Friday, January 29, 2010

Movie Review: "Edge of Darkness"

Originally published in the 1/31/09 edition of The Source.

If not for the presence of Blackberries and laptops, "Edge of Darkness" could be mistaken for a replay of Mel Gibson's greatest hits.

Bereaved family man out for revenge ala "Mad Max" and "Ransom?" Check. Cop pushed to the brink of despair and madness, just like "Lethal Weapon?" Check. Quiet loner dishing out violent, bloody justice similar to "Payback?" Check. Detective Tom Craven couldn't be a more tailor-made Gibson character if he was wearing blue face paint and a kilt.

Of course, there's a reason Gibson winds up typecast in these roles: Few actors are able to combine integrity, righteous anger and a touch of madness as well as he does. He's the rare actor equally at home in a screwball comedy or a hard-edged noir, unpredictable because his characters - slightly off-kilter with a penchant for gruesome violence when necessary - are a bit more intense than those played by, say, Tom Hanks.

So Gibson is right at home in this police thriller, helmed by "Casino Royale's" Martin Campbell, playing a cop whose life unravels after his daughter is brutally murdered on his doorstep. While it is initially assumed that the murderer was originally after Craven, his own off-the-books investigation reveals, as such investigations always do in these movies, that there is "More To The Story."

What follows is the typical corporate conspiracy thriller made so popular in the 1990s, where the plot follows like this: Someone close to the cop is murdered in what looks like a standard incident. The cop decides to lay aside his badge and pursue the investigation on his own, and learns that their loved one has been the pawn or whistleblower in some vast corporate scheme that usually involves pharmaceuticals or the federal government. These movies are best known for their villain, who is usually dressed in a suit and seated in a corner office. The films also reliably offer a scene where the hero grimly intones "I'm not going to arrest anyone ... I'm going to kill them.""

Edge of Darkness" makes no effort to hide the fact that it's a pure formulaic exercise; it's actually a remake of a British miniseries directed by Campbell. We know from the start that the murder was likely not just a random crime and when Craven finds his daughter's work badge while going through her things, we know that sooner or later there's going to be a trip to her office, which is likely where we'll meet the piece's villain.

The question is not whether "Edge of Darkness" is formulaic, but whether or not it works. And despite the fact that I felt like I'd seen this movie a dozen times before starring Ashley Judd or Harrison Ford, "Edge of Darkness" does work more often than not, thanks largely in part to Gibson's tough-as-nails performance. The actor's always been able to center his heroes with a sense of humor and warmth, and the early scenes show an easy rapport between Craven and his daughter. The film's first act, in which Craven mourns his loss and has imaginary conversations with his daughter's ghost, is a powerful addition to the formula that manages to convey a sense of loss and a longing for revenge.

Gibson, who has been absent from the screen since 2003 to direct "The Passion of the Christ" and "Apocalypto," ably creates a wounded, soulful hero. Unlike his peers, who often play characters half their age, Gibson is playing an older man, a grizzled police veteran. We know he's seen violence and, just by the cold look in his eyes and the gravel in his voice, we know he's capable of dishing it out as well. Few characters can balance integrity with a touch of madness as well as Gibson, and he's in top form here.

He's nearly upstaged by Ray Winstone, who plays a shady "consultant" brought in by the government to observe the situation and decide whether to silence Craven. With a touch of both comedy and sadness, Winstone creates a great counterpoint to the black-and-white Craven: He's a hit man who's seen too much, lived too little and is weary with the world he lives in, amazed to see a forthright man like Craven amidst the sleazy politicians he works for. Winstone and Gibson have only a few scenes together, but both are the film's high points, elevating it above formula to a place that hints at something deeper that the film may have lost at the editing stage.

Any fault with the film comes from Campbell, whose own track record is full of hits like "Casino Royale" and misses like "Vertical Limit." As stated earlier, Campbell is remaking his own 1980s miniseries and one gets the sense that he's grown a bit tired of the story. Plot points in certain areas are rushed and confusing, and I'm not sure that all the pieces connect as cleanly as Campbell would like them to. It's easy to see that a bit longer of a running time and some more careful scripting would have given the plot the necessary time to unfold and breathe, as certain plot threads feel rushed and others - like the scenes between Winstone and Gibson - seem to just scratch the surface of saying something deeper.

But Campbell is also adept at filming a great action sequence and he delivers a few memorable set pieces here, including one genuinely startling character dispatch. When it comes time to put away the plot and pull out the big guns (literally), Campbell stages the violent climax with the right mixture of adrenaline without making it exploitive. And his handling of Craven's grief in the earlier scenes is a refreshingly touching change of pace from the way such inciting incidents are usually glossed over in these films.

But the audience will likely come for Gibson, whose return in front of the camera is solid while refreshingly familiar. It's nice to know the actor in him can still play the same roles so well after a long break. So long as he stays away from "Lethal Weapon 5," it's a pleasure watching him take on the old tics again.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Catch Up: "Duel" (1971, Steven Spielberg)

I'm going to come out and admit it: I'm not a fan of semi trucks.

I get tense whenever I need to pass one on a freeway. I hate driving along the freeway at night and seeing the headlights glaring in my rear view mirror. I don't like walking into a rest stop because I'm afraid the truckers are going to be leaning against the wall, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer, ready to rough me up.

So it's odd that I've waited until now to see Steven Spielberg's 1971 feature directorial debut, "Duel," a thriller about a mild-mannered salesman (Dennis Weaver) who cuts off a semi one day and finds himself terrorized by the driver.

That's pretty much all you get for a plot description--David Mann is driving out to a sales call when he passes a slow moving semi and then, for the next 90 minutes, it's a game of cat and mouse as the semi driver first toys around with David and then reveals that he may actually have murder on his mind. That's it; just Mann escaping a bloodthirsty semi driver. No wife to save or hidden conspiracies, ala "Breakdown" and no final act that mixes up the modes of transportation like "Speed." Just a man (or Mann) and his red Valiant against a dirty, beat up, smoke belching semi truck. The result is a visceral thrillride that's worth a look simply to see how Spielberg's talent was evident even with this first film.

Watching it tonight, I was reminded how much I hate CGI car chases. I know a lot of people loved the most recent "Fast and Furious," but I loathed the computer-generated car chases. Yes, the digital effects make it look like the cars can go really fast through impossible situations. But there's something about the use of practical effects and stunts that adds another layer of intensity (want more evidence? The last 20 minutes of "Death Proof" beat anything in the "Fast and Furious" franchise). When we see Mann's car take a tight turn at a high speed and then swerve to right itself, our stomachs clench up a little bit. When the semi plows through a phone booth, we know that it was a stunt man who dove out of the way of the oncoming truck but there's still more danger in that shot than in simply creating the car out of nothing. Probably 60 of the film's 90 minutes are dedicated to high speed car chases and it's a pleasant surprise to see just how tense and nerve-wracking they still are after all these years.

Even in his first film, Spielberg's trademarks are evident. There's the suburban family at the background as Mann calls his wife to apologize for a fight the night before. There's the use of close-ups on rear view mirrors and car windows. There's the unseen villain, a template Spielberg would perfect just four years later with "Jaws"--and, indeed, there is a case to make for calling this film "Jaws with a truck," as both films share a raw, primal power.

Even though this is largely a one-man show, Spielberg ably gets us into Mann's head. After an early encounter with the truck, Mann finds himself in a cafeteria looking for the bathroom so he can regain his composure. Spielberg tracks him through the cafe in an unbroken, handheld shot; I love the way the shot's shakiness helps us share in Mann's paranoia, and there's a great punchline to the shot when it ends back at the cafe window, staring at the truck that has mysteriously reappeared. Less successful are some of the voice overs that try and get us into Mann's head--yes, the early line about how the event is "shaking loose whatever held you into place" is well written. But voice over as a rule is a sloppy device and it tends to spoon-feed us information that Weaver's competent performance should have made apparent.

Weaver's performance is crucial in adding an element of psychological thriller to "Duel." Mann starts the film as a composed, somewhat confident salesman, proud of his clean car and nicely-groomed, probably a little cocky on the road. As the truck causes him to become unraveled, he begins accosting strangers at the cafeteria and his attempts to help a school bus make him look deranged. At the end he's a nervous wreck, his voice shaking and high. In the end he's a bundle of nerves, alternating between exhilarated victory and breaking down in terrified tears.

In a way, "Duel" is less about Mann's encounter with a truck and more about his struggle with emasculation. One of the things that intimidates me about truckers is that they often seem to be more like "real men" than I am. I'm polished up in my suit and tie, living a safe and comfortable existence. They're out on the road, caked in grease and grime, working long hours and late nights away from home. They're rougher and tougher, while the rest of us often can feel a bit more fragile and weak.

In many ways, that's the plight Mann finds himself in. The film opens with Mann listening to a talk radio show where a caller is concerned about filling in his census form as "head of the house" because he feels that's the position his wife's taken. When Mann stops for gas and the clerk tosses off a "you're the boss," Mann snaps back with "not at my house." And when he calls to apologize to his wife, it's because he didn't stand up for her when a friend was making an advance at a party. And then, this timid, well-groomed and mild-mannered salesman finds his existence threatened by an unflappable force that stalks him with an almost supernatural determination. When he tries to help out a busload of kids and his car gets stuck, the camera lingers on them laughing at him and making faces. I don't even think I have to bring up that Mann drives a tiny red Valiant and the shot's of the semi truck emphasize its large size.

The psychological undertones of "Duel" are interesting, but at heart this was simply a great chance for Spielberg to show his skills at engaging audiences and delivering heart-stopping set pieces. A surprisingly solid debut for a young director who went on to become Hollywood's biggest name.

Coming Soon!

So, one of my goals for 2010 is to expand my writing a bit more. Writing about film and studying it has always been a passion of mine and this site exists to accommodate that hobby a little bit more. For the most part, in the nearly a year this site has been online, I've been writing about new theatrical releases and new release DVDs. But as I seek to increase my own cinematic knowledge and background, I realize how much I still need to see and how many movies I love that I never got a chance to review on their first go-around.

So, there are going to be new features added to this blog. One will be an irregular series of columns when I have a thought on something going on in the world of film (also, possibly television)--this could be about recently-announced projects, trends, box office, awards...whatever I feel like tackling.

The other new feature will be Catch Ups, which will be my thoughts on movies that have been out for awhile that I'm just now seeing. I'm not sure how long these reviews or posts will be; will likely depend on the film itself and how much it impacted me. Hopefully that will get started this weekend. There are already a few queued up and ready to be watched--"Sunset Boulevard," "Rashomon," "North By Northwest" and "Duel" will be the first entries in this.

I'm also hoping to bring back The Alphabet Project. The project was started by me last year to go through my DVD collection and write about every single one. It was a bit much, though, as I suddenly found myself swamped with more than 100 different DVDs and no time to watch them all. So my goal for 2010 is to do The Alphabet Project--The Essentials.

The way it works is this; one of my DVD racks at home is stocked with films that I consider to be some of my favorite of all time. There's probably close to 50 on the shelf. The hope is that this year I will go through them and write my thoughts about each one. Next year, we'll try to expand that list a bit to my other titles. But here's a look at what films I hope to tackle this year...although it will likely stretch into 2011 as well:

Almost Famous
The Back to the Future Trilogy
Before Sunrise
Before Sunset
The Big Lebowski
The Blues Brothers
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
The Goonies
Groundhog Day
Hoop Dreams
Hot Fuzz
Hot Shots!
Hot Shots! Part Deux
The Hurt Locker
The Incredibles
Inglourious Basterds
The Indiana Jones series
Kill Bill, Vol. 1
Kill Bill, Vol. 2
Let the Right One In
The Lord of the Rings trilogy
Lost in Translation
Meet the Parents
The Muppet Movie
The Naked Gun
Office Space
Pan's Labyrinth
Planes, Trains and Automobiles
Punch-Drunk Love
Shaun of the Dead
The Shawshank Redemption
A Simple Plan
Star Trek (2009)
Synecdoche, New York
Taxi Driver
Tommy Boy
The Truman Show
United 93
The Visitor
When Harry Met Sally

Now, I have posts for a few of them already written from last year and I will likely just repost those (I believe I got through Before Sunset/Sunrise but don't have Alien/Aliens in there yet). But after that, we'll begin working through these.

I look forward to these new projects and to hopefully gaining new readers through them!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Movie Review: "The Final Destination"

Note: I did not see "The Final Destination" in 3D. Two dimensions were painful enough.

I should probably state upfront that it took me two viewings to get through "The Final Destination." Initially I threw my hands up in the air because I was so bored, frustrated and depressed with this fourth (!) entry in the popular horror series and I shut the DVD player down. But I figured if I was going to bash it, I owed it to the film to see it to the end. So I did...ah, the things I do for a readership that I'm not sure exists.

I'm sure that many who read this review and enjoyed "The Final Destination" will try to protest that "oh, you're just saying that because you're a critic. The film wasn't made for you." First off, I hope that I don't meet anyone who was a fan of this movie. Second, I saw the film precisely because I had, in the past, been a fan of the "Final Destination" series. I stand by my assertion that the film's first entry is stylish, genuinely creepy and fun. The second and third lost any of the things that made the first film so enjoyable--namely the mood and characters that I actually liked--but had a wonderfully dark sense of humor and fun about the whole affair that made them guilty pleasures. "The Final Destination" lacks even the sense of humor, replaces the series' use of fun practical effects with lame CGI and gives us characters who would be shallow and transparent even on an MTV reality show.

By now the premise is familiar. A group of teens whose names I don't even think I remember five minutes after turning the movie off go to a NASCAR race. One of the teens has a premonition that the race will end with an explosive, violent end and urges his friends to leave...they do, just as the disaster happens. Now, those who survive are stalked by death itself, who prefers to devise elaborate Rube Goldberg devices rather than, you know, simply cause the teens to stop breathing. A tow truck, swimming pool drain, staple gun, lawnmower and 3D movie theater all come into play in killing our (so-called) heroes as they try to figure out a way to cheat death. None of these are shocking, scary, inventive or witty. Even the premise-setting disaster is handled in a rushed manner, without any of the suspense or build-up the other films had. The first "Final Destination" had a plane crash that still ranks as one of the most terrifying things I've seen and it had a sharp sense of humor about how absurd its premise was--I still chuckle when I think about their use of John Denver music in premonitions, Devon Sawa sitting in a padded suit to open a can of peaches or the effective jump scare when the girl got hit by a bus (that particular death is cribbed here again without any of the skill, surprise or wit that made the original incident so effective.) The idea of humor and ingenuity here is to have a lady tell her kids "I've got my eye on you" and then get killed with a rock to the eye.

I'm actually already tired of talking about this movie. It's sad, it's boring and there's no entertainment value to it whatsoever. The acting is capable for this type of movie, but it's bland beyond all belief. David Ellis--who helmed the second entry and the great guilty pleasure "Snakes on a Plane--has no sense of tone, mood or style and directs this film without any sense of how to work an effective scare.

But also, maybe I'm just getting older and wiser. It's simply not fun to watch people die. The deaths in these films are not structured like scares anymore, but like jokes--there's a gigantic buildup and then the punchline of a gory finish. Forget for a moment that Ellis bungles any of the timing and skill that it would take to effectively pull it off. On a deeper level, it's just depressing to watch a movie waiting to see how characters will die. It presents a fatalistic, hopeless view of humanity that is disturbing to see played as entertainment, especially when I can turn off the DVD and see news of real-life calamity in Haiti. I have no problem with a good horror movie and I like to be scared...what I've grown tired of is this subgenre of films that structurally has more in common with pornography than actual storytelling--it strings a flimsy story along as an excuse to give us our "money shots," which here are simply violent and grotesque scenes instead of sexual ones.

Of course, the film was a huge hit, which shows I'm in the minority. Sigh. Maybe that's the scariest thing about the series after all.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Movie Review: "The Book of Eli"

"The Book of Eli" may be one of the strangest film hybrids I've seen in awhile. A mashup Western/Post-Apocalyptic actioner, the R-rated film from The Hughes Brothers ("Menace II Society") has a plot that will likely earn a following among religious filmgoers, so long as they can handle a protagonist who slices, dices and decapitates in following his mission from God.

If it sounds like I'm knocking the movie, I'm not. While I always fear the worst when I see any film released in January or February, the truth is that "The Book of Eli" is a fun, thrilling little action flick that actually has some interesting ideas at its core. It's not going to revolutionize the genre or stand alongside the likes of "The Road Warrior," but I can guarantee it's more fun than "The Spy Next Door."

Denzel Washington stars as Eli, but he may as well be kin to Clint Eastwood's Man-With-No-Name. Eli has been roaming the nation for 30 years, ever since nuclear war devastated the landscape. Eli is heading west. While I'm pretty sure that walking across the country can be done in less than three decades, Eli seems to know what he's doing: after all, he's on a mission from God. See, in his possession, Eli has the last copy of The Bible.

We're told enough about the war to learn that religion may have been the cause of it. All copies of the Bible were burned and destroyed shortly after nuclear weapons "punched a hole in the sky" and let solar radiation eradicate everyone on Earth who hadn't taken shelter. The result is that the Earth is a bleached-out, ash-strewn landscape. On the plus side, everyone gets to wear really cool sunglasses.

Eli found the Bible shortly after the war, urged on by a voice in his head telling him to head west. The voice may also be offering protection. The roads, after all, are plagued by cannibalistic scavengers and robbers, and everyone's bullets seem to pass right by Eli. Also, in a world where everyone is dehydrated and so in need of food that they're willing to cook cats, Eli has remained quite physically fit. He's able to take down entire gangs with just some flashy kung fu and a machete.

It's actually quite a bit of fun to see Denzel Washington in this role. The actor's gravitas lends a bit of solemnity to Eli's holy mission, but it's even more fun to watch Washington cut loose as a bona fide action hero. Denzel has always possessed a quality that makes him a commanding and authoritative presence in his films and giving him some weapons gives him a sense of quiet menace. I'm surprised no one's tried to tap into that before--he seems a more natural action hero than, say, Nicolas Cage.

Anyway, Eli is making his way West so he can find a suitable home for the Bible. On his travels, he happens into a small town run by Carnegie (Gary Oldman). Carnegie seems to be part mayor-part godfather of the small town, relishing his opportunity to twist, bend and intimidate people to his will. The fact that Oldman, with his greasy hair, gold chains and Southern accent, seems to have patterned Carnegie on a sleazy televangelist should inform you that he does not have good purposes in mind for Eli's Bible, which he has been searching for for years. Caught up in the middle is Carnegie's daughter Solara--whom he hires out as a prostitute. He ain't father of the year--but then again, he named his daughter Solara--and she was born just years after the sun fried half of humanity.

So yes, it's easy to see how the film could have been unwieldy and, in lesser hands, a bit of a mess. Had someone tried to make the film a somber, serious affair it likely would have crashed and burned. But the Hughes', who work far too sporadically, give the film a sense of humor and energy and style. Yes, the film takes place in a bleached, ash-strewn environment where all of our creature comforts are gone; but they give the henchmen just enough absurdity and allow Oldman to chew the scenery enough for us to know that we're allowed to have a little fun. They show a skill at filming action sequences that seems to have been forgotten in this day of Michael Bay/Paul Greengrass quick cuts and flash edits; it's refreshing to see a sustained shot in which we can actually see a character performing martial arts instead of a quick blur of legs and fists.
But the film is elevated by actually having an interesting idea at its core. Simply protecting the last Bible on Earth would not have made for an engaging story--after all, the Bible is no good at all if it sits simply on the shelf. But the Hughes' explore the notion that the words of the Bible can also be distorted and misconstrued to twist and manipulate people; many false prophets have done just that. Carnegie is indicative of those who use religion for power--and living in this country, we've seen quite a bit of that.
But I've seen many reviews that gloss over Eli's arc as a man who sets off first simply to protect the Bible but then becomes aware of how little of its words he's actually put into practice. I read one review that summed the film up this way "Denzel Washington forsakes the gospel to protect the Bible," but I have to disagree with that. Eli is a flawed hero; in the beginning he has a narrow minded purpose of preserving the Bible and we see him ignore cries for help in the street. Through his encounter with Solara, he learns how to put the words of Christ into action and realizes his own failures; the movie never comes out and shows Eli depending on grace and forgiveness, but it does treat the Bible with a reverence that we rarely see in films these days.

Of course, it all comes down to an ending that I'm sure will split audiences; those happen to be the endings I like the most. And the Hughes' big twist may be hard to believe...but if you believe in miracles and the seriousness behind Eli's mission, it's really not that unbelievable at all. Some will say it's fundamentalist propaganda...I say that if we could handle James Cameron's "Earth first" diatribe in "Avatar," surely we can handle treating God seriously.

The film's not perfect. There's an encounter with an elderly couple that starts off as a shaky attempt at humor...although to be fair, it takes a deliciously dark and creepy turn. There's a subplot involving a local engineer that is never really followed up on. And Mila Kunis, who is turning into a strong comedienne in other films, is fairly inert here, although to be fair she's acting alongside Denzel Washington and Gary're bound to be overshadowed.

But "Book of Eli" is not meant as art. It's meant as entertainment and it succeeds very admirably. The action is fun, Washington and Oldman are as reliably good as ever and there's something to be said for a film that actually has an idea at its core--especially a theological one, which too many films shy from. Is it subtle? Heck no...but, again, it's an action movie...when are they ever subtle? I'd rather see 100 "Book of Eli's" than one "Fireproof."

I suspect this movie is a perfect antidote for those who may find "The Road" too bleak. "The Road" is the better movie and deals a bit more artfully with maintaining faith, humanity and morality in a world gone to hell. But then again, "The Road" was meant as art..."Eli" is an action film. And it does just what it sets out to do: it entertains, excites and blows stuff up real good. The fact that you may leave discussing its theological themes is a very pleasant surprise.

Who says January has to be empty month at the movies?


About Me

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.