★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, “Gamer” was set in 2034 where humans can pay a company (led by Michael C. Hall) to control other humans as if in a video game. One gamer (Logan Lerman) paid to control one of the death row inmates (Gerard Butler) to take part in a very violent “survival of the fittest” competition where the winner could earn his or her freedom. I have to admit that this movie did not interest me whatsoever going into it. The only reason why I decided to watch it was because of Hall. I was interested in what else he could do other than play a sympathetic serial killer in “Dexter.” This movie was a dizzying experience at best. Right from the first scene, we got shoot-outs right after another; body pieces and bullets were everywhere, the camera shook as if the cameraman was having a seizure and the main character acted as though he was on steroids. (Perhaps he was.) The filmmakers took the egregiousness to another level by shamelessly adding “ethical questions” such as whether it was right or wrong to put people in death row in a place where they could kill each other and eventually “earn” their freedom. It wasn’t at all difficult to arrive at the right answer: of course it’s wrong! It’s also wrong to control other human beings for sake of our twisted desires even if such vessels “volunteered” to do it for money. It would have been so much better if the picture embraced its own stupidity instead of trying to ask “insightful” questions. It’s also unfortunate how this film had so many talented supporting actors (Alison Lohman, Kyra Sedgwick, Aaron Yoo, Ludacris) but they ultimately didn’t do anything. It was easy to tell that they just did it for the money. They couldn’t have chosen to appear in it because of the script since it had no depth or wit. While the performances were fine, I really think the problem was the writing. The violence was highlighted even though the core was essentially about what it means to be human and actually live our own lives. The gratuitous explosions and nudity should have been secondary if the filmmakers wanted to grasp a more elevated social commentary. Hall made a good villain but, like “Gamer,” it’s the same old song and dance (pun intended for that riduculous musical scene).
★ / ★★★★
I thought this movie, directed by Simon Pearce, was quite emotionally bankrupt despite the sadness and despair presented on the outside. Cal (Wayne Virgo) is a gang member who hides his sexuality from the rest of the group and uses other unsuspecting men (Garry Summers) for occassional hook-ups. Cal is also attracted to Jonno (Tom Bott), a fellow gang member, but the feeling never seems to be reciprocal under the watchful eye of the angry and vengeful Nessa (Alice Payne). When the gang attacks a fellow homosexual (Marc Laurent), Cal jumps in to save him and the two soon develop a romantic relationship. However, that relationship costs him his place in the gang. I thought there was way too much violence in this movie. I get the fact that Pearce was going for realism but that technique could have worked if the picture was sensitive in its core. I felt the director trying to grasp at the real sadness of the various characters but it never reached that level because there were too many distracting elements. Instead of heart, we get these extended scenes of sex which I thought were really unnecessary. For a movie that runs for less than nintety minutes, I expected it to be as effecient as possible. Instead, the first twenty minutes consisted of sex, drugs and violence. Perhaps another reason why I never warmed up to “Shank” was the fact that I just don’t understand the mindset of gangs. From what I read from literature and learned from the classes I’ve taken, there was supposed to be this sort of kinship or sense of family within the group. But in here, I thought they were just really cruel to each other. I seemed like one little slip was enough for one to be kicked out of the group. I felt like everyone was divided so the film never reached some sort of balance or harmony when it comes to both its characters and tone. I even failed to recognize the chemistry between Bott and Laurent. I’m sorry but I just have trouble accepting the fact that a tough silent type like Cal would fall for a flamboyantly feminine guy like Olivier. They were too different; and even if they were, the director did not really explore their potential similarities (interests, point of views, et cetera) other than the fact that they were gay. It’s all too obvious and shallow for me to be really absorbed into the lives of these characters. At the end of the day, I regretted watching “Shank” because the premise had so much potential but the execution was so lazy and typical. If you’re looking for meaning, you won’t find it here.
Halloween II (2009)
★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Rob Zombie, “Halloween II” is a complete waste of time. What I really liked with Zombie’s 2007 interpretation of the 1978 classic was that it really tried to tell a story. The 2007 film spent a third of its time explaining Michael Myers’ psychology as a child–something that other “Halloween” movies that came before did not do. With this 2009 sequel, we’re back again on the level of wait-and-kill without any sort of plot to drive the story forward. Basically, Michael Myers (Tyler Mane) wanted to hunt down Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton) a year after they had a showdown in Haddonfield. Meanwhile, Dr. Samuel Loomis (Malcolm McDowell), Michael’s ex-psychiatrist, wrote a book about the killings and tried to wrestle with the media’s barrage of questions and his conscience (or lack thereof). In my opinion, Dr. Loomis’ storyline should totally not have gone in that direction. Instead, we should have followed Dr. Loomis’ mission (or downright obsession) to hunt down Michael and protect Laurie from him. That’s much more interesting (and relevant) than scenes of him signing books and being interviewed on some television shows. As for Michael’s rampage, although I still thought that the stalking and violent scenes were very gruesome, none of it was particularly scary. Well, except for that scene in the hospital which occured during the first twenty minutes (the only effective scene in the whole movie). I also hated the fact that Zombie decided to inject Deborah Myers’ ghost (Sheri Moon Zombie as Michael’s mother) into the storyline. Not only was such a decision poorly executed, the scenes were downright laughable. If I wanted to see a ghost story with a psychological aspect to it, I’d watch “The Others” because that one was actually chilling to the bone (not to mention clever). Slasher fans simply do not pay ten bucks or so to watch a slasher flick with ghosts roaming about and supposedly instigating the broken mind of a killer. I went into this movie with an above average expectations because the 2007 version was very enjoyable. But after watching this movie, I think Zombie should just stop. He doesn’t quite grasp the idea of the brilliance that comes with simplicity and a truly terrifying soundtrack, which defined John Carpenter’s 1978 “Halloween” classic.
The Education of Charlie Banks (2007)
★ / ★★★★
Fred Durst directed this movie about a violent teenager (Jason Ritter) who believed that he could change after visiting the college of two of the people who fear him (Jesse Eisenberg and Chris Marquette) ever since childhood. Not only is he violent, he gets into fights for the most stupid reasons and his opponents either end up in critical condition or dead. My main problem with this picture was its tone. It never really got its right footing so the whole movie looked different than what I should be experiencing. Durst had a very contradictory style. Just when you think he’s trying to tell a story about a person who can achieve redemption despite his dark past, he completely switches gears and makes an argument that a broken man will always remain a broken man. By the end of the movie, I felt like I was watching a bad episode of “The O.C.” where all the rich kids get physically harmed in some way. I also didn’t appreciate the way Durst (despite his intentions) glorified violence. What struck me the most was the final scene when something extremely serious was happening on screen yet this peaceful melody was playing on the background. I was slightly disturbed and I felt rotten just watching it. As for the characters, I did not believe for one second that Eisenberg could stand up to Ritter. For me, Eisenberg’s character started off as a little mouse and he ended up like one. The absence of evolution in the characters left me asking what the point was of the whole experience. The only person I enjoyed watching was Sebastian Stan (“The Covenant,” “Gossip Girl”) because I completely believed that he was this rich kid who doesn’t care about his education and goes off buying things he doesn’t need for the hell of it. Most of the time, I wished the story was about him instead of the other so-called main characters. I say skip “The Education of Charlie Banks” because nothing quite holds up.
Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
Intended to be a trilogy, “Mongol,” directed by Sergei Bodrov, painted a beautiful but often complex picture about a man’s (the future Genghis Khan played by Tadanobu Asano) journey on how his experiences from when he was a child shaped his ideals and eventually came to a decision to force such ideas to all Mongolian people. I don’t know much about the history prior to Genghis Khan’s ascension to power so I’m not the right person to ask about whether or not it’s historically accurate. Instead, I’ll review this film from a tabula rasa perspective. After reading some of the critics’ reviews, I finally decided to watch the movie and had high expectations. While I did expect scenes that consisted of ferocious bloodbath, I got exactly that and more. I was surprised by the amount of heart that this film had to offer. I liked the fact that it showed more of Genghis Khan’s failures than his victories. Despite his unfortunate circumstances, he kept getting up and wanting to fight again so it was not difficult at all to root for him. There’s something truly inspiring from watching a person’s inner drive accumulate in spite of extremely difficult situations and be able to pull through. What didn’t work for me, however, were the mythical scenes. I found it frustrating whenever the picture would cut the scenes whenever Genghis Khan’s life was in danger. It would then jump to another scene when he would be perfectly okay and somehow evaded the situation. I get that faith was an important aspect of Genghis Khan’s life (and the fact that this film was being told in a first person point-of-view, which, as we all know, is not always objective) but I felt that there were too many of those scenes and it took me away from the situations. Regardless, there are still a lot to see here such as the stunning background imageries and well-defined (as well as graphic) battle scenes. If one is into historical epics that humanize a warrior’s journey to power instead of glamorizing it while at the same time dealing with issues such as the fragility of alliances, this is definitely the film to see. It goes to show that an epic film doesn’t need to come out of Hollywood as long as it is ambitious, while at the same time still able to deliver the elements that ultimately convince the audiences why they should care for the lead character.
My Bloody Valentine (2009)
★ / ★★★★
This is another one of those typical horror movies where the characters make stupid decisions as they run away from the killer. After the brilliant and truly terrifying “Scream” and “Scream 2” and the mediocre spoofs that came after them, slasher campiness rarely works nowadays. This is also one of those horror movies where a particular event happened ten years ago and the survivors’ paths collide ten years later from where it all started (preferably a small town that is “God-fearing”). “My Bloody Valentine,” directed by Patrick Lussier, stars Jensen Ackles, Jaime King and Kerr Smith–the three survivors of a killing rampage performed by a person in a masked miner atttire. I’ve seen it all before (and you probably have as well) and there’s nothing particularly imaginative about this movie. While there were some notably interesting death scenes, the story just doesn’t work so I found it difficult to care for the protagonists. I found this horror flick particularly one-note in all respects especially the acting. The actors are either yelling at each other or they’re trying to look scared instead of actually being scared. Not to mention that the script felt like it was torn from a bad daytime soap opera. There’s just no modicum of subtlety; the characters always voice out what they’re thinking instead of bottling up some of their emotions and they always act on their first impulses. Real people simply do not act like them so I was rubbed the wrong way right off the bat. Moreover, I could tell that this picture had a low budget. But what’s worse is that it’s the kind that has a low budget with no redeeming qualities. Now, I don’t have a problem with pictures (especially horror pictures) with low budgets as long as it has a brain–such as the original “Halloween.” It’s just that, to me, if a movie is lacking something, it needs to try to excel in other aspects such as its script, acting or soundtrack, for instance. “My Bloody Valentine” did not even try to impress in any way. It’s purpose was clear: to attract blood-thirsty teenagers (particularly boys as they drag their terrified girlfriends along) during Valentine’s Day to waste their money on something that is neither engaging nor rewarding.
The French Connection (1971)
★★★ / ★★★★
Inspired by a true story, “The French Connection” stars Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider, Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle and Buddy Russo, a bad cop and a good cop, respectively. The two try to capture a French drug lord named Alain Charnier played by Fernando Rey. Hackman and Scheider consistently collide against each other because they have different ways of dealing with situations. I found this film to be really focused because right off the bat the audiences get to see how Hackman’s character is like: racist, having violent tendencies and not caring about anything else as long as a result is produced at the end of the day. Scheider is pretty much the complete opposite so it was interesting to see the partners’ dynamics in disparate situations of varying level of danger. This film won several Oscars including one for Best Picture so my expectations were really high prior to watching it. Although most people’s arguments when asked to explain why they didn’t enjoy the film was that the plot and the look of the film was dated, my problem with it was its abrupt ending. Just when things were getting really good, the credits started rolling and I was left in the dust. I was simply hungry for more. I had no problem that the movie looked dated because I’m used to seeing older films so that line of argument is a matter of acquired taste. I believe this film must be appreciated because a lot of movies that came after it used “The French Connection” as their template. The most infamous scene in this picture was when Hackman’s character tried to chase after a train. It was really exciting even though it didn’t use a lot of visual and special effects because the concept was rooted in the whole good-guy-must-capture-bad-guy schema. I also enjoyed the fact that there were many silent moments in the film where the images did most of the talking. William Friedkin, the director, was always aware that he was making an astute film for intelligent people so he didn’t result to spelling everything out in order to get a point across. Perhaps with repeated viewings I’ll love this film more and more but I don’t consider it as a great film after watching it for the first time (although it came close).
Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (2009)
★ / ★★★★
I don’t find any good reason for this film to have been made. From beginning to end, I found the story uninteresting, the characters were one-dimensional, the special and visual effects were nothing extraordinary, and the pacing was very slow to the point of boredom. I don’t know how Bill Nighy and Michael Sheen got mixed up in this terrible mess. This prequel to the first “Underworld” installment was about how the Lycans/werewolves got the upperhand over the aristocratic vampires (led by Nighy). That’s pretty much it, really. For an hour and thirty minutes, they showed the romance between a Lycan (Sheen) and a vampire (Rhona Mitra), while also giving audiences one senseless action scene after another. It got exhausting really quickly and I lost interest twenty minutes into the picture. The only reason why I think this sequel was made was because the first two “Underworld” movies were successful. Having realized that success, the studios wanted more money even though they knew that the script was dead on arrival. One of my biggest problems was Nighy’s “moral dilemma” when he found out that his daughter has been sleeping with a werewolf. The movie tries to show that he cares for his daughter by looking agonized and sad in an empty room after he decides that she should be punished. I couldn’t help but roll my eyes (and laugh–or was it scoff?–a bit inside) because if he really did care for his daughter, since he’s the leader of the vampires and as a father who genuinely loves his daughter, he would do anything in his power to make her happy. Instead, I saw him as this tyrant who loves power more than his daughter; he deserves to fall hard on his face and suffer in every possible way. I felt like the director (Patrick Tatopoulos) and writers (Danny McBride and Dirk Blackman) thought that the audiences are stupid. It’s insulting in the least. Please avoid this mess of a movie at all cost.
The Midnight Meat Train (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
Bradley Cooper has come a long way since I first discovered him in “Alias.” Even though he seems like a pretty boy on the outside, he can effectively play characters that have many sides to them. I also have to give him kudos for not playing the same type of character in his movies. In “The Midnight Meat Train,” directed by Ryûhei Kitamura and based on a short story by Clive Barker, Cooper plays a photographer who one day finds out about a butcher (Vinnie Jones) who kills people on the subway after taking pictures of a woman who was being harrassed by a couple of thugs. Wanting to gather more evidence before he approaches the police, he becomes obsessed with the butcher and his girlfriend (Leslie Bibb) becomes worried about his new personality. This film is especially gory and violent which horror fans will undoubtedly love. What’s even better is that it is quite suspenseful especially that one scene when two people decide to break into the killer’s apartment. I just had a feeling that it would go terribly wrong so I had to watch the film through my fingers. What didn’t work for me, though, was the last fifteen minutes. Instead of being a straight-up horror film, it hybridized with the science fiction realm. I understand that this is based on a short story and I shouldn’t hold the movie responsible for following it. I just needed to mention the fact that it did get ridiculous and I even caught myself rolling my eyes because of the ending. It definitely took away some of that realism regarding being attacked by a butcher on a subway in the most gruesome ways. Still, I’m giving this a slight recommendation despite the mediocre rating because it genuinely thrilled and scared me.
Tropic Thunder (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
This is not as funny as everyone made it to be. I thought it spent too much of its time showing people shooting guns and not enough time telling Hollywood jokes. For a two-hour film, I thought it would reach some sort of balance. Written and directed by Ben Stiller, he has some really funny sketches such as the fake trailers prior to the main feature, Robert Downey Jr. as a method actor, Tom Cruise as the over-the-top movie mogul, and not to mention the Oscar scene. Other than those few elements, I simply chuckled through the rest (if they were at least somewhat funny). Jack Black and Ben Stiller weren’t as funny as they could have been. Compared to Downey Jr. and Cruise, Black and Stiller were trying too hard to get noticed; instead of enhancing the experience, it became distracting. But I appreciated the cameos from Tyra Banks, Jennifer Love-Hewitt, Lance Bass, and Alicia Silverstone. They made me pay attention when nothing was going on on screen. What made this movie slightly above average at times was its self-awareness. It’s unabashed when it comes to making references to war pictures like “Platoon” and “Full Metal Jacket.” I love the scene where Downey Jr. recalled the films and actors that focus on mental retardation: Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man,” Tom Hanks in “Forrest Gump,” and Sean Penn in “I Am Sam.” If they would have appeared, it would have been that much better. But what really did not work for me was the jungle scenes. When people are shooting guns and running away from the artillery, it becomes chaotic. Those “action” scenes feel like fillers when the jokes are not in the foreground. This is supposed to be a comedy but I didn’t see the comedy behind the violence. Perhaps if this had been a dark comedy film, it would’ve worked… but it wasn’t so it didn’t. The story becomes slow and it feels like the actors are not reaching their full potential because they are left to just run around screaming. If this movie would have been tilted toward the show business instead of the actual war scenes, I think I would’ve enjoyed it that much more.