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Archive for January, 2014

True Lies (1994)

True LiesIt sounds odd that I had never seen True Lies until just a few months ago.  I always had a little tinge of interest in it, but until recently, I just never capitalized upon it.  I do think James Cameron has done some marvelous work over the years, and it’s nice to see that he did take the chance to do something more fun-filled after a lot of films of thematic heaviness.  While I didn’t love True Lies, it does have its great strengths and unfortunate weaknesses wrapped up in a very entertaining spy thriller.

Special agent Harry Tasker (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a top spy in the ultra-secret Omega Sector – although to his wife Helen (Jaime Lee Curtis), he’s just a boring computer salesman.  When Harry’s two lives unexpectedly collide, both he and Helen find themselves in the clutches of international terrorists, fighting to save not only their marriage, but their lives.

In what I believe is a rare occurrence, I actually agree with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert about this film, in most part.  The opening and ending are great, exciting, engaging action excellence, but the middle section is drawn out and throws the film off the rails a little.  This is in relation to the entire Bill Paxton segment where Harry Tasker learns that Helen has been seeing another man on the side who feeds her false stories of him being a secret agent.  Paxton’s character turns out to be a sleazy used car salesman conning women with his tales of international espionage and intrigue, and Harry proceeds to use his resources to pull one over on the guy while attempting to inject some excitement into his marriage via subterfuge.  This segment is not a bad idea, but the fact is that it is dragged out for over thirty minutes and runs through some overly long comedic bits.  There is so much that could have been done to chop this down considerably and make it far more snappy and to the point.

I hate to keep being proven right about my reservations about James Cameron’s lax storytelling post-The Terminator, but the evidence keeps surfacing with every film of his I see.  When he had a tight, restrictive budget forcing him to be innovative in a constrained run time, he put together a film of tight rhythm and energy.  Once he was given larger and larger budgets, and was allowed to indulge himself on screen, he began to slow down the pace of his films with extended second acts that could have definitely been tightened up for a more punchy experience.  The other problem with this divergence in focus is that the actual plot with our villains vanishes for the entire time the film is concerned with this marital infidelity plot.  With such a thrilling action chase scene to build up the film’s villain, the movie wholly shifts focus away from that plot, and a lot like the T-1000 in Terminator 2, the actual villain is completely absent for most of the second act of the movie.  He only reappears when the movie realizes it needs another action sequence.  If Cameron could have found a way to keep both the action centric terrorist / secret agent and married life plots going by interweaving them, I believe that would have been great, but it’s ultimately much more compartmentalized until the third act arrives.

Regardless, Cameron is still able to direct some of the best action sequences to date.  The opening escape sequence is explosive and smart with the right amount of wit and sly humor.  Indeed, I was vastly impressed with the chase sequence that starts off with a public bathroom fight and shootout, and then, sees the film’s villain, Aziz, take off on a motorcycle and Harry pursues him on horseback.  They gallop and zoom through Washington, D.C. streets, stores, a shopping mall, elevators, and a high rise balcony.  Cameron pushes this sequence to the absolute most fun hilt, and it proves to be very original and imaginative.  The climax of the film with the helicopter rescue from the out of control limousine, and then, the fighter jet explosive awesomeness really makes this one of the biggest Schwarzenegger action spectacles ever.  These are some of the most incredible action sequences that either James Cameron or Arnold Schwarzenegger have ever been involved in, and they deserve to been seen by any serious action movie fan.

And Arnold Schwarzenegger really does seem to do some of his best, most dynamic work with James Cameron.  The two clearly work so perfectly together based on a very trusted friendship and collaboration.  This time out, Arnold gets to be more light hearted and fun.  Harry Tasker is a clever character who thinks on his feet, and improvises some tight scenarios with suave charisma.  By no doubt, there are some James Bond comparisons you could make, but that can be done with nearly any secret agent action movie.  Harry’s a light-hearted, caring family man who is not nearly as adept at his home life as he is in espionage.

Jamie Lee Curtis is really fun and solid as Harry’s wife.  We get to see her go from this simple, wholesome, innocent woman to a more empowered, assertive character.  Yeah, Helen has to liberate herself with a sexy striptease, but it’s really just done in good fun in the film’s context.  Helen is attracted to Bill Paxton’s character because he tells her exciting stories of peril and danger, and so, Harry chooses to give her an adventure of her own.  Curtis really embraces the role in all its facets giving us a sweet character that is able to rise to the task of danger and peril.

Now, it does seem to take the right director to craft Tom Arnold’s humor down the correct path.  Surely, many have found him annoying or obnoxious elsewhere, but he really hits all the comedy beats just right.  He never pushes it over the edge, and doesn’t come off like a buffoon, which would have been extremely easy to fall into.  Him and Schwarzenegger have very good chemistry playing off of one another lightly and naturally.

On the far more serious side, Art Malik has a great threatening look of intensity to him that perfectly aids him as the film’s villain, Salim Abu Aziz.  He’s an excellent fit for this ruthless, violent radical terrorist who consistently proves to be a major adversary to contend with.  He truly added the serious counterweight the film required to the light hearted tone it employs throughout.  His partner in crime is Tia Carrere’s Juno Skinner, a slight femme fatale that catches Harry’s attention early on.  Surely, Carrere has never been a great actress, but she does quite good work under Cameron’s direction being charming and alluring when necessary as well as cutthroat and vile when the facades are dropped.

In some smaller roles, you’ve got Charlton Heston in a solid, brief appearance as the head of Omega Sector baring a nasty scar and eye patch.  This sort of shows that True Lies is not taking itself too seriously.  It’s allowing a little satire and jokiness to seep into the flavor of the picture.  Also, Eliza Dushku appears in an early role as Dana Tasker, Harry and Helen’s daughter, and she does a great job showcasing a lot of tough attitude and dimension she would come to be known for.  Everyone in this cast really does a fine, respectable job with Cameron’s material.  It’s both a fact of good casting and solid directing.

This was James Cameron’s follow-up to Terminator 2 after he took a few years off, and in that time, visual effects continued to evolve a little.  Largely, the digital effects work is very subtle not requiring anything so innovative as a liquid metal cyborg assassin.  Yet, it’s interesting to see that today, you’d like see those Harrier fighter jets done mostly as CGI in most shots, but here, we get the real thing on film and it looks exponentially superior to any digital effect.   The green screen shots are about as good as they get, and Cameron uses as many practical elements to give the action set pieces a very realistic weight.  This is just how digital effects should be used – to aid and enhance the practicals in addition to achieving what little practicals cannot achieve.  The use of practical effects adds more realistic weight to everything that I immensely appreciate.

True Lies is a very entertaining film with a fun mixture of concepts that is much lighter than your typical James Cameron fare.  I think every idea he had here is solid and when it clicks, it excels beyond expectations.  That is essentially the action-centric plot aspects, and while the humor is greatly well done, it dragged down the middle of the film.  I honestly feel that humor works best when it’s snappy, sharp, and punctuated correctly.  The comedy segments of True Lies are drawn out too long, and diverge the film away from its more exciting aspects.  I believe the script could have been tightened up in that second act by shortening some of these sequences, and resulting in a sharper and more to the point second act.  I do like the idea of showing the light-hearted suburban home life of this international secret agent, and the fun marital twists and turns that Harry and Helen take.  However, I feel the film eventually forgets to meld its ideas together for a long period, and diverges away from the action film aspects for too long.  Just when the secret agent plot was getting interesting and truly exciting, it ditches it for a good half an hour.

Regardless, I would still recommend True Lies.  As I said, the action sequences are spectacular on every level showcasing the best of what Arnold can do, and demonstrating that James Cameron is one of the best directors of action out there.  His dynamic visual style is wonderfully realized by Russell Carpenter’s exceptional cinematography.  He didn’t work with Cameron on any other picture, but that would be hard to tell because the film has all of Cameron’s visual signatures.  The blue, moody tones and great camera work with excellent close-up shots and push-ins all punctuate what you expect from James Cameron, and Carpenter truly hits it all dead on the mark.  There is plenty of entertainment value to gain from True Lies, but even despite the R rating, it’s fairly light on graphic violence.  So, in a way it appears more tame than previous Cameron or Schwarzenegger action films, but for the lighter tone used here, it seems more appropriate.  As I said, I feel the film could benefit greatly from a tightening up of its humor, or at least, allow the secret agent action plot and the family life comedy to interweave in that second act.  As it stands, the film veers off track for a good thirty minutes in the middle, and doesn’t get back on track until the terrorists burst back into the film in a rather unexplained fashion.  It’s all good stuff from start to finish, but I just feel it would have worked better in a tighter package.

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A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)

Nightmare on Elm Street 2010When I see the name Platinum Dunes attached to a horror remake, I hang my head in a wholly disheartened state.  While I did enjoy their remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre on its own merits, everything after that has been stuck in the mud sinking further and further into uninspired junk.  I’ve given them fair chances, but they have failed in such colossal ways.  The final nail in the coffin was this remake of A Nightmare On Elm Street.  A cluttered, drab, plodding mess is what this film turned out to be, and even not comparing it to Wes Craven’s original classic, it’s still a poorly executed film.

Five teenage friends living on one street all dream of a sinister man with a disfigured face, a frightening voice and a gardener’s glove with knives for fingers.  One by one, he terrorizes them within their dreams – where the rules are his and the only way out is to wake up.  But when one among them dies, they soon realize that what happens in their dreams happens for real and the only way to stay alive is to stay awake.  Buried in their past is a secret that has just begun to be revealed.  To save themselves, they must plunge into the mind of the most twisted nightmare of all: Freddy Krueger

Okay, remaking A Nightmare On Elm Street is not an outright terrible idea.  There are certainly ways to expand upon the original idea, enhance the effects, and execute it with a new, yet still effective style.  Surely, a sequel could just as easily do the same, but for whatever reason, despite the massive success that was Freddy vs. Jason and the fact that Robert Englund could easily reprise his iconic role, New Line Cinema chose to just remake the original.  However, no one involved in this film did anything to make this a film worth making.  I think it’s easier for a franchise to recover from a bad sequel than a bad remake.  With a bad sequel, you still have better moments in continuity and filmmaking efforts to build upon, and if the sequel is bad enough, like Highlander II bad, you can disassociate it from continuity.  A bad remake stops progress dead in its tracks because the beginning of this new continuity is not well received, fans don’t like the direction the property was rebooted into, and the general fan base doesn’t want to see more of it.  There’s next to nowhere to go, and that’s why you rarely see sequels to remakes.

Jackie Earle Haley is an excellent actor, and I have very much enjoyed him in a couple of roles.  There was a potential for him to deliver something impressive and unique here.  There are a few things he does that were new and original in terms of mannerisms.  However, by no fault of his own, neither the script nor director gave him anything worthwhile to sink his talent into.  Krueger is poorly developed as the filmmakers try to take him in a different direction, but the entire premise backfires in such a sloppy, brain dead way.  Trying to suggest that Krueger was wrongfully accused and unjustly murdered could work under more talented screenwriters and filmmakers, but it’s just handled stupidly and with no forethought.  However, the biggest issue, for me, was that Haley was too recognizable even under that very good make-up job.  When I saw this theatrically, I had just seen Haley regularly on the Fox television series Human Target, and so, his face was very familiar to me.  Even the voice he uses is essentially that of Rorschach from Watchmen with a slur.  It feels like a half thought out package, at best, which is an accurate blanket statement for this entire movie.

A problem arises with the performances by its young leads.  This film does quite a good job accurately portraying sleep deprivation with people being frayed, exhausted, drowsy, and essentially very drained of energy.  Unfortunately, that also creates a set of performances that are drab, lifeless, and generally disinteresting.  The thing is, in none of the previous Elm Street movies did I ever have a problem with the actors actually putting energy into their performances when they were meant to be sleep deprived.  For one, the make-up department did their jobs in weathering the young actors to look the part, much the same is done here, but secondly, energy and conviction are exactly what are needed to make these performances not just good but engaging.

Honestly, I don’t even think the lackluster acting is the fault of the cast.  There are some very strong talents here such as Rooney Mara as the film’s lead Nancy Holbrook and Thomas Dekker, who I know well from the Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles TV series.  I think the blame is entirely in the hands of director Samuel Bayer.  My point of proof here is Clancy Brown.  Let’s put The Kurgan aside.  Go watch Kathryn Bigelow’s Blue Steel, and you will see a charismatic, lively, and excellent performance by Brown in a very grounded role.  The main difference is that’s Kathryn Bigelow, an Academy Award winning director who has done increasingly incredible work over the years.  Samuel Bayer is making his feature film directorial debut here after almost two decades of directing nothing but music videos.  This movie does look fantastic, but beyond the great visuals, there is nothing here that impresses at all.  That’s what I keep seeing from all of these Platinum Dunes directors – movies that have excellent visuals and polished cinematography, but are very hollow, uninspired, and unimaginative.  Music video directors know how to make a good looking product, but have next to no experience working with actors to craft anything more than superficial performances.  Surely, sometimes you get a Russell Mulcahy or David Fincher, but there are far more directors like Samuel Bayer and Jonathan Liebesman that come around who just have little to no talent working with actors and drawing out a strong performance from them.  They are good visual storytellers, to a degree, but lack the multi-facetted skills required to be a full-fledged filmmaker.

I think the biggest shortfall of this film is the lack of genuine suspense and tension.  I was only afraid of another jump scare coming out of nowhere, and frankly, it kept me too on guard.  I kept bracing myself for another cheap scare.  This film just throws jump scare after jump scare after jump scare at you.  It takes no talent or skill to have someone jump out of the shadows with a loud musical stinger behind it.  It’s cheap and worthless.  And some of the gags are so blatantly setup that I called them before they even happened.  The result of all this is the fact that Freddy doesn’t feel built up enough.   He’s not a looming figure screwing around with you making you squirm.   He’s the boogeyman jumping out at the shadows every chance he gets like a kid on Halloween, and that’s simply a hollow, go-nowhere idea that shows the difference between a blunt, shallow filmmaker and someone like Wes Craven or James Wan who knows how to build up atmosphere, tension, suspense, and manipulate the nuanced aspects of a film to truly scare you.

Aside from the respectable, moody cinematography, I will give credit to the film in that the tone is kept serious.  There is no camp humor or jokey qualities to it.  The filmmakers try to keep it very solid, focused, and dramatic.  Sadly, the skill of the filmmakers is too thin to hold the weight that the film should have.  The entire film does feel like a product designed to grab dollars and be forgotten.  There is no artistic passion behind any of it, and the quality of the story suffers for it.

As I said in a previous Elm Street movie review, I do applaud that the various filmmakers always tried to introduce new, fresh ideas into the franchise, and never just laid back on carbon copy sequels.  The downside is that the new ideas haven’t always worked, and the entire plot of misdirection regarding Krueger’s possible wrongfully accused back story is poorly handled.  The way Krueger acts throughout the picture doesn’t lend credence to a man who was dealt a grave injustice, but an evil, sadistic man who enjoys torturing and slaughtering people.  All the while, our lead characters are running around trying to unravel a mystery that ends up being a red herring, and thus, it was all just a giant waste of the audience’s time and attention.  The idea is not executed well to misdirect an audience, and there is ultimately no pay-off for it, regardless.  Not to mention, it’s an extreme plot contrivance that every single one of these kids blocked out the memory of Fred Krueger and their time at that school.  So, it was a potentially interesting idea, but with how short-sighted every idea is in this film, it had no hope of actually developing into anything close to its potential.  That is another easy, blanket statement to apply to everything in this film.

The visual effects of this remake are really not very good.  For one, there’s no excuse whatsoever for CGI blood in an A Nightmare on Elm Street movie.  NONE!  It looks cheap and unconvincing.  There are a number of effects here that are passable, but the bad stuff really just jumps out at you.  Also, this movie proves that a simple practical effect and some artistic vision trumps digital effects.  The scene of Krueger pushing through the wall, which was achieved in the original with Robert Englund literally pushing himself against a latex wall above Heather Langenkamp, looks like flat, uninspired garbage in this film as a digital effect that seems like a leftover from The Frighteners.  And on a similar level is Platinum Dunes’ regular composer Steve Jablonski’s score.  Where Charles Bernstein’s score for the original was fresh and inspired with a perfect nursery rhyme style theme, Jablonski’s score is forgettable and entirely typical.  The original Elm Street theme appears only once, and that is when the film’s title card slams onto the screen.  It’s never heard again, and once again shows how little reverence these filmmakers had for the property they were dealing with.

And while the supporting cast is decently well acted, no one stands out.  No one really takes the stage and defines themselves apart from anyone else.  I do think it was a poor decision to not have a John Saxon style character here.  A mature adult character with compassion and a level head who could carry substantial weight with him.  Yes, there are actors here with that capability, but the writing and directing take no advantage of the talents that it does have to make these characters anything but mediocre, drab, and shallow.  The whole film does feel like it’s playing it a little too safe, including the acting.  If they pushed the boundaries further, maybe it would be more engaging and potentially scary.  Craven’s original film did things that were original, new, and innovative.  This remake just comes off as a tired, passionless piece of merchandise.

Quite frankly, there was no one trying on this film.  They followed the script like a blueprint and just created a film as flat as the paper that script was printed on.  One of Platinum Dunes’ big problems is that they keep getting music video directors who have no experience with a script, actors, or crafting scenes, only in creating a three minute long marketable image for a band.  They really need to get a real director who knows how to create an engaging ninety minute story with dimensional characters and coherent plotting.  Not to mention, a filmmaker who can actually make a suspenseful, scary horror film.