Coming Attractions

Processing soon: Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
For fun: Upcoming gear grinder on modern day music in period films and an opinion piece on
actors playing the same person.


Sunday, September 7, 2014

Trilogy Talk: The Transporter

Welcome to my new feature Trilogy Talk. The current concept is to explore film trilogies I have previously not watched or have limited knowledge of. These features are going to mix things up in that they contain an excessive amount of spoilers, so be warned! So, without further ado let's explore The Transporter films!

My recent experience with Luc Besson's latest film Lucy inspired me to explore his filmography. Interestingly enough, and unknown to me until recently, he was one of the main creative forces behind the Transporter series. The series itself is a product of Besson's post 1990s surge of directed films that had put him on a roll and had included Nikita, Leon: The Professional, and The Fifth Element. Ever since the early 2000s, Besson has slowed his directorial career considerably and when he does direct it's at a much smaller exposure. Besson has seen to it that his talents be focused more on writing and producing and in the last fourteen years his resume proves this.

Besson's success rate with critics was considerably higher during his directorial heyday.

Enter The Transporter. For a movie released in 2002, it's interesting how much this looks and feels like a mid-nineties action film. Starring Jason Statham as the main character post his breakout roles in Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, even he has a presence that would have fit in perfectly with 1996's Broken Arrow. The only thing linking this film to "modern action" are the very slick opening credits that are reminiscent of the Bourne series. Oddly enough,  The Bourne Identity was released four months prior to this film and it's strange to think how stuck in the previous decade The Transporter is compared to a film that arguably ushered in the era of post-2000 action flicks.

Which isn't to say that there aren't things to like about The Transporter. The concept itself works rather well and the opening chase scene manages to hold your interest (at least at first). In fact, I found myself intially being reminded of the excellent opening "chase" sequence from 2011's Drive. Statham's character Frank Martin describes himself as being "in a precise business" that of course deals with transport. Transport of "sensitive" goods or bank robbers being mutually inclusive areas of his trade. Jason Statham certainly can't be considered an actor with a wide range, but his casting fits the role well. His dry delivery of his lines fits the character and is particularly effective when he emotionlessly tells the bank heist members that they are one person over the agreed upon amount and that he won't go until one of them goes. However, for a movie that is going to be forced to focus on "transporting" in a car based on its concept alone it could have worked on the choreography.

See the opening titles look like window blinds because he transports stuff and... yeah it's 2002 ok?!

The Transporter is certainly a Besson film through and through, but has the unique distinction of having two people in the directorial chair. This was Louis Leterrier's directorial debut, who clearly was handpicked by Besson given that he was later used numerous times in films linked to Besson as both writer and producer. The secondary director (who has also been billed as "action director") was Corey Yuen which really can only lead to the conclusion that distributor 20th Century Fox wasn't keen to commit unless some more experienced filmmakers were attached to help "guide" Leterrier. Which brings us back to the muddled choreography. The opening chase scene is exciting and manages to keep you interested. The only problem? At no point does it feel like Statham is actually driving the car.

Say what you will about the quick cut problem many people point to when discussing the Bourne films, at least it always feels like Matt Damon is driving during the obligatory (and excellent) chase scenes. Leterrier and Yuen seem to just not understand how to make the car scenes work when cutting from the actual outside shots of the car to the inside view. It's almost as if Leterrier shot the driving scenes while Yuen choreographed the action but they at no point interacted with each other. Whatever the reason, the interior action shots feel oddly disconnected from the driving being shown which is something that you think would be the first thing the filmmakers would want to get right. 

In any case, the opening sequence ends and we are taken to a pretty impressive villa where Statham's character lives. The problems become apparent (both for the character and the film) when a police detective appears at his front door. The detective, played by Francois Berleand, would interestingly enough would go on to reprise his role in Transporter 3 and even Transporter: The Series (which was just recently picked up by TNT to show the first season). Berleand's character is tasked with two purposes in his first scene with Statham: one by showing that he knows Frank Martin and has spoken with him many times and two apparently not knowing him and providing clumsy exposition that gives background on Statham. One of Besson's major issues as a writer is his inability to handle exposition in a consistent way. The detective is used as a mouthpiece to clumsily tell us Statham's character is ex-military, something that we are literally told five more times throughout the remainder of the film in varying degrees of ineptness.

Hey guys its ok! He's ex-military. Remember that time when I told you that Frank?? Do you??

Despite these issues, there is decent writing to be found in The Transporter. In fact, in arguably one of the best early scenes (if not the best period) of the movie, exposition is handled expertly and makes the actual concept of "transporting" an exciting idea again. Had this been the only "expository" scene on the main character's background it would have worked remarkably better, the problem is that since we are again and again given a window into what makes Frank Martin tick any mystery about his character is taken away. By taking out the mystery, we really are left with just a generic James Bond shell of a character for the rest of the movie and start to wonder if maybe the concept of showing over telling is maybe just too difficult of a concept for Besson to grasp (again see Lucy which manages to run into the same problems). 

Eventually, Frank begins his new job when a small package is put in the truck of his car. Turns out the package is a person. Played by Taiwanese actress and model Shu Qi, she manages to pull of her role decently despite it being obvious she hasn't had much experience in English speaking roles. She does no better or worse than any actress put in this situation and I found myself reminded of Tao Okamoto's performance in 2013's The Wolverine. Moving on in the plot, after Statham's character discovers her in the trunk after getting a flat tire it's made clear that he isn't necessarily comfortable with this particular job. He even lets her out to use the restroom after hilariously tying a rope around her neck in order to not let her run away. Of course, she manages to run away and we are treated to a brief and pointless chase scene. Statham then delivers the "package" to the terribly named Darren "Wall Street" Bettencourt who's clearly in the running for the least menacing villain in an action film. 

Wall Street's (ugh.. seriously this is really his name?) introduction is extremely goofy with some very odd undertones. He even gets to have a weird handshake and unfortunately has one of those faces that you immediately want to hit (maybe it's the goatee?). Things aren't helped by the fact that he's given some kind of quasi-southern accent with ridiculous line readings. Case in point: after Frank delivers the package, Wall Street asks/tells him, "You deliver no questions asked." By this point it must be said: Did he not literally just fucking do that for you "Wall Street"?? Is this something that really needed to be said?? Obviously, he just transported something for you... so yes he does it no questions asked. This goes back to clumsy exposition, the annoying insistent focus on telling us the same things over and over about what Frank does and where he came from as if we forgot within the last five minutes is extremely irritating. 

Wait a minute, wait a minute... you're telling me my name is Wall Street? C'mon...

In any event, Statham's character agrees and somewhat reluctantly takes the new package but not before making a pit stop to get an Orangina which is awkwardly shoehorned in a few times via a stupid use of product placement. This is when shit gets real Martin Lawrence, as Frank's car blows up in a spectacular fashion. Clearly, his current employer wasn't happy with his last delivery. This builds us up to the first of many long hand to hand fight scenes that by the end of the film just seem to be shoehorned in as a way to showcase Statham's real life martial arts and kickboxing training. This obvious excuse to include a fighting style is something that feels more at home in a Jean Claude Van Damme action flick from bygone decades, and helps further explain why I feel like this movie is a lost child of the nineties. Look no further than the start of the fight scene where Statham literally kicks down Wall Street's door and proceeds to take out a ridiculous amount of henchman. 

The choice of Transporter's everywhere!

This and the remaining fight scenes of the film rely on the awful conceit of there being a huge mass of baddies that for some reason can only engage Statham one at a time. Again, it's truly amazing that this is a film that was released within months of The Bourne Identity. The Mortal Kombat-esque fighting in Wall Street's mansion culminates with the remaining bad guys coming at Statham with axes, because apparently these guys are all volunteer fireman or perhaps lumberjacks on the side. After all thirty henchmen are taken down, we are treated to Statham finding a new car to transport with from Wall Street's garage. Eventually, we discover that the girl he previously delivered is also in the vehicle after somehow stowing away without being noticed while tied to a chair. This prompts Morgan to slam on the breaks, take her out of the car and seemingly leave her tied to the chair in the middle of the road. 

Which brings us finally to the most frustrating thing of this entire film. From the very start, the soundtrack to this movie is a huge distraction. Featuring some of the most bizarre use of a film score I've ever heard, literally every scene is permeated with beats that just don't work with the onscreen action. This is the most apparent when Statham decides to go back and get the girl after leaving her in the middle of the road. We are treated to a gloriously stupid saxophone filled number that feels more at home on a late night "Skinemax" feature. The fun doesn't stop there, as the entire film is filled with music that at no point fits or is even independently interesting to listen to. This all culminates with a hilariously on the nose credits song that easily surpasses the nightmarish Nickelback theme song Hero "inspired" by Spider-Man in derisive mediocrity. 

The movie then of course needs to frame the interaction between Statham and Shu Qi's characters romantically. This isn't something I have a real problem with considering how easy on the eyes Shu Qi is, however it ends up feeling a little rushed and half baked considering Statham was perfectly willing to leave her to whatever fate she originally had before he was almost blown up. He basically keeps her tied up and her mouth taped shut well after he makes an escape back to his villa. After then essentially giving Qi's character free reign of the house we are then treated to a bizarre series of scenes that take place that next morning that feel more at home in a romantic comedy. Qi's character cooks him breakfast and frames it in the classic "beneath the rough exterior of Frank Martin lies a heart of gold". This sudden change in tone is a little jarring and again feels a little out of place considering the events of the previous day. A few more scenes of building trust between Statham and Qi is noticeably missing and their later romantic encounter just doesn't seem to make much sense. 

The Transporter 4: How Frank Got His Groove Back

Anyway, after being treated to the wily antics of the breakfast scene and yet another confrontation with the interested detective, Statham's house is attacked. Both Qi and Statham of course manage to escape by underwater passage and we are treated to a whimsical underwater diving number that seems like it would fit much better as an extension to 2005's Into the Blue. Eventually, we end up at the detective's office to where we are treated to some computer sleuthing that shows Besson knows as much about computers as a grandmother in 1985. What's funny is that all this sleuthing is completely negated by the fact that the film's "man behind Wall Street's curtain" is Shu Qi's fucking father. Seriously, didn't she think it necessary to mention this.. say I don't know right after Statham's house was destroyed or at any point after they start interacting with one another? Why did we need her to "look up" Wall Street's address when she clearly knows exactly where he is? The most direct answer is likely that the film felt it needed an additional twist, however it's use is just plain moronic. 

Moving on, the rest of the movie feels it's necessary to awkwardly shoehorn in Qi's father and Wall Street as part of some kind of underground kidnapping ring. Which would be fine, but why not just make Qi a self aware victim of these two? It just seems ridiculous to frame it the way it's ultimately shown. Eventually, after Frank is arrested for trespassing at Wall Street's office he ends up bluffing his way out after convincing the detective of his cause. This scene works much better than it should and ends up being one of the few highlights left in the last third of the movie. We then move on to more awkwardly staged fight scenes featuring the kickboxing skills of Jason Statham that reaches it's crescendo with a fight on spilled oil. A scene that I'll let speak for itself, crank that volume for the music!

Coming this summer: Frank Morgan on ice... er oil.

After that clearly forced use of showcasing some Statham skills, we end up being graced with the final chase scene that just as with the other driving bits seems oddly disconnected. Of course, the kidnapping ring ends up being taken down and we have a happy ending all around. This is to be expected and isn't really much of a problem as by this point the movie probably should have ended about twenty minutes prior. 

Clearly, The Transporter is a film of many flaws but this isn't to say that it's not worth watching. Despite all the problems I have with it, I still find it very entertaining to sit through. Statham is a guy that I can keep watching in these types of movies to no end, it's just too bad it couldn't have been handled a little better. The concept clearly works and still manages to draw interest as evidenced by it clearly being an ongoing franchise. Stay tuned for part two to find out if Statham can get his Orangina fix on American shores in Transporter 2.

Bargain Bin Quote: "Computers know everything."

Seriously guys, this is a "song" that exists...

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Lucy

Comparing the subtleties and nuance of Scarlett Johansson's latest starring role and her April 4th release of "Under the Skin" is like the difference between a freight train crashing into a building and a raindrop. Luc Besson, a director perhaps most recently famous for jump starting Liam Neeson's action star career with 2008's "Taken" and his recent slew of "dime-a-dozen" action films, is the director, screenwriter, and producer of "Lucy". Clearly this film is his baby and therein lies the problem.

The film literally opens with one of our earliest human ancestors, who just so happens to have been nicknamed Lucy by contemporary paleontologists (get it?). Clearly Beeson is trying to make the point that this isn't going to be another one of his competent but mostly mediocre action films, he actually is trying to show this movie has something to say. After this brief and basically nonsensical scene (that only has a tenuous callback at the end of the film) we then cut forward to a city in Taiwan with our modern day Lucy. It's quickly established via in your face cutscenes (that actually wreck the movie before it even begins) that Lucy is a party girl. Then, in perhaps one of the most bizarre cinematic choices in recent memory, the entire introductory scene is intercut with shots of a cheetah hunting gazelle on an African savanna. This takes place while Lucy argues with her very recently met boyfriend about delivering a suitcase to the inside of a hotel. If you haven't caught on yet, yes Lucy is the gazelle and her boyfriend the cheetah. Sigh.

Before we even get to the "punchline", it's worth noting just how bad this movie is at delivering exposition and subtext. Lucy's boyfriend literally brings up the fact that one of the first human ancestors was nicknamed Lucy. Because yes, every time I meet someone who's first name happens to be the same as someone or something famous, that's what I want to say to them (and apparently Beeson REALLY wants us to know the first shot was of one of our earliest ancestors). Soon enough you can guess what happens to our "gazelle" and she's forced to deliver the suitcase directly to a penthouse hotel suite. We are then treated to the only set-piece that actually works in this film and feels like it belongs in an entirely different movie.

Seriously guys, the only part of the movie worth watching.

In perhaps one of this years most intriguingly terrifying introduction scenes for a "big bad" since the Mimics in the infinitely better science fiction film "Edge of Tomorrow", actor Choi Min-sik (star of the original 2003 "Oldboy") nonchalantly appearing in an expensive suit wearing blood spattered safety goggles after stepping over bodies in a hotel bathroom is truly chilling. The entire scene with Min-sik's character using a hotel concierge via speakerphone as a translator between himself and Scarlett Johannson shows that despite Beeson's shortcomings in the rest of the film, he really knows how to do tension (and phone calls). Sadly, from this promising point in the movie things only get worse. After Lucy gains her abilities, which really isn't a spoiler for anyone who's viewed even 30 seconds of the massive amount of trailers for this movie on television, we are treated to one of the worst uses of exposition I've ever seen.

Apparently, Beeson thought that merely showing Lucy's abilities and via giant text stating the "percentage" used by her brain at that point in the film (because SUBTEXT) wasn't enough. We also must have her call her mother and say some of the most asinine and bizarre things you can imagine while apparently her mom just "okay sweeties" it. Seriously, what normal mother wouldn't become instantly worried and/or freaked out when their child said "I remember tasting your milk"?? We are then treated to a number of disconnected scenes that more or less serve as a choose your own adventure style of writing where they lack any coherence and apparently don't affect the scenes proceeding or following themselves. I'm looking at you dissolving Scarlett Johansson scene on the airplane. Perhaps the most egregious scene in the garbled mess that is this movie, is the neutering of the only compelling character. By the end of the film, our "big-bad" Choi Min-sik is made so hysterically ineffectual that it would be like if Lex Luthor decided to try to take out Superman in a fistfight without kryptonite. 

The director of this movie has been quoted as saying that this is a film very focused on visuals and that "the beginning is "Leon: The Professional", the middle is "Inception", [and] the end is "2001: A Space Odyssey." A particularly apt quote, if only Beeson actually knew how to apply it to his latest film.

...we don't know anymore than the dog who watches the moon.
  • Great introduction scene of Choi Min-sik's character. This entire bit feels like it's pulled straight out of another movie which is a very good thing.
  • The extremely poor execution of this film did bring some positives to light: namely it reminded me of an excellent short story by Ted Chiang titled "Understand". This is a story that touches on similar concepts explored in "Lucy" albeit in a much more satisfying way. It can be found online here for free.
I remember tasting your milk.
  • The director, producer, and writer of the film could seriously use a lesson in how to use exposition and subtext. This film features some of the most ineffectual uses of it since the latter seasons of Showtime's "Dexter".
  • Was there an actual reason for Morgan Freeman to be in this movie? Seriously, he would have worked just as well as a "disembodied voice". As an aside, Freeman was also in another sci-fi disaster from April. A little film called "Transcendence". Coincidence? I think not!
  • A confusing use of quick cuts between an African savanna and the opening scene is a gimmick that is quickly dumped early on in the film. While this is more or less a good thing it certainly doesn't do us ADHD sufferers any favors.
  • A multitude of story threads are picked up and immediately dropped throughout this movie that lead up to a nut-job ending that's completely unearned. 
  • Taking the only interesting character and pitting him up against someone that can hilariously overpower him pretty much negates any menace he may have shown at the beginning of the film.
  • If you're looking to see a movie chock full of so many ideas that it ends up saying and meaning nothing look no further than "Lucy".
Verdict: An intriguing enough premise ends up being swallowed into an abyss of bad exposition and poor narrative drive. "Lucy" is a movie that tries to cram in everything it can think of, but ends up nowhere. 

Do we really only use 10% of our brain? Check out the video above.

The companion review this week comes from Adam Riske over at F This Movie! (a site that also has an excellent podcast with over 200 episodes). Based on his assessment, I wish this had been the movie I saw. Check out his wildly different take on the film and what I seriously consider to be one of the worst scenes of 2014 here.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Snowpiercer

"Snowpiercer" is a film taking word of mouth by storm. Case in point: not only was I literally told in person by someone else to see this, all you really have to do is go to Google and type "snow" and see what auto-fills. The fact this film was involved in what equates to a temper tantrum thrown by Harvey Weinstein (owner of the North American rights of the movie) that forced it as a limited release (which is an interesting story unto itself), is a testament to just how popular this movie has become.

Directed by South Korean born Bong Joon-ho, "Snowpiercer" is based on the graphic novel "Le Transperceneige" by Jaques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, and Jean-Marc Rochette. The film features one of the more unique settings of science fiction films in that it takes place solely on a train. Indeed, the only other movie of this genre that features a similar setting is the under-appreciated but wildly contrasting "Source Code" from 2011. The basic premise of the film involves an environmental disaster that turned Earth into a frozen wasteland. The only remaining fortress of humanity is an endlessly running train that circles the globe once a year. Featuring a rather ragged looking Chris Evans (of Captain America fame) as the quasi leader of a ragtag group at the tail end of the train, the first quarter of the film is punctuated by a bleak and grimy view suggestive of a POW camp. The plan? Get to the front of the train.

Terminator 5: Off the Rails... er wait Snowpiercer. 

A simple enough premise, but the visual splendor that accompanies you on the journey to the front manages to more than make up for any lacking narrative. So many things come to mind when talking about the visuals: the aquarium car, the greenhouse section, even a functioning night club all serve as a dazzling view into this world. As you may have noticed I tend to avoid plot spoilers in these reviews, but for perhaps the first time giving away too many details about the visuals and action set-pieces seems like ruining the experience. I will say that this is clearly a South Korean film, one scene in particular is strongly reminiscent of a now (in?) famous scene in 2003's "Oldboy" (the original, not the mostly meh American remake). Not surprisingly and as I just discovered this is clearly no accident as "Oldboy" director Park Chan-wook was a producer on "Snowpiercer". The film has abrupt tone changes which works with the flow of the film considering how different each train car is. You'll eventually even find yourself in a scene the seems pulled straight out of a Tarantino film, but somehow it all works amazingly well.

As far as the remaining cast, we have Tilda Swinton as a member of the leadership in the front of the train that has more quirks than a James Bond villain. John Hurt also stars in what serves as his second supporting role this summer (which are perhaps more similar to each other than they appear on the surface) and has a decent performance that gets the job done. Also starring is Academy Award winning actress Octavia Spencer of "The Help" fame, but doesn't really leave much of an impression. The film also features famed (at least in South Korea) actor Song Kang-ho who has a mostly silent but important role. The story and characters ultimately end up seeming almost ancillary to the visuals and the film comes off more as an experiment for the director to flex his considerable muscle for detail and flourish. Which is surprisingly not a bad thing.

Joon-ho's first English language film shows a director with a much bigger future ahead of him and I'm truly excited to see what he does next.

It's a closed ecosystem...
  • Visuals, visuals, visuals! This is one of the most unique films out there this year in terms of unique and intoxicating visuals. Seeing is believing!
  • Despite the relatively simple story, it should be applauded based on the number of ideas and subjects worth pondering it touches upon. The ultimate quest to find the "man behind the curtain" at the front of the train continues to remain an effective plot device.
  • Abrupt tone changes actually end up being the films greatest strength and fit in perfectly with the train car aesthetic. 
  • Action scenes work well within the film and one prominent set-piece takes advantage of the unique shifting environment that can only be offered by gigantic, moving train. 
  • The costuming and the practical movie sets used are particularly impressive and make you actually feel the differing sections of the train.
Size ten chaos!
  • Lead Chris Evans neither adds nor detracts from the enjoyment of the film. One monologue near the end by his character, while competent, feels unearned and forced as an almost excuse for him simply say, "Hey look at me! I can act!"
  •  One bizarre scene manages to nearly derail (pun intended) the picture, but somehow pulls through at the last minute.
Verdict: "Snowpiercer" is a film that lives up to its hype. Despite a rather simplistic plot, the less is more approach to the story is more than covered by the provocative visuals. This is a film that stays with you.


Check out this short prequel to "Snowpiercer". The visual aesthetic alone is more than worth a watch.

The companion review comes from Katherine Monk over at O Canada and can be found here. It's only fair to hear some criticism...