Assignment, The (2016)
★ / ★★★★
With a ludicrous premise that is sure to turn heads, it is a disappointment that Walter Hill’s “The Assignment” fails to aspire to become more than what is ultimately delivered. As an action film, it is tiresome and uninspired, composed merely of shooting guns and almost always the target being hit. As an exploitation picture, the more interesting route, it is neither dark nor pulpy enough to pass as an entertaining bad movie. Its look, tone, and overall feel resembles that of many forgettable works with an interesting plot but boring execution.
Michelle Rodriguez plays a hitman named Frank Kitchen who is forced to undergo a gender reassignment surgery in the hands of Dr. Jane (Sigourney Weaver), desperate to avenge her brother that Frank had killed. While it is commendable that Rodriguez chooses to take her role seriously, allowing her to play a man during the first act of the picture is a mistake so dire, it derails any level of believability in a plot that already demands the audience to take a leap of faith.
The filmmakers ought to have realized that simply slapping a beard on Rodriguez does not work at all. Although the performer has a charming masculine presence, her frame is feminine, the way she moves is quite soft, and her posture whether standing up or sitting down is not at all masculine. The filmmakers realize this, I think, and so eventually there is a walking-out-of-the-shower sequence spotlighting Rodriguez with chest hair and a prosthetic penis. The whole charade is so ridiculous that I don’t think anybody who’s paying attention would be able to keep a straight face. I certainly couldn’t.
A storytelling technique that is mildly interesting involves Dr. Jane in a psychiatric hospital after Frank had gotten his revenge on the person who butchered him. Since we already know whether or not the “villain” would get her comeuppance, we cannot help but question why we are spending time with this particular character. Clearly she is up to no good. Or is she? I enjoyed the dialogue between Weaver and Tony Shalhoub, a medical doctor who is assigned to assess whether the disgraced doctor is fit for trial. Unlike Rodriguez’ laughable scenes, we feel something boiling between two sharp minds. Weaver elevates this D-level misfire.
For an action picture, there is minimal suspense or thrill to be had here. The formula is as follows: Frank enters an establishment, narration is heard to provide some background, minions spot our protagonist, he starts shooting with great accuracy, bodies stack up until his main target is found. Of course, said target must die. Onto the next shoddy location.
I find it ironic that there is controversy surrounding “The Assignment” and yet the work is standard in all the wrong ways. If one were to look at good B-pictures and exploitation flicks, one would realize that such films were so often willing to push the envelope that the wrongs, weirdly enough, end up feeling right for the material. They own themselves. On the other hand, this work comes across self-conscious when it could have thrown all inhibitions to the wind and made strong statements about gender versus identity through the guise of solid popcorn entertainment.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)
★ / ★★★★
There is a rising crime organization named the Foot Clan, led by the enigmatic Shredder (Tohoru Masamune). April O’Neil (Megan Fox) wishes to be taken as a serious journalist so she recognizes that covering the group’s crime is her ticket to achieving her career goal. She gets more than what she bargains for, however, when four six-foot genetically mutated turtles that know martial arts (voices of Alan Ritchson, Jeremy Howard, Noel Fisher, Johnny Knoxville) enter the picture—vigilantes that have been living in the sewers, along with their father, Master Splinter (Tony Shalhoub), a mutant rat, for years.
Just about everything in “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” directed by Jonathan Liebesman, is a severe miscalculation. First and foremost, it must work from a visual standpoint because the target audience covers children, pre-teens, and young teenagers. This picture overdoses on CGI—the kind that looks cheap and fake, especially when debris are falling from buildings on the edge of falling over and characters are in danger of falling off a precipice. It leaves nothing to the imagination so we are subjected to a very passive, brain-drain experience.
The turtles look like toads on steroids. There is nothing attractive about them. Although their surface personalities are shown, these do not match their look. As I observed their teratoid appearance, I wondered if they would appeal to children. I thought half of them would likely to get scared because these turtles are too muscular, grimy-looking, their eyes very reptilian, glassy as opposed to friendly, relatable or personable. If I were a kid and this picture happened to be my first exposure to these characters, I would not remember them fondly in my twenties.
Fox gets a lot of negative criticism for being bland, relying on her beauty to carry a film. While she does nothing ground-breaking here, she does what she can in portraying a journalist who aims to do more than just look pretty on television. What I saw in her here is potential—potential to create an April that is tough, resourceful, but still warm in the coming sequels. Now that Fox has played this character once, I hope she uses the movie as an opportunity to do something more, to surprise us.
The villains are a bore. Shredder, like our heroes, is overly designed. The metallic suit and weapons are just too much. This is the kind of super-Shredder I expect to see in a video game that not many people really buy, not in a feature film that reboots the story. As a result, the battle scenes look over-the-top and nonsensical, seemingly energetic but without a real emotional core—at least one that works. Shredder hopes to rule New York City, but then what? It is far too short-sighted; superhero movies nowadays tend to have more substance and gravity than what this one offers.
Based on the screenplay by Josh Applebaum, André Nemec, and Evan Daugherty, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” is a third-rate action picture and a fourth-rate superhero movie—and it should not have been given that three brains are behind this. These turtles may not be serious but what I remember most about them—from the cartoons and the ‘90s films—when I was a kid was a sense of fun, like I was the fifth turtle in the group. (I used to copy their martial arts moves.) There is no fun to be had here.
Big Night (1996)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Secondo (Stanley Tucci) were Italian brothers who ran a struggling Italian restaurant. On the verge of foreclosure, Secondo took Pascal’s (Ian Holm) offer, a fellow restaurant owner, of inviting a celebrity who he claimed to be his friend in order for the brothers’ place to gain a bit of popularity. The big night consisted of a wild party with a mix of great food, good friends and influential people. Directed by Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci, the film was a delectable piece of work. It successfully captured passionate people who happened to lead a struggling business without having to result to the audiences having to feel sorry for them. Instead, the movie simply showed that Primo and Secondo had a great combination of talent and excellent palate, but the one thing they needed was a good word-of-mouth. Typical Americans just couldn’t appreciate the way they served their food. Primo wanted to make genuine Italian food but most Americans were doubtful of the strange. Early in the movie, there was highly amusing scene of a woman and her husband not understanding why the pasta didn’t have any meatballs. I had to laugh at their confused looks and frustrated voices because I recognized myself in them. There’s just something comforting about the familiar and having to step away from it most often causes friction. The film was also about the women in the brothers’ lives. Phyllis (the alluring Minnie Driver) loved Secondo but maybe he just wasn’t ready to be in long-term relationship. Money was near the top of his priorities but Phyllis didn’t consider it to be all that important. On the other hand, Primo was interested in Ann (Allison Janney), who worked at a flower shop, but he was too shy to invite her to attend the party. The best way Primo could communicate was through food. Luckily, Ann liked to eat. What I admired most about the film was its fearless ability to hold long takes. My favorite scene was when Primo returned to the kitchen after he and Secondo had an altercation. Secondo was initially by the stove as he prepared a dish for the feast. As a gesture of forgiveness, the younger one slowly inched away from the fire and allowed his older brother to be at the place where was most comfortable. Not a word was uttered. There was something assured and powerful about the way the camera was held and the manner in which it framed the two characters’ movements. A similar technique was implemented in the final scene when the space between the brothers grew smaller. There was no doubt in our minds that they would keep moving forward together. “Big Night” was beautiful film but not just because of the mouth-watering Italian food. It unabashedly explored the love between brothers without the clichéd epiphanies.
Barton Fink (1991)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by the Coen brothers, “Barton Fink” tells the story of a playwright (John Turturro) who was hired to write for the movies in Hollywood after his celebrated success on stage in New York. Everyone assumed he had a natural gift for telling stories about the common man so they thought that his writing would immediately translate from stage to pictures. However, right when Barton arrived in his dingy hotel room, he got a serious case of writer’s block. This film was rich in symbolism and it was fun deciphering each of them. However, unlike some of the Coen brothers’ less enjoyable dark comedies, the symbolism and ironies did not get in the way of the fantastic storytelling. Turturro did such a great job as a writer struggling to find an inspiration. He’s very human because he is full of self-doubt yet it was very easy to root for him to succeed because he doesn’t let fame get into his head. In fact, when annoying neighbors (John Goodman) prevent him from concentrating on his work, he welcomes (at first warily) instead of condescends. I also enjoyed the supporting work of Steve Buscemi, Tony Shalhoub and Judy Davis. Their performances reminded me of the best noir pictures in the 1940’s and 1950’s–sometimes in the extremes but they have certain qualities that are so specifically Coen and therefore modern. The last forty minutes of the film completely caught me off-guard. Just when I thought I was finally going to get a more “typical” movie from the Coen brothers, they pulled the rug from under my feet and gave me twist after twist to the point where I found myself struggling to keep up (in a good way). Putting the pieces of the puzzle together was half the fun in analyzing this project. The other half was more about its play on the subtleties and how those little things eventually add up to trigger something so big that it completely changes the rules of the game altogether. The film may be more comedic on the outside but sometimes the darkness underneath it all seeps out from within. And when it happens, I was nothing short of enthralled. If one is interested in movies that are genre-defying but still makes sense as a whole, then I absolutely recommend watching “Barton Fink.” It requires a little bit of thinking because it takes a lot of risks but it’s more than worthwhile. I hope to discover more treasures (and hopefully love it that much more) the second time I get the chance to see it.
Man Who Wasn’t There, The (2001)
★★★ / ★★★★
“The Man Who Wasn’t There” was about a man (Billy Bob Thornton) so bored by the ordinariness of his life and so into his head that he one day decided to spice things up by blackmailing his friend (James Gandolfini) after he gets an offer to be a business partner from another man with great ideas. One decision triggered certain events that caused a giant fracture in the lives of the people Thorton’s character had something to do with such as his wife (Frances McDormand), a lawyer (Tony Shalhoub), a girl who played the piano (Scarlett Johansson), and others. Since this was an Ethan and Joel Coen picture, I expected to be astute in its observation of human nature as well as the ability to show its audiences how it was like to be in the main character’s unique perspective. It was more than able to deliver those qualities and beyond because the story took turns that I didn’t expect. Each scene was crucial and it constantly evolved to make us feel for a man who made very bad decisions. While the signature Coen brothers humor was certainly there, it had a certain edge and darkness to make it more than just a film about consequences. I also liked the fact that this was shot in black and white because I thought it reflected the main character’s mindset. I noticed him always considering the very extreme of things, especially when he narrated the picture, and his weakness was that he was partially blind to the (morally) gray. The black-and-white also worked because this was essentially a noir movie. I loved the night scenes especially the ones shot indoors. The angles and composition of the shadows really made the experience that much more engaging. The atmosphere of the time period was also very well chosen because the Coen brothers were able to inject interesting (if not somewhat unexplored) mini-storylines involving extraterrestrials and the craze about them at the time. That one scene when Katherine Borowitz’ character knocked on Thornton’s door and told him certain bits of information about a hidden plot gave me serious goosebumps because it came out of nowhere. “The Man Who Wasn’t There” was full of surprises and I definitely consider it as a must-see for fans of the Coen brothers, or even for people who just want to observe what lengths characters living with the ennui are willing to go through to make their lives more vibrant and regret it afterwards.
Thir13en Ghosts (2001)
★ / ★★★★
I decided to revisit this movie because it scared me when I saw it back in middle school. Directed by Steve Beck, “Thir13en Ghosts” was a mess in every sense of the word. A father (Tony Shalhoub), his two kids and the nanny (Rah Digga) were invited to visit a home they inherited from an uncle (F. Murray Abraham) who dedicated his life collecting spirits. Not knowing that there were ghosts locked up in a basement of a mansion made out of glass, the family decided to visit, along with a psychic (Matthew Lillard) and a man (JR Bourne) who let the family know about the inheritance. This movie did not make sense to me. It spent about half of its running time showing the characters walking around the place and arguing. It quickly got annoying because it didn’t help the story to get anywhere near interesting. In fact, I really wanted the ghosts to escape their respective cells and start killing off the characters because maybe then they’d stop arguing and finally face the mission at hand. I was astounded that there were twelve very interesting ghosts (various methods of scaring and killing their victims, for instance) but the audiences never really get to know them other than their names. Some of them were obviously angry and were prone to attack anyone, while some of them looked more sad and just stayed in one corner. It made me wonder about their varying reactions to their visitors. The “scary” scenes were aided by a booming soundtrack so I didn’t find it to be truly scary. The violent scenes might have been gory and kinetic but my actions of flinching and looking away had nothing to do with genuine fear that is requisite of truly chilling horror pictures. If the movie didn’t take itself too seriously, it might have worked in some angle. There were some lines voiced out by the nanny that were very amusing but none of it was enough to save this sinking ship. If Beck spent more of his time actually helming the suspense instead of the violence and loud sountrack, this definitely would have been a rewarding experience. Instead, the audiences unjustly got a movie with loud barks and no bite.