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THE HOT ROCK, CINDERELLA LIBERTY, ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL and DISTANT VOICES STILL LIVES

Sunday, January 16, 2011

TAKERS : GIVES PLENTY OF ACTION

The heist genre has seen a number of films released over the past few years, most notably THE ITALIAN JOB. But there have been a number of others to follow including the recently released TAKERS.

The film revolves around a group of professional thieves who are just finishing up from their latest job, a bank job where they scored big and no one got hurt. These guys try to make sure no one gets hurt and that the plans are well thought out and executed. In return for their heists going well, they aren’t charged with murder and the money they take makes them wealthy men.

As this story unfolds another one opens with the release from prison of Dalonte Rivers (T.I.) aka Ghost. Ghost just finished doing time after being caught in a previous job by this same group. In return for his silence they’ve held onto his share and kept an opening for him. Returned to collect on that debt, he comes to them with a new job.

The group is hesitant to do so having just completed one, but the sure thing information he provides them makes them consider it. The biggest problem is that they have just five days to prepare. And five days not only gives you little time to be ready, but no chance at all to make sure that everything will run as smooth as it has in the past.

While the thieves are preparing their new target police officer Jack Welles (Matt Dillon) is searching for them. Assigned the case, he and his partner are following every clue possible. At the same time Jack is dodging an Internal Affairs officer, fearing he will be reprimanded for accusations of excessive violence while apprehending a criminal. His focus is the bank job and he won’t be deterred in his pursuit of the crew.

The paths of these two sides of the story eventually collide and a chance encounter leads Jack to follow the crew’s leader Gordon Cozier (Idris Elba). In following him he’s led to the rest of the gang and surveillance places them almost in line to capture them before the next heist. But a smart escape leaves them free to complete their task: the robbery of an armored car loaded with cash.

The interplay between characters works well in this film, especially since it involves more than one piece of action. Ghost wants back in to a crew that has changed since he last worked with them, including one of the members now dating his old girlfriend. The crew wants to score big but at the same time is hesitant to trust Ghost, even more so since this job appears out of nowhere and Ghost seems to be rushing into a job immediately upon release.

And then there’s the story of the dogged policeman in Dillon’s character who wants to do nothing more than put bad guys in jail but is hampered by the technicalities that, in his mind, hold him back. But there’s more to that story as well.

All of these elements combine to make an exciting film filled with more story than most, enough action to keep fans sitting on the edge of their seat and plot twists that keep you guessing until the credits roll. Some may figure it out before then, but even if you do you’ll stay focused on the film as the story unfolds.

I’ll admit I had seen the trailer for this film so many times that I had no interest in viewing it. But I thought I’d at least give it a chance. I’m glad I did as I came across a solid action film that kept me watching from beginning to end never once checking to see how much time was left. If you want exciting action filled entertainment, you’d be hard pressed to find another movie to compare to this one this week.

FREAKONOMICS : STRANGE NAME, GREAT MOVIE

Occasionally a movie comes along, based on a book, that inspires people to run out and pick up a copy and actually read. It doesn’t happen often and in today’s world where more people are in tune with a visual experience as opposed to a reading one, when it does happen it’s wonderful. Such is the case with FREAKONOMICS.

Based on the best seller of the same name, the book was written by economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen Dubner. It focused on Levitt’s research into the causality of numerous topics as explained via economics and tabulated information. The interesting thing, as he states, is that in seeking reasons for various topics people think things are connected to something else but it turns out not being the case. Trust me, its less complicated than you think and easier to understand than you would expect but more so after watching this film.

To make a movie out of the book, they chose 4 different notable documentary directors and went to work. Each one has their own look and feel, but all incorporate into the general picture at hand. The first is one of the most well known, Morgan Spurlock who did SUPER SIZE ME. Here he takes on the question of what is in a name.

The question here is is a person judged and their life set up early on by what their parents name them? Beginning with the example of a young girl named after Tempest Bledsoe of COSBY fame whose mother couldn’t spell resulting in the name Temptress, we find that it wasn’t her name so much as her environment that formed her life. But there’s more to it than that. The choice of names and how they affect everything from your job acceptance to your place in society is discussed with results different than one might expect.

But back to the original premise of the film, where one would think that a person’s name might be the reason for the life that the end up with, the truth is that it is more their surroundings. Thus the expectations of people are proved wrong when the facts are sought out.

A section on cheating focuses on sumo wrestlers in Japan. Sure, you might not be interested in two big men in diapers fighting one another, but that’s not the point. The discussion forms around sumo being a traditional sport surrounded in religion and honor that was corrupted. So much so that the results of matches could be predicted. What brought about this change from honor to corruptibility?

One segment deals with incentives and what we expect once more versus the outcome. Here, a group of students are given the incentive to do well in school by being promised $50 each time their grade cards come out if they show improvement and a few other items like attendance. Those that do well qualify for a $500 check at year’s end as well as a stretch limo ride. Does this incentive help increase school activity? Watch and see.

The fourth section discusses the reported drop in crime rates during the 80s. Politicians spoke endlessly about how they had achieved this, citing the increase in policemen on the streets as the biggest reason. In researching the date, Levitt and crew discovered that police were only a small portion of the reason crime decreased. The main reason, nearly 49% worth, was…well again, watch and see.

The movie is well made and follows an interesting path. It starts out simple, discussing selling your home and real estate agents (trust me it’s interesting) just to set up the film’s/book’s idea and then presenting the different theories focused on in an intelligent and still entertaining way.

 Perhaps the best thing about this book is that it will make you look at the world from a different standpoint. You won’t tend to accept things at face value and will look deeper into why things happen. You might even choose to pick up a copy of the book and see how they applied themselves to discover the real answers to some different questions.

All in all, the film is a treat, making it enjoyable as well as informative. That’s a rare combination to find in films these days. Rare still is the fact that you have a documentary that doesn’t preach one political side or another, it just informs. And to me that makes it a great documentary.




STONE : AS INTERESTING AS WATCHING A STONE

I hate it when they take a phenomenal actor (in this case two), put them in a movie that is supposed to feature them at their best (which it does) but that comes off as the most boring waste of time imaginable. Such is the case with STONE, the new DVD release starring Robert DeNiro and Edward Norton.

The story focuses on Jack Mabry (DeNiro), a parole officer in a large prison about to retire. Jack has been detached from life for some time. His is an existence of merely going through the motions, feeling little if anything. He begins the film this way and continues on, searching for the meaning of life.

Into Jack’s world enters Stone (Norton), an arsonist convicted of torching his grandparent’s house after being involved with their murder. Stone is set for release depending on the recommendation of Jack. The two have conversations in Jack’s attempt to discover if Stone has been rehabilitated or not, if he possesses any sign of remorse. And in these few moments the best of the film is revealed.

At first arrogant and obnoxious, Stone undergoes a series of events that bring about an epiphany in his soul. He begins to seek out religion and life and discover himself. But as he grows in his search Jack falters. Seeking out his own answers, Jack finds hollowness inside of himself that he can’t seem to fill.

While these conversations go on, Stone also attempts to play his ace in the hole by having his wife, Lucetta (Milla Jovovich) seduce Jack. The pair begin an affair slowly with Lucetta first approaching Jack to just discuss her husband’s release and then slowly teasing him until he falls for her seduction. Just one more attempt and connecting with someone that Jack fails with.

Whether or not Stone is eventually released is pretty much a given answer. But the question becomes is he the same man who went in or has he truly changed? Sadly this isn’t the main focus of the film which is more on Jack and how the whole event affects him.

All in all while it sounds like it might make an interesting film (and it probably did on paper) the movie is a let down. I didn’t walk in expecting an action packed adventure. I didn’t even expect a sexual thriller, though there is some bit of that included. I did expect a better story that didn’t rely so much on distant, longing looks and drawn out still life visuals. Some directors seem to forget the term “moving pictures” means that films do indeed move. Many times this one just sits there.

A number of critics and viewers have lauded the lead actors in this film, discussing the fact that they are among the greatest ever and that this film gives them ample opportunity to flex their acting muscles. The fact is that watching them rehearse scenes from other films would make for a more entertaining movie than this one.

GUN: OFFERS A FULL CLIP

I’ve not watched the numerous films that rap artists Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson has made to date. As a matter of fact I think TWELVE was actually the first thing I’d seen him in. With the number of rap stars crossing over into films it never seems like they stretch much, almost always portraying thugs or drug dealers and the like. On rate occasion a few have made memorable performances but, like rap music, those that make a lasting impression are few and far between.

The same can’t be said of Jackson. Sure, his characters might be street wise but there is more depth to them than can be found in most exploitation films. And this film, while the slim plot might make one think it qualifies for that genre, is actually better than one would expect.

Jackson stars as Rich, a young street punk who’s out to make a name for himself in the world of gun running. The film opens with Rich and his crew tricking his competition into running from a club only to be caught in a hail of bullets. With this group gone, Rich is now the top dog in the world of gun running in Detroit.

Moving forward we get to see Angel (Val Kilmer) released from prison. His story is yet unclear to us, but he moves into a room and soon finds his way to Rich. The two have a history where Angel once saved Rich from certain death. He asks Rich for a gun which he is more than happy to provide. A few days later he returns to take Rich up on an offer to join his crew.

As these two stories merge a third part of the puzzle appears in the persona of Detective Rogers (James Remar), a veteran cop on the force who has made his single most important goal to shut down the gun runners in his town. Saddled with a pair of hot shot ATF agents who seem more intent on ridiculing him than in helping, Rogers trudges along following the leads which eventually take him to Rich.

As the film moves along we discover that Rich has made a connection with a powerful organization that can supply him with more guns than he could ever imagine. His connection is a beautiful woman named Gabriella (AnnaLynee McCord) who seems as interested in bedding down Rich as she does in establishing him with her bosses.

While each of these items comes together there is still something missing, some piece that we are yet unaware of that connects them all together. And this missing piece is the one part of this film that makes it rise above the common street thug films that usually arrive straight to DVD. I won’t spoil it and some of you may figure it out long before the final reel, but it does offer something that for many will be unexpected.

The film was written by Jackson, another plus that makes it a bit more ambitious than most. He does a good job here providing realistic characters that might on occasion fall back on the usual stereotypes but for the most part seem true to the story. The dialogue doesn’t rank with that of say Kevin Smith, but it flows naturally and is delivered by a cast that treats it like Shakespeare rather than a dime store direct to DVD feature.

I doubt that this film will come close to Oscar consideration but it does offer a solid story, entertainment for fans of the genre and some good performances. Kilmer, an actor who started strong and lately has become a staple of direct to DVD films, always turns in a performance that exceeds the material he is given. Who knows why Hollywood has seemed to shun him when it comes to major studio releases? Whatever the reason, he raises the quality of the films he stars in. And this is one that rises to meet his achievement on its own merits.



ANIMAL KINGDOM : ANIMAL PLANET IS LESS BORING

More often than not major critics around the globe find some obscure movie to go on and on about, hailing it as the next big thing, praising the actors, writer, director and more. They talk about how if you see one movie then this is it. And more often than not they are completely off the mark hailing some of the most boring films ever made. Enter ANIMAL KINGDOM.

The story revolves around Joshua “J” Cody (Jay Frecheville), a teenager who sits and watches TV as his mother dies of a heroin overdose. With nowhere else to go, J ends up with his grandmother Janine (Jacki Weaver). Also living in the same house are various uncles and cousins, all of whom are mixed up in the world of crime one way or another.

The life of crime that this family has adopted has led to their being hounded by the police as well. The most feared and sought after among them is “Pope” (Ben Mendelsohn). While searching for him, the police routinely camp outside the homes of his family and friends. When all else fails, the kill one of his brothers and make it look as if he was armed.

This action sets the ball in motion with Pope now seeking revenge. The character never seems to be as evil as the word around town about him is, but there is an undercurrent of menace about him. To even the score, Pope recruits other family members and they ambush a pair of uniformed officers and murder them which of course increases the vigor with which the police now want the Cody family.

All the while J is more or less simply there when things happen. He was involved in nothing more than stealing the car used to ambush the police, but as a member of the family in this town he’s presumed guilty with no chance of innocence. But when Det. Leckie (Guy Pearce) interviews him he sees an opening, a crack in the armor that is the Cody family. And even though it puts J’s life on the line, he continues pushing until Pope is certain that J has talked.

The inevitable reaction from Pope is to take out J, even if he is family. For this group the family is the center of all things and not to be taken lightly. J may not have talked out of turn, but the chance is there and Pope decides J must die. But the plan to do so fails and now J must choose between family and a chance to get out of this world of crime.

As a few other films I’ve discussed recently, this one sounded good on paper. But the pacing is slow at best and the story feels like an hour long TV drama extended to feature length that offers nothing extra. You walk away from this movie thinking “I want back that two hours of my life”.

I’m sure that someone, somewhere thought the acting in this was great. I left thinking that it was lame and offered nothing. Nothing new, nothing old, just existing as if that was enough. Sorry, I want to be entertained at least somewhat when I sit down to watch a movie. But my guess is that I’m not the only one who felt that way after watching this.

As I said from the start, critics have heaped high praise on this film. In so doing they’ve just confirmed my view on most major critics. They praise films that a) are pretentious and boring yet they don’t want to seem to admit they are or b) they don’t understand the film and rather than seem out of it, praise it instead.

Speaking of not understanding a film, while this movie is Australian (a country that speaks English mind you) you’ll be better off having the English subtitles run while watching. The accents are incredibly thick and the language at times seems to be Aussie slang. Just keep in mind that even with subtitles, this movie is incredibly boring.