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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 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.

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.

Speed (1994)


“Pop quiz, hotshot. There’s a bomb on a bus. If the bus goes above fifty miles per hour, the bomb is armed. If it goes below fifty, it blows up. What do you do? What do you do?”

There are relatively few movies out there where the entire premise can be explained in a single line of dialogue. Fortunately, this one sticks to the basics. Bomb. Bus. Nameless potential victims. Mad bomber. Love interest. Heroic cop. Shit blowing up. All that’s left is for you to sit back and enjoy the ride.

Speed is an action thriller film directed by Jan de Bont and written by Graham Yost and Joss Whedon (Yes, that Joss Whedon). It stars Keanu Reeves, Dennis Hopper, Sanda Bullock, Jeff Daniels, and a Santa Monica city bus.

Howard Payne is not a happy man. So show how unhappy he is, he traps a bunch of people in an elevator rigged with explosives, threatening to send who whole mess plummeting to a rather abrupt doom if his demands are not met. He is thwarted by SWAT officers Jack Traven and Harry Temple, who rescue the hostages, but Howard appears to get blown up by yet another bomb. Oh well. Jack and Harry are commended for their bravery, and all seems well, until the following day when a city bus driven by a friend of Jack’s goes boom. Jack receives a call at a nearby pay phone, and learns two things in rapid succession: Howard Payne is (surprise!) still alive, and he has rigged a second bus to explode. Once the bus goes above fifty miles per hour, the bomb is armed, but once it drops below that… well, you get the idea. Since this second bus is an express bus, stopping it before the bomb is armed proves futile, leaving Jack with no alternative but to board the bus at cruising speed in order to ensure the safety of its passengers and try to figure out how to get everyone safe. Now, he and his fellow police officers must think fast during the only fixed scrolling level in cinematic history to keep a city bus from going boom.

This is not a complicated movie, as summarized by Payne. As one of the crew for Die Hard, naturally de Bont would bem well-suited for this “Die Hard on a Bus” scenario, and as far as that goes he does not disappoint. Speed doesn’t try to pretend to be anything but an extended car fu story, and in this respect it does well. The plot is exciting, the villain is Evil with a Reason (which you find out as the cops dip into Payne’s backstory), and the idea of being trapped on a city bus rigged to explode is a commuter’s nightmare.

That said, the acting is… about what you’d expect in a movie like this. Keanu Reeves had made other movies between Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey and this one, but I think this is the first one where he managed to really shake off the spirit of Ted Logan and start to mature as a serious actor. Dennis Hopper is wonderfully hammy as mad bomber Howard Payne, and Sandra Bullock is charming as the frazzled brunette role she would go on to play in later movies. Among the supporting cast, the other police officers were surprisingly competant given the usual trend in the action genre, but amongst the imperiled passengers the only real standout is Alan Ruck’s character Stephens, notable for his diplomatic translation over a radio of Jack’s reaction to finding a second explosive device on the bus.

So, if you’re looking for a decent action movie with a deceptively simple plot, you could do worse than Speed. It’s not complex, but it is engaging in a Snakes on a Plane sort of way, and it would be worth a rental one evening if you had nothing else to do.

Saw III (2006)


According to the Scream series, horror movie installments follow certain conventions. The third movie, for example, tends to be bigger, more shocking, and more over the top than its predecessors, winding up to a climax that will leave you gasping for breath. Saw III is no exception, as torture masterminds Wan and Whannell wanted to wind up the series and end it with a bang. (It didn’t work, incidentally, but the thought was there.)

Saw III is the third movie in the Saw series, directed by Darren Lynn Bousman and written by James Wan and Leigh Wannell. It stars Tobin Bell, Shawnee Smith, Angus MacFayden, Bahar Soomekh, and Donnie Wahlberg.

Three interweaving storylines unfold during the course of this movie. In one, the police investigate the latest string of Jigsaw-style traps, discovering that these have been rigged in various ways to be inescapable. In another, Jeff Denlon, eaten up by grief over the death of his son, who was hit and killed by a drunk driver, is kidnapped by Jigsaw and forced to perform a series of tests to face his feelings of vengeance against those he sees as responsible for the driver escaping justice with a slap on the wrist. In a third, Dr. Lynn Denlon has also been kidnapped by Jigsaw – actually, his apprentice Amanda. Denlon’s task is to keep Jigsaw, now bedridden from advanced brain cancer, alive until Jeff completes his gauntlet of tests. If Jigsaw dies before then, a trapped collar around her neck will fire shotgun shells into her head, effectively erasing same. However, Amanda has become increasingly unstable since becoming Jiggy’s apprentice, believing that people cannot be redeemed and thus setting up in escapable traps. As Jeff is forced to confront his own demons and Jigsaw’s condition deteriorates, the question of who will survive this twisted game becomes less and less clear with every passing minute…

When I went to see this movie in the theaters, I already know what sort of movie I was getting into. You can imagine my surprise when, while I was waiting for the movie to start, I saw two theoretically responsible adults enter the theater with an eleven-year-old girl. WTF? Thinking that maybe they’d wandered into the wrong theater, I warned them that this movie wasn’t really for kids, but they said they were fine. Okay, I think, your therapy bill. And I was right – this movie is brutal. I’ve seen my share of gory slashers and other horror movies before, but Saw III went for the guts in a way few horror movies have before. Not only are the traps gut-wrenching and physically traumatic, but the story that unfolds with Jeff’s journey makes the audience understand him and sympathize with him, even if they don’t agree with him. He is forced to choose between his vengeful grief, which he has been holding onto for so long that he’s forgotten how to live otherwise, and forgiving those he believes has wronged them. The choices that each room gives him kick him repeatedly in the nuts – he wants vengeance at all costs, but you get the idea that he’s a good man underneath, warts and all. Lynn’s subplot is also hard to watch – kidnapped by a pair of psychopaths, forced to keep one alive even as he’s dying from cancer, while the other one seems to be growing more unstable by the minute. And the climax where everything crashes together in a giant pileup to rival the opening sequence of Final Destination 2, based on the fateful decisions of two of the players in this game, nearly had me on my feet screaming at the screen.

Of course, it wouldn’t be Saw without the deathtraps, and they are accordingly efficient and diabolical. The simplest one would have to be the Meat Locker, in which a witness to the hit and run is chained up naked in a giant freezer and periodically sprayed with water, while the most nauseating is the one where the judge is locked to the floor of a collection vat, slowly filling as rotting pig carcasses are liquefied and the soup poured in. This is obviously not a movie for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. The torture happens to so many levels – physical, psychological, and emotional, and would have made an effective ending for the series had the studio execs not decided keep the franchise going for the sake of profits.

Saw III is a brutal film that will leave you feeling queasy and wrung out, and emotional roller-coaster that goes for the guts in ways few modern horror movies have. If you think you can handle it, though, check it out, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

16 Blocks (2006)


Bruce Willis has long been the quintessential “cop” actor. From his role as John McLane in Die Hard, he has played a number of cops, police officials, and detectives over his long career, with great effectiveness. His more recent cop roles seem to be tending towards a little-explored facet of the cop role in recent movies: the tired cop. And in 16 Blocks, one tired cop has one simple mission. And it’s an escort mission. FUUUUUUUUUUUUUU~

16 Blocks is an action thriller film directed by Richard Donner and written by Richard Wenk. It stars Bruce Willis, Mos Def, and David Morse, and is shot in the “real time” narrative format.

Jack Moseley is a tired, burned-out, and rather hung over NYPD detective. After pulling an all-nighter, Jack is about to go home and crash for the day when his lieutenant gives him one last assignment. Jack doesn’t want the job; he just wants to get some rest – but his lieutenant has no one else on hand to take the job, so Jack is it. It sounds like a simple assignment: escort one guy sixteen blocks from jail to the courthouse to testify as a witness for the prosecution. He has to get there by 10. Simple, right? Well, if you discount the fact that a lot of people are going to try to kill this particular witness, and many of them are fellow cops, then yeah, it’s a simple mission… until it isn’t.

I wasn’t sure about this one when I got it from Netflix. The premise was so simple, it sounded like it was going to be sixteen blocks of shootouts, car chases, and flashy stunts. To my surprise, 16 Blocks is as much a character study as an action thriller. Rather than squeezing the aging Bruce Willis into a generic Cop mold (which he seldom fits, even when he creates the mold in question), they give him a past, a family, flaws, weaknesses, and regrets. He’s an alcoholic. He did some bad things in the past. And yet, he is still a noble character despite (or because of) all this. Likewise, Mos Def as Eddie Bunker is not a generic wisecracking con. Even though at the beginning he seems to be mainly channeling the Cat from Red Dwarf as he prattles on and on into Jack’s ear, he too has plans, hopes, and regrets, saving him from being nothing more than That Annoying Black Guy Bruce Has To Babysit. He, too, is a noble character, though he is rightfully afraid for his life for most of the movie, as he reveals his altruistic plans for the future. However, because so much of the story focuses on these two, David Morse’s role as antagonist Detective Frank Nugent is left a bit short. As the story unfolds we do learn the whys and wherefores of his character, but mostly he seems a bit generic, the figurehead and point of contact with what turns out to be a desperate conspiracy of silence.

Fortunately, the extensive character development combines well with the basic plot, turning what would otherwise have been a tired, generic story into something interesting. You learn to care about Jack and Eddie and their respective goals, rather than just sitting back and watching the chaos ensue. The action is subdued, just a relative handful of firefights and a fair number of foot-chase sequences as Jack focuses more on avoiding their pursuers (who could and would happily kill his charge) than confronting them with guns blazing (which could go all kinds of wrong for him). It is a tense game of cat and mouse that takes a step back into Die Hard territory – limited ammo, limited timeframe, limited resources. Their pursuers are tenacious and resourceful, keeping them on their toes and preventing them even the luxury of any real breathing room. Jack and Eddie must get away every time, while their foes only have to get to Eddie once and it’s all over.

While more subdued and less flashy than many contemporary action movies, 16 Blocks was still decently engaging. With three-dimensional characters and a decent setup, this movie would be worth a rental some night when you aren’t in the mood for car fu, gun fu, bomb fu, or over-the-top action-star pyrotechnics.