Sunday, March 11, 2018

Gone in 60 Seconds (2000) **1/2

I didn't watch this action flick back when it came out, but I wanted a movie to watch while riding the spin bike, so I gave this remake of a 1974 B-movie a go. My soul died a little bit when the opening credits said, “Jerry Bruckheimer Productions.” I mean, the guy is known for the most mindless, explosion-filled action movies made for absolutely the lowest common denominator of moviegoer. Still, I stuck with it, and I will say that at least it got my heart rate up.

Giovanni Ribisi Plays Kip Raines, a car thief who fails to deliver the 50 cars he promised to a ruthless gangster. The gangster agrees to spare his life if Kip's older brother, Memphis (Nicolas Cage), a legendary car thief, delivers the cars by the deadline. This isn't just 50 random cars, mind you, but a list of 50 specific models. Memphis knows that he and Kip can never meet the deadline alone, so he puts together his old team, including Robert Duvall, as Otto the mechanic, and Angelina Jolie, as Sway, Memphis's old girlfriend.

Together with Kip's younger, technologically savvy crew of thieves, the team puts together a plan to boost all the cars in one night, before the police have a chance to figure out what is going on. It's too late for that, though, as Detective Castlebeck (Delroy Lindo), who knows Memphis well, knows that with Memphis back in town, some cars are going to get stolen.

And get stolen they do! The team goes on an absolute orgy of car theft, dodging the police and local thugs. None of it makes a lot of sense. Some of the cars on the list are classics or expensive supercars, but a lot of them are just boring SUVs and luxury sedans. Maybe I just don't understand the stolen-car market. Also, for people who have to steal 50 cars in one night, the team seems to find a lot of time to just hang out and talk. They never display the kind of urgency that I would think fits the situation.

What strikes me the most about “Gone in 60 Seconds” is how shabby the film looks in the light of 2018. When it came out, the trailers made it look like, well, a slick, high-budget, Bruckheimer movie, with an all-star cast. Hell, Angelina Jolie alone had enough star power to open a movie back in 2000, but watching her now, she just looks skinny and skanky, like she smells bad.

These people do drive fast,though, to an upbeat soundtrack, which is perfect for cranking at high resistance on the spin bike. “Gone in 60 Seconds” is not a good movie by any definition, but it's way more fun than an exercise video.

2.5 stars out of 5

Saturday, March 10, 2018

The Triplets of Belleville (2003) *****

I have written before about how the Japanese get all the anime-hype, but in my opinion the French actually do some of the best animated films. “The Triplets of Belleville” is one of the best examples of French superiority in this area.

With no dialogue, the charmingly-drawn film tells the tale of Madame Souza, a little, old lady raising her grandson. Champion is a rather depressed boy, presumably due to losing his parents. Even a puppy doesn't draw him out of his ennui; it just gives him a companion to lay around and mope with. Then Souza notices that Champion has an interest in bicycle racing. When a tricycle shows up at the house, Champion is transformed, like a switch has been turned on.

Fast forward several years, and Champion is an avid cyclist. With Souza as his trainer, he relentlessly rides the hilly, brick streets of Paris in preparation for the big race, the Tour de France. During the race, however, Champion is kidnapped by French gangsters, who cart him across the ocean. There, the gangsters force him to race on a stationary bike in a bizarre, gambling racket.

Souza and the dog follow Champion and his captors across the waters and into the city of Belleville, where they meet a trio of eccentric old women, once famous as the jazz-singing group, The Triplets of Belleville. The triplets take Souza in and wind up helping her in her quest to rescue her grandson.

It's impossible to describe how delightful “The Triplets of Belleville” is. Sometimes it's a little hard to understand what is going on, and some of the jokes develop slowly, so you have to just be patient and go with it. The music, the crazy animation, the charming characters, and the story conspire to richly reward multiple viewings of this film.

The film is hilarious, but by the end, you also feel that you have seen something meaningful. Unspoken in the film is the suggestion that Champion's parents are dead, which means that Mme. Souza has lost a son or daughter. Champion, as a boy, mopes around, while his grandmother gets on with life. Even the adult Champion, who has devoted himself to cycling, still seems rather depressive. He seems to sleepwalk (sleep-ride?) through his life, and as a a result he almost has his life taken from him. Mme. Souza, an old lady with an orthopedic shoe, is constantly on the go, finding solutions to problems and finding the joy in life. The Triplets, too, long past their heyday and living in a slum, are making the best of what they have and enjoying each day. These tropes are cliché because they are important. We hope, in the end, that Champion takes a lesson from these old ladies whom he is so lucky to have in his life.

5 stars out of 5

Monday, March 05, 2018

Aliens (1986) ****

I never thought I would say this, but I actually like a James Cameron movie better than a Ridley Scott movie. Scott is the fabled director of top-notch sci-fi from “Blade Runner” to “The Martian.” He directed 1979's “Alien”, which is widely lauded as a classic itself, but upon re-watching it recently, I found it wasn't all that great. The 1986 sequel, “Aliens”, was directed by James Cameron, famous for big-budget, soulless blockbusters like “Titanic” and “Avatar.” So, “Aliens” is a sequel, and it's directed by a guy more known for putting asses in theater seats than for artistic cred. By all rights, it should not be the better movie, but I'm here to say that it is.

At the end of “Alien”, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) put herself into cryosleep in her shuttle after just barely defeating the alien monster. “Aliens” picks up with her shuttle being discovered years later, drifting through space. She is awakened and tells her story to representatives of The Company, who are naturally skeptical of her tale of an insatiable killing machine with acid for blood. They point out that in the years since Ripley went to sleep, the planet on which she and her crewmates found the alien has been colonized, and no one has reported any giant, killer bugs.

Ripley gets a job operating a robotic forklift, and settles down to a shabby, quiet life with her cat. Then Burke, a company rep (Paul Reiser), shows up to tell her that communication with that colony on Ripley's alien planet has been lost. Burke wants Ripley to come along with him and a bunch of space marines to see if it has anything to do with the killer bugs. As you can guess --- it does!

Where the original “Alien” was full of plot holes and nonsensical character choices, “Aliens” is a tightly-crafted thriller, well-paced, and internally consistent. Sigourney Weaver, the bright spot in “Alien”, continues to shine as one bad-ass heroine, exuding maternal instinct as she protects a colonist child named Newt. Paul Reiser is appropriately morally shifty as the Company Rep, and Bill Paxton is hilarious as the pessimistic marine, Hudson. Lance Henriksen, in particular, shines as Bishop, the ship's android.

More importantly, the screenwriting is way better than in “Alien.” The plot doesn't depend on characters making stupid, inexplicable choices. They sometimes lose their cool, but you would, too, if the walls suddenly came alive with giant, killer bugs! Even the seemingly ridiculous coincidence of the colony being attacked the same year that Ripley is rescued eventually makes perfect sense.

Some critics write “Aliens” off as a shoot-em-up action flick, but that clearly isn't fair. The first shots aren't even fired until something like an hour into the movie. When the shooting does start, the marines quickly get their asses handed to them, their weapons all but useless in the face of an unfamiliar threat. Some suggest that the film is a comment on the Vietnam War, at that time the best example of the limits of superior firepower in the face of an enemy fighting on its own turf. The film takes its time setting up the characters, including the overconfident marines, the inexperienced lieutenant, and Ripley, who approaches the mission with dread.

Ultimately, “Aliens” does devolve into shooting, explosions, and awesome hand-to-hand fighting. It IS an action flick, after all, but it's one of the great ones!

4 stars out of 5

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Alien (1979) ***

I know this is sacrilege, but I have some problems with the movie “Alien”. I hadn't watched it in years, and I remembered it as an absolute classic. RE-watching it now, though, there are some issues. While the movie still shines for its sets and cinematography, the plot and characters leave something to be desired.

Sigourney Weaver plays Ripley, First Mate on a spaceship that is headed home to earth when it gets sidetracked by an automated radio signal. The crew assume it's a distress signal, but Ripley eventually decodes enough of it to figure out it is some kind of warning. It's too late for a warning, though. One of the crew members who went to investigate has been attacked by some kind of alien creature, which has attached itself to his face. They bring the injured crewman back to the ship, where the alien eventually menaces the entire crew.

Out of respect for the 2 people in the entire Free World who haven't seen the film, I will try not to spoil all the surprises. What surprised ME, watching it now in 2018, is how poorly the film has aged. It isn't even really science-fiction. “Alien” is straight up horror, with the typical jump-scares and asinine, wandering-off-alone behavior on the part of the characters that typifies the worst of the genre.

Characters in “Alien” don't do things because they make sense in the context of the story; they do them because the plot demands it. Thus, Ash (Ian Holm), the science officer, lets the landing party, including the guy with the alien on his face, back into the ship without any kind of quarantine or protective measures. They repeatedly enter the infirmary to examine him with no masks or gloves. When the alien falls off his face and he seems to be alright, they don't keep him in the infirmary for observation; they invite him to a meal in the chow hall. This sets up an iconic scene, but it makes no sense. Later, when the suddenly-massive creature is hunting the crew, they repeatedly do the stupidest things possible, the space equivalent of “going down into the basement.”

To be fair, “Alien” is still fun to watch, and scary as hell. It just doesn't qualify as a classic when I compare it to films that came before, like 1975's “Jaws”, or what came after, like 1982's "The Thing". The movie does get credit for introducing a fascinating, new monster and a new hero (Ripley), setting up what I consider to be a superior movie, 1986's “Aliens.”

3 stars out of 5

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Logan (2017) ****

I had read that the Wolverine spinoff movies from the X-Men universe, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” and “The Wolverine” weren't very good, so I haven't seen them. Then “Logan” came along and started getting great reviews. I was pleased at the excuse to watch it, because, really, who doesn't like Wolverine? Turns out the reviews were right. “Logan” is excellent. It's also the most atypical comic book movie I've ever seen.

The story picks up in 2029, a near-future in which mutations have stopped happening, and almost all of the existing mutants have died off. Wolverine, aka Logan (Hugh Jackman), is a physical and mental wreck, arthritic and alcoholic. He survives as a limo driver, and secretly has an aged, demented Professor Xavier hidden away down in Mexico. Logan and an albino, photophobic mutant named Caliban care for Xavier, whose condition is even more heartbreaking than Logan's. Xavier often fails to recognize Logan and is wracked by epileptic seizures during which his psychic powers radiate out uncontrollably. We eventually learn that the first of these seizures killed several civilians and most of the remaining mutants in New York, which is why Logan keeps the Professor out in the middle of nowhere.

It has been years since any mutants were born, or so everyone thinks. Xavier, as befuddled as he is, has made telepathic contact with a child mutant who has a lot in common with Logan. Reluctantly, Logan is drawn into an effort to help this little girl and get her somewhere safe.

“Logan” is the grittiest, saddest, and most real comic-book movie I have ever seen. Logan, the aging warrior, no longer seems the least bit invincible. Based on his fast-healing genetics, Logan seemed potentially immortal, but we see that that is not the case. It took him longer to age, but age he did, and now he faces the fight of his life, with a body that he doesn't recognize. Xavier, of course, is in even worse shape, which puts the remarkable Logan in a very unremarkable position: dealing with his own loss of health while caring for a decrepit parental figure. This is sober stuff for a comic-book movie. It takes the concept of depicting superheroes as real people to a whole new level.

The fight scenes are better, too. Most superhero fights look like carefully choreographed martial-arts katas, and with the outcome never in doubt, the spectacle just becomes numbing. Wolverine is still a badass, but when he fights in “Logan”, it looks real and it looks like he could lose.

“Logan” isn't perfect. The plot is fairly thin, and the story only obliquely explains how the characters wound up in this disorienting, mutant-free world. Still, it's a step or two above the usual comic-book film, and in its depiction of a broken-down warrior, it reminds me of John Wayne's epic final film, "The Shootist".

In depicting a post-X-men future, the film begs the question of whether any of that superhero stuff was worth it, a similar theme to that of 2009's "Watchmen". While the film doesn't tackle this head-on, there is some deep, existentialist food for thought here. The X-men formed, they fought evil, and now they are gone and evil still exists. Perhaps Wolverine, who starts the film wondering what the point is, comes to learn that victory lies not in defeating evil, but in fighting it.

4 stars out of 5

Sunday, February 11, 2018

The Big Sick (2017) ****

Kumail Nanjiani is best known for his work on the HBO comedy “Silicon Valley.” He and his wife, writer Emily V. Gordon have created this movie about how they got together, and it's surprisingly good. There is some fictionalization of the story, so I'll describe it as the movie presents it.

Kumail meets Emily at one of his stand-up comedy shows. They hook up and become a couple, but eventually break up when Emily learns that Kumail has been hiding her from his parents, who want him to marry a Pakistani girl. Soon afterwards, Emily becomes ill, and Kumail winds up keeping vigil with his ex-girlfriend’s parents for days on end while she is in a medically-induced coma.

Sounds like a blast, right? Well, believe it or not, it is! Despite the seemingly dark subject, “The Big Sick” is hilarious and fun to watch. It helps that you know that the real Emily survived to become Kumail's wife and co-writer. It also helps that the film has a crackin' cast, including Zoe Kazan as Emily, and Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as her parents. Hunter and Romano especially light up the screen. We get treated to some of Kumail's standup work, but the funniest line in the movie is a joke about 9/11.

Despite featuring stars like Romano and Hunter, “The Big Sick” has an amateur feel to it, which actually works for the film. The movie somehow manages your expectations and then exceeds them, which I attribute to the charm of Nanjiani and Kazan. It's the perfect date movie, and one of the best films of 2017.

4 stars out of 5

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Death Race (2008) ***1/2

Sometimes I like to work out by riding a spin bike while watching a movie. For those occasions, the film doesn't really need much in the way of plot or character development: just enough to be tolerable. The important things are fast action and upbeat music. “Death Race” is a perfect work-out movie!

Jason Statham plays Jensen, a factory worker who gets framed for murder. The private, maximum-security prison he is sent to makes money by pitting the inmates against each other in deadly car-races. Driving souped-up, armored vehicles fitted with machine-guns, smoke, oil slicks – basically all the weapons from the old Spy Hunter video game – the inmates race for the chance to win their freedom, and the audience laps it up. Jensen, a former race-car driver, is offered a chance to race, which gets him thinking about what a coincidence it is that an ex-racer would get framed for murder. With help from his pit crew (including Ian McShane, from “American Gods”), Jensen wins a series of races, while figuring out how to get revenge on those who framed him.

As basic as the plot is, “Death Race” actually manages to slip in a few surprises. The cast is also reasonably good. Statham does his normal, Jason Statham, thing. Ian McShane is actually kind of awesome. Joan Allen is a bit too mustache-twirly as the evil warden, but Natalie Martinez is fairly charming as the standard-issue, vaguely-latina hottie-in-a-crop-top. You don't watch “Death Race” for the performances, though, nor for the plot twists. You watch it for high-speed car crashes and gatlin guns, basically racing and death, and the movie delivers both in spades.

If you start googling “Death Race,” you'll find that there are a bunch of these movies. The original 1975 film, “Death Race 2000” is a cult classic. 2008's “Death Race” revived the concept, and there have been a few sequels since.

3.5 stars out of 5

Sunday, January 07, 2018

The Fast and the Furious (2001) ***1/2

On one level, asking whether “The Fast and the Furious” is good is like debating the flavor profile of a malt liquor. It misses the point. This film is about fast-car action, which it delivers in spades.

Paul Walker (who is only famous for making these Fast and Furious movies) plays Brian, an undercover cop trying to infiltrate L.A.'s underground, street-racing scene. His purpose is to figure out who is carrying out high-speed, precision-driving hijackings of 18-wheelers. Brian falls in with Dom and his team of racers and mechanics. He also falls for Dom's sister, Mia (Jordana Brewster). As Brian learns who is doing what in this shady world, he is forced to choose between his law enforcement career and his new family.

While it's fair to call “The Fast and the Furious” a classic of the action genre, I don't want to praise it too highly. This should not be considered a good movie. Vin Diesel is magnetic, but isn't much on dramatic range, and the rest of the cast is worse than he is. With his surfer looks and wooden acting, Paul Walker reminds me a lot of Hayden Christensen, who stunk up theaters in Star Wars: Episodes II and III. Even setting aside the bad acting, the plot barely holds together.

You gotta just put all that aside and enjoy the ride, because when it comes to action, “The Fast and the Furious” is as good a fast-car movie as I've seen. I haven't seen the sequels, but I've read that they devolved into a lot of ridiculous stunts like cars jumping over helicopters. This first film doesn't have anything like that; it's just good, basic, fast driving that will keep you on the edge of your seat.

Now, before I praise the film too much, I want to point out that there are plenty of action-packed films out there that don't suffer the liabilities of terrible acting and meaningless plotlines. Think “Die Hard,” “Aliens,” or most of the James Bond films. If it's driving action you are looking for, 2011's "Drive" is a better film, as are the Mad Max movies, especially 2015's "Mad Max: Fury Road".  Like good, craft beers, these films offer complexity and satisfying flavor. “The Fast and the Furious” is the 40 ounces of malt liquor that gets you drunk at a good price. Sometimes that's exactly what you are looking for.

3.5 stars out of 5

Saturday, January 06, 2018

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) ****

It isn't often that I like a sequel better than the original movie, but this is one case where I did. I found the original "Guardians of the Galaxy" film to be funny and action-packed, but weighed down by treacle in the third act. The sequel manages to replace most of that sentimentality with genuine emotion, allowing for some believable character development, while retaining all the action and humor.

Starlord (Chris Pratt), Gamorra (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (the raccoon, voiced by Bradley Cooper), and a tiny, adorable Groot (with his “I am groot”s still voiced by Vin Diesel) are still together, not so much guarding the galaxy as doing mercenary work. In the opening sequence, they battle a giant, multidimensional, Lovecraftian octopus monster, while Groot dances to Electric Light Orchestra's “Mr. Blue Sky.” (This frenetic, goofily-funny scene perfectly sets the tone for the movie, and you can reliably decide whether or not to keep watching based on your response to it.) The Guardian's payment for defeating the Cthulhu-beast for the genetically-engineered Sovereign is Gamorra's blue sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan), with whom she had the epic swordfight in the first film. It looks like a fair exchange until Rocket sweetens the deal by stealing a few of the Sovereign's priceless batteries, a theft that Rocket considers hilarious, but which quickly puts the vengeful Sovereign hot on the Guardian's trail.

The Guardians seem doomed until they are saved by a god named Ego (Kurt Russell), who just happens to be, get ready for it---Starlord's father. Ego has his own planet, not to mention a great head of hair, and it's a lovely family reunion at first. As Starlord gets to know his dad, though, he discovers that the old man has some very unsavory plans for the galaxy.

For me, “Vol. 2” is the movie that the original “Guardians” was trying to be. In the first film, the writers couldn't seem to cook up a believable motivation for all these renegades to team up, so they filled the void with some sappy crap about “friendship.” This time around, writer/director James Gunn seems to have figured out how to do character development without nearly as much groan-inducing syrup. The characters deliver action, laughs, and occasionally some genuine emotion, and the story makes just enough sense to keep you tuned in.

4 stars out of 5

Saturday, December 16, 2017

The Only Living Boy in New York (2017) **1/2

Callum Turner plays Thomas, a young man adrift in New York City, on hiatus from college and stuck in the friend zone with his crush Mimi (Kiersey Clemons). Thomas bounces from art gallery to bookstore to his parent's artsy dinner parties, wasting his intellect dropping aphorisms like, “The most vibrant neighborhood in New York is Philadelphia.” Thomas is sick of being clever and sick of himself, when a fresh wind blows into his life in the form of new neighbor W.F. (Jeff Bridges). W.F. counsels Thomas that to get Mimi,he needs to let life happen, and soon enough, it does.

Thomas discovers that his dad (Pierce Brosnan) is having an affair. Thomas stalks the mistress, Johanna (Kate Beckinsale), and winds up having an affair of his own with her. In its own time, this situation blows up, leading Thomas to discover some deep family secrets and to find his own inspiration.

Will you enjoy “The Only Living Boy in New York”? Well, despite the Simon & Garfunkel song, it's no "The Graduate". It's a serviceable enough coming-of-age tale, but rather forgettable. The excellent cast mostly cover for the limited storytelling and general lack of very much happening. Keep in mind that this is a talky movie about a bunch of New York intellectuals. If you like that sort of thing, and don't feel like re-watching something by Woody Allen or Whit Stillman, then you won't hate yourself for watching this.

Available on Amazon Prime.

2.5 stars out of 5