Thursday, December 08, 2011
A rarity: the movie is far better and more engrossing than the trailer.
I'VE DONE REVIEWS FROM TIME TO TIME. I don't know how many of you subscribe to the Netflix streaming service, but I'd appreciate some input from those who do. I've been toying with the idea of setting up a website dedicated to reviews and recommendations of Netflix offerings. Their own descriptions and ratings are, well, uninformative, and it's even difficult to find what all is available. You're more or less hostage to a rotating set of recommendations by genre, based on what you've already watched. Plot synopses are truncated, sometimes in mid-sentence, and cast lists are confined to one or two names. The search function is also fairly primitive. It's almost as if they're trying to hide how much good stuff there is, from Brit, Canadian, Aussie, and even short-lived American TV series we don't get to see on cable to all kinds of movies that never made a splash in theaters.
I'll give you one movie example today, although I can give you other examples in other categories if you ask for them.
In the Action genre I found a 2008 movie called Exit Speed. According to the viewer ratings, which is all Netflix offers, it got three stars, which almost all their Action movies do. I watched it on a hunch because the pitiful descriptive blurb mentioned a bus and bikers. How bad could it be? (We all know the answer to that question. It could be completely unwatchable.) Here's the setup:
On Christmas Eve, ten strangers board a bus traveling across Texas. Far out in the wilds they collide with a meth-addicted biker. Forced off the road by other members of the gang, the passengers take refuge in the hell hole of an abandoned scrap yard...
That's about all you'll get from Netflix, except that the cast includes Lea Thompson and Desmond Harrington (Who? He's Jennifer Carpenter's sleazy cop boyfriend in Dexter.) No mention, for example, of Fred Ward or the real female lead, Julie Mond, who comes across as a tougher, leaner version of Scarlett Johansson. Who never goes topless once.
Not promising, right? Wrong. This time, somebody knew what he was doing. Or more than one somebody (Director Scott Ziehl and Writer Michael Stokes to name two.) The movie has roots in many others, including Speed, The Road Warrior, and Zulu, but the real foundation of the script is a clever modern twist on the old "Bronx Bomber Crew" ensemble casts so pervasive in World War II movies: you know, the Italian, the Irishman, the Jew, the Puerto Rican, the Alabama farmboy, the Boston Brahmin, etc, all overcoming their differences in the face of extreme peril. The outcomes of those movies were predictable, but they were also satisfying because there's truth in the stereotype of American commonality transcending real cultural differences.
That's why this movie is more than an ordinary bloody shoot'em up. The bikers are just Road Warrior evil, but among the bus passengers we have a female fugitive from an army court-martial, a grieving loser who's never seen his four-year-old son, a fired (with cause) high school football coach, a non-English speaking (presumably illegal) Mexican handyman, a vegan video-gamer, a con-artist drifter and his streetwise ex-biker moll girlfriend, and a soccer mom. And Fred Ward as the plainclothes MP tracking down the fugitive war vet.
The expository characterizations are minimalist but effective, and based on your knowledge of the action genre, you size the characters up quickly, like targets in a shooting gallery, and wait to see them fall over one by one for their sins. But then they start changing on you, revealing more of themselves, both talents and tenderness, and by the time the ones who fall do fall, you are sorry every time. Predictable? Yes. But satisfying nonetheless.
It's not trying to be ugly and gory for the sake of being ugly and gory. The violence is violent but it's appropriate rather than leering, voyeuristic violence. None of the bus passengers takes death or killing lightly. They are human beings in grave danger. And so the script becomes to a much higher degree than usual in such movies a parable of good versus evil, with some surprisingly touching and idiosyncratic turns along the way. The vegan video-gamer has become a competitive archer as a result of her gaming obsession, but she cannot aim arrows at people. Her transition is obviously a "yes!" moment, but the way it's effected is the antithesis of action movie cliches. I despise spoilers but there's an equally turnabout scene where you hurt more for the killer than the killed. Enough said. Well done.
Netflix viewers give it three stars, probably because of an insufficiency of arterial spray. I give it five stars, with a special call-out to the editor, Marshall Harvey, who kept up a nervewracking action pace without losing any of the human moments that make you care about the characters.
No, it's not Citizen Kane. Very few movies are. And, yes, it's predictable, formulaic, and a definite B-movie. But as B-movies go, it's the best I've seen in quite a while. If that means anything.
So what do you think of my Netflix site idea? Is it worth pursuing? If it is, what's the best way to go about setting it up and organizing it?