Friday, September 30, 2005

the video diaries Debuts!

If you're coming here after seeing the video diaries on Access Tucson... here's what's to come:

OCTOBER 8: "Patriots' Paradise" -- Visiting the historic triangle of Williamsburg, Yorktown & Jamestown
OCTOBER 15: "All Bets Are Off" -- Vegas for cheapskates
OCTOBER 22: "Mr. Francis Goes To Washington" -- You figure it out... before Homeland Security does

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Reel To Reel:
The Lord Of War

How It Rates: ****
Starring: Nicholas Cage, Ethan Hawke
Rated: R
Red Flags: Language, Violence, Cocaine Use, Three Scenes Of Horny Sex

Preconceived Notions: Nearly nil. This movie snuck up on me like a Stealth bomber.
The Bottom Line: A darkly comic, insightful indictment of gun-running.

Nicholas Cage is Yuri Orlov, an underground arms dealer who approaches his business like Gordon Gekko in the munitions trade. Wars are not won or lost but merely transferred, and as long as people are killing each other, they're going to need something to shoot. Cage's character sees it all as business.

Yuri narrates the story consistently -- one of the few times in films where a narrative track works well -- as he recounts how he got into the business: coming to America as a son of Ukrainians fleeing the Soviet Union, working in a faux-Jewish restaurant with his brother and parents, witnessing the mob violence that would introduce him to a twisted version of the American dream. Soon Yuri sells his first Uzi. Realizing he can make it happen, he pulls in his brother Vitaly (Jared Leto), and the two soon are selling guns and ammo to anybody who will buy.

Cage's character stays focused on touting the merchandise and making the sale, rattling off specs for machine guns nearly as fast as they can fire. But he never samples what he sells. Vitaly is there to watch his back, but throws himself away when a client pays in cocaine instead of cash, giving into the addiction Yuri stays away from.

Every version of the American Dream involves a wife, and Yuri has picked out the one he's wanted for years: Ava Fontaine (Bridget Moynahan), a modeling trophy. Yuri easily lures her into a world of riches without telling her where he got them, and she doesn't ask many questions about his business. The one asking the questions is Jack Valentine (Hawke), a tenacious Interpol agent hot on Yuri's trail but without the evidence to make a case. Valentine and Yuri have a couple of powerful scenes together, the fed laying out how evil Yuri is, and Yuri cooly laying out how things really are without a whiff of concern.

Cage's cool persona lifts this film. He talks more like a car salesman than a merchant of death. He could have easily stepped over from Glengarry Glen Ross. Somehow, he knows what he's doing has bloody, tragic consequences, but he does them anyway because he's good at it, because he can. And he does it all with quick-witted charm. What's funny is how he can sell an armored personnel carrier like an Oldsmobile.

The Lord Of War is a strong anti-war film precisely because it doesn't set out to preach. But it's all in how you look at it. Yes, it is a morality play, but we are left to decipher the morality. Is it selling death or merely filling an order? Guns don't kill people; people kill people. And we still sell smokes, don't we? Take your best shot at it.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Reel To Reel:
The Man

How It Rates: **
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Eugene Levy
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Language, Violence, Fart Jokes

Preconceived Notions: Cop-buddy movie in black and white.
The Bottom Line: Has its moments, but could use a few more.

The Man isn't a crime comedy or buddy-buddy comedy or underworld shoot-em-up, even though at times it tries to be one or more of those things. I'm not sure where I would place it if I had to pick a sub-genre. But I know this for sure: as I watched the film, I felt the characters should have been smarter than the words coming out of their mouths.

Crime comedies -- or con-caper films -- work when they feed off situational awareness, when the players have that feeling something isn't right about this job, this guy, that deal, leading them down the slope of complications brought about by trying not to end up like a chump. The Man has some who do, and several who don't. And those who don't simply waltz on through the picture without getting a clue, and it's hard to imagine they could function in their jobs as cops or criminals with that utter cluelessness.

This is a comedy, you will argue, and comedies suspend the rules. True. I merely point out what separates a standout picture from four or five gag reels.

Andy Fidler (Levy), a nerdy dental-supply salesman from Wisconsin, is in Detroit for a conference. He unknowingly walks into the middle of a firearms sting operation, headed by Vann (Jackson), a street-tough ATF agent loosely remixed from one of the principal characters in Training Day.

Fidler is mistaken for an arms buyer in a scene at a lunch counter that's frankly hard to swallow. A contact for the dealer tells Vann to sit at a certain spot in a diner with USA Today. You would the successful crook would choose something other than a favorite paper of business travelers. So Fidler is sitting at that spot with the paper, and our contact assumes he's the buyer. But work with me here now. The contact slides Fidler a lunch bag with a gun and a phone and asks Fidler if he "wants a taste."

Now one of two things should happen here in a well-written film: Fidler should say, "Uh, I have my own lunch, thanks," while passing the bag back, which he does, but not with that line. And secondly, our contact should realize something's wrong here with this guy who's white as a sheet and doesn't get the hint, and move along. The problem is, our contact ignores what should be a basic, cardinal instinct, and leaves Fidler holding the bag. Now it's up to Vann to pull the bust off while putting up with this chatterbox -- and dodge Internal Affairs, which suspects he just bumped off his partner in an arms deal gone bad.

I can't say a lot about the chemistry between Levy and Jackson. Sometimes it works; sometimes it just spins. Maybe that's because Jackson's character is wound too tight and Levy's too loose. A couple of scenes involving Levy's digestive problems with red meat grab laughs, but they're more the exception than the rule.

The Lethal Weapon movies were funny as well as exciting because the characters were always at the top of their game. The Man keeps trying to run plays but keeps losing yardage.

Saturday, September 3, 2005

Reel To Reel:
The Transporter 2

How It Rates: ***
Starring: Jason Statham, Amber Valletta, Hunter Clary
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Mild Language, Violence, Some Slutty Sensuality

Preconceived Notions: Going places, shooting things -- more of the same?
The Bottom Line: Buckle up or fly out of your seat.

The most intriguing aspect of The Transporter 2 isn't its lack of respect for the laws of physics or strict adherence to the Movie Mob Beatdown Rule (i.e. -- a group of bad guys will always attack the good guy one at a time, never at once, thus allowing the good guy more time to show off his skills). Frank Martin (Statham), the title character, always seems to get his job done without doing major damage to his geared-up Audi or his neatly-pressed suits. You wonder what this guy pays for dry cleaning and automotive repairs. At least James Bond wrecked an Aston Martin in Goldfinger.

The sequel to the 2002 hit continues to blend Bond with the renegade coolness of XXX and the kung-fu of The Matrix or Kiss Of The Dragon. But let's add in a few more wrinkles -- no, not to Martin's suit. Stage a few fight scenes rivaling Jackie Chan's work, notably one involving a fire hose. And that Audi -- could it have possibly rolled from the same plant as the Bluesmobile? One scene will convince you.

Here's what's going on. Frank -- an ex special-forces ace -- is taking a break from running anything you don't want intercepted or arrested. The second film moves him from France to Florida, where's he's chauffeuring the young son of a drug-enforcement officer (Matthew Modine) and his estranged wife. Frank, not one for attachments, has befriended the boy in a by-the-book manner down to a riddle game they play in the car.

The boy becomes the prime target of mercenary-for-hire Gianni (Alessandro Gassman) and his deadly slutty bed-buddy Lola (Kate Nauta). She's the answer to that question, "What if the Victoria's Secret catalog merged with Soldier Of Fortune?" A trip to the pediatrician goes wrong, and the boy lands in the hands of the bad guys, and Frank is on a mission to get the kid back safe. "Keep your promises" is one of Frank's rules. I forgot what the others were, but I know they include "don't scratch the car."

The rest of the picture jumps from fights to chases to confrontations to close calls as we throw in another wrinkle involving a killer injection which I won't elaborate on. A few sidebar scenes involve returning character Tarconi (Francois Berleand), a French cop whose visit to Frank turns into a working vacation at the Miami Police Department. Frank nearly falls into a romantic relationship with the boy's mother (Valleta) in a scene where the film shows some promise of breaking a mold or falling into a cliche, but it neatly sidesteps the issue.

The Transporter is not meant to be analyzed; it's meant to be enjoyed, even as you puzzle why a roomful of feds, a garage full of thugs and a vixen full of automatic weapons can't take Frank down. And for that, it's a fun ride, which is really all we ask from an action movie. Speaking of rides, can I lease that Audi?