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Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai – Review

9 Mar

Jim Jarmusch is quite possibly one of the most critically acclaimed film makers working in the industry today. Even with all of this critical feedback, his films rarely see the light of day in terms of the mainstream market, but Jarmusch never compromises his vision for something more accessible, and I respect that. While most of his films are very interesting an defy genre conventions, one that really stands out to me is Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, which was released in 1999. It’s a story that combines a mafia crime story with an urban drama that has elements of an Eastern samurai tale. It’s a very unique movie that has a lot of elements working together, but sometimes at the expense of other aspects that could have been explored more.

Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) is a mysterious hit man that lives by the code of the samurai, which was written in the Hagakure. Part of the code is to honor his boss, a mobster named Louie (John Tormey) who saved his life some years before this story takes place. Part of his honoring Louie is to perform contract hits without question. One of the hits is Handsome Frank (Richard Portnow), a made man who is in a relationship with mafia don Vargo’s (Henry Silva) daughter (Tricia Vessey). After successfully performing the hit with the daughter being unexpectedly present for it, Vargo puts a hit on Ghost Dog, much to the chagrin of Louie, who is forced to go along with it to some degree. Now, Ghost Dog is going to have to come out of seclusion, and in the traditional ways of the samurai, get his revenge on the mafia family that wants him dead.

So while this does have a pretty classic revenge story going on, the core of this movie is Ghost Dog. It’s more of a character study than anything else. There’s bursts of violence that happen, but it’s the downtime that sticks with me more. There’s a great scene in a park where Ghost Dog is talking to this little girl he just met about different kinds of books. This scene added a lot of humanity to Ghost Dog, a man who is essentially a murderer for hire. This kind of humanity makes him a very conflicted and complicated character whereas he can be gentle to most anyone he meets, but also kill you without batting an eye. This study of Ghost Dog makes for slow paced storytelling, but it works for this movie. What doesn’t really work is when the slow pace slows down to a halt. There’s a lot of scenes where Ghost Dog is just driving and listening to music, which is brilliantly composed by RZA. As great as the music is, these scenes go on way to long, and unless you’re 100% invested in everything in this movie, you’ll probably find yourself drifting from time to time.

What really makes Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai unique is the seamless genre blending. Like I said before, this film works as an urban drama and a crime thriller with sprinklings of Eastern philosophies and styles. I really love when movies defy all genre conventions, which is a major strength of Jim Jarmusch. The combination of RZA’s hip hop score with the imagery of Ghost Dog practicing with his katana on a rooftop in the middle of the city is just super cool, and when he’s comparing the philosophy of the samurai with the violent revenge he’s getting on the mafia also makes for a really cool blend. Now, the problem with having all this stuffed into one movie that isn’t even 2 hours means that some stuff is lost or pushed aside. Not a lot of Ghost Dog’s past is explored and a lot of side characters are just pushed away for long periods of time when a little bit of development would have went a long way. I know this story is more about Ghost Dog, but having certain characters stand out more would have made his actions have more consequence. It’s a small price to pay for fitting in all of the cool stuff that is prominent.

Ghost Dog is a really good example of the kind of writing that Jarmusch does and why it’s really a style all his own. There’s a lot of really cool bits in this movie that shouldn’t be under appreciated. There’s a Haitian character that doesn’t speak or understand a word of English, but he’s also Ghost Dog’s best friend even though they don’t understand each other. There’s also a gangster on Ghost Dog’s hit list that has a passion for Public Enemy, especially Flavor Flav. This whole movie is filled with these strange moments that make it feel surreal, but also down to earth since everyday life can be surreal. Jarmusch is as much a writer as he is a director, and it really shows in this movie.

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is definitely a cool and well made movie, and it’s one that should be remembered for being something so unique. It’s a blending of so many different genres and themes and styles while also being an in depth character study. I just wish it was a little bit longer. There’s a lot of different characters and elements to the story that could have been explored a little bit more. Still, what does remain is a very cool story about a one of a kind character. It’s definitely worth a watch or three.

Final Grade: B

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Street Kings & Street Kings 2: Motor City – Review

28 Jul

Crime movies are some of my favorite kinds of stories. Wether it’s told from the side of the criminals, the police, or both, these movies tend to excite me and grip me until the very end so long as the story is good enough. For this review, I’m going to be looking at Street Kings and its sequel Street Kings 2: Motor City. I can’t really say my feelings at this point on the sequel, but I was very excited to see the original Street Kings. I heard a lot of great stuff about it, and now that I’ve finally seen it, I’m honestly a little underwhelmed.

As always, we’ll be starting with the original 2008 film by David Ayer.

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Tom Ludlow (Keanu Reeves) is a star in the LAPD, but his unorthodox techniques and his heavy drinking is starting to get the better of him even with the support of his police unit, run by the affable Jack Wander (Forest Whitaker). What only adds more to Ludlow’s stress and drinking is the fact that his old partner (Terry Crews) is informing on him to an internal affairs captain, James Biggs (Hugh Laurie). When Ludlow is at the scene of his ex-partner’s murder, Biggs really sets his sights hard on Ludlow who is now determined more than ever to find the real killers. With the help of homicide detective Paul Diskant (Chris Evans), Ludlow starts a small war with the criminal element of L.A. in hopes to force the murderers into the open, but the corruption plaguing the police force goes deeper than Ludlow ever anticipated.

It’s clear that Street Kings has all of the makings of a really cool cop thriller. There’s a strong cast, David Ayer in the director’s chair, and the original story was written by James Ellroy, who is known for penning the modern classic L.A. Confidential. Well, Street Kings doesn’t quite live up the hype that I’ve been exposed to. So many people have told me that this is a must see movie, and honestly, it’s just alright. It certainly isn’t a bad movie, but you have to admit, it’s pretty derivative. Reeves’ character is a cop who most certainly doesn’t play by the rules, and then has to clear his name and weed out the corruption in the police force. It’s so many different clichés rolled up to form an even bigger cliché in the form of a two hour movie. Everything that happens in the movie has been seen before time and time again.

I don’t want to make it sound like Street Kings is a total waste of time, because that’s not the case. In fact, it’s a pretty competent movie for the most part. The cast really does their best with the material that’s given to them with Whitaker and Evans really stealing the show. David Ayer also has a really gritty eye, which is why he’s really good with this genre. The streets of L.A. really takes a life of their own and the presence of violence and death always feels like it’s lingering amongst the fog or right around the corner on a dark urban night. There’s plenty of style and Ayers captures it perfectly. I’m really only disappointed in the writing. I don’t know what Ellroy’s original screenplay was like before other writers hopped on to add their own take on things, but if it’s as clichéd as the final product, I’m pretty disappointed.

If you’re looking for an easy way to kill a couple hours, then Street Kings is a fine choice. You really don’t have to think to hard because the story and characters are all so familiar. As a movie to watch and review, I have to say it’s a bit of a disappointment. I’m not upset that I watched it, but I really have no need or desire to watch it again.

Street Kings is one of those movies that needs no sequel, but it ended up getting one that a lot of people probably never noticed. They took the themes and changed the city, the characters, and the story and released it straight to DVD. This is 2001 film, Street Kings 2: Motor City.

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Now taking place in Detroit instead of L.A., the story revolves around an aging narcotics  detective Marty Kingston (Ray Liotta), who doesn’t have the cleanest record on the force but is known for a couple huge busts. After his  partner (Scott Norman) is gunned down after leaving a night club, Kingston teams up with a young homicide detective, Dan Sullivan (Shawn Hatosy). At first Sullivan is wary of his new partner, but after more officers are killed in the same way, the two put aside their differences and begin acting together to find the culprit. Once again, however, the corruption in the police department runs deep and both men find their lives uprooted as the investigation comes closer to a conclusion.

This being a direct to DVD release, you have to take everything I say about Street Kings 2 with a grain of salt. Some of these straight to video releases can be good, but there’s normally a reason, wether it’s budget or otherwise, it didn’t get a theatrical run. For what it is, this movie isn’t too awful, but it is pretty bad. One thing good that came from it is that the story, at it’s core, is pretty much the same exact one as the original, which is automatic points off. It does, however, make some changes that I really liked and added a new sense of suspense and tension that wasn’t in the original. It’s also always cool to see Ray Liotta, and he did good in this film, but it’s a sad reminder that his career didn’t exactly go in the right direction.

Everything else about this movie is a bit of a joke. While some elements of the story might have been good, the writing in general is far from acceptable. There are some horrendous lines of dialogue that are shamelessly over expository. There are some lines delivered that are downright laughable. Ray Liotta is really the only actor in this movie who isn’t cringeworthy. Shawn Hatosy and Clifton Powell are probably the worst offenders in the acting department for this particular film. I already said that the story is pretty much exactly the same as the first movie which makes this one a copy cat of a movie that was already copying other movies. That made this an occasional chore to sit through.

Street Kings 2: Motor City is a coherent movie, but that’s really all I can say about it. The acting is awful, the story is clichéd, and there’s nothing of real substance to be found. A few scenes worked well, but most of them fell flat on their faces. Stick with the first one and leave this sequel well enough alone.

It seems that not too much can be said for Street Kings or it’s sequel. The first on is a mediocre cop movie that may be worth seeing once, and the sequel is just a goofy attempt at a drama. Only people who are really into this genre should check out the original. Other than that, there’s nothing else to really discuss.

Catch .44 – Review

7 Jun

Part of the joy of watching movies is seeing how an influential film maker created something so great that film makers coming after them take their content and utilize it to make something else new and original. For example, The Rambler took parts from Lynch and Cronenberg and made it something new. Catch .44 and its writer/director Aaron Harvey has their sights on Tarantino, however, who is one of the most influential film makers of his time. Now, what’s interesting about this movie is that it provides a wonderful lesson: Homage should never be pure mimicry, because that is just annoying.

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Tes (Malin Akerman) is a waitress in a sleazy strip club who is completely fed up with her job. Luckily for her, her skillful pickpocketing is recognized by a drug lord, Mel (Bruce Willis), who owns the bar. After working with him for a number of years and messing up a big job, Mel tasks Tes and her two friends with finding a rival drug transporter in a remote diner in the middle of the night. The friends make their way to the bar, but bullets soon begin to fly and blood is quickly spilled. After the violence dies down, Mel’s associate Ronny (Forest Whitaker) arrives on the scene and explains to Tes that not everything about this job is what it seems, and it is very likely that everyone left standing may not live to see the end of the night.

It’s crazy to realize that a movie has a completely ludicrous plot when I actually have to sit down and write a summary. That is just one of many things that are wrong with Catch .44. Like I said before, this movie is a Tarantino knock off in the most obvious and obnoxious of ways. I can only compare it to the cereal that you would find on the bottom shelf in a plastic bag that is an obvious knock off of Lucky Charms. The plot unfolds in a non linear fashion, very similar to Pulp Fiction, but certainly nowhere near as good. The actors also try to engage in this quirky kind of small talk that is reminiscent of the opening scene in Reservoir Dogs. Again, it’s nowhere near as good, and it’s clear that Harvey doesn’t operate on the same playing field as Tarantino.

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One look at the cast will leave you completely baffled, as it did me. Bruce Willis and Forest Whitaker? Don’t they have better things they can be doing? Well, maybe they saw something in the script. I don’t know. What I do know is that they are the only reasons this movie is almost watchable. It seemed like they were both just having a really good time with their roles while everyone else were just sort of there. Brad Dourif is also in this movie for like two minutes, making him one of the most wasted characters I’ve seen. Dourif is a great actor and I wanted to see more of him in this movie, but instead I just scratched my head and wondered why the character was even there in the first place.

The reason that Dourif’s character is even in the movie is just one example of how messy it is. There’s absolutely no reason for him or really for Forest Whitaker’s character either. The only important part of the movie is what happens in the diner, but only a short amount of time is spent there with all of the flashbacks that try to add depth to the characters or explain how they got there in the first place. The only problem with that is that the characters don’t have any depth and the reasons they are there are anything but interesting. Nothing in Catch .44 really adds up to anything except for a few scenes that were kind of cool.

Catch .44 really wants to be something it isn’t, and that just makes it hard to watch. The wit is dry, the characters are shallow, and the actors are miscast. There are even characters who are absolutely useless. There is potential somewhere hidden in here, but it only shows itself during one quick scene and the rest is just wasted material. There’s really no one that I can think of that can watch this movie and fully enjoy it, so I recommend to just stay away from it completely.

The Last Stand – Review

12 Feb

In 2003, action megastar Arnold Schwarzenegger reprised his famous career making role in Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machines. Since then, he became the governator of California and made small appearances in The Expendables and The Expendables 2. In 2013, however, and for the first time in a decade, starred in an action film. This was Kim Jee-woon’s The Last Stand, a movie that runs on all cylinders, hits you like a shotgun blast to the chest, and renewed some of my faith in modern action films.

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After a violent past working as an L.A.P.D narcotics officer, Ray Owens (Arnold Schwarzenegger) moves to the small town of Somerset, Arizona where the only crime is keeping some drunks or local gun nut Lewis Dinkum (Johnny Knoxville) quiet. Hurtling towards this small town at over 200 mph is an escaped cartel kingpin named Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) who fled from his transport in Las Vegas and is now making his way to the Mexican border. Hot on his tail is FBI Agent John Barrister (Forest Whitaker) who also warns Owens that this criminal and his army are making his way to his town. Low on men and weapons, Sheriff Owens, his deputies, and Dinkum turn the town into a blockade and prepare to fight the criminals off with Dinkum’s arsenal of heavy firepower.

Wow. Honestly, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I loved this movie. After recently watching Parker and spring boarding off that to think about how action movies just haven’t been impressing me, it was great to watch The Last Stand and really enjoy it. Right from the beginning, this movie’s filled with humor and action, and anyone who tries to deny that obviously hasn’t seen the movie. Even the story of this movie makes me smile just thinking about it. Sure it has some cliches, but it’s more original than a lot of action movies Hollywood is producing. Having a speeding car jetting towards a small town that’s been turned into a blockade is something I wish I wrote. It was exciting and engaging the entire way through.

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Another great thing is that the movie does a great job at making you care about its characters. While there is plenty of action and comedy, I was surprised that there was a large heaping of drama to go along with this movie. The characters aren’t really anything different from what you’d expect in an action movie of this kind, save maybe for Knoxville’s character, but there was still enough personality to make them three dimensional. When the action starts, I wanted to see all of the heroes get out alive. Unfortunately for them, the action in this movie seems bloody and relentless at points, which was just a joy for me.

The only problem I had with this movie was some really weird pacing and cuts in the scenes. At a certain point in the movie where the shit begins to hit the fan, we are literally all over the place and in three states at once. It made for some really awkward cutting. The characters in Somerset are obviously the main focus, but at the point I’m talking about the scenes in Vegas with the FBI was more important. Instead of staying with a certain group of people for an appropriate amount of time, I felt like I was being thrown all over the place to get a ridiculous amount of information really quickly. It was like riding a wooden roller coaster that has seen too many years.

All in all, The Last Stand was a really fun movie that I’d love to watch again and again. This isn’t a movie where you have to think too hard or really put effort into it, but if you want to see an action movie, then you really can’t go wrong here. It’s full of bullets, blood, laughs, drama, and an exploding torso. Doesn’t that just sound like a recipe for success right out of the Action Movie Cook Book? It may not become a classic, but it is one of the better films of the genre to be released in a very long time and I think The Last Stand has done me good and will do me good, and I say God bless it.

Phone Booth – Review

29 May

How can a movie that predominantly takes place inside of a single phone booth possibly be interesting? Well, that is what I’m going to explain today with Joel Schumacher’s film, Phone Booth. This film is a success due to its fine direction, expert editing, and perfect pacing, packed to the brim with suspense and intensity.

Stu Shepard (Colin Farrell) is not a good person. He is a publicist, who isn’t particularly very good, but still enjoys the multiple lies and trickery needed in order to get ahead. While using a public phone booth to call a possible girlfriend-on-the-side (Katie Holmes), Stu is called by a mysterious man (Kiefer Sutherland), who just so happens to have a highly powerful sniper rifle aimed right at Stu, and will fire on him if he doesn’t obey his every word. Soon, the police arrive and Stu finds himself in a stand-off with the caller and the police.

There are many factors that would have caused Phone Booth to not work as a film. The biggest and most challenging factor is making a film that takes place mainly in a phone booth interesting. To do this, the pacing had to be perfect, and it really is. Not once during the length of this movie did I find myself getting bored. Of course, this is far from being a long film, only clocking in at a little over 80 minutes. This is just the right amount of time to properly introduce the characters, build suspense, and release all of the built suspense in a minute of insanity.

When I think of really good actors, Colin Farrell isn’t one that comes to mind, but after seeing Phone Booth I know that he has the talent to be great. Unfortunately, this isn’t really implemented save for a couple of films like In Bruges. Katie Holmes and Radha Mitchell do alright as Shepard’s love interests. Forest Whitaker gives a very emotional performance as a police chief with an obvious battered past. Kiefer Sutherland is the perfect choice to play the Caller, and he does so with menace and sounds genuinely like a sociopath.

The writer of the film, Larry Cohen, actually pitched the idea of a film centering around a single phone booth to Alfred Hitchcock in the 1960s, and Hitchcock thought it was a great idea but neither of them knew how to keep the character trapped in the booth. Cohen came up with the idea for a sniper in the 90s, but more to the point, this film definitely feels like it is a modern day Hitchcock film. The real intensity comes from the suspense and the performances, which is what Hitchcock was all about. Michael Bay was set to direct at one point, and the first question he asked was, “How do we get him out of the phone booth?” Getting Stu out of the booth would have ruined the whole point of the film.

Phone Booth had the potential to be a terribly boring movie, but Schumacher and his crew did a great job at crafting a meticulously good story filled with suspense and questions of morality. Do the sniper’s actions justify the means? Of course not, but the audience of this movie definitely have discussion points after this movie. I can easily recommend Phone Booth to anyone looking for a suspense fully wicked good time.