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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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Rampart – Review

17 Dec

Throughout my movie watching career, there have been collaborations between certain actors and film makers that work so well it should be illegal. For the sake of this review, the collaboration is between writer/director Oren Moverman and his go to actor Woody Harrelson. In 2010, Harrelson was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in Moverman’s heart wrenching drama, The Messenger. The two were then reunited 2012, along with co-writer James Ellroy (best known for L.A. Confidential), with Rampart. The performances and overall story in this film are really something to behold, but the overcrowding of subplots and an over the top artsy fartsy style almost ruined the movie for me.

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The year is 1999 and Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) is a police officer in the Rampart Division of the LAPD. Unfortunately for the people of Los Angeles, Brown is a racist, homophobic, and generally intolerant bigot who will resort to violence whenever he wants to to get the information he wants. After he is caught almost beating a suspect to death on tape, Officer Dave Brown’s life soon starts spiraling out of control. His ex-wives who are also sisters (Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon) want nothing more to do with him while Assistant District Attorney Joan Confrey (Sigourney Weaver) starts pushing him towards an early retirement. As if that wasn’t enough, Brown becomes embroiled in an affair with an attorney working against him named Linda (Robin Wright) but also gets into more trouble after getting bad advice from his mentor, Hartshorn (Ned Beatty), which ends in a brutal murder.

I think the main reason to see Rampart is to see all of the amazing talent at work. Harrelson gives what may be the best performance of the year. It probably even beats his work on True Detective, especially since there is so much more corruption and hostility flowing through his character’s veins. A lot of the other actors I feel get under utilized though. For example, Steve Buscemi is only in one scene and I wanted to see him a lot more. Ice Cube also only shows up towards the end even though his character had a lot of great potential. After Harrelson, I think the next performance you really have to pay attention to is Ben Foster’s. Foster is one of Hollywood’s most underrated actors and his small role in Rampart and his leading role in The Messenger proves he’s capable of a lot more than he is given.

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James Ellroy is a master at writing in the crime genre. He has written plenty of murder mysteries and dramas while also penning screenplays and having involvement in documentaries. That being said, both Ellroy and Moverman went a little overboard in Rampart. The story of a corrupt cop finally facing his demons and getting what he has coming to him is great, and they show his breakdown wonderfully. The problem is that there is way too much crammed into this movie. It’s like they tried to take everything from a long novel and stuff it into a movie that’s less than two hours. Characters are underused, plot lines are unresolved, and some of the development feels either forced or nonexistent. Luckily, the crux of the story is there and really good. This is more of a character study of Dave Brown and Ellroy and Moverman hit the nail on the head when it came to that area of the screenplay.

Another major complain that I have with Rampart is that Moverman and cinematographer Bobby Bukowski went a little overboard with the art design. There’s a motif throughout the film that Dave Brown slowly begins disappearing. The start of the movie has him at the forefront of the action going on onscreen and while the movie goes on, he becomes framed behind objects and obscured. That’s an example of great artistic design. On the flip side, there’s a scene where the camera keeps cutting and spinning during a meeting and it’s not only unnecessary, but looks stupid. I get what they were trying to do, but it just didn’t work and only succeeded at annoying me. If Moverman and Bukowsky just toned it down a little bit, the film would have been all the better for it.

I almost loved Rampart and at the same time I almost hated it. I really don’t know how else to explain how I feel about this movie. On one hand it tells a really complex story about a man who refuses to change who he is and has to suffer for it, and on the other hand it’s an overstuffed movie that seemed to be going nowhere at parts. I feel equal on these two sentiments, so Rampart really just left me baffled. I wanna say give it a watch, but I can’t see anyone really coming out of it without a lot of questions that need answering.

Escape from New York & Escape from L.A. – Review

27 Sep

To me, John Carpenter is an amazing film maker. He’s made some of my favorite horror movies, like Halloween and The Thing amongst others. He’s also known for more action oriented movies like Assault on Precinct 13 and the comedic Big Trouble in Little China. One of his most respected action movies, and in fact one of the most respected movies of his career, is the 1981 film Escape from New York. This was a dark, dystopian thrill ride that was a major hit with audiences and critics alike, which is surprising that it took 15 years for the sequel, Escape from L.A., to finally be produced and released. While both of these movies have something good to offer, Escape from New York is a far superior film than its sequel… depending on what you’re looking for.

Let’s start with Escape from New York.

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In 1988, crime in America rises by almost 400% (remember this was made in 1981) forcing the government to create the United States Police Force and also convert Manhattan into a giant maximum security prison surrounded by giant walls. When terrorists force Air Force One to crash land inside the prison walls, the president (Donald Pleascence) finds himself stranded. Luckily for him, there’s a new prisoner about to be admitted, the notorious soldier and gunslinger Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell). Before all of the formalities can even be completed, Snake is tasked by New York Police Commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) to infiltrate Manhattan and save the president and in return all of Snake’s crimes on record will be cleared. As an added incentive, Snake is injected with a small explosive device that will detonate in 22 hours. Now with no other choice, Snake wages a one man war with the inmates of Manhattan.

What really grabbed my attention first was how Escape from New York looked. It is a minor visual masterpiece that perfectly sets the tone. From beginning to end, this movie is enveloped in darkness and fog and destruction. It’s exactly how a dystopian film should look. Of course, this was also done in a time before CGI, so this destroyed version of Manhattan is all just brilliant set design, miniatures, and matte painting. Speaking of design, I can’t go through this review without mentioning the iconic anti-hero, Snake Plissken. Kurt Russell growls his way through the movie and succeeds at playing one of cinema’s cult badasses. Not to mention that he was Konami’s main inspiration for Solid Snake in the Metal Gear video game series.

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There’s a simplicity to the story that has also grown on me. While there is something of a message behind the story of the film, the main focus is always Snake rescuing the president. There is a pacing issue that happens about 20 minutes into the movie where it sort of grinds to a halt, but it picks up speed soon enough and I was right back into the action. The movie is a little bit dated, but there are plenty of reasons not to forget it. The cast that I’ve mentioned before, along with Ernest Borgnine, Isaac Hayes, Adrienne Barbeau, and Harry Dean Stanton are all great as always. The film is also just an achievement visuals, character, and the fact that you don’t need a huge budget to make an influential movie. Escape from New York truly deserves its recognition as a cult classic.

After a sequel was written in 1985 and quickly dismissed as being “to campy” by John Carpenter, the official sequel was finally released 15 years later in 1996.

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After an earthquake in 2000 pretty much levels all of Los Angeles. The island that is created as a result is turned into a prison when a strict theocratic president (Cliff Robertson) is elected and implements a moral code that is enforced throughout America. When the president’s daughter, Utopia (A.J. Langer), is influenced by a terrorist in the L.A. prison, Cuervo Jones (Georges Corraface), she steals a device that can be used to control satellites orbiting the entire earth with the capability to shut down all forms of power sources on the planet. After once again being arrested and facing a life sentence in L.A., Snake is recruited to go into the prison, retrieve the device, and eliminate Utopia and Cuervo in exchange for his freedom and an antidote to a virus that has been injected into his bloodstream.

Think of this movie as the Joel Schumacher Batman movies compared to Tim Burton’s, except not as disastrous as Batman and RobinEscape from New York had a dark and brooding atmosphere, whereas Escape from L.A. is brighter, louder, and much more excessive. That being said, there’s some really fun action sequences, but there’s a lot missing from this movie. For one thing, Snake is pretty much turned into an indestructible hero, which pretty much takes away all sorts of suspense. The special effects in this movie are also… pretty awful. I mean, Independence Day also came out in 1996, so there’s really no excuse the effects in Escape from L.A. should be so weird. I can’t even say it’s because it had a low budget because it was a $50 million production.

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There’s still a lot of imagination behind a lot of the different prisoners and sets. Also, besides Kurt Russell and Cliff Robertson, there’s also cameos and supporting roles for Bruce Campbell, Pam Grier, Peter Fonda, and Steve Buscemi. It’s just really unfortunate that all of this imagination and great actors is sort of drowned out in excessive special effects, a lack of suspense, and noise. While the story does move a lot faster than its predecessor, I really missed the style, suspense, and tone of the first film. It’s also worth mentioning that the whole story is almost a perfectly recycled version of Escape from New York.  Escape from L.A. isn’t an awful film, but it’s far from being any real form of good.

John Carpenter’s Escape from New York and Escape from L.A. are two very different movies. His first film is a cult classic, and rightfully so, while the second one bombed when it was released and it’s still considered a bomb today.