Monday, February 13, 2012

MRQ XI, the "whatcha watchin" edition

People ask me all the time what I watch. Right now, this is my answer. As with every Movie Review Quickie, I cover 7 films in one go: Red State, Hart's War, BASEketball, [•REC], Escape from New York, Hard Target, and Mortal Kombat: The Movie. Yeah, it's a mixed bag, but it's a sample of my viewing.

Let's take a walk, huh?

Red State

I won't repeat my feelings about Kevin Smith much. I think he's incredibly funny, quick-witted, thoughtful, and intelligent. He has a satirical mind that's down-to-earth and familiar to a Tri-State boy. I was pleasantly surprised by Red State, then, because it was a complete departure from his previous work.

RS is about a group of teens who find, through the web, a woman who'll sleep with them; the unfortunate trio are being trapped by a religious cult under investigation by aggressive government agencies. There is a strong focus on the empowered ecstasy felt by the "wrongful righteous," as I like to call them. It's balanced, however, by time spent on the calculated inhumanity of the agents who might ditch their jobs and settle on a chilling form of justice.

This was not a fun movie to watch (it might be best at a drive-in, actually) because the material was dark and grim, with a deliberate pace. Occasionally, it has an atmosphere straight out of a "torture porn" slasher, but that's just in the sense of dread or distress that builds up at times. The pic is, in fact, a sort of anti-violence PSA.

The cast is very good. I found the sermon scene to be way too long, but it's hard to complain as it's a fine bit of acting by Michael Parks. The plots do not necessarily play out as you would expect. Red State is a good movie. It gets intense, so that might steer you away from it. I'm happy to see some signs of maturity and effort and change from Smith.

Hart's War

This is a technically well-made, low-key war picture that's totally skippable because it's just not "enough" anything. Colin Farrell plays the newest officer to be sent to a German POW camp. He encounters Bruce Willis, the prisoners' leader, and sees the tenuously respectful relationship between the captives and the camp commander.

Soon, a POW is murdered, with the evidence pointing to a black serviceman who'd been bullied. Farrell is assigned as the defense for the prisoners' own court martial, and this has him pushing against everybody. At once, it's A Few Good Man as well as The Great Escape. Or, at least, a much less engaging version of those two.

In some ways, this picture should've played to the strengths of its themes more. It also should have done a little more with its cast. HW creates a credible environment, but there's too little time to get involved with the people inhabiting it. The German leader and Farrell are solid characters, but few others make a deep or lasting impression. This means that the story has less impact and is less engaging than it could've been.

Rescue Dawn is a good comparison. Werner Herzog's POW movie had a more involving storyline and a style that had more "kick." Hart's War is shot the way many solid pictures are, but there's nothing to really win you over. Farrell is fine, Willis is at least ok and it's good to see Bruce take some non-lead roles.


Matt Stone and Trey Parker are brilliant comedians. Their second film, BASEketball, is basically in the same "dumb zany comedy" vein as Hot Shots Part Deux and Down Periscope. While this may not sound appealing, the duo behind South Park excel at both stupid and smart jokes, and the rapid-fire punchlines quickly win out.

Earnest Borgnine, Jenny McCarthy, Bob Costas, and Robert Vaughan round out the cast of people caught up in a crazy world. Here, two derelict slackers (Stone and Parker) invent a sport at a party; they do it to impress some girls and win a bet. A wealthy businessman (Borgnine) decides to build an entire league around the concept, but a determined and greedy rival (Vaughan) does everything he can to exploit it for his own profit.

This is not a perfect movie, not even for its subgenre. But it is genuinely, deeply funny, and the jokes keep coming. With such a high percentage of jokes per minute, only some of them have to really land, and Stone & Parker (and the rest) know how to deliver them. What's more impressive is that they manage to tell a story and develop their characters a bit while they zing away.

How many big-budget pics have failed to do that?

Highlights include the song Parker hears as he goes for a ride, the drinking game set to the number of fights on an ep of Jerry Springer, and the letter-perfect delivery of the "reading something written on my hand" scene. If I made a list of great comedies, BASEketball would not be near the top, but you should laugh pretty hard at this. It's got a great mix of dumb, clever, slapstick and anything else you can think of.

What an unfortunate thing to happen on Dozen Egg Night!


should've been perfect. It had solid buzz, and I love foreign films. I figured I'll get a great scare and learn some new words in Catalan. The beginning is excellent, as we're introduced to a young, attractive Barcelona news reporter who follows a firehouse during night watch one evening.

The natural feel of the actors is excellent. The story smoothly transitions to the team heading out on a (domestic) call, where we move into a well-realized apartment building with its tightly-winding stairs and narrow hallways. I liked the tension and initial fright at the surprise appearance of a g-d zombie! Who uses the euro!

In short, we start with a good story, but it only tries to have a develop the story twice. The first time is a cool development, the second is a dumb attempt to explain what's happening. The set design is perfect, but the damn camera makes it hard to always enjoy or use effectively. This movie is a kinda-deflated balloon.

The problem here is that [•REC] stuck so closely to the "fake-umentary" style of Blair Witch. That choice backfired bigtime, weakening or wasting its story progression. The tension and flashes of originality fade because you start to know what's coming.

I didn't like the pace and story-telling, either. Once I was sure this was stuck in Blair-mode, I almost counted the minutes til the final, over-delayed moment of exposition.

The camera style also got very old, very fast; I wish the movie had switched this technique out, at least for a bit. It made no sense because this wasn't actually a "found footage" film - we're seeing through the cameraman's eye as this stuff happens! The end, where the lead is in a dark room, is stupid; she records the room (reaaallly slowly) in night vision, then turns the camera over to watch the footage.

Some viewers forgive its flaws and focus on the perfect sets, the nice start, and that first development I mentioned before (it's too good to spoil). It's enough for some. To me, the final scare scene was dumb and annoying, and [•REC] mostly wasted its fine potential, creativity, and cast.

Escape from New York

The 70's were an amazing time for dystopian futuristic films, weren't they? Here, John Carpenter sees a world where the President's plane is crashed into the worst prison in America: Manhattan Island. Since the entire place was sealed off and restricted for the use of convicts with a life sentence, Kurt Russell's role, Snake Plisskin, has only one chance to keep himself from becoming the newest resident: recover the Prez and some important information he's carrying.

This is one of the most well-crafted images of the future that I've seen. The action is exciting, though the movie usually moves at a quieter, slower pace than you'd expect. Snake is the ultimate Marlboro-Man renegade, a former spec ops soldier turned bank robber. EfNY has a large cult following because of the effortless cool and ruggedness that Russell so effectively conveys.

Some moments and aspects seem dated and silly. The supporting cast is used just enough to not be jarring, though there's something really off about them, especially Harry Dean Stanton from Pretty in Pink and Ernest Borgnine as the creatively-nicknamed "Cabbie." It's amazing that EfNY works so well, since the story introduces and then uses these people, and it does so really quickly.

Escape represents John Carpenter at the height of his creative powers, and anyone should be able to watch and enjoy this - especially Isaac Hayes driving in a Cadillac that has a chandelier inside it.

I love the beat playing in the first half of the trailer, but the narrator is no good.

Hard Target

Entertaining, but in an odd way. In 1993, Tinseltown knew that John Woo was a highly-respected, super-profitable Hong Kong filmmaker; also, Jean-Claude Van Damme was a popular action star. Universal thought they were mixing chocolate and peanut butter, but it was more like orange juice + pepsi. The savings graces here are a solid support cast, some neat scenes and entertaining acting (read: both bad and good). Unfortunately, I'd recommend so many other films instead of Hard Target.

The story is that Lance Henriksen is in New Orleans, offering homeless war veterans a chance to earn some big cash. Sadly, he runs a pricey hunting club for wealthy folks who want to chase humans instead of animals, and the vets never survive. Natasha (Yancy Butler) learns of her father's death, but can't find any help from the NOPD. A random do-gooder named Chance (Jean-Claude) saves her from an attack and she asks him to help solve the crime.

Of course, there is no real investigation to be had - the baddies hear that Natasha's asking about them and decide to kill her. She and Chance then run from one set to another, facing off against the villains while the story advances.

The real fun here is in Henriksen's great performance. He's having such a good time it's infectious, and he sells the role well. I'm especially in love with his last line in the film; it's not even a complete word, but it's a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. Wilford Brimley also makes an appearance as a good-hearted Cajun-American-Indian who helps Chance - Wilford's accent is... hysterical.

The last few action scenes are really well-done, and great viewing. Unfortunately, there isn't a good enough script or a strong enough lead to make this work. Also, one sequence has a bad guy on a motorcycle speeding at JCVD. Van Damme kicks the guy in the helmet, knocking him down - but the speed of the bike and, um, physics, dictate that our hero should've broken his leg.

Mortal Kombat: The Movie

It's incredible to think that this picture got made, and it's just as incredible to think that this picture got made like this. In 1995, Paul Anderson (yes, that guy) directed Mortal Kombat, a film whose primary motivation was to profit off of the success of the well-known video game it's based on. He got away with the result.

The movie was a financial success, despite being garbage. Even its theme song, that ridiculous hyperactive techno-house beat, was a big hit. I guess everyone hoped it might be good, then stuck around for stupid popcorn-chewing fun.

Various people who are really good at fighting are drawn into a martial arts tournament held by a mysterious and evil Asian sorcerer. Their motivations and allegiances may vary, but their dialogue is almost universally boring. A magical benevolent being talks to each of the "good" fighters, telling them that the stakes of the competition are quite high, and that they must work together to win.

That's sort of what happens.

So what went wrong? The lead is split among three actors - Robin Shou (Liu Kang), Bridgette Wilson (Sonya Blade), and Linden Ashby (Johnny Cage). This might have been a great way to develop the characters, but I'm not sure any of the three could carry a movie by themselves; the script and storyline don't do any favors to anyone here.

With a few exceptions, everything that is spoken aloud is uninteresting. Since you can't engage much with the roles, the fight scenes (which aren't incredible to begin with) become pretty unimpressive as well. Really, the dialogue is sometimes so stupid, you can't imagine that anyone was paid to write the script.

The unintentional comedy abounds. There's a lot of talking about facing one's fears, and I just laugh at Christopher Lambert as Raiden, the white Asian lightning god. An especial highlight is Kang's big face-off against the powerful evil mastermind who's gonna ruin the world and also killed his brother.

What's the big moment? What's said between Liu Kang and the villainous Shang Tsung?
ST: "You will die!"
LK: "No - you will die!" 
That's MK in a nutshell. They should've called it Mortal Kombat: "The Movie"*
*Warning - does not contain actual movie

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