary movies, but there's only so many times you can see a masked guy slashing teenagers before it loses its shock value. Then I saw Alien one night on cable TV and even with my dad sitting alongside, Ridley Scott's masterful horror flick scared me shitless. I also remember the first time I saw Predator, and as a 4th grader, seeing Arnold and the Predator beating the crap out of each other blew me away. Both of these were classic movies with great creatures, and it's no wonder that they've spawned several sequels. It's too bad that aside from Aliens, none of the sequels even came close to matching the greatness of the original movies.

Nothing is sacred anymore.
The imaginatively named Alien vs. Predator opens with  millionaire industrialist Charles Weyland (Lance Henriksen) putting together a team of scientists to investigate a subterranean pyramid structure detected under the ice on an Arctic island by one of his satellites. Weyland hires Woods (Sanaa Lathan) to serve as guide for the team, who reluctantly accepts the offer. They arrive at the location and find a bunch of abandoned buildings, and to their amazement, a huge shaft drilled into the ice at a perfect 30 degree angle. Unknown to them, the hole was blasted into the ice by a Predator space ship orbiting around the Earth, as the creatures get suited up to join the party.

Where's Ripley or Dutch when you need them?
The humans soon realize that the pyramid is in fact an ancient temple used for a Predator hunting ritual. Every so often, the Predators would visit Earth and hunt aliens and whoever else was stupid enough to go inside the temple. They must try and make their way out of the pyramid and ensure that none of the aliens reach the surface, while at the same time avoiding the Predators. If the story sounds supremely retarded, well... that's because it is. Directed and written by Paul W.S. Anderson, the guy who butchered the Resident Evil franchise and made maybe one good movie, means that AvP was doomed from the beginning. It's plagued with bad dialogue and worst of all, weak action. There are a few good parts, but unfortunately most of them are lines or ideas lifted right out of the original flicks.

At least the Predators are still badass...
If you're going to make a movie with forgettable characters that nobody cares about, then it better have some great action to make up for it. In AvP, every action scene was apparently filmed on days when the guys who set up the lighting were off drinking at the pub. They're dark, muddled, and it's just about impossible to see the action clearly. All those neat, well-detailed creature designs and the expensive sets are wasted thanks to the shitty camera work, with shots that are either too dark, too close up, or cut too quickly. That being said, the aliens and the Predators are very well done, with smooth CGI and the always cool Predator heat vision being used to good effect. There's obvious production value in these areas. As cool as the creatures are, there really are no scares in the entire movie except for some cheap jump scares. The attempts at creating tension are laughable, most of the acting (aside from the great Lance Henriksen) is piss poor, and the ending left me wondering if I should laugh or cry at its cheesiness.

...never mind.
Alien vs. Predator has accomplished something very difficult in the world of movies. It's not that it managed to kill not one, but two great franchises with its ridiculously stupid premise and crap execution. Oh no. Even worse. It made two of science fiction's most exciting series seem boring and dull. The film's only saving grace is that it runs a merciful 100 or so minutes and that we get to see Predators killing off nearly the entire cast of dimwitted characters. From now on, I'll pretend these stupid versus movies were never made, and just watch the originals instead. Spare yourself the time and forget this movie.

TL;DR -Boring, inane mash-up that will ruin your childhood memories - 3/10

Thursday, July 7, 2011

HANNA (2011) - Killer girl, killer soundtrack.

Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) is a teenager living in a remote cabin in the secluded Finnish forest with her father Erik Heller (Eric Bana). She spends most of her days doing ordinary kid things like training to become an assassin by hunting deer with bows and arrows, gutting said deer with her bare hands, engaging in hand to hand combat with her father, target practice with pistols, memorizing fake life stories, and learning about a dozen languages. Hanna has spent nearly her entire life living there, away from the real world and any sort of technology. The only real piece of technology she comes into contact is a radio transmitter which her father presents to her, explaining that once it is turned on, a CIA agent by the name of Marissa Weigler (Cate Blanchett) will learn of their location and come to find and kill her. He warns her to only flick it on when she feels ready to face the challenge.

Forget Barbies... Hanna enjoys gutting deer with her bare hands.
Hanna finally decides she is ready, and flicks on the transmitter. Erik reluctantly agrees, suits up and leaves for Germany, knowing that Weigler will soon send a commando team to seize them. Hanna is captured later that night, and interrogated at a special facility in Morocco, where Hanna kills one of Weigler's body doubles and escapes. We learn that Erik Heller is a rogue CIA agent, and that that Erik has been training his daughter for all these years to murder Weigler. She hires a team of assassins to track her down and kill Hanna, who is now hitching a ride across Europe with the family of a girl she befriended. As the assassins bear down on her, Hanna will discover some unsettling truths about her family, her father and Weigler, as she finds out more about who she really is.

Cate Blanchett as a murderous CIA agent is some inspired casting.
One of Hanna's main strengths is the quality of the main cast. Saoirse Ronan is just fantastic as the deadly yet naive girl who is slowly discovering the world she's been sheltered from for all those years. Imagine Natalie Portman's Mathilda in The Professional, but with an unhinged, savage edge. Hanna wasn't taught to be an assassin, she was born one. It's not an easy sell to make her character convincing, but she does a great job of it, and outshines every one else in the movie, even Cate Blanchett who I thought was surprisingly good in her unusual villainous role. The much advertised score by The Chemical Brothers is just fantastic as well, making scenes like Hanna's prison escape (an awesome scene, by the way) explode with urgency and tension.

The chase at the docks is one of the best in the movie.
Hanna is at its best when sticking to pure, unadulterated action. For all of its faults in other areas, Hanna shines with its crisp fight choreography, which shows an obvious attention to detail in several of the action scenes. By far my favorite scene in the movie is one in which Eric Bana's character is followed by several CIA operatives into an empty underground lot, where he is cornered. He instinctively and quite brutally disarms all of his opponents with lightning quick hits and coolly dispatches them before walking away. The entire scene is shot in one continuous take that runs for several minutes, and with the intense score pumping away, it's easily the most thrilling set piece in the film. Another stand out is a nighttime chase and fight scene in some Spanish docks, as Hanna leaps from one container to another while she pummels and stabs baddies left and right with cruel efficiency.

By the end of the movie, Hanna racks up an impressive body count.
It's disappointing then, that Joe Wright distracts himself so much with trying to make a visually distinctive movie that he forgets that the core ingredient of an action movie is action and story. Hanna has too little of both. We get only tidbits of background story about the characters. By knowing so little about them, it's hard to relate and care for anyone. What precious little action there is is at times ruined by the use of that damned shaky camera work that directors are so fond of these days. If you've got a gorgeously photographed and well-executed fight scene, why spoil the fun by making it nearly impossible to see what's going on? Not every movie has to be Cloverfield or Battle: Los Angeles. Wright has a talent for making beautiful films, and Hanna has some amazing views, but the dizzying camera movement during action scenes is distracting and detracts from the experience. At least it's got a bitching soundtrack.

TL;DR - Nicely shot, fast paced and with a killer score, but lacking in the action department - 7/10

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON (2011) - Bigger and better

Michael Bay gets a lot of crap about the way his movies all seem alike as well as his massive use of explosions and special effects. Whether you like his films or not, it's pretty clear to see that Bay is exactly the guy needed to direct a franchise based on a children's TV show about giant, transforming robots that come to wreak havoc on Earth. With Transformers, there really isn't any other way to approach other than just making the biggest, loudest, most visually dazzling picture that budget will allow, and he's done just that with the latest in the series. Anyone paying for a $20 IMAX ticket to Dark of the Moon and expecting to see a great screenplay and fantastic acting should have learned their lesson a while ago.

Any guy who says he wouldn't want to have Optimus Prime's voice is lying.
This time around, Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBeouf) has moved in with his new girlfriend Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), replacing poor Megan Fox and her weird toe thumb. Sam has been having trouble adjusting to his life out of college, since he's out of a job and no one seems to be giving him any respect. The Autobots, still led by Optimus Prime, are now working for the government and kicking terrorist ass worldwide in order to keep the world safe, but things don't stay rosy for too long. Optimus learns that the humans had discovered an Autobot ship on the dark side of the Moon during the Apollo landings. The Autobots investigate and find the Ark, a ship belonging to an Autobot stashed inside the ship named Sentinel Prime (voiced by Leonard Nimoy).

Louis Stevens: humanity's last hope for survival.
Optimus rescues and revives Sentinel Prime, who informs them that the Decepticons are after a powerful technology called the Pillars, and that they must not get their hands on it. Sam offers his services to the government after witnessing a Decepticon attack on a co-worker at his new job, and is there to witness as Sentinel Prime betrays the Autobots. It's revealed Sentinel had a secret pact with the Decepticons, and after he kills Ironhide, he helps the Decepticons to plan and pull off an invasion of Earth by transporting huge armies through time and space to win the war once and for all, and enslave the human race. Things get a bit more complicated as we learn that the Decepticons may in fact have some human allies helping them on Earth, willing to betray their own kind.

Watching Bay turn Chicago into a war zone is the best part of the movie.
 Weak story and wooden acting aside, you have to hand it to Michael Bay: the guy knows how to make a bitching popcorn movie. Transformers looks absolutely amazing. It's incredible to see the kind of sharp, life-like CGI that $195 million will buy. The robots themselves are great to look at, and the battle scenes are even better. The Decepticon invasion and attack is insane: whole city blocks are demolished with enormous explosions, with hundreds of planes, vehicles, people and robots sharing the screen in a spectacular orgy of synchronized destruction on an epic scale. There's a slick freeway chase scene that's amongst the best scenes in the movie, while the long final battle in which most of Chicago is turned to rubble is so wickedly entertaining that it is without a doubt a series highlight.

When in doubt, cast a former Victoria's Secret model.
 Bay has also cut down a bit on the ridiculously quick cuts from the first movie that made it nearly impossible to see just what the hell was going during action scenes. He's replaced most of that nonsense with slow motion instead, and while it's still annoying, at least you now have a clearer look at the action. Fantastic visuals aside, Dark of the Moon falls short in the same areas like the previous flicks, although this one enjoys a better cast thanks to good turns by John Malkovich, Frances McDormand and the always hilarious John Turturro. Firefly favorite Alan Tudyk and The Hangover's Ken Jeong have brief, weak cameos. Dark of the Moon is a much more enjoyable movie than the first two however, since Bay focuses more time on the action and less on the basically half-assed attempt at story, and keeps things moving briskly.

Poor Tyrese and Duhamel get less screen time than the annoying Mexican Transformer.
It's a movie made to be watched and enjoyed in 3D, make mountains of cash at the box office, and keep you interested enough to make you shell out the $20 to watch the inevitable sequel. If you accept it for what it is, and look past the obvious flaws, it can be an enjoyable movie. Bay knows the secret to putting asses in seats: amazing visuals, having Shia LeBeouf scream at the top of his lungs every 10 minutes, comedic one-liners from expendable characters, and slow-motion panning shots of Rosie Huntington-Whiteley's ass as she climbs stairs in her underwear. If you're not watching it on the big screen in all it's 3D glory, you're missing the point.

TL;DR - Better cast and better action make this the best Transformers movie yet - 6/10

Saturday, July 2, 2011

BRICK (2005) - A high school crime story

Director Rian Johnson's debut Brick was released to good acclaim in 2005 when it picked up a few prizes, good reviews and then dropped off the radar for many movie fans. I fortunately came across it while on a film noir kick after re-watching one of my favorites, L.A. Confidential. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt before he hit the jackpot with Inception, with a sharp script and a rich atmosphere drawing on inspiration from film noir mystery movies of the past, Brick was a very welcome surprise.

Brendan just doesn't know when to give up.
High school senior Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) receives a mysterious phone call from his estranged ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin) pleading for help. The desperate, confusing call ends abruptly when Brendan is buzzed by a threatening, speeding muscle car. Brendan begins asking around for Emily at school and no one seems willing to help him. He slowly but surely begins to piece together tidbits of information gleamed from classmates and local dope fiends. With help from his friend and eccentric loner Brain (Matt O'Leary), Brendan investigates a drug ring which may have something to do with Emily's disappearance.

Drugs are bad for you.
A breakthrough leads a disheartened Brendan to Emily's dead body near a water tunnel. As he continues to dig deeper into her murder, he comes into contact with Pin, the local drug kingpin who runs a heroin operation in the city, and his various thugs. Brendan also stumbles into an uneasy relationship with the popular Laura, whose motivations are less than clear. Without giving any more of the plot away to avoid spoiling anything, Brendan will soon realize that he has put himself into a dangerous situation that is quickly threatening to overwhelm him. Drugs, violence, betrayal and deceit all intertwine to hinder Brendan's investigation.

Ally or femme fatale? In Brick, nothing is what it appears.
 This flick is proof that you don't need big names and a big budget to make a damn good movie. The strength of the movie is in the story, which unravels at a leisurely pace while keeping you interested and building tension throughout. Rian Johnson gets the best out of his limited cast, especially with Joseph Gordon-Levitt who nails it as the stubborn, fast talking and resourceful Brendan. Brendan is a memorable character, as is Pin, whose scenes give the movie some welcome comic relief at times (the scenes in his kitchen and basement are hilarious) and yet still manages to seem convincing as a cold, calculating drug lord.

Running a drug empire from Mama's kitchen - like a boss.
The score is subdued but effective, and the lighting and atmosphere is jut gorgeous and gives the movie a gritty vibe that makes it all the more enjoyable. If you're in the mood for a good detective story and can look past some of its quirks, especially some of the obscure slang, Brick hits the spot. It can drag a bit at times and if the deliberate pacing annoys you, it might not be your cup of tea, but it is otherwise an enthralling, exciting crime yarn with some memorable scenes.

TL;DR - Slick crime story meets film noir meets suburbia - 7.5/10