Special (2006)

This was a movie I watched a while ago and it just popped back into my mind today. I discovered this film accidentally, and I am glad I did. I had my television on Reelz Channel and a show called Secret's Out with Leonard Maltin came on. I was about to change the channel when he began talking about this film. It intrigued me, so I looked it up.
Since I haven't seen it in some time you will have to excuse my brief and vague discussion of it.
This independent film is the touching story of bored meter maid Les, who is searching for something else in his life. In an attempt to perhaps make his existence a little less mundane, Les volunteers to take part in an experimental drug test. But soon after his first dose, Les discovers a shocking side effect to his medicine: super powers...sort of. Believing he was given these powers for a reason, Les goes around town dressed in all white walking through walls, reading minds, teleporting, and doing all the things that superheroes do. Even though his friends don't believe him, Les begins to feel that he has something he had never had before: a purpose. This is an inspirational tale about a simple man that appeals to all of us.

Main character Les is played beautifully by Michael Rappaport, who is mostly known for his work on television (you may know him as Donald Self from Prison Break, or the father on the short lived Fox series The War At Home). Rappaport portrays the everyman Les with ease and in turn delivers a deeply heart-felt, profound performance that truly resonated with me. This is the only leading role Rappaport ever had and he tackles the feat with the fluidity of a household name. It's just a shame that this film probably doesn't even exist in the mind's of 97% of Americans.

Sure the production value is low and I could have probably recreated the cinematography with a hand-held camera, but this was not a film to look at superficially. Who among us can say they have not felt utterly unnecessary in the grand scheme of the world? What are the chances that you can actually make a name for yourself and be known to even just a few people that you don't know yourself? There are people this fortunate, but it does not happen to everyone. It is this frightening thought that may act as a spark plug for many of us, causing us to do something that could make our future a little less predictable. Then again, some of us, actually most of us, may avoid the risk and simply accept the cards we have been dealt. Special shows the story of a man who represents the former, and after seeing it, you can decide for yourself if the decision was a wise one. Maybe Les' story will inspire you to try something new, and see where it leads you.

I implore you to seek out this film. I am not promising the greatest film you have ever seen, but just a simple film with a huge heart, which is something we all need to experience one day.

Se7en (1995)

Lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, envy, wrath, and pride. These are the seven deadly sins as written by Pope Gregory the Great in the 6th century, updating the work of Evagrius Ponticus in the 4th century. These cardinal vices are said to be the seven most objectionable sins a man can commit. However, for the 15 centuries this list has been around, mankind cannot seem to abide by the rules. Millions and millions of people everyday, including myself, indulge in these sins, and feel no immediate consequences (what awaits us in the afterlife, we can never be sure). Perhaps we should look upon this as a blessing, for if everyone in the world that committed one of these sins was chastised for them at once, there would not be much of a population left today. For this, we should thank our lucky stars that we do not live in the world of Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt). Mills has just transferred to a dark, ominous, unnamed city that oozes all things evil. For his first case Mills is paired up with Detective William Somerset, the very man he is replacing, to investigate the strange murder of a morbidly obese man found with his hands and feet bound and his face down in a plate of spaghetti. When another seemingly unrelated murder is discovered, the detectives start to suspect that they are dealing with a serial killer who chooses his victims based on the seven deadly sins. With five more murders to expect, Somerset and Mills have to piece the puzzle together before they, or someone they love, gets hurt. Although the story is unique, Se7en is executed ineffectively and leaves the viewer wanting more (not in the good way).

A friend of mine once described Se7en as "if Fight Club had a baby with Saw, you would get Se7en". For the most part, this is a fairly accurate description, but don't be fooled. Mashing two really good movies together does not always create a great movie. In this case, it churns out a a very average movie that aspires to be something unforgettable. Director David Fincher, famous for Fight Club and recent Best Picture nominee The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (I think he has a thing for Brad Pitt), adds his noticeable touch behind the camera, but without the strength you'd expect. Given the film's unpleasant subject matter, it would make sense for the setting to be a generic rainy city that shows no light, or no signs of hope for its inhabitants. But there is a difference between dark and pitch black, which Fincher sometimes forgets throughout the film. If he wanted to give Se7en the feeling of a film noir, he should have just gone ahead and done the entire movie in black and white. Fincher was not a bust at the position of director, but simply made some mistakes that hindered Se7en's progress. Some scenes were shot superbly, one in particular when the SWAT team and Mills and Somerset discover the victim for Sloth. This scene was one of the few that I felt truly captured the ugliness, grittiness, and severity of this created world.

Se7en may not have succeeded as a whole, but there was one moment in the film where everybody involved surpassed brilliance. The people in particular are director David Fincher, screenplay author Andrew Kevin Walker, and the casting directors of the film. I am referring to the reveal of the serial killer, aptly named John Doe. There is one scene in Walker's terrific screenplay (one of the few things of this film that was terrific) where Somerset and Mills sit at a bar discussing the situation at hand. Somerset turns to Mills and says, "If we catch John Doe and he turns out to be the devil, I mean if he's Satan himself, that might live up to our expectations. But he's not the devil...he's just a man". At that point the viewer thinks this is just a message Somerset is relaying to Mills. Time passes in the film, and we reach the point when Joe Doe presents himself. Fincher sets the camera on Doe's legs and shows nothing more. The anticipation grows because you cannot wait to see who they got to play this maniacal freak. Did they get a tall, lurching actor with a booming voice and a built upper body? Is it an unknown actor done up with makeup and prosthetics to seem deformed? No, it was just...well actually, I'd prefer not to say. It ruins the surprise. But when the camera finally moves up and shows John Doe's face and you discover that it is _____ ______, you understand exactly what Somerset was talking about. This was nothing more than a plain man, one that you would see riding the subway or walking his dog. It just goes to show you that appearances can be deceiving.

Staying with the idea that appearances can be deceiving, the most disappointing aspect of Se7en was the below average acting from a stellar cast. Seeing the names Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman on the poster can trick a viewer into thinking they are watching a film with terrific acting, but alas, it is only a trick. Pitt in particular does little to really invent his character Detective David Mills. More or less, he seemed to simply recite the lines as he read them off the script. At the end of the film, when Mills is faced with a particularly difficult decision, Pitt's acting slips into near comedy as he just contorts his face trying to look emotional. He might as well have been saying, "Oh wow look at how emotional I am being right now. Don't I just look so conflicted?" No, he just looked foolish. Morgan Freeman does a better job with Detective Somerset, but still doesn't put his best foot forward. With Freeman, most of his acting in Se7en came from his countenance. Unlike Pitt, whose face is too young and smooth, Freeman exudes the feeling of a man who has spent way too much time in this unforgiving city. He is tired of the senseless crimes he is forced to investigate, and he wants out. Aside from his face, though, Freeman is a standard addition. The one performance in this film that was complete was that of the man who I'd prefer to keep unnamed, so like his character, I'll simply call him John Doe. Doe's interactions with Pitt and Somerset are truly unsettling. His calm, even voice matched with the simple face will confuse you, because you won't believe that such horrible crimes were being committed by this man. Doe's screen time is hardly enough, and I would have liked to have seen more of him.

Despite all the negatives of Se7en, I would say there are just enough positives to balance them out. But a fair warning to all of you. There are lots of disturbing, realistic images in this film that you may not enjoy. Also, if you are not a fan of depressing endings, you definitely will not enjoy this film. At 127 minutes, Se7en does lag a bit, but like I said, there are just enough positives to recommend this film. My rating (6/10)

Crank (2006)

Do you ever feel like you just need a break from the world? Do you ever just want to leave and go to a place where things don't make sense, and nobody questions it? Do you want to see a man inject himself with an overdose of Epinephren and then go on an adrenaline fueled rampage through an entire city? If you answered yes to all of those questions, I have the perfect remedy to feed your need for senseless violence. Crank is a film so out of the realm of realism that your brain may freeze from all of the impossibilities. Jason Statham, a name synonymous with "awesome", stars as Chev Chelios, a professional hit man who has run into a problem. A rival killer has injected him with a mysterious poison that will kill him if he lets his adrenaline drop too low. Set on getting revenge before he dies, Chelios does whatever he can - driving through a mall, Epinephren shots, sex in public, the usual - to keep his heart racing. But don't worry about the plot. The plot is completely irrelevant. Crank is chock full of amateur camerawork, horrific writing, dismal acting, and overall inconceivabilities...but damn is it a good time.

It is pointless to discuss the technical aspects of a film such as Crank. It would be like trying to find a new perfume fragrance at a farm. You can try all you want, but you won't be happy with what you find. What Crank offers you is an exhilerating thrill that never ceases to be ridiculous. Rookie writers/directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor be sure to never lead us on to thinking this movie was meant to be taken seriously, and that is why it is such a success. Although their directing repertoire consists of only shaking cameras, poor CGI, and countless jump cuts, they keep the action going and actually make Crank watchable. Plus, it always helps to have the number one tough guy in Hollywood today headlining your film. It could be said that Neveldine and Taylor have created the perfect men's movie: violence, sex, violence, loud noises, Jason Statham, and violence. Deep down, I think even the most refined man secretly wants to see a guy cut off another mans hand that was holding a gun, and then pick up the hand with the gun still gripped in it, and shoot the man with the gun with his own finger on the trigger. Not in real life, of course. That would be disturbing if it was real.

Much like Jean Claude Van Damme and Sylvestor Stallone before him, Jason Statham has made a name for himself in the world of over the top action flicks. This olympic diver turned archetypical Hollywood bad-ass first made his mark on the action world back in 2002 with The Transporter, and he has yet to lose his touch. In Crank, Statham simply does what he does best, and that is beat people senseless all while talking in that guttural, rough voice. Like his movies before this one, we are basically treated to The Jason Statham Show, because it is his mere presence that keeps us wanting to watch more. Crank is essentially just the next movie in a long series of films that I call Jason Statham Beats The Crap Out of People. Since this movie came out in 2006, he has starred in four more action films, and has five in development credits, one of which is a sequel to Crank. Statham is a man in high demand, and why not? Men want to be him, and according to my girlfriend, women definitely want to be with him. There are a few co-stars in this film, but they really don't matter. Amy Smart seemed like she was wandering around some movie sets, seeing if anybody needed a part filled, and they just grabbed her and tacked her in here. She only had about 12 lines in the entire film, and I probably could have delivered them better.

Chances are that if you want to watch Crank, you do not care about who is in it, how well they did, how the story is, or who directed it. You just want to know if this film is going to excite you and make you feel the rush you crave. The answer is a resounding "YES!". At a quick 87 minutes, you have just enough time to enjoy your energy high without crashing from an overdrawn story. Crank does not take itself seriously, and offers quite a few laughs that should keep you happy too. Who ever said that a movie has to be good, to be good? My rating (7/10)

2001: A Space Odyssey -- Is the Fourth Time the Charm?

2001: A Space Odyssey has been widely renowned as one of the greatest science fiction films of all time. Despite rocky reviews upon its first release, it managed to carve itself a place in history, gaining credibility as time rolled on. 2001's unique look at what the future may behold (the film was made in 1968, mind you) has surprised audiences to this day because of its accuracy. Nearly every technological impossibility in the film has become not just a possibility, but a probability in our near future. With the help of author Arthur C. Clarke, Stanley Kubrick set out to make "the first good science fiction film", because he believed everything to that point was garbage. I haven't seen many science fiction films from before 1968 so I cannot comment on his statement, but when I first saw 2001 I did have something to say: "2001: A Space Odyssey was TERRIBLE". I hated this movie such an intense amount that it hurt my head to think that Stanley Kubrick made it. The film dragged along at such an indolent pace that I truly believed I had died and was now enduring what I thought was the tenth circle of Hell.

That was the first time I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey. A year or so later I received the Stanley Kubrick DVD set for my birthday and with it came the dreaded Hell movie. When I finished with the rest of the set I decided that maybe I should try again. After all, it did seem like the film you would need multiple viewings to appreciate. So I popped it in, got through about one hour, and that's when things went black. Before I knew it my mother was waking me up on the couch, the TV still on with the DVD menu on screen. I threw the movie back in its case and considered it a victory that I fell asleep before I had to watch the entire film. Another few months had passed and I was bored as sin. So I figured hey, I'm already as bored as I can get, the only way I could go is up. So this was 2001's chance to redeem itself for me. Once again I put the movie in, and hoped for the best. I got about as far as I did the second time, and then I got up out of my chair, walked to the DVD player, contemplated smashing it with a baseball bat, and then simply decided to take the movie out and put it away. You may be asking why I keep subjecting myself to this film and just accept the fact that I hate it. If you know me, you know that I am a huge Stanley Kubrick fan. I love basically all of his films, and I frequently express how much it annoys me that he never received an Oscar for writing, directing, or producing. However, his one Oscar win was for Best Visual Effects for, you guessed it, 2001. So basically, I wanted to love the movie that gave my favorite filmmaker his only Oscar. I loved all of his other non-winners, it only seemed right that I should love the one that did win. So that's why I watched it a fourth time.

Today, much like the day when I watched this film the third time, I was bored beyond words. But I was in a good mood, and felt like watching a movie. I went through my collection of 250+ DVD's and came across my Kubrick set and saw 2001. I thought to myself that I would give it one more shot, and just this one more. Now that I've been in this class for a bit and actually know how to identify good filmmaking, maybe the experience will be different. From the beginning, a difference was noticeable. I wasn't squirming, I wasn't fast forwarding, and I wasn't crying in agony. I didn't even notice that it took almost 26 minutes for the first word of dialogue to be spoken, and that a total of 88 minutes of the film was silence filled with classical music. After the film ended I was surprised to feel that...I liked it. I didn't love it, I didn't think it was great, and I still didn't understand most of what I just saw...but I didn't hate it anymore. The meaning behind the film, the danger of technology, actually interested me this time around possibly because I've matured. I started to think about the question, are we allowing technology to get out of hand? Can these advances backfire in our future?

When the movie first begins, we see the dawn of man, which was basically a bunch of guys in ape costumes. If you can ignore that, you see what Kubrick was really trying to show us. This was our most primitive form. This was a world filled with danger, where it was either kill or be killed. In a single frame cut, we jump from the dawn of man to a space station in outer space, showing how quickly technology can creep up on us. As the movie progresses we feel that since that time a million years ago, we have grown as a race. But in the end, main character Dave Bowman has to revert back to the kill or be killed mentality and put an end to the humanistic computer HAL. So no matter how advanced we become, our instincts will always be the same and really nothing has changed.

Still, I found parts of 2001 to be overly drawn out, especially the ending when Bowman is traveling hyperspeed through space and we see an orgy of colors parade across the screen for about 10 minutes. Not to mention the countless questions left open to interpretation by the filmmakers. This is something that could be fun for some people, but to a point it gets frustrating. Arthur C. Clarke once said (regarding his collaboration with Kubrick) "If you understand 2001 completely, we failed. We wanted to raise far more questions than we answered". I think this is a smart way of saying "we wrote this, but we didn't think it all the way through, so we are going to have you think about it". I like to believe that rather than my favorite director is a jerk.

So after the fourth try, I finally like 2001: A Space Odyssey. Maybe after some more viewings I'll grow to love it. But let's just go baby steps for now.

Tropic Thunder: A Second Look

If you have not read my first review of Tropic Thunder please go to August 2008 in my archive.

The summer of 2008 was a great season for comic book films. Not only did every single superhero flick flourish at the box office, but most of them received critical praise as well (with the exception of Hancock). With all that success revolving around action films, the summer really needed a comedy to round itself off and make it a truly memorable one. Late in August, I reported that Tropic Thunder was the film that fulfilled that need. I mentioned how the performances of Robert Downey Jr, Tom Cruise, and Brandon T. Jackson saved the film from it's somewhat flimsy story. The Academy went as far as to nominate Downey Jr for Best Actor in a Supporting Role as the 81st Oscar ceremony. Even now, I feel this nomination was well deserved as Downey Jr really nailed that role down to a T. Tom Cruise also received a Golden Globe nomination with Downey Jr for Supporting Actor in a Comedy, which was a bit much, but after all, it's just the Golden Globes. Either way, it was not just me that felt some of the performances in Tropic Thunder were praiseworthy.

Last month, I finally bought Tropic Thunder hoping it would be just as funny the next few times around, and I was a little disappointed. Not a significant amount, but there was a definite letdown. All of the performances I once praised were still great and I feel like I will always give them high marks. Downey Jr was just as brilliant to watch the second time as he was the first. Cruise's foul mouthed movie executive Les Grossman was still an outrageous character that provided lots of laughs and that little extra bit of satire. However, all of the negative aspects of the film that I pointed out in my first review became much more evident and harder to avoid this second time around. The problem with comedies is that there are very few of them that have the ability to last. A joke that could have you rolling in stitches the first time you hear it may not even coerce a chuckle out of you the second time. In Tropic Thunder, I remembered most of the jokes of the film, and Downey Jr's performance, although still terrific, was less surprising as the first time. So sadly, there wasn't much opportunity for me to laugh out loud during my second viewing of this film. Instead, I kept noticing how Ben Stiller and Jack Black were uncharacteristically bland and one dimensional. I really noticed how it took the film a very long time to get rolling out of the starting gate. When I saw it in theaters I noticed this as well, but not to this extent.

Tropic Thunder
was no one hit wonder though, and I don't mean to imply that. Even on second viewing there were numerous laugh out loud moments and once again, great performances. The biting satire commenting on why actors make some decisions in their career is scarily accurate and still a potent theme. And since the direction can't change from one viewing to the next (only the way you view the direction can differ), the action sequences were still well put together with the perfect blend of violence and comedy. So although it may not be the ideal comedy that will live on forever, and it will probably do nothing else but diminish even more over time, Tropic Thunder is still a good experience, although less of one than I originally thought. My new rating: (6.5/10)

RocknRolla (2008)

So what is a Rock-n-Rolla? The marketing campaign for this film circulated this question through every possible medium, causing a terrible case of "annoying fake British accents" amongst our friends and family (a condition similar to "Borat-itis"). Before RocknRolla was even released, people were buzzing with fake British enthusiasm to find the answer to this question. However, when the film was finally released, we discovered people didn't so much care about finding the true meaning of a "Rock-n-Rolla" as much as they did masquerading as a British person. This is evidenced by the fact that RocknRolla only made about $6 million and never broke into the top 10 at the box office. Even I, who was a fan of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, didn't bother seeing this film. It's a good thing I didn't waste my money. RocknRolla tries to be as fun and charismatic as its predecessors, but falls into a veritable mine field of movie faux pas.

RocknRolla is not a sequel as I may have led on, but simply a film in the same vein as Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. After deviating from the "multiple storyline" gimmick since 2000, writer/director Guy Ritchie returns to the form that made him famous for his latest film. Sadly, the eight year break seems to have gotten to Ritchie and he was unable to bring himself back to his heyday. RocknRolla loosely revolves around Lenny Cole (Tom Wilkinson), the self-proclaimed King of the Old School who runs most of London. Lenny is currently trying to make a deal with some local Russians, and as a token of affection Russian head Uri Omovich (Karal Roden) allows him to hold on to his lucky painting. To Lenny's dismay, the painting is stolen from his home by his estranged son, rock star Johnny Quid (Toby Kebbell). While he searches for his junkie offspring, Lenny and his confidant Archie (Mark Strong) must also keep relations with the Russians running smoothly, keeping it a secret that he lost Uri's beloved painting. Unfortunately, tensions rise as the shipment of money between the two parties continually gets stolen by One-Two and Mumbles (Gerard Butler and Idris Elba), two crooks who were tipped off by shifty accountant Stella (Thandie Newton). As the story progresses, everyone's world begins to fold into everyone else's, meeting at an end that was more of a whimper than a bang. Much less cohesive and interesting than his previous efforts, Ritchie wastes his opportunity at a comeback on this scrap heap.

To some degree, RocknRolla is a pretty film. Not in terms of the events sprawled out on the screen, but rather in how Ritchie and cinematographer David Higgs show what is being done. The use of somewhat dirty coloring conveys the grimy feel of the world these no good characters are living in. Ritchie also sometimes redeems himself with a clever filming style, specifically in one scene as One-Two and his partner Mumbles are being chased down by some unstoppable Russians. The rest of the film however, is a total loss and an incomprehensible mess. The smash-bang execution that Ritchie perfected in Snatch was obviously short-lived, as was his ability to spin an engaging story from his mental yarn. The mostly central story following the whereabouts of a missing painting is hardly enough to keep the viewers eyes forward. Even a ten year old who just drank seven Red Bulls would start to get bored. Ritchie fails to create a single memorable character from his basic, bland script. Even as I'm writing this, I frequently have to visit the IMDb page of this film to remind myself of the character's names. I can't even remember if Stella, the accountant, worked for Lenny, Uri, both, or neither. You could say that this is no more than the fault of my own memory, but I argue that Ritchie didn't do a good enough job to plant these faces in my head as he did in Snatch.

In both of Ritchie's previous multi-story films, the plot is driven by a maniacal kingpin who has "commoners" groveling for mercy. In RocknRolla, this role is stepped into by two time Oscar nominee Tom Wilkinson, a consistently impressive actor that most recently knocked me out with his portrayal of Benjamin Franklin in the HBO mini-series "John Adams". To my chagrin, Wilkinson brings the biggest disappointment of the film in the form of his surprisingly weak performance. An intimidating kingpin Tom Wilkinson does not make, so much as a man who is just a jerk. The characters in RocknRolla may have feared Lenny Cole, but that is just because the script told them to. As a viewer, I was as daunted by Cole as I would be of a Pomeranian with a mean streak. In Snatch, Ritchie created a villain that truly induced fear and with the perfect performance of Alan Ford, the character Brick Top was one to remember. Lenny Cole is a boring scoundrel with no lasting power. Even Cole's growing opponent Uri was portrayed in a rather tame manner. With the exception of one scene that shows his power, Karal Roden never gets the opportunity to show how devilish his character is. The supporting performances from the entire cast, including Thandie Newton, Gerard Butler, Jeremy Piven, Mark Strong, and Ludacris, are all nothing but exercises in mediocrity. The only showing anywhere close to being worthy of celebration is Toby Kebbell's drugged out, hyper-violent, comically apathetic Johnny Quid. His character's farcical behavior gives RocknRolla a slight ray of sunshine in an otherwise dank cave. However, his talents are grossly under-utilized and for most of the movie we are subject to the flat stories of the other characters.

RocknRolla could have had a place on my DVD shelf for years to come right next to Ritchie's other accomplishment's, but instead I will never have it enter my home again. It's unnecessary length is the final straw, closing in on two hours. Snatch was by no means short and was only ten minutes shorter than RocknRolla, but it was at least filled with things to appreciate. If you want to watch a caper flick that's fast paced and highly satisfying, watch Snatch. If you want to watched a caper flick that tries to be quick but instead gets bogged down by it's stale story, watch RocknRolla. My rating (3/10)

Movies given a 10/10

  • Milk
  • In Bruges
  • Slumdog Millionaire
  • The Dark Knight
  • Iron Man
  • No Country For Old Men
  • The Shining
  • A Clockwork Orange