Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Prison Football Double Feature: Gridiron Gang and The Longest Yard

Often, when I pick out what movies Netflix is going to send me, I like to set myself for a double feature. I pick out two movies that are somehow linked (at least in my mind) whether it be thematic, subject matter, genre, or even by actor. (In college, we used to arrange movie nights like this, except we'd pick out four movies and sometimes a food...for example, Tim Curry night--three Tim Curry movies...and curry.) This past weekend, the unifying factor was pretty specific: prison football.

The first one I watched was Gridiron Gang starring The Rock and Xibit. I know that doesn't sound particularly promising, but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. It's a story of a man (The Rock, of course) who arranges a football team in a juvenile detention center, and how being on that team effects the lives of those who participate. It's pretty much your standard sport film--there are montages, there are wins and losses, there's some pretty blatant heart-string-plucking, and everyone Learns A Valuable Lesson. The acting was not going to win any Oscars, but it was acceptable, and no one seemed especially out of his or her depth. Some of the dialogue was kind of cheesy, but that's a fault of many films in the sports genre. Plus, as I discovered as the credits rolled, much of the script was taken verbatim from the mouths of the people the movie is based on--there's clips from the documentary about this team, and some of the things they're saying are line by line what's in the movie. I'd actually be interested in seeing the original documentary, since I'll bet it's fascinating, unfortunately Netflix doesn't seem to have it. All in all, I wouldn't go overboard to recommend this movie, but if you like sports movies, it's not bad.

The second movie was the Adam Sandler remake of The Longest Yard. I wasn't really too excited about this one, since I'm kind of torn about Adam Sandler. I'm very fond of him in some things, but he often just plays Adam Sandler...and Adam Sandler is kind of annoying. However, when he's actually making an attempt to play a character, he is at the very least competant. Also, remakes are kind of tough, particularly remakes of movies as iconic as the original Longest Yard. Luckily, it seems they avoided some of the pitfalls that can make these movies disappointing, and the casting was great, maybe even inspired. The premise is that a former pro-quarterback (Sandler) goes to prison, where the sadistic warden coinvinces him to draft a con team to play against the semi-pro guard team. Sandler obviously played the Burt Reynolds part, but Burt himself showed up to play the wise older con coach (the fact that Reynolds not only agreed but WANTED to be in this movie was definitely a good sign.) Chris Rock played Caretaker, Sandler's sidekick, and he was very funny. The cast was rounded out by a crew of former pro-football players and pro-wrestlers, all of whom seemed to be having an excellent time. I think perhaps that was one of the reason I enjoyed the movie so much--everyone in it seemed to be really enjoying themselves, and in my opinion that can often prop up an otherwise mediocre comedy. Another good thing was that they didn't mess around with the story. The dialogue was updated, and some tweaking was done with the characters, but in general there was no attempt to do anything but make a loving homage to the original. Also, if you get the DVD, make sure to check out the making-of featurettes. They're all really informative, and give an added perspective to the movie that is really interesting. In all, I'd recommend this to those who enjoy football movies or slap-sticky comedies.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Hans Grubering It Up: Die Hard & Die Hard 2

Last weekend, as part of my quest to actually see the films that everyone else in the world already saw 2-3 decades ago, I watched Die Hard and Die Hard:2.

The first thing I have to do is admit that I love Bruce Willis. I love pretty much anything Bruce Willis does. I realize that he's really not the best actor in the world, and I'm okay with that. And I am also aware that he should avoid most serious films (aka things that don't involve explosions or handguns) because his lack of acting skills can be a problem. However, he's great in Sin City, Pulp Fiction, The Fifth Element (one of my favorite movies), and passable in Sixth Sense. I'm also a big fan of the little known 1988 movie Sunset, in which Willis plays Tom Mix, James Garner plays an aging Wyatt Earp, and the two of them solve a murder mystery in 1929 Hollywood. Bruce Willis is good at that whole "tough and laconic action hero" thing, but he's also (as many macho action stars seem to) got a knack for comedy, and doesn't seem afraid to laugh at himself.

Die Hard was much better than I expected. The plot, while far-fetched, was at least marginally plausible. (What I mean here is that yes, it's a movie plot, and therefore not entirely realistic. However, it at least hung together enough that it wasn't distracting to me.) Detective John McClane is a sympathetic character, and his exchange with the limo driver at the beginning of the movie got me on board with him right away. I also really enjoyed his later interactions with the L.A. police officer played by Reginald VelJohnson (best known, of course, for his role as Carl Winslow on Family Matters), which showed a more human side to McClane--he's not played as some kind of super-hero. He's a guy whose marriage is shakey, who likes to smoke, and is not averse to playing a little dirty. Okay, yes, he takes a beating that would kill any real person, he single-handedly kills roughly 10 bad guys, and he walks across broken glass--but in the end he's still just a guy. The stunts were pretty impressive, and the special effects were reasonable for the time. Hans Gruber (played by Alan Rickman) was quite possibly a contender for my "Top 10 Awesomest Movie Villians of All Time" list--then again, can you beat Alan Rickman? I don't think he's every done anything I DIDN'T like, to be be fair. I like a villain who is calm, cool, and collected, rather than those kooky supervillains who run around shrieking manically all the time. In fact, I found myself hating the reporter, Thornberg, much more than Gruber. Which reminds me--even McClane's wife is badass--she's no damsel in distress, and is totally not afraid to punch someone in the face. In all, I enjoyed this movie quite a bit. Yippee-ki-yay motherfucker, indeed.

Die Hard 2, on the other hand, was a little more difficult to appreciate. I still liked McClane a lot. He's a likeable character, and Bruce Willis gives him a real charm. Unfortunately, this movie suffered from something I mentioned earlier: the terminally stupid plot. The plot was too complicated and yet simplistic that it was clearly very difficult for the actors to hold everything together. There are rogue soldiers! And they control the airport! And none of the planes can land! And there's a drug lord! And explosions! And snowmobiles! And Dennis Franz! It was just distracting in its ridiculousness. I think one of the main flaws was that the main villian was poorly cast. William Sadler makes a decent lower-level bad guy. He also plays slimy-rich-guy pretty well (as shown by his appearance on pretty much every crime procedural show in existance), andI personally think his best showing was as the Hank Williams-loving con Heywood in The Shawshank Redemption. However, he's not cut out to be a crazy-aggressive master villian. I didn't buy it. The rogue soldier thing was done more effectively by Ed Harris in The Rock, frankly. Don't get me wrong--I'm not saying it's a terrible movie that you shouldn't watch. I'm just saying that you shouldn't go in with too many expectations. As long as you understand what you're getting into--it's an over-the-top action movie with a lot of explosions and shooting and bad puns--you should be okay. But if you go in expecting Citizen Cane (or even the original Die Hard) you're going to be disappointed.

Full disclosure: Netflix screwed me again this week: 10 minutes into Die Hard 2, the sound cut out...and never came back. Luckily for me, subtitles were available. Still, it's possible I would have been more intrigued by the movie if I'd been able to hear the dialogue, music, etc.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Dear Netflix: I love you, but sometimes you suck -- Taking Lives & Rambo

This weekend I sat down with my anxiously anticipated Netflix movies, Taking Lives and Rambo. I started with Taking Lives because I have what might be an unhealthy fixation on Angelina Jolie. Besides, as we are all aware, I loves me some crime movie. Unfortunately, I missed the entire first two scenes (the ones I imagine must have set up the whole plot and would have given me vital clues to the mystery) due to a scratch on the DVD. That was okay though, because I actually often prefer to start a movie after the intial exposition--I'm just as happy to leap in at about the 10 minute mark and figure out what's going on, rather than having it all spoon-fed to me. Anyway, the movie was not terrible, though I certainly wouldn't recommend it to anyone I know. Angelina was all right in her part, but it's not anything that challenged her in any way, thus I don't think she was all that interested. I will admit that I don't like Ethan Hawke, so that was another strike against the movie. The plot was interesting enough, although I think they showed their hand a little bit early. Maybe it's just because I'm so clever, but I knew what was going on long before they decided to officially announce it, and by then the characters didn't even look surprised. There were some good thriller moments, particularly one in a basement bedroom that actually had me leaping off the couch shrieking. Of course, right at the bloody climax we hit another field of scratches, so I didn't get to see the end of the damn thing. I checked out the ending on http://www.moviepooper.com/ though and discovered that I didn't really miss anything. If you want to see Angelina in a crime thriller, I think you're much better off with The Bone Collector, wherein she plays the headstrong rookie cop assistant to Denzel Washington's quadriplegic profiling pro.

I also finally got around to watching Rambo. It's one of those movies that gets a lot of references (any time anyone at a party puts his tie around his head, there is bound to be at least one Rambo joke) but that very few people I know have actually SEEN. The problem with Rambo in this day and age (in my opinion) is that it's very seriously dated. I'm sure in the late 70s/early 80s when it was made, the idea of a soldier gone berzerk with PTSD was a novel idea. However now PTSD is so commonly referred to (though I'd hesitate to say better understood) in our culture that it's not nearly as shocking. The other issue is that people of my age don't really understand what life was like for returning soldiers in that era. We are used to there being a surplus of "support" (sure, they have trouble finding jobs and getting the medical care they need, but think how many magnetic yellow ribbons you've seen on cars) for returning troops--the idea that servicemen at the time were spit on and protested when they returned from Vietnam is unthinkable to us. We may know intellectually that it happened, but we are unfamiliar with a world where it could. Plus, as Rambo ran through the woods impaling people and threatening them with knives and blowing stuff up, I kind of sided with the police in the idea that he was quite a danger to himself and others who needed catching. I never really identified with him as an anti-hero, and rather thought to myself "Hey, that guy belongs in a mental hospital." I will say it was a pretty good role for Stallone, since except for his final monologue he only utters about 5 sentences in the entire movie. The final monologue, though, with all the crying, came dangerously close to cheesy territory. I think it's lucky the guy who played the Colonel was so good, otherwise that scene could have been a disaster. The villains were played pretty well--Brian Dennehy is no slouch. Seeing David Caruso as the young, idealistic cop who wasn't sure about their treatment of Rambo gave me a chuckle--I kept waiting for him to dramatically pause to put on/take off his sunglasses...sadly, it rained the whole time so no need for sunglasses. Over all, I'd recommend this, if only so that you can understand the references in things like The Simpsons.

Did You Miss Me?

So we've been watching some movies lately, and since I haven't given you a good solid review post in a while, I figured I'd oblige for all one of you who actually cares:

1. Cube, Cube 2: Hypercube, and Cube Zero: Those who know me will realize that I am not in general a fan of the sci-fi genre. However, these were (with exceptions) pretty good movies. Cube is okay, and for the first movie in the series, the premise is cool and kind of interesting. Plus, it twists and turns all over the place to keep you interested. However, there's not a lot to the characters--the movie is pretty much totally plot-driven. Cube 2: Hypercube was in my opinion the best of the three. The characters (though there was not a ton of character development) were a little more fleshed out and at no point during the movie did I find myself bored. The premise of the first movie is definitely amped up in the second, and the twists are even more aggressive. The special effects were also pretty awesome. And then there's poor Cube Zero which is meant to be a prequal to the first movie. What can I say about it? It starts with a guy getting his face melted off and just goes on to get worse from there. The dialogue is stupid, there's too much focus on what's going on outside the cube, and the whole thing just makes no sense. Not to mention that even though it's a prequal it really has NOTHING to do with the other two movies. Watch the other two, skip the last one.

2. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End You know, I was really pretty disappointed with this one. I of course LOVED the first movie. Then the second movie I was kind of m'eh about. This one...could they have shoe-horned in ANYTHING else? I mean, jeez, every single person from every movie showed up, often for no reason at all. The plot was totally convoluted to a point where I almost couldn't keep up. Johnny Depp was fine, but he can't carry the movie by himself. Kiera Knightley was also okay, but Orlando Bloom looked bored/annoyed throughout the whole thing. (Maybe he's finally realized that almost no one cares at all about him or his character?) There was just too much going on for no apparent reason. AND I hated the ending. As much as I wanted to like it, this gets a thumbs down.

3. Dexter In light of the dwindling amount of interesting new programming due to the writers' strike, The Boyfriend and I decided to combine our Netflix powers and rent the entire first season of Dexter. I'd seen a few of the first episodes during a free-Showtime weekend, and we'd both heard really good things, so we decided to give it a try. GO RENT IT RIGHT NOW! This show is damn close to perfect. The lead character and his narration are funny, profound, and creepy by turns, and the rest of cast does a fantastic job with making their characters more than just stereotypes. The show begins tightly focused on Dexter, but then it starts to expand as everyone else is drawn into Dexter's great mystery (whether they know that's what it is or not.) On the whole, I'd say that this is one of the better TV show I've ever seen, with great acting and a compelling plot. Surprisingly, The Boyfriend liked it just as much as I did, and that's very, very rare.

4. Resident Evil: Extinction I will admit that I really like Milla Jovovich. I thought she was adorable in The Fifth Element and competant in the first two Resident Evil movies. However, this third one (as is oftent he case) kind of stinks. I think my main problem with it had to be that's it's boring. Like "I'm just going to go ahead and fast forward a little bit and see if anything exciting is going to happen anytime soon" kind of boring. There was nothing to compare to the tension and the claustrophobia of the first film, or the kick-ass fights of the second one. Plus, there were a ton on of side characters with almost no personlity--most of them didn't even have names! It's hard to care about characters you don't know. In the first movie (and somewhat in the second) the characters were people, not just cannon fodder. Even Milla Jovovich looked like she was dragging herself through the whole thing. This is another one I don't really recommend unless you are very dedicated to the franchise.

5. Bowling for Columbine I have now seen 3 of Michael Moore's movies: this, Roger & Me, and Fahrenheit 9/11. This one is not quite as good as 9/11, but it's still not bad. I really wish he'd stick more to the heartfelt interviews than the cheap stunts--they are what turns off people who might be on the fence to his opinions. It's hard to take seriously someone who's running around K-Mart with a mega-phone. Also, some of the connections drawn in this one seemed a little shakey to me. In Roger & Me, the connections were obvious: this factory shut down, and this is what happened to the people in the town. In Bowling for Columbine, I think Moore overreaches a little bit, trying to tie too many strings together, and ends up sounding a bit like a conspiracy nut. Some of his interviews were very hard-hitting, and that's where I think Moore excels--sitting down and talking with ordinary people about what's going on in their worlds. He manages to turn off his schtick and just listen to what they're saying, thus making the viewers listern to people they might otherwise ignore. Admittedly, I also really enjoyed the animated short by the creators of South Park and the interview with them that followed it. I recommend this one as long as you know what you're getting into.

6. Book Bonus: I just finished reading a book Captain Obvious sent me for Christmas called Apathy and Other Small Victories by Paul Neilan which is totally and completely hilarious. It's surreal and bizarre and the narrator's voice and attitude had me laughing alound on the train, which I hardly ever do. It's difficult to really explain what it's about, but suffice to say that it's so good I've been reading bits alound to The Boyfriend and he laughs aloud as well. It's a pretty short but highly entertaining read--you should definitely pick it up.