Saturday, 23 June 2012

Southland Tales - Movie Review

Spoiler Free Review Synopsis: This is a great movie, because it's just so bad. The plot is tangled and senseless, the characters are flat and incomprehensible, the premise is ludicrous, and the acting is just hilariously bad. It's a lot like Tommy Wiseau's The Room in this way, and I recommend it for an enjoyably weird experience.

I have to take a different approach to this one. This movie is very weird. No, really, you don't even know. Southland Tales was directed by Richard Kelly, who you might know as the writer/director of Donnie Darko. Basically, this is what happens when you give a guy like that a bigger budget and forget to proofread his work. I actually kind of feel bad for him, since it seems like he really wanted this to be an epic saga. There's even a prequel trilogy of stories that was released as a tie-in comic, and the movie itself is structured in three acts, labelled as Episodes IV, V, and VI. It frequently quotes the Bible, specifically the Book of Revelations, and the main plot focuses on the end of the world. Having said that, the words "plot" and "focus" really don't belong in association with this film.

With a movie like this, you can't deal with it the same way that you would a conventional movie, because it's not built the same way. It's like comparing a Rubik's Cube to a book of Mad Libs, or Apples to Pens. Thus, I am not going to address the overall breakdown of the movie like I normally would. I am going to come at this from the angle it deserves, as a movie that is composed of totally random arrangements of characters and plotlines. This is a top 10 list of the best lines in Southland Tales. I'll try to give them as much context as I can. It won't help at all though.

1. "I am going to tell you the story of Boxer Santaros, and his journey down the road not taken."

The first lie of the movie! Justin Timberlake is the narrator, playing a wounded Iraq War veteran who is only peripherally involved in the events of the movie and has a musical dance number near the end of the movie for absolutely no reason. Anyway, he gives us the premise of the movie in a ten-minute narration at the start of the movie, followed by this little nugget. Boxer Santaros, played by Dwayne Johnson, is just one of 30+ named characters in the film who figure into the plot, and he is hardly the main character of the story. Though he is prominent, this is no more his story than it is his porn star girlfriend's (Sarah Michelle Gellar), or a kidnapped government police officer and his twin brother (Seann William Scott), or the crazy arms dealer (Christopher Lambert), or the porn producer/revolutionary leader (Will Sasso), or the homicidal cop/evil lackey (Jon Lovitz). Nobody's running this show.

2. "The ocean is a perpetual motion machine. Fluid Karma is a simulation of the principles you see working right here. As long as the waves continue to crash, Fluid Karma will exist." 

A crazy scientist (Wallace Shawn) has invented a new energy source because America is currently embroiled in a "world war" with a half-dozen other Middle Eastern countries and doesn't have access to its oil supply anymore. This power source is called Fluid Karma. It works by using the motion of the ocean (hah!) to generate energy, which is then transmitted via some sort of wireless technology to vehicles and devices. I'm not sure, but I think this guy just invented the Morphing Grid from Power Rangers. But while he's explaining how all this works, some weird tiny fat lady just pipes up with this line...

3. "Quantum Teleportation."

No, really, that's it. She just says it, and stops talking. Nobody gave her a reason to say it, and she doesn't elaborate. It's weird, but what's even weirder is that this is apparently a hot-topic in this culture. Later on, a porn-star talk show briefly mentions the issue, once again with no prompting or details. If you just spouted that in the middle of a conversation, people would just look at you as if you had slapped them. Go ahead, give it a try the next time you talk to someone. Then slap them. That's what watching this movie feels like.

4. "You're not really here."

This one needs context. And a stiff drink. So here's one of the movie's subplots broken down: USIDent is a government agency that monitors people. Like, all the time. They have a division that is purely devoted to watching you while you poop through surveillance cameras. It's Big Brother without the pretense. Naturally, this doesn't go over well with the rebels, who hatch a plan to bring the system down. Their plan is simple, and also stupid: They kidnap government officer Roland Taverner (Seann William Scott), and have his twin brother pretend to be him. He takes Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson), a movie star, on a ride-along to research his next film role. While being filmed on this ride-along, he acts like a racist jerk and is called to a staged domestic disturbance, where he is going to pretend to shoot and murder the couple (complete with blank bullets and pre-set squibs to simulate the gunshots). Naturally, if one cop is racist and murderous, that logically means that the whole system is corrupt and must be brought down. The plan wouldn't have worked even if it had gone down as planned, but it was foiled by the arrival of another cop (Jon Lovitz), who walks into the room, shoots the couple dead, then turns the gun on Seann William Scott and tells him "You're not really here." Then they leave. WTF, movie?

5. "I haven't had a bowel movement in 6 days. I haven't taken a piss, either."

This is apparently supposed to have some sort of biblical significance. But how, I couldn't tell you. During a conversation between Santaros and Taverner on the ride-along, in which Taverner is racist and Santaros is crazy, Santaros mentions a top-secret experiment in which a newborn child returns home with his parents from the hospital, and a week goes by without the child producing a bowel movement. Supposedly, this baby is special, and processes energy differently. Taverner confesses that he hasn't had a bowel movement in six days. What is the significance of this? I think the movie is trying to tell us that Stifler is Jesus, but I can't confirm of deny it using the facts the movie lays out. I also don't care.

6. "But deep down inside, everyone wishes they were a porn star."

Not in this world, but that's actually a good point for why this movie is so damn weird. The weird alternate-universe this movie occupies has a radically different culture than the one we're used to (see my American Reunion review). In this world, everything's exaggerated to a ridiculous degree. The Republican Party took office and turned the country into a police state, while Democrats have apparently become underground Marxist terrorists. This would be interesting if either side actually had any deeper motivation besides "screw those other guys". Nobody comes off looking good, since everybody's out for themselves. If you're looking for a movie that gives you hope for the human race, try something else. Maybe Terminator 2.

7. "Scientists are saying the future is going to be far more futuristic than they originally predicted."

The hell? What does that even mean? This line comes from Krista Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), the porn star talk show host I mentioned earlier, who also gave us the earlier quote. The movie can't seem to decide if she's a visionary or a moron, and it's quite possible that the two are synonymous in this world. Don't even get me started on Senator Bobby Frost (Holmes Osbourne). He seems to exist in this movie only to play the stereotypical arrogant redneck politician, and randomly quote Robert Frost...get it? This movie doesn't do subtlety.

8. "Did I just see two cars porking each other?"

Yes. We all did. I may never forgive you, Richard Kelly. This is another gem from Frost, who has just viewed a European commercial for Fluid Karma. In the commercial, which I will show below because I want you to suffer like I did, two cars receive power transmissions from Fluid Karma. One drives up behind the other and proceeds to mount it from the rear, as it's tailpipe becomes a chrone penis, while the receiving vehicle grows labia where its muffler is. Once again, this movie exists in a universe radically different from our own. And even in that universe, European commercials are MESSED UP.

This is Super Bowl level weirdness.

9. "We are going to take the ATM machine with us to Mexico."

No. You don't get context for this one. Context would only dilute the flavor of this moment. I'm apparently going to start linking a lot of videos for the rest of this list, so enjoy!

Hell Yes We Are

10. "Ladies and gentlemen, the party is over. Have a nice apocalypse."

The final scenes of the movie take place (for the most part) on-board a giant blimp, where a Republican fundraiser is taking place. While on this blimp, we learn the secrets of time travel, watch a weird techno-opera rendition of the national anthem, and it ultimately explodes because a wannabe thug who's been drafted into the army shoots it with a rocket launcher that he got from a crazy arms dealer while he stands on top of a levitating ice cream truck containing two magical twins having the most epic handshake of all time. The weirdest thing about all this (HAH!) is the announcer on-board the blimp, who chimes in with a bunch of these random lines. Who is this man? Why does he know there's an apocalypse? Why is he still announcing things? He keeps right on going even up to his impending death, cheerful as ever, giving all those doomed souls the weirdest final thoughts ever.
Bonus: "I'm a pimp. And pimps don't commit suicide."

This one's repeated a few times. It actually has no context in the overall story, but it has something to do with time travel creating duplicate people, and suicide causing a temporal paradox. Boxer Santaros knows that he would never commit suicide, because he is a pimp. Not literally, but figuratively. Nobody actually mentions suicide before this point, so the line literally has no context. It's as though entire pages of dialogue were ripped out of the script and nobody noticed. That's the charm of the movie: It's a mess, and it's up to you to put the pieces together however you like.

Bonus #2: Just watch the clip. I can't even...


Saturday, 16 June 2012

Death Sentence - Movie Review

Spoiler Free Review Synopsis: Damn, do I freaking love this movie. It's crazy dark and morally grey, and packed full of badass. Just had to get that out of the way before I dove right into the review. If you like gritty action-dramas about violence and justice, by all means check it out.

Death Sentence is the 2007 film adaptation of the 1975 novel of the same name by Brian Garfield. It was written as the sequel to Garfield's Death Wish, earlier adapted into a film series starring Charles Bronson, about a family man whose life is destroyed by gang violence, transforming him to a vengeful vigilante. This film is a self-contained, unrelated story to the original, so it's an adaptation in name only, but no less significant or powerful for the change.

The film centers around an upper-class everyman named Nick Hume (played by Kevin Bacon) whose oldest son is killed in a gas station robbery gone bad. He witnesses the murder and identifies the killer, a small-time local gang member, who is caught and arrested. However, upon being advised by the officer in charge of the case Detective Wallis (Aisha Tyler) and the prosecuting attorney that the gang member will likely make a deal in exchange for a reduced sentence, Hume recants his testimony and allows his son's murderer to walk free, much to the dismay of his wife and younger son. Wait, what?

As it turns out, Hume decides that if the law can't give him justice, he'll just have to take matters into his own hands. He follows the gang member back to his home, brings a knife and stabs him to death. Having avenged the death of his son, Hume is willing to move on with his life. However, the act is uncovered by the rest of the gang, led by the victim's older brother (Garret Hedlund), who seek out Hume in retaliation. They track him down at his work, and proceed to attack him. How do they accomplish this? They chase him down in broad daylight, through the downtown streets and local businesses, firing guns with dozens of witnesses present, cackling insanely.

In the pursuit, Hume makes it to the parking garage where his vehicle is parked at the top level. On the way up, he sets off every car alarm he can, hoping to draw attention to the scene. I guess nobody in this city has a cell phone, since neither Hume nor any witnesses think to call the police. Special attention must be paid to the camera work in this scene. Normally I wouldn't go into detail with this sort of thing because I'm not educated on the finer points of cinematography, but the whole scene is an uninterrupted tracking shot that follows Kevin Bacon as he climbs three levels of the parking structure, then drops back down a level to follow the pursuing gang members, then moves to a crane shot that rises to the top of the structure, where Bacon is finally reaching his vehicle. If you catch this on DVD, check that out in the special features, it's really cool.

Anyway, in what is probably the movie's coolest fight scene (though it has some competition there), Hume engages in a brawl with one of the gang members. The fight starts among the cars, then moves into a nearby car. The parking break is disengaged, allowing the vehicle to slowly roll down the incline, gaining momentum. Just as the car is about to go over the edge, Hume leaps out the rear window, allowing the car and the man inside to plummet several stories and smash into the ground.

However, the gang members obtained Hume's briefcase during the chase, giving them all of his personal information. They opt to contact him directly, making direct threats against his life and that of his family. Faced with this, Hume contacts Det. Wallis and asks for her help. She berates him for taking the law into his own hands, basically telling him that he started all this. Still, she assigns two officers to protect them in case the gang decides to attack their home. Not for a moment do they think of running away...

Hume stands watch over his family in the night, and upon hearing noise from outside, looks out the window to see the officers have been brutally killed, and that the killers have come. He manages to fight them off surprisingly well, swinging hard with a baseball bat and dodging shotgun blasts before he is finally overpowered. The gang leader shoots Hume's remaining son, his wife, and then him, leaving them all for dead. Hume's wife dies, and his son is left comatose, while he sustains severe injuries including the gunshot wound to his gut, a major gash across his scalp, and various cuts and bruises. Det. Wallis is waiting when he awakens to once again chastise him for getting his family killed. Wait, WHAT?

I'll point out at this point that the original author of the novel, Brian Garfield, actually praised this movie for not glorifying the use of vigilante violence like Death Wish had. In those movies, Bronson's character is almost universally praised for his righteous crusade against crime and criminals that have threatened the fabric of our society. It reaches fantastic levels in the 3rd installment, in which gangs have near total control of a major city, the police are helpless against them, and it is only Bronson's willingness to engage in open warfare that saves the day. He guns down purse-snatchers in the street, mows down crowds with a military-grade heavy machine gun, and blows the gang leader through a brick wall with a rocket launcher (at point-blank range no less), and is allowed to walk off into the sunset at the film's end. This message runs in direct opposition to Garfield's original novels, which cautioned against vigilante justice because of the harm it does.

Having said that, I would like to pause the film for a moment to take a quick look at the situation Hume finds himself in, and engage in a little ethical musing. His innocent son was murdered (along with an anonymous gas station clerk) by some punks as part of a gang initiation. Our legal system couldn't do more than put the murderer in prison for a couple years. Hume took matters into his own hands and got justice for the death of his son, taking an eye for an eye as the saying goes. Whether or not you agree with this decision is a matter of personal opinion. It was certainly illegal, and Hume deserves punishment for his actions, however understandable they might be. But then the gang retaliates by chasing him through the streets with guns to try to kill him, then chasing him to his home to kill him, his wife and son, and two police officers. Hume and his son survive by sheer luck, and it is at this moment that Det. Wallis decides to lecture him about the morality of his actions? What exactly have you been doing this whole time? Instead of wagging your finger at the guy who's laying in a hospital bed, maybe you ought to be arresting the armed gang members who opened fire in the middle of a downtown street and murdered five people during the course of the movie, including two of your fellow officers? These guys have been killing people LONG before Nick Hume ever got involved, and what have you done about it? No, it's far easier to blame the ordinary guy who's defending his family and avenging the death of his son than the psychotic miscreants who've been treating your city like a playground. Get out of my movie. Don't come back until you're ready to be useful.

Nick doesn't buy her sanctimonious speech and escapes the first chance he gets. Once again the police are shown to be totally incompetent by their absence, as they are unable to track down a severely injured man traveling on-foot wearing a hospital gown and a big head bandage, even as he returns to his home to change and later goes to his bank. He empties out his son's college fund, then he's off to buy some guns. Here's where the movie shifts into a whole different gear of awesome. He finds his way to a black market weapons dealer, played by John Goodman. As it turns out, he's been backing the gang this entire time, and is in fact the father of both the gang leader and the younger brother Hume killed. However, despite all this, he respects Hume's plight as a father and makes no move to stop him. It also helps that Hume's a paying customer with fat stacks of cash. We've seen Goodman's character in small bits throughout the movie, where he berates his son for his reckless behavior. Goodman is sadly underutilized in this role, and this scene is a highlight of the film. He loves his children, but recognizes that they've made their choices and have to pay the consequences. He sells Hume a couple pistols and a shotgun, plus ammunition and instruction manuals. If you're like me and you enjoy a little gun porn here and there, this is a nice little treat.

The following montage is subtle, but powerful. Hume takes the weapons and a first aid kit into a shed, where he takes the time to become familiar with their workings and patch himself up. He starts off fumbling around with the guns, but eventually works it out. He shaves his head and puts on his son's old leather jacket, heading out for his vengeance. Kevin Bacon delivers a great performance here as his character develops over the course of the movie. At the start of the film, Hume is a mild-mannered individual who is unaccustomed to violence. When he confronts his son's murderer, he barely manages to keep his emotions in check, appearing nervous and panicked before, during, and afterwards. As he is being pursued through the streets by the gang, he is frantic but manages to keep his head, activating the car alarms and using his own to distract an attacker. When they come for him at home he's ready for them with a baseball bat, leading them up the stairs and managing to take out two of them with improvised tactics. From this point onward, Hume is unrecognizable from the start of the film. He is angry, but steady, and his actions are brutal and direct. He's scarred and bruised, but far tougher as a result of what he's been through. I love strong character arcs, and this is a great one.

Hume tracks the gang members down to their hideout, which is also a drug lab. Still not sure why the police were having trouble nailing these guys, but it's far too late for those kinds of questions. He blows the doors down and storms the place, taking out everybody he sees with deadly efficiency. Limbs and digits are blown off, bullets punch through bodies like wet sacks of meat, and everybody reloads when they're logically supposed to. Director James Wan had previously been known only for his work on the Saw series (he directed the first one, wrote the first and third, and produced them all), but he also directed the 2011 sleeper hit Insidious, which was also a great film. You can see his influence on the film in the darker scenes, where the muted blue/grey colors and off-putting camera angles serve to unsettle the viewer, in addition to the gory violence.

In a point blank shootout, Hume fatally wounds the gang leader, but is himself shot. Both men wounded and out of bullets, they collapse together on a bench and share a brief moment, as the gang leader remarks that Hume has become just like him now; a cold-blooded killer. For his part, Hume simply draws his second handgun and cocks it. The film ends with Hume returning home, clutching his wounds, to watch a home movie of his family enjoying happier times, as Wallis arrives to inform him that his son has regained consciousness. In the Unrated cut of the movie, he then dies of his injuries.

While watching Liam Neeson's Taken, in which a father goes to outrageous lengths to rescue his kidnapped daughter, including cold-blooded torture and shooting innocent bystanders, I had a debate with my friend about the morality of taking extreme measures, and whether or not the ends justify the means. Works like Taken, 24, and Death Sentence approach this topic in different ways, and any work of fiction that inspires debates like this is a good one in my book. On top of that, we get strong performances from Bacon, Hedlund, and Goodman, an engaging drama, and great action pieces. Very much recommended.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

American Reunion - Movie Review

I meant to do this one way earlier, but various obstacles kept me away from it. I first saw it about a month after it came out, because my best friend dragged me kicking and screaming to watch it. We watched the first ones on VHS together in high school, so he thought it would be a fun nostalgia trip. And to be fair to him, it was. Except now that I'm 10 years older, I'm a little bit wiser in my old age, and I recognize things that my younger self would likely have glossed over. See, here's my biggest issue with American Reunion: It's fiction. No, really, it's not the least bit believable. None of these people behave rationally, and the whole premise is just ludicrous. You might think I'm over analyzing what is basically a teen sex comedy, but there's more to it than that, and it's problems are all the more obvious because of it.

I'll just walk you through the plot. 13 years after graduating high school in the first movie, and we see Jim (Jason Biggs) and Michelle (Alyson Hannigan) living happily as husband and wife, with a young child no less. And what is the first thing we see them doing? Secretly masturbating while he's in bed and she's in the bathtub, as their child walks in and the whole zany situation is revealed. Yeah, that's basically how they all start, but here's my problem: Jim is a 30+ year old man. He can't just be this hapless all the time, right?

Jim's the central character, but we also get to catch up with the rest of the main cast. Oz (Chris Klein) is a famous sportscaster with a nymphomaniac trophy wife, Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas) is an architect, Stifler (Seann William Scott) is an office temp, and Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) is a... drifter? I'm still not clear on that one. Anyway, they're all invited back to their hometown for a high school reunion, so we get to see them up to the same old antics. Pretty much every named character from the original series turns up at some point, even if it's only for a quick cameo. If you had a favorite character (and why the hell would you?), you get to be disappointed for a few brief seconds before they shuffle off camera to collect their paycheck.

Anyway, Jim and Michelle stay with Jim's dad Noah (Eugene Levy), who is now a widower. As Jim is arriving, he runs into girl next door Kara, whom he used to babysit when she was a child. However, she is about to turn 18, and decides that she wants Jim to take her virginity. Wait, what? Kara, who is still in high school, apparently very popular, and has an attractive boyfriend of her own, suddenly decides she wants to jump the bones of her 10+ years older former babysitter that she hasn't seen in years? That's an odd dot to connect.

Anyway, Kara invites Jim and his friends to a beach party to celebrate her birthday, and she gets black-out drunk. Jim drives her home, but in the process she attempts to seduce him, throws her clothes out the window, and passes out. Now, I want you to consider this situation. You've done the sensible adult thing and given this young girl a ride home, and in her drunken state she's done something embarrassing. Do you:

A) Call her parents, explain the situation, and let them handle things?
B) Call your friends to hatch an elaborate scheme to covertly sneak her back into her room?

Again I must remind you that Jim is 30+ years old. He's not a teenager, he should know better than this. Absolutely nobody would (or at least should) look down on him for being in this situation. But nevertheless his neurotic mind decides that the shortest distance between two points is wacky hijinks. Later, he attempts to have a romantic encounter with his wife, as the two have been having intimacy issues of late. However, Kara once again attempts to rape him. Her boyfriend attempts to assault him, his wife is horrified, and Kara herself is insulted that he isn't interested in her. Again, WHAT? What is wrong with you people? Is sex the only thing you freaks think about? Well, I'll come back to this at the end...

Oz reunites with his old girlfriend Heather (Mena Suvari), who is dating a heart surgeon/stereotypical douchebag. Naturally, they start to fall for each other all over again, despite the fact that they had been dating in every other movie, thus must have broken up at some point between the last movie and this one. The writers could not find anything else for these two to do, so they slapped this together and we're just supposed to buy it. Anyway, they both ended up with people who are very much wrong for them, and after they end up cheating on their respective partners with each other, they get back together. That's a great lesson: Cheating's okay as long as you're in love.

Kevin's whole character arc is that he meets up with his old girlfriend Vicky (Tara Reid), and after a night of drinking, they wake up in bed together. He suspects that they slept together, and she is offended by his reasonable assumption, so naturally he has to apologize. How dare he suspect Tara Reid of doing anything unseemly...

Finch tells the gang a bunch of stories about his legendary globetrotting adventures, but it all turns out to be a pile of lies, and he's just an assistant manager at Staples who stole a motorcycle belonging to his boss. Oddly enough, his story is the most realistic of the bunch. Who hasn't met up with an old high school classmate and wanted to embellish a little about their success? Anyway, he still manages to hook up with another classmate and they decide to take a trip to Europe. Sure, why not.

Jim's dad Noah is in a pretty rough place when we see him at the start of the movie, still mourning the loss of his wife from however long ago. He is encouraged by Jim to get back into the dating game, and after a rocky start on J-Date, ends up finding companionship with Jeanine Stifler, Steve's mom and the "milf" of the original trilogy. The film ends with them going on a movie date together, where she gives him a blowjob for some reason.

Stifler, still fancying himself a ladies man after all these years, tries unsuccessfully to hook up with several women throughout the weekend. We ultimately learn that this is the result of a major lack of confidence, brought on by his temp job crushing his spirit and forcing him into a submissive position. This reaches a breaking point when Stifler is called back to work on a weekend night to finish a presentation by his boss (I do so love Vik Sahay when he shows up in stuff I watch). The gang comes to encourage him to stand up for himself, so he quits his job and finds the confidence to talk up women again. In an ironic twist, he has a romantic encounter with Finch's mother, but elects not to reveal this to the group, showing that he has indeed matured. So mature that of all the places he could have had sex, he chose the 50 yard line of the school's fully illuminated football field. Again, what.

This movie does not take place in our reality. That is the only context in which I can accept this movie and the characters within it. Common sense does not exist in this realm, and the driving force behind all thought is sexual gratification. These people honestly haven't changed much in the 13 years since their graduation, and I have a thought about that: Is that what the writers think of their audience? We're supposed to relate to these characters, and every trailer is pushing the nostalgia factor pretty hard, urging us to be interested in what these people are up to. Are you the same person you were in high school? Not a chance! High school is way different than the real world, and these people have been independent adults for a decade. I cannot believe that these people are making the same mistakes they have been making for three movies. The way I see it, the American Pie universe is like one of those parallel dimensions that you see at the start of an episode of Sliders. Somewhat amusing, but you're still glad when the timer goes off and they slide to another, more interesting reality.