The first month of the new year is winding down, and the first crop of 2013's movies have proven mostly dreadful. No big shock there; that's how it usually goes down. But I was hoping for a Grey or maybe even a Haywire. No such luck. Arnie's big cinematic return, The Last Stand proved to be an anemic bore as well as a financial disaster. Guess the rest of the world cares not if the Last Action Hero can still Terminate, or did they recognize the lack of sizzle in the trailers. Curious to see how Stallone's Bullet in the Head fares come February 1st. Can these action titans put butts in the seats outside of the Super Group ridiculousness of The Expendables? I have some serious doubts, and that makes my 13 year old heart very sad.
Finally, with the passing of Michael Winner, I found most of my week consumed with the Death Wish franchise. It's been a good ten years since I'd seen one of Charles Bronson's urban rampages, and I am pleased to report that his blood thirsty quest for gangland revenge still holds up even when the sequels descend into exploitation lunacy. But, boy oh boy, my favorite bits of dorkery came right at the end when I witnessed a pair of Franco Nero performances that absolutely stole my geeky heart. It amazes me just how much transformation Nero can achieve with just the slightest difference in facial grooming. In one film he's a grizzled beastmaster, and in the other he's all Magnum PI cool...with a ninjutsu twist. And voiced with great Kung Fu dubbing. A new man crush has been achieved.
Taken: "I know the world." Papa Neeson should never have allowed his daughter to travel to Paris in a sophomoric attempt to shadow U2. But since Xander Berkley bedded ex-wife Famke Janssen and bought his way into his daughter's heart with ponies and swimming pools, Neeson saw no other alternative than to let her fall victim to the slave trade. However, Papa Neeson does have a particular set of skills, and he'll only let slavers have their shenanigans for so long. Eventually those skills have to be put into practice and Taken pretends to be a big screen version of television's 24. And for a PG-13 actionfest, Taken delivers on the torture violence spectacularly. We get broken wine bottles jammed into throats, bullets blasted into the shoulders of corrupt cops wives, and scumbag villains strapped and car batteried. All in the name of parenthood. And Neeson excels in spitting the rage & hate as much as the machine gun fire; he's having a lot of fun playing action hero and I'm happy to see him continue to do so. After all, I'm sure Maggie Grace can find countless ways to play distressed damsel - Elisha Cuthbert certainly found 8 seasons of 24 terror.
Taken 2: "When a dog has a bone, the last thing you want to do is take it from him." It's Father vs Father in this even more sanitized sequel to the 24 wannabe. Rade Serbedzija gathers all the leftover goons from his slave trade family and sends them after Neeson. But these thugs are just chum for Neeson's shark, and Taken 2 offers very little suspense as Neeson easily dispatches one helpless villain after the next. There's never a question of victory, we're just killing time until one proud papa meets the other. The final confrontation between Neeson and Rade is quick and rather civil. Taken 2 is enjoyable enough thanks to Liam Neeson's bark, but it's a pale imitation of what was already an imitation.
The Last Stand: It's been ten years since Arnold Schwarzenegger starred in a film (Terminator 3), and nearly twenty years since he starred in a film that was passable as "good" (True Lies). So I really wanted to enjoy this. Especially with the idea of Kim Jee-woon, the sick visualist behind The Good The Bad The Weird & I Saw The Devil, driving the action and delivering a little demented flavor to the proceedings. But The Last Stand is sooooo painfully dull. It spends far too much time building who-gives-a-shit plot with the useless Forrest Whitaker - and Johnny Knoxville has no business Rob Schneidering on the sidelines. There's a little fun to be had here with cars in cornfields and Arnie firing revolvers into the skulls of crooks, but the thrill is gone and what's left is a shell of past glories. Kim Jee-woon doesn't seem to be driving the action as much as holding the reigns - let him loose Hollywood, and we might have a bloody good show on our hands. As is, The Last Stand is another forgettable January release and a tough nail in the career of Schwarzenegger.
Fringe - The Final Season: When this season first started I could hardly believe it. Never would I have imagined during the first season of Fringe that the final season would take place 25 years in the future where our Amber-traveling heroes would battle it out with the despotic, emotionless Observers. This is wonderfully crazy, high concept comic book fun. Olivia & Peter struggle to find happiness in each other when the world keeps crushing their hopes; can they possibly survive such sci-fi parental horrors? Well, when you've got the mad mind of Walter Bishop fighting on your side then you've got hope buried deep inside his drug fogged genius...granted, all this horror is his fault but the beauty of Fringe is that it's his saga of salvation, and watching him fight for himself is 90% of the show's heart. The final moments of the show are satisfying, and as much as I'll miss Fringe, I'm happy that it got it's time for a proper send off.
Silver Linings Playbook: Of all the Oscar nominated films this was the one I had the least amount of interest towards. A romantic dramedy starring Bradley Cooper & Jennifer Lawrence that center around anxiety, dance, and football? Yeah, no thank you. But, dang it, Silver Linings Playbook is probably the most satisfying little romance that we've had in quite some time and to dismiss it simply as a quirky romcom would do it injustice. Bradley Cooper gives his best performance so far as the bipolar Pat attempting to worm his way back into the heart of his wife after nearly beating her lover to death in the shower. Fun times, right? But when he meets the equally troubled Jennifer Lawrence, their bond formed through jogging and dance is redemptive...and a complete fairy tale. Watching the first half of the film I was convinced that the story would end in heartache and ruin. But there is magic in football, and if you read the signs properly or force the signs to read the right way for your needs, than there's a happy ending for all of us. Love, Dance, & Football conquers gambling addiction and all manner of psychological trauma.
Death Wish: "Which war was yours?" After his wife is murdered and his daughter assaulted, Charles Bronson's bleeding heart liberal takes to the streets of New York with a sock full of quarters and an itchy trigger finger. The film is far less exploitive than you're probably expecting (or desiring), but you've got the sequels to quench your bloodlust. The first film is more interested in exploring society's desire for absolute justice as well as Paul Kersey's satisfaction at playing urban cowboy. With each bullet to the head the righteousness of Gary Cooper sinks into a dry Charles Bronson smile. But my favorite moment has to be the channel surfing New Yorkers taking inspiration from his violent acts, finding the courage to defend themselves with hatpins & steel toed construction boots. Death Wish is a brutal, anti-climactic (where the hell does Jeff Goldblum's gang go?), and rather depressing. And I love it's hateful heart.
Death Wish II: When we last saw Paul Kersey he had moved to Chicago where he most certainly would continue his blood feud against the hoodlums and pickpockets of the windy city - a vigilante serial killer born. However, when Part 2 picks up, he's moved across the country with his still traumatized daughter and her ineffectual husband, and he's still plugging away at the architect game. Business as usual. That is until another gang of rapists and murders invade his home, kidnap his daughter, and drive her to plummeting suicide. A new mission of vengeance is born. Death Wish II is much more the exploitation flick than the original - the film seems to revel in the horrors inflicted upon the innocent, and it's even more mean spirited when it lingers on the violent retaliation of Charles Bronson. The Gang itself is much more present than the original's random thugs, and the script goes out of its way to demonize these gun-running, beatbox dancing, drug addicts. Bravo to the dayplayers that wallow in the filth of their characters - some serious grubby scenery chewing accomplished. Death Wish II is a cheap followup to the original, but it's paving the way to the gratuitous glory of Death Wish 3.
The Paperboy: A fascinating train wreck of a film. Matthew McConaughey & Zac Efron are a couple of desperate civil rights reporters investigating the circumstances that placed John Cusack on death row. Sounds simple enough, right? Well, this ain't Just Cause. Once Nicole Kidman's white trash nightmare enters the picture we're given horrendous displays of jailhouse masturbation and what has to be the greatest gift to crap cinema ever burned into celluloid - Nicole Kidman screaming "If anyone is going to piss on him it's gonna be me!!!!!" Yes, ladies & gentlemen, The Paperboy might be trying to be a great many things, but it will forever be remembered as the movie in which Nicole Kidman erotically urinates upon Zac Efron's jellyfished chest. There is just no living that down.
Justified - Season Four "Truth & Consequences": "I see so much death around you..." Raylan follows the breadcrumbs of the Waldo Truth mystery and it leads right to the doorstep of the Detroit Mafia. Not good. Boyd confronts religious whackjob Billy and comes out on top thanks to a little rattler aggression. A solid episode that's hopefully building to a mob war powder keg. However, I'm not really sure yet how I feel in regards to the bartender melodrama. Her bumfight boyfriend is a little goofy, and if she's in on the swindle than I'll be a little disappointed. I do want to see Raylan take this confident chump out, and I hope he does it in a smart, smirky, and brutal fashion.
Death Wish 3: "They killed The Giggler, man. THEY KILLED THE GIGGLER!!!" In part 1, they killed his wife. In part 2, they killed his daughter. And in part 3, they kill his old Korean War buddy. Man, Paul Kersey just can't catch a break. This time out the NYPD don't even bother to fight his vigilante ways, in fact, they recruit him to take down the cult-like Manny's Gang. Bronson gathers his war buddy's machine guns, grenades, and uses enticing motor vehicles as bait for the savage scum loitering the streets. One bite, and BOOM! Colt Cobra slugs blast into your spine; Charles Bronson victorious! This is miles away from the troubled spirit of the original film, it celebrates the gratuitous gore of street justice and relishes in the absurdity of genre. Death Wish 3 feels like an Australian post-apocalyptic western filmed on a crappy Hollywood backlot, and it's amazing. Easily the most fun entry in the franchise.
Death Wish 4 - The Crackdown: The fourth film attempts to return to the grit and grime of the first two movies, but once you venture into the Rocket Launcher madness of Death Wish 3 there is not going back to the anti-hero basics. The crime that ignites this latest spree of killings is the crack overdose of Paul Kersey's girlfriend's daughter...yeah, they're really stretching it at this point. A mysterious benefactor sponsors Charles Bronson's gangland attacks, but it's obvious from the start that the mystery man is the true villain...unfortunately, the script drags and drags offering very little joy in the killing. Not sure if the thrill is lost with the departure of director Michael Winner, or if Bronson's vigilante has simply past his action hero prime. Whatever the case, there is no real point in going any further with the saga.
Amour: Michael Haneke does not make Fun Nights Out At The Movies. He makes emotionally devastating dramas that haunt the viewer days after the credits roll. Amour is no different. Jean-Louis Trintignant (The Great Silence!) and Emmanuelle Riva are an elderly married couple forced to acknowledge their mortality when one of them is stricken with a paralyzing attack. For two hours we watch this couple suffer and survive - if not physically, than emotionally. It's a hard watch. Especially for this married man. And I don't know if I could go through it again. But I'm glad a did the one pass. Both Trintiganant & Riva deliver heart wrenching performances, and there is a sense of uplift even when their story is so painful.
Keoma: "The Man Who Is Free Never Dies!" If you listen to this interview, Franco Nero claims Keoma to be one of his favorite roles, if not his very favorite. It's easy to understand. As Keoma, Nero is a grizzled, screaming, beast of a man plagued with surreal visions of the past and saddled with the impending doom of having to slaughter his three evil half brothers. It could never have been as iconic as Django, and it's not as fun as The Mercenary...but it most certainly is beautifully bizarre. Director Enzo Castellari (the original Inglorious Bastards) obsesses over the style of Sam Peckinpah, pushing slow motion action (not so much violence) to its absolute limits and stumbles upon a supernatural fantasy playground. Mix the dreamscape with the hauntingly terrible, yet mystifyingly fantastic Leonard Cohen rip-off theme song and Kemoa has suddenly become one of my New Favorite Spaghetti Westerns.
Searching for Sugar Man: I don't want to go into the mystery of this doc too much. It's best if you discover the narrative for yourself. What I will say is that it revolves around the phantom of singer/songwriter Rodriguez. He had absolutely no success in the states, but somehow became one of the most recognizable musicians in South Africa. The Beatles. Elvis. Rodriguez. The story that this documentary unfolds is affirmative and uplifting - especially for the creative types out there. And it lead me to Rodriguez's two albums: Cold Fact & Coming From Reality. For the last three days I've been listening to them on constant rotation. Comparisons to Bob Dylan are not a stretch. Hopefully, this Oscar nominated doc will lead to more fanboy births like myself.
Enter The Ninja: "I Want My Black Ninja And I Want Him Now!!!" Well, this is just a fantastically bad movie. Not quaint. Or charming. Just horrendously, beautifully bad. Franco Nero is a newly trained ninja that travels to the Philippines and beds the bored wife of his impotent war buddy plantation owner. When he's not supplying the most tiresome of love acts upon Susan George, he's fending the homestead against hook handed goons and their Big Oil masters. The action is laughable, the dubbing abysmal, and the misplaced enthusiasm for ninjutsu is painfully awkward. But dang, it sure is fun. And Franco Nero is definitely the Magnum PI of wonky stand-in martial arts. A must see for fans of the cruddy.