Shooter (3/23/2007)

The sniper is one of the most interesting warriors in the history of combat.  More assassins then soldiers, they rely on elaborate camouflage and stealth to achieve a single kill.  I particularly recall one day when I was playing the Xbox game Halo against a friend where he managed to pin me down by getting to a high place and shooting me in the head every time I tried to charge his position.  Eventually I managed to hit him with a very well placed rocket shot and take his position.  When he respawned he immediately picked up another sniper rifle again and tried to pin me down again, this wasn’t happening, but he kept picking up the sniper rifle.  Bored by the repetitive direction the game was taking I asked him: “why do you keep going for the sniper rifle?”  He responded by saying “I like sniper rifles; they encourage cheap-ass-ism.” 

Indeed sniping is really cheap, and in general it’s pretty hard to put a sniper fight on the screen.  The 1993 film Sniper probably disappointed many with its less then Schwarzenegger level body count, but it managed to surprise more discerning audiences by being smarter, better written, and better acted then the average Reagan/Bush era action movie.  The new film Shooter has action that is fairly successful but has an awful, uninspired script that anyone who’s seen a thriller will be a mile ahead of.

Mark Wahlberg plays Bob Lee Swagger (no I’m not kidding) a retired marine sniper who has basically turned into a survivalist nut in the mountains after his partner was killed on a secret mission because the army pulled out rather then rescue them, proving once again the adage that you never want to share a bunker in a war movie with the guy who keeps a picture of his wife with him.  He is visited by Danny Glover, a man in black type dude, who asks him to find out how to kill the president and report his findings so they’ll know how to stop an actual assassin who may come up with the same plan and kill the president at his next public appearance.   As anyone who’s seen a shadowy government agency in a movie can tell, Swagger is being set up to be framed as the assassin.  Swagger surprises them escapes, humiliating rookie FBI bystander Nick Memphis (another name I’m not making up) played by Michael Peña.  
Memphis eventually becomes obsessed with the assassination and begins to uncover a conspiracy.  Meanwhile Swagger decides to drive all the way from Philadelphia to Kentucky on the off chance that his old partner’s widow (Kate Mara), who he’d never met in person, would be able and willing to dress wounds he received during the assassination.  Swagger must then uncover the identitiy of the true assassin in order to restore his name.

Antoine Fuqua is one of many seemingly talented directors who seem to have no idea how to find an intelligent script.  Shooter is a stupid and formulaic action movie pretending to be an intelligent political thriller.  The Bourne series, which this film desperately wants to emulate, is an excellent example of how this type of espionage man on the run type film can work well and still be thoughtful and character driven.  This film however seems aimed at the people who read Soldier of Fortune magazine; its view of governmental corruption and conspiracy theorizing would make Oliver Stone blush.  Aside from the politics this is a run of the mill “wrong man” formula.

Wahlberg’s acting seems to be on auto-pilot, there’s nothing wrong with it really, but nothing special either.  Danny Glover and Ned Beatty are both fairly forgettable villains, and Michael Peña is fairly average.  The real healingly bad performance comes from Kate Mara.  In Mara’s defense, she is playing a poorly written role that serves no purpose in the story other then to provide a tacked on (and half assed) romance sub-plot, and to become a damsel in distress in the film’s pen-ultimate action scene.  However she also has an absolutely horrible southern accent which brings the movie to a screeching halt whenever she’s on screen.

The action in Shooter does occasionally deliver.  The film had the sense to go with an R-rating, which is important because it’s hard to show a sniper bullet hit without a decent blood splat.  The action tries to look very real, but the things being done are very unrealistic.  Case in point, in the opening scene we are shown a fairly realistic depiction of sniper tactics, the shooter is concealed by camouflage and relies on a spotter to tell him when to shoot, but later in the scene he shoots down a helicopter with a shot to the rotary blades, and act most videogames know is too stupid to be believable.  Still, if you can get past the unreality, there are fairly enjoyable set pieces.  These action scenes are why this film is somewhat worthwhile; the best of them are brutal and intense.  The biggest of these, where Swagger and Memphis ambush an ambush at a country home serves as an excellent vehicle for some good shooting and at least three excellent explosions.  Unfortunately this isn’t the finale of the film, as there are a handful of false endings before it does come to a close

Shooter is not good, but there are definitely movies made with greater incompetence.  I wouldn’t recommend spending full price on this film, but it could be a decent way to kill two hours on a Saturday afternoon at matinee prices if there’s nothing else playing and you’re willing to overlook a lot in the name of escapism.  

** out of four

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300 (3/9/2007)

 

            They say that all of western civilization began with the ancient Greeks.  The Greeks gave us the philosophy of Socrates and the literature of Homer.  The new film 300 displays another legacy of ancient Greece, the badass.  The Spartan warrior as seen in author Frank Miller’s 300 are the prototypical badasses, their warrior ethic and determination towards victory can be seen in the chivalric knight, the cowboys of western lore, and even the Klingons of “Star Trek”.

            Based on a Frank Miller graphic novel, 300 takes place in 480 BCE at the dawn of the Greco-Persian war.  A Persian messenger approaches the Spartan city-state holding a bag of skulls and asks for an audience with the king.  After asking King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) to pay tribute to the Persian Empire or face an oncoming attack, the messenger is pushed to his death into a well by the angry king.  The scene perfectly sets up the uncompromising nature of the Spartan warrior; they are completely unwilling to or yield to any authority but their own.  After Leonidas is given an unfavorable prophecy by an oracle, he is unable to bring his entire army to war.  In desperation Leonidas rounds up three hundred of Sparta’s best soldiers, leaves his wife (Lena Headey) behind, and marches to war against an army of millions.  This is the type of story that really shows the power visuals.  As a conventional novel, this story would be nothing special at all, but in a visual medium like comic books or film, and in the hands of an artist like Frank Miller it is gorgeous.

            300 can best be understood when one realizes that the film is being told by an unreliable narrator.  The film is being told by Dilios (David Wenham) a soldier at the battle with a unique ability for story telling.  Dilios narrates the entire movie through a flashback with voice over.  Dilios is not telling the story as a historian but as a propagandist.  The movie is an extended exaggeration, the characters are not human, they are unwavering fighting machines that are jingoistic enough to make John Wayne blush.  Collage students will be getting hammered for decades with the inevitable drinking game that will be made around the number of times the word “Sparta!” is hollered by noble fighters going into battle.  The Persian enemies are every bit as inaccurate, they are faceless enemies, their leader Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) the personification of decadence.  Some of the Persian troops can only be described as monsters.  All this is the result of Dilios’ story which is meant to rile the troops to enthusiastically go to war.

It should be noted that director Zack Snyder is merely building on the foundation that was first built by Robert Rodríguez with another adaptation of a Frank Miller work: Sin City.  Sin City was an exercise in translation; it was a frame for frame moving recreation of the comic books it based on, both in story and visual style.  300 is a far less slavish translation of its source material, but it does follow the same basic story and does effectively reproduce the look of Miller’s stunning illustrations.  300 was filmed using the same blue screen filming process of Sin City and takes it to the next level, the viewer forgets he is watching action on a soundstage and becomes immersed in the visual universe.  With this type of film making we are entering uncharted territories of production.  It may be about time the Academy separates its category of art direction from set decoration.  The set decoration is much here, as there are no sets, but the art direction is amazing.  The design of the visuals is a true work of art.

Sin City took the tradition of film Noir and took it to a glorious extreme; likewise 300 takes the “Sword and Sandals” genre as far as it can possibly go.  Unlike most post-Lord of the Rings epics, 300 doesn’t rely on helicopter shots of massive armies mashing into each other, although the shots of huge armies are up to the standards of those other movie.   In place of these long shots, 300 focuses on the personal side of its battles, many of the battles play out by focusing on a single soldier bursting forth is slow motion, showing each kill he make in graphic detail.  The visceral thrill of these moments is hard to put into words.  Interestingly these moments resemble a quarterback expertly making it through the line of scrimmage on a running play; it’s easy to see why sports were encouraged as military training.

The story told by Dilios is based largely on old fashioned views of masculinity.  On its surface, 300 is the most gleefully pro-war film since the Rambo series.  All parallels to recent events are coincidence as the graphic novel was published in 1998. Still there is an ultimately conservative attitude to this story that can be unsettling to blue-staters like me.  Nevertheless it would be hypocritical to dismiss a film of ideological differences and then scoff at the conservatives who would criticize a film like Fahrenheit 9/11.  In truth however, if one considers that the story told may be a fabrication by Dilios to mobilize the army, the simplicity of the film’s ideology becomes a lot less simple.  The film leaves it to the viewer whether a society based on the principle that not all men are equal and which that sacrifices imperfect babies is worth emulating.

Though it has a simple story, 300 is a visually amazing film.  It is highly entertaining, with amazing action scenes.  The visual style is much more interesting then that of the typical summer movie.  The movie is first rate, cutting edge filmmaking.  Its main weakness is that it would be only a little less interesting if the dialogue track were removed.  Its main strength is that it would be very interesting even without the dialogue track.

 

**** out of four

 

Black Snake Moan (3/7/2007)

   

It has become increasingly evident that one should never judge a movie directed by Craig Brewer by its trailer.  The trailer to Brewer’s debut film Hustle & Flow made it look like a clichéd rags to riches gangster hip-hop movie, a genre that is quickly becoming the blaxploitation genre of the 21st century.  Instead audiences got was a touching and thoughtful, intelligent and yet crowd-pleasing take on the American dream achieved through music.  The trailer for Brewer’s new film Black Snake Moan makes the film look like some kind of soft core porn that Samuel L. Jackson wandered into as some sort of post-Snakes on a Plane camp binge.  This trailer isn’t any more accurate then the Hustle and Flow trailer, Black Snake Moan is in fact one of the most unique experiences you’re likely to find in a multi-plex.

Samuel L. Jackson plays Lazarus, an aging Tennessee pea farmer and former blues man going through a bitter divorce.  One morning he finds an attractive, half naked, white woman named Rae (Christina Ricci) lying unconscious on the road outside his house.  After nursing Rae back to health Lazarus discovers that she is a nymphomaniac who has been sleeping around, a lot, ever since her fiancé (Justin Timberlake) shipped out to
Iraq.  Lazurus decides to take it upon himself to “cure [her] of [her] wickedness” by chaining her to a radiator and making her essentially go cold turkey. 

It should first be said that the use of nymphomania is not a sleazy attempt to put Christina Ricci’s character into sexual situations.  Rae’s disorder is treated as a serious mental disorder, much the way drug or alcohol addiction is treated in many other films.  Black Snake Moan is the best exploration of sex addiction since the 2002 Bob Crane bio-pic Auto Focus.  The film is also not naïve enough to think that a few weeks chained to a radiator will solve all of this troubled girl’s problems.

With Black Snake Moan Brewer has a much harder task then he did with Hustle and Flow.  Hustle and Flow had the benefit of working within a genre that has produced a large number of lackluster films for it to look great in comparison to.  It is hard to classify Black Snake Moan, it’s too quirky to be considered a drama.  It is also doesn’t try to make the audience laugh out loud as a comedy would.  It fits perhaps into the tradition of The French New Wave by way of Pulp Fiction, but not to the extent that those films often broke the fourth wall.  It is also a musical of sorts, though music here is more of a backdrop then it was in Hustle and Flow where music was the main thrust of the story. 

The blues music is at the heart of Black Snake Moan, it courses through the movie much like bluegrass ran through the Coen brothers’ O Brother Where Art Though.  The music is also very nice to hear, Samuel L. Jackson reportedly spent six hours a day for half a year practicing his songs for the movie, and it shows.  Jackson doesn’t have much of a singing voice, but he emotes in classic blues fashion, on screen he looks more like a veteran musician then a
Hollywood poser.  Of particular worth to fans of Jackson’s Jules Winfield persona will be his sizzling take on the blues standard “Stagger Lee” the scene where this song is performed is like all of
Jackson’s riotous fury from Pulp Fiction put into song.  The music is not revolutionary and when heard on a CD it may not be as exiting, but the way it’s played on screen it is electrifying.  Sound editing and mixing may be awards laughed at when the average person watches the Oscars, but here both really enhance the story greatly.

There’s more to Jackson in Black Snake Moan then mere singing, this is the first time in a since Changing Lanes that I’ve seen Jackson do more then play a variation on Jules Winfield.  Here
Jackson plays a three dimensional character with a real arc and multiple sides to his personality.   Lazarus certainly has “the blues” since “his baby” left him, but he also has a certain inner turmoil and a bit of wrath that emerges at times. 
Jackson also manages to really act in his musical performances, much the way Jennifer Hudson did in her Oscar wining role in Dreamgirls.  Ricci is also giving a bold and interesting performance in a difficult role, she has to be a sexy seductress and yet also a troubled, vulnerable and sympathetic young woman.  Justin Timberlake is clearly the weakest of the three, in all fairness, his performance isn’t really bad per se, in fact it’s pretty good, but not good enough for the average viewer to overcome the baggage of having the leader of the most annoying boy band since New Kids on the Block featured on screen in a movie about quality music.  Timberlake has a long way to go before he can shake off the stigma of his music career the way Mark(y Mark) Wahlberg has.

The movie is not perfect, an unnecessary romantic sub-plot between Lazarus and a choir member named Angela played by S. Epatha Merkerson (of TV’s Law & Order) adds a lair of formula to an otherwise highly original film.  Also unnecessary is the addition of an over stereotypical redneck villain character who disappears in the third act and detracts from the film’s otherwise non judgmental take on its characters. 

For the most part Black Snake Moan is a blast, it features a highly original premise, great performances, good writing and great music.  Craig Brewer has proven that he is more then a mere one hit wonder, he is a promising young director who can make entertaining yet thoughtful films.

***1/2 out of four

 

Zodiac (3/2/2007)

        Serial killers are some of the most fascinating figures in all of cinema.  Norman Bates, Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, Hannibal Lecture, even John Doe (the nemesis featured in David Fincher’s Se7en) have all, for better or worse, been among the most popular movie characters.  But this fascination the public has with serial killers is not limited to the cinema screen.  Real life killers like Jack the Ripper, Charles Manson, The Son of Sam, and The D.C. Sniper among countless others have all seeped into the public mindset, exiting and frightening the public at the same time.

            Perhaps no unsolved criminal endeavor has troubled the masses more then that of the Zodiac killer.  This legacy is mostly the result of self promotion on the killer’s part.  Zodiac has only been positively linked to five murders.  The Zodiac Killer used the press to create a creepy aura around his identity and has effectively made himself into a west coast boogieman for the last four decades.  Charles Cullen killed eight times as many people, yet Zodiac has had five times as many movies made about him. 

            The latest of these cinematic representations of the infamous killer is David Fincher’s Zodiac, which tells the story of Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle who became obsessed with catching the serial killer and eventually wrote the book upon which Zodiac is based.  The film also depicts David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) the detective investigating the killings, and Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) a reporter covering the murders.

David Fincher is probably the greatest director to emerge from the MTV rotation into feature films.  How Fincher managed to beat the odds and become something greater then his legion of peers who seem unable to evolve past the over-edited, bombastic, and ultimately empty style that most music video directors embrace may remain a mystery, Zodiac in fact represents Fincher’s furthest departure from that sensibility thus far.

            Don’t let the advertising fool you, Zodiac is no thriller.  Early on there are scenes that will have you on the edge of your seat, but after the first forty minutes the film slows down and becomes a police procedural.  Those going in expecting Se7en may be disappointed when they get All the President’s Men.  Still, taken for what it is, Zodiac is a fairly impressive piece of work.  It is probably best to go into the film with as little knowledge of the real Zodiac killer as possible, the film tells you everything you’ll need to know about the case and then some.  By the end you feel like an expert about the case. 

            The film unfortunately is handicapped by its devotion to accuracy, like the real case, the film starts in a very frightening way and begins to get more down to earth as it goes on.  The murder scenes are excellent and will likely be remembered as some of the best individual scenes of the year.  The scenes without the killer are less consistent.  The movie is at its weakest when it explores the personal lives of the investigators, the scenes with Chloë Sevigny as the long suffering wife of Graysmith are particularly problematic.  For the most part however the actual investigation is very interesting. 

            Fincher’s entire crew is doing amazing work; the entire production is top notch.  The script is somber without being pretentious; there are some genuinely funny moments to lighten the mood.  Fincher does nothing to make me worried about his career, but I must say I wasn’t floored by the movie the way I have been by most of Fincher’s other works.  It is mainly hurt by the fact that it is trying to be a cold methodical work of non-fiction, rather then a great page turning work of fiction.  It’s too bad Fincher decided to go in such a strict factual direction, it means the film’s most interesting character has very little screen time.  It also means that like the real case, the audience will never know if Graysmith was right. Still Fincher should be applauded for doing what few before him have done; he made a very good film about this most over hyped of killers.

***1/2 out of four

The Movie Vampire: The Origin

              I love movies.  I’ve been an absolute film buff for about 5-7 years now and my love for the medium has grown ever since.  Ever since saw Goodfellas I always wanted to be a movie critic.  To me, being a film critic was better than being President of the United States.  It would allow you to watch movies and comment on them, something I’d gladly do for free, and then get paid for it.  I couldn’t imagine a better gig. 

              I started commenting on movies in various message boards around the internet, using the screen-name Dracula.  I choose that name simply because it was the best thing I could come up with on one site that wasn’t taken.  The vampire motif has sort of stuck with me throughout my internet correspondences.  In early 2007 I decided to dedicate myself to writing a review for every movie I saw in theaters throughout the year, as well as the film from the year that I catch up on when they are available on DVD.  When I finished my review of the first movie I saw that year, Zodiac, I posted it on all my usual message boards.  It dawned on me that I should make a website where I could post my reviews though the year.

              Since I have little or no web design skills, I decided the easiest way to make this happen would be to start a blog using WordPress.  This blog The Movie Vampire, is home to all the reviews I’m writing this year, and hopefully for years to come.  It may also be the home of various commentaries I write about the film world and industry.  It is a bold new experiment for me that will hopefully work out.