Saturday, June 25, 2011

'Law Abiding Citizen' is fun in a pulp fiction way

Law Abiding Citizen (2009)
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Gerald Butler, Colm Meany, Bruce McGill, and Leslie Bibb
Director: F. Gary Gray
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Ten years after his wife and daughter are brutally murdered, a man (Butler) embarks on a flashy killing spree to extract vengeance not only on the killers, but also on the ambitious district attorney who let his concern over conviction rates supersede the pursuit of justice (Foxx) and on the entire court system. However, even after he has been caught and put in isolation in a maximum security prison, the murders continue in ever-more brutal and elaborate ways.

"Law Abiding Citizen" has its starting point in a world that feels like it could be the one just outside your window and across town where the lawyers hang out. The place where movies like "Runaway Jury", "The Star Chamber" and "Presumed Innocent" takes place. As the film progresses, its world evolves into that inhabited by the characters of Liam Neeson and Jean Claude Van Damme movies. As the film is making its transition from a courtroom-dramaesque movie into a full-blown, pulp fiction-flavored thriller with a mysterious, unstoppable killer bent on taking out the city's leading citizens, it feels a bit shaky and it becomes hard to suspend one's disbelief, but once you're in the world of remote control murders, the film is fun again.

An interesting aspect of the film is that the character we're supposed to be sympathetic toward really isn't such a nice guy. Much of the mayhem in the film comes about because he was more concerned about his career prospects as advancing as a prosecutor than seeing justice done for the brutal rape and murder of a man's wife and little daughter. Jamie Foxx's character clearly accepted a plea bargain for one of the killer/rapists primarily because he was concerned first and foremost about his conviction rate. It's hard to like this character within the context of the movie... especially when he constantly comes across as a sanctimonious hypocrite without much to balance that out. Similarly, the other character for whom we might be able to feel some sympathy toward. the widower father who feels the system has let him down, is psychopathic terrorist who is ultimately far worse than the scum who took away his family. When it comes right down to it, this is a film where our sympathies lie with the poor saps getting mowed down as a result of what these two men do. That is another reason the film feels unstable and directionless in the middle, because without a clear set of genre conventions to guide our expectations, and without a main character to root for and/or hate more than the opposing force arrayed against him, one can't help but feel there might be better ways to spend your time.

Ultimately, once the film settles into its cartoonish universe of self-centered prosecutors (who somehow still manage to not neglect their families much) and vigilante terrorists with not only the desire but also the means and skill to threaten the political and judicial class of a major American city, it turns out to be fun ride, with a far-fetched mystery plot to work out as it progresses.

Nothing here is terribly brilliant writing-, directing- or cinematography-wise, the most engaging performances are actually provided by the supporting cast--if this wasn't the case, perhaps I would have felt more for the main characters than I did--and the ending will only work for you if you were able to follow the movie from a grounded world to one of criminal masterminds and super spies. Otherwise, you will probably have something of a sour taste in your mouth as the end credits start to roll, and you will find yourself wondering if anyone knew what point they were trying to make with this movie.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Yesterday Van Damme... today Seagal!

This is a hilarious short film that sells beer while having Steven Seagal poke fun at the fact that for years has been playing parts that he hasn't been fit for in years. ("Are you the only 26 year old who has never lied?" his idiot friend asks him at one point.) And the plot isn't any more far-fetched than some of those in Seagal's real movies.

This ad ranks among Seagal's best work in years. Ladies and gentlemen, prepare yourselves for "Sheep Impact".

Craig: "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"
Seagal: "No, I'm thinking normal human thoughts."

Friday, June 17, 2011

How cold and refreshing was it, JCVD?

"Most interesting man in the world, my frost-bitten Belgian ass!"

Friday, June 3, 2011

'Andy Barker, P.I.' was a cute detective comedy

Andy Barker, P.I.: The Complete Series (2007)
Starring: Andy Richter, Tony Hale, Harve Presnell, Clea Lewis, and Marshall Manesh
Director: Jason Ensler
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

In the Spring of 2007, NBC aired six episodes of a Conan O'Brien created and produced half-hour comedy series centered around an accountant who starts working as a detective on the side when people come to his office in search of its former occupant, a hardboiled detective who retired.

Starring Andy Richter as Andy Barker, the show's comedy was generated to a large extent by the fact that Andy was a perfectly typical small business owner--with a lovely wife, two kids, and a house in the suburbs--who enjoyed working in the accounting profession. He only reluctantly gets involved in detective work, and not because he is interested in excitement or danger, but because he is interested in helping people. Unlike most lead characters in detective shows, Andy Barker's main goal is not to be a detective or a crime fighter or even famous. He's happy being a anonymous but solidly reliable accountant. As he says in one episode, "I've never filed a tax return late in my life, and I'm not going to start now!"

Much of the show's humor grows out of the contrast between the straighter-than-straight arrow Andy, the criminal element he comes in contact with, and the crazy people he meets in the course of his detective work and by just renting an office in the strip mall. The character of Andy's wife, played by a perfectly cast Clea Lewis, also brings a few laughs as she is down-to-earth enough to be a believable companion for Andy but just odd enough to be a source of humor.

Each episode of the short-lived series sees Andy dragged into a storyline that could (and probably has) been featured in any straight detective show you care to mention. Crooked cops, Russian gangsters, identity thieves, racketeers... Andy squares off against all of these, baffling and ultimately defeating them with a lot of common decency and a little dash of common sense.

The visual style of the episodes feels like the detective shows of the 1980s and 1990s, although the characters and stories are completely grounded in today. There are also numerous subtle references to classic mystery films, with Hitchcock fans in particularly finding touches to giggle at. Not so subtle mystery spoofs are also present in the form of aforementioned Lew Staziak, who is an aging tough guy private eye ripped from the pages of a dimestore novel with more than a slight touch of senile dementia.

The characters that made "Andy Barker, P.I." so much fun (left to right):
Simon (Tony Hale), Wally (Marshall Manesh), Andy & Jenny Barker
(Andy Richter and Clea Lewis), and Lew Staziak, (Harv Presnell).

The episodes break down like this:

Episode One: Andy Barker, P.I.
Andy opens his own accounting firm, taking offices on the second floor of a suburban strip mall. A woman comes to his door and, mistaking him for the former tenant, private detective Lew Staziak, begs him to find her missing husband. Andy discovers that the same sort of research talents and attention to detail that let him solve even the most baffling accounting puzzles lend themselves just as well to solving mysteries. Unfortunately, the woman who hired him was not really the man's wife, and Andy ends up leading violent criminals to the hiding place of an anti-crime crusading politician.

Episode Two: Fairway, My Lovely
When one of Andy's accounting clients drops dead on the golf course, he and the coroner write it off as natural causes, because this was a guy who liked to think of himself as "44% NOT body fat" and who put the morbid in morbidly obese. When the decedent's wife pleads Andy to look into the case, because she is certain he was murdered, Andy is confronted with two puzzles: Who killed him, and why the heck did every woman find him so attractive (including Andy's own wife). [This is arguably the funniest episode in the bunch. The storyline is also a clever mystery spoof with an ending that I'm sure you won't see coming.]

Episode Three: Three Days of the Chicken
Wally, the America-loving Afghani owner of the fast food restaurant downstairs from Andy's office, is threatened by an unscrupulous chicken distribution cartel that is forcing him to buy substandard meat. Against the advice of Lew Staziak, Andy decides to intervene... and finds himself confronted with some really fowl dealings by corrupt and deadly characters.

Episode Four: Dial M for Laptop
When Lew Staziak decides to get back into the P.I. business as Andy's partner, he forgets to tell Andy. As a result, a group of identity thieves Lew was trying to entrap steal Andy's laptop instead of the dummy laptop Andy was to give them. In less than 24 hours, Andy must locate the identity thieves not only to save Lew's client, but to also preserve his own reputation and self-respect; his father-in-law's tax return was on that laptop, unfiled, and if Andy can't retrieve he'll miss the IRS filing deadline!

Episode Five: The Big No Sleep
When Andy's baby girl loses her favorite stuffed toy, Snowball, at a charity benefit, she keeps Andy and his wife up all night crying. His search for the toy becomes complicated when he discovers that the sick woman for whom the benefit was being held was faking her illness, and that her doctor may be in on the fraud. And that doesn't even take into account the Albanian gangsters.

Episode Six: The Lady Varnishes
When Andy is called upon to clear an old girlfriend of Lew Staziak of a 50 year-old murder, the true murderer--Lew's old partner--sets out to stop him from succeeding. [Ed Asner guest-stars in this episode, presenting a hilarious character who, like Lew, seems like he just warped in from from a 1947 crime movie... and who is every bit as crazy as Lew. But more evil. James Hong and Amy Sedaris also appear in hilarious supporting roles.]

The stars and creators of "Andy Barker, P.I" had deep affection for the show, and they are of one mind that it had the potential to be a long-lived series. I'm not sure; as good as these six episodes are, I think the inherent shallowness in the half-hour format would have quickly forced the show into territory that was either repetitive or so far fetched and screwball that the charm of these first six episodes would have evaporated. However, we will never know. Although the show was moderately popular, NBC didn't think the ratings warranted its continuation.

The entire series has been released on DVD by Shout Factory. The collection features some very interesting interviews with the writers, producers, stars, and director of the series, as well as some highly informative and entertaining commentary on the episodes from the same. They really are a cut above the usual standards on these collections, and they add much value to this already worth-owning set.

You can also watch the series for free at, by clicking here.