Tag Archives: prison

Con Air – Review

17 Oct

When I think of the first R-rated movies I ever saw, my mind goes to the same two. The first that comes to mind is Gladiator and the second is Con Air. Two very different movies, yet they both have a special spot in the heart of this overly sentimental film geek. I actually haven’t seen Con Air in a really long time, so I had this fear that it would be nowhere near as great as I remember it being. So, I put it on and hoped for the best. What I got isn’t nearly as spectacular as I remembered it being, but it’s certainly an acceptable and memorable action fest that could’ve used a few more brain cells amongst other things.

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Cameron Poe (Nicolas Cage) has just finished serving his country as an Army Ranger and is celebrating his return with his wife, Tricia (Monica Potter). That night, Poe gets into a fight with a couple of bar patrons and accidentally kills one of them in self defense. Because of his extensive military training, he is deemed a human weapon and sentenced to 8 years in prison for manslaughter. After quietly serving his time in prison, he’s finally paroled and ready to be reunited with his wife and his daughter whom he has never met. Poe, along with some other inmates getting transferred board the transport plane, which doesn’t get too far until it is high jacked by the psychotic criminal Cyrus the Virus (John Malkovich) and his crew. With U.S. Marshal Vince Larkin (John Cusack) fighting on the ground to get the plane back, Poe is left to his own devices on the plane to stop Cyrus from using the plane to gain his own freedom, while also staying alive long enough to get home and see his family.

Like I said, I have very fond memories of watching this movie when I was younger, and while it still has some elements of being a guilty pleasure, I’ve noticed a lot of weird things that I really dislike about it. Before we get to them, I’d like to something I really like about the movie. The cast of Con Air is fantastic. Other than the names I’ve already mentioned there’s also Danny Trejo, Dave Chapelle, Colm Meaney, Ving Rhames, and Steve Buscemi. All of these actors do a fine job in their roles, with Buscemi bringing a really creepy performance as a Jeffrey Dahmer like serial killer that has disturbed me ever since I first saw this movie. The real scene stealer, though, is John Malkovich as Cyrus. Cyrus the Virus has remained one of my favorite screen villains, and this viewing of the movie still holds that opinion to be true. He just oozes with over the top villainy, and it’s so easy and fun to hate this character. I honestly feel like Malkovich is the only person that could’ve played this role, which is odd because it feels so out of place from what he usually does.

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So while the majority of the cast is really fantastic, there are parts of this movie that are so distractingly terrible, they pull me out of the movie and makes me think twice about what I’m watching. For one thing, I can’t get into Nicolas Cage’s character even though he’s the hero of the movie. There are scenes of his ridiculous long hair blowing in the wind and some really awful lines of dialogue that are so bad, it almost isn’t even funny. But I really can’t totally fault Nicolas Cage for this. Despite what many people think, Cage is a fine actor and has proven so in the past. Con Air isn’t quite a shining point in his filmography. I’d much rather blame the writers for most of the cringe inducing moments. Let’s just say that Con Air is one of those movies that you can only show to the closest of friends in order to save yourself massive amounts of embarrassment, solely because of all the awkwardness and corny dialogue.

Honestly, that one paragraph doesn’t really do justice to the amount of negativity that I would have towards this movie if it wasn’t for some really badass action sequences. The fact that a lot of this movie takes place on a plane is enough for plenty of set pieces, but there’s great sequences on the ground as well. Add in an element of time sensitivity, and you got yourself some suspense filled and memorable action scenes. There’s plenty of explosions and gunplay, but what really makes these parts so great are the maniacal villains and their psychopathic nature. There’s plenty of stand out scenes, and it’s funny to say that Con Air was nominated for an Academy Award for its sound design. It’s an example of really well constructed moments of mayhem, and these parts save the movie from being a complete flop.

The bottom line is that Con Air didn’t hold up quite as well as it did when I was a kid. I remember all of the characters and the action to their full potential, but I simply didn’t realize how awful some of the writing was. Now that I have more experience with film and how real people talk in real life, I know awful writing when I hear it, and this film is filled with it. As an action movie, it’s memorable for many different reasons, and it’s arguably a good escape from the real world. Objectively, however, it’s got so much going against it that the whole experience can feel kind of awkward.

Final Grade: C+

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Find Me Guilty – Review

9 Jun

Between the years of 1986 and 1988, the largest mafia indictment and trial occurred with 20 defendants, who were all members of the Lucchese crime family, in the hot seat. One of these defendants was a low level gangster named Frankie DiNorscio, who was already facing 30 years and decided the best thing he could do is defend himself during this enormous trial. Needless to say, it was a circus and this brings us to Find Me Guilty, one of the great Sidney Lumet’s last films. I can honestly say that I’ve never heard anyone talk about this movie… like ever. I find this weird since it is a very entertaining court room film, but also features, far and away, Vin Diesel’s best performance.

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After almost being killed by his cousin and then arrested during a huge drug bust, Jackie DiNorscio (Vin Diesel) is looking down the barrel of 30 long years in prison. As if his luck hasn’t been bad enough recently, DiNorscio is then included in a massive indictment, led by district attorney Sean Kierney (Linus Roache), of over 20 members of the Lucchese crime family, including the boss, Nick Calabrese (Alex Rocco). Much to the chagrin of the lead defense attorney Ben Klandis (Peter Dinklage), Jackie decides it would be in his best interest to defend himself in the case. As days turn to months, Jackie stands up for himself throughout the trial and causes all sorts of havoc in the courtroom, but he also is forced to use this trial as a reflection on how he’s lived his life up until this point, affected the people he’s surrounded by, and what the family really thinks of him.

I love me a good courtroom drama, and it’s disappointing that there aren’t really a lot of them being made as of recent. I may be just missing them, but I can’t think of one that really stands out in recent years. While I love the drama of a trial, movies like My Cousin Vinny and even A Few Good Men have shown that there can still be plenty of humor in a story like this. This is something that makes Find Me Guilty really stand out for me. Not only was I intrigued by the human drama and criminal element, DiNorscio’s antics and people’s responses made for some really funny scenes. Make no mistake, though. The third of this movie hit me where it hurts. The combination of Jackie sticking up for himself in court and also coming to terms with his place in the crime family and his own family makes for some really deep scenes. I can’t say it reaches the intensity of Lumet’s classic 12 Angry Men, but it certainly is affective.

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The main reason I decided to give this movie a watch is the chance to see Vin Diesel in a dramatic role. Diesel is best known for his action roles in the Fast and the Furious series and XXX. He’s recently stepped into the super hero territory as Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy, but repeating the line “I am Groot” doesn’t really constitute as an acting showcase. Find Me Guilty has given me a new level of respect for Mr. Diesel. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Diesel actually completely embodies the role of Jackie DiNorscio to the point where I believe I’m no longer watching an actor, but footage from the actual trials. Of course I realize it’s a movie, but I really buy every line and action Diesel does, and saying I’m impressed is a bit of an understatement. We also have Peter Dinklage in a supporting role as a defense attorney that befriends DiNorscio. Dinklage also does a great job here, but that’s not really a surprise. This really is Vin Diesel’s show.

I want to get back to the point I made before about how part of this movie is about Jackie looking back at the things he’s done and said, and how the trial is the catalyst for all this soul searching he does. This is not the first time Lumet has done this with a court room scenario. Just look at 12 Angry Men. While it is a movie about a group of jurors deciding the fate of a young man, it’s also a movie about racism and bigotry and how they affect judicial proceedings. Find Me Guilty is also deeper than the intriguing scenes in the court room. It’s a movie about coming to terms with who you are and finding ways to better yourself before it’s too late. Movies with depth are certainly a plus, and Find Me Guilty succeeds very well at exploring its deeper thematic material.

I really can’t understand why no one ever seems to talk about this movie. It may not be Lumet’s crowning achievement, but it really is a damn good movie. Vin Diesel absolutely kills it as what may be one of the most sympathetic gangsters to grace the silver screen, and it makes me wish that he would take more jobs like this. It also helps that the dialogue is based off of actual courtroom testimony of the most absurd case the mafia has ever faced, while also exploring some deeper thematic elements. I liked Find Me Guilty quite a bit and can easily recommend it.

The Samaritan – Review

22 Mar

It’s totally cool to take certain plot devices, concepts, and styles from other movies of the past. Part of the fun of watching movies is seeing styles evolve over the years. I’ve noticed that I’ve been reviewing a lot of neo noir movies recently, and I’m continuing this streak with David Weaver’s 2012 film, The Samaritan. Now, when I say that it’s fine for film makers to borrow from other movies in order to tell their stories, I mean it. The Samaritan, on the other handis pretty much just a walking cliche. Still, for being a B-movie of no consequence, it was still pretty entertaining to watch.

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Foley (Samuel L. Jackson) is an expert grifter who’s just got finished serving a 25 year prison sentence for murdering his old partner. Upon his release, Foley is determined to give up his life of crime and find a more decent way of making a living; a decision that is both made up of overwhelming guilt and logic. While trying to create a better life for himself, he continues to be harassed by Ethan (Luke Kirby), his ex-partner’s son who wants him to be part of a grift on a crime lord Xavier (Tom Wilkinson), and a prostitute desperate for Foley’s affection, Iris (Ruth Negga). While Foley begins forming a relationship with Iris, Evan starts coming at him much harder with his million dollar plan, but it isn’t until Evan drops an earth shattering secret that Foley decides to drop his plan for a new life and dive head first into his last and most dangerous grift.

So, a criminal who has been to prison is trying to reform his life but once again, and unwillingly, gets sucked back into a life of crime. This is a story that’s been told over and over again. This isn’t a bad thing. It’s a classic tale that can be used time and again with different circumstances and events to make it still interesting. In this regard, The Samaritan sort of succeeds and sort of fails. It succeeds because there are a lot of twists, turns, and finely acted characters that kept my attention throughout most of the film. It fails because while there are a lot of different things layered on top of the classic crime tale, they are all pulled straight from other movies so that there’s nearly nothing new or original in the entire movie.

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The casting and performances of the actors is one of those things that really got me into the movie. Samuel L. Jackson gives an outstanding performance as Foley. The role seems to have been written just for him and he fits it like a glove. It was also cool to see Ruth Negga in a more dramatic role outside of her part in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and I thought she did a fine job as Iris. Luke Kirby and Tom Wilkinson ham up their villainous roles, as well, which makes them very easy to hate and it so much easier to root for Foley. This isn’t exactly a well written movie so it was good to see all of these fine actors really pull together and professionally handle some of the ridiculous dialogue and make the best out of what was given to them.

One of the main problems I have with The Samaritan is how long it takes to really get going. The real action and bulk of the story doesn’t start until after the half hour point, which means that there’s a lot of story crammed into a span of less then an hour. This made the first half of the movie feel really slow and the second half disjointed. Luckily, there are some pretty cool scenes throughout the movie and the climax was very satisfying to watch. It would have just been a much smoother ride had the movie been longer or if there wasn’t so many twists and turns mushed together in such a short time period.

The Samaritan isn’t a movie that I’m going to be talking about for the rest of my life, nor is it one that I’d put on again to watch anytime soon. There’s a lot of flaws with the movie but there are also some positive elements going for it that make it pretty entertaining. It’s a very simple movie that’s borrowed from films that have come before it to the point where it’s noticeable. Still, I can’t really say that this is a bad movie at all. It’s certainly an acceptable way to kill some time, but you really don’t need to go out searching for it.

The Fugitive – Review

6 Feb

Isn’t it a shame that I’ve met people who firmly believe that straight up action movies do not qualify as artistic film making and refuse to label any of them “classics?” I find it hard to believe that people can still think like that when movies like The Fugitive exist and has gotten overwhelmingly positive acclaim. Based off of a t.v. series that ran from 1963 to 1967, Andrew Davis’ The Fugitive not only serves up a heaping dish of intelligent storytelling and one of the most intense performances of the ’90s, but also just a very entertaining thrill ride packed with plenty of action and adventure.

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Dr. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) is one of Chicago’s go to vascular surgeons and is also graced with a large house and a beautiful wife (Sela Ward). Kimble’s life is completely turned upside down when his wife is killed and he is charged with her murder and sentenced to death. While being transferred, the group of prisoners he is with attempts a break out which crashes the bus allowing Kimble to make his getaway and start his search of the one-armed man that is actually the perpetrator of his wife’s murder. Unfortunately for Kimble, Deputy U.S. Marshal Samuel Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones), who has a reputation for being relentless, is hot on his trail, but neither of them could have guessed how deep the conspiracy that they’ve been tossed into actually goes.

There’s so many things to talk about with The Fugitive, so trying to get my thoughts evenly together is a bit of a challenge. That’s kind of a compliment in and of itself, but I digress. The most important thing to me is how the movie is written. It’s such a tight story with each scene the perfectly compliments one another. Nothing in the movie feels excessive or unnecessary, which is definitely a good thing for a movie that runs over 2 hours long. The story pretty much hits the ground running and doesn’t let up until the resolution. This kept me completely into it the entire time. Not to mention the amount of grand set pieces strewn throughout. One particularly memorable sequence happens during a St. Patrick’s Day parade, which was never in the script and improvised on the spot. That’s some clever film making.

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Because the writing of The Fugitive is so tight, the whole movie just works. I can’t say that I was bored at any point throughout the narrative of this movie. That’s not to say that there isn’t any downtime, because there’s plenty that’s used to build the characters and thicken the plot in ways that it needs to be. This isn’t just stupid thrills that exist for cheap reasons. I mentioned before the memorable scene that takes place during the St. Patrick’s Day parade and how it’s a very well executed scene. There’s another scene that may actually be the most famous from the movie where Kimble successfully avoids a crashing train. The way the stunt was set up required so much planning and used an actual train that I really can’t help but admire it. That’s part of what sets this movie a step above the rest in terms of the action genre.

Finally, the performances in this movie are really something else. Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones are the two big names in the movie, but there are also some great supporting cast members like Joe Pantaliano and Julianne Moore. Ford works great as Kimble and his personality makes the character feel very natural and makes him someone the audience can really root for. Ford just has a knack for making heroes seem like everyday guys. The real scene stealer, however, is Tommy Lee Jones who actually took home the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. He really seems to be going above what he normally does and even went so far as to make up a lot of his most famous lines on the spot. That just shows how deep into the character of Samuel Gerard he really was.

The bottom line is that The Fugitive is one of the best action films ever made and shows that action films can be considered art in how they’re made and how well the narrative is constructed. Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones give two memorable performances that serve as highlights of their career and was even garnered with 7 Academy Award nominations. I’m sure at this most people have already the pleasure of viewing this contemporary classic, but if not it really is necessary viewing.

Midnight Express – Review

20 Jan

One thing that I can add to the list of things that I never hope I have to deal with is spending hard time in a Turkish prison. That just looks like the opposite of a good time. It looks like a terrible time. Midnight Express is a movie that when it was first released in 1978 caused a big stir both in America and in Turkey, it being based off of a true story about a young man who was made an example of but eventually escaped the Turkish prison system. This is obviously a movie that loves to show off (also being Oliver Stone’s first screen writing credit), but even though it’s a braggart and unfair in some ways, it still entertained me fully for the entire time it was on, and has stuck with me since.

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In 1970, Billy Hayes (Brad Davis) and his girlfriend are about to get on a flight back to America from Istanbul, but Billy has a secret. He is hiding about 2 kilos of hashish under his shirt. Unfortunately for Hayes, he gets caught and sentenced to spend four years in a Turkish prison. There he is beaten and tortured by sadistic prison guards, but also finds friendship in fellow prisoners like the irrational Jimmy (Randy Quaid) and the doped up Englishman, Max (John Hurt). After his original four year sentence gets extended to thirty years to make an example out of him, Billy and his friends decide it’s time to catch the Midnight Express out there, which means finding an escape route and taking it.

First, let’s talk about some awkward things in the movie. Midnight Express got a lot of backlash from Turkish viewers for how they were portrayed in the movie. It even got banned in Turkey up until just recently. I heard about all that before seeing the movie, and I have to say they have a point. The guards and a certain character named Rifki are almost cartoon villains in the way they treat other people. Save for maybe a few, all of the Turks in this movie are hammed up. Stone has later apologized for their portrayal. Also, this movie isn’t very accurate in its depictions. The story of Hayes is actually a lot longer, but due to budget and time it couldn’t be fully explored. That’s excusable in this case though, since the movie actually flows very well.

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Prison movies can sort of wear thin on me after a while. It’s even difficult for me to watch a classic like The Shawshank Redemption is just one sitting, but I had no problem getting through Midnight Express. The characters and the mood and the entire predicament of the movie was really interesting and fun for me to see it play out. The suspense in this movie was very suspenseful and the feeling of dread permeated the screen and found its way into my living room. It being a true story and all, the film had even more of an effect. Even though it’s pretty inaccurate, the core story is true and that alone was enough to push the movie forward. I will say it got a little weird towards the end, and it all comes to a conclusion rather abruptly which felt weird since the slow and steady pace was working really well for it.

You can really tell that Oliver Stone wrote this movie, even though it was so early on his career. It has those show stopping scenes that really grab your attention with their outlandishness, but in some ways it works with the foreign and scary feeling of the entire movie. With a script written by Stone, the actors certainly have their hands full. Brad Davis, who’s kind of a tragedy himself, handles the role very well and is easy to believe that he’s just a young man in a prison. I still feel like the real stars of the movie are Randy Quaid and John Hurt, who give two of the best supporting performances I’ve seen in a while. I really got to love those characters, and seeing them all in their situation had a powerful effect.

I went into Midnight Express expecting to enjoy it for a while and then feel overwhelmingly bored, but that never happened. I was actually gripped for the entire two hours that it was onscreen. The real story of Billy Hayes is a terrifying trip through hell on earth, and it’s shown well here in this film, even if it isn’t exactly what happened. There are some weird scenes that feel out of place at the end and the treatment of the Turks in this movie would never fly today, but all in all there are a good deal of films that owe a lot to Midnight Express and the film as a whole is well executed and memorable. Check it out.

Bronson – Review

20 Nov

Without giving away too much of the plot yet, let me just say that Bronson is based off of a true story. To anyone who has seen this movie before, it just makes the entire spectacle all the more ridiculous. Nicholas Winding Refn, whose most recanting outings of Drive and Only God Forgives has made him a more prominent name in the American film scene, already created a strange and beautiful head trip with Bronson. This isn’t your average, everyday biopic. This is a biopic through the eyes of a madman about a madman.

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Michael Peterson (Tom Hardy) didn’t come from a bad household, nor was he given a hard time at school. Michael Peterson, however, loved to fight. Combine that with his desire to be famous is a nasty concoction of insanity. After his first stint in prison, he spends his 69 days in the outside world bare knuckle boxing under his new name, “Charlie Bronson.” His time outside of prison doesn’t last long, and before he’s out for even a year, he’s back to what he calls home: a maximum security prison where his main goal is becoming “Britain’s Most Dangerous Prisoner.”

Keeping this a traditional, straight forward biopic wouldn’t be doing it’s subject any justice. Michael Peterson is a loose cannon whose mind seems to be all over the place. The form of Bronson is almost episodic, highlighting major moments in Peterson’s life, from his younger years to the more present time. All the while, we are treated to Peterson’s random acts of brutal violence with what seems like no motivation at all. He just loves the feeling of beating a prison guard’s face in.

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Now, a major problem with Bronson, that also seems to be apparent with Nicholas Winding Refn’s films, is that the movie gets a bit too pretentious for its own good. I’m all for artistic movies or movies that try to be as bizarre as possible, but Refn seems to go a bit too crazy at times. My only other experience of his films is Drive, and as cool as that movie is there are times where it gets too excessive in a way where Refn thinks he’s being super cool and edgy. The same can be said about Bronson, except that it is even more guilty of pretentious excess than Drive.

But for what it’s worth, I do love a lot of the insanity in Bronson. The fight scenes that are a main part of the movie are absolutely vicious. Peterson is a tank that takes multiple men to take down, and just watching Hardy’s performance as he goes into a sort of berserk mode is just too awesome. It’s bloody as a pulp, and the sounds of flesh being his and bones being broken is sickeningly fantastic. This movie certainly isn’t lacking style, that’s for sure.

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Bronson isn’t for everyone. It has often been called A Clockwork Orange of the 21st century, and we all know how a lot of people feel about A Clockwork Orange. It’s a stylish trip into the mind of one of the most notorious criminals in history. It’s easy to love the character and hate him at the same time. So, it is fun and stylish, but it’s pretentious as all hell. I can live with that though. Bronson is an awesome movie.

Hunger – Review

27 Feb

Not too long ago, I did a review for the film Michael Collins, which told the story of the early days of the IRA, with the focal point being Collins, himself. For this review, I will be returning to the subject of the IRA, but in a completely different way with Steve McQueen’s film Hunger. Take everything you have learned about biopics and throw them all out the window. This is a biopic like no other. It is a gripping experience that will leave you pondering your own moral beliefs.

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The year: 1981. The place: Maze Prison in Ireland. Members of the IRA are held in this jail without being granted rights that are given to political prisoners. These rights involve the uniform policy and visitations, among other things. After a long running “no wash” protest is broken apart by the guards, Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) decides to take these protests to the extreme. He proposes a hunger strike to anyone who wants to be a part of it. He is the first to protest, and we have to watch.

In terms of story, Hunger doesn’t have a whole lot to offer. It definitely does have a story to tell and it tells it well, but in a very unconventional way. The first half of the movie isn’t so much about Bobby Sands than it is about creating the atmosphere and way of life of Maze Prison. During this time, we don’t grow to hate the guards or any of the prisoners. This film doesn’t offer you the chance to take a side. Instead it purely shows what happens in the most beautiful way possible. That’s what really hit me about this movie. McQueen has taken such an ugly event and turned it into a wonderful work of art.

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Seeing an actor get so deep into a role can be an unsettling thing. I think a very good example would be Christian Bale in The Machinist. I wanted to use that example so I could segue easily to Fassbender’s performance in Hunger. Like Bale, he lost an obscene amount of weight for scenes in the latter half of the movie where Sands is slowly deteriorating. He looks terrible, and McQueen feeds off this. There is nothing held back, which may be a turn off to some, but others will appreciate the realism which seems almost undramatized.

The artistic element of this movie is completely out of this world. For the first quarter of the movie, there is barely anything said. The story relies on the framing of the shots and the physical performances of the actors. Then, in what must be on of the biggest game changers in film history, there is a 17 minute long take of Sands and his priest friend engaging in brilliantly layered thematic dialogue about protests, morality, and death. McQueen proves that he isn’t afraid to take major chances in order to get his artistic vision on screen.

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Like I said before, this is a biopic like no other. Calling Hunger a story about Bobby Sands wouldn’t be doing the film justice. It’s an examination at a time period in a culture that has been uprooted, changed, and fought over for many years. Being entertained by this movie is asking a lot. Hunger isn’t so much entertaining as it is an immersive experience that must be seen and felt to really appreciate it. Artistically, this film is beautiful and Fassbender gives an outstanding performance that proves he is one of the most powerful actors of our time.