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.

 

Advertisements

EAGLE EYE

Eagle Eye landed in movie theaters after a big advertising push. Produced by Steven Spielberg, the movie stars Shia LaBeouf, Michelle Monaghan, Rosario Dawson, Michael Chiklis, and Billy Bob Thornton in the key roles. I loved the teasers and trailers I saw, and my appetite was thoroughly whetted for an action/adventure romp.

When the movie opened up with a Middle East terrorist operation, I knew the show wasn’t going to stay out of politics and that bothered me somewhat. Given everything that’s going on in the news at present, I really wanted a respite from politics and the twins, doom and gloom.

Once Jerry Shaw (Shia LaBeouf) was onscreen, the tone took a definite change. I relaxed a little as we got into Jerry’s life, and that became a landslide of change when he’s notified of his twin brother’s death. In just a few short moments more, the game was in play. Jerry gets framed for being a terrorist in a way that forcibly made you check disbelief at the door. The first incredible thing, to me, was that he opened all the boxes containing weapons and military intelligence information. After the first one, I would have been out the door. I wouldn’t have needed the creepy voice on the phone.

Unfortunately, Jerry’s instincts are hampered by the script, which says that he’s supposed to stand around there and get caught by Homeland Security. The second incredible thing to me is that Jerry’s connection to his dead brother and the top secret project he was working on didn’t immediately trigger a lot of red flags throughout the intelligence community.

LaBeouf really pulls off the character, though. Jerry felt real, a desperate slacker blindsided by something far beyond his comprehension. Michelle Monaghan plays Rachel Holloman, a single mother, who gets trapped in the same web of deceit and double-cross that has snared Jerry.

After the opening acts have played out, I started grooving on the movie. It feels very Hitchcockian, and I was reminded again and again of North by Northwest, including the attack plane pursuit. I love movies with lots of action, layers, and duplicity that keep me guessing throughout. Eagle Eye did precisely that.

I loved the escalating chase and the unknowable stakes involved. Billy Bob Thornton plays Special Agent Tom Morgan and provides a lot of tough guy lines perfectly. He won me over immediately and ratcheted up the suspense by being so good and so dogged at his pursuit. Rosario Dawson portrays Air Force Office of Special Operations Special Agent Zoe Perez as his counterpart in the USAF. Both of them have limited time onscreen, but they deliver solid performances that keep the movie spinning like a top.

I had a blast during the movie, but a lot of it went through very familiar moves. There’s nothing in Eagle Eye that hasn’t been seen before, but it’s solid entertainment and the kind of story that I love watching. The special effects and stunt crews obviously had a great time putting this movie together, because there didn’t seem to be anything that didn’t get wrecked, shot, or “blowed up real good.”

One stumbling block, for me, was the final scene of the movie. It just felt like a Band-Aid, something that Hollywood insisted on sticking in to hint at a romance. The story was tight enough that it didn’t need the romance. The final scene in North by Northwest works because the story lent itself to that subplot. This one just doesn’t work and felt false.

I forgive the movie its political overtones and undisguised President bashing because it was fun. If you’re going to get irritated over either of those issues, I’d suggest passing this one up. But if you want an actioner with heart, plenty of tech-paranoia, and solid characters doing what they’re supposed to do, Eagle Eye is fun, fast-paced, and entertaining.

 

 

 

 

 

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?

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.