Sunday, July 27, 2014

Oldboy (2013)

Oldboy (2013)
Rated R
Starring: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Imperioli, Sharlto Copley
Directed by: Spike Lee
Tagline: Ask not why you were imprisoned. Ask why you were set free.
Running time: 104 Minutes
Netflix

Quick summary (from IMDB): Obsessed with vengeance, a man sets out to find out why he was kidnapped and locked into solitary confinement for 20 years without reason.  

From the first moment I heard that Spike Lee was going to be remaking Chan-wook Park’s 2003 film for an American audience, I wanted to hate it. I have been pretty staunchly opposed to Americanized remakes of foreign movies for several years. And while they’re not always terrible (David Finchers’ Girl withthe Dragon Tattoo and Matt Reeves’ Let Me In), they’re almost never necessary (almost any horror movie of the last few years). As more details emerged about Lee’s take on the revenge thriller, I became more intrigued by it, so much so that I stopped hating it just because it was happening. I decided to try and reserve my judgment until after I actually watch the movie. So for the majority of the movie watching experience, I forced myself to pretend that Chan-wook Park’s version didn’t exist.

And I was almost able to do it. For large stretches of the movie, I was able to pretend like I was watching a completely original movie, and during those periods, Spike Lee’s Oldboy was quite good. It was brutal and it was disturbing and had I not known better, I’d have been completely blindsided by some of the twists and turns the movie took. The only time I wasn’t able to suspend my memory of the original was for the hammer fight scene. It’s (probably) the most memorable part of Park’s movie and is amazing. Spike Lee’s take on it wasn’t bad, but it also wasn’t a shot for shot remake of the original scene, which is what I would have done because it was perfect as is. In fact, that’s probably my main critique of the entirety of this version of Oldboy. It’s not bad, but it’s not the original.

About the only thing that this version has that Park’s version is lacking is a blonde mohawked Samuel L. Jackson.  Every movie would be better with a blonde mohawked Sam Jackson in it. Period. I’d probably give the edge in casting overall to Lee’s version. Not necessarily because the actor’s in Lee’s version are better, but just that I’m more familiar with them.

Josh Brolin’s not what I would consider a name-draw actor. I’m not going to rush out to see every Josh Brolin movie that comes out, but I think he’s a good actor. His best work might have been his Tommy Lee Jones impression in MIB III, but he’s been solid in everything else I’ve seen him in. Brolin probably wouldn’t be my first choice to star in a revenge thriller, for that I’d have to go with Liam Neeson at this moment. But Neeson wouldn’t work in this movie; he’s too old to convincingly play himself in his 20s and 40s. Brolin is young enough and good looking enough to believably portray the same man for a 20 year stretch.

On its own, Spike Lee’s Oldboy is a good movie. It’s disturbing and shocking and entertaining. But when compared to Chan wook Park’s original, it just doesn’t hold up. If I had to choose one to watch again, it’s going to be Park’s version, not Lee’s. And Park’s Oldboy is (the best) part of a much bigger Vengeance Trilogy, including Lady Vengeance and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. Even if Oldboy was wildly successful (and I don’t know that it was), I don’t see Spike Lee sticking with it to remake those other two movies as well.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Trailer:

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Raid 2 (2014)

The Raid 2(2014)
Rated R
Starring: Iko Uwais, Yayan Ruhian, Arifin Putra
Directed by: Gareth Evans
Tagline: It’s not over yet.
Running time: 150 Minutes
Blu-ray

Quick summary (from IMDB): Only a short time after the first raid, Rama goes undercover with the thugs of Jakarta to bring down the syndicate and uncover the corruption within his police force

Is there an Academy Award for Foley artists? If so, it should go to whoever was responsible for the sound effects for The Raid 2. Sound effects are usually not something I notice when watching a movie, unless the sound is off or a sound I was expecting is made. In The Raid 2, I noticed every single bone crack, every spatter of blood, every time a bat or a hammer or foot or fist connected with human tissue, it was unsettling and impossible to ignore. There were more than a few stand-out, highly memorable and graphic scenes from this movie, but the sound effects stood out the most.

The Raid 2 takes place just a few hours after the events of The Raid: Redemption, but you immediately can tell the difference between the two movies. The Raid 2 is much more open and less claustrophobic than the first time around. And I kind of missed that claustrophobia. There were a few scenes with close quarters fighting (a subway train, a hallway, the backseat of a car, a kitchen), but overall, The Raid 2 was sprawling by comparison. Massive fights in a prison yard, a vacant night club and an empty warehouse were in stark contrast to the crowded high-rise hallways and apartments from the first. As a result of this openness, the fight scenes felt a little different, more fluid and controlled, less sporadic and improvisational. They were still amazing, and kind of beautiful if you could ignore all of the violence and blood, but it felt like a completely different kind of fighting than the first movie.

The Raid 2 was also 49 minutes longer than Redemption. At first glance, this sounds awesome: 49 more minutes of crazy-awesome fight scenes. But in reality, that extra time is almost fully devoted to dialogue. It seems like every action sequence is book-ended by extended dialogue scenes full of plot, story and character development. In action movies like this, I don’t really care or have time for trivial things like plot and character development. I just want action. Nonstop, crazy action.

One of the things I found most interesting about Redemption was that Rama, the main character and hero, wasn’t my favorite character. I was rooting for him and he is a likeable and awesome character, but my favorite character from the first go round was Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian).


I knew he was going to show up again in the sequel, maybe not as the same character, but still being crazy and badass. When he finally showed up, I was excited. But he wasn’t my favorite character this time around. This time, it was a three-way tie between Hammer Girl, Baseball Bat Man and The Assassin. These three henchmen are dispatched in order to take Rama out, but not before each gets their own introductory fight scene, and they are among the best action sequences in the movie. And they happen simultaneously, jumping from scene to scene as each of the henchmen does what they do best.

This is the intro to Hammer Girl:



Just a woman with sunglasses on, holding two hammers in a subway car. And she destroys every single person in that subway car using just those two hammers. And it is crazy. 

This is the intro to Baseball Bat Man: 



Much like Hammer Girl, just a dude with a baseball bat and baseball. Calling his shot. And that shot was directly to the side of some dude’s skull. That is just sick.

The assassin was intro’d a little earlier in the movie in a face-off with Mad Dog 2.0, but now we get to see him in action, tracking down and catching a dude in the woods with his karambitknives.



I don’t think a single one of these characters utters a single word during the entire movie. They are each amazing and I would watch entire movies devoted exclusively to each one. Unfortunately, they were only a part of this movie and ultimately they each had to face off with Rama, and no one stands in Rama’s way for long. The Redemption-esque hallway fight scene with Rama against Hammer Girl and BaseballBat Man was probably the best in the entire movie, but there were so many great fights that it’s not really fair to rank them.

The Raid 2 was a fantastic action movie. Someone on an IMDB review called it the perfect action movie. I’m not going to go that far, especially since I consider The Raid: Redemption to be the best pure action movie I’ve ever seen. The Raid 2 was a little bit too long and drawn out, and was missing the frantic pace and frenzied adrenaline rush from the first movie. If Gareth Evans had been able to fully recapture that feeling the second time around without just making a carbon copy of Redemption, it would be the best action movie of all time, hands down.

4 out of 5 stars

Trailer: 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Empire State (2013)

Empire State (2013)
Rated R
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Liam Hemsworth, Michael Angarano, Emma Roberts, Jerry Ferrara, Paul Ben-Victor
Directed by: Dito Montiel
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Netflix

Quick summary (from IMDB): Two childhood friends plan to rob an armored car depository. An NYPD officer stands in their way.

How are you going to have Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in your movie, as a cop, and not one single time have him lay the smack down (terrible…I’m so sorry for that) on someone? He’s front and center on the poster/DVD artwork and top billed according to IMDB/Netlfix but he’s barely even in this movie. His voice (and face) open and close the movie, but for long stretches his character is absent, and the movie instead focuses on one of the kids from Red State (Michael Angarano) and the lesser Hemsworth. No offense to Liam, but simply by virtue of not being Thor, he takes a backseat to older brother Chris. (Liam also dated MIley Cyrus, which is gross).

Empire State is based on the true story of a security guard, Chris (Hemsworth), his miscreant buddy Eddie (Angarano) and the theft of somewhere between $9 and $11 million dollars that has never been recovered. It currently at 24% on Rotten Tomatoes, but it's probably actually slightly better than those ratings. Netflix (3.4/5) and IMDB (5.1/10) have it about right. It’s not a great movie, but it is interesting and entertaining to a point. If you want to watch a heist movie based on a true story, then Goodfellas is the way to go, but there are certainly worse movies to spend 94 minutes on. The only way that the story behind Empire State is better than the Lufthansa Heist behind Goodfellas is that it holds the record for the largest amount of cash ever stolen in America. It was more than twice the money stolen and most of it hasn’t been recovered.

Nobody is winning any Oscars for their performance, but it’s a straight to DVD release, so awards and acclaim aren’t really expected here. None of the acting is terrible, but it’s just okay. With a budget of $11 million (hey, that’s the same as the amount of money that was stolen…), Empire State was probably expected to pull in a little more than the $3+ million it’s racked up. I’m guessing that $11 million dollar budget was either a gimmick or most of it went towards making Johnson the second highest paid actor (behind Robert Downey, Jr. – who didn’t even have any movies come out in that period) from July of 2013 to June of 2014. I don’t know how much money movies continue to make once they distribution/broadcast rights are sold to Netflix or even if movies make any money from Netflix at all, but having Johnson’s face front and center probably couldn’t hurt.

The more I think about Empire State, the more it bothers me that Johnson didn’t get more screen time. I get that it was based on a true story and set in the 80s and it would have been ridiculous and terribly anachronistic, but would it have really been too much to ask for The Brahma Bull to drop The People’s Elbow on Liam Hemsworth? That would have made this movie 1000% better.

3 out of 5 stars

Trailer:

Monday, July 21, 2014

Mission: Impossible III (2006)

Mission: Impossible III (2006)
Rated PG-13
Starring: Tom Cruise, Michelle Monaghan, Ving Rhames, Laurence Fishburne, Billy Crudup, Jonathan Rhys Myers, Keri Russell, Maggie Q, Simon Pegg
Directed By: J.J. Abrams
Running Time: 126 Minutes
Netflix

Quick summary (from IMDB): Ethan Hunt comes face to face with a dangerous and sadistic arms dealer while trying to keep his identity secret in order to protect his girlfriend.

I never really paid any attention to Tom Cruise’s running style in movies. Apparently it’s a thing, but I never noticed. And then I watched Mission: Impossible 3 and it’s the only thing that sticks out from the movie. More so than Philip Seymour Hoffman as a pretty wicked bad guy, or any of the other performances or action sequence from the movie. It’s the only thing that stands out. Here is a compilation from M:I3: 


Does Tom Cruise actually run like that in real life or is this just his “movie run”? It’s spellbinding and baffling and amazing, all at the same time. It looks so unnatural, but he seems to be moving at a pretty rapid clip. His head and face remain perfectly still but his arms and legs are pumping like crazy. I just can’t wrap my head around it.

Tom Cruise running wasn’t my main motivation for watching M:I-3. The main reason I settled on watching this movie instead of any of the other 100 movies in my Netflix queue was a combination of boredom and the fact that I just watched Oblivion a few days earlier and wanted a slightly older and hopefully better Tom Cruise movie. It was a success on both fronts as M:I3 is highly entertaining action and a much better movie than Oblivion. Having Philip Seymour Hoffman as a villain and J.J. Abrams as the director certainly helped. Hoffman is fantastic as a villain, and I don’t think he got to play evil quite often enough.

I probably should have watched the Mission: Impossible movies in some semblance of order, but Philip Seymour Hoffman's involvement put 3 over the top of 2. I was pumped as a kid for the first movie, going so far as to read the novelization of the movie (I am and have always been a huge nerd). But in the four years between M:I and M:I2, my interest dwindled and I don’t remember watching the 2nd one. I’m sure I’ve seen it, but I don’t remember anything about it. Ghost Protocol helped to reignite my interest in the franchise and is the only reason M:I2 and M:I3 were even in my queue to begin with.

I’d consider myself pretty familiar with the franchise given my reading of the first movie’s novelization and a passing familiarity with the original source material from the 60s and 70s, but I never once realized/knew that IMF stood for Impossible Mission Force. That is just an incredibly lame name for a top secret government organization and I’m glad Cruise gets to make fun of that a little at the end of the movie when he explains to his future-wife what he really does.

As far as action movies go, MI3 is solid. It’s interesting and the action scenes are solid. Tom Cruise is fine (running style aside) as Ethan Hunt, but he was better in both the first MI and Ghost Protocol. And those were both better movies overall. But for action movie franchise sequels, MI3 is watchable and enjoyable.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Trailer:



Saturday, July 19, 2014

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
Rated PG-13
Starring: Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Geoffrey Rush
Directed by: Gore Verbinski
Tagline: Prepare to be blown out of the water.
Running time: 143 Minutes
DVD

Quick summary (from IMDB): Blacksmith Will Turner teams up with eccentric pirate “Captain” Jack Sparrow to save his love, the governor’s daughter, from Jack’s former pirate allies, who are now undead.

Last weekend, I was single dad for the day as my wife was out of town at a friend’s baby shower. After a 2 year-old’s birthday party and a terrible lack of a nap, my daughter insisted on watching a movie (or as she calls it, a “woovie!”). Initially, she wanted to watch Finding Nemo again, which she had just watched earlier that morning, and I was not having that. I decided to make her pick a movie she hadn’t seen before. And she decided on “Pirates!” which I was totally fine with. I am well aware of the PG-13 rating and the fact that it might be completely inappropriate for a 2 year old to watch, but there was no talking her out of it. Because “Pirates!”

My daughter’s attention span only allows her to sit still for about 30 minutes maximum before she begins getting fidgety and wants to do something else, so we were only able to watch the movie in 30 minute increments over several days. That was fine with me since I’ve seen it multiple times, and it gave me (a tiny bit of) leverage. I could make deals with her like “if you behave, we can watch Pirates when we get home” or “eat all of your veggies and we can watch Pirates”. It was a fantastic little bargaining tool and it worked almost every time. To a point. If she was too upset or hungry or tired, then it no longer worked. But I’ll take it as a parenting victory.

I’ve asked her to summarize the movie for me, and here is what she had to say: “Monkey! Ooh ooh ahh ahh!” In addition to that glowing review, she also sent many a pirate to timeout for hitting. And it was hilariously adorable. She called Keira Knightley “mommy” and Orlando Bloom was “daddy”, which was incredibly flattering for both her mother and I. Johnny Depp was “Cap’n Bapp Barrow” and was by far her favorite character. It probably helped that I had a Captain Jack action figure I let her play with while we were watching. I was sure she would be bothered by the skeleton scenes or some of the scarier elements of the movie, but she didn’t even bat an eye, just sent all the skeletons to timeout for being mean.

The day after we started watching Pirates, my wife attempted to get our daughter to watch something pirate themed that was more age appropriate, but the kid wanted nothing to do with Jake and the Neverland Pirates, throwing a pretty substantial tantrum in response. We were able to get her into Muppet Treasure Island later, but not until we finished Pirates.

Of the four Pirates of the Caribbean movies, The Curse of the Black Pearl is by far the best. It was fresh, original and highly entertaining when it came out. The subsequent movies in the series became even more fantastical and ridiculous, never quite able to recreate or capture the magic of the first go round. Johnny Depp’s characterization of Captain Jack was a revelation the first time, but by the fourth movie, it was just a cheesy and ridiculous caricature. Rumor has it, Pirates 5 is due to drop in 2015, and I can’t say I’m looking forward to it. Pirates 4 did away with Will Turner and Elizabeth Swan, focusing solely on Jack Sparrow and it really hurt the movie. Unless they both return for Pirates 5, I can’t see myself getting into a fifth iteration in the series. Unless my then 3 year old daughter insists.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Trailer: