Welcome to NICKPICKSFLICKS. I am your host for the evening, America's sweetheart, Nick Spake.
5 Stars= Totally Rocks
3 Stars= Rad
2 Stars= Bad
1 Star= Terrible
Zero= Total Crap
Just Reviewed The Guest-September 17th
Interview with Dan Stevens-September 17th
Just Reviewed The November Man-August 27th
Interview with Roger Donaldson-August 26th
Just Reviewed Sin City and When the Game Stands Tall-August 22nd
Hey, if Matthew Crawley showed up at my house, I'd let him in in a heartbeat too. ***1/2
Between “No Good Deed” and “The Guest,” September is really shaping up to be the month of home invasion/sleeping with the enemy movies. What makes “The Guest” much more interesting that other film, however, is that it’s not entirely clear if the home invader wants to be the homeowner’s friend or enemy. At some point in our lives, we’ve all had somebody we’ve wanted to get rid of, be it a school bully, sleazy boyfriend, or boss. You might wish for a dark guardian angel to come to your rescue and take care of the person ruining your life. In the event that dark guardian actually did appear, though, would you be more relieved or horrified? On top of that, would you call the cops on this guy or let him do your dirty work?
Dan Stevens of “Downton Abbey” finds himself in a completely different role as David, a soldier who arrives at the Peterson family’s doorstep. David claims to be a friend of Caleb, the eldest Peterson child who was killed in Afghanistan. Longing to fill the hole Caleb left behind, the family takes an instant shine to the kindly David. If the Peterson’s weren’t so distraught and watched more horror movies, they’d know that somebody as soft-spoken as David must be concealing psychopathic tendencies behind all that collectiveness.
It turns out that David is indeed harvesting a dark passenger, going after all the people who have wronged the Petersons. The only family member who suspects something’s up with David is Anna, the daughter played by Maika Monroe. She tries opening her family’s eyes, but they all think David is just the greatest thing since sliced bread. In another movie, this could get really annoying, not to mention frustrating. The reason it works here is mainly because you’re not always sure what David’s intentions truly are.
Stevens is chillingly effective as David, but you also get the idea that he’s simply having a ball in this role. He perfectly fits the movie’s tone, which falls between thrilling and twistedly playful. His character is a bit like Denzel Washington’s in “The Equalizer,” but David definitely leans more towards the homicidal side. His intentions are more vague than Washington’s, as it’s not clear if he’s doing these things for the sake of justice or for more devious reasons. He’s the epitome of mysterious and he keeps us guessing up until the exciting final act.
“The Guest” was directed by Adam Wingard and Written by Simon Barrett, who made the pleasant surprise, “You’re Next.” So many other filmmakers these days are oblivious of how to properly make a thriller, thinking that being disgusting or being distractingly artistic equals terror. Wingard and Barrett know how to get the genre just right, crafting some legitimately stimulating set pieces, incorporating just the right amount of dark humor, and developing twists that actually add up. The people who keep making those stupid “Saw” and “Purge” movies, please study these guys. They know what they’re doing and can teach you a thing or two.
Nick talks with Dan Stevens of “The Guest.”
Nick Spake: Your character in “The Guest” is probably the greatest departure from Mathew Crawley in “Downton Abbey” you possibly could have taken. What got you interested in the project?
Dan Stevens: When I stepped away from “Downton Abbey,” I was looking to do something quite different. I never thought I’d get the chance to step into a genre like “The Guest.” It’s the kind of film I grew up loving with a real sense of fun, playing with the audience. At the end of the day, that’s what I’m really all about.
NS: What’s it like playing a character who might be deranged and homicidal, but the audience never knows his true intentions until the final act?
DS: That was part of the fun really. We didn’t want to give the game away from the beginning. We felt we had to work up to that, which is a much more entertaining journey.
NS: Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett previously made “You’re Next.” Between these two films, they seem to have a real attraction to movies with a home invasion theme. What’s do you think the appeal is?
DS: “The Guest” is a very polite and slow home invasion thriller, unlike “You’re Next” which was much more violent in its invasion. It’s a more subtle game they play with my character. Adam and Simon were really looking to step out of their comfort zone and I was looking for something a little bit different too. So we met somewhere in the middle.
NS: What attracts you to the thriller/horror genre?
DS: The horrors and the thrills. The comedic element of “The Guest” also really appeals to me. The script made me laugh from beginning to end. To make the audience laugh as well as scare them is a great victory.
NS: What do you think distinguishes “The Guest” from all the other horror movies out there?
DS: I think it distinguishes itself by not being a horror movie. It’s more of a black comedy action thriller.
NS: What’s your favorite horror/thriller cliché?
DS: If the lights don’t work, don’t go there.
NS: One last question. Can you describe the worst houseguest you’ve ever had?
DS: I don’t know. I’ve always had great guests. I’ve been lucky.
NS: Well, let’s just be glad you’ve never had one like your character in “The Guest.”
Sixteen cliches, people! **1/2
Gather around, everyone. It’s time to go over another checklist movie. So exactly how many action clichés does “The November Man” cram into 98 minutes? The ex-CIA agent who comes out of retirement to take on a personal mission, check. A beautiful love interest in over her head, check. A former pupil turned rival, check. Several chases both in cars and on foot, double check. Walking away from an explosion without looking back, check. Gratuitous female nudity, none of which is provided by any of the leading actresses, check. Tragic back stories, check. An assassin who isn’t very good at killing our main characters, check. Interrogation scenes, check. A fat, slimy scoundrel who hangs out in a strip club, check. Exotic backdrops, check. Russian bad guys, check. A daughter who only exists to get kidnapped at the last minute, check. Expendable characters that disappear with no explanation, check. A plot that doesn’t make a ton of sense, check.
Sixteen! That’s sixteen clichés, almost twice as many clichés that “Ride Along” scored on its checklist last January. There are probably plenty of others I overlooked too, as most of these clichés zoom by so fast that you can’t catch them all in one viewing. Some clichés never die or grow old. In the case of “The November Man,” Roger Donaldson’s thriller is actually kind of fun despite its clichéd nature. The film still isn’t quite worthy of a recommendation because the story is just too familiar and all over the place. On a mindless entertainment level, however, it is worth checking out once it comes to Redbox in a few months.
Pierce Brosnan, who’s always fun as long as he’s not singing, does a fine job as Peter Devereaux. As mentioned in the checklist above, Peter is a former CIA operative who comes back to protect a witness that might bring down the Russian president-elect. The witness is Alice Fournier, played by none other than Olga Kurylenko of “Quantum of Solace.” Wait a minute; Olga Kurylenko has gone from acting opposite Daniel Craig to acting opposite Pierce Brosnan? All she needs now is to star with Sean Connery, Roger Moore, and Timothy Dalton and she’ll have won Bond Bingo.
The problem with her character is that “The November Man” can never decide what she’s supposed to be to Peter. A love scene is alluded to, but never made clear. The two never have an actual conversation that doesn’t revolve around the plot or the fact that they’re in danger. So is she a lover, a friend, or just part of the job to Peter? Whatever they’re supposed to be, the chemistry just isn’t there.
Matters only get more complicated when Peter is targeted by David Mason (Luke Bracey), a former friend and apprentice who has little reservations about killing people. Among all the characters in the film, he’s the one who gets the most development. With that said, there are a lot of characters here that have no development whatsoever. Eliza Taylor plays Bracey’s neighbor and sort-of girlfriend, but her character amounts to nothing. Amila Terzimehic plays a hit woman pursuing Peter and Alice, but is defeated like a complete armature. Most of the time you’ll have difficulty remembering who these characters are, who they’re working for, and what they want. By the time the film’s over, you’re not even sure if anything was accomplished at all.
The reason “The November Man” works better than it might have is mainly because of the talent involved. Roger Donaldson of “The Bank Job” knows how to make an action picture and of course Pierce Brosnan is great at selling this kind of material. If you’re really forgiving, you might find yourself getting into “The November Man.” If this all sounds too cliché and sloppy for your taste, though, it’s a definite skip. For me, the film was a decent enough excuse to turn off my brain for just under two hours.
Nick Talks with Roger Donaldson, the Director of “The November Man”
NS: “The November Man” stars Pierce Brosnan, who is of course best known for playing James Bond, and Olga Kurylenko, who starred opposite of this generations James Bond in “Quantum of Solace.” Coincidence?
RD: I think it is a coincidence really. Olga is playing a very different kind of character in this film. The only thing they have in common is that they’re both spies.
NS: You've directed a variety of thriller-related movies like “No Way Out,” “The Bank Job,” and now “The November Man.” Why does this genre appeal to you as a director?
RD: Every story has to be driven by suspense in a way. Sustaining suspense is not easy and it’s one of the things I always enjoy the challenge of.
NS: What other thriller movies have had the greatest impact on you?
RD: I remember as a kid seeing movies like “The 39 Steps” and “Three Days of the Condor,” sitting in the dark and not knowing what the outcome was going to be. I think it would be unfair if I said I only wanted to make thrillers because I enjoy all sorts of genres of film.
NS: What does it feel like working with Pierce Brosnan again almost twenty years after “Dante's Peak?”
RD: God, was it that long ago?!? Time flies when you’re having fun. Pierce and I have been friends for a long time. We were always talking about doing something together again and then along came this movie.
NS: What do you think is the key to a good action movie?
RD: For me, I’m always more interested when an action films feel more like reality. In this case, all of our stunts are real. They aren’t created by a computer. They’re created by crazy guys who will do dangerous things.
NS: What's your favorite action movie cliché?
RD: The action movie is a cliché in itself. It’s a genre that demands bullets flying and explosions. That’s what the audience expects and if you didn’t give them that they wouldn’t show up.
NS: Did you read Bill Granger's novel, “There Are No Spies,” or any of his other novels in this series prior to getting involved with this project?
RD: I didn’t read it. The script had already been written and I wasn’t really interested in going back to square one to unravel something from the past. The original books were set in the 60s. It’s a very different sort of reality now in terms of technology that dictates crimes.
NS: What can you tell us about New Zealand's Film Commission, which you co-founded?
RD: I made some of the first films in New Zealand a long time ago. The success of those films became a rallying cry for the film community there to get the government to recognize that cinema had a legitimate place in reflecting New Zealand. It’s fantastic to see how far New Zealand film has come with talented filmmakers like Peter Jackson.
NS: What can you tell me about your next film, “Icarus Factor?”
RD: First of all, I’m not sure what I’m doing next. I love that particular film because it’s about the importance of money and how the world operates. Also, I’ve written a script about a father driving his daughter to college. It explores the diverse ideas of what families are. I got a few other projects in development about car racing in the late 30s and a big World War movie. So there’s plenty happening.
Eva Green shows us more of her boobs, Jessica Alba shows us neither of her boobs ****
It took almost eight years for a sequel to Frank Miller’s “300” to hit theaters. Then when “300: Rise of an Empire” finally came out five months ago, it quickly became clear that this sequel never needed to exist in the fist place. The best characters were all dead, the most interesting part of the story had been told, and there was really nothing left to do but throw the same flashy visuals at the audience. It’s taken even longer for Miller and Robert Rodriguez to get a sequel to 2005’s “Sin City” off the ground. Unlike “300: Rise of an Empire,” however, there’s still more than enough character, story, atmosphere to warrant another visit to Sin City.
The original “Sin City” was one of the most visually distinctive, gloriously violent, and flat out fun action pictures of the past decade, literally brining Miller’s striking neo-noir comic to life. “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” is pretty much guaranteed to entertain anybody who was a fan of that film. It’s still not as fresh or funny as the original. How could it possibly be? The film does deliver exactly what one would want out of a “Sin City” sequel, though. Stunning black and white cinematography, sharp dialog that walks a fine line between being over the top and laughable, ridiculous hard-R violence, classy nudity, and Mickey Rourke.
Like the first film, “A Dame to Kill For” mainly consists of three intertwining tales, two of which were written exclusively for this movie. The most engaging story of the bunch stars Josh Brolin, taking over for Clive Owen as Dwight McCarthy. He’s been attempting to leave his former life of sin behind, but gets sucked back in by his ex-lover Ava (Eva Green). She’s a seductive little vixen who is being terrorized by her billionaire husband and needs Dwight to take her away. As the classic film noir plot thickens, Dwight finds that there’s a greater scheme cooking up behind the scenes. While Owen is missed, Brolin is a natural choice to step into Dwight’s antihero shoes. Green, who was easily the best part of “300: Rise of an Empire,” was tailor-made for this material and always knows just how much of the scenery to chew up.
Our second tale introduces Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Johnny, a cocky gambler who comes to Sin City to score big while also settling a personal score. He sets his eyes on Senator Roark, played by Powers Boothe who has based his entire career on playing corrupt politicians. Johnny isn’t the only one with a grudge against Roark. Jessica Alba returns in what’s still the best role of her career as Nancy, a stripper who never actually gets completely naked. Although to be fair, Eva Green more than compensates for that. Nancy is gunning for revenge after the death of Bruce Willis’ Hartigan in the last film and won’t rest until Roark has a bullet in his head. The problem is that she just can’t quite bring herself to pull the trigger.
Not every storyline in “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” has a magnificent payoff. There’s a particular subplot involving two cops played by Christopher Meloni and Jeremy Piven that could have been cut out altogether. Yet, it’s easy to let this slide because all these characters are just so darn interesting to listen to. You could listen to one of them monologue about picking out furniture from IKEA and it would be awesome. Like any good noir story, “Sin City” is all about characters and it has more than enough to go around.
Throughout the various stories, fan favorites like Jamie Chung’s Miho, Rosario Dawson’s Gail, and Jamie King’s Wendy/Goldie all drop by. The standout is still Mickey Rourke as Marv, an unstoppable human tank with nothing to lose. Although he got the electric chair in the last film, “A Dame to Kill For” takes place before Marv’s “The Hard Goodbye.” Good thing as one movie wasn’t enough to contain Marv, who plays an active part in every chapter here. This is the role that rebooted Rourke’s acting career, making leeway for him to land parts in movies like “The Wrestler.” He’s reason enough to keep coming back to “Sin City” for seconds and maybe even thirds somewhere down the line. Actually, if they ever make another “300” movie, Marv would be the ideal candidate to lead the Spartans to victory. Crossover, anyone?
Remember the Spartans ***1/2
Pretty much every inspirational sports movie from the past two and a half decades follows the same basic recipe for success. A struggling team of misfits, or sometimes just one underdog, has nowhere to go but up. Then through strenuous training montages and the support of a dedicated coach, the team and/or underdog achieves sweat victory. “When the Game Stands Tall” doesn’t transcend or revolutionize the sports movie formula. It consists of many archetypes and plot points we’ve already seen a million times before. The film does change up the formula in some respects, however, making for a slightly less conventional picture than initially expected.
Inspired by the true story of the De La Salle High School Spartans and Neil Hayes’ book of the same name, “When the Game Stands Tall” begins where most sports movies would have ended. Instead of following this high school football team from the start, the film picks up just as they’ve won 151 games straight. They hold the longest winning streak for any American sport so naturally the team has nowhere to go but down with everything to lose. The Spartans do indeed eventually fumble and lose the first game of the season, bringing their rein of triumph to a close. From here, “When the Game Stands Tall” plays less like an underdog’s road to glory and more like a tale of redemption.
After being tortured and nearly crucified by Mel Gibson, Jim Caviezel is finally starting to make a comeback in the mainstream movie market. He gives one of his best performances as Coach Bob Ladouceur, who has been with the Spartans since they won game one of their winning streak. Although he’s under constant pressure and has unbelievable expectations to live up to, he doesn’t care that much about what the folks in the bleachers think about him or even about the streak. All he really cares about is teaching his players what it means to be a team and to grow up. Ladouceur doesn’t deviate much from the familiar motivating coach character who comes complete with all of these sports movies. Nevertheless, Caviezel offers just the right amount grit, sincerity, regret, and restraint to sell this character to us. The same can be said about pretty much all the other actors.
This isn’t a movie full of original characters with Laura Dern as Ladouceur’s supportive wife, Matthew Daddario as Ladouceur’s neglected son, Michael Chiklis as the assistant coach, Alexander Ludwig as a running back trying to please his abusive father, Ser’Darius Blain as a player with an uncertain future, and Stephan James as another player with a tragic fate. None of them make for fantastic characters you remember walking out the theater like in “Friday Night Lights” and “Remember the Titans.” Part of that’s because the screenplay can occasionally feel awkwardly paced, juggling a lot of characters and only giving a handful of them solid character development every fifteen minutes. The actors all make the most of their screen time, however, creating people we can’t help but root for.
The message behind Director Thomas Carter’s film is that football isn’t about records and legacies. It’s about how you play the game. Is “When the Game Stands Tall” the greatest game ever played or the greatest sports movie ever made? No, but it is a very well assembled, well shot film with strong performances and a moral it never backs down from, most notably in the inspired climax. If you’ve been officially worn out by the very prospect of another sports movie, this one probably isn’t for you. For all those sports movie junkies out there, though, “When the Game Stands Tall” provides just enough new and old material to keep the fans cheering.
Nick chats with Thomas Carter, Director of “When the Game Stands Tall.”
NS: It seems like the inspirational sports movie trend really blew up in the 90s with movies like The Mighty Ducks, but then at the beginning of the 21st century, sports films started to become more adult with “Remember the Titans,” “Glory Road,” and “Coach Carter,” which you directed. Do you think sports films have significantly evolved in the pasty decade or so?
TC: I haven’t really tracked them. I guess in “Friday Night Lights” we saw an edgier look. It was more of a critical eye of our obsession with sports and the damage it can do.
NS: What draws you to sports movies like “Coach Carter” and “When the Game Stands Tall?”
TC: “Coach Cater” I was interested in because I’m a big champion of education. That movie was very much about a coach who took a bold stand to focus on student rather than athlete. “When the Game Stands Tall” is just an inspiring story because Coach Bob Ladouceur is interested in building young men or character not just on the field, but off the field. A sense of loyalty, commitment, brotherhood, selflessness, discipline, personal responsibility, he wants to instill these principles in these kids. He’s as much a teacher as he is a coach.
NS: I find it interesting that most sports movies focus on a teams rise to victory, but in "When the Game Stands Tall," the Spartans are already on top and have everything to lose. Then when their streak does finally end, the film plays for like a tale of redemption.
TC: You’re absolutely right. The challenge of making the film was figuring out how do you make a movie about a team that never loses. That’s why we chose to start the movie towards the end of the streak to see where the team would grow and come to together as brothers. It gave me something to stretch for as a storyteller.
NS: What do you think is the greatest sports-related movie ever made?
TC: I’m a big fan of “Remember the Titans.” I also really like “Moneyball,” which isn’t purely a sports movie, but it is another way of looking at sports.
NS: Many years before you directed “Coach Carter,” you played a character in “The White Shadow,” a television series about a basketball team at an inner-city high school. How did your work on this show impact your career in show business?
TC: “The White Shadow” is where I first began to direct. I was afforded the opportunity to go to film school on the job.
NS: Did you play basketball at all before landing a role in “The White Shadow?”
TC: I did play basketball. Strangely enough, I didn’t play high school sports because I was in the theater department. But I was playing a lot of sandlot basketball and those games are very aggressive in Los Angeles.
NS: Do you play basketball anymore or any other sports for that matter?
TC: No, but I am a huge basketball fan and am a season ticket holder for the Lakers.
NS: In addition to sports, a lot of the projects you take on seem to have a dance-related theme. You notably directed “Swing Kids,” “Save the Last Dance,” and even a couple episodes of “Fame.” What's your attraction to the dance genre?
TC: I’ve just always been excited by music. Even when I did the pilot for “Miami Vice” I put music in a television show in a way it hadn’t really been used before. I just find it to be a great way to accentuate the drama or create great psychological subtext.
NS: Was the Spartans 151 game winning streak a story you followed or did you first read about it in Neil Hayes novel, which inspired this film?
TC: Neil Hayes’ book is a great account of that. He followed them for a whole year. I first heard about it by reading an early draft of the script and from there I jumped in to do the research.
NS: Did you ever get to meet Coach Bob Ladouceur or any of the real life players who inspired this story?
TC: Yeah, I met Bob Ladouceur and went to two state championship games in the course of developing this movie. I think that we caught the essence of them.
NS: Is there a particular figure or event in sports history you would love to bring to the screen?
TC: For years I was interested in developing a project about Jackie Robinson. I became friends with Rachel Robinson, his widow, and she’s such a fantastic lady. Other than that I don’t have a particular movie I’d like to do, although I am interested in doing something with the San Antonio Spurs.
NS: As a basketball fan, how do you feel about LeBron going back to Cleveland?
TC: I was never routing for Miami so I think it’s fantastic he’s playing for Cleveland again.
“When the Game Stands Tall” opens August 22nd.