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Green Lantern (2011)

06/27/2011 4 comments

In brightest day, in blackest night
No evil shall escape my sight.
Let all who worship evil’s might
Beware my power, Green Lantern’s Light!

Green Lantern is a superhero movie directed by Martin Campbell, based on the DC Comics character of the same name created by John Broome and Gil Kane. It stars Ryan Reynolds, Blake Lively, Mark Strong, Angela Bassett, and Tim Robbins.

Millions of years before Earth was even a twinkle in the universe’s eye, a group of benevolent, immortal beings called the Guardians figured out how to harness the green essence of willpower. Placing this power into magic rings, they formed an intergalactic police force called the Green Lantern Corps, whose job was to patrol the universe and battle evil. One member of the Corps, Abin-Sur, defeated a fear-entity called Parallax and locked him away in a lifeless planet in the Lost Sector. An ungodly amount of time later, Parallax breaks free and attacks Abin-Sur’s sector, mortally wounding the Green Lantern and forcing him to run like hell perform a strategic withdrawal in order to warn the others. His ship crash-lands on an insignificant blue planet called Earth, and as he lays dying he commands his ring to find a successor. What it finds (and forcibly abducts) is Hal Jordan, a hotshot test pilot for Ferris Aircraft. Hal isn’t sure about the whole superhero thing, but decides that this magic ring is really awesome, and being a member of the Space Police sounds really cool. Unfortunately, humans are a relatively primitive race in the galaxy, and the rest of the Corps isn’t so sure about this loud pink monkey wielding a Green Lantern ring. Fortunately, Hal will soon have the perfect opportunity to prove himself to the others, because Parallax is headed directly for Earth.

Oh, crap.

I was not very familiar with the Green Lantern mythos before watching this movie. All I knew, really, was that the Green Lantern was some sort of space cop with a magic ring, who was vulnerable to the color yellow. Which in my opinion is a damn stupid weakness to have. Fortunately the infodump at the beginning of this movie gets Green Lantern newbies quickly up to speed, introducing them to the mythos of the Corps, who the hell Parallax is, and why we should be rooting for this hotshot fighter pilot with more balls than sense. The vulnerability to yellow has been updated to a vulnerability to the essence of fear, which opposes the essence of willpower wielded by the GLC. This makes a lot more sense, because if you have something that manifests your own willpower into reality, the only real limitation is your imagination and self-doubt. (Incidentally, in an earlier iteration of the Green Lantern, the vulnerability was wood, which somehow manages to be even dumber than a vulnerability to yellow). To give Hal a bit of background, a flashback sequence shows that his dad was also a fighter pilot who died in a plane crash, and Hal has been following in his contrail ever since, striving for Dad’s level of fearlessness, and to offer a mortal face to the Parallax threat, a lab rat charged with dissecting the body of Abin-Sur is infected with a bit of Parallax juice and turned into a psychic insane Elephant Man who wants the sort of powers Hal’s ring gives him.

Overall, the special effects used to bring the Green Lantern’s mythology to life were exceptionally well-done, from the advanced alien world of Oa that serves at the collective headquarters of the GLC, to the nearly photorealistic alien beings that dominate the corps (of whom I believe only Sinistro was an actual dude in makeup – maybe), to the portrayal of the will-made-material powers of the ring, best demonstrated in a great sequence where Hal saves the passengers of a crashing helicopter by turning the helicopter into a racecar and summoning a giant green Hot Wheels racetrack to guide it away from innocents at a party. Hal’s Green Lantern armor was also well-done, offering a new take on the hero-dipped-in-rubber look that had crashed and burned with Joel Schumacher’s attempt at a couple of Batman movies, by adding Tron lines to make it clear that the suit is composed of Hal’s will. Best excuse for no zippers ever, and Reynolds was in good enough shape to pull it off. My only complaint was Parallax himself, a force of ultimate fear and corruption that regrettably resembled a demonic octopus made of feces.

If you like superhero movies, and your interests lie slightly outside the core group of A-listers that have been so popular of late, watch Green Lantern. It captures the spirit of the mythos without spiralling off into absurdity, and it offers an action-packed origin story that’s perfect for a summer blockbuster.

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

06/23/2011 2 comments

Stephen King is well-known for spinning tales of terror ranging from the supernatural to the mundane, using his considerable storytelling skills to inject fear into such things as a vintage car, a hotel room, and high school awkwardness. What many people don’t know is that happens when he steps outside the realm of horror and offers up an inspirational tale of maintaining hope in a situation that seems utterly hopeless, and in keeping a strong spirit in a setting that seems determined to tear you down. The result is this.

The Shawshank Redemption is a drama film written and directed by Frank Darabont, based on the Stephen King novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. It stars Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, Bob Gunton, and Clancy Brown.

It is 1947. A mild-mannered banker named Andy Dufresne has just been convicted of the murder of his wife and her lover, despite his protestations of innocence, and sentenced to two life terms in the infamous Shawshank Prison. While there, he meets and befriends one Ellis Redding (known to his friends as Red), who is well-known in the prison for being able to get things for the inmates, and makes two simple requests: a rock hammer, in order to start and maintain a rock collection while in prison, and a poster of Rita Hayworth, one of the sex symbols of the day. Red takes an interest in Andy over the years as inmates come and go (including a lifer who couldn’t handle the outside world after serving 50 years in prison), watching as every part of Shawshank tries to break his will to go on, from the corrupt warden to the predatory band of rapists known as the Sisters. However, Red is about to learn an important lesson from the quiet banker: Prison is more than the walls that contain you. Prison is a state of mind – and if you don’t let prison get into your mind, you are capable of some amazing things.

I was honestly surprised when I found out this was Stephen King’s work. I’d seen and read a lot of his usual fare (my first taste of him was Carrie), and while there are some terrifying moments like Andy becoming the target of the Sisters, most of the tale is character-driven. Having Red as the point-of-view character allows the audience to observe Andy from a point one step removed from the man, even as we cheer on his efforts to overcome the institution’s restrictions. The main circle of convicts that the narrative follows over 20 years are mostly sympathetic despite their crimes, and as they start to look to Andy as a beacon of hope, we look to him as well: his unbreakable spirit offers us guidance for the times when circumstances seem hopeless. In other words, The Shawshank Redemption is spiritually the complete opposite of The Butterfly Effect. Both movies offer a protagonist who is repeatedly beaten down, but only one ultimately overcomes.

Of course, because it’s stupid to hate an institution, even one as intrinsically oppressive as a prison, the movie offers two groups of antagonists on whom we can focus our hate: The corrupt warden, whose every effort seems angled towards breaking the collective spirit of the inmates (and Andy in particular), and the Sisters, a gang of prison rapists who naturally target the fresh-faced Andy when he first arrives. Of course, this isn’t to say that the two antagonist groups are necessarily working to parallel purposes, as once Andy starts to become useful to the Warden, the Sisters’ reign of terror is brought to a swift – and brutal – end. Both the Warden and the Sisters feel like an intrinsic part of Shawshank, like natural predators in the prison environment, and they are the worst kind of douchebag that can be found in any environment. Specifically, they do what they do because they know they can get away with it, making their respective comeuppances that much more satisfying.

This movie will be an unexpected surprise for those familiar with Stephen King horror: a deep, inspiring story about one man’s unbreakable spirit in a setting designed to trap both body and soul within inescapable walls. Absolutely watch this movie.

Vantage Point (2008)

06/08/2011 1 comment

Eight strangers.
Eight points of view.
One truth.

Vantage Point is a political thriller action film directed by Pete Travis, adapted from a screenplay written by Barry Levy. It stars Dennis Quaid, Matthew Fox, Forest Whitaker, Sigourney Weaver, and William Hurt.

A lot can happen in 23 minutes. Today, President Henry Ashton will be attending a political summit in Salambanca, Spain, to promote an international antiterrorism treaty. The summit is being attended by thousands of spectators and covered by the news crew of GNN, who are all eager to see and hear and record what Ashton has to say. However, as Ashton is about to speak, the summit suddenly explodes in a series of terrifying events as Ashton is shot by an unknown gunman, followed by a series of bombs being detonated, including one that takes out much of the staging area for the summit, leaving hundreds injured and dead. After this shocking event, the movie takes you back through the past 23 minutes several times, each from the point of view of eight different strangers, and each time the viewer learns more of the story and finds more pieces to the puzzle, until the full extent of the conspiracy is revealed at last.

I generally enjoy unconventional storytelling methods. The Rashomon style has long fascinated me, and in this case, rather than each witness providing a subjective interpretation of the events, each witness simply sees different parts of the overall story. Going over and over the same span of 23 minutes might seem like it would get repetitive after the first three iterations, but I found this treatment of the multiple-witnesses convention remained engaging throughout as the plot unfolds, with each 23-minute span offering different viewpoints of the same events. What seems like a simple setup turns into a complex series of interweaving events that ultimately spiral towards the climax in unpredictable ways.

In the course of exploring these different perspectives, we also learn a lot about the witnesses themselves: Rex Brooks, whose job is to offer as complete a picture as she can to the television public while keeping things interesting; Thomas Barnes, a burned-out secret service agent who once saved the President from a gunman and whose primary goal is still to defend him from any threat, even as he doubts his ability to do so; Enrique, who is assigned to guard the mayor of Salambanca and finds himself swept up in the terrorist attack; President Ashton himself, who must weigh his own safety against that of the country he leads; Howard Lewis, a tourist just out to videotape the rally but forced to become a hero under unlikely circumstances; and a little girl named Anna, who is attending the political summit with her mother and finds herself an unwitting witness to several key events, only to get separated from her mother as the terror unfolds. While each witness does offer his or her own spin to the events, you also come to care what happens to them as their respective stories interweave with the overall plot, offering several worm’s-eye views of this chain reaction that will ultimately have long-reaching consequences for all of them.

While some may tire of the repeated views of the same span of 23 minutes from different angles, I found the exploration of the central event to be fascinating, and would recommend political thriller fans at least rent Vantage Point. It’s amazing how much things can change just by altering your perspective.

The Dark Knight (2008)

06/03/2011 2 comments

In 2005, after the sheer goofiness of Joel Schumacher’s tenure in Batman movies, a little-known director named Christopher Nolan decided to retool to Batverse through a more real-world lens. His contribution was called Batman Begins, and it happily left its recent predecessors in the dust. In 2008, he directed a sequel to this retool, featuring his own take on one of the best-known and most frightening Bat-villains ever: the Joker. How did he do? Let’s find out.

The Dark Knight is a superhero drama directed by Christopher Nolan, based on the DC Comics character Batman created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger. It stars Christian Bale, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Heath Ledger, Gary Oldman, Aaron Eckart, and Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Gotham’s criminal underworld is currently facing pressure from two fronts: on the one side, a bank that the mob uses for laundering money has just been robbed by a band of hood led by a mysterious figure called the Joker. On the other side, Batman and Lieutenant James Gordon have just recruited idealistic district attorney Harvey Dent to dismantle the mob through legal channels. When their accountant, Lau, reveals that he has hidden their money and fled to Hong Kong to pre-empt the D.A.’s plan, the Joker crashes the meeting, offering to kill Batman for the simple fee of half their funds. Nothing happening, they say. Kill the Joker, they say. Whatever, the Joker says. A little tip to all future mob bosses: if a complete psycho offers to show you a magic trick, SAY NO. It might not help, but at least you tried. Needless to say, nobody is likely to argue with a man that just jammed a pencil into their boss’s eye socket. However, the Joker’s motives, insofar as he has any, seem to be unrelated to money or power, and rather based on the theory that anyone can be corrupted, even the legendary Dark Knight himself. When he sets his sights on white knight Harvey Dent as an object lesson in this, things take a horrifying turn that has Batman questioning his own role in keeping the city safe…

Let me start out my saying that prettyboy Heath Ledger has managed to pull off the impossible: he can be scarier than Jack Nicholson. His portrayal of the Joker in this film was no sadistic clown with a circus shtick, no merry giggler with a fondness for deadly laughing gas and explosives. He as completely frapping out of his mind. He was chaos – a spanner in everyone’s works, determined to make everyone as psychotic as him, convinced that all it takes is one sufficiently bad day to make someone snap. He laughs because life and death and our insipid little rules of human interaction mean nothing to him. The Joker is the iconic villain of the Bat-mythos. He’s meant to be scary. He’s one of the reasons clowns are scary. He’s the villain we love to hate, but can’t kill because he’s just too damn awesome. Ledger absolutely nailed it – which kind of sucks in a way, in light of the actor’s death, because there is little hope that anyone could replace him as the Joker in the Nolanverse.

In a mild contrast to the Joker, Eckhart’s portrayal as the tragic, fallen paladin Harvey Dent/Two-Face works not on chaos but on law – but law can be just as unforgiving as chaos. The Two-Face effects were well-done – not cartoony and extreme like the Batman & Robin portrayal, but realistically disturbing, looking like he actually had his face dipped in flammable chemicals and set alight. (Incidentally, the effects guys were going to have the burns look more subdued and more realistic, but test audiences were literally getting sick in the theaters, so they said, “Screw it – dial up the burns all the way!”) It is easy to draw parallels between Dent’s fall and the tightrope that Batman walks every day: “Look at how hard he snapped; if I’m not careful that could be me.” While Dent walked in the sunlight, Bats walks in darkness, meaning that his tipping point is potentially both thinner and murkier – how far does he need to go to keep Gotham safe? How far is he willing to go to keep Gotham safe? How far can he go before Batman himself becomes a danger? Nolan’s multilayered portrayal of good and evil (and all the shades of gray in between) gives the Bat franchise a depth and complexity that hasn’t been seen in a while; you can’t always tell who the good guys and bad guys are. Under the right circumstances, they can be the same person.

If you enjoyed the gritty “real-world” vibe that Nolan has imparter to the Batverse, and you like your heroes flawed and your villains terrifyingly plausible, check out The Dark Knight. It deserves a place in any Batman fan’s movie collection.

The Usual Suspects (1995)


“The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

In a world of shadowy morality, something has gone very wrong in a heist on San Pedro Bay. Of all the questions raised, the one the cops most want answered is: “Who is Keyser Soze?”

The Usual Suspects is a neo-noir thriller directed by Bryan Singer. It stars Stephen Baldwin, Benicio Del Toro, Gabriel Byrne, Kevin Spacey, and Kevin Pollak.

Something has gone very wrong in San Pedro Bay, leaving a cargo ship ablaze and only two known survivors. FBI Agent Jack Baer and U. S. Customs special agent Dave Kujan arrive to investigate, and one of the survivors, a hospitalized Hungarian criminal, mentions that someone named Keyser Soze, whose reputation paints him as a legendary boogeyman, was in the harbor killing people. He saw him, though, and can describe him. Meanwhile the other survivor, a palsied con man named Verbal Kint, has his own story to tell, in exchange for near-total immunity. He paints a convoluted series of events leading to the explosion in the harbor, including how his crew was assembled to perpetuate a robbery targeting corrupt LAPD officers, and how they were subsequently hired for another job by the mysterious Mr. Kobayashi, on the behalf of the even more mysterious Keyser Soze. Things start going wrong, as things tend to do in these stories, but not everything is as it seems in Kint’s story, forcing Kujal to try to parse out facts from fiction in order to get to the bottom of what actually happened in San Pedro Bay.

This is not a movie that you can just turn on and zone out in front of. There are twists and turns, betrayals and double-crosses, and you may find yourself wanting to make a flowchart to keep track of all the players and events, only to have your initial theories trashed by later events. There are ultimately three versions of events: two are presented by Kint, and the third is what actually happened. This complicated Rashomon plays with your head as you are forced to not accept the narrator’s account as absolute fact, but rather try to parse out the story yourself – and then the ending hauls off and kicks you in the nuts with the conclusion that you probably still got it wrong the first time. This gives the movie a lot of rewatchability: you watch it the first time at face value, and then you watch it again knowing a lot of things that only come out during the conclusion, and you pick up even more subtle cues and clues with each successive rewatching.

The cast is fun to watch as well. The core group are scoundrels and scumbags, a loose gang of antiheroes out to screw someone over. The two agents are left scrambling in the wake of the massacre, forced to rely on a known con man for the only available account of things. Of the lot, Verbal Kint is glib and helpful and seems willing to aid the authorities – but how far can he be trusted? Everyone has their own motivations and means for reaching their goals, all working at cross-purposes until you’re not even sure who to root for. I won’t spoil anything for those who have yet to watch it, though, except to say that the ending is a HUGE twist, and those who have seen it shouldn’t forewarn people who haven’t. (I had The Sixth Sense ruined that way. Meh.)

If you like your thrillers twisty, your villains terrifying, and your heroes ambiguous, I highly recommend The Usual Suspects. The Rashomon-style storytelling will leave you guessing until the very end.

The Fugitive (1993)


“All right, listen up, people. Our fugitive has been on the run for ninety minutes. Average foot speed over uneven ground barring injuries is 4 miles-per-hour. That gives us a radius of six miles. What I want from each and every one of you is a hard-target search of every gas station, residence, warehouse, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse and doghouse in that area. Checkpoints go up at fifteen miles. Your fugitive’s name is Dr. Richard Kimble. Go get him.”

The Fugitive is a thriller film directed by Andrew Davis and based on the television series of the same name, one of the few such television-to-film adaptations to be nominated for an Academy Award. It stars Harrison Ford, Tommy Lee Jones, Joe Pantoliano, and Sela Ward.

When Dr. Richard Kimble is a respected, successful surgeon, happily married, and living the high life. He is well-respected by his colleagues, and he appears to be well on his way to a long and lucrative career. So when he is convicted of viciously murdering his wife and sentenced to death, everyone is shocked – least of all Dr. Kimble, who maintains that the attack was carried out by a one-armed man. When the transport bus he’s on crashes, he takes the opportunity to escape in the hopes of uncovering the identity of the true murderer and bringing him to justice. Hot on his tail is U.S. Marshal Sam Gerard, a no-nonsense deputy who is not about to let any prisoners remain unaccounted-for – including Kimble. As Kimble uses his wits and truckloads of chutzpah to evade the Marshals and find out which one-armed man out of hundreds in Chicago could have killed his wife and why, he uncovers a dark conspiracy behind her murder and and his own framing that could put him in even more danger than he already is.

Quick note up-front: I have never seen the television series this movie is based on. Therefore, I will review this movie based on its own merits as a movie. The basic set-up is simple, as outlined above, but after that Kimble’s hunt for his wife-killer and Gerard’s hunt for his escaped fugitive turn into a multilayered game of cat-and-mouse that had me on the edge of my seat the whole way between narrow-escapes, near-misses, and displays of cool-headedness under pressure that would have made Frank Abagnale proud. While some of Kimble’s antics might seem a bit far-fetched at times (like the leap off the aqueduct), he gets a pass through sheer desperation: by the end of it, there are at least four ways he could meet a bad end – therefore, he has nothing to lose in his prusuit of his wife’s murderer. As for Deputy Gerard, at no time does he come off as a real villain, because he has a job to do, which as he sees it is to catch a known murderer. I was rooting for both of them, even though they were essentially two protagonists working at cross-purposes.

I enjoyed the casting choices. Harrison Ford has long established himself as a serious dramatic actor since his days as Indiana Jones and Han Solo, and he fares well as the wrongfully accused Dr. Kimble, demonstrating a surgeon’s talent for thinking on his feet and reacting quickly but calmly to new adverse circumstances. Tommy Lee Jones also does well as his foil, Deputy Sam Gerard, setting himself up as the Reasonable Authority Figure he would play in half a dozen other films later, including Agent K in Men in Black. He is friendly and likeable even as he goes after Our Intrepid Hero with the tenacity of a bulldog. On a minor note, I’ve seen Sela Ward (the late Mrs. Kimble) in a couple other role since this movie – an emergency room doctor in The Day After Tomorrow and ex-Mrs. House in House, and it appears that tangentially medical roles suit her well, even when she plays a character that serves only as a plot point.

Whether you’re a fan of the original TV series of this is the first you’ve heard of it, give The Fugitive a shot. It’s a tense, straightforward chase movie that will have you rooting for both sides as they head for a common goal: justice.

Miss Congeniality (2000)


There are times when an undercover operation requires only the best individual for the role – someone with the training and expertise to not only solve the case but also successfully masquerade as a given role, leaving no hint in the minds of others that they are the real deal. Occasionally this work is glamorous. Frequently it’s not. And sometimes you just have to go with whatever you have at hand. Meet Gracie Hart. She’s so going to kick your ass when she’s done being a beauty queen.

Miss Congeniality is a police comedy film directed by Donald Petrie and starring Sandra Bullock, Benjamin Bratt, Michael Caine, Candance Bergen, and William Shatner.

Gracie Hart is a rough and tumble tomboy who grew up depending on her fists rather than her looks and charm to negotiate diplomatic situations. Currently, she is the FBI’s leading undercover agent, though most of her roles tend towards being that random woman in the corner that nobody pays attention to. However, when a terroriss known only as the Citizen threatens the 75th annual Miss United States Pageant, the FBI needs to send somebody undercover as one of the pageant contestants – and to everyone’s surprise, Gracie appears to be the perfect candidate… except for the minor problems of her being about as feminine as Dolph Lundgren. The task of girlifying her falls to the long-suffering coach Victor Melling, who has to teach her how to look, walk, dress, and act like a beauty contestant in an insanely short period of time, while Gracie is tasked with making friends amongst her fellow contestants and figuring out who might want to blow up a beauty pageant and why. Naturally, hilarity ensues on all sides.

On the surface, this movie is a fun little action comedy starring Sandra Bullock as a frazzled brunette, Benjamin “Law and Order” Bratt as her love interest, Candace Bergen as an arrogant bitch pageant coordinator, and Michael Caine as an ambiguously gay beauty pageant coach. This is the closest thing to a chick flick I own, and the makeover story is a hilarious comedy of errors as Gracie tries like hell to “get it”. (Incidentally, I can relate – that shit is complicated) Then I did some digging and found that the movie actually works on two levels. The title is a snarky commentary on the tomboyish, argumentative, rough-and-tumble protagonist, which most people probably get right away. However, I looked into what the Miss Congeniality award actually meant, and discovered something kind of interesting. Gracie Hart hits every single point during the movie. Miss Congeniality is not expected to be a strong contestant, he is expected to make friends and help out her fellow contestants, paying more attention to others than to herself, and to help other contestants avoid disaster. Nice genius bonus, movie.

Miss Congenality‘s cast works well together, their respective personalities bounding off each other in natural and hilarious ways, mainly in the scenes with Gracie socializing with her fellow contestants and trying to overcome her natural FBI instincts and learn what the hell being a girl is all about. The romantic sideplot with Eric is understated and probably mainly due to Bullock and Bratt dating at the time (IIRC), but her rebelling against Victor’s lessons ultimately allows her to adopt her own take on beauty queen-ness without sacrificing her personality and becoming a Barbie Doll. In all, funny moments interspersed with the terrorist subplot made this an effective action-comedy without sacrificing either the action or the comedy.

If you like tight action-comedies built around personality clashes and potential disasters (both of the blowing up kind and the wardrobe malfunction kind), check out Miss Congeniality. It’s a surprisingly clever little comedy about finding a balance between who you are and who you need to be.