Archive for the ‘ Suspense ’ Category

The Purge: Anarchy

In case you happen to have forgotten, The Purge was a movie with a fantastic premise that completely squandered it on a mediocre home invasion movie. That premise involved an eight-hour period, once every year, during which all crime — including murder, they emphasize — is legal. Allowing citizens to “purge” has reduced unemployment, crime rate, poverty, and so on. The Purge largely ignored its premise, though, and focused on a single family trying to avoid being killed by masked men and women trying to break into their house. The home invasion aspect wasn’t terrible, but as a waste of a great premise it was awful.

The Purge: Anarchy (should have been titled 2 Purge 2 Anarchy, because every sequel should get the 2 Fast 2 Furious treatment) fixes that problem by actually using this premise for something that actually needs it. Instead of one family, we center on three. Instead of a home invasion movie, it’s a quest for survival, redemption, and revenge. And the psychological, emotional, and moral aspects of the Purge that were only hinted at in the original are brought into clear view with the sequel.

Three groups of people become our central characters in The Purge: Anarchy. The de facto leader of the group is a man who goes by “Sergeant” (Frank Grillo), as he went out on Purge night intentionally, and came prepared. He’s got the guns and the know-how to use them. The second is a mother-daughter tandem of Eva (Carmen Ejogo) and Cali (Zoe Soul), who were dragged from their apartment building but were saved by Sergeant. Finally, we have Shane (Zach Gilford) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez), who are planning to separate but you can bet will grow to love each other thanks to the trauma they’re about to experience. Their car breaks down and they wind up finding Sergeant as he’s saving Eva and Cali. Everyone eventually teams up.

These are — with all due respect — nobody actors. And I mean that as a positive. Even if you watch lots of movies, you’re likely not going to recognize more than one or two of them. The star power of an Ethan Hawke doesn’t exist in The Purge: Anarchy. That means that the actors won’t draw you out of the film because you recognize them and associate them with prior roles. It makes the experience feel more realistic. And The Purge: Anarchy thrives on immersing an audience and giving us the sense of panic that its characters constantly feel.

This is a good movie at keeping you on-edge. A murderer can spring from anywhere, or a trap could cripple one of our leads at any turn. You just don’t know what you’re going to get. As a movie that tries to generate suspense, it succeeds most of the time. It does sometimes rely a bit too much on jump scares, but they’re effective enough at startling, which is really all they should do.

More importantly, The Purge: Anarchy is concerned with bigger things than just its primary story. There are warring factions — those completely loving the Purge and those against it — the government may or may not be up to no good, the rich do some truly atrocious things, and it’s all far more interesting now that we’re exploring the bigger picture. In fact, if this film came first, I think The Purge might have come across as better. All the questions it left us with would already have answers, and that “wasted potential” I was harping on about wouldn’t be wasted; The Purge would feel just like a side-story, perhaps on a different year, and it would be just fine.

I’m not saying The Purge: Anarchy is perfect by any stretch of the imagination. It’s just far more what a Purge movie probably should be. It has a lot of cliche or predictable moments — two separate cars fail to start, okay? — its big action set piece is really not that entertaining, it starts to feel repetitive close to the end of its over-90-minute running time, its characters are largely archetypes with little to no development, and if you really, really think about it, the whole thing is kind of dumb. But, honestly, this is all okay. The movie is still fun. It’s still a marked improvement over its predecessor.

You know, I called the actors “nobodies,” and I feel kind of bad about that. They’re all much better than they were required to be here; they’re just not the type of people you know by name or face. I meant it descriptively, not insultingly. I hope they get bigger roles based on this one, but I have a feeling the only one studios will be looking at will be Frank Grillo, who has the look and perform the right attitude for an action hero.

The Purge: Anarchy is a couple of notches better than its predecessor. It doesn’t squander a great premise. Instead, it embraces it and explores it. It at least tries to have something to say, and while it might not be quite smart enough to say things most of the audience will know going in, at least it has ambitions and ideas. It also works quite well as a thriller, constantly keeping its audience engaged and in a mode of suspense. It even kind of works as an exploitation movie, at least when it comes to the ramped-up violence. All in all, The Purge: Anarchy is good and retroactively makes The Purge better.

Share

Spy Game

After a botched spy mission in China in which Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt), who may or may not be a rogue agent, attempted to rescue someone from a prison, the CIA decide to hold a meeting to figure out if and/or how they’re going to rescue him, given that he’s going to be tortured and executed in the next 24 hours. To help with the situation, they call in Nathan Muir (Robert Redford), who is meant to retire at the end of the day. Muir and Bishop go back, and Muir’s task is to explain to everyone else how Bishop might have gotten himself into this situation.

What this amounts to is a storytelling technique. Muir gets to recount more than a couple of tales regarding Bishop. The first time they met, how Muir recruited Bishop as a spy and not just a military lackey, a mission or two that both of them were a part of, etc. In present day, which is 1991, we also get to watch Muir attempt to figure out if there’s an ulterior motive to this conference. Given that it’s a spy film and that high-ranking executives are almost always evil (in the movies, that is), what do you think?

So, we’ve got a couple of things going on here. The first essentially amounts to a clever and exciting way of delivering back story. Mixed with exposition, we actually get to see some entertaining spy missions set in exotic locations. It permits us an inside look into these two characters and their relationship to one another. The second part of the film is Muir’s attempt to discover what’s really going on and perhaps rescue his friend, even if that does happen to be against what the CIA wants.

This works as an effective technique. We are given the thrills that we want at present moment while also having character depth built for the future, meaning that Muir’s quest in the present day is more important and powerful. Sure, there isn’t a whole lot of suspense in these flashbacks — everything has to work out, to some degree, for the characters to still be alive and have present-day predicaments — but they’re entertaining enough in their own right and doubling as back story doesn’t hurt.

Problematically, the scenes happening in present day also aren’t all that intense. There’s rarely a moment in the film where you don’t think everything’s going to work out for the best. Part of the problem, I think, is that the two leads are built up as so much smarter than everyone in the room. Even Bishop, who makes a mistake and therefore gets captured, seems to hold all the answers. Muir figures things out too fast and seems to know what everyone’s thinking at all times. If these characters were professional wrestlers, they’d be the kind that is unable to “sell” being hurt.

That’s not to say that Spy Game isn’t entertaining, because it most certainly is. It just isn’t all that suspenseful, which hurts it but not to the point of being unwatchable. The stars keep it afloat. Watching Robert Redford work is almost always enjoyable, and watching him take apart his colleagues is a joy. Brad Pitt is confident and charismatic, which is somehow more than his character needed to be effective.

I suppose I should let you know that Spy Game isn’t really an action film. There’s a shootout or two, but this is a movie more concerned with double-crosses and backroom dealings than car chases. To some, that’s probably preferable, but I know others are going to be disappointed in the lack of traditional action scenes. For them, the film has been edited with a rapid-fire pace, some interesting cinematography choices, and a score which often threatens to overtake the dialogue. It is a Tony Scott film, after all.

Mixed in with what I might call an over-compensatory editing style is a plot that occasionally becomes too convoluted for its own good. The main plot and flashbacks are fine but when we get to the subplots of politics, society, and an unbelievable romance — which winds up being one of Bishop’s prime motivations — the film loses its focus and becomes a little too much to follow. They don’t add much more than confusion, and we’d have an even tighter film if they were toned down or removed completely.

Is Spy Game worth seeing? Sure. It’s mostly entertaining, contains a good leading performance from Robert Redford, and has Tony Scott’s signature style attached to it — for better or for worse. It has a good approach to storytelling that I found very effective, and it’s been edited down so that there’s never a dull moment. It needed to remove or tone down some of its convoluted, confusing and unnecessary subplots, as well as make its characters seem less infallible than they are, but for the most part this is an enjoyable movie.

Share

Con Air

There are few movies sillier than Con Air, but also few movies that are as enjoyable. I sat through the almost two hours of ridiculousness and awesomeness that this movie had to share with me, and by the end I’m not really sure if I gained anything from it, but I sure had a fun time while it was playing. There isn’t a dull moment to be had, all of the actors seem to be having a good time, and someone was having a bit too much fun with the editing tools while piecing it together. Still, like I said, it’s fun.

After using self-defense and killing a man, former Army Ranger Cameron Poe (Nicolas Cage) is sent to prison, as it was ruled that he’s not allowed to defend himself since … he’s been trained to defend himself. Sure. Many years later, it’s parole day. He’s finally going to get to see his wife again, and see his daughter for the first time. To take him home, he’s put on a plane with many “lifer” prisoners. They’re the baddest of the bad. Sure enough, they take over the plane. Only Poe, his diabetic cellmate Baby-O (Mykelti Williamson), and a female guard (Rachel Ticotin) are “good” people. They’ll have to try to survive while also foiling the villains’ plan.

The bad guys are led by a crazy — but also very smart — man named Cyrus (John Malkovich). He’s the brains behind the operation. His second-in-command is Diamond Dog (Ving Rhames), who acts as the muscle. There are a few other not-so-nice individuals aboard the plane, too, but these are the important two. They’ve got a plan, and for much of the film, that plan goes according to, well, plan. Ha. See what I did there?

But Cameron Poe is the most courageous and noble and all-around awesome guy around, so he’s going to defeat them. He even has a chance to leave the plane and reunite himself with his family, but chooses to stay behind because of how amazing he is. This is the kind of person who simply cannot fail. You see a movie character like this and you know what the outcome is going to be. He will use will and determination to win, and that’s all there is to it.

That helps the silliness of Con Air. One of the earliest scenes has Poe meeting his wife at a bar, all while loud music plays over the scene, making it feel just like the least serious thing ever, even though it’s supposed to be a pretty sweet scene. The music makes it silly. The film’s director, Simon West, does everything to make it look “cool” at almost every instant; you might be laughing at many of the choices of edits or camera angles featured throughout. I know I was.

The action scenes are over-the-top and ridiculous, too. So are many of the lines of dialogue. Con Air isn’t something that tries to hide how preposterous its entire production is. Instead, it embraces this fact. Its filmmakers understand they’re not going to be making a high-brow movie, so they play much of it for giggles. Sure, there are some genuinely resonating moments, but they’re few and far between. We’re here to see silly and explosions, and we get both of these things plenty of times throughout Con Air.

It’s weird how we have so many characters, played by so many great actors, and yet there’s very little personality or depth to any of them. Cage plays the hero, Malkovich plays the villain, Rhames plays the muscle, Danny Trejo plays a serial rapist, Steve Buscemi plays a weird serial killer — and yet none of them manage to make their characters go beyond these archetypes. They’re the perfect examples to list when someone asks for stock movie characters. The only exception might be the Buscemi character, whose serial killer is mild-mannered and … actually, the film is kind of ambivalent to both him and his crimes. That’s a little weird.

Some of this might sound critical, and it is, but don’t let that convince you not to watch Con Air. I’ve also mentioned how it’s lots of fun, and that is also true. Unless you’re someone who hates stupid movies, you’re likely going to have a lot of fun with Con Air. Yes, it’s silly, and no, it won’t really make you think or feel anything other than adrenaline and excitement, but it’s enjoyable and has some good action.

It also has good actors who get to do silly things and deliver outrageous lines. Nicolas Cage is … well, he’s Nicolas Cage. John Malkovich could probably play this villain role in his sleep, but he’s good at it here. John Cusack is also in the film, although his direct interactions with the plane and its passengers are limited; he stays on the ground and tries to figure out what to do. And he’s good at that! It’s surprising how committed the actors are, and how much fun they seem to be having.

Con Air is a silly, ridiculous, preposterous, absurd, and very enjoyable movie. I don’t think I’d want it any other way. When a line like “Put the bunny back in the box” is used in a threatening way, you’re onto something pretty solid. It’s not smart, its characters are archetypes, and if you don’t like this, then Con Air is not the film for you. If you, like the movie, can embrace all of those elements, you’re going to have a good time with this film.

Share

Gun Woman

A character remarks in Gun Woman that the entire story’s premise and execution sounds like it’s right out of a manga. I haven’t read many mangas in my life, but I was inclined to agree. This is one of the more ridiculous movies that you’ll see in your life, if you choose to watch it, but it’s also one that’s really enjoyable, assuming you can fully accept what it has to offer. If it’s too crazy, or too stupid, you’ll find yourself wanting to turn it off.

Here’s the basic idea: A depraved man (Noriaki Kamata) kills the wife of a doctor (Kairi Narita). The first man makes a routine of doing things like this. He likes killing, raping, and sometimes killing and then raping the dead body. That’s his thing. Well, the second man decides to take revenge. Years later, he buys a drug-addicted woman, Mayumi (Asami), off the street with the purpose of training her to be an assassin to kill the one who murdered his wife years earlier. So, he trains her up and then sends her out to do just that. This is basically the whole movie.

In fact, most of Gun Woman is the training. It’s only after all of the training that we get to see Mayumi actually attempt her mission, which involves faking her death, hiding a gun inside her body, taking her to a place where necrophiliacs go to, well, you know, and then killing everyone inside. I kid you not. Does that not get you intrigued right then and there? Or, perhaps repulsed? I wouldn’t ever claim that Gun Woman is for the faint of heart or for people who struggle to handle certain types of movies; those people who don’t immediately get excited for a film titled “Gun Woman,” for example, need not apply.

There isn’t a whole lot of depth to the story. I’ve described almost all of it here and now, and there’s little more to it than that. The plot I just detailed is being told by a couple of American assassins (Matthew Miller and Dean F. Simone), one of whom describes it as a “manga”-styled plot. They speak in English, obviously, but most of the film is Japanese. Dialogue isn’t its strong suit, anyway.

Where it succeeds is in being absolutely crazy, almost from start to finish, and by somehow managing to find some sort of realism in its insanity. I mean, you’ve read the plot description by now. Do you think any of this is possible? Looking at it from the outside, you wouldn’t. I wouldn’t, either. But the film does an admirable job of at least making it look like there’s the potential for this sort of thing to happen. It details almost every little aspect, does a touch of handwaving, and then everything seems like maybe, just maybe, it could happen.

Part of the way it does this is in the way it meticulously describes almost every element of the plan. It also doesn’t shy away from anything. We watch a woman bleed out over the course of 20 (in-movie) minutes. A graphic surgery scene takes place so that the gun parts can be hidden in Mayumi’s body. No camera tricks are applied to hide any of the violence or nudity that would risk making the film feel less realistic, even with the absurd plot.

Maybe there’s a bit too much gore. Honestly, I don’t know what a person looks like when they’re cut open and left to bleed for 20 minutes. Maybe it looks exactly like it does in this film; I don’t know and I don’t ever want to know. Gun Woman will certainly satisfy the gorehounds, at least, but it didn’t seem overly excessive while I was watching it. Maybe it is, but it didn’t feel that way at the time. I was invested in this crazy story and I wanted to see this awful villain get his comeuppance. That’s the sign of a good movie.

It also has far better acting than it probably needed to. For most people, this is going to be a semi-silly B-movie that’s being watched primarily for the ridiculous premise. But the Japanese actors are all pretty great — or at least convincing. Asami’s transformation from drug addict to assassin is great, Kairi Narita is intense in his quest for revenge, and Noriaki Kamata makes for a wonderfully despicable villain. If there’s a weak point, it’s from the two Americans, but they’re not in the film a whole lot and don’t devalue it.

How much you enjoy Gun Woman will probably be determined by how excited you get for a film titled “Gun Woman.” If the title — without even hearing its ridiculously fantastic premise — thrills you, this is a film you’ll want to seek out. If it makes you think of junky B-movies and you hate those, go watch something else. If this is your type of movie, it’s one you’re going to want to see. It’s gory, it’s fun, and it doesn’t have an inch of restraint.

Share

U Turn

A man owes money to a gangster. He is on his way to deliver the payment when his car breaks down. He finds himself on the outskirts of a town just off the highway, Superior. He meets a mechanic, Darrell (Billy Bob Thorton), who agrees to fix the car but says it might take some time. The man goes to town. A robbery. The money is lost. He barely has a penny to his name now. He can’t pay Darrell, who now holds his car for ransom. He has to figure out a way to get enough money to get out of this town, and then reacquire the $13,000 he owed this gangster.

The man’s name is Bobby (Sean Penn), and this is the setup of U Turn. There are more characters, too, some of whom potentially provide a solution. He flirts with a woman named Grace (Jennifer Lopez), not realizing she’s married to Jake (Nick Nolte). Jake catches them at his house. He punches Bobby and then offers him a ride back into the center of town. We’re in Arizona, so the heat can kill. Jake offers Bobby a solution: He’ll pay the new guy in town a few thousand to kill his wife. He’s sick of the games she plays with him.

It’s this subplot that eventually becomes a priority. There are yet many other characters to meet. A blind man played by an unrecognizable Jon Voight offers friendly advice. An odd woman, Jenny (Claire Danes) clings to Bobby at first sight, making her tough-guy boyfriend (Joaquin Phoenix) into an enemy. The town’s Sheriff (Powers Boothe) always seems to be watching. There’s no way Bobby could get away with murder, could he?

There are twists. Grace has a tragic back story. She knows of a safe where her husband keeps hundreds of thousands of dollars. She purposes Bobby kill him and they can run off together. The film goes back and forth for a while, toying with what Bobby will do, and what we think or hope should happen. U Turn is repetitive in structure. It seems to be replaying the same thing over and over with only minor details swapped. Bobby has hallucinations which allow for Natural Born Killers-style scenes of excess.

I take a lot of time describing what happens because this is a difficult film to gauge and an even tougher one to truly figure out. I enjoyed watching it but this is one of those times where discerning exactly why I felt any affection for it proves nearly impossible. None of the characters are good people — or even particularly deep or interesting — the story meanders and repeats, the overarching story is less complicated than the film makes it out to be … and yet it works.

The story is a mess but it is compelling. You do want to see what, eventually, Bobby will do. Perhaps that’s the completionist side of me; I always want to finish something I start. And since it’s not a painful watch, seeing it through to the end isn’t a problem. Bobby comes across as someone trying too hard to be cool — either for his sake, the sake of the townspeople, or for the audience — but that routine does make you wonder exactly what led him to this point. Why did he owe $13,000? Other characters raise questions that aren’t answered; you have to make up your own mind.

Part of the reason it’s hard to find compelling reasons to recommend U Turn is that it lulls you into a trance while watching it. It’s very hypnotic. Perhaps it’s because of the heat. The best movies make you feel immersed in the location in which the film is set. U Turn is set in Arizona, where temperatures of 100 degrees Fahrenheit are not uncommon. Watching the film makes you feel hot. Its ability to immerse you makes you feel like you’re not watching a movie — you’re just there, watching these crazy characters go about their business.

That allows you to overlook how the characters are driven not by strong characterization and motivation, but by plot demands. Or how we see the same type of thing more than a few times, just with some of the pieces rearranged or switched out. It’s fun but it doesn’t go anywhere, I guess. I found it easy enough to overlook this but I can definitely see how others would not. The film engulfed my thoughts, meaning I couldn’t question it while it played. A re-watch might not be so successful.

The actors are compelling. This is a top-notch cast and some of them are so effective here that you don’t realize the actor until the credits. Billy Bob Thorton and Jon Voight are chameleons in U Turn. Sean Penn is a reliable lead. Nick Nolte is creepy as the husband of Jennifer Lopez as the sympathetic love interest — until the film takes a twist, a turn, and a hopscotch. Rule of threes, dear reader. Rule of threes.

U Turn is an odd movie that might not work when you look at it after it’s done, but while it’s playing it’s so immersive that you can easily overlook its flaws. It’s set in the desert heat and it makes you feel as if you’re there while its quirky cast of characters does the same thing over and over again. It’s repetitive and its characters are incredibly thin and driven by plot demands, but it doesn’t feel that way while it plays. Its actors are great, it has a style all its own, and for a single viewing I think U Turn is worth seeing.

Share
?>