Wednesday, February 29, 2012

"Under Siege 2: Dark Territory" (1995)

Starring Steven Seagal, Katherine Heigl, and Morris Chestnut
Written by Richard Hatem
Directed by Geoff Murphy
Rated R - Violence, language, nudity
Running Time: 199 Minutes

As a fan of ludicrous, implausible action films, Steven Seagal has proven a veritable treasure trove of material for me. "Under Siege 2" has Seagal returning as Casey Ryback, Navy SEAL-turned-Chef and terrorist fighter extraordinaire. Retired from the Navy, Ryback is now a chef at his friend's restaurant. When he receives news of his brother's death, he reconnects with his niece and the two head cross-country by train to visit the grave.

Meanwhile, a secret military satellite weapon capable of causing earthquakes from orbit has been successfully deployed. The designer of this weapon, an eccentric genius named Travis Dane, hires a group of mercenaries to hijack Ryback's train and use it as a mobile command post to seize control of the satellite weapon and sell its services to the highest bidder.

What follows is a series of "Die Hard"-esque chases and encounters as Ryback attempts to retake the train from the hijackers and stop Dane from destroying Washington DC. These encounters are, of course, ludicrous. None of the mercenaries prove any match for Seagal in any fashion whatsoever, and he tears through them like they were evil Boy Scouts instead of highly-trained soldiers for hire. It's a good thing, then, that there are nearly thirty of them so that Seagal won't tear through the whole group in such short order that the movie is only a few minutes long.

Seagal's attempts at acting are, of course, terrible. Katherine Heigl, future "Grey's Anatomy" hottie, is equally bad as Ryback's niece. Morris Chestnut as the hip-hop train porter who helps out Seagal is the only one with any kind of real personality. Eric Bogosian as Travis Dane is a completely ineffectual villain, a computer nerd who tries to be intimidating and fails miserably (though he does get a few genuinely humorous one-liners in).

The problem with "Under Siege 2" is not in low budget nonsense, or really even the fact that it's premise is just plain idiotic. The action is well directed, and Basil Pouledoris provides a simple but effective action score. No, the problem is that Seagal as Ryback is completely infallible through the entire movie. He rarely seems to be in any real danger from the terrorists, and even more rarely seems to run into any trouble at all. Even his Apple Newton functions perfectly to send a distress signal to the outside world when the mercenaries destroy the wireless phone on the train.

And yet, because it's a wholly stupid Steven Seagal movie, it's just as entertaining BECAUSE of these problems, instead of in spite of them. His deadpan delivery of every single line in the movie is hilarious, and watching him flail about in front of blue screens just as fun. The "Dark Territory" aspect of the title is barely explained in the film (it has something to do with an area of Colorado the train is traveling through that will prevent radio communication... or something). Dialogue is minimal, and there's no such thing as character development.

Take this movie seriously, and I guarantee, you'll have a terrible time with it. But go in with the idea that it's going to be bad, and you'll be surprised at just how good it really is.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

"Ong Bak 2: The Beginning" (2008)

Starring Tony Jaa
Directed by Tony Jaa and Panna Rittikrai

"Ong Bak 2" is a huge departure from the first 2003 film. While the first was set in the modern day and had martial artist Tony Jaa chasing after a stolen statue head, the new film is set in the 15th century and has Jaa... doing a bunch of... stuff...

Alright, so this film pretty much eschews anything resembling a plot. It's sort of there, and by the end of the film it makes sense, but for a movie that's an hour and fifty minutes long, the plot probably takes up about five or six minutes. The rest of the film is a series of confrontations in which Jaa takes on increasing numbers of dangerous enemies.

For what it is, it's mightily impressive. Jaa is an amazing martial artist, and the editors often have to slow down the action so that we can see what he's doing. The fights are lengthy, which can sometimes mean that watching the film drags, but the technical proficiency is simply too good to ignore. You'll be impressed over and over again with what Jaa is capable of doing, even if it all comes at the expense of any kind of story or character.

The fights are really the star of the show here, more so than in the first film. But that's probably what makes "Ong Bak 2" the lesser film, since the first had a decent story and characterization to go along with its impressive set pieces.

The presentation on the blu-ray disc is disappointing to say the least. Visually, this is a movie with lots of fast motion and textures. Taking place mostly in the mountains and jungles, there's lots of tiny details every where, from the rocks and trees to costumes, dirty skin, weapons and more. Unfortunately, the transfer can't keep up with all this. Most of the movie looks soft. Scenes taking place in the dark or in the rain are subject to color banding and lots of smearing. Much of the movie has a sickly yellow cast over it, making skin tones look jaundiced and strange. It certainly looks better than it's DVD counterpart likely does, but still not what it could or should look like in high definition.

The audio track fares better. I'm not one for watching dubs, so even though the disc defaults to English 5.1, the original Thai track is available and it works out well. I don't think it will win any awards, since it's essentially a collection of hefty whacks and thwacks and a serviceable but forgettable action score.

Monday, February 27, 2012

"The Taking of Pelham 123" (2009)

Starring Denzel Washington, John Travolta, John Turturro
Written by Brian Helgelund
Directed by Tony Scott
Rated R - Violence, language
Running Time: 106 minutes

One morning, terrorists led by a man named Ryder (John Travolta) capture a crowded New York subway train.  Ryder calls the MTA to demand a $10 million ransom, and the employee who takes the call is veteran dispatcher Walter Garber (Denzel Washington). Ryder demands cash in 60 minutes, or the hostages will die.  

When the police decide to take over the negotiations, Ryder demands that Garber continue to be his contact.  Despite the wishes of the police, Garber is allowed to continue talking to Ryder.  Garber has to stall the police while they attempt to figure out who Ryder is and try to retake the train without further loss of life.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

"This Means War" (2012)

Starring Chris Pine, Tom Hardy and Reese Witherspoon
Written by Simon Kinberg and Timothy Dowling
Directed by McG
Rated PG-13 - Language, violence, sex
Running Time: 120 Minutes

There is a perennial argument amongst "Star Trek" fans: Captain Kirk vs Captain Picard.  Now, the only time those two legendary characters have met together on screen was 1994's disappointing "Star Trek: Generations."  Now, "This Means War" is not at all a "Star Trek" film, but there's a good joke buried in there for fans.

FDR Foster (Chris Pine) and his best friend and partner Tuck Henson (Tom Hardy) are two of the CIA's best agents.  On one mission to Hong Kong, they are tasked with retrieving some kind of dangerous device, and the criminal trying to buy it - a man named Heinrich (Til Schweiger).  Heinrich gets away, but FDR and Tuck retrieve the device and kill Heinrich's brother.

Meanwhile, Lauren Scott (Reese Witherspoon) is a successful product testing executive still dealing with the fallout of her last breakup.  Her best friend Trish (Chelsea Handler) sets up a profile for her on an online dating website, and she finds Tuck as one of her matches.  The two meet up for a date, which goes well.  Afterward, Lauren heads into a video store and bumps into FDR.  At first, they grate against each other, but he ultimately convinces her to go out on a date with him.

When FDR and Tuck realize they're both dating the same woman, they make a 'gentlemen's agreement' to see which one she ends up going for.  They both use their CIA contacts and skills to present themselves as the best man for Lauren, and both end up falling for her, while she struggles to decide which one she loves more.  All the while, Heinrich is making his way to the United States to track down FDR and Tuck and get revenge for the death of his brother.

Which one will Lauren choose? The safe, nice guy or the more exciting womanizer with trust issues?  ...And will any of them make it out alive?

Friday, February 17, 2012

'Transformers Prime: Darkness Rising' (2011)

Starring Peter Cullen, Frank Welker and Jeffrey Combs
Developed by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman

There are many different versions of the 'Transformers' mythology, but interestingly, much of it shares many common themes and ideas.  At the heart of all these various storylines is often the simple rivalry between good and evil and the characters that embody those concepts.

Three years after the last recorded contact with the Decepticons, the Autobots patrol the planet Earth looking for Energon.  In the lonely town of Jasper, Nevada, teenage Jack Darby (Josh Keaton), 12-year-old computer wiz Rafael Esquivel (Andy Pessoa) and international transfer student Miko Nakadai (Tania Gunadi) witness a battle between Autobots Arcee (Sumalee Montano), Bulkhead (Kevin Michael Richardson) and Bumblebee.  Now a target of the Decepticons, the three kids are brought back to the Autobots' secret lair where they meet medic Ratchet (Jeffrey Combs) and the Autobot leader, Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen).

The Autobots are attempting to locate their lost friend Cliffjumper (Dwayne Johnson), who had discovered a vast deposit of Energon and was set upon by Decepticons.  What they will discover is that Megatron (Frank Welker) has returned from deep space, with an artifact known as the Blood of Unicron - a 'dark Energon' crystal that has the power to reanimate the dead.  With this dark Energon, Megatron plans to raise an army of fallen Transformers from the planet Cybertron, and overrun the societies of Earth.

Only five Autobots and three human kids stand in his way.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Happy Trails: "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" (2012)

I hope this movie is as awesome as the sheer absurdity of its premise suggests.  I haven't read the book, and honestly I didn't even make it through "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" so I haven't really explored this historical horror parody genre very much.  Still, this looks like it might have some sweet action and if it can get the right tone, it might just be a lot of fun.

'The Take' (2009)

Starring Tom Hardy, Shaun Evans and Brian Cox
Written by Neil Biswas
Directed by David Drury
Rated TV-MA - Violence, language, drinking, drugs, sex, rape, mature themes
Running Time: 176 minutes

It's become increasingly obvious that Tom Hardy is really, really good at playing truly screwed up individuals.  Whether it's a broken former Marine turned MMA fighter or the flawed clone of a heroic starship captain, regardless of the genre, Hardy is capable of grabbing hold of the role of a man with deep, deep psychological problems and making sure that we can't take our eyes off of him.

Freddie Jackson (Tom Hardy) has just been released from prison after doing a stint for a botched robbery job.  In the joint, he established a good rapport with Ozzy (Brian Cox) the man who runs everything, and Jimmy seizes the opportunity to make a name for himself with Ozzy's crew.  He drags along his best friend and younger cousin, Jimmy (Shaun Evans), who also makes an impression on Ozzy.  Soon enough, the two are rising through the ranks of Ozzy's organization.

But the truth eventually becomes known: Freddie is an uncontrollable sociopath.  Jimmy, the one with brains, tries to rein him in, but that proves increasingly impossible.  Freddie's wife, Jackie (Kiersten Wareing) turns to alcohol and pill-popping in her depression for loving Freddie so much, even as she recognizes that he's a monster.  Jimmy's wife, Maggie (Charlotte Riley), also recognizes that Freddie is a monster, and tries desperately not to fall into the same abyss as Jackie.

As the years pass, Jimmy becomes more prominent in the organization, and the order comes down to squeeze Freddie out.  But Freddie isn't about to take that betrayal lying down.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

"Safe House" (2012)

Starring Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds and Vera Farmiga
Written by David Guggenheim
Directed by Daniel Espinosa
Rated R: Language, violence
Running Time: 117 minutes

There's a long-standing tradition that films released in January, February and March are typically the ones that just aren't good enough to be released any other time.  It's similar to how August is a dumping ground for summer flicks the studios think can't hold up to the AAA titles of May and June.  "Safe House" isn't terrible, but it certainly deserves its February release date.

Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) is a CIA operative in charge of watching over a safe house in Cape Town, South Africa.  After 12 months of doing nothing but answering phones, Weston is eager for a chance to prove himself to his CIA watchdogs and move up the ranks to a posting in Paris, where he can live the sweet life with his girlfriend Ana (Nora Arnezeder).

One day, former agent Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) surfaces in Cape Town, attempting to purchase a file from an MI6 agent he used to work with.  After the MI6 agent is killed by a strike team, Frost takes refuge in the last place he should want to: the U.S. Consulate.  Soon after, he's moved to Weston's safe house and interrogated.  And soon after that, the safe house is hit by that same strike team.  Weston grabs Frost after his CIA minders are killed, and the two go on the run.

Inexperienced, but eager to prove himself, Weston decides to bring Frost in to another safe house, but Frost begins to plant the seeds that Weston can't trust his bosses at the CIA.  The two are on the run, alone, not trusting each other or anyone else, and hunted by the strike team that seems to constantly be only moments behind them wherever they turn.

Friday, February 10, 2012

"50/50" (2011)

Starring Joseph Gordon Levitt, Seth Rogen and Anna Kendrick
Written by William Reiser
Directed by Jonathan Levine
Rated R: Language, drug use, sexual content
Running Time: 100 minutes

They say humor is a defense mechanism. So, then, "50/50" employs it as an integral part of its premise.  Smalls told me I'd cry during this one...

Adam Lerner (Joseph Gordon Levitt) is a young, healthy man. He eats well, doesn't smoke, doesn't drink, recycles, has a nice job... and he has cancer. He finds out one day that there's a tumor growing on his spine, and he has a 50% chance of survival. His best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen) sees this as an opportunity to get laid. His girlfriend Rachel (Bryce Dallas Howard) sees it as an opportunity to cheat. His mother Diane (Anjelica Huston) sees it as an opportunity to take care of him.

While undergoing chemotherapy, Adam begins seeing a young therapist named Katherine McCay (Anna Kendrick) whom he suspects is underqualified, but he continues going because he likes her. As his health deteriorates, Adam goes through the various stages of dealing physically and emotionally with his cancer, which causes strife between himself and his friends and loved ones, and eventually with his therapist.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Happy Trails: "The Amazing Spider-Man" (2012)

This trailer does whatever a spider can.

Forgive my crappy pun, but man, this one looks great.  Darker and more serious than the Tobey Maguire/Sam Raimi pictures from the last decade, but still fun and exciting.  I've been a little wary about rebooting this franchise already, but this trailer nearly wipes out those fears.  It's interesting that this film seems to explore Peter's parents, a concept usually ignored in both the comics and in adaptations to other media. And so far, it's looking like Andrew Garfield is going to be a great Peter Parker, and I'm always up for having Emma Stone around.

Happy Trails: Super Bowl Edition (2012)

Another year, another football championship.  And another batch of promos for this year's upcoming blockbuster tent-pole films.

First up, Paramount's "The Dictator" -
Sacha Baron Cohen of "Borat" fame stars in this comedy about a silly Middle Eastern dictator.  I don't know too much about this one, but parts of this spot look reasonably funny.  I did enjoy "Borat," and Cohen was pretty funny in "Talledega Nights" with Will Ferrell.  Here's hoping.

Next, Paramount's "G.I. Joe: Retaliation" -
The Rock quotes Jay-Z in this one.  Not too much in the way of new footage, and I still don't know much about this film in general.  But it looks like it has some impressive action sequences, and the potential of the Rock teaming up with Bruce Willis is exciting to say the least.

Here's Disney's "John Carter" -
Based on the pulp novels, "John Carter" adapts "A Princess of Mars" and gives it a way lamer name.  I really dig the epic rearrangement of Zeppelin's "Kashmir," and it does look like a cool movie... I'm just not sure how much in common it really has with the book.

"Warrior" (2011)

Starring Joel Edgerton, Tom Hardy and Nick Nolte
Written by Gavin O'Connor, Cliff Dorfman and Anthony Tombakis
Directed by Gavin O'Connor
Rated PG-13: Violence, language, mature themes
Running Time: 140 minutes

My initial response to the trailers for "Warrior" were thus: "meh."  When the film was released, it received warm reviews from critics, so I was intrigued and decided to add the film to my Netflix queue, but didn't make the effort to catch the film in theatres.  #mistake (that's right, I just used a hashtag in a blog post).

Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton) is a former UFC fighter who has turned his back on the sport and is now a high school physics teacher who is much-loved by his students.  Unfortunately, if he doesn't come up with a large sum of money in 90 days, the bank will foreclose on his home, putting Conlon, his wife Tess (Jennifer Morrison) and their two children out on the street.  As a way to make some extra cash, Brendan begins fighting in "smoker" events - small fights usually staged in the parking lot of a local strip club, and he lies to his wife by telling her he got a second job as a bouncer.  Unfortunately, when Principal Zito (Kevin Dunn) finds out, he must reluctantly suspend Brendan - without pay.

Meanwhile, Brendan's father Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte) returns home one evening to find his other son, Tommy (Tom Hardy) drunk and waiting for him on his doorstep after years apart.  Clearly running from something, Paddy offers his long-lost son shelter in his home, but Tommy is consumed by anger and hatred over his unhappy childhood suffering under his father's alcoholism.  One day while training at a local gym, Tommy trounces a well-known MMA contender and a video of it ends up on YouTube.  Soon enough, the gym owner thinks Tommy has a shot in the fights, and Tommy convinces Paddy to help him train.

Brendan goes to an old friend, Frank Campana (Frank Grillo), who owns a gym and is sponsoring his own fighter in an upcoming MMA tournament called "Sparta" which has a $5 million prize for the champion.  When Frank's fighter is wounded, Brendan convinces Frank to give him a shot at the title, putting Brendan and Tommy on a collision course that will force them to confront not only their own separate problems, but years of resentment regarding each other and their family.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

"Chronicle" (2012)

Starring Dane Dehaan, Michael B. Jordan, and Alex Russell
Written by Max Landis and Josh Trank
Directed by Josh Trank
Rated PG-13 - Violence, language, drinking and drug use
Running Time: 83 Minutes

I'm not really a huge fan of the 'found-footage' genre of films.  Though I've generally liked the ones I've seen, they often fall prey to a fatal flaw: no one ever puts down the damn camera.  No matter how terrible things are getting, someone manages to hang on to that camera and we generally just see a bunch of blurs and a lot of shouting.

Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan) is a loser.  Picked on at school, not overly bright or talented, he mumbles his way through a high school full of bullies and girls who ignore or look down on him.  When he buys a video camera with the goal of documenting his worthless life, especially the abuse of his alcoholic father Richard (Michael Kelly), people begin to regard him as that creepy kid with the camera.  His only friend is his cousin Matt (Alex Russell) who picks him up and drives him to school every day.

One night, Matt convinces Andrew to come with him to a party out at an abandoned farm.  Matt and Andrew hook up with Steve (Michael B. Jordan), star athlete and candidate for class president.  Turns out Steve is a bit of a pothead, and so is Matt.  The three of them discover a hole in the ground, with some kind of strange glowing... thing... in it.  After touching it, in the days that follow the boys discover that they've gained the ability to move and control objects with their minds.

At first, it's all fun and games.  They use their newfound powers to play pranks, fool around with baseballs, blow up girls' skirts, and eventually even to fly.  But slowly, Matt and Steve begin to see the cracks in Andrew.  Andrew's behavior begins to frighten them as he uses his powers to do things like pull the legs off of spiders, and even to run other cars off the road.

As Andrew begins to feel that his friends are abandoning him, his behavior grows worse.  Matt realizes that Andrew is out of control.  But there's only one problem: Andrew is the strongest of the three, and it may not be possible to stop him.

Friday, February 3, 2012

"Green Lantern" (2011)

Starring Ryan Reynolds, Blake Lively and Peter Sarsgaard
Written by Greg Berlanti, Michael Green, Marc Guggenheim and Michael Goldenberg
Directed by Martin Campbell
Rated PG-13 - Violence, language, space diarrhea
Running Time: 114 Minutes

I'll be up front and say that I was probably predisposed to hating this film.  I don't like Green Lantern; I don't find him a compelling character, and his mythology is just a bunch of overly complicated nonsense.  It's a hodge-podge mashup of weird sci-fi concepts and mysticism that just comes off as laughably lame instead of clever or cool.

And this film does nothing to change my perceptions in that regard.

Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) is a brash, uncontrollable test pilot for  Ferris Aircraft.  His friends find him unreliable, his former girlfriend Carol Ferris (Blake Lively) accuses him of costing the company a major contract and putting much of its workforce at risk.  One evening, Jordan is scooped up by a weird green energy force and brought before the dying alien warrior Abin Sur (Temeura Morrison) who has crash-landed on Earth after a battle in space with the villainous alien force called Parallax (voiced by Clancy Brown).  Abin Sur tells Jordan that he has been chosen to be a part of the Green Lantern Corps, a group of powerful alien peacekeepers, and gives Jordan his green ring of power, and dies.

Soon after, Jordan's childhood friend Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard) is brought in by the government to perform an autopsy on Abin Sur's body, and he becomes infected by a piece of Parallax.  Through Hammond, Parallax discovers that Jordan is in possession of Abin Sur's ring, and decides to make its way to Earth and consume it, giving the power it needs to then travel to Oa and take on the Guardians of the Green Lantern Corps - apparently the greatest power in the universe.

Jordan must pull it together, overcome his fear(s) to become a true warrior for good and save Carol and the planet Earth from certain destruction at the yellow space-poop tendrils of Parallax.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

'Star Trek: The Next Generation - The Next Level' [Blu-Ray]

Starring Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes and Brent Spiner
Created by Gene Roddenberry

In the 1980s, when 'Star Trek: The Next Generation' was in production, the show was shot on 35mm film, including most of the special effects shots.  But in post-production, the show was edited to videotape, meaning that film masters for finished episodes simply didn't exist.  In order to present the show in high definition, CBS has gone back to the archived original film negatives and re-edited the show.  Every single episode is going through post production once again, re-compositing the original special effects, remixing the audio into 7.1 uncompressed surround, and more.

"The Next Level" presents three 'Next Generation' episodes on high definition Blu-Ray.

"Encounter at Farpoint" is the 90-minute pilot episode.  Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) commands the USS Enterprise on a mission to the mysterious Farpoint station.  Along the way, he encounters the powerful Q (John de Lancie), who puts humanity on trial for its savage past.  Picard and his crew, including Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes), Lt. Commander Data (Brent Spiner) and Lt. Yar (Denise Crosby) must uncover the secret of Farpoint and prove to Q that humanity has evolved.

"Sins of the Father" - Lt. Worf (Michael Dorn) is surprised to learn that his younger brother Kurn (Tony Todd) is still alive, and that his long-dead father has been accused of being a traitor by Duras (Patrick Massett).

"The Inner Light" - An alien probe captures Picard's mind and makes him live out an entire lifetime on a dying world.