Saturday, September 29, 2007

Eastern Promises

The mysterious and charismatic Russian-born Nikolai Luzhin (Viggo Mortensen) is a driver for one of London’s most notorious organized crime families of Eastern European origin. The family itself is part of the Vory V Zakone criminal brotherhood. Headed by Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), whose courtly charm as the welcoming proprietor of the plush Trans-Siberian restaurant impeccably masks a cold and brutal core, the family’s fortunes are tested by Semyon’s volatile son and enforcer, Kirill (Vincent Cassel), who is more tightly bound to Nikolai than to his own father. But Nikolai’s carefully maintained existence is jarred once he crosses paths at Christmastime with Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts), a midwife at a North London hospital. Anna is deeply affected by the desperate situation of a young teenager who dies while giving birth to a baby. Anna resolves to try to trace the baby’s lineage and relatives. The girl’s personal diary also survives her; it is written in Russian, and Anna seeks answers in it. Anna’s mother Helen (Sinéad Cusack) does not discourage her, but Anna’s irascible Russian-born uncle Stepan (Jerzy Skolimowski) urges caution. He is right to do so; by delving into the diary, Anna has accidentally unleashed the full fury of the Vory. With Semyon and Kirill closing ranks and Anna pressing her inquiries, Nikolai unexpectedly finds his loyalties divided. The family tightens its grip on him; who can, or should, he trust? Several lives, including his own, hang in the balance as a harrowing chain of murder, deceit, and retribution reverberates through the darkest corners of both the family and London itself.

Excellent film. I've always enjoy David Cronenberg's movies because, as a film maker, he always sticks to his particular style while never giving way to the more accepted 'Hollywood' approach. In Cornenberg's movies, he tells you what you need to know and if you miss it, tough, they'll be no refresher before the exam. This movie is no exception. The story is actually rather straight forward once all of the associated Russian vernacular is in place, so it doesn't take a tremendous amount of concentration to follow along. It's the way Cronenberg tells the story and how well it's acted that turn a simple mafia-style story into a tense and focused film with a few 'whoa, I didn't see that coming' moments. Cronenberg is at the top of his game for this movie and I'm hoping he receives some acknowledgment for it. And speaking of the top of his game..........

Viggo Mortensen is absolutely amazing. His performance is worth seeing, alone, which is all the more astonishing when, after the movie, you realize how few lines he actually had with half of them being in Russian. His performance is one of nuanced emotion conveyed through body language and expression - you know what he's saying even when it's in Russian, you can tell when he's thinking something different from what he's saying or what he's thinking when he's completely silent. From what I have read, Mortensen spent several weeks alone in Russia so he could listen to people talk and study their body language in an effort to enhance his portrayal of his character, much like how he wore his sword during the off times when filming The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the final result of the immersion is a totally believable character.

The rest of the cast does not disappoint. On the contrary, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel and Armin Mueller-Stahl are standouts in their own right. Watts, as usual, easily conveys the emotions behind her character's drive while Mueller-Stahl convincingly comes across as the warm fatherly type who would feed you a nice meal, have you murdered in your sleep and buried in the flower bed and then show woeful remorse over the fact that no one has seen you in weeks. Cassel is simply scary on a completely psychotic level.

Combined, all of the actors and their characters, along with Cronenberg, have forged an engaging film that, in my opinion, is deeply satisfying after one viewing and will probably become even more nuanced on the third or fourth. I look forward to seeing it again upon it's release on DVD.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Resident Evil: Extinction

Milla Jovovich returns as Alice in the third installment of the Resident Evil movie series based on the super popular video game franchise. Extinction picks up a few years after the end of the second film with the entire planet having practically succumbed to the effects of the virus responsible for infecting, killing and reanimating living tissue, leaving the non-infected to survive as best they can in a dried up world where essential items such as food are becoming scarce whiles there's an ample supply of living dead walking around in search of healthy flesh to consume for no apparent reason other than it being a most rudimentary instinct. The people responsible for the virus, the nefarious Umbrella Corporation, have taken up refuge in massive underground facilities where they are safe from the hoards of undead, for the moment, and can continue their research with the virus, however, with their food supplies dwindling, the focus is now on using virus antibodies on the living dead as a means of domesticating them and quelling their destructive nature in the hopes of returning life above ground to some semblance of normalcy. That's where Alice comes in. During the time that she was held captive (in the second film), the Umbrella Corporation performed biogenetic experiments on Alice using various strains of the virus which caused her to develop super-human strength, senses and mental abilities, as well as specific antibodies to the virus. For the past few years, since her escape from the Umbrella Corporation facilities, Alice has been living off the grid in an effort to avoid capture and further testing, helping people where she can but always moving on quickly and staying alone in order to remain undetected. After a few encounters with the walking dead and several unsettling dreams, Alice comes to the aid of a rag-tag convoy of survivors lead by Claire (Ali Larter of Heroes). At this point, Alice enjoys a bit of a reunion since two of the members of the convoy are Carlos (Oded Fehr) and L. J. (Mike Epps), characters she fought beside in the previous movie and, in the case of Carlos to some extent, felt romantic inclinations for. As for romantic inclinations, L. J., in the mean time, has developed a thing for the convoy's Nurse Betty (Ashanti). After deciding on a course and destination for the convoy, it becomes apparent that the Umbrella Corporation has learned of Alice's location and are pulling out all the stops to bring her in. Tired of being on the run, fed up watching people around her die and with her abilities increasing exponentially, Alice decides it's time for all debts to be paid.

Guilty pleasure. That's all I really need to say. Some people covet reruns of television's "Beauty and the Beast," other people look fondly at their collection of Adam Sandler movies, me, I'm partial to watching someone like Milla Jovovich kick some serious ass. I go into the theater expecting nothing but decent action and if the story happens to be fairly good, then I feel like I've received a bonus for my money. In this case, the story is pretty simple, the motivations are cut and dry and the acting is more than adequate. I got exactly what I was expecting and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Granted, it's not Shakespeare but, then again, Alice has to contend with more than a few damn spots and isn't worried about whether she gets them out, or not.

Aside from the fact that I would have seen this movie simply because Milla Jovovich is in it, I would have also seen this film based solely on it's director, Russell Mulcahy. I've been a fan of Mulcahy's since the original Highlander and have always appreciated his visual style. I even liked The Shadow because of his direction and after watching this film, I've decided that if the powers that be were to ever commission another Mad Max film, Mulcahy should be one of the director's considered for the job since George Miller seems to be spending most of his time with talking pigs and dancing penguins.

Anyway, I really enjoyed Resident Evil and I will add it to the collection when it becomes available. If you liked the previous Resident Evil movies, enjoy decent action or are simply a fan of zombie flicks, then this movie is right up your alley. It might not be worth a trip to the theater, but I would definitely catch it on disc.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

3:10 to Yuma

Russell Crowe and Christian Bale face off in this story based on Elmore Leonard's short story, as was the 1957 version starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, set in Arizona in the late 1800's. Ben Wade (Crowe), is a cruel and infamous outlaw and, along with his gang of heartless thieves and murders, has besieged the Southern Railroad and robbed their trains and carriers almost two dozen times. After Wade is captured, Civil War veteran Dan Evans (Bale), volunteers to deliver him alive to the '3:10 to Yuma', a train that will take the killer to his trial and hanging, for two hundred dollars in an effort to save his drought ridden ranch and prove to his wife and sons, as well as himself, that he's not a failure. As they travel the distance, facing multiple dangers and with Wade's gang closing in, each man begins to learn more about himself through their interactions with each other as they race toward a seemingly impossible destination and a finale that only fate could have created.

Amazing movie and instant classic Western. I thoroughly enjoyed this film even though it is a remake of a classic. What keeps it on par with the original is the fact that the story remains central over unnecessary action or violence, it stays true to being a Western and the acting is as equally good if not better than the original. Christian Bale is easily one of the finest actors currently working in films and stories concerning his ability to immerse himself in a role and totally become the character are rampant and this role is no different. Bale's character's pain and fear can be seen smoldering in every scene and his motivation is so adequately summed up when he says to his wife, "I'm tired of the way the boys look at me and the way that you don't." On the flip side, Crowe uses his considerable acting talents and presence to add a bit of charm to a character that would, otherwise, simply be reprehensible. I firmly believe that only a handful of actors could have pulled off the performance that Crowe does and, yet, I'm still not convinced anyone else could have reached the same level of 'coolness.' But that's just my opinion.

Another positive note is the fact that the movie is populated with familiar actors from the past and present, the most notable being, of course, Peter Fonda who plays a bounty hunter on the lookout for Wade. Fonda's character is well played and surprisingly gritty. Another actor that I've become a fan of because of the television show Firefly (yes, I'm a Browncoat) is Alan Tudyk (Serenity, A Knight's Tale, Death at a Funeral and I, Robot) who portrays the local doctor, of sorts, and ends up becoming a very memorable character. And, lastly, I feel that I should mention the appearance of Luke Wilson,in a smaller and un-billed but right on the money role, simply because I feel that he's one of those types of actors who can call upon the perfect demeanor expected for a role in a Western. That, and the fact that he was in one of my all-time favorite episodes of the X-Files.

All in all this is definitely a movie worth seeing and when I say that, I mean in the theater as opposed to waiting for it on DVD. I realize not everyone is a fan of the Western genre but I think the acting, characters and story help this movie rise from the level of an excellent Western to that of a great movie and I'll be surprised if it doesn't receive several nominations come awards season.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

The Flight of the Phoenix

Flight of the Phoenix is a remake of the 1965 film starring James Stewart which was based on Elleston Trevor's novel of the same name. Dennis Quaid stars as Captain Frank Towns who, with his navigator A.J. (Tyrese Gibson), has flown a C-119 cargo plane to the middle of Mongolia's Gobi Desert to pick up a crew of oil workers and their equipment from a test drilling site that is being shut down because of lack of success in finding any deposits. Hugh Laurie (Blackadder, House) is Ian, the corporate stiff-neck who's assessments have caused the pullout of company funding for the project, much to the chagrin of Kelly, the foreman and lead visionary of the project who is portrayed by Miranda Otto (Eowyn of the second and third installments of the Lord of the Rings trilogy). After some unsurprising tension between Towns and the roughnecks, as well as tension between the roughnecks and management, the plane is packed and ready for takeoff along with the addition of an unexpected passenger in the form of an odd and stranded traveler named Elliott (Giovanni Ribisi). Soon after takeoff the plane is caught in a sandstorm to end all sandstorms and, because of a tactical error or two, ends up crash landing in the desert with no communications, very little water, no hope of rescue and the very large threat of being killed by nomadic smugglers if the heat and lack of water doesn't kill them first. As the desperation grows and they inch closer to social anarchy, it is Elliott who comes through with an idea of survival rivaled in size only by the secret that he's keeping.

Now don't get me wrong, this isn't a great movie by any means but, for me, it was very entertaining and fun. The characters are believable, the scenery is amazing, the effects are top-notch and the soundtrack really keeps things moving. There are only a few "slow" moments in the movie and those moments are used primarily to advance the story or the understanding of a character. The movie's lighter segments are spaced perfectly between the more intense moments and help make this film one that can be seen several times with little or no wear on the viewer.

Aside from the primary cast, some of the crew characters are made up of a few familiar faces. Kirk Jones, better known as the rapper "Sticky Fingaz" puts forth a very adequate performance as Jeremy who has a good friendship with Rodney, played by actor Tony Curran of such films as Gladiator, Underworld: Evolution, Blade II and The Good German. Another familiar face is that of the crew's spiritual voice, Raddy, portrayed by Kevork Malikyan who you may recognize as Kizim, the leader of the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword; the organization that protected the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Again, this movie may never end up on any "greatest" list, but, if you're in the mood for simple fun, good action, an against the odds plot line and enjoy a robust soundtrack, then you may find yourself watching this film more than once.