Friday, October 31, 2008

Movie Review:Eagle Eye

If there is anything we have learned from movies like Terminator, I Robot, and so forth, it is that computers designed to make people happy will ultimately turn on the people and attempt to conquer/kill/make slaves of them.

If there is anything we have learned from movies such as Enemy of the State, The Handmaids' Tale, or 1984 it is that governments with access to surveillance technology will mis-use and abuse those powers.

If there is anything we have learned from a century of Hollywood it is that the industry is derivative.

Hence we have Eagle Eye (2008), the convergence of Terminator, I Robot, Enemy of the State, and 1984.

The movie starts by following Jerry Damon Shaw (Shia LaBeouf), a shiftless slacker who scams his co-workers out of small stakes at poker, hasn't seen his brother in a couple years, and refuses to accept money from his apparently well-off family even though he is behind on rent and overdrawn at the bank.

We also meet Rachel Holloman (Michelle Monaghan), a struggling single mother sending off her son Sam (Cameron Boyce) to Washington DC on a band tour.

Together the two of them are manipulated into a series of set-piece action bits that are highly entertaining. At one point, in a field in the middle of nowhere, falling electrical powerlines create the danger in a scene eerily reminiscent of the famous crop-duster scene in North by Northwest. Oddly, one thing never resolved is how a computer could force those power lines to snap and fall...but if you are going to investigate plot holes, this movie is the wrong one for you.

Instead, it is a glitzy, fast-paced, adrenaline packed thrill fest with a mild shock as to who the villain is and why Jerry and Damon are the victims.

Meanwhile, they are being chased by Agent Thomas Morgan (Billy Bob Thornton), a sharp minded yet ineffectual pursuer who is always one step behind. In the big finale he provides the opportunity and motivation for Jerry to make the last-second save to keep the entire command structure of the U.S. from being killed using a rather clever bomb designed to combine Sam's trombone with a diamond necklace worn by Rachel.

The movie is entertaining and will leave you smiling. Sure, it takes the bounds of reality and believability and stretches them like Homer Simpson's all-you-can-eat pants...but that is beside the point. It is designed to critique the Patriot Act and over the top government surveillance while providing an entertaining action flick. It delivers on that premise in spades.

The acting is very well done, particularly by Billy Bob Thornton. He tends to take some quirky roles in off-beat movies...Bad Santa, Sling Blade, Bandits...and yet he can deliver in a serious role such as this one. LaBeouf is generally entertaining if somewhat one-note in his delivery and Monaghan, despite some cheesy lines, delivered on what she had to work with.

With the exception of the first chase scene the photography was excellent. In fact, my biggest quibble with the movie was the use of many jump cuts to create tension rather than showing what was going on. I thought that section was very poorly edited. They made up for it later with some spectacular shots so all is forgiven.

If you are a fan of the Action genre, take a look, you will like this movie.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Movie Review:Max Payne

Time and time again people think bringing video games to the big screen. Typically they try to emulate part of what made a video game famous. Sometimes this works well, though still not getting past the level of forgettable...say, Doom. Other times it makes you want to gouge out your eyes with an ice pick in a vain attempt to rid yourself of the heinousness of what you subjected yourself to; Super Mario Brothers comes to mind. Most fall somewhere in between.

Max Payne (2008) makes Super Mario Brothers look like great cinema. From the horrific acting to the bizarre, meandering, non-sensical storyline (or lack thereof) to the predictable climax, this movie is a mess.

Shot in dark tones, it strives for the film noir feel. It wants to be gritty, dirty and violent. It comes out dreary, depressing and full of head cheese.

Payne follows the story of Detective Max Payne (Mark Wahlberg), stuck in the Cold Case division of homicide 3 years after the murder of his wife and baby. He lost everything, including his will to live and his partner.

Events lead him to discover clues to the case, though each clue is accompanied by the death of someone he was in contact with, thus making him appear guilty of murdering his former partner, a random girl he meets at a party, a guy from the company his wife worked at, and retroactively, his wife.

In some weak, derivative action sequences he gets the file with the info, goes to where a drug gone awry is manufactured, kills lots of people, then kills the "surprise" villain.

The action sequence in the club is the best part of the movie. It is also a fine opportunity to refill your popcorn tub and soda...because it is not very good.

The best part is a slow-motion sequence (possibly lifted direct from the game) in which Payne does a back flip to shoot a guy in the head with his shotgun. Meanwhile, his assailant...a highly trained soldier wielding a fully automatic machine gun...misses him by a good 10'. Whatever.

In short, if you are a fan of badly acted, poorly shot movies with weak scripts and bad action sequences, this movie is for you. Conversely, if movies with tacked-on Norse mythology, shaky motives, boring action sequences, and counter-intuitive actions by vital characters are not your thing, just see Hitman...not a great video game movie, but exponentially better than this steaming pile of monkey droppings.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Movie Review:Appaloosa

A good Western can be a tough sell. Then again, a good Western can be tough to make. But Ed Harris took a stab at it, directing himself as Marshall Virgil Cole who, along with his partner Hitch (Viggo Mortenson) tours the country taking on peace-keeping jobs for hire.

Cole has his own set of rules which are of questionable legality but unquestioned effectiveness. When Marshall Joe Bell (Robert Jauregi) is murdered by Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), he brings those rules and Hitch to the town of Appaloosa to bring peace to the town.

In Appaloosa he becomes enamored of widowed, loose-moraled Allison French (Renee Zellwegger). She threatens to drive a wedge between Cole and Hitch, though this is resolved when they chase Bragg after he escapes. There is a shoot-out, they recapture Bragg and things seem set aright.

However, Bragg manages to gain a pardon through political connections. In order to save Cole's job, Hitch kills Bragg and rides off into the sunset.

The plot, such as it is, is rather simple; can a woman come between 2 friends with different reasons for being lawmen? But the path to get there is entertaining. The slow pace of the movie gives you time to enjoy the interplay between Cole and Hitch, between Cole and French, and between Bragg and Cole. There are several fun lines and it avoids stereotypical Western climaxes: the shootouts exist but are not central to the plot nor particularly memorable.

Instead this is a buddy picture masquerading as a Western. If you like Westerns you will like Appaloosa.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Movie Review:Body of Lies

The previews for Body of Lies (2008) seemed to be built around the conceit that either Roger Ferris (Leonardo DeCaprio) or Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe) was a mole in the CIA who was actually working for the terrorists. This assumption of course could not be made by anyone who has read the book it is based on, but that is beside the point.

While action packed, Body  takes a while to hit its stride. Ferris is a knowledgeable Middle East operative who works under Hoffman. Hoffman tends to keep his field operatives in the dark and run multiple operations simultaneously, some of which interfere with each other.

When Ferris tries to bring in an informant, Hoffman refuses. The informant is caught so Ferris kills him so he cannot reveal who Ferris is. Against Hoffman's orders, he and his partner go to raid a safe house. The partner ends up getting killed and Ferris badly hurt. When he recovers he heads to Jordan where he falls for an Iranian nurse named Aisha (Golshifteh Farahani). Meanwhile, the head of Jordanian security named Hani (Mark Strong)  and Ferris try to work together. Repeated interference by Hoffman causes them massive problems. It comes to a head when Hani will not turn over control of his informant inside the terrorist cell to Hoffman. First, however, Hani and Ferris work together on a safe house project.

Together they try to track users of an Al Quaeda splinter group safe house in an attempt to find mastermind terrorist Al-Saleem (Alon Abutbul). When the safe house is burned down they lose their lead. Convinced Ferris knew about the operation Hoffman had ordered that caused the disaster, Hani throws Ferris out of Jordan. 

Ferris concocts a plan to make an innocent architect named Omar Sadiki (Ali Suliman) look like a terrorist mastermind in an attempt to make Al-Saleem reveal himself out of jealousy. The plan works to an extent but Al-Saleem kills Sadiki when he realizes Sadiki was a pawn. 

Sickened by the mounting losses, Ferris is on the edge of quitting when Aisha is captured. He tried to exchange himself for her. As Saleem and his men prepare to torture Ferris to death, Hani makes the last second rescue. 

Sickened by the continued disposal of innocent people by Hoffman's methods, Ferris quits to stay in Jordan with (presumably) Aisha. 

The action in this movie is excellent, the web of deceit often hard to untangle (I deliberately left out a couple of twists that may or may not surprise you) and the various considerations of each character make enough sense to keep you intrigued with the movie beginning to end. If you like action movies, this is a good choice. If you like thrillers, it is a good choice. If you just like good stories with a bit more complexity than the average cinematic fare, this is the right choice. Overall, a very entertaining flick. 

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Movie Review: Beverly Hills Chihuahua

The previews for Beverly Hills Chihuahua (2008) were built around a rapping dog and a dance number on a pyramid. If that dance number is not on the special features I will be shocked and disappointed because it is hysterical and amusing. A lot of the commercials also revolved around Papi (George Lopez), the heroic Chihuahua who is in love with Chloe (Drew Barrymore).

Chloe is the point of life for Aunt Viv (Jamie Lee Curtis). When Viv goes to Italy for a couple weeks and cannot take Chloe, she leaves Chloe with Rachel (Piper Perabo). Piper is a shiftless, irresponsible girl, presumably late teens or early 20s who seems to do nothing but talk to her friends and party.

The relationship between the 3 is all that is right and all that is wrong about pet ownership. Viv clearly cares for could be argued too much. She spends thousands of dollars on pet care, changes Chloe's clothes several times a day, and so forth. She is way over the top with it and Chloe is a spoiled, miserable mutt as well. At the same time, Rachel is careless about caring for the actual needs of the dog, too lost in her own world to care about the life, animal though it is, that is in her care.

Well, Rachel's friends decide to go to Mexico on an overnight party trip. Rachel leaves Chloe in the room, Chloe sneaks out, gets dog-napped by a ring of dog-fighters, and the chase is on. 

Chloe escapes with the help of Delgado (Andy Garcia). Chased by Diablo (Edward James Olmos), they make their way across Mexico. Meanwhile, helped by landscaper Sam Cortez (Manolo Cardona) and Papi, Rachel tries to trace Chloe.

Along the way they run into a pack rat/iguana team of thieves who provide some nice humor, Chloe and Delgado run into a coyote named...wait for it...Coyote...and eventually there is a conclusion where Chloe is rescued, Rachel and Sam fall in love, and if any of that shocks you then you are pretty obtuse. 

Along the way they get off some vague morality tales about the errors inherent in anthropomorphizing Chihuahuas, responsibility, rescuing animals instead of getting purebreds, and finding good homes for stray animals.

This movie was really good when Papi was on screen and really horrendous when Viv was there. It was highly entertaining when the pack rat and Iguana were on screen as well. More of them, less of Viv, and this movie would have been even better. As it was, it was a fun, light-hearted romp that will be well loved by its target audience of prepubescent kids.