7/31/2009

Blu-ray Review: Echelon Conspiracy (2009)



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A.K.A. The Gift

Having only recently joined the BlackBerry revolution or as my PR friend Patrick cleverly dubbed it the "crackberry" revolution, I'm not exactly the trendiest person when it comes to cellular technology.



Like Jerry Seinfeld once said, I still prefer the good old days of answering machine (or voice mail) messages to actual telephone conversations since sometimes it's easiest to get my point across in two minutes when I'm not given the advantage of visual person-to-person cues to let me know when to end a dialogue or segue to the next topic.

Despite this, grudgingly I've accepted the idea of the text message. Yet, it still takes me about twenty minutes to type three sentences compared to kids who can do the same within seconds but I grew up with Atari and the original Nintendo instead of Wii and something called Bluetooth that still sounds slightly filthy and therefore makes me smile like I'm twelve every time I hear the word.

However, while I'll never be able to become a computer programmer like Shane West's character Max Peterson in the film Echelon Conspiracy, I do think that had I received a mysterious cellular phone which texted me life-altering predictions including advising me to avoid a flight that ends up crashing, I'd be a whole lot less cavalier about it than West's underwritten character in Greg Marcks' lackluster thriller.



For example, instead of just jumping right into the opportunity to relish in guaranteed casino winnings as predicted by the phone, I may-- I don't know-- feel a twinge of guilt or sadness about the poor innocent souls who perished on the plane or wonder just who or possibly what is behind the messages. Since as we all know, messages just don't send themselves so obviously something is pulling the strings and as a programmer Peterson should know this better than anyone, realizing full well that this same "sender" can probably yank those strings once more at any given moment.



At least, these would've been the thoughts going through my mind but I'm not a lead in an action movie with a ridiculously unbelievable sense-of-entitlement and selfishness. However, as an actor, it's not West's fault at all and he's becoming quite a great talent to watch-- especially considering I caught this film only months after his mind-bogglingly astounding work in What We Do Is Secret which was so powerful that I felt as though I was watching a documentary about twenty minutes into that particular work.

Yet when it comes to Echelon, he isn't given a way to let us in or show us something to feel as a guy we're supposed to care about since even Jason Bourne had his sensitive side. And the worst part is, West's Peterson is not even a spy but just a Midwestern All-American boy living it up in Europe. So with this realization, ultimately it becomes even tougher to believe, especially when you add in the legitimate covert-ops and action sequences with a great roster of talent like Martin Sheen, Jonathan Pryce, Ving Rhames, and Edward Burns (whom I'm assuming took advantage of the opportunity for the incredible scenery and to fund his next independent filmmaking project).



Given a title suitable for the days of Michael Crichton and Tom Clancy-- everything about Echelon Conspiracy which was originally dubbed The Gift when it screened at 2008's Cannes Film Festival feels more than a decade old. And sadly, the date goes back even further in some cases with plot-lines that feel not unlike airline food that's been reheated a few too many times with remnants left over since the days of both superior "Big Brother is Watching" and Cold War era thrillers which include 2001, 1984, 3 Days of the Condor and other movies without numbers in the title.



Throughout the film, I kept wondering if at one point it had been written in the vein of a B-movie paradigm of Clancy's Jack Ryan franchise and contemplated whether or not Ben Affleck had been offered the role had the script first originated in the 1990s before similarities to Tony Scott's formulaic but effective Will Smith and Gene Hackman paranoid techo-thriller Enemy of the State would've made it feel too wooden yet again.



Whatever the case, it seems like it was just never the right time for the movie-- no matter what poor screenwriters Michael Nitsberg and Kevin Elders (of Iron Eagle I,II,and III fame) titled the piece. And following his lauded breakthrough feature 11:14, filmmaker Greg Marcks was granted zero favors by the poor scheduling of having to follow in the footsteps of the Spielberg produced, D.J. Caruso helmed, big-budget DreamWorks extravaganza Eagle Eye starring Shia LaBeouf, Michelle Monaghan, Billy Bob Thornton, and Rosario Dawson since the two works dealt with fairly similar terrain, although ironically Marcks' film had a Cannes screening.



Yet despite the fact that Spielberg and LaBeouf were a bit busier distracting in May with the fourth installment in the Indiana Jones series before Eagle was moved back again in the release calendar-- in addition to sharing the same basic set up-- adding further problems for the newly dubbed Echelon Conspiracy was that it was produced by the same family corporation as Eagle of Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment.

Thus, Paramount definitely prioritized by giving the superlative Eagle the maximum advertising push for its September debut and moved Marcks' work to '09. While reviews and reactions to Eagle Eye were mixed as some disliked the Cloverfield style shaky camera-- overall, and aside from some of the gaps in logic, I found the film to be extraordinarily thrilling.

Unfortunately the same can definitely not be said for Conspiracy, which feels as though again we're seeing a total rehash of endless works that have come before it, recycled once more in the post Patriot Act and Bush/Cheney era. And aside from some clever moments, it struggles to keep us engaged during its one hundred and five minute running time in a terrific visual and audio Blu-ray presentation from a company that's produced some of the best techo-thrillers and paranoid works of the last several decades.



Filling the film with the requisite "insert action sequence here" portions that just feel as though they were included for the genre's sake, throughout the film, I was amazed by Peterson's complete lack of common sense as he happens upon a Russian cabbie who instantly recognizes the gifted cell phone that hasn't hit the street yet. However, instead of questioning the cab driver about the phone which the man explains he specializes in and knows how to unlock, we must wait for several scenes of fumbling around for missed leads and posturing for Peterson to finally realize that maybe he should've asked Yuri the cab driver back when he had the chance.



Mistakes like these including an opening sequence that finds a woman blindly following orders to walk to her death in an underground subway station make Echelon pretty hard to watch while taking seriously-- whether or not it takes you two seconds or twenty minutes to send a text message.



While per usual you should decide for yourself, I felt that the best bet for Echelon aside from another name change as understandably The Gift would've recalled the Cate Blanchett gothic noir and Echelon Conspiracy is as much of a mouthful as Shawshank Redemptionminus the IQ-- may have been to screen directly as a Starz Channel HD premiere.



Text ©2009, Film Intuition, LLC
; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com

Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited.

7/28/2009

TV on DVD: Life On Mars -- Series 1 [The Original UK Version] (2006)

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Now Available From Acorn DVD
[Jen's Pick of the Week]






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While I haven't noticed that the UK seems to have quite as voracious of an appetite for the hospital drama as the United States does-- the one thing the land that brought us both Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes can't seem to get enough of is detective shows.

Whether they're in the vein of the tough and gritty police procedural dramas like Prime Suspect, Blue Murder or Taggart, or they opt for more of a psychological or sociological spin on the subject matter a la The Ruth Rendell Mysteries or Cracker, take the cases to the country in the ever-popular Midsomer Murders or give us a comedic twist to policing via The Last Detective-- Granada, ITV, and the BBC never tire of the crime and punishment genre and screenwriters know it.


However, as TV scribes Matthew Graham, Tony Jordan, and Ashley Pharoah phrased it-- in a series of extensive and fascinating episodic behind-the-scenes featurettes about their international award-winning success Life On Mars that's weaved throughout the slim-packaged four-disc set-- even though networks always want cop shows, they hate writing them.



And honestly when you see something as brilliantly creative as the series they ended up crafting, you'll immediately understand why a simple by-the-numbers, predictable police-procedural drama (that frankly as both a writer and reviewer I'm starting to grow weary of myself) would've been a massive waste of their extraordinary talents.



Asked to pitch a handful of series-- the writers put everything they had into a concept back in 1998 of a show they'd titled at the time simply "Ford Granada" after the classic '70s car. To this end, they painted the idea of the show in with broad strokes and likened it to the era's police shows they enjoyed growing up such as The Sweeney with the twist being that a modern day police officer had somehow traveled back in time in a way that emphasized solely the science fiction/fantasy element of the piece rather than the complex psychological puzzle it would become.



So it bounced from network to network in an odyssey as that sort of back of the drawer gem of a script that never went out of date since as the writers state-- good ideas keep. And sure enough, Mars proved that not only did the script not have an expiration date, it would only improve with time and development as eventually it once again landed back in presentation at the BBC at precisely the right moment in time before the right two women who had just relaunched Doctor Who to a phenomenally successful run.



Although the screenwriters were initially worried that the channel would be concerned that two series airing simultaneously that dealt with science fiction/fantasy and time travel would be too risky, the show immediately found champions at BBC who saw its big screen potential, the epic level of storytelling involved and commissioned a full season's worth of scripts to begin production very quickly.



Instead of falling into the trap of camp, the writers, producers and the talented director Bharat Nalluri opted to go for a less obvious color palette and more accurate depiction for the series by modeling it after '70s films such as All the President's Men and Get Carter with the latter being especially ironic as the Mars cinematographer was the grandson of the director of photography on the original version of Carter.



Cleverly, the show tries to trick you into assuming it's a straightforward action piece with one hell of a kick. This of course comes in the noteworthy and much-cited hook given the writers' ingenious decision to blend police procedural works with time travel fantasy. In Mars-- organized, overly analytical, and coolly methodical "by the book" DCI Sam Tyler (State of Play's brilliant John Simm) finds himself shockingly transported from 2006 Manchester to 1973 after being hit by a speeding car while in pursuit of a killer who had captured his colleague and girlfriend Maya.



Taking its title from the David Bowie song by the same name which had been playing on Sam's iPod when he'd been struck--the song continues seamlessly but switches format into 1973' eight track tape playing in a car that Sam finds himself in during the time shift.



Obviously, he's shocked to discover not just what's happened but also that he's been demoted to the rank of simply detective inspector when he finds that he has identification in his wallet. He learns this after another officer tells him that he's there as part of a transfer he'd requested from C Division of the Hyde Police Department (which Wikipedia notes could be a nod to Jekyll and Hyde). Furthermore Sam is startled when he walks into the homicide division of the local department to uncover just how different the job was thirty three years earlier.



Long before the notion of political correctness had set in and when in fact the female officers were kept mostly separate from the males-- Sam has a hard time fitting in with the hard drinking, smoking, boisterous lot where he outranks most of the others and continually butts heads with his superior officer-- who in '06 would've been his equal.

As DCI Gene Hunt, Philip Glenister is the perfect foil for the neat, quiet and proper detective. Hunt wants to do what he thinks is right no matter what is takes. And to achieve his goal, Gene Hunt isn't above beating a confession out of a suspect whether he's guilty or not, smacking around coppers including greeting Sam with a pretty intense physical threat, planting evidence, and above all going with his gut instead of the facts to try and close a case. While Sam wants to do everything by the book, in Gene's eyes-- the only the goal that matters is to keep the bad guys off the streets and away from the citizens much like the cowboys in the American western films he cherishes.



When we first meet Gene, the poster hanging in his office is High Noon-- the classic film about a solitary man who asked for help but had to go it alone to go where nobody else would to take out the villains but as Mars progresses, the poster slowly changes to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly as Gene and Sam begin to bond a bit realizing that possibly together by compromising a bit of the head and the heart, they may make an ideal police detective.



However, along the way, Sam tries everything he can to get back home to '06 and when initially the case he's first presented with has much in common with the one that brought him to 1973, he assumes that all he'll need to do is solve it to "free" himself of this temporary imprisonment he's certain is simply a coma. Adding to his belief-- throughout the eight episodes that make up the first season, we hear the sounds of medical beeps, people talking about tests, catheters, machines, and bodily responses so often that it does make us feel like he could be right in assuming that none of this is real.



Yet, there's a flip-side to the issue as well and that one is that Sam may in fact be mad as the hatter in the Alice in Wonderland like fantasies he sort of half-hallucinates in the series which you'll start to see a few episodes into season one. And this theory can be equally argued since literary references to not just Wonderland but Jekyll, Wizard of Oz, Dickens, and other works abound as well as our questions about just what the reality is regarding Sam and his family since he tracks down his mom midway through the season in a plot device that comes back to a haunting effect.



However, in arguing that since the world he's residing in contains so much detail and is filled with buildings, cars, and people-- not to mention wall to wall music that's so impressive you'll want to watch it in the 5.1 surround sound-- Sam's loyal friend throughout the series, the lovely Annie Cartright (Liz White) tries to assure him that he has to in fact be living in 1973. She further rationalizes that he has to be simply suffering from a brain injury sustained that year when we first saw him playing "Life On Mars" on the eight track tape having arrived for his transfer.



Holding a college degree in psychology and not quite fitting in at the police department in a pre-feminist era-- Annie serves as Sam's love interest, friend, shoulder to lean on, and endless source of both professional and personal backup throughout the show and White is the series' personification of sunshine, bringing an instant smile to both Sam and the viewers' face every time she appears onscreen with her sweetness and constant willingness to help.



Not since Mad Men has a modern show managed to grab me without letting go and all of the elements worked together as if I were listening to a complicated concerto. Moreover some of the episodes-- much like those of Mad Men-- continue to linger as I write this and will remain for quite some time as they made not just the writer in me marvel at the creativity of the craftsmanship but I also became incredibly moved once again by the way that Simm can manage to bring tears to your eyes by seemingly conveying thought on camera.




Furthermore, I can't say enough about the show's unique style in presenting the '70s in a way that was far more cinematic than any small screen approach on record that I can recall. Boasting commentary on all eight episodes and a plethora of extra features-- some of which I had to stop watching since they gave away spoilers for the series-- the quality of the set is impeccable and Life On Mars is definitely on my list of the must own DVD releases of 2009.



Although it is unfortunate that it took nearly ten years for the writers' vision to find its way to production-- I'm thrilled that it wasn't simply a time travel series as ambiguity is what made show not only gripping but also psychologically haunting, visceral and immediately breathtaking since it's a damn near intoxicating and purely cinematic experience that must be shared with others. Likewise, you'll find yourselves wanting to discuss it endlessly after certain episodes-- feeling both torn between the urgency of wanting to move onto the next installment and the need to dissect and appreciate the levels of what you've just seen on another level.

It's a rare treat for television to have that much of an impact on us and a sad state of affairs when scripted shows are being dumped in favor of more and more reality efforts but thanks to the BBC, the other UK networks and our friends at Acorn, at least we know that we'll always be able to find something to watch down the road even if we face another lineup of standard cops and docs shows hitting the airwaves this fall.

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Text ©2009, Film Intuition, LLC
; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com

Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited.

DVD Review: The Butcher (2007)



Now on DVD

(Two New Titles Starring Eric Roberts)





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Two brand new titles featuring Runaway Train's Oscar nominated actor Eric Roberts made their DVD premiere last week from Vivendi Entertainment. Since The Butcher's companion screener that shipped alongside it-- One Way which
stars Til Schweiger (one of the main ensemble performers of Quentin Tarantino's upcoming World War II epic Inglorious Basterds)-- has been given more coverage already including a larger theatrical release and boasts a bigger level of production polish, I opted to begin July's impromptu Eric Roberts' film festival with the lesser known Butcher.



Having been chosen as the Official Selection at both Cinema City International Film Festival and Ft. Lauderdale International Film Festival following its 2007 shoot-- this flawed yet impressively made low-budget work captured on celluloid in under a month benefits immeasurably from the diverse talents of its writer/director Jesse V. Johnson.

Simply put, he boasts an incredible resume of connect-the-dots to some of the industry's top filmmakers. Whether it was in his work as a stuntman, stunt coordinator or stunt technical adviser on pictures like Total Recall, War of the Worlds, Charlie's Angels, Mission: Impossible III and Beowulf or as a second unit director or assistant director on The Shawshank Redemption or various spinoffs in the The Young Indiana Jones series-- while Johnson still struggles as a writer of dialogue in finding a balance between his characters, he disguises all of the flaws of budget and limited time and resources with awesome stunts and crisp cinematographic precision.


Essentially it's a B movie that is striving for the same vintage Warner Brothers noir feel from the '40s about a bad man who wants to do good. And in doing so, The Butcher resides squarely in the familiar terrain of gangsters, guns and gambling as Eric Roberts is cast as the top-notch but past-his-prime hitman Merle Hench whose horrific body count he's left over the decades working for organized crime boss Murdoch (Robert Davi) is nothing compared to the debts he's accumulated as a man who never knows how to turn down a tip on a horse, fold a hand, or walk away from what someone swears is a sure thing.

Nicknamed "The Butcher" for reasons that aren't entirely clear until the conclusion of the film since the man's weapon of choice is the gun and Roberts and company fire and fetish about firepower so much throughout The Butcher at times the movie could double for an NRA ad-- when Davi's Murdoch urges Merle to begin considering retirement, he realizes he'd have absolutely no way to support himself, not to mention the beautiful waitress Jackie (Irina Björklund) he's always flirtatiously inviting to run away with him.

However, when he realizes that he's been set up by those closest to him to be left for dead as a fall guy in a strip club robbery, Merle finally hits the jackpot... at least temporarily when he leaves the club alive with millions and invites Jackie (this time without a trace of irony or humor) to give up the apron and get the hell out of Dodge. To his shock and our amazement, she agrees-- rationalizing the move by saying that if she'd turned Merle down, it's a decision she would've regretted the rest of her life but they're not even a few feet outside before Jackie realizes that he's "The Butcher" for a reason as he must return to go remove a witness who's seen them together.

And for her turn in the male dominated work,
special acknowledgment should be given to Irina Björklund for her quiet bravery and believability throughout, even when the end threatens to be a bit cliched. However, for the interim of the adventure-- Jackie makes a good partner to Merle even though nothing in Merle's plan is well-thought out. In fact, there's some pretty annoying gaps in logic as well in his actions as we question just how dense he'd have to be to keep driving around in an instantly recognizable, identifiable, originally restored, mint condition classic American automobile (probably the most expensive item in the film's budget) when they take to the lam and as Roberts decides to get his revenge.

While once again, the great Robert Davi is wasted by another tough-guy-for-hire stereotypical role-- Johnson at least tries to give him some long monologues. To this end, there are a few standouts including one that's used in a final showdown involving playing cards no less for metaphorical importance between him and Roberts near the end that would've worked better on stage. Yet as beautiful as they are, they don't match the rest of the script's tone in the least and drive the narrative to a screeching halt as the film itself takes a good long hour to get itself into gear in a way that gets the viewer in the car along with Roberts' Merle.

However, to hide the flaws, Johnson's mastery is commendable from the start as The Butcher's self-important philosophizing is drowned out by Marcello De Francisci's stunning score the alternates between cool jazz to soulful melancholy strings to a pulsating force that moves us along with our hero (or more appropriately antihero). Likewise, I can't say enough about what I'm only assuming was his vast preparation and most likely storyboarded difficult action sequences including stunts that involve so much gunfire and extras, it could've not only been dangerous but also showed its budget right there with lackluster effects.

Moreover, in a few key action moments, I was so impressed by what the filmmaker did with the fast-paced shoot that I knew right then and there that he had to have had the background he did. And this is also on display in some beautiful cinematography and intriguing camera choices like using what appears to be a sepia tone for a flashback sequence along with employing either a different lens or camera to play with the distortion and separate two different time periods or adjust the number of frames per second. Using little tricks this along with cinematographer Robert Hayes and editor Ken Blackwell helped ensure that the film doesn't fall easily into the look of the direct-to-disc trap.

Still, this being said-- from a narrative standpoint-- it's definitely not in the same league of most modern crime chamber pieces such as Paul Thomas Anderson's Hard Eight or John Dahl's You Kill Me.



And again, with the main focus being on the guns as well as Roberts' dialogue consisting too much on cliches and cheesy endearments like "dollface" when speaking to Jackie, I predict that Johnson will only improve as he continues working on his writing skills. Still, technically speaking from a production standpoint, The Butcher looks impressive enough to appear to be an A movie complete with convincing portrayals by those trying to do more with their roles than what's written on the page, although you realize that when it takes a good hour for you to become invested in the plot and the philosophizing and dialogue grows wearisome, unfortunately it's still a B that like Merle is gambling on the chance that viewers will feel it's worth the risk.

Text ©2009, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com

Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited.