RIGHTEOUS KILL

I’ve been waiting for Robert De Niro and Al Pacino to do a movie together forever. Now I’m waiting for them to do a good one.

I know, that sounds kind of harsh, but after plunking down the bucks and spends months in happy expectation, I’m owed a sour grape or two on this review. That feeling doesn’t come from the acting. Both of them are as good as it gets, at the top of their respective games. But both of them get measured by the material they waded into.

I liked the initial scenes of them working a case together when a child killer gets off and De Niro decides to frame him for another murder. That plot point comes directly from the noir genre, when the good guy does a bad thing even though it’s for a good reason. That one small act sets up the ramifications that are to come.

If De Niro and Pacino weren’t involved in this movie, I don’t think audiences would have paid much attention. The trailers all paint it to be a serial killer movie where the serial killer is a cop. In fact, I was surprised to see the script take so long to develop that idea.

However, there is a big conceit in the film that sets up a nice twist (although I had it figured out before we got there, though – admittedly there were some curves along the way). Unfortunately, that twist also prevents me from talking about parts of the movie, the good and the bad.

The movie plays with time a lot, going back and forth with things as it escalates the action and builds suspense. De Niro and Pacino bring their respective characters to life almost effortlessly, and they play off each other well. However, the plot is almost a cookie-cutter serial killer movie that I’ve seen time after time. Even De Niro and Pacino couldn’t remove that miasma of familiarity.

One of the more stellar arcs of the movie is the enmity expressed between the two homicide teams vying for the lead on the murders. John Leguizamo and Donnie Wahlberg deliver understated yet believable performances as the rival detective team.

Carla Gugino, beautiful as ever, portrays a hard-nosed forensic cop involved with De Niro’s character. I had really mixed feelings about her character, but I think I was supposed to have those. Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson played a gang banger leader that became interwoven in the plot. Brian Dennehy was the crotchety boss that’s in every crime flick, leaning on the heroes and threatening to pull them off the case.

The city shots and action in the streets was well done. I felt like I was out there with them, running through alleys, and surrounded by cavernous buildings.

However, the murders and the notes accompanying them just felt like retreads. Playing with the time, shooting back and forth between the past and the present, helped off-set some of the plodding nature of the investigation, but not by much.

I enjoyed watching De Niro and Pacino. I always do. But they just needed something stronger to do in this movie than what they had. When the final frames played through, with the terribly predictable ending after all the secrets had been revealed, I felt robbed in a way. I got De Niro and Pacino, but I didn’t get the movie that I was led to believe would be delivered.

If you missed it in the theaters, the movie will be a good DVD rental. I’ll pick up a copy for nostalgia and watch it again when I’m not feeling so critical, but I don’t think I’ll change my opinion about the package.

 

UNTRACEABLE

I watched the trailers for Untraceable with great interest and figured I’d go see it at the theater. I’m a sucker for the techno thriller involving computers and hacking.

Instead, life got in the way, then it was gone faster than I thought it would be. But the images of the action remained in my mind. When I saw it was coming out on DVD, I figured I’d pick it up. I even popped the extra bucks for a Blu-ray edition because that’s become my format of choice.

Diane Lane plays an FBI cybercrimes special agent, Jennifer Marsh. She discovers a website called killwithme.com and the violent sociopath driving it. She’s recently widowed, has a small child, and is definitely a candidate for a romantic subplot. However, that would have slowed the plot down and been a distraction.

Instead, the movie focuses on two issues that are made clear throughout the story. As a society, cyber technology has made our lives easier, but it has also made us much more vulnerable to anyone that knows how to turn that technology against us. The movie clearly shows that most people don’t know what they’re doing when they buy a new piece of software or download something off the internet.

The second message is a lot darker. Cyber technology has made voyeuristic vampires of a large segment of the population. Everyone wants to tune into some sort of “personal” website when they’re one of a select “few.” And they want to do it from the safety of their own homes.

I hope that the movie misrepresents how many people would tune in to watch someone get murdered, but I may be naïve. But in the movie, that cascade of viewers ends up being a load that invariably kills the bad guy’s victims faster and faster.

With the movie pared down to move and counter-move, a series of escalating losses as the FBI team closes in, Untraceable speeds along at a nice clip. In the movie theaters, savvy technocrats might not have been able to question as much of the killer’s computer abilities as I was. I watched the film with my wife and we paused it at certain intervals to make sure we were both registering the same information. Then we pointed out the plot holes to each other in the computer tech as well as the characters’ action.

The movie works well as a barn-burner, the action gets faster and faster, and the stakes spiral upward at an alarming rate. I’m glad the decision was made not to use Marsh’s daughter and mother against her, but I fully expected them to be used as bait. In fact, they were so much onscreen that I was almost ticked that they weren’t used in this fashion. At the end, when they promptly vanished to safety, I was irritated that I’d been distracted by the whole foreshadowing of the family-in-danger plot twist.

Still, I was emotionally involved to a degree as the characters pursued their target, and I was constantly trying to figure out how all the deaths tied together. When the reconstruction of what had happened – and why – came about, it was almost handed off to the audience in basically a memorandum sequence. And once the series of events was given a logical progression, the killer promptly broke his motivation for killing the people he chose.

The movie made sense, and then it didn’t. Untraceable is highly watchable, and the messages it carries are worthwhile, but in the end the film comes up short of making a lasting impression. Even the final scenes seems to be by rote and the fade to black is jarring, not smooth.

The Blu-ray disc comes with special features that include audio commentary by Director Gregory Hoblit, Producer Hawk Koch, and Production Designer Paul Eads. It’s worth listening to in order to see how they dealt with the different decisions of filming. The behind-the-scenes featurettes are interesting. But the real kicker is the exclusive to the Blu-ray experience, the Picture-in-Picture presentation that runs concurrently with the move. This is just another example of all this emerging technology at work. Who simply watches a home movie anymore when there are all those extras to play with as well?

GET SMART

I wasn’t a big fan of Get Smart when Don Adams starred as Maxwell Smart in the television series. I enjoyed it a lot, but I was more into serious spying, as with James Bond and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.. Mel Brooks and Buck Henry enjoyed their take on spydom and the recent big-screen treatment takes a lot from that treatment.

I also have to admit that I’m new to Steve Carell. I haven’t seen any of the episodes of The Office yet, though everyone I know treats me like I just kicked their dog when I mention this. I saw him in Evan Almighty and was really impressed with how he managed several saving graces during a movie that just didn’t come together the way it should have. Carell’s performances and everyday demeanor just really appealed to me.

With the summer upon us, I’ve tried to take my wife and son out to the theater once a week. We’ve got a new Warren Theater in town and I’m trying to patronize it because it is so good. When we saw Get Smart was releasing, we figured we’d go see it, but we weren’t in any hurry to. My wife and I had both seen the television series, and my ten year old has lately developed a love of spy movies.

Director Peter Segal has a history of comedic movie successes and definitely kept the original series in mind when he made the movie. However, the character of Maxwell Smart stands out as capable as well as socially inadequate. I was surprised to see Smart in action, proving himself to be a great shot as well as good in a fight. I didn’t expect that and it made the movie even more enjoyable. The first shooting range exercise with Smart and Agent 23 (Dwayne Johnson) caught me off-guard. From then on, I paid more attention because I knew things weren’t going to be exactly as I remembered.

From the beginning of the film, with all the security doors opening and closing ponderously, and with the phone booth waiting at the end, the movie feels incredibly like an episode of the television series. When Smart was revealed to be an analyst, that underscored the pedantic way his character always delivered his lines and the way his mind worked while building subterfuges. It was a refreshing “origin” story in that respect.

Anne Hathaway as Agent 99 is sexy, provocative, and violent, as much a perfect foil for Steve Carell’s Maxwell Smart as Barbara Feldon was to Don Adams. She looked absolutely lovely and was excellent in the role.

Dwayne Johnson stars as smug, self-assured Agent 23, but he’s supportive of Maxwell Smart’s promotion to a field agent. He’s got an ease for bringing larger-than-life characters to movie screens that seems almost innate for him.

Alan Arkin as the Chief was simply inspired. I was laughing constantly whenever he was involved. Arkin’s pitch-perfect delivery of his lines and the way his voice naturally is works well together. I didn’t think anyone would replace Edward Platt as the original Chief from the series, and in truth Arkin hasn’t, but he comes close. His interpretation of the character was great but still different than Platt’s.

The plot, while not terribly original – since it menaces L. A. with yet another nuclear device, serves to hold the story together. Maxwell Smart saving the world in his own inimitable style is what the film is all about, and it delivers everything the trailers promise.

But the goodness doesn’t end there. Bruce and Lloyd, two of the nerdy agents in the movie, also have a direct-to-DVD solo adventure that’s out in stores now. Get Smart’s Bruce and Lloyd Out of Control is an adventure actually sandwiched during the same time frame as the movie. Sort of a meanwhile-back-at-the-ranch spin-off that looks great. Masi Oka (Heroes) and Nate Torrence (Capital One commercials) play the title heroes. Patrick Warburton (Rules of Engagement) plays Hymie the Robot.

Get Smart is a must-see summer movie. Take the family because this one has something for everybody.

 

INTELLIGENCE

With the writers’ strike going on in the United States, viewers started looking for other shows to replace the plethora of reruns that plagued the evening/weekend viewing landscape. BBC shows got picked up for early American runs as well as being brought over for the first time. I ended up watching a lot of new shows myself, which makes viewing time even more complicated because now I’m trying to watch even more television than ever.

I’m thankful for the DVD market. It keeps me sane and makes DVR choices easier now that new shows are airing again. My home television library is burgeoning, though. With so much television hitting the entertainment shelves, I know I appreciate it when someone points out a winner to me, so I wanted to address Intelligence, a Canadian cop show with ongoing stories.

The other big market that’s pushed into the United States belongs to Canada. As it turns out, Canadian TV (where a lot of successful American shows are being shot) is capable of producing slickly made crime and science fiction shows.

Intelligence is part of the cream of the crop. The movie pilot came out in November 2005 and the regular series was slotted for 13 episodes a year thereafter. The show ran for two years and was cancelled in March of 2008, leaving a lot of unhappy fans behind.

An ensemble show of cops and criminals forced into collusion against the world terrorist threat, Intelligence, offered some of the best human relationships that BBC’s Spooks (called MI5 in the United States) and twisting setbacks that 24 can offer. I’ve only watched the first season and will be picking up the second, but I can’t believe Canadian Broadcasting made the decision to axe this show. It had everything a crime/drama television fan could want. Star Trek’s franchise shows didn’t have anything on the plot potential and constant, threatened realignment of main characters that Intelligence had working for it.

The kernel of the story revolves around the Canadian Security Intelligence Service’s decision to recruit informants within criminal branches to keep an eye on possible terrorist threat. This is the perfect setting for uneasy alliances, treachery, and sudden violence. I thought it was the perfect television formula, like when Jack Bauer has to use sources outside government agencies or when the Federation first started teaming up with the Klingons.

The two principle characters are Mary Spaulding (Klea Scott), the director of the CSIS’s Asian Pacific Region. She’s hardworking and loyal, a woman in dangerous territory because she’s dealing with people who take care of their own interests first. Not only that, but her immediate second, Ted Altman (Matt Frewer in a totally cold and menacing role), would cut her throat immediately in order to get her position. Spaulding comes from a long line of military-oriented people, though, and she’s extremely bright and capable, and willing to make an on-the-fly decision when the wheels come off of an operation. Her personal life is a mess, though, but that’s what endeared her to me.

On the flip side of the coin, Jimmy Reardon (Ian Tracey) is a career criminal. His hands are dirty and bloody. Reardon is a fair-minded man for a crook and has his own code of honor. But he will also kill anyone or destroy anything that menaces his family. But, as it turns out, his family is also his Achilles’ heel. His brother Michael is a drug user that just can’t quite kick the habit. His ex-wife Francine is also a coke user and falls off into the deep end on a regular basis. There’s also a lot of friction with Jimmy’s business partner, Ronnie, who gets increasingly unhappy with the deal Jimmy’s struck with the police. Jimmy feels like the real deal to me. He’s quick and vicious when he needs to be, but he takes his time when he can. I think his character is deep and layered, and I really love watching him get squeezed by family, the police, or the other gangs trying to take over his turf.

The ensemble cast provides a constant draw that I enjoy a lot. The odds and alliances continually shift throughout this first season. Spaulding and Reardon end up having to depend on each other during times when each comes under fire, but they don’t trust each other, and they resent the fact that they need each other. I like the fact that both of them are plagued by family problems because it gives them common ground to play on and earn my sympathies.

As this first season progresses, Reardon has to fight through family problems as well as increasing opposition from a local motorcycle gang (the Disciples) that is trying to take over his drug business. Spaulding continually gets whipsawed by CSIS as well as Altman and other police agents that don’t like her or want her out of the way because they don’t like her because she’s a woman.

One of the amusing things for me as an American was the presentation of American intelligence agencies and the DEA being presented in a somewhat negative light. We like to think of ourselves as superheroes out to rid the world of evil. We often forget that outside of our country we’re often viewed as interfering busybodies or opportunists.

If you haven’t seen or heard of Intelligence, the first season is out on DVD now. Hopefully the second season will be along soon. If you want a smart, savvy show, Intelligence fits the bill quite nicely and will deliver hours of viewing pleasure.

RADIOLAND MURDERS

Radioland Murders is one of my favorite movies to put in when I’ve had a hard week and want to go brain-dead with something familiar. My love of Old Time Radio probably spurs this on because the movie is set there with love by George Lucas and his people.

I’m too young to have been around for OTR (as it’s referred to these days), but I learned to love it all the same. The Shadow, The Lone Ranger, The Green Hornet, and dozens of other shows that later became movies and television series came out of those years.

I still listen to episodes in my car and get carried away by Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in Bold Venture. There’s just something magical about radio because you have to create so much of the world and the characters in your mind.

That’s the way it is with this movie. It’s got the rapid-fire dialogue and insane pacing of a radio show. There’s no spare meat on the story, and throw-away lines are used over and over again to tie the events together. Even old jokes that are groaners materialize on the sets and it’s marvelous to see them carried out again.

The conceit of the story is that a series of murders are committed on the opening night of a brand-new radio station, WBN, in 1939. A husband and wife whose relationship is struggling because of a possible infidelity is caught in the crossfire.

Brian Benben plays Roger, the head writer for the studio, and delivers a great performance. His walk, his mannerism, his wild-eyed stares, and even his delivery were rooted in Groucho Marx’s insane, quick-witted characters. I’ve seen him in other things, but I’m still amazed at how well he pulls the role off.

Mary Stuart Masterson play Penny, the girl Friday that the studio desperately needs to keep everything moving smoothly. Not that it does. But watching Penny desperately trying to keep the ship from sinking while dealing with Roger and the murders is a treat.

The other characters run the gamut. Ned Betty plays the studio owner who runs the place like a military commander. Corbin Bernsen plays the smarmy announcer. Christopher Lloyd portrays an intense, over-the-top sound man that’s a sheer joy to watch. Michael Lerner delivers and outstanding hardboiled Hollywood cop. Michael McKean is a hilarious band director.

The film didn’t do all that well at the box office, but I love it because it plays homage to OTR and because I love movies that have dialogue instead of just being pieces glued together with the latest Top 40. Maybe the dialogue isn’t all that original or especially funny to someone not in the mood or who hasn’t developed a taste for it, but for those of use that have, it’s a perfect gem of a film.

Topping off the film, the music is great, running the gamut of the big band era, and sounds fantastic. If you’re in the mood for a no-brainer, something that’s a delightfully thin mix of comedy, mystery, and thriller, Radioland Murders will provide a couple hours’ entertainment.

NIGHT MOVES

I’m a big fan of private eye movies and television series. I’m glad The Rockford Files is finally coming out on DVD, but I’m still waiting for Marlowe, starring James Garner and Bruce Lee.

However, I don’t have an excuse for not having already seen Night Moves. It’s been out for over thirty years, and I bought the DVD a year ago. I did finally get around to watching it, though, and it was as good as I’d hoped it would be.

The story is pure 1970s, as evidenced by the cars, clothing, and some of the language. But it also tells a timeless story of confusion and betrayal, and the layers of secrets that add to those.

Gene Hackman stars as Harry Moseby, an ex-football player rather than an ex-cop. Moseby has been broken down by family problems and the loss of his career, and seems to be barely hanging onto life by a thread. Only the occasional missing persons case appears to keep him financially afloat and emotionally anchored.

Hackman has always been a personal favorite of mine. He can pull off any kind of role and look good doing it, even if the film is total cheese. He’s just a guy I look at and immediately respect. His everyman stance and his charm just oozes from every pore. As Moseby, he was a well-known football hero, and a lot of his friends still see him as a standup guy, but he doesn’t let anyone in too close.

Unfortunately, that same inability for closeness is what ultimately undermines his relationship with his wife, Ellen (Susan Clark). When he first gets handed the case of the little runaway rich girl, Moseby isn’t too interested. Then he catches his wife cheating on him and tries to lose himself in the investigation.

I liked the way the movie dovetailed back into the movie industry the way some of the old 1940s movies did. Some of the best cinematic detectives have their roots in the twisted and sordid tales that came out of Hollywood. This one has stuntmen and used up actors to season the tale, and it adds more credibility to it.

The Florida footage on the case was extremely well done as well. Director Arthur Penn (Litte Big Man, Bonnie and Clyde) manages the Hollywood and LA scenes well, then zips the viewer down for a peak at what was then Travis McGee’s tramping grounds as John D. MacDonald wrote his adventures. I liked the rough and tumble atmosphere of the land, the characters, and the twists and turns the plot took while down there. Jennifer Warren plays femme fatale Paula in a haunting and sexy scene.

Some of the most fun was watching a very young James Woods and Melanie Griffith taking their places on the stage. Woods hasn’t changed much, but his presence on the screen is intense these days. He’s another one of my favorites. Melanie Griffith, young and hot and nude in several scenes, just burns up the celluloid.

I really enjoyed Hackman’s work in this movie. As I said, I own it and intend to watch it again. I’d really advise picking up Twilight, with Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon, James Garner, and Hackman to really round out a double feature private eye/noir night. Hollywood seldom makes films like these any more and it’s a shame.

NANCY DREW

Nancy Drew is one of those iconic heroes kids who read tend to grow up with. I know I shared several of her adventures (read on the sly because I’m a guy) when I was younger. I read the Hardy Boys out in the public eye, along with the adventures of Tom Swift, Jr., Ken Holt, and Rick Brant.

But Nancy’s adventures were always somehow more mysterious and more fun. They concentrated on the twists and the turns of the mystery, and the secrets of the suspects that Nancy had to ferret out. Although created by the Edward Stratemeyer Syndicate (as were the Hardy Boys, the Rover Boys, Tom Swift, Sr. and Jr., and the Dana Girls), most of Nancy’s adventures were penned by Mildred Wirt Benson. Benson wrote some of the best Nancy Drew mysteries ever printed (23 of the first 25).

The first books came out in 1930, and movies swiftly followed due to public familiarity and interest in seeing the character on the big screen. Four Nancy Drew movies appeared in the late 1930s. In the 1970s, a television series starring Pamela Sue Martin as Nancy Drew came out. The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries became a hit and ran from 1977 to 1979. Television tried Nancy Drew as a series again in 1995, and a made-for-tv movie with Nancy in college came out in 2002.

Nancy Drew remains a solid sales force in video games. Based on her book adventures, the video games offer players a chance to point and click clues to solve mysteries. So far, 19 video games have come out from Her Interactive Inc. A new game was also made for the Nintendo DS game system.

Making a new movie about Nancy Drew seems almost a no-brainer. Warner Bros., the original studio that made Nancy Drew movies, returned to bring the new movie to life.

Directed by Andrew Fleming, the film is a delight for family night. Instead of having Nancy in her element in her hometown, she’s thrown into wild and wooly Los Angeles where she’s a fish out of water. She keeps a lot of the old-fashioned sense and sensibility from the original series, which makes her seem like a goof in modern times, and I have to admit that I wasn’t entirely won over by the treatment. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the sheer likeability of young Emma Roberts (father Eric Roberts and aunt Julia), I wouldn’t have bought into the representation of Nancy.

What I ultimately ended up doing is filing away my preconceived imaginings of Nancy Drew and embracing this version. I no longer thought of her as the Nancy Drew I grew up with, but more like a granddaughter of the original series heroine who hasn’t quite come into her own yet.

The Nancy Drew in this film isn’t quite finished, but I loved the pluck and drive of Miss Roberts’s presentation and thought she was fabulous.

There’s actually a lot going on in the film. I think that too much of it actually extends beyond the scope of the mystery and that made the personal plots as well as the crime solving fall apart at times. We see that Nancy is an overachiever and that she doesn’t fit in with the L. A. girls, but that subplot kind of staggers along till it solves itself (with the arrival of Ned Nickerson – Max Thieriot). Likewise, the mystery gets torn up by Nancy’s efforts to be “normal” and make her dad happy.

I would have preferred the movie focus on the mystery and the subplots to have branched out of that. Still, there were comedic moments provided by those subplots that were enjoyable and made the film move quickly.

Since Nancy got to pick the house that she and her father live at while in L. A., she chose one with a mystery. A Hollywood actress went missing for five months and was later, after her return, found dead in her pool while at her party. The murder was never solved, and that draws Nancy’s sleuth senses into overdrive.

I liked the mysterious clues, the secret passageways, and the riddles and clues that eventually lead Nancy to the solution of the murder. The film contains enough narrow escapes, chases, and threatening phone calls to keep every young detective (and mystery-loving parents) interested.

Josh Flitter plays Corky, a pre-adolescent would-be rapper Lothario that absolutely steals the show at times. He was one of the primary ingredients that kept reminding me this was not the Nancy Drew I grew up with, but I couldn’t help but laugh out loud at his antics. His sense of timing and delivery is awesome, and I’ve just found out he’s going to be in the starring role of Ace Ventura, Jr..

Bruce Willis has an uncredited cameo in the film that’s funny to watch. But, again, it’s one of those things that really detracts from the overall mystery. Nancy’s adventures in the novels, especially the early ones, focused tightly on the pursuit of the solution.

My ten year old had seen Nancy Drew books in the school library, but we haven’t read any of them yet. The movie hooked him and he sat with his mom and me to watch the whole film. He had a blast, so I can recommend this film to parents with kids wholeheartedly because he can be a tough audience.

I had a great time with Nancy Drew, and I think Emma Roberts will win over readers familiar with the teen detective in spite of the differences and escalated humor, and make new fans of kids that haven’t ever seen Nancy in action before.

The special features on the disc are skinny, but worth watching. The cast and crew obviously had a good time filming this one.