Written and Directed by: David Mamet
There are few people, precious few, who really have a gift for turning the English language into music. Most writers probably think they do, but if they really did, I wouldn’t be referring to them as ‘most writers.’ But David Mamet has that gift. He can take a sentence that doesn’t really make sense if you think about it and make it seem like Moses brought it down from Mount Sinai.
Take this line for example:
Everybody needs money. That’s why they call it money.
The line is spoken early in “Heist” by Mickey Bergman (Danny DeVito), who’s trying to convince Joe Moore (Gene Hackman) to delay his retirement and come back to do one last job. On the face of it, this sentence shouldn’t make sense. But, for whatever reason, you know exactly what it means. This is the power of David Mamet.
I count James Foley’s “Glengarry Glen Ross” as one of my favorite films. Mamet’s screenplay for that film, an adaptation of his own play, is masterful. But the few films I’ve seen that David Mamet has both written and directed have never struck a chord with me. I do, though, love heist movies. And I’ll always be a fan of Mamet’s writing style. So I went into this film with high hopes. And I found elements in the film that both exemplify what I love about Mamet and what I think holds him back as a writer/director.
Hackman stars as Joe, a life-long criminal who’s ready to hang it up. The only thing that keeps him in the game is the respect he has for his crew - Bob (Delroy Lindo), Pinky (Ricky Jay) and Fran (Rebecca Pidgeon), who also happens to be his wife (and Mamet’s). But he’s lured into doing one last heist, the “Swiss job,” by DeVito’s Mickey. Mickey’s the kind of guy who doesn’t mind exploiting an old man’s desire to sail away into the sunset - or using some shady tricks to make sure he gets his way.
The job comes with one condition: Joe has to bring Mickey’s nephew Jimmy Silk (Sam Rockwell) along for the ride. And this is where things begin to go wrong. The rest of the film is a kind of chess match full of double-crosses, double-double-crosses, triple-crosses that look like double-crosses and vice versa.
The problem with writing a movie with so much sleight of hand is that, if it’s overused, it eventually becomes meaningless. I found myself simply waiting to get through certain scenes of “Heist” just to see what was really going to happen. When characters start double-triple-crossing each other, they often end up right back where they started. It’s like adding 1 and -1: technically, you’ve been doing math but it’s not getting you anywhere.
Here, I think, is the problem with David Mamet directing his own films. He is a man who has a reputation for being precious about his dialogue - down to the syllable. And when he becomes the director responsible for interpreting his own words, it seems like the actors get cut out of the equation. There is a lot of masterful dialogue in this movie, but I often felt that the actors weren’t allowed to make it their own. It’s like watching a play where the understudies have to come in at the last minute: they know the words but not the intentions behind them.
Not that the acting in this movie is bad. It just doesn’t feel right. It’s too staged, too self-conscious. What makes a heist movie work is the sleight of hand involved, the process of getting an audience to look to the left while you make your move on the right. But magicians aren’t as impressive when you’re studying their every move to see how the trick is done. Plus, there are times when Mamet seems to think his writing is cooler than it really is.
I am, however, recommending this film. There are some clever set-ups and payoffs. And it’s entertaining, if only because of the inventiveness of Mamet’s dialogue. While I wasn’t a huge fan of the execution, “Heist” is a film worth seeing solely for exchanges like this:
He ain’t gonna shoot me?
Then he hadn’t ought to point a gun at me. It’s insincere.
Too bad the film suffers from the same problem.
Written by: David Loughery
Directed by: Steve Shill
I don’t really have an explanation for this movie being on my list. I put it in my Instant Queue on Xbox, so my guess is I got drunk one night and thought it would be a funny thing to watch sometime. Rule #1, kids: Don’t drink and browse.
“Obsessed” opens with a happy couple, Derek (Idris Elba) and Sharon (Beyonce “Beyonce” Knowles), giddily surveying their new house. They do all the things you’d expect new homeowners to do: wander the halls in amazement, check out the bedrooms, check the attic for weak spots in the floor to insure that they don’t come crashing through the ceiling onto their strategically placed glass coffee table. You know, things that will not, in any way, pay off later in the movie.
Derek is a high-powered finance guru who works in either downtown Los Angeles or Century City - the establishing shots change too often to know for sure. His wife Sharon stays home and takes care of their young son while also studying to go back to school to earn a degree in finance as well. Sharon used to be Derek’s personal assistant, before he swept her off her feet. Derek’s new assistant is Patrick, who’s a ‘Hollywood’ gay man - a stereotypical effeminate ‘girlfriend’ who can’t open his mouth without gossip spilling out.
Enter Lisa, played by Ali Larter. Lisa is what clinical psychiatrists would call a ‘crazy bitch.’ She meets Charles in the elevator and the crazy practically seeps out of her eyeballs from second one. The wandering eyes, the searing sexual intensity. Any normal married man would have hit the emergency stop button right then and there and escaped, John McClane-style, through that ceiling escape hatch that all movie elevators have.
But Derek doesn’t do that because this movie requires him to be stupid. Amazingly, frustratingly, ferociously stupid. Look, I get it. You meet a cute girl on the elevator, that’s fine. She ends up working in your office, okay. She starts filling in for your personal assistant? A little weird. She starts showing up everywhere you go? Time to get concerned. Traps you in a bathroom stall and tries to force herself on you? Time to tell the wife. Waits for you in the parking garage so she can jump in your car wearing lingerie? Time to call the police. Drugs you, tries to rape you, then tells the staff at a hotel that she’s your wife? Time to Jesus Christ, why are you reading this?! She’s crazy! RUN!!!
But Derek does none of this, preferring to, oh so retardedly, handle things himself. I guess I can’t blame him. He has precious few confidantes. The most logical one is Sharon. Derek almost tells her, but then he learns that her sister’s husband just got caught in an affair at work, so he backs off. I guess there’s some kind of guilt by association (of circumstance?) there. His best friend (Jerry O’Connell) and boss (Bruce McGill) would be next on the list, but they’re primarily occupied by booze and the promise of lap dances throughout the film. (Sample line: “Who wants to see some hot, oily breasts being jammed into their faces?” Didn’t make that up) And we’ve established that he can’t call the cops because the movie won’t work if he’s not a moron.
We all know where this road ends: with your psychotic wannabe mistress staging a suicide attempt naked in your hotel room. Which further results in your wife angrily demanding to know why you didn’t trust her with your problems, right before she throws you out of the house before hearing your side of the story.
Have I mentioned how long this movie is? Almost two hours. Two hours. Most stories have a three-act structure. This movie is broken into three acts as well - kind of. There’s Act I (Derek meets Lisa, she’s kinda freaky). Act II (Lisa outs herself as psychotic, Derek tells no one). Following that, we have Act IIa (see Act II), Act IIb (see Act II), Act IIc (see Act II), etc. And Act III (Beyonce and Ali Larter beat the shit out of each other - aka, the entire reason anyone watched this movie in the first place).
Yes, the action climax of “Obsessed” is the inevitable smackdown between Lisa and Sharon in the suburban couple’s home. I don’t want to give anything away, but if you think the weak ceiling and glass coffee table don’t come into play, you know less about screenwriting than the writer of this movie (and that’s saying something).
“Obsessed” is underwritten, over-performed and repetitive. It requires every single one of its characters to make choices that no logical human being, nay - mammal, would ever make. All of the events require the characters to be stupid. And it ends on a damned freeze frame, a technique that hasn’t been cool since “Rocky.” The first one. Needless to say, this movie doesn’t have much going for it. But it did win the 2010 MTV Movie Award for Best Fight. So I guess that’s something.
listgenerator asked: In what universe is Blood Diamond a better film than Point Blank?
Mine. What can I say? Viewed as a whole, it worked more for me. Point Blank has some of the best editing and cinematography that I’ve ever seen, but, in the end, the story didn’t come together for me. Despite its flaws, I found the humanity of the acting and writing in Blood Diamond very compelling. Point Blank was close to getting 4 Hudsons. Blood Diamond could easily have gone down to 3 1/2. It’s a judgment call.
This is the problem with doing tangible ratings, like stars and Hudsons. I liked both movies, but people get angry because one of them got half a face more than the other. Hope you don’t mind that I published this! I enjoy criticism. Keeps me on my toes.
The Girl in the Cafe (2005)
Written by: Richard Curtis
Directed by: David Yates
How does this keep happening? Last week, I unwittingly ended up watching three zombie movies in a row. And now I’ve watched two consecutive movies that try to combine traditional genres with deep messages about sending aid to Africa. I’ll take it as a sign that I’m doing something very right or very wrong.
“The Girl in the Cafe” is a made-for-television movie that was broadcast in the US on HBO. It stars Bill Nighy as Lawrence, a lonely analyst who works with the UK government to develop budgetary analyses and write proposals for foreign aid. Lawrence leads a solitary and lonely life. He’s the kind of man who walks as if he will need to make way for someone else at any moment, who cuts down his own comments before someone else has the chance to. He’s a sad man, tired of being unnoticed but afraid to draw attention to himself.
One afternoon, Lawrence escapes from his office for a cup of tea and meets Gina (Kelly McDonald) in a crowded cafe. The two of them make small talk, the kind of forced conversation that strangers usually have - but Lawrence senses a connection and asks the (much younger) woman if she’d like to have dinner with him. Gina agrees and the two embark on a tentative romance, capped off by Lawrence inviting Gina to fly with him to a business conference in Reykjavik.
The conference turns out to be the G8 Summit. And Lawrence’s business there includes crafting an aid package to Africa that aims to wipe out the stifling and deadly poverty on the continent. Soon, Lawrence learns that Gina has very strong opinions on the matter that she’s not afraid to share - a real problem in the tight-lipped political circles he operates in. And Lawrence also begins to wonder if their chance meeting was truly random or if his young lover has a secret agenda.
This is where the film stopped tracking for me. And the problems I had with this film match, almost exactly, the problems I had with “Blood Diamond.” The first half of “The Girl in the Cafe” is a sweet, awkward romance between two wandering souls. Gina and Lawrence’s interactions, particularly the early ones, are uncomfortable but also real. You can see these two people being drawn to each other for reasons beyond either person’s understanding.
But when the two arrive at the G8 Summit, the romance swiftly takes a backseat to the film’s politics. And, again, these are important issues. But why set up such a layered romance just to shove it to the background? Gina’s confrontations with the powerful people at the summit, her speeches about the real suffering in Africa and the lack of understanding for it in the developed world, are well-written and compelling. But they come at the expense of everything that’s come before it.
As with “Blood Diamond,” the movie is saved by the performances of its lead actors. Nighy and McDonald make a believable couple, despite their age difference, and both actors make their characters quirky and unique without becoming caricatures. But right around the time Gina makes a patented Big Speech at a dinner party full of dignitaries, I began to realize that the broad political point of “The Girl in the Cafe” was the movie’s real goal - not the romance.
I’m not saying that genre films can’t have a political point of view. Nor am I saying that the issues in this film aren’t important. But when the political speeches, the facts, figures and statistics and the outright calls to action begin to overwhelm the story, movies cease to become movies and turn into polemics. “The Girl in the Cafe” is one half of a great romance and one half of a convincing political statement. But these don’t add up to a whole.
Blood Diamond (2006)
Written by: Charles Leavitt
Directed by: Edward Zwick
“Blood Diamond” stands as an example of how poor marketing can kill a movie’s box office performance. When I first heard of this film, I was intrigued by the idea and I’m a big fan of all the actors and filmmakers involved. But all it took was one line - just one line - to completely kill my interest. This line was at the forefront of every teaser, trailer and clip that was shown on television. And it’s one of the worst lines in history. No, the Worst. I find it hard to believe that it ever made its way into any kind of medium, much less film. Much as it pains me, here it is:
“You know in America, it’s ‘bling bling’, but out here it’s ‘bling bang’.”
Done. That tore it for me. And it’s too bad, because “Blood Diamond” is a good movie, a solid action film that attempts, valiantly, to be something more.
The poor actor who’s forced to say the literary travesty that is ‘bling bang’ is Leonardo DiCaprio. He plays Archer, an ex-militant who smuggles diamonds from war-torn Sierra Leone across the border to Liberia, a more stable country that ‘legitimate’ diamond merchants are happy to do business with. The diamonds are mostly mined by local villagers who are ripped from their families by rebel militias and sent into forced labor. Unfortunately, the premise of this movie isn’t fiction.
One such villager is Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou), whose wife and daughters are sent to refugee camps and whose son is conscripted into the service of the rebels. While working the diamond fields, Solomon finds an enormous uncut stone, worth millions, which he buries before fleeing the camp when it’s attacked by government troops. Archer soon finds out about the stone and enlists Solomon to lead him to it, with the promise that Solomon can use the proceeds to find and free his family.
Also drawn into this web is Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly), the recipient of the aforementioned ‘bling bang’ atrocity. Maddy is a field reporter who helps Archer and Solomon travel across the war-torn country under the guise of being journalists. She’s looking to take down the diamond cartels who trade in conflict diamonds and sees Archer as a prime source for information.
“Blood Diamond” doesn’t skirt the controversial issue of marketing diamonds that come from unstable African nations. In fact, it tackles it head-on. Solomon’s story is heartbreaking, even more so because this is the ‘Hollywood’ version, almost assuredly toned down for American audiences. But it remains horrific, as do the scenes of violence and war in Sierra Leone. Archer often uses the phrase ‘TIA’ - meaning ‘This Is Africa’ - as way of noting that these terrible events are just another cycle in a long line of instability. Archer is a product of this environment - he’s neither sympathetic nor an outright scoundrel. He’s a survivor, just as Solomon must learn to become. His methods are the toxic byproduct of years of conflict.
But “Blood Diamond” serves two masters. The story of conflict diamonds takes prominence, but it is above all a cracker jack action movie. And there are few who do mainstream action movies as well as Edward Zwick. Archer, Solomon and Maddy often find themselves fleeing from the rebels, the government or both. There’s an escape sequence as Archer and Solomon flee the capital city that is particularly harrowing. But all of the action is suspenseful and well-staged, while not falling too far afoul of the bad taste inherent in setting an action movie during a real-life conflict.
But one of the movie’s biggest strengths - its action - is also its biggest weakness. “Blood Diamond” tries admirably to serve both the gravity of its stories of bloodshed and family peril and the action that’s required every 20 minutes or so. But this kind of message was not meant for a blockbuster action movie. And the story is often derailed by the required action beats. In trying to be both a message movie and a thriller, the film doesn’t fully succeed in being either. And it does, on occasion, feel insensitive to the real-life death taking place today in countries like Sierra Leone.
What pulls the film together is the acting. The performances in this film are outstanding, but DiCaprio and Hounsou are the real stand-outs here. Both were Oscar-nominated for their work in this film and rightfully so.
Djimon Hounsou remains one of the most underrated working actors. His performance carries the film. Solomon’s heartbreak and love for his family, along with the grief of losing them, open the door for overacting, but Hounsou’s work is brilliant. Solomon is a peaceful man, but he has a darkness in him that Hounsou makes into terrifying and gut-wrenching reality. The fact that he lost the Oscar to Alan Arkin’s light-as-air performance in “Little Miss Sunshine” tells you all you need to know about the Academy.
I have a sneaking suspicion that Leonardo DiCaprio will emerge as the best actor of this generation. Or at least the most versatile. But here, I bought him as an adult, a world-weary fully grown man for the first time. Even in “The Departed,” which he was brilliant in, he seemed like a boy among men. But his performance as Archer goes beyond the accent and the steely glare. You can see the pain, the defiance in his eyes. His pursuit of the diamond reminded me of Humphrey Bogart’s character in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” a man who will follow an obsession just to prove a point - even to his own ruin. It’s a fantastic performance.
“Blood Diamond” is a good film that could have been great if the film’s backers had allowed it to have the courage of having a message without pandering to the audience with unnecessary action. Yes, most mainstream films have to follow a certain formula. But the ones that really stand out find a way to skirt the rules. Besides, what do executives know, anyway? Anyone who thinks ‘bling bang’ is acceptable can’t have very good judgement.
Written and Directed by: John Carney
Hello readers! Apologies for the unexpected break in my reviews. I took a last-minute trip out of town that kept me from my duties. But I’m back - and we’re steaming toward 100 reviews!
“Once” is a movie of many genres. A drama and a romance for sure. But you’d also have to classify it as a musical. Much of the story is told through song and I’d wager that no more than 25% of the movie contains spoken dialogue. But it’s a special kind of musical, an oddity that both typifies and transcends the genre.
Fortune smiled on writer/director John Carney when he found Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova to star in his film. Not only do they play the lead roles of Guy and Girl (we never learn their names), but they also co-wrote the songs that they perform together in the movie. And they’re beautiful songs, often stunning - none more so than the Oscar-winning duet “Falling Slowly.”
Hansard’s Guy is a Dublin street busker who also works in his father’s vacuum repair shop. He’s talented, but held back by family commitments and a broken heart. He pines openly for his girlfriend, whom he discovered was cheating on him just before she moved to London. Irglova’s Girl is sweet and plain-spoken, but also direct. She is raising a daughter alone - her husband opted to stay behind in the Czech Republic. It doesn’t take long to realize that their marriage is not a perfect one.
They meet on a street corner. She likes his songs. He likes having a fan. They talk and flirt. He promises to fix her broken vacuum cleaner. And then she takes him to her favorite music store, a place where the owner will let her play the piano as long as she wants. He’s transfixed by her playing and suggests that they play one of his songs.
What follows is one of those magic movie moments. The song is simple. The camera stays fixed on the two of them. And no words are spoken, just notes and lyrics. But by the end of the song, we realize that these two were meant to find each other. They are kindred spirits. And both of them realize it, too. It’s a magical scene - one that I look forward to revisiting many times over.
In the weeks that follow, they continue to collaborate, slowly tiptoeing around the burgeoning love that they both know is there. She helps secure studio space for him to record his songs. They form a band and impress the local music producer. And suddenly the two are at a crossroads. He needs to go to London in order to have the recordings heard by people who matter. She has to stay to look after her daughter. And both of their exes suddenly re-enter the picture. What are a pair of star-crossed lovers to do?
It’s in these final passages that director John Carney really shines. The situations that arise and the choices that are made could easily have been handled melodramatically. But he shows restraint, allowing things to unfold naturally. Despite what you may think of the ending, it feels, for whatever reason, right. As if it couldn’t end any other way and still be satisfying.
There are two things I have to single out about “Once.” The first, obviously, is the music. It has to carry a heavy burden in this film, both emotion and exposition. But Hansard and Irglova deliver, both in their performances and their songwriting, and create a really touching story. Secondly, the acting is terrific in this film. There’s a scene between Hansard and his father (Bill Hodnett) near the end of the film that is both heartbreaking and inspirational, a moment of real humanity caught on film. “Once” is peppered with these moments.
Finally, I’d like to address the title. Carney has said that “Once” refers to the way many people regard their dreams - they’ll get around to them once this distraction or that obstacle is out of the way. But to me, it’s about that one time in your life when you meet your real soulmate. Your equal, the other half of you. It could be your husband or wife. A best friend or a collaborator or someone you meet on the bus. Maybe you’ll spend the rest of your life with this person. Maybe fate has decided that your time together will be short. You might meet them when you’re 70. Or maybe 7. Who knows? But there is a love there, a bond that will never die. And you’ll know when it happens. It’s unmistakable. Because it only happens once.
Point Blank (1967)
Written by: Alexander Jacobs, David Newhouse and Rafe Newhouse
Directed by: John Boorman
Suggested by: tallandstupid
About halfway through “Point Blank,” I realized two things. 1) I was kind of digging it. 2) Something about this movie seemed very…familiar. It wasn’t until the introduction of a character named Carter that I realized something - “Point Blank” was remade in 1999 as “Payback,” a Brian Helgeland movie starring Mel Gibson that I love and have always thought was underrated. “Point Blank” wasn’t recommended to me because of that. It’s just a happy coincidence. Two entries in my cinematic databanks have now been connected.
Lee Marvin stars as Walker, who’s double-crossed, shot and left for dead by his wife and his best friend during a heist on Alcatraz. John Vernon (perhaps best known as Dean Wormer in “Animal House”) makes his film debut plays the turncoat friend, a cowardly small-time crook named Mal Reese. Walker recovers from his physical wounds and soon sets out to heal the psychological ones by tracking down and killing Reese - and recovering the $93,000 he lost in the botched caper. He teams up along the way with his sister-in-law Chris (Angie Dickinson) and a mysterious man named Yost (Keenan Wynn).
In the meantime, Reese has used his blood money to buy his way into the Organization, a mob-type outfit that’s run by a mystery man named Fairfax. Walker works his way through the Organization from a two-bit car salesman named Stegman (Michael Strong) to middle management, run by Carter (Lloyd Bochner), all the way to the outfit’s second-in-command Brewster, played by a pre-Archie-Bunker Carroll O’Connor.
All of these men don’t understand why Walker would go to all this trouble for what is, to them, an insignificant $93,000 payday. But one look at Walker’s face removes all doubt - this isn’t business, it’s personal. And there are few who can play a stone-faced badass as well as Lee Marvin. Walker’s made of granite, the kind of man who will let a woman pound away at him until she’s exhausted, then walk to the couch and flip on the TV. The kind of man who has no problem going for your balls if it will win the fight. The kind of man who will wreck a brand new car just to prove a point.
There are two spectacular sequences in the film that underscore this point. The first begins with Walker walking down a long hallway, his footsteps echoing throughout. Gradually the footsteps get louder and we cut away to Lynne (Sharon Acker), Walker’s wife and the first name on his to-do list. We see Walker watching her, preparing to put his plan in motion - all the while, the steps getting louder and louder - until Walker springs into action. It’s beautiful.
The other great sequence is a fight that takes place in the backstage area of a psychedelic nightclub. Walker is confronted by three of Stegman’s henchman and proceeds to take them apart, piece by piece. This really drives home Walker’s brutality as well as Lee Marvin’s toughness - the 40+ year-old actor didn’t (to my eyes, anyway) use a stunt double during this scene. Plus, it all ends with this shot:
But for all the things I loved about “Point Blank,” it left me a little cold. The movie takes a while to find its tempo before settling in nicely in the middle. And the ending feels empty and unsatisfying, perhaps by design, but still - something just didn’t click with me.
But I am absolutely recommending this movie, if only for John Boorman’s incredibly detailed direction, especially with the look of the film. And Lee Marvin’s performance is really well done, far more nuanced than most actors would deem necessary. There’s one scene where he just sits in the background for over a minute, literally saying nothing - because he doesn’t have to.
I’m wavering between 3 1/2 and 4 Hudsons on this one. I’ve been going back and forth all day, but I’m going to settle on 3 1/2. A really strong 3 1/2.
Do you have a movie you’d like to see reviewed? Something that excites you? A hidden little gem that you’re ready for the world (or at least the 70+ readers of this blog) to see? Send me a message on Tumblr or email me at email@example.com. I look forward to your suggestions. Thanks for reading!
Con Air (1997)
Written by: Scott Rosenberg
Directed by: Simon West
Nicolas Cage’s acting career will someday pass into Hollywood legend. After years of working his way up the Hollywood ladder, he won universal critical acclaim and an Academy Award for his performance in “Leaving Las Vegas.” Cage’s next three movies were - in order - “The Rock,” “Con Air” and “Face/Off.” I’ve often referred to these three movies as the ‘Cage Action Trilogy.’ And now I can say I’ve finished the set.
Let me say upfront that I am an unabashed and unapologetic fan of “The Rock” and “Face/Off.” They are two of my favorite action movies ever. Because they’re absolutely stupid fun. Yes, both of these movies are unquestionably ludicrous. But they’re produced and acted with a ridiculously serious fervor that makes them awesome. So I was looking forward to strapping myself in for “Con Air” and going along for the ride. Unfortunately, it looks like someone let the makers of this movie in on the joke.
“Con Air” is the story of Cameron Poe, a retired Army Ranger who’s arrested for murder on the night he comes home from the military. Despite what should have been an open and shut self-defense case, Poe is sentenced to 7 years in prison because, as the judge puts it, his army training makes him a deadly weapon.
Fast forward seven years. Poe, now rocking a serious balding-man’s mullet, is set to be freed on parole on July 14th. It’s his daughter’s birthday. I’m mentioning that because the movie also mentions this fact about a dozen times. It’s like the rules of the arm-wrestling tournament in “Over the Top” - it must be driven home repeatedly, lest we forget. So all Poe has to do is board a prison transport plane and fly home into the loving arms of his wife and daughter, whom he’s never seen. Sounds easy right? Well it would be - if the plane wasn’t also carrying the most dangerous convicts in America!
The convicts are led by Cyrus ‘The Virus’ Grissom (John Malkovich). And Cyrus has concocted the most elaborate escape plan ever conceived by man. As I understand it, this is Cyrus’s plan: Board the prison plane with the other convicts, have an accomplice set another convict on fire to distract the guards while the convicts pick the locks on their cuffs, have their accomplice open the cell doors, disable the guards, land the plane as scheduled to conduct a prisoner transfer, disguise the wounded guards as prisoners and get them off the plane, put the plane’s transponder onto another plane to throw off the feds, take off again, fly to a remote airfield and meet up with a South American drug lord who will be there waiting with a different plane to take all the convicts to freedom in a country without extradition laws.
It’s a wonder that anything goes wrong.
I know making a movie is hard work, so I rarely question the effort of filmmakers. But I honestly doubt that much thought was put into this movie at any stage. “Con Air” is almost offensively dumb. For example, Cage has an opportunity to get off the plane with the guards and make his escape. Why doesn’t he? He’s a free man! Because he wants to make sure his cellmate gets the needle he needs to take his insulin shot. Seriously. There’s your motivation and your ticking clock, all rolled up into one stupid package.
I don’t think the script for this movie even had a full first draft. It feels like the plot was roughly sketched out, with the actors and director improvising as they went along. Every horrible action movie cliche is ramped up to the nth degree. The feds are so stupid that they’re borderline retarded. Cage is saddled with a ridiculous backstory and even more ridiculous Southern accent - I’m pretty sure he’s sleepwalking through most of the movie. And convicts are given lines like “They call me Johnny 23 because I’ve been convicted of rape 23 times. They’d call me Johnny 600 if they knew the truth.” Serial rape! Sign me up!
And there are characters in this movie that serve no purpose whatsoever. There’s one guy called ‘Sally-Can’t-Dance’ whose sole reason for being in the movie is to compete for ‘Worst, Most Ridiculous, Superfluous and Offensive Gay Stereotype Ever.’ He wears a dress for most of the movie. And then there’s Garland Greene, played by Steve Buscemi. He’s introduced as the most heinous serial killer of all time, but he doesn’t do much. There is one excruciating scene that seems like it’s building up to him murdering (at best) a little girl. But he doesn’t. And he gets the big audience-pleasing last line at the end of the movie. Welcome to “Con Air” - where not brutally murdering an innocent five-year-old is the threshold for audience acceptance.
I could literally go on for pages about the stupidity of this movie, how this is unquestionably the worst performance of John Cusack’s career (he plays the fed with a heart of gold), etc. But the thing that really sets me off about “Con Air” is that I don’t think anyone who made it really gave a damn. Didn’t care about the acting. Didn’t care about the editing. Certainly didn’t care about the writing. Hey, it’s going to make $100 million anyway, right? Fuck it.
I’ll abide ridiculous dialogue and preposterous chase scenes in my action films. But I won’t abide carelessness and cynicism.
Dod sno (Dead Snow) 
Written by: Stig Frode Henriksen and Tommy Wirkola
Directed by: Tommy Wirkola
How did this happen? Somehow, despite years of randomly moving titles up and down my Netflix queue, I end up with three zombie movies in a row. Though, it must be said, the zombies in “Dead Snow” are much closer to your traditional zombies than Danny Boyle’s rage-infected speedsters. But they are still pretty quick on their feet. And also, they’re Nazis. Which makes this movie the best Norwegian Nazi zombie movie I’ve ever seen. No contest. And I mean that literally - there is actually no other movie to contest it.
I’ve often wondered just how long American cultural trends take to really make an impact overseas. Now I have the answer. While self-referential horror movies went out of style in the US about halfway through the running time of “Scream,” the genre apparently took about 13 years to reach Norway. “Dead Snow” isn’t a parody movie, exactly. But it does take the time to tweak the conventions of the horror genre. And by tweak, I mean ‘explicitly mention.’
Of course, what made “Scream” work was that it didn’t just mention horror movie conventions, it also put a fresh spin on them. I guess that part of the formula got lost in translation because while “Dead Snow” does take the time to mention almost every horror movie cliche, the movie also falls victim to them in the most tired and unoriginal ways. Early on, I started listing the ones I noticed. Here are the results:
Characters (Guys): The Cute One, The Cocky One, The Sweet Nerdy One, The Fat One
Characters (Girls): The Cute One’s Girlfriend, The One Who Likes the Nerdy One, 2 Others (aka Bait)
Other Characters: Mysterious Old Man Who Pops Up Unexpectedly to Tell Main Characters That They’re Doomed Just Before Being Killed, Assorted Zombies
Cheap Jump Scares (aka ‘Gotcha!’ moments): At least 16
Number of Scenes Involving a Character Looking Into the Darkness Asking Who’s There: Six
That’s what ultimately weighed this movie down for me. It takes the time to mention how cliched Hollywood horror movies are before doing the exact same things it’s ridiculing. It’s like pointing out how idiotic it is to stick a fork in an electrical socket, then grabbing a fork and saying ‘Here, I’ll show you what I’m talking about.’
However, there are two things in “Dead Snow” that are, I have to admit, very impressive. The first is the effects work. The design of the Nazi zombies is pretty cool. And the blood work is excellent. This movie isn’t just bloody - it’s visceral. Intestines, blood, brains, and assorted fluids flow freely and often. And it’s all done practically and rather ingeniously, further proving my point that practical effects are the way to go. The practical work is so good, I actually got sick to my stomach near the end of the movie. That’s a rarity.
The second thing that impressed me was the pure creativity of the kills. These kids have it rough. There are decapitations, eviscerations, amputations - one guy is even split in four. And those are just the humans! Right around the time that one of our heroes found himself dangling off a cliff using zombie intestines as a rope, I had to crack a smile.
But all the effects work in the world can’t redeem an average story. It doesn’t take long for the self-referential dialogue to grow wearisome. The plot, as it is, leaves much to be desired. And at the end, I found myself impressed by the sound and the fury of the zombie attacks - but nothing else. “Dead Snow” is a must-see for gorehounds and effects gurus. But I wish the filmmakers had spent as much time on the writing as they did on the blood and guts.
28 Weeks Later (2007)
Written by: Rowan Joffe, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, Enrique Lopez Lavigne and Jesus Olmo
Directed by: Juan Carlos Fresnadillo
Remember how in “Jaws,” they almost never showed the shark? It was a constant presence in the movie, but rarely seen in its full glory. “Jaws” was a movie that was more about the three men hunting the shark and battling the elemental forces of nature. Now, do you remember “Jaws 2?” First five minutes - BANG - there’s the shark. And there it is every five minutes after that - attacking boats, eating helicopters, chomping down on power lines. All shark, all the time. Because the producers stupidly thought that the drawing power of the first movie was the big rubber shark, not the artistry put into the film itself.
Well, read the paragraph above and replace ‘shark’ with ‘zombies’ and you pretty much have “28 Weeks Later.” It’s a sequel to “28 Days Later…” in name only. It doesn’t share any of the characters or storylines or even the tone of the first film. But it does still feature the first movie’s destructive rage virus - and I hope you like watching the infected zombie hordes, because man, they are everywhere in this movie. It’s “28 Days Later…” with the action doubled up and the intelligence cut in half.
“28 Weeks Later” opens on a strong note - Don (Robert Carlyle) is hiding out in a country farmhouse while the initial infection of the rage virus is turning the outside world into a zombie-infested wasteland. Soon, the hordes descend on the house and Don flees, leaving his wife and fellow survivors behind. This is an incredibly tense, well-done sequence that really gave me hope for this film. I learned later that this was also the only sequence filmed under the supervision of Danny Boyle, the director of “28 Days Later…” and the executive producer of this film.
From there, the movie is slowly overcome by the conventions of the horror genre. We fast forward 28 weeks. Don’s kids (who were traveling in America during the initial outbreak) return to London, which is slowly being repopulated by a NATO force led by - surprise! - the American military. The city is still heavily patrolled and zoned off, but the authorities assure everyone that the virus and its carriers have been completely eradicated. Of course, there’s no harm in keeping a heavily armed militia on standby just in case, right?
Don is reunited with his family and begins a new life. But I don’t think I’m spoiling anything when I tell you that the virus has not been eradicated - though the way it’s re-introduced is the last genuinely innovative idea this movie has. Soon, our favorite rage-infected zombies are on the loose again and the military springs into action. The soldiers are played by a strong ensemble, including a pre-“Hurt Locker” Jeremy Renner, Idris Elba aka Stringer Bell and Harold Perrineau, who mercifully isn’t required to scream ‘Waaaaalt!’ at any point during the film.
The rest of the film follows Don’s kids (Imogen Poots and Mackintosh Muggleton, the most awesomely named acting duo ever) and a small band of survivors as they attempt to escape London while avoiding the ever-escalating military attempts to kill the zombies. And if you like bloody zombie deaths, this is the movie for you. Sniper fire, poison gas, flame throwers and helicopter blades are just a few of the methods used to wipe out the angry mobs - and the blood spews so freely that a Gallagher-style tarp should come with the DVD.
“28 Weeks Later” is not a bad movie. It’s a perfectly serviceable zombie thriller. But it’s also nothing special. The deep themes and subtlety of the first film are replaced with boilerplate characters and carnage on a massive scale. Basically your typical sequel, a dumbed down version of the most sensational parts of the original. But in an era where the “Bourne” trilogy and Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies are showing that you can still weave complex characters and themes into a series of films, it just doesn’t cut it anymore.
It’s an age-old story. Danny Boyle’s low-budget, DV thriller has been glossed up and had its effects budget tripled - so that means it must be better, right? What so many studios don’t seem to understand is that it’s not enough to just throw money at the shark. It’s always going to look fake. What we really care about are the people on the boat.