Hostel: Part III (2011)
★ / ★★★★
Scott (Brian Hallisay) was about to be married in a week so Carter (Kip Pardue), the best man, decided to take his friend to Las Vegas, Palm Springs being their cover from Amy (Kelly Thiebaud), for a bachelor’s party with Justin (John Hensley) and Mike (Skyler Stone). As the four gambled, Kendra (Sarah Habel) and Nikki (Zulay Henao) eyed Scott from a distance and later informed them that there was a party way out from The Strip. As the hours passed by, Mike was eventually nowhere to be found. “Hostel: Part III,” written by Michael D. Weiss and directed by Scott Spiegel, was promising because of its surprising first scene involving a scraggly guy in his twenties (Chris Coy) who mistakenly entered an Eastern European couple’s hotel room and was invited to have a drink. While its predecessors were set in Slovakia, it should be noted that this installment took place in Las Vegas. In its own way, on purpose or otherwise, it created a challenge for itself. Since Eli Roth’s “Hostel” and “Hostel: Part II” were set in a foreign country, it was almost easier to identify with the characters, despite their seemingly innate lack of common sense, because of their nationality. There was an underlying statement about the xenophobia found in all of us when we are in a different country and hear people speak in a foreign tongue. In this picture, the Americans became the tormenters, so the protagonists had to have something special in order for us to root for them. They did not. While each had his own distinct personality and temperament, we knew nothing about them other than their quirks and what they told one another. Hence, when the twists in the screenplay finally arrived, I felt little to no emotional impact while watching it. Although the scenes involving torture were still grizzly and bloody, one of them involving bugs, they failed to encourage a visceral response from me. Perhaps it had something to do with the style of shooting scenes and the way they were put together. Instead of having drawn-out sequences designed to increase our dread as the characters became more confused about the whereabouts of their friends, there was more than a handful of scenes interrupted by manic cutting and aerial shots of the city. Furthermore, there tended to be more people in one shot which took away some of the feelings of isolation we were supposed to experience with the characters. There was one change that I thought was somewhat interesting. Instead of simply having a room with just a victim and his tormenter, people were actually allowed to watch from behind the glass. The spectators’ chairs had buttons that they could press if they chose to bet, for example, how many arrows it took to kill a person. The concept worked because it made sense in terms of the film’s setting. If “Hostel: Part III” was able to take that level of creativity and had been more consistent with it, it would have been a passable addition to the franchise. It was hinted that Elite Hunting had more branches, one located in Asia. With all the missing people because of this sadistic group (who liked to hunt Americans) one would think that the FBI or the CIA were more informed.
Fright Night (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Charley (Anton Yelchin) used to be a dweeb. His former best friend was Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), a complete nerd whose hobbies consisted of dressing up and role playing. Charley’s recent surge to popularity earned him a girlfriend, Amy (Imogen Poots), and much cooler but insensitive guy friends (Dave Franco, Reid Ewing). Ed had a growing suspicion: that Charley’s new neighbor, Jerry (Colin Farrell), was vampire and he was responsible for their classmates’ sudden disappearances. Charley didn’t take Ed seriously. He thought Ed’s suspicion was a sad cry for them to be friends again. That is, up until Ed failed to show up to class the next day. “Fright Night,” written by Marti Noxon and Tom Holland, was a fast-paced vampire film, set in the suburbs of Las Vegas, equipped with modern twists to keep us interested. The characters were likable even though they weren’t always smart. We knew Charley was a well-meaning young adult because he considered and questioned if he was doing the right thing. The checkpoint that went off in his head was his best quality, but it was also what Jerry tried to exploit. The predator must exploit its prey’s weaknesses. There were predictable elements in the picture. For instance, we expected the characters who chose to run upstairs to hide from the blood-thirsty vampire to never make it out of the house alive. And they didn’t. Maybe they didn’t deserve to. After all, with all the references thrown in the air, the teens must’ve seen a vampire movie or two prior to being vamp food. However, the writing was self-aware of the conventions and it wasn’t afraid to throw allusions to the original film, vampire movies, and literature. Though the expected happened, I felt as though it was more concerned with giving the audiences a good time. I loved its somewhat elliptical storytelling. The rising action was often interrupted by a mini-climax. The drawn-out set-up of investigating, hiding, being hunted, and escaping worked quite effectively. By giving us small but fulfilling rewards, it kept us wondering what would happen next. Still, the story could have used more character development. Charley’s mom (Toni Collette) felt like a cardboard cutout of an unaware parent. She knew her son had unique interests but to not question him seriously when their neighbor seemed to have a genuine complaint in terms of privacy being breached felt too convenient. Charley’s mom seemed like a tough woman but she wasn’t given room to grow. What the film needed less was of the self-described vampire expert/magician named Peter Vincent (David Tennant). Obviously, he was necessary for comic relief. I laughed at his ridiculousness, but what I had a difficult time accepting was the fact that he could survive a vampire attack multiple times. His backstory was sloppily handled. I commend “Fright Night,” directed by Craig Gillespie, for taking the original as an inspiration and telling a different kind of story. Its flaws didn’t matter as much because it had fun. It sure is more interesting than a shot-for-shot remake of the original which most likely would have forced us to ask why they even bothered.
Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman) thought that he was nobody special but was, in fact, the son of Poseidon (Kevin McKidd). After Hades (Steve Coogan) kidnapped Percy’s mother (Catherine Keener) because he believed that the boy had stolen Zeus’ lightning, Percy, his best friend (Brandon T. Jackson) and Athena’s daughter (Alexandra Daddario) went on a quest to find a way to go to the underworld, rescue Percy’s mom, and save the world. Based on a series of novels by Rick Riordan, the film impressed me with its special and visual effects but the big picture left me wanting more. It’s strange because for a two-hour undoubtedly thrilling action-adventure, it felt somewhat like an empty experience because it failed to really explore its characters except for exposing their most obvious quirks and dominant personalities. I like Logan Lerman as an actor but there were times when I spotted weaknesses in his acting. Some of the lines he delivered fell completely flat and I caught myself either rolling my eyes or chuckling because I just did not believe the words that were coming out of his mouth. There was a disconnect between him and the character and therefore his character and the audiences. This was particularly glaring during the most emotional scenes when he was supposed to summon sadness or rage. Perhaps if he was given more takes, he could have nailed the lines. However, as far as children’s adventures, I hardly think the movie was a failure. I enjoyed many scenes such as the duel with a minotaur, a nice surprise on who played Medusa (and I think she did a wonderful job), and that brilliant scene in Las Vegas in the Lotus Casino (it was nice that it illuminated why it was called as such). It was fun to watch, despite the characters making unnecessarily stupid decisions, lacking internal dialogue and angst, because it was very energetic and creative when required. If a sequel is in store for “Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief,” directed by Chris Columbus, I’ll be interested in watching it. People have compared this film to “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and its sequel so I’m curious to see if it can grow as a strong franchise. In order for it to achieve “Harry Potter”-level, it is going to need more focus on the story and characters, much stronger acting especially from the lead, and more magic via playing with our expectations and emotions.
The Cooler (2003)
★★★ / ★★★★
“The Cooler” was about a man (William H. Macy) so down on his luck that he made his negative energy into a career as a cooler, a person who stands or walks by someone who’s on a winning streak in a casino ran by a mob boss (Alec Baldwin). But one night, his luck changed for the better when he met a waitress (Maria Bello) who seemed to like him despite his negative self-image and the fact that he was years older than her. What I loved most about this movie was that even though it was set in Las Vegas, it didn’t get caught up in all the glamour and violence. It chose to take the more introspective route as it focused on the relationship and friendship between Macy and Bello and the rising tension between Macy and Baldwin because it seemed as though the happier Macy became, the more he lost his ability as a cooler. In a way, that route made the movie feel small but at the same time it was that much more personal. Furthermore, I loved the use of music because it really captured the changing times and the way the characters desperately hung on to the old ways. I also liked the fact that I got a chance to see Baldwin in a serious role. I read in a magazine that he eventually wanted to stop acting because he believed that none of his works were successful. I disagree with him because I felt like he held this film together; despite his actions, he wasn’t just a mobster who craved nothing but money. The way I saw it was his character didn’t want Macy to go because it meant losing a friend. The way he balanced his toughness and vulnerability was very interesting. Even though there were some distracting elements such as the appearance of a couple somewhere in the middle, the moments where the characters decided to just sit and talk and share secrets about their pasts more than made up for it. Much of the film had an unsurprising sadness and I couldn’t help but stayed glued to the screen. Written and directed by Wayne Kramer, “The Cooler” was essentially a story of fluctuating luck and the way people responded to the circumstances that faced them. The movie had a nice balance of comedy, drama and darkness while the three leads were at the top of their game. I only wished that the distracting elements were fleshed out so it could have more room to explore the only multi-dimensional characters who never failed to surprise.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Based on a book by Nicholas Pileggi, “Casino” was about a casino owner (Robert De Niro) and his childhood friend who worked for the Mafia (Joe Pesci) whose bonds were tested on three fronts: their personal relationship, their businesses and a prostitute (Sharon Stone) with a penchant for money and power. But that’s only the surface of this deeply layered film expertly directed by Martin Scorsese. It was a strange feeling because although I found the film to be really complex in terms of how connected everyone was and how malleable their loyalties were, there were times when I thought it did not have a story. I felt like I was dropped into these characters’ lives and I was forced to watch their lives unfold from the 1970s until the 1980’s. The acting here was top-notch: De Niro had this suave swagger going on, Pesci was dangerous but there was something about him that I could not help but like and Stone was the kind of character who one could not help but hate. The way the three collided was very fun to watch because there were times when, like in Scorsese’s “Cape Fear,” everything was so exaggerated to the point where it was borderline amusing. I was absolutely in love with the script because, through narration, the characters were able to provide insight about their work and the decisions they made despite the fact that they knew they were going to regret it in the long run. I felt like the characters were actual people instead of just cardboard caricatures. Almost everything about this film was big: the ideas, the dark undertones, the dynamics of marriage and friendship. But I loved about it most was that it was able to analyze Las Vegas as one of the most glamorous places in the world but at the same time one of the ugliest places in the world. The way Scorsese played with that duality was fascinating to me because not only did he apply it as a metaphor for the characters, I think he pointed the finger at us–how out brilliant ideations do not always coincide with the grimy actualities. I also enjoyed how Scorsese viewed corruption as an almost necessary survival instinct for one to thrive in Las Vegas. Its three-hour running time was definitely a challenge (I took a break somewhere in the middle) but once I was hooked, I could not help but absorb it all. Some argue that picture was way too long and got bogged down by the marriage drama that pervaded the second half. I couldn’t disagree more because De Niro’s character deeply valued trust. I thought the second half made the movie that much richer because I understood him a bit more, given that we got to see him outside of the casino. That second half also gave us a chance to see De Niro and Pesci collide outside of the business world onto a more personal arena. Fans of Scorsese definitely should not miss this project because I think it’s one of his best. I only wish I had seen it sooner.
The Hangover (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Bradley Cooper (he’s seems to be in everything these days such as “He’s Just Not That Into You,” “Yes Man” and “The Midnight Meat Train”), Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis and Justin Bartha star as four friends who decide to go to Las Vegas for Bartha’s bachelor party. The four make a toast on the roof of Caesar’s Palace hotel and the movie cuts to the next day as the first three try to figure out why there’s a tiger in the bathroom, a baby in the closet, and where the missing groom could be. (Not to mention Helms’ missing tooth.) Their efforts to find out what truly happened the night before lead to very funny (and often ludicrous) situations. I’ve heard from a lot of people this film was gut-wrenchingly funny (as in “Superbad”-funny) so I really had high expectations coming into it. Although it wasn’t quite as funny as I thought it would be (nor was it comparable to “Superbad” because this is geared more toward adults), I have to admit that this is probably the funniest movie of 2009 so far. Its timing of release couldn’t be any more perfect because it’s summer and people often head to Sin City to have some fun. Todd Phillips, the director, was smart enough to make this farce buddy film as short as possible. Only lasting over an hour and thirty minutes, each scene was consistently funny except for about fifteen minutes somewhere in the middle. While it was able to make fun of the characters either by being flat-out mean or crude, their interactions were realistic. I can easily picture actual people saying and doing certain things the characters say and do and that’s why it was so much fun to watch. The brilliant one-liners from Galifianakis reminded me of things that my friends might say when they’re drunk and unaware of things that are happening around them. I also liked the fact that it didn’t quite glamorize Las Vegas. Instead of featuring posh people doing really cool things (which brings caper films and movies like “21” to mind), it focused on regular individuals who are flawed and have actual problems outside their vacation in Vegas; no matter how smart or slick they think they are, they are capable of making mistakes that they do not necessarily learn from. But that’s just me trying to look under the surface. If one is looking for a comedy movie that one can watch with friends on a slow weekend, this is definitely the one to watch because it can easily inspire a night out (no matter how late it is).
Speedway Junky (1999)
★★★ / ★★★★
I’ll come right out and admit that this movie is far from perfect. In fact, I think its very flawed regarding its direction, editing, how the story unfolded, and syrupy melodrama. Still, I couldn’t help but get very into it because of the dynamics of the characters played by Jesse Bradford, Jordan Brower, Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Daryl Hannah. I keep forgetting that Bradford can be a good actor because the first film I saw him in was the barely mediocre “Swimfan.” Watching this film reminded me of how great he can be like he was in “Heights” and “Happy Endings.” I really cared for him here as a would-be male hustler with dreams of one day becoming a racecar driver. His character reeks with naiveté but that’s one of the best things about the film because something comedic always happens to him. I’ve never seen Thomas in an edgier role because I’m so used to seeing him in harmless films and television shows like “Tom and Huck” and “8 Simple Rules,” respectively. It was nice to see that he’s capable of playing a not-so-friendly and a little dangerous character. Another person that surprised me was Hannah. I have to admit that the only movie that I can remember seeing her in was “Kill Bill” (which I’ve seen about ten times), despite her long repertoire, so it was kind of weird seeing her here as a broken down, somewhat helpless ex-prostitute (in addition to not having an eyepatch over one of her eyes). She shines in her scenes because she provided warmth and compassion (her mother-nurturing side) in contrast to the streets of Las Vegas (her ex-prostitute side). My eyes were glued to the screen when she was telling Bradford one of her stories with a customer. But most of all, it was Brower who really got to me. I’m surprised he doesn’t appear in more movies because I see a lot of potential in him. His struggle about finally finding someone he can love but that of which he cannot have is so sad but it’s easy to relate to. Out of the four characters, I wanted to know about him the most. “Speedway Junky” is written and directed Nickolas Perry, but I think it would’ve been much stronger if Gus Van Sant had taken over (he was the executive producer). I saw a lot of similarities with “My Own Private Idaho” not just in relation to the characters but the themes that it tried to tackle. Again, this movie is very flawed but I saw greatness in it–which could’ve been highlighted by a more capable director.