Sunday, July 18, 2010


Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight) is a genius. His name ought to be mentioned alongside some of the better filmmakers of this generation. Inception, his latest offering, only strengthens his already impressive resume. Undoubtedly you've seen the mysterious trailer with the foreboding score and amazing special effects. When I walked out of the theater I had a slight headache and a big smile. Nolan's intricate script tested the limits of my cognitive abilities, but it was a great ride.

To all of my cynics out there: don't be fooled by early superficial similarities to Shutter Island. Yes, it's Leonardo DiCaprio having some psychological problems and being tormented by a past love. Inception is much deeper than that. The movie explores a world where corporate espionage meets Sigmund Freud. Ok that was a cheesy comparison, but the movie delves into the psychological ramifications of tampering with dreams. Dreams are where we find ourselves vulnerable and powerless to our subconscious. We are defenseless while dreaming, yet very susceptible to the power of suggestion. DiCaprio stars as Cobb, ringleader of a team of dream invaders commissioned by a wealthy Japanese businessman named Saito. Cobb and company are adept at extracting secrets from people's dreams. They do this by attaching themselves to a device while sleeping. Saito is impressed with their skills but wants to take it a step further. Rather than extract information; he wants to implant it. This is called inception. A business competitor is on his deathbed, and the man's son stands to inherit his empire. Saito wants the heir apparent to dissolve his father's company after acquiring it. As compensation, he will call in a favor that will allow Cobb to return home to America. He has been exiled after his wife's suicide, which the authorities believe to have been a murder committed at Cobb's hands. Implanting a suggestion is more difficult. Subtlety is key, as the person must believe that the idea is entirely their own. Cillian Murphy (Batman Begins) portrays Fischer, heir to the "throne" of Saito's rival. He and Dad have a tumultuous relationship, and it will be difficult for Cobb to use the power of suggestion. It should be mentioned that when a dream is invaded, the sleeping host's subconscious seeks to protect it by dispatching people kill to the intruder. Of course this is all a dream, so if you die in the dream, you simply wake up. No harm, no foul right? Not exactly. Cobb will have to pull out all the stops if the inception is going to be successful. He will have to use a dream within a dream. Within a dream. Did you catch that? That's right, come even further down the rabbit hole with me; let's stretch our imagination to the farthest recesses of our mind. This is why I left the theater with pulsating temples. I'll run that back for you. Have you ever dreamt that you were dreaming? That's a dream within a dream. Now imagine that you are dreaming that you are dreaming that you are dreaming. That's 3 levels: a dream within a dream, within another dream. Whew!

I really don't want to say another word about the movie for fear of completely spoiling it. The casting choices were just as perfect as the script. DiCaprio hasn't had a misstep since...well, never. Suffice to say that we expect excellence from him, especially when he continues to pair with the most brilliant directors who give him the richest material. I also enjoyed J. Gordon-Levitt's (500 Days of Summer) performance, as his character was the more cautious voice of reason in contrast to Cobb's reckless impulsivity. Remember, Cobb has more to gain from Fischer's inception than anyone else. Rounding out the cast is Ellen Page (Whip It), as "the architect." She is tasked with designing the landscape of the dreamer's world. She's been a delight in every movie I've seen her in, and this was no exception. As Cobb's conscience she tries to protect the rest of the team and help him forgive himself about his dead wife, who invades every dream as a symbol of his subconscious.

Every now and then a can't-miss movie arrives that is so provocative and intriguing that it bears not only repeat viewing, but intense discussion as well. Inception was such a movie, stunning in its visual execution, layered in its complexity, and superbly acted by the players. Have I gushed enough? Inception was Incredible.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Law Abiding Citizen

Revenge is a dish best served cold, but I don’t think Gerard Butler (Gamer, The Ugly Truth) got the memo. You see, he likes to serve it up boiling hot. In Law Abiding Citizen he portrays Clyde Shelton, a man who is victimized twice. First by the brutes who savagely murder his family right before his eyes, and then again by a misguided justice system, represented by an ambivalent district attorney. Jamie Foxx (The Kingdom, The Soloist) plays district attorney Nick Rice, a prosecutor more concerned with his winning percentage than attaining real justice for Shelton.

Shelton watched helplessly as his family fell victim to a gruesome home invasion, and was nearly killed himself. He’s pleased when the district attorney tells him that one of the perpetrators will get the death penalty, but that relief is short-lived. The other perpetrator who delivered the actual death blows will only serve a few years in prison because he cut a deal. Rice informs Shelton that this is better than going to trial, where acquittal is always a possibility. He actually made the deal without even consulting Shelton beforehand. Feeling ignored and helpless, the wheels are set in motion for Shelton to avenge his family’s murder and his own shabby treatment. He bides his time and then brings the pain in a way that is both horrific and creative. Think Joker in The Dark Knight mixed with Jigsaw from the Saw movies. I’ve told you all that and still haven’t told you anything you didn’t gather from the trailer, so don’t worry. The suspense lies not in what Shelton does, but in how he does it. He allows himself to be apprehended and imprisoned, but still manages to wreak havoc on those with the most tangential connection to the atrocity carried out on his family.

Jamie Foxx is serviceable in this role, but I can’t say he was impressive. I don’t think the role required much, and he did show flashes of charisma, but Butler was a more compelling figure. I also don’t view this movie as a Jamie Foxx vehicle, rather it seems more like this was just a movie that he was in, if that makes any sense. He received top billing and has the hardware to back it up, so I want to be riveted by him, and that was not the case. Nevertheless, Law Abiding Citizen is a movie most will enjoy. It taps into the frustration we have with an ineffective criminal justice system and the vigilante that lies within all of us. Make no mistake though, Shelton is no hero. We all can understand avenging the death of a child, and Foxx’s character even commends him privately for his actions, at first. Things go awry when Shelton begins to target those less directly associated with his family’s murder and begins to kill innocent people to bring down the larger bureaucracy. This made for an intriguing anti-hero dynamic, as it’s unclear for whom the viewer should cheer. Shelton avenges his family’s death, but is still committing cold-blooded murder so you can only root for him up to a point. Rice is supposed to be the “good guy” lawman, but he clearly dropped the ball with Shelton’s case, so you can’t exactly cheer for him either. Director F. Gary Gray (The Negotiator, Set it Off) makes a nice return to the silver screen and is an underrated filmmaker. He has proven adept at sustaining suspense throughout a movie without overdoing the cheap tricks like Michael Bay. A well-placed explosion is great, but the primary focus should be on the story, and Gray steadily advanced the plot. All in all, Law Abiding Citizen is worth the $10, and I give it my stamp of approval.

This article first appeared at and was reprinted with permission.

Saturday, September 12, 2009


I saw Extract on the same day I saw Gamer, so that means I was 0 for 2. Extract was the better of the two, but still left a bitter taste in my mouth. Hyped as being brought to us by the creators of Office Space, Extract tricked me with the old bait n’ switch. I thought it would be hilarious, especially when I saw Jason Bateman cough out that huge bong rip in the trailer. The movie had its moments, but overall it didn’t amount to much more than a few chuckles.

The setting is an extract factory owned by Bateman’s character Joel, a regular hard-working guy who has all the trappings of the American Dream but is stuck in a dull, sexless marriage. When a scheming new temp with a checkered past named Cindy (Mila Kunis) begins working at the plant, Joel’s eye begins to wander. His stoner buddy Dean (Ben Affleck) encourages him to make the most of this potential new opportunity. Joel’s a good guy, so Dean devises a plan to get his wife Suzie to cheat first, thereby giving Joel a “free pass.” The scheme is pretty funny, but its execution becomes a little silly. Meanwhile, Joel’s attempt to seal the deal with Cindy never quite comes to fruition, at least not the way he intended. Most of the action takes place at the extract plant, which employs an array of funny characters, including a gossiping busy-body and an incompetent rocker. Creator Mike Judge (King of the Hill) is adept at playing the mundane workplace atmosphere for giggles, but the movie loses its way by making Joel such a bland character. He’s a pretty weak guy who behaves inexplicably. When he finds out his wife has cheated on him he’s angry but he never displays the rage, shock, or disbelief her infidelity warrants. I just didn’t get it. The movie’s plot centers on whether or not Joel will sell the plant, but most of the movie deals with the interpersonal relationships between him and his wife, Dean, and his employees at the plant. Mila Kunis is appealing as the object of everyone’s desire, but she behaves almost as inexplicably as Joel. A con-artist, she begins working at the plant to weasel her way into the life of Step, an employee who was injured in a hilarious freak accident on the job and stands to profit handsomely. With dollar signs in her eyes, she “accidentally” bumps into Step at the grocery store and begins her efforts to become his girlfriend and set up a big score through a lawsuit. Step would rather settle amicably out of court, but Cindy encourages him to milk the accident for all it’s worth. The potential lawsuit threatens to derail Joel’s plans to sell the plant, unless he can get to the bottom of Step’s recent change of heart.

Affleck was funny as Joel’s douchebag sidekick, but Extract’s occasional laughs aren’t enough for me to endorse it. It seems like writers think it’s okay to sacrifice plot and good storytelling just because the movie is a comedy. Joel needed more of a backbone, and a lot of his actions didn’t make sense. Not bad for a few laughs, but Extract never quite reaches its full potential. I’d wait for Netflix.


I would like my $8.50 and 95 minutes back. Despite its intriguing premise and provocative plot, Gamer fell short of expectations. The potential existed for a thought-provoking exploration of the darker side of human nature; instead I witnessed a hedonistic exercise in depravity.

takes place in the not-so-distant future, in a world where consumers can take gaming to the next level. Are you familiar with The Sims, a game that allows you to manipulate characters’ lives and create your own society? Well, imagine if that were real. Imagine if you were playing a video game whose characters represented actual human beings. Sounds pretty cool, right? Not so much. Once the movie delved deeper into its premise it exposed an underbelly of humanity that I’d rather not see. Gerard Butler (300, The Ugly Truth) stars as Kable, a prisoner who is forced to compete in a real-life video game called “Slayers.” He is being controlled by a teen named Simon, a rich kid with every expensive toy imaginable at his fingertips. The object of Slayers is to shoot your way of each battle zone and to survive 30 such battles so that you can be released from prison. Obviously no one would do this shit willingly, but the prisoners don’t have much choice. They have been implanted with a microchip of some sort called a nanex, which ensures their compliance. The creator of Slayers, and another Sims-like game called “Society,” is a nefarious Bill Gates-type named Ken Castle, played by Michael Hall of Dexter. Castle is ridiculously rich, profiting from the public’s desire to manipulate real human lives. His game Society allows you to make real people have sex, fight, use drugs – you name it. You get paid for participating in the game as a character, and you have to pay to play. Kable has become a cult hero, a global superstar, because he is only three battles away from being the first character to survive Slayers. He has won 27 battles. Most prisoners don’t win more than 10. Simon, his player, has also gained a high level of notoriety. He is the one controlling Kable, after all. Things go awry when an organized human resistance rises up against Castle, who has larger designs on taking over the minds of regular human beings instead of just the prisoners in his game. Ludacris is the leader of the resistance, an organization called Humanz. Anyway, they hack into the Slayers game and allow Simon and Kable to communicate directly. They also tell Kable that Castle has a secret to keep and will never allow Kable to survive the game the old-fashioned way; he’ll have to escape. First he has to be released from Simon’s control. Kable persuades Simon to release him and begins his escape. Back in the real world he has a wife and daughter waiting for him. First he has to get past another prisoner inserted in the game to kill him. *sigh*

The details are non-sensical and the plot becomes more and more ridiculous. I know that most movies require suspension of belief, but Gamer became over the top. Now that I know it was written and directed by the duo that brought us Crank, I understand the high level of absurdity. Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor obviously like the idea of people behaving wildly violently and sexually without consequences. They don’t portray it thoughtfully or intelligently, they prefer it gratuitous and pointless. Violence for violence’s sake. I personally don’t enjoy that, which is why Gamer was just not my type of movie. A movie like Kill Bill was certainly violent, but it was done smartly. There’s a right way and wrong way to do it. Quite simply, Gamer was all wrong. I wanted to press the re-set button on this game, and I couldn’t get out of the theater fast enough. Gerard Butler ably portrayed Kable, but I found the material to be questionable. Gamer was a disgusting movie that offered nothing of value. The material was ripe for social and psychological commentary, but Neveldine and Taylor obviously had no such designs.

This article first appeared at and was reprinted with permission.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

Yo, I don’t toss around the ‘G’ word often, but Quentin Tarantino might be a genius. The dude is an awesome filmmaker. When I watch one of his movies I appreciate its undeniable coolness but also its subtle brilliance and attention to detail. Inglourious Basterds was a marvelous showcase of all the little touches that make Tarantino’s films memorable, including the intensive dialogue, unabashed female adoration, and even the inevitable hint of racism.

Set against war-torn Paris during Hitler’s reign, Basterds is the story of a young girl’s survival and ultimate vengeance. It also chronicles the exploits of a guerilla military outfit, the Basterds. Helmed by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), the men plow their way through Nazis like a lawnmower through grass. They hack, peel and bludgeon every Nazi they encounter, and they all pledge one hundred Nazi scalps to the Lieutenant. And yeah, these dudes literally peel the scalps off. *shudder* The parallel storyline involves a young girl named Shoshana and the amoral Nazi Colonel that executed her family. The execution is the movie’s gripping first sequence and it was amazing. I love the way Tarantino controls the pacing and the way his characters interact with one another. There is an extended scene where two characters are simply having a quiet conversation over a glass of milk. Sounds harmless right? No, and that is because an invisible air of dread wafted into the scene and settled like dust. You knew something bad was about to happen, you just didn’t know how it would play out. I was on the edge of my seat, hanging on their every word. That’s because Tarantino can turn the mundane into the mesmerizing. Shoshana’s family was executed before her eyes, and she was the sole survivor. She flees the scene of their carnage, her face a mask of terror. At this moment she and Colonel Lander AKA the “Jew Hunter” become natural adversaries, an animal and its prey. Fast forward four years later and their paths cross again.

There were so many great scenes in this movie, scenes that made my heart stop. You’re lucky if you get one of those in a movie, and Inglourious Basterds was chock full. Tarantino managed to inject humor in the oddest situations and made it work. He made a Nazi movie funny, yet Inglourious Basterds cannot be classified as a comedy. It defies categorization, so don’t even try, just sit back and enjoy it. I can’t recount the plot without getting bogged-down with the intricacy of the storyline, but suffice to say that this is a movie you don’t want to miss unless you are impossibly squeamish. It got a little gory at times, especially when one of the Basterds practices baseball with a Nazi’s head. But if you can get past that you’re in for the best movie of the summer. Brad Pitt was excellent as the merciless Raine, and you can tell he had a ball with this role. It’s like I almost expected him to break the fourth wall at any moment, turn to the camera and say, “is this fucking cool or what?” Yes Brad, yes it is.

From the word go until the closing credits, Inglourious Basterds is riveting. Suspenseful, heart-wrenching, funny, and brilliant, it is right up there with Tarantino’s best and solidifies his place in the pantheon of great American filmmakers. Get up on it.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

G.I. Joe

Ok so I heard the buzz about G.I. Joe before I watched it, and opinions seemed to be mixed. This baffles me, because I thought the movie was pretty effin’ dope. Good visuals, lots of action and special effects, and it wasn’t too corny. That’s more than I can say for Transformers 2. I could even follow the plot, which I appreciated. I hate when these types of movies take themselves too seriously with the convoluted high brow storyline. Just blow shit up.

Starring Channing Tatum (Stop-Loss) as Duke and Marlon Wayans (Dance Flick) as Ripcord, the story begins with our soldiers escorting high level weaponry to its destination. The two are not members of the Joes yet, but they are military personnel. The weapons contain agents called nanocytes, little cell-like critters that were first introduced to fight cancer. They can attack metal and level a city within several minutes. They were manufactured by M.A.R.S., a private arms company helmed by McCullen, a European magnate, the last in a long line of military spies. They are ambushed en route, severely overmatched and outnumbered. Taking heavy fire, they are unable to protect the weapons from the would-be thieves, an outfit comprised of highly- skilled soldiers. Enter the Baroness, a leather-clad dominatrix-looking chick with a mean kick. She and Duke have a past, and he refers to her by name. Her lingering loyalty gives her pause, and she spares his life. Meanwhile the G.I. Joes have arrived to intercept the thieves (COBRA). They retrieve the weapons and the stage is set for Duke and Ripcord to join the most elite, covert operation comprised of the best and brightest soldiers from each branch of the military. General Hawk commands the Joes, and is impressed with Duke and Ripcord. After surviving the rigors of training, they are officially “Joes,” and their first task is to protect the weapons and avenge their fallen comrades before COBRA can steal the weapons back. In the mix is McCullen, creator of the weapons but also in league with COBRA, unbeknownst to the Joes.

As the story moves along we are introduced to various figures from the cartoon series, and I always get a kick out of the real-life depiction of an animated character. They even threw in the corny one-liners from the show like “knowing is half the battle.” It kinda worked but I had to roll my eyes when I heard it. Anyway, I have to say that from a visual standpoint, G.I. Joe was a treat. I got that same feeling I had when I saw the first X-Men or the first Spiderman: that I was witnessing something pretty damn cool. The movie didn’t make the mistake of taking itself too seriously. Nothing based on a cartoon should ever be held up as a paragon of cinematic storytelling, but it was very good movie, and if you go into it with reasonable expectations I don’t think you’ll leave disappointed. This is the second movie based on an 80’s cartoon, and I think it was certainly as good as Transformers, and even better than the sequel. There was a delicate balance between plot and action, and everything was expertly explained, whether through flashback or exposition. Particularly compelling was the back-story between Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes. They trained side-by-side as adoptive brothers until a jealous, evil act permanently tore them apart. Oh yeah, and good guys wear black and bad guys wear white in this movie. Gotta love that. Regarding the performances, as I said there was some corny dialogue but for the most part the movie was sharp throughout. Channing Tatum is a one-note actor, but again – he’s playing a cartoon character. How seriously can I take him? The movie boasts a pretty decent cast that includes Dennis Quaid as Hawk and Sienna Miller as the Baroness. They actually allowed Miller to fill out her leather pantsuit rather than adopt the waiflike appearance she’s sported in past movies, another nice touch. I get tired of looking at someone the size of Angelina Jolie and being expected to believe that she can kick someone’s ass. Both the Baroness and Scarlett looked like real women rather than toothpicks, which I appreciated. Cool toys? Check. Ass-kickin’? Check. I can’t wait for the sequel.

This article first appeard at and was reprinted with permission.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Taking of Pelham 123

Denzel Washington rejoins director Tony Scott (Man on Fire, Deja Vu) in The Taking of Pelham 123, the movie adaptation of a novel I vaguely remember reading as a kid. Scott likes to blow stuff up, and neither Washington nor co-star John Travolta is a stranger to the summer action flick. Sounds like a formulaic recipe for success.

Washington plays Walter Garber, a hard-working “everyman” employed by New York City’s public transportation system. His job is to oversee the subway line from the control center, which contains maps and electronic grids of the underground system. His day seems like any other, until he crosses paths with John Travolta’s character, a loose cannon who calls himself Ryder. Ryder gets the bright idea to hijack a subway car and hold its passengers hostage until the city agrees to pay him 10 million dollars. He is communicating with Garber at the control center and gives him an hour to come up with the money, or he will begin killing hostages for every minute the money is late. And dude is not playing. The unique thing about the movie was that it didn’t fall into the Hollywood trap of following the “happy ending” rules. I’m not revealing whether or not the movie ends happily, just that conventional methods are not followed here. Innocent people die, a marked departure from traditional summertime popcorn movie formula. Scott effectively captures the atmosphere of the city, with lots of panoramic shots overlooking Manhattan. The writers kept the action and dialogue between the two leads, and didn’t focus the storyline on any passengers too heavily, which effectively dumbed the movie down, in my opinion. I enjoy a good action thriller as much as the next person and I think the best ones manage to entertain while still throwing in a twist or two. That didn’t happen here. There was no intriguing reason for Ryder’s decision to hijack the train. Nope, just good old-fashioned greed. That’s fine, but it would have been interesting if there were more gray area or plot twists regarding corruption or secondary unexpected implication of another character.

Working with what we have, the movie was fairly decent and entertaining. No movie with Denzel Washington is ever actually bad, and this one was better than his last pairing with Tony Scott, Déjà vu. He effectively conveys Garber’s reluctant heroism, and he and Travolta have a couple of good scenes together, which is no small feat since they don’t actually come face-to-face until well into the movie. For me personally, Travolta is beginning to creep into Nicolas Cage spaz territory. He is almost becoming an Al Pacino parody of himself. The gesticulation, the spazzing out, it’s becoming comical. He says MF a lot too, which he seems to enjoy. Alas, I digress. There’s nothing to dislike about The Taking of Pelham 123, and thus I give it my tepid endorsement. The script could have been a little smarter, but it was entertaining and straightforward, never trying to be more than it was: a summertime action thriller for the masses.

This review first appeared at and was reprinted with permission.

Friday, May 01, 2009


This was an interesting movie to review. On one hand it didn’t break any new ground, but on the other hand it was immensely entertaining, if the audience in my theater was any indication. Idris Elba (Rock n Rolla) and Beyonce Knowles (Cadillac Records) star in Obsessed, a cross between Fatal Attraction and Disclosure. The fact that I can readily reference those two movies is an indication that Obsessed is a rip-off of more substantive films of the same genre. Whereas Fatal Attraction established the standard for the genre, Obsessed will wind up being another forgettable addition. If there was an award for eye candy, Idris Elba would win quite easily. Unfortunately, I think any other accolades will prove elusive, at least for this role.

Elba plays Derek, a handsome type-A executive with a lovely wife named Sharon and an adorable infant son. The pair has just purchased a new home and seems to be very happy. Their blissful existence is short-lived, as a new temp at Derek’s company makes her presence felt. Lisa (Ali Larter) is assigned to fill in for Derek’s assistant, and begins to drop hints that she’d like more than a professional relationship with him. She’s attractive and aggressive, but Derek remains committed to his wife and rebuffs her advances repeatedly. The broad is really crazy, it’s like she’s delusional, or hard of hearing. She starts with subtle, inappropriate hints and eventually escalates to downright sexual assault, even drugging Derek at one point. She corners him in a bathroom stall and practically forces him to physically restrain her. Things come to a head when the police get involved after an incident. I don’t want to give away too much, suffice to say that by this point Derek and Sharon are living in fear. Here’s my problem with Obsessed. It was not a smart movie. It was formulaic and derivative. There was never an explanation offered for Lisa’s crazy behavior. There was no basis for it, considering that she and Derek never actually slept together. Not that I wanted them to – but I found it hard to believe that it would go as far as it did since they never “sealed the deal.” Derek was the picture of class and fidelity, but we see that some questionable decisions lead to trouble for he and Sharon. The movie ends predictably and happily, as I suspected. The performances were fine, but I don’t believe that either actor was challenged much by the material. Been there, done that – and it’s been done better. Obsessed was an average movie that had its entertaining moments, but it hardly stands out as a cant-miss summer movie. Bring on Wolverine

This review also appears at and was reprinted with permission.

State of Play

I was mildly excited about State of Play, as it looked like the type of smart political thriller I typically enjoy. I thought it would be in the same vein of the classic Three Days of the Condor or at least as good as 2007’s Lions for Lambs. While it was a fairly decent movie, it was not as good as either of those I just mentioned.

Russell Crowe (American Gangster) stars as an investigative reporter who is looking into the death of a congressman’s mistress. Ben Affleck (Hollywoodland) gives a turn as the congressman, Stephen Collins. Helen Mirren (Shadowboxer) plays Crowe’s editor at the newspaper, and Rachel McAdams (Red Eye) is a fellow reporter. My problem with the movie was that it went out of its way to present one situation when the truth ended up being with another scenario that was obvious all along. I know that sounds vague, but the gist is that the movie seemed disingenuous and anti-climactic. Despite boasting an above-average cast, State of Play was not the smart thriller I’d hoped. Russell Crowe was fine, as was Ben Affleck, but it just wasn’t enough. Obviously the congressman will be implicated initially when news breaks that he was having an affair with the young woman who was killed. If you are going to eventually expose him, then don’t go out of your way to make it seem like he is innocent. That feels like a bait and switch to me. State of Play is a solid pay-per-view or Netflix choice, but if you’re looking for the next great political thriller, I’d suggest you keep it moving.