SAFE

 

Jason Statham gets all Jason Stathamy in "Statham VII".

 

Publshed April 27th, 2012

By R. David

Rating a Jason Statham flick at this point can really only be done in relativity to his other films. Like other cinematic action heroes before him, particularly those of the‘80s and ‘90s, Statham is the sort of action star who essentially makes the same film each time out.  The plot details and characters may change (even if ever so slightly), but it’s all just an excuse to watch the star take out the bad guys with whatever his particular brand of fun-to-watch fighting skills. Steven Seagal doesn’t have any films that will be confused as Oscar contenders but, at least in his earliest (and best) efforts, the cheap productions and lazy plotlines were easily forgiven because the star was so much fun to watch – the reasons why he was kicking butt didn’t so much matter as long as we got to see him bring his particular brand of fast-fisted hurt to a bunch of in-over-their-heads thugs. Statham is essentially Seagal for the new millennium.  With stories that are just as typical (and improbable) he has nevertheless built a career on his strong-silent loner who prefers minding his own business until someone makes the mistake of waking the sleeping giant just beneath his cool exterior. Statham began his career as a breath-of-fresh air supporting character in films like “Snatch” and “The Italian Job” where he was often cast as the“muscle”, and provided a shot of adrenaline when called upon to goose the action sequences with his seemingly effortless head-cracking.  Like Seagal before him, Statham barely seems to break a sweat dispatching several thugs at once.  But ever since the “Transporter” made him an above-the-title action star, he’s essentially been staring in same film each time out, offering only the slightest variations on the same steely-cool tough guy.

His latest, “Safe”, is no exception.  Those who can’t get enough of Statham and the type of character and film he has cornered the market on as of late will likely find it suitably entertaining.  Those who dismiss him as just another dumb action star who makes the same movie over and over again will not likely see their minds changed here.  Until he breaks the mold and turns in a film and performance that is a complete departure from the bulk of his filmography, the only way to appropriately gauge projects like “Safe” is in comparison to each other.  Does it do anything different?  Are there any surprises?  How’s the story?  The performances?

I’m happy to report, Statham fans, that while “Safe” may not be a great or in any way original movie as a whole, it certainly ranks in the upper tier of the Statham cannon.  Statham is good here, though he gives the same performance he usually does.  But unlike some films where he seems to be sleepwalking through his scenes, you can tell he’s trying to bring some gravitas to his character of a mixed martial arts cage fighter who fails to lose a rigged fight (don’t they always?) and as punishment, finds his wife and child murdered by the Russian mob, while he is spared, but banished from society, forced to live on the streets and never associate with anyone or forge any new relationships, or those people too will be killed.  After the mob makes good on this threat, murdering a homeless man simply because Statham gives him a pair of shoes, he figures he – and everyone else – would just be better off if he offed himself.  But then he sees some bad dudes chasing after a twelve-year-old Asian girl and he can’t help but rescue her.  As it turns out, the little girl has some valuable information that the Chinese mafia, Russian mafia, and crocked cops playing both sides all want to get their hands on first.  And so, just like that, the odds are against him, but that’s just the way he likes them (or whatever the poster probably says).

While the set-up (and most of what happens throughout) is pure action flick mechanics, you can feel the film at least trying to do something more than go through the usual motions.  There are some attempts at plot twists and surprises. And though they often fail to convince or can be seen coming, it’s stillsomething.  And despite the cliché-riddled scenarios and dialogue, “Safe” manages to be a fairly engrossing, if still completely implausible and by-the-numbers, thriller. You care enough about the characters and want to see how the action will play out, even though it all goes down pretty much the way it always does in this type of film.  Credit mainly goes to the strong direction by Boaz Yakin (who also scripted).  Though as a writer he’d be wise to exercise some more ambition than simply reworking the standards of the genre, as a director he has a keen eye for staging chase sequences and shootouts, as well as building tension and wringing emotion out of quitter scenes – even when his script fails him and these moments don’t quite pay off the way you’d hope.

“Safe” is also one of the grittier, nastier Statham vehicles – and mainstream action flicks in general, in a while.  There is a refreshing lack of sentimentality to the violence, which is cartoonish, but no less impactful in its blood-splattered glory; just like the good old days of Seagal et al. “Safe” surprises by being a theatrically-released action film that doesn’t shy away from blood and severed limbs in order to chase a PG-13 rating (Cough, cough! “Transporter” series.  Cough!), something of a rarity these days.

“Safe’s” title may be all too prophetic when it comes to the script, but as these standard issue Statham shoot ‘em ups go, it’s among his better efforts.

3 stars out of 4.

CABIN IN THE WOODS

By R. David

Published April 13, 2012

To get a sense of just how knowing a wink-fest Cabin In the Woods is one need look no further than the title.  After all, how many horror films have begun with the simple premise of sending a group of teens gleefully bounding off to some spooky cabin in the middle of nowhere only to come face to face evil, in one form or another.  In The Evil Dead, teens unwittingly summoned terrifying supernatural forces.  In Friday the 13th they were running for their lives from a machete-wielding boogie man.  In Wrong Turn, it was inbred cannibals.  In Cabin Fever, a deadly virus.  The list goes on.  Regardless of the film or type of terror the characters stumbled upon, the basic genre ingredients remain the same:  Teens, remote location, death.  And there is usually some convoluted backstory that explains killer’s motivations and the significance of the location.As should be expected from him at this point, Joss Whedon’s Cabin In the Woods starts with all these basic genre tropes, but cranks them up to 11 and then turns completely on their ear.  The result is a film is so self-aware, so quick-witted and so surprising, with twists and turns and ideas so rampant, its enough to give viewers whiplash.  It is a film better enjoyed if you know absolutely nothing going in, so I will not describe the plot beyond the most basic of outlines.  But be warned, however redundant the setup may seem, you can not possibly predict the places Cabin In the Woods will go.  I could sing its praises all day, but there’s very little I can be specific about or provide examples of without major spoilers.  I probably don’t have to tell you that as the film begins a group of teens are gearing up for a weekend of fun and sun and sex and drugs at one of the kids’ relative’s remote cabin.  You also probably assume that these kids each fall squarely into a specific type:  The jock, the smart girl, the pot head, the slutty girl, etc.  And you’d be right if you guessed that they probably see some ominous signs and local characters on their way to the cabin that would have anyone with half a brain turn around and head back home immediately.  Also, cell phone reception is limited, natch.  Once at the cabin they bond, they booze, they play truth or dare, they argue.  Then something goes bump in the night and they investigate.  I’d say, “and that’s when things get good,” except things have already been getting good.  While all these standard horror film pieces of the setup are falling into place, some very important and unique things are happening.  The film is subverting the very cliches it is reveling in with some deliciously sarcastic dialog and unique twists on each character.  That alone is not so spectacular.  Heck, Scream did that very thing over 15 years ago.  But the film is slowly revealing its Big Picture, as these scenes are interwoven with ones featuring Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins.  To tell you anything about their characters or their actions and motivations would be to say too much, though they appear in the film’s opening moments and immediately let the audience know that they are in for something far different than the usual kids running for their lives in the woods shenanigans.  It becomes clear that the characters in Cabin In the Woods were introduced as the sort of tired characters we’ve come to expect in these sort of films simply so the movie can surprise us when they each begin to diverge from their cliched personas.  Ditto the film itself, which keeps us at arm’s length by looking like a run of the mill slasher flick just long enough to sucker punch us with each new reveal.  The film’s climax is a glorious orgy of bloody chaos and mayhem with themes and ideas so big you not only could never have predicted where it was going, but comprehending them and sussing out the logistics and meaning will take some doing.

It is hard in this day and age of savvy filmmakers to convince audiences that the twists and surprises a film has in store are something more than a gimmick.  Promises that audiences will be “blown away” run rampant in ads for horror flicks with even the most pedestrian of twists (many of which are either obvious long before we get to them or make little sense when finally revealed) and each year there seems to be at least one buzzed about horror flick that comes up with a new spin on old genre tropes, yet at its core is just more of the same in some shiny new window dressing (I’m looking at you, Paranormal Activity).  So you’d be forgiven for taking the hype of this Whedon (Firefly, The Avengers)-produced, Drew Goddard (Lost)-directed (from a screenplay written by the pair) meta fest with a grain of salt.  Anyone who knows the name Joss Whedon however knows he is the ultimate “fanboy”.  He  is a fan of the type genres he specializes in first and foremost, and has the same criticisms of the lazier contributions to those genres as the rest of us.  As a result, with all of his projects he has made an effort to do something different and unique; to find a new direction to take the sort of films he loves most in.  He has also made a clear effort not to talk down to the audience, assuming they are as savvy and aware of the tired genre cliches and tropes that he is.  In Goddard, Whedon has found a terrific writing partner.  The two worked together often on Whedon’s TV series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, but Goddard is also a student of the J.J. Abrams school of head-fuckery as entertainment.  With Whedon’s fanboy respect of the genre and determination to put a new spin on it, and Goddard’s creative impulse to shock and surprise, they have created a beast of unconventional, daring  and surprising entertainment with Cabin In the Woods.
4 stars out of 4.

LOCKOUT

Guy Pearce does his best Bruce Willis in the "Die Hard" clone "Lockout".

 

Published April 13, 2012

By R. David

The “Die Hard On A…” tagline has been used and reused so many times to describe a certain type of action film – where a lone hero takes on a bunch of thugs in a single, enclosed location – that the phrase has more or less lost all meaning.  For one thing, it automatically puts the film in very good company, the likes of which it doesn’t necessarily deserve (the Jean-Claude Van Damm non-starter Sudden Death, for instance, was less “Die Hard In a Hockey Stadium” than just a run of the mill generic, predictable, boring, second rate action flick – in other words, all the things the original Die Hard was not); and for another it has been applied so liberally that even films in which the hero is essentially battling an inanimate object, isn’t necessarily even ‘lone’, is mobile or tackles various threats in several different locations (Speed was “Die Hard On a Bus,” remember?) gets branded with this broad descriptive tagline because a) the main elements – cop, terrorists, hostages – are in place, and b) people like Die Hard, as well as a lot of the ‘Die Hard On A…” flicks, so it (theoretically) helps sell movie tickets.

Its true, there isn’t much original about most action pictures today, and most of the Die Hard clones borrow as much from other action films and genre tropes as from the granddaddy of all lone wolf cop flicks (sorry, Lone Wolf McQuade; maybe if you had taken place in a toy store or a watch kiosk or something…).  Take Lockout for instance.  Clearly inspired by Die Hard – not only is the hero a rogue ex-cop (OK, in this case he’s some sort of ex-CIA guy, but let’s not split hairs in a genre that considers Phone Booth Die Hard in a Watchtower” – just kidding, its “Die Hard In a Phone Booth”; I just figure its too obvious when the very thing the movie is “Die Hard In” is mentioned in the movie’s title) outnumbered by a bunch of berserk, hostage-taking convicts with all the action confined to a floating space prison (“Die Hard In Space”), but Guy Pearce is also clearly doing his best Bruce Willis impersonation here – the film is just as much a rip-off of (sorry, “homage to”) Escape From New York (AKA “Die Hard In New York In the Future Before Die Hard Existed”, not to be confused with Die Hard With A Vengeance which was “Die Hard In New York But Not In the Future”), with a wrongly accused/convicted hero being coerced into saving the daughter of the president from the a bunch of psychos in exchange for his freedom.  In a twist on the formula, the hero in Lockout is a wise-cracking loner type who doesn’t like or trust most people, smokes a lot (especially if someone asks him not to) and may or may not have a drinking problem.

If your head hasn’t exploded yet, or you still think a description of the particulars will make this film any deeper than a tagline like “Escape From Die Hard In Space” would suggest, then you probably have one of those “Hope” bumper stickers on your car.  So, for you optimists, here’s what happens:  Guy Pierce plays a guy (let’s call him Snake McClane) who’s partner is murdered in an apartment apparently outfitted with funhouse mirrors which, on the security tapes, make it look like McSnake is the one who shot him.  So he’s effed and headed to prison.  Meanwhile, the President of the United States’ bleeding-heart daughter (Maggie Grace – audiences will remember her as not being interesting on either Lost or in Taken) is en route to a space station prison to make sure the prisoners, who serve out their sentence in a chemically induced coma, are being treated properly.  The prisoners are awakened for their interviews with her and apparently being in a coma (not to mention space) for however many years does little to affect one’s mental or physical strength as one particular freak (you know he’s nuts because he talks like he has a mouth full of marbles, drools quite a bit and has a nasty gash on one side of his face) and his crew of ruthless hooligans demonstrate when they trounce her secret service detail, take her and the rest of the crew (the ones they don’t kill for shits and giggles that is) hostage, and ultimately overtake the entire prison/spaceship.  Cut back to John McPliskin who, as luck would have it, is supposed to be heading off to this very space prison as an inmate, but is offered a pardon if he can coral the situation and rescue the first daughter (unfortunately her dad is not Michael Keaton in this movie – BAM!  First Daughter reference!).  He smokes some cigarettes, makes some yo mamma jokes, gets punched in the face quite a bit and ultimately figures, ‘what the hell?’.  They give him a big wrist tracker thing to wear, because they saw Escape From L.A. (“Die Hard in L.A.”), and send him up into space alone because besides being a CIA guy, PlisClane is also apparently some sort of Astronaut Guy (as well as Pearce, Guy).  None of that training for decades and physical and mental tests bullshit for this chainsmoker.  After all, as someone actually says in this movie made in 2012 and – I swear to God – not 1987, “He’s the best there is, but he’s a loose cannon!”  And everyone knows that’s the only sort of cannon that doesn’t need any training to expertly navigate space.  Hell no, his badassness is all he needs to stick the landing.

People are shot, Die Hard and First Daughter hate each other, a larger conspiracy emerges, Die Hard and First Daughter like each other, the entire space prison starts falling out of orbit because some jackass pushed the red button, SnakeClane has a smoke, CIA and White House types on the ground bicker about rank and authority and whether or not to blow the prison out of the sky (the President isn’t a fan of this idea), McSnake is also revealed late in the film to be an exceptional mechanic, bomb expert and has a dandy home remedy to dye your hair in a pinch – or whatever the script calls for him to know how to do in order to get him out of a jam, like skydiving from space.  I also should probably mention John Pliskane discovers his friend who he thought was dead and had the only evidence that could clear him is alive and, as luck would have it, in (on?) this very space prison, right?  I shouldn’t?  OK, forget I said anything.

Lockout certainly doesn’t deserve to be compared to a couple of groundbreakers like Die Hard and Escape From New York simply because it so freely – and gleefully – steals every idea it can from them.  Whatever it hasn’t taken from those flicks, it pieces together from other well-worn action film tropes and cliches.  It doesn’t want for action and energy, but none of the action sequences are particularly original or memorable (and the special effects are downright terrible).  And all these scenes are of the typically bloodless PG-13 variety, which – between this and the likes of Taken and The Hunger Games – it is now official, means the violence can be as ugly, heartless and tasteless as in any R-rated film as long as there is minimal blood spilled or the scene stops short of showing any gaping wounds or severed limbs.  Apparently the implications of such things and the victims screaming or begging for their lives as its happening is OK for the kiddies as long as the results stay off camera.  Meanwhile, adults who want a good old fashioned, bloody action flick are left wanting, so who exactly are these watered-down-yet-still-inappropriate-for-youngsters action flicks made for?

The film’s only real saving grace is Pearce.  He may be playing a walking cliche, but you can tell he relishes the chance to play the classic sardonic hero.  He equates himself well, winning laughs with his crappy dialog, and he certainly looks the part – he’s great macho leading man material – even if he feels miscast, like he’s slumming here in between real movie offers.  For an actor who only tends to pop up in supporting roles these days, it’s odd that he’d choose such a derivative and perfunctory throwback like Lockout to be his lone theatrical staring role in ages.

Still, Pearce’s casting is about the only surprising thing in Lockout, a true Frankenstein monster of a flick that doesn’t have a single idea of its own to offer, and what it steals from other films it fails to do better, different or even live up to.  It can literally and simply be summed up as “Die Hard In Space”, but then again, it doesn’t deserve to be in such witty, original and thrilling company.

Star and a half out of 4.

AMERICAN REUNION

Jim (Jason Biggs) is still at it in "American Reunion"

 

Published April 6, 2012

By R. David

Whether or not one chooses to attend their high school reunion typically will boil down to deciding if they have any interest in spending a few hours with all the past acquaintances they’ll likely run into there. This too is true of enjoying “American Reunion”, the fourth theatrical sequel in the “American Pie” series (discounting a trilogy of direct-to-video flicks related to the series only by placing “American Pie Presents” in the title and increasingly awkward ways of grafting Eugene Levy’s character of“Jim’s Dad”  into the brand-milking proceedings) and first since 2003’s “American Wedding”. As reunions go, this is a decent time catching up with some old friends, for those with any interest in doing so that is.  If you don’t care to see where Jim, Stiffler and Shitbrick, I mean, Finch, et al have ended up, you’d be wise to RSVP “No”,as “Reunion” is basically just another round of the usual juvenile, horndog humor and embarrassing sexual encounters mixed with John Hughesesque agreeably cornball heart and insight we’ve come to expect from these films.  The later has always been the series’ saving grace.  For all the tired awkward sexual shenanigans the “Pies” have trafficked in over the years, there was always a certain honesty to the characters, a relatable humility to their challenges, and a sweetness to how their conflicts were handled and resolved.  The “Pies” were by no means ‘lesson films’ or realistic depictions of adolescent coming of age, but their hearts were in the right place.  The dialog and emotions rang true even where the scenarios ran wildly over the top.  But compared to recent comedies of its type –like “The Hangover II” and “Bridesmaids”, for instance – the tomfoolery in“American Reunion” seems almost grounded and quaint.

Though the“Pie” films follow a close-knit group of friends, the series’ heart has always been Jim (Jason Biggs).  His stumbling through the gauntlet of sexual awkwardness in the first film rang true despite the outsized nature of his exploits (pie-fucking, pre-mature ejaculation on YouTube – or whatever the YouTube equivalent was circa 1999, etc.) thanks to Biggs’ grounded and vulnerable portrayal. It also helped that the film was just as much about exploring how friendships change in the twilight of high school and in the face of romantic relationships as it was about the sophomoric raunchy humor that became the series’ biggest selling point.  Now in his early 30s and married to Michelle (Allyson Hannigan) with a baby in tow, Jim is once again facing the doubts and frustrations – both sexual and in a general lifestyle sense – that come with navigating his way through another unknown, frightening chapter in life.  He is still the same good guy at heart –a well-intentioned and loving father and husband – who gets in over his head as he fumbles towards the life lessons he seems destined to learn the hard way.  All of his concerns and unspoken marital issues come to a head, of course, as the old gang reunites for their high school reunion.

I suppose it is a good thing “Reunion” was able to gather all of the principal players from the original film.  After all, what kind of reunion would it be if half of them didn’t show?  Unfortunately, seeing the whole gang back together again really only reminds viewers why the series ran out of gas so quickly in the first place.  Has anyone really been clamoring for a resolution to the on-again-off-again, my-first-love drama of Kevin and Vicky (Thomas Ian Nicholas and Tara Reid)?  The film seems to want to show us their characters have grown, and outgrown their puppy love insecurities and immaturities that come with most high school relationships.  Unfortunately, neither Reid nor Nicholas seem to have grown any as actors, and so they fail to convince us that their characters have grown any either.  It doesn’t really help that the script seems to be indifferent about where it wants to take their characters.  As a result, catching up with them feels perfunctory as they essentially spin the same wheels they did in earlier films only to arrive in essentially the same place.  The idea, I suppose, is this is all supposed to be cathartic for these characters, but it’s tired and uneventful for the audience.

Similarly, Chris Klein’s Oz is given a potentially interesting arc with a successful career as a piece of eye candy sports broadcaster and a model fiancé.  But he too still pines for his high school love, Heather (Mena Suvari).  And here again, the script fails to evolve the characters and their conflicts to any significant degree.  They rehash the same arguments and confessions all in the service of coming to a place of honesty and mutual understanding.   Good for them, but bad for us who have already seen them go through these motions.  Sitting through it again is especially uninteresting when the film traffics in a bunch of convenient tropes just push the characters together (his fiancé might be a gold digger and a cheater, her boyfriend might be a jerk and a cheater).

Sean William Scott’s Stiffler hasn’t changed much either, despite the fact that with each film he supposedly has learned some big life lesson that inches him closer to maturity.  Still, his character and the crazy situations he lands himself in remain among the series’ more entertaining offerings.  But the Stiffler character doesn’t ring true on any level.  Sure, to some degree, we all know the cocky, self-centered, sex-obsessed, popular-in-high-school jock who refuses to grow up.  But Stiffler is written so broadly and these films have him committing acts so over the top that, if this person actually existed, he would not only be sitting in jail, but he wouldn’t be able to function in any real society.  All that said, when the film uses Stiffler’s over-eagerness to cause trouble in the right places, the movie comes alive comically.  And Stiffler’s love-hate affection for Eddie Kay Thomas’ Finch is still one of the series’ more interesting and honest depictions of friendships that occur within groups of people who don’t all necessarily get along or have all that much in common.

Jennifer Coolidge is back as Stiffler’s Mom, though mostly by necessity.  Her character has basically served the same purpose since the first film, which is to play a sexual muse for Finch, while also functioning as his object of revenge against Stiffler’s constant bullying.  She’s not given much more to do here, though her character gets a nice, if all too obvious, happy ending.  The same could be said of Jim’s Dad, though once again his moments with Jim are what give the film most of its genuine emotion.  He’s always been a mentor and sounding board for Jim – as well as the entire gang – and the film does a nice job of bringing that role full circle, while also demonstrating the ways in which kids still need their parents, even into adulthood.

“American Reunion” is essentially more of the same. What the other films got right, it does too.  Where they stumbled, it makes many of the same mistakes.  It is the sort of sequel that truly gives fans more of what they want (there is still plenty of ribald –and graphic – embarrassing sexual humor here), at the expense though of likely not winning over any new ones.  Except, I will say this: those who are around the age of the characters in this film and may be wrestling with similar life circumstances (just as they would have been around the same age of the characters and able to relate to their issues in the first film 13 years ago) may find “Reunion” and its themes speaks to them more than those who have long since passed this stage in their lives or have yet to reach it.  “Reunion” is no realistic life portrait, but it displays a genuine affection and respect for these characters which puts it – like its predecessors – a notch above similar fair; and it’s a good deal better than most of the shallow, gross-out dreck this genre typically provides.

3 stars out of 4.