Sunday, February 20, 2011

Quick Hits

My initial plan for this three-day President's Day weekend was to load up on some movies I had missed out on in 2010 and have three days of non-stop movie marathons. I decided to be a little more productive and a little less couch potato-ish, but I did manage to see a few movies--some old, some new--this weekend, so I thought I'd write up some brief thoughts on those.

And yes, I'm hoping to get part two of "The Directors" up with my thoughts on "Raising Arizona," but more than likely that feature will gain more speed after I've moved into the new place. Lots of moving and wedding prep going on here.

Anyway, here we go:

Tango and Cash

I know this 1989 Sylvester Stallone/Kurt Russell action-comedy has its fans. But while it has its moments, I have to imagine this was the moment that the wisecracking supercop genre of the late-80s/early-90s hit its breaking point.

Tango (Stallone) and Cash (Russell) are two of LA's top cops. Tango is a sharply-dressed businessman who stays in the cop game "for the action" while Cash has the t-shirt, stubble and haircut of the K-Mart version of Martin Riggs. The two are unorthodox in their methods, playing chicken with a semi truck or crushing a perp's windpipe with a chair to get answers but, somehow, the press heralds them as heroes. It goes without saying that Tango and Cash hate each other. I'll give you five seconds to wonder whether they must overcome their differences and become friends to stay alive.

An LA drug kingpin (Jack Palance) has had enough of the two cops meddling with his "billion dollar business" and pays off the city's legal system to frame the two for murder and put them away in an only-in-the-movies prison where the leaky walls are made of stone and criminals rain flaming rolls of toilet paper down from the ceiling. Tango and Cash not only have to survive in, but escape from, this hell hole and then track down the man who put them away.

The plot is wafer thin--I can't exactly explain how the cops are transferred from their cushy federal prison to this Shawshank-esque nightmare any more than I could tell you how exactly they track down the bad guy to his compound at the end of the film. The script seems to be less concerned with plot mechanics and more about ensuring Tango and Cash have a ready supply of wisecracks at their disposal. There's not a single line in this movie that isn't matched two seconds later with a smart alec remark. Some of these, such as Tango remarking "Rambo was a pussy," are good for a chuckle. Others, such as "I think that with your IQ, you're unarmed and still very dangerous" land with a thud.

This comes down, actually, to the casting of Stallone and Russell, two actors who seem to have very little real chemistry together. Russell seems more at home as the wild card, slovenly detective and the one-liners flow a little easier from him. Stallone, asked to wear fancy glasses and suits, looks out of his league. Whereas Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson were able to deliver one-liners well enough that they felt like extensions of their characters, Stallone's wooden acting here makes it all too apparent the lines were crafted. There's no attitude or panache to the wisecracks; just the feeling that the screenwriters really wanted to have audiences leave the theater with quotes on their tongue. Aside from a funny FUBAR reference, however, it doesn't really work.

The film coasts on some fun action sequences, particularly a brutal "Lethal Weapon"-esque brawl in the prison's laundry room and a very over-the-top, but enjoyable escape from the penitentiary. The flick is definitely part of Warner Brothers' "overkill is underrated" mentality from the late 1980s and indulges in all the excess these films shared. There's a bloody fight in Cash's apartment, the prison is filled with sparking, exploding generators and the bad guy's hideout features monster trucks and halls of mirrors, which the cops destroy with their own pimped-out police RV. It's utterly trashy and ridiculous, but I'm sure every male who ponied up the dough for "The Expendables" last summer probably has a special place in their heart for this flick.

It's definitely a guilty pleasure, and it works much better when focused on the action sequences. Unfortunately, director Andrey Konchalovskiy is convinced he's making an action-comedy, and it's the latter that lands with a thud. The wise cracks hit their mark only about 50-percent of the time. Even worse, though, is the scene where Cash escapes a strip club by dressing in drag or a misunderstanding where Tango thinks Cash is having sex with his sister (Teri Hatcher).

There are slight charms to be had here, as I said. But I've met many who refer to this flick as a bona fide action classic and, I'm sorry, I just don't see it. Stallone and Russell don't have the chemistry to pull of a "Lethal Weapon" buddy comedy and it doesn't have the confidence to be as trashy and guilty as a "Last Boy Scout." It may not be totally FUBAR, but it's far from the best work these guys have done.

The Sunset Limited

I think both Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson are fantastic actors who too easily succumb to type-casting. Before waking up this decade and delivering some of his finest work in films like "In the Valley of Elah" and "No Country For Old Men," Jones spent nearly a decade coasting on the Laurels of his no-nonsense character from "The Fugitive," sometimes successfully ("Men In Black") sometimes woefully ("Man of the House.") After Tarantino turned him into the coolest cat in Hollywood, Jackson milked that persona for all its worth, which is how he's turned into a caricature of himself in "Snakes on a Plane" or the current Marvel films.

It's extremely refreshing to see these actors shed their crutches and deliver some of their strongest work in ages in "The Sunset Limited," an HBO adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's two-character play, directed by Jones. Featuring only the two men in one cramped apartment, the film is a powerful acting showcase that delves into some of life's deepest questions, leaving no one with easier answers.

Jones plays White, a professor who attempted to kill himself by hurling himself in front of a train. Jackson is a poor ex-con named Black who saved his life and taken the broken man up to his apartment. Black, an evangelical Christian, feels it's his calling to save White. White, an atheist, not only has no belief in God but no faith in humanity. He reasons that it's not only wrong to assume that we are our brother's keeper, he believes that the very existence of humanity continually proves that people are beyond saving. These beliefs fuel a gripping 90-minute discussion of philosophy, theology, race, culture and the things that keep us going in our darkest moments.

When adapting a one-room play for film, the tendency is to find a way to open up the story to keep the narrative moving and visually appealing. Jones, however, does the opposite and takes advantage of the restrictions McCarthy places upon the story. The apartment is small and constrictive, with outside din often wafting in from out doors. As the two men confront each other and find themselves defending and questioning their own beliefs, the apartment begins to feel smaller, trapping and cornering them so they have nowhere else to look but at the other person. It lends a sense of tension and urgency to the discussions which are, quite literally, life and death discussions.

Jackson has been buried in his cool persona for so long that it's surprising to see him here as a humble, poor ex-con. There's a warmth about Black; he's not portrayed as a lunatic who hears voices but as a man who strongly holds to his convictions and won't be deterred, no matter what you might throw at him. Sometimes he speaks softly and gently. Other times, he mocks and chides White. In one blistering scene, Black launches into a prison story and loses himself in the narrative, Jackson's voice booming and screaming in that way only he can do. It's been so long since he's been this engaged in a performance and it's riveting.

Jones, with his hang-dog face, largely plays the part of a man broken. He has nothing to believe in. He used to believe culture would be his salvation but now he watches it be destroyed by a world that is marching toward oblivion. Jones captures this brokenness perfectly, but also filters in the pride that White feels, the belief that his problems matter more because of the insights his education has offered him. In the film's final moments, he is given a dizzying monologue in which he reveals the reasons for his despair and the strength of his convictions. "The only thing I'll never give up," he says, "Is giving up."

It's a fascinating performance piece, fueled my McCarthy's pitch-perfect dialogue. The writer may be far from his comfort zone of wide vistas and unending Western landscapes in this New York apartment, but his themes of religion, despair, hope and apocalypse are all present here. McCarthy seems fascinated by the way these two belief systems clash against each other and the questions each one presents. Atheists may seem to be the most cultured and intelligent, and yet the end for White is one of cynicism and despair. For believers like Black, their faith has given them hope and a reason for living, a belief that people can be redeemed and the world made better. But faith, by definition, is not always certainty, and the film presents the dilemma of what believers face when their faith is not always rewarded and answers aren't always given to them. "The Sunset Limited" gives us two men with opposing beliefs, neither of whom are willing to back down from their convictions and what happens when those outlooks violently collide.

I found the film riveting, one of the most intelligent and profound looks at faith, unbelief and hope that I've seen in a long time. In some of the strongest work of their storied careers, Jones and Jackson knock this one out of the park.


Perhaps next to the collaboration between Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, the partnership between Tony Scott and Denzel Washington is the most frustrating director-actor team-up in Hollywood.

At times, the two have given us some solid action thrillers, such as "Crimson Tide" or "Man on Fire." Other times, you get "Deja Vu." I don't know what frustrates me more--the tendency that Washington has to coast in these films, playing the same lovable curmudgeon over and over, or Scott's tendency to edit his films like a meth addict.

Their latest collaboration, "Unstoppable" is actually one of the pair's better films. Washington is definitely giving the same performance he's given Scott before, but he's balanced by Chris Pine in a strong co-starring role. Pine is a rookie train conductor tagging along with Washington's engineer on his first day of work. Washington's character has just been given his forced retirement notice and is understandably irked at having to show this young upstart the ropes.

While the two are out bickering on their route, a series of mishaps has caused a train elsewhere in Pennsylvania to start barreling down the tracks without a conductor. This train, the size of the Chrysler Building, is carrying eight cars' worth of toxic, highly combustible chemicals. And, of yeah, if it hits the bridge in the town where Pine lives, it's likely to fly off the rails and eradicate everyone there.

When I first saw the previews, I assumed it had to be a parody. After all, how much can you do with a train? It goes one direction. I actually thought this would be a "Speed 2" descent into self-parody, with ominous shots of the train heading closer and closer to town as people fumbled about what to do.

The final product, though, is actually fairly plausible (although I question of much of this is actually inspired by a true story). Scott fumbles a bit when showing how a lazy conductor loses control of the train, but he gets a great deal of suspense from shots of the train narrowly missing another train full of children or of employees speeding up alongside the locomotive trying to climb aboard. There's a pretty nifty sequence where one worker tries to be helicoptered onto the moving train which, of course, ends in disaster. After all, the train is "Unstoppable."

When he ascertains that the railroad commission intends to derail the train, Washington knows that it won't work. So he decides to catch his locomotive up to the runaway car, hitch onto it and bring it to a stop. It's crazy and dangerous, of course, but this is a Tony Scott movie, so of course it has a good shot at working.

The story moves just fast enough for us to keep from questioning much of it. It's fun, loud and flashy, but Washington and Pine are both likable enough in their roles to keep us invested. Likewise, Rosario Dawson, as a control room manager, keeps things grounded enough for us to maintain our suspension of disbelief. Scott eases up on his editing here and actually delivers some coherent action sequences.

The film relies a bit too much on the perspective of the media covering the train chase; in the film's final hour, I'd say a good 45% of the scenes are shown from the perspective of news cameras. And while I don't disagree that the media would be all over a disaster like this, the omnipresence of news choppers is a bit distracting in many of the action sequences. A romantic subplot between the Pine character and his wife is also a bit cliche.

Still, the people who see this film want to simply see Denzel stop a fast train. They won't be disappointed. "Unstoppable" ain't art, but it does give the people what they want.

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