Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Recruit

Year 5, Day 145 - 5/25/13 - Movie #1,436

BEFORE: This week seems to be all about films with two main characters, so after the Brendan Gleeson chain, I'll follow-up with his co-star - Colin Farrell carries over from "In Bruges".

THE PLOT:  A brilliant young CIA trainee is asked by his mentor to help find a mole in the Agency.

AFTER: Yep, it seems like this one's falling right in step, with two main characters - one a grizzled, possibly jaded veteran, the other a brash, headstrong rookie.  I don't know what to call this scenario, the "Odd Couple" effect, perhaps, but that makes it sound too comedic.  I suppose if you're a writer, you've got to be proud of yourself if you write a screenplay with one solid, original, interesting character.  Jack Reacher, say, or James Bond.  It follows that writing a screenplay with two original and interesting leads would be the next logical step, yet twice as difficult - especially since they must be similar, yet also somehow distinct. 

Jeez, if I follow that line of reasoning, then a film like last year's "The Avengers" pulled off an incredible feat, with no fewer than 6 lead characters, plus a villain.  But I guess 50 years of comic books helped make all the characters distinct and interesting.  Still, if juggling two balls is easy, and three balls is a challenge, then what is 6?

But being able to spot these patterns, due to juxtaposing similar films on successive nights, does cause another problem for me - it's making me believe that different actors are just being inserted into the same scenarios, over and over.  Like different materials being poured into the same molds - or new batters going into the same waffle irons, day after day, producing the same shape.  Oh, the taste is a little different each day, but even with different flavors, try eating waffles every morning for, say, four and a half years, and you might be struck by the overarching sameness of it all.

Still, this film does offer something original - a peek inside "The Farm", aka the C.I.A. training facility.  I assume it's not a look inside the REAL facility, but it's as close as moviegoers can expect. So we see how an agent is recruited, trained, and then assigned to a job - some get desk jobs, some work in the field.  And one supposedly becomes a "NOC", or a non-official cover operative.

But it's too bad that the training sequences were the best part of the film - it feels a bit like the screenwriters thought they needed more, so they concocted a scenario with an unlikely MacGuffin, and then tried for a fake-out.  I say "tried" because when the truth is revealed at the end, many of the actions that took place in the middle no longer make much sense.  It's one thing to create two original distinct characters, but you've then got to give them something important to do, besides play little mind games with each other.

Also starring Al Pacino (last seen in "Carlito's Way"), Bridget Moynihan (last seen in "Battle Los Angeles"), Gabriel Macht (last seen in "Love & Other Drugs")

RATING: 6 out of 10 lines of code

Friday, May 24, 2013

In Bruges

Year 5, Day 144 - 5/24/13 - Movie #1,435

BEFORE: Brendan Gleeson carries over again from "The Raven", completing another triple-play.  I'm back to hit-men for another night, then I'll really hit the spy chain full-on tomorrow.  I'm inching closer to the James Bond chain, which should start up next Thursday.

THE PLOT:  Guilt-stricken after a job gone wrong, hitman Ray and his partner await orders from their ruthless boss in Bruges, Belgium.

AFTER:  Again, the dichotomy of two characters, and the difference(s) between them is the key.  One is a more hardened, ruthless soul, and the other is the younger, perhaps more naive one.  How are they affected by their last job, and how are they affected by a change in scenery?  They are asked to lay low in Bruges (pronounced Brooj, not Brew-gees or Brew-jes), which appears to be a quaint old Belgian medieval village, and blend in like tourists, not contract killers.   Actually the most common pronounciation in this film seems to be "Feckin' Brooj". 

Here's what I know about Belgium - they make great beer, and the history of the country is all tied up in that.  For hundreds of years, England has been at war with France, or France has been at war with Germany, or Germany with England.  Every time one of those countries has tried to invade the other, they've always stopped off in Belgium for a few beers first.  You know, to calm the nerves - plus, it could be the last chance to grab a drink.  So Belgium has never been invaded, because they're such great hosts to armies passing through.  That's a smart way to position your country.

There's also some artwork on display, from the great Hieronymus Bosch, a medieval painter whose religious works contained a fair amount of what was later called surrealism.  His triptych "The Last Judgment" is displayed in Bruges, and when the main characters view it, its presence suggests that they themselves are in a form of purgatory, being judged for their sins to determine whether they will be rewarded, or forced to suffer eternal torment.

The tone here sort of reminds me of "Snatch" or "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels", only slightly more comedic.  It also sort of seems like what a European Tarantino film might be like - since there's a lot of comedy in "Pulp Fiction", both intended and unintended.  And the strange characters they meet in Bruges (a female drug-dealer, a racist dwarf actor) reinforce the surreal setting.  Strange that hitmen have a code of honor, but you should never trust filmmakers. 

Also starring Colin Farrell (last seen in "Horrible Bosses"), Ralph Fiennes (last seen in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1"), Clémence Poésy (ditto), Zeljko Ivanek (last seen in "Tower Heist"), with a cameo from Ciaran Hinds (last seen in "There Will Be Blood").

RATING: 6 out of 10 fat tourists

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Raven (2012)

Year 5, Day 143 - 5/23/13 - Movie #1,434

BEFORE:  This would have been a fabulous time to stay on topic and watch "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol", especially since Brendan Gleeson from "Safe House" was also in "Mission Impossible II" with Tom Cruise.  But as I said the other night, it's not on premium cable yet, not available for rental on iTunes or Amazon, and the $5.99 DVD store had it, but at the outrageous price of $15.99 for a DVD/Blu-Ray combo.  That's outside my budget, if I paid that much for a film each day, I'd eventually go broke.  So this is a substitute film, a bit of a step backwards to serial killers, but at least this film also features Brendan Gleeson. 

I'll feel really stupid and cheesed off if that "Mission Impossible" film debuts on cable 2 weeks from now...

THE PLOT: When a madman begins committing horrific murders inspired by Edgar Allan Poe's works, a young Baltimore detective joins forces with Poe to stop him from making his stories a reality.

AFTER:  I went into this one with high hopes, because I got really into Poe when I was in junior high.  I read the complete works, not just "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Pit and the Pendulum" but also "Hop Frog", "The Gold Bug", "Murders in the Rue Morgue", and "The Fall of the House of Usher".  Even if you put aside his contributions to gothic horror, the man earns praise for writing what is regarded as the first detective story.  And after writing "The Raven", "The Bells", and "Annabel Lee", they re-named POE-ms after him - before that, they were just called "verses".  OK, I made up that last factoid. 

Also, he was a drunk, but this fact is well-known.  This only increases my admiration of the man, however.  According to this film, he was also a self-centered arrogant bastard obsessed with his level of fame.  You know, a writer.  And it happens that no one really knows what took place in the last days of Poe's life, so someone saw fit to fill them with a battle of wits with a deranged killer.  And perhaps it takes one twisted genius to catch another.

Once again, we see that this is what Hollywood knows about serial killers - that they're obsessive compulsives, they kill according to an unbreakable pattern (Poe stories this time) and in so doing they must taunt the police and leave clues to their identity.  Oh, plus they're nasty creeps who can hide in plain sight.

But this is what I found more interesting - what happens to a creative person (writer, director, artist) when there's nothing left in the tank?  When everything he tries to create fails to match the quality of his previous successes? Would he himself be painfully aware of this fact, or would his perception of his own talent fail him as well?  It's ironic, perhaps that here Poe has to be concerned instead with someone using the framework of his own stories to stage murder scenes, and even though this is appalling, it re-sparks his creative genius.

It's a bit of clever to set a mystery back in Poe's time, before fingerprinting and most other modern forensics were in use.  Also, being set before the development of the light bulb means that all of the night scenes (about 95% of the film, all the best stuff happens after dark...) are mostly in shadows, which just amps up the creepy factor even more.  However, this also meant I had to watch a couple key scenes over and over, just because it was so hard to discern what was going on in the dark.

Part of me wishes I had saved this film for Halloween time, but the other part thinks it belongs right here in the countdown.  After all, I've got a nice little unintended secondary theme going on, at least back to "Miami Blues" - and that is the dichotomy between good and evil, represented by two main characters.  "Collateral" - same deal, the hitman and the cabbie, also "Taking Lives" and "The Bone Collector" were also mental games involving a cop and a killer, ditto for "Ricochet".  OK, "Safe House" was a little off the mark, but only because the spy thing was so confusing it was hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys.  But that still represented a dichotomy between the two spies, old and young.  Will this continue in the week ahead?

Also starring John Cusack (last heard in "Anastasia"), Luke Evans (last seen in "The Three Musketeers" (2011)), Alice Eve (last seen in "Stage Beauty"), Kevin McNally (last seen in "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides").

RATING:  8 out of 10 stagehands

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Safe House

Year 5, Day 142 - 5/22/13 - Movie #1,433

BEFORE: Completing a Denzel Washington triple-play - I think I've done 2 Denzel chains before over the course of the project, but honestly it's getting tough to remember that sort of thing.

THE PLOT:  A young CIA agent is tasked with looking after a fugitive in a safe house. But when the safe house is attacked, he finds himself on the run with his charge.

AFTER:   This is a tough one to rate, especially compared with something like "Ricochet".  A lot more stuff happened in "Ricochet", but so little of it was believable.  This one appears to come from the reality of modern espionage - waterboarding and all that - but when you boil it down, look past the action to the general plotline, you might realize that there's no "there" there.

Oh, things take place - there are car chases, shoot-outs, and good ol' fisticuffs - but it's one of those cases where somebody forgot to give the plot a valid middle.  It opens strong, and there's a big finish, but so much of the middle is delay, delay, delay.  Once I realized the pattern - safe house gets compromised, fight the bad guys, escape, find the next safe house, repeat - I could see I was getting gamed.  When the lead character's instructions from his superiors kept turning out to be "get to a safe place, contact us again in 12 hours" I felt like I was being strung along.

The most interesting part was seeing the spy business through the eyes of a rookie - he's been trained, but his experience mainly has involved babysitting a safe house, keeping it stocked and ready for the next agent who needs a place to check in, hide out and crash for the night.  Said rookie is thrust into the main action when a veteran rogue agent turns himself in, and the opposition (whoever they are) tries to prevent that from happening.

There are some very vauge plot-points here, many things are kept non-specific, perhaps to allow the audience to imagine the details.  What information does this agent have?  How/why did he go rogue?  Why, exactly, does everyone want to either kill him or take him in?  Even when some of the specifics are revealed, they're still pretty nebulous.

Instead, the main focus seems to be on whether experience trumps youth, aka age over beauty.  The two leads are forced to work together, when they're not trying to kill each other, at least - demonstrating that you can't ever really trust anyone in the spy game, not the Hollywood spy game, anyway.  Nothing here rubbed me the wrong way as a "fake-out", but there were still a few too many reversals.

NITPICK POINT: Waterboarding is generally used to gain necessary information from UNwilling prisoners.  It was a little strange to have a character say "I'll tell you what you want to know" and then have him get waterboarded.  What's the point?  Did they not believe him?  At that point, couldn't torturing him make him LESS likely to give up his information, not more?

NITPICK POINT #2: When things go wrong in South Africa, the two top agents fly in from (presumably) Washington DC to take control of the situation.  Really?  You don't have anyone else out in the field who might be able to handle things?  Can't you fly someone in from Egypt or Libya or something?  What part of "time-critical situation" are you failing to understand?

Also starring Ryan Reynolds (last seen in "Green Lantern"), Brendan Gleeson (last seen in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1"), Vera Farmiga (last seen in "The Manchurian Candidate"), Sam Shepard (last seen in "All the Pretty Horses"), Ruben Blades (ditto), Robert Patrick (also ditto, that's a little odd...).

RATING: 5 out of 10 security codes

Tuesday, May 21, 2013


Year 5, Day 141 - 5/21/13 - Movie #1,432

BEFORE: Denzel Washington carries over from "The Bone Collector", again playing a cop matching wits with a killer.  This is going to clear the "Killer" category, except for one film that I'll get to later in the week because of the way the actor linking is shaking down. 

THE PLOT:  An attorney is terrorized by the criminal he put away years ago when he was a cop.

AFTER: I started this theme back on May 1, with "Twisted", and it's funny that I sort of bookended the chain with two similar (and similarly absurd) films.  Both center on cops who are targeted/framed by criminals, where said cops are made to look like criminals + addicts, and have to fight through the haze to find the true killers.

Denzel plays a cop here who later becomes an attorney, but a criminal he puts away breaks out of prison, then fakes his own death, and seeks revenge, framing the cop who humiliated him for a variety of crimes.  Killing his nemesis wouldn't be enough satisfaction, because the criminal wants to see him suffer.  BUT -

NITPICK POINT: Why does the criminal reveal himself to the cop?  Everything he accomplished in his revenge scheme could have been accomplished while remaining in the shadows.  Perhaps this is intended as his "fatal mistake" - or perhaps it's a sign of a deranged mind, but it still defies logic.

What this sets us is something like a Batman/Joker relationship - with some debate over who created who.  The arrest of the madman advanced the cop's career, but then the cop's success accelerates the madman's madness. 

But it's WAY over the top, to the point of being barely believable.  And the way in which the cop gets revenge for the revenge is even more far-fetched.

Plus, why is it called "Ricochet"?  The term specifically refers to bullets bouncing off of things, and that doesn't happen in the film.  Maybe it's a metaphor for events having repercussions, but it's still a strange disconnect.

Also starring John Lithgow (last seen in "Rise of the Planet of the Apes"), Kevin Pollak (last seen in "The Whole Ten Yards"), Ice-T (last seen in "Johnny Mnemonic"), Lindsay Wagner, Jesse Ventura (last seen in "Predator"), with a cameo from John Amos.

RATING: 4 out of 10 

Monday, May 20, 2013

The Bone Collector

Year 5, Day 140 - 5/20/13 - Movie #1,431

BEFORE:  I'm almost done with the serial killer chain, so I'm looking forward to sleeping without a light on...

This time Angelina Jolie carries over from "Taking Lives".  Yes, before she settled down and started adopting kids, she took down serial killers - who knew?  More thoughts on her in a bit.

THE PLOT:  A quadriplegic homicide detective and his female partner track down a serial killer.

AFTER:  Without giving anything away, this film features what I've come to call a "Hollywood" serial killer, and that is one who 1) has devised some kind of pattern to his killings and cannot, under any circumstances alter this pattern and 2) feels the need to leave "clues" to his identity, so that some intelligent counterpart in the police department or crime lab can spot the pattern or piece together the clues.  I have a feeling that most serial killers would rather NOT be caught, so why leave intentional clues?  Sure, the Unabomber had his manifesto, but I have a feeling that was mostly his opinions on things, and not a coded message that would lead the ATF right to his door.

Now, as to the first part - the pattern to the killings, the unchangeable M.O.  Again, I feel this is perhaps mostly a cinematic convention.  The audience needs to know the identity of the killer in the third reel, so there's enough time for a final showdown and a wrap-up.  This means that a path toward catching the killer needs to be laid down from the start, and in a lot of cases, that involves a killer who's locked in to a system.  I'm on board up to a point, after all this is how the police first figure out they're dealing with a serial, by identifying similarities in crime scenes within a particular radius or time-frame.  But the compulsion to kill often seems to be portrayed as an advanced form of O.C.D. - as if the killer is somehow organizing people by making them more dead.

I can see it if a killer has a "type", killing only blonde women or targeting people of a certain race, but I honestly haven't heard of O.C.D. getting so bad that people kill to maintain a pattern.  Most people with O.C.D. just end up as hoarders, or people who have to wash their hands 50 times a day or click a light switch 17 times before leaving the room.  Then again, the word "collector" is in the title of the film, maybe they should have played up that angle a bit more - I mean, where was his collection of bones?

I also want to talk about the "fake-out" - this is another Hollywood convention where we are led to believe the killer might be one person, and SURPRISE - it's someone you didn't expect.  Unless you've seen a number of these, and you know to expect the most likely person.  And unless the filmmakers know you're likely to expect the most likely person, so they pull a double-fake-out and make it the person that you WOULD expect.  (I'm like the Sicilian in "The Princess Bride" - trying to reason out which goblet has the poison in it...)

I watched "Law & Order" and its spin-offs for years, and at some point they started to fall into a pattern.  Whoever the biggest guest-star in the opening credits was, logically that person would be playing the killer or biggest criminal.  Because why would someone like Jeremy Irons or Robin Williams be slumming on a TV show, unless they were looking to stretch their acting by playing a diabolical killer?  And for a while, that formula worked - until the producers realized they had fallen into a predictable pattern, and for a couple years the twist was that the big guest star DIDN'T do it, and then they could revert to form again.

And now I've put both possibilities out there, so that doesn't spoil this film.  The only way you can learn the killer's identity is to watch the film - or look it up online, I guess.

Now my thoughts on Angelina Jolie, who's gotten a lot of press this week by undergoing a pre-emptive double mastectomy, despite being in perfect health, because she's determined that she's carrying the gene which makes her susceptible to breast cancer.  Her actions are being heralded as "brave" and "courageous", but I'm not so sure.  There's a character in this film who's quadriplegic and prone to seizures - and he's making plans to end his own life.  Part of the message of the film is that that's not the right way to handle things, and I think if assisted suicide is wrong, then by extension, so is pre-emptive mastectomy.  Should I cut off my finger so I never get a paper cut?

(Besides, Angelina, what about MY needs?  What about America's?)  Again I refer to "The Princess Bride": "There's a shortage of perfect breasts in this world. It would be a pity to damage yours."

Also starring Denzel Washington (last seen in "Courage Under Fire"), Queen Latifah (last seen in "The Dilemma"), Michael Rooker (last seen in "Days of Thunder"), Ed O'Neill (last seen in "Blue Chips"), Luis Guzman (last seen in "Guilty As Sin"), Michael McGlone, Leland Orser (last seen in "Twisted"), Bobby Cannavale (last seen in "Win Win").

RATING:  6 out of 10 subway tunnels

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Taking Lives

Year 5, Day 139 - 5/19/13 - Movie #1,430

BEFORE: You'd think the next obvious choice would be to follow up with another Tom Cruise movie, like "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol", right?  But I've got a few killer-based films left, and I'm not ready to start my spy chain just yet - anyway, I've got another actor lead-in to that chain already planned.  Anyway, that film doesn't seem available to me at a reasonable cost just yet, so I might have to skip it for now.  Jeez, that was one of the top films of 2011, not 2012, and it's not on premium cable yet?  I swear, if there's any rhyme or reason to when and how films get released in digital platforms, I sure can't fathom it.

So it's on with the original plan - finish the serial killer chain.  Linking from "Jack Reacher", Robert Duvall was also in "Gone in 60 Seconds" with Angelina Jolie (last heard in "Kung Fu Panda 2").

THE PLOT:  An FBI profiler is called in by French Canadian police to catch a serial killer who takes on the identity of each new victim.

AFTER: For me, this one comes down to believablity - do I believe that a serial killer can be motivated so much by a desire to not be himself that he will kill other people in order to take on their identities, in a method the film describes as similar to a hermit crab switching shells?  Can a killer meet someone, spend a short time with them and learn their backstory and enough about them to replace them, mimicking their dress, posture and speech patterns?  Even for a motivated crazy person, that seems like a lot of work - so, no, I'm not buying in.

The basic selection of victims would then seem to be based on a certain height and build - somebody who the killer could replace with minimal effort or basic disguises.  I suppose then he'd have to move to another city, where nobody knew the victim, and start over.  But what if he DID run into somebody who the victim once knew - I guess they'd be the next victim, but what if they were a different race or something?

Unless we're talking about some psychosis that runs so deep that the killer himself believes that he has become this new person - but then, wouldn't he forget he was a serial killer?  So the premise only works up to a point.  What you end up with here is a killer who, since he hasn't yet been seen first-hand by the cops, could be masquerading as anyone - yes, even THAT guy.  Don't get me wrong, I like plot twists a lot, but I don't approve of fake-outs.  And that's all I have to say about that.

In a genre that relies on investigative techniques and the processing of information, this film relies on key information conveniently not being available at particular times, because if the cops had a decent sketch of the perp, for example, all of the suspense would dissipate.  If a particular witness answered a question with "Yes" or "No" (instead of say, remaining silent and walking away), something similar would happen.  As a result, the seams are showing from where the plot got stitched together.

What I remember learning about facial recognition and identification is that there are certain things that never change - how far apart one's eyes are, cheekbone structure, etc.  Police are trained to look past eye color, hair color, and facial hair to identify people - and unless the killer here has massive facial reconstructive surgery every time he kills, I don't think the premise holds up.

Also starring Ethan Hawke (last seen in "Brooklyn's Finest"), Kiefer Sutherland (last seen in "The Three Musketeers"), Gena Rowlands (last seen in "Once Around"), Olivier Martinez, Paul Dano (last heard in "Where the Wild Things Are").

RATING:  5 out of 10 family photos