Archive for the Thriller Category

“Brooklyn’s Finest” Lives Up to its Name

Posted in Action, Drama, Thriller with tags , , , , , , on August 5, 2010 by ericstraus

In order for a character-driven drama to succeed, not only do the characters have to be interesting, dynamic and well-acted, but the story has to be engaging as well.  “Brooklyn’s Finest,” directed by Antoine Fuqua, is one such example of a character-driven drama that does succeed.  I’m not sure why this film flew under the radar the way it did; it features A-list actors, a gritty storyline and a very relevant topic.  The acting is superb, the story engaging and entertaining…but it is a very dark film, and perhaps its lack of a “Hollywood” ending is what kept it out of the limelight.

The film follows three separate storylines which never really converge until the very end, but compliment each other very well.  Richard Gere stars as Eddie, a cynical cop who is a week from retirement; he is weary and unenthusiastic about the job, and the only comfort he finds is in the arms of a prostitute.  His final week on the job has him training new recruits, both of which end up in trying situations, giving Eddie even more reason to want out.  But on his last day, after he has turned in his gun and shield, he stumbles onto a missing persons case and tries to find redemption in rescuing a girl from torment.

Ethan Hawke stars as Sal, a vice cop who cares so passionately about his family that he is willing to do anything – anything – to provide for them, which basically means he steals money from drug dealers.  Already having three kids, his wife is pregnant with a fourth and their lowly home has a mold problem and is causing health issues.  Sal is determined to do whatever it takes, whatever the cost, to get money to buy a better home for his family.  But Sal’s passion begins to cloud his judgment, and the lengths to which he will go are tested.

The third plotline revolves around Tango, played by Don Cheadle.  Tango is a cop so deep undercover that he finds it hard to separate his fake like from his real.  He has created a reputation in the drug-dealing world – he is respected and trusted by the crime community.  But he has been undercover for so long that his wife is leaving him, and it is this that drives him to get out of the undercover business.  Complicating things is the release of Caz from prison.  Caz, played by Wesley Snipes, has become a friend to Tango, and becomes the target of the undercover operation.  Tango tries desperately to control things, but his duties as a cop and his undercover life clash to the very end.

Vincent D’Onofrio, Ellen Barkin, Will Patton and Lili Taylor round out the supporting cast, and along with the stars, the acting is fantastic.  Gere’s desperation and depression make us feel like we know his Eddie very well.  Hawke, who seems to be getting typecast lately as a “cop on the edge,” is superb as well.  We sympathize with his devotion to his family and we want him to succeed, despite the way he wants to go about it.  It’s nice to see Snipes back on the screen again – his role is reminiscent of one of his great characters Nino Brown from “New Jack City,” and he plays the cool, bad-ass gangster very well.  Don Cheadle is a terrific actor who does not disappoint in this role – his tug of war between his gangster persona and his cop identity is quite intense.

The gamut of police issues are addressed in the film, from corruption to on-the-job stress, to racial tensions and the use of violence.  While there is no deep message to be found about the police system in general, seeing these issues through the eyes of the characters is very potent and vivid.  The film is dark and gritty, and it’s hard to predict how it all ends.  But it’s definitely fun to watch.

Final Grade for Brooklyn’s Finest: B+

Synoptic Six

Posted in Action, Comedy, Drama, Mystery, Oscar winner, Oscar-nominated, Thriller with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 19, 2010 by ericstraus

I know all 3 of you who regularly read these film reviews have been wondering if I’d given up the movie blog, being that it’s been a good 5 weeks or so since the last post.  But no, I return to you today with brief reviews of the six films I’ve seen since that last post; hopefully this will satiate your itching desire to know what I think of these recently released DVDs.  Enjoy.

The Messenger – A moving film with superb acting performances from Woody Harrelson (Oscar-nominated) and Ben Foster.  Two Army men are tasked with personally informing families that their loved ones have perished during combat in Iraq or Afghanistan.  The veteran Harrelson and the newcomer Foster have differing views about how their job should be carried out, complicated more when Foster begins to have feelings for one of the widows he meets.  There is a decent amount of humor which helps to keep the film from being a complete downer; the relationship between Harrelson and Foster and their performances make the film well worth a viewing.  Final Grade for The Messenger:  B+

From Paris with LoveA fast-paced, silly action film that is a sort of throwback to the cheeky Schwarzenegger films of the 80’s, fraught with one-liners and a pointless story.  John Travolta is actually quite entertaining as a rebellious CIA agent who does things his way, but always gets the job done.  Jonathan Rhys Meyers is pulled into Travolta’s world as a young CIA agent trying to stop a terrorist plot, and the two men battle bad guys all around the City of Light.  The action sequences are very fun to watch, if you’re into that sort of thing, and even some of Travolta’s one-liners are funny.  But it’s little more than a big-budget action film; if you’re looking for character depth, or depth of any kind for that matter, don’t.  But lots of explosions and car chases make for a fun popcorn movie, and to that end, the film delivers.  Final Grade for From Paris with Love:  C+

Edge of DarknessIt’s hard to judge a Mel Gibson film these days without considering what’s been going on in his personal life, but I’ll sure try.  This movie marks Gibson’s return to the screen following his anti-semitic diatribe and drunk driving offense, and overall it’s not bad.  Gibson is a homicide detective who watches his college-age daughter get gunned down right in front of him.  He assumes that he was the target, but as he investigates he learns that his daughter was a political activist and she indeed was intentionally murdered.  He throws the police rulebook away as he conducts his own interrogations, stopping at nothing to discover the truth.  The film has some gritty, intense sequences, but too much of the film is spent on Gibson’s personal reflection and humdrum investigation scenes.  By the time he finds his daughter’s killer, we’re not too bent on seeing him exact his revenge (which we all knew was coming) – there’s no real climax to the film.  Gibson is decent, but it’s obvious the drama in his personal life has taken a toll on his acting chops – he seems like he’s aged a lot more than he actually has, and it’s hard to know how much of the anger and desperation his character takes on is Gibson’s acting or Gibson’s actual personality these days.  Final Grade for Edge of Darkness:  C

The Blind SideI usually make it a point to not see Sandra Bullock movies; most of the time she does films I wouldn’t see anyway, but I usually just don’t like her as an actor.  But with her Oscar hype for this film, I decided to let go my dislike for her and watch the movie; she does deliver a fine performance – not sure if it was Oscar-worthy, but it didn’t annoy me, so that speaks volumes.  The film is a true story of Michael Oher, a young man who has sprinted through the foster system from family to family, never finding a home, and is eventually taken in by the Tuohy family.  The Tuohys are very well-off, and Oher is presented with opportunities he’s never had – Bullock takes him clothes shopping, gets him a tutor, and he begins to understand what it means to be a family.  Colleges begin to recruit him as his terrific athletic ability becomes well-known, and it’s up to Bullock and her family to keep him grounded and safe.  Bullock is very charming as the no-nonsense mothering figure, whose compassion and love for someone like Michael extends to her own family, and actually makes you feel good that she’s based on a real person, Leigh Anne Tuohy.  Quinton Aaron is also very good as Oher; he’s convincing in his obliviousness to what many of us take for granted – family dinners, our own bed, etc.  The film definitely has some overly sappy scenes; the tearjerker moments, if you will.  But overall it’s a good movie, and the ending is particularly moving as they show video and photos of the real Michael Oher and the real Tuohy family.  Final Grade for The Blind Side:  B-

Green ZoneMatt Damon is an action star, as the three “Bourne” films prove.  Those films are sharp, intruiging and fun to watch.  “Green Zone” is not any of those things – it’s a boring military action film, and despite Damon’s always-good acting, it should never have been made.  Paul Greengrass directs this film – he directed the last two Bourne films, so it seems that someone thought putting him and Damon together again would be a good idea.  But they apparently forgot to get a good script to go with it.  The film tells a ficticious account of Iraq in 2003, shortly after the U.S. “liberation,” with specific focus to Army units trying to find WMDs.  Damon’s squad continuously comes up empty after their intelligence reports directs them to where supposed WMDs are being kept.  Damon begins to unravel a conspiracy between the U.S. and Iraqi governments, and of course his work puts a stop to it by the end.  Maybe it’s because the story is no longer timely, or maybe because it’s too close to the truth, but it’s not a compelling tale at all.  The action scenes are ok, but they don’t drive the plot and by the end we just don’t care.  Final Grade for Green Zone:  C-

Pirate Radio We saved the best for last.  This is a marvelous film about censorship and rock n’ roll in Britain in the late 60’s.  The British government has virtually banned pop music from its airwaves, but a group of DJs skirt the ban by broadcasting rock music 24 hours a day from a large commercial ship, anchored somewhere in the North Sea, much to the delight of English youth.  It’s basically an ensemble comedy, taking place almost entirely on the ship.  The writing ranges from funny to truly hysterical; the actors do a great job of delivering the hilarious lines.  Kenneth Branagh plays the government pencil-pusher whose mission is to stop the DJs from broadcasting.  His performance is wonderful, as he ranges from ecstatic when he thinks he’s come up with a fool-proof plan, to blisteringly angry when his plans are foiled.  The soundtrack is a delight as well, featuring a lot of well-known tracks from the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys and the Who, but also touching on some less-known hits like Dusty Springfield’s “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” and the Easybeats’ “Friday on My Mind.”  The end of the film gets a bit silly, and at times it’s unnecessarily preachy regarding the music=freedom vs. music=indecency argument that we’ve become all-too familiar with regarding the 60’s.  There are also a couple of sub-plots that are amusing, but don’t drive the story much.  For those reasons I had to include the “minus” in the final grade – but overall it’s a very funny movie that entertains from start to finish, highlighted by Branagh and the other actors’ comedic performances.  Final Grade for Pirate Radio:  A-

Picking “The Lovely Bones” Clean

Posted in Drama, Oscar-nominated, Thriller with tags , , , , on June 3, 2010 by ericstraus

You probably remember the old Jerry Seinfeld joke about Grape-Nuts:  “You open the box, no grapes, no nuts…what’s the deal?”  This film’s title immediately brought that joke to mind, because you watch the film, no lovely, no bones…what’s the deal?  Apart from a spectacularly creepy performance by Stanley Tucci, “The Lovely Bones” is a fairly non-compelling story that lacks suspense, utilizes no original special effects, and offers no catharsis or relevant message whatsoever.

We find out in the first couple of minutes that young Susie Salmon (played by Saoirse Ronan, who also narrates the film) has been murdered by a neighbor.  The story details what led up to her capture and death, and then follows the aftermath in both reality and Susie’s experience in some form of purgatory.  The family and community are shattered by her disappearance, and as time goes on they begin to accept that she will not be coming back.  A police investigation turns up her hat, but no other evidence or answers.  Her friends and family try to move on with their lives, but after a while, Susie’s younger sister Lindsey begins to suspect that their neighbor George (Tucci) is hiding something.  Susie’s father Jack (Mark Wahlberg) also begins to sense something amiss with George, and eventually George has to dispose of Susie’s body.

During all this, Susie drifts aimlessly through a strange world, where landscapes change instantly, weather and sky fluctuate constantly, and she meets another girl named Holly who helps her understand what’s happened to her.  Susie tries hard to communicate with her family, as she is able to see things that are happening in the “real world.”  But she also spends time cavorting through rolling hillsides and rainbows; she is told that she is not in heaven…yet.  But the world around her seems to change in stride with her mind set.

Those of us familiar with Peter Jackson’s epic “Lord of the Rings” trilogy have no trouble recognizing the special effects used in “Bones.”  It seems like Susie’s purgatory world was created solely for Jackson’s entertainment…so that he could run through his menu of special effects to his heart’s content.  But other than being a vehicle for CG effects, Susie’s limbo universe serves no purpose to the film.  Her father apparently can sense that she isn’t completely “gone,” but otherwise Susie’s experience is completely disconnected from the rest of the film.

Toward the end, we are offered a glimpse into the future to see George’s demise, which is completely unrelated to anything that has occurred during the rest of the film.  In essence, it was like watching two films simultaneously; the story of Susie’s family and their quest to cope, and the story of Susie in purgatory.  But as I mentioned, there is no clear connection between the two, leaving us wondering why we should be interested in either story.

Ronan definitely has a future in the movie business – she is a very good actor, and along with Tucci, it’s the only reason to pay any attention to this film.  But overall the film is little more than a docu-drama about Susie’s ordeal, and an effects-laden self-pleasuring by Jackson.

Final Grade for The Lovely Bones: C-

Close Encounters with “The Fourth Kind”

Posted in Drama, Horror, Mystery, Thriller with tags , , , , , , on April 28, 2010 by ericstraus

The “realism” approach to horror films has been a popular trend ever since the success of the “Blair Witch Project.”  Films like “Cloverfield” and “Paranormal Activity” play on the concept of documentary-style horror, where the scares seem more realistic because the audience is witnessing them “first-hand.”  “The Fourth Kind” is another attempt to capitalize on this kind of filmmaking, and is successful in creating a scary, somewhat realistic look at alien encounters.

The film begins with star Milla Jovovich (Resident Evil, The Fifth Element) addressing the audience, explaining that the role she will be playing is based on a real person, and that the film’s scenes are re-creations of actual events.  This concept is supported throughout the film by side-by-side scenes of the re-enactment along with the supposed “real” scenes.  Jovovich plays Abbey Tyler, a psychologist in Nome, Alaska who while under hypnosis from her own therapist, experiences disturbing and emotional visions about the death of her husband.  Nome has been rife with strange disappearances and odd behavior, and part of Abbey’s quest to understand her own problems is to interview people in town who have experienced strange things.  She discovers that all of her subjects have experienced the same vision, though it is unclear if it’s been while dreaming or not.  Abbey then puts her subjects under hypnosis, and that’s when the real frights begin.  Horrific scenes unfold before the hypnotized people, strange voices are heard, and as the audience, we see the “actual footage” of these videotaped hypnosis sessions, along with the recreations by the actors.

Eventually we learn that aliens are involved in the stereotypical fashion of abducting people and conducting painful experiments on them.  But the real fright that we experience as an audience comes from the “actual” hypnotherapy sessions; director Olatunde Osunsanmi does a nice job of convincing us that the videotaped interviews are real.  Seeing Jovovich and the other actors having nightmarish experiences is not scary – seeing the “real” Abbey Tyler’s face contort and voice change into a demonic tone is certainly unnerving.  There is “footage” from a sheriff’s dashboard camera that shows one of the aliens’ victims kill his family and himself because he can’t take the visions and the nightmares, which is a very disturbing scene.

The mystery that unfolds is not all that intriguing – it seems to be based on actual alien abduction stories (the film’s ending credits feature actual 9-1-1 calls from people seeing UFOs along with newspaper headlines about the same); what keeps us riveted to the screen is the progression of the hypnotherapy sessions, and the horrific images contained therein.  If you like a good scare and don’t think that typical slasher films are frightening, you should enjoy this movie.

Final Grade for The Fourth Kind: B