Movie Review ~ The Last Stand

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The leader of a drug cartel busts out of a courthouse and speeds to the Mexican border, where the only thing in his path is a sheriff and his inexperienced staff.

Stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Forest Whitaker, Johnny Knoxville, Rodrigo Santoro, Jaimie Alexander, Luis Guzmán, Eduardo Noriega, Peter Stormare, Zach Gilford, Genesis Rodriguez, Daniel Henney, John Patrick Amedori

Director: Kim Jee-Woon

Rated: R

Running Length: 107 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review:  He’s back.  I mean, he always said he’d be back…right?  After exercising his political muscles as Governor of California and appearing in a few cameo roles (like The Expendables 2) Schwarzenegger is back headlining another shoot ‘em up actioner that’s heavy on ammunition but light on any semblance of subtlety.  Ok, I’m sure you wouldn’t be lining up to see a Schwarzenegger flick that’s described as subtle but is it too much to ask for a film of this ilk to play to the strengths of its star?

Though it’s constructed and filmed with its head firmly planted in 80’s action flicks, The Last Stand seems to forget that these films were fun at heart so it sacrifices some great camp opportunities in favor of letting its cast shamefully overact amidst dizzying gun battles and laughable moments of misguided exposition.  It’s probably not a good thing if you come away from a film saying that Schwarzenegger was the best actor of the bunch…or am I wrong?

Schwarzenegger heads the cast as a sheriff of a small border town going head to head with minions of a drug lord (Noriega, Tesis) that have descended into town to clear the way for their boss to continue his escape from federal agents into Mexico.  The premise sounds like a perfect fit for Schwarzenegger and to a large extent the actor glides easily with the material.  The problem is that the soggy script from Andrew Knauer, Jeffrey Nachmanoff, and George Nolfi feels like it has been around for over a decade and it’s gathered a lot of dust.  I keep considering that maybe it was a pet project for Schwarzenegger before he took office.

Respected Korean director Kim Jee-Woon (I Saw the Devil) is making his US debut with the film and I can only liken it to when Hong Kong’s equally well-regarded John Woo made his first picture stateside, the misfire Jean Claude Van-Damme vehicle Hard Target.  It’s clear the director has style and good instincts but he seems restricted here and never guides the picture to achieve a balance between all of the elements it introduces. 

That goes double for a largely forgettable cast that’s all over the map.  Whitaker looks totally lost in it all…until the movie forgets that he’s a top billed actor and jettisons his character for the latter half of the film.  Knoxville continues to play arrested development imbeciles all the way to the bank and his pajama wearing, gun-loving doofus is anything but the comedic relief it’s intended to be.  As the right hand man to the kingpin, Stormare once again goes for the gold in the crazy meter and achieves liftoff early on.  Alexander, Gilford, Guzman, and Santoro are Schwarzenegger’s allies but any attempt to make them dynamic characters is a failure. 

That leaves us with Schwarzenegger to make the picture tolerable and he almost makes it work.  With some guffaw-inducing scenes where he looks positively crazy thanks to his nutso hairstyle, the movie begins to buckle under the weight of so much wasted energy.  At a baffling 107 minutes the movie could use a 15 minute trim, tightening up the action scenes and losing needless detours involving Schwarzenegger’s past.

Though there are a few clever methods used to dispatch the endless array of bad guys, The Last Stand is sadly not the comeback picture that I’m sure Schwarzenegger intended it to be — it’s embarrassing box office performance assures that no sequel will be considered.  Schwarzenegger already has several other projects in the works so let’s chalk this one up to the star dipping his toes back in the pool he helped fill throughout the 80’s and 90’s.

31 Days to Scare ~ Tesis

The Facts:

Synopsis: Ángela is a young student at a film school in Madrid who finds a snuff movie in which a young girl is tortured and killed. Soon she discovers that the girl was a former student at her school…and her killer is closer than she thinks…

Stars: Ana Torrent, Fele Martínez and Eduardo Noriega

Director: Alejandro Amenábar

Rated: R

Running Length: 125 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: What is the fascination that some people have with the mythology of snuff films?  Ever since pictures could be put on film it seems that there is always someone that needs to see more, wants to view pain…it’s pretty disturbing stuff.  For decades, well-worn VHS tapes have been passed around underground railroad-style to cinephiles that claim to show actual people being murdered.  The popular Faces of Death films are the closest we’ve come to seeing these types of films released commercially.  I, for one, have zero interest in seeing anything remotely close to death onscreen…squirming even at movies that feature animals being killed for religious purposes. 

Snuff films were the subject of two late 90’s movies (there probably were more) and both films are noteworthy in their wallowing in some pretty icky material.  1999’s 8MM was a US film starring Nicolas Cage that David Fincher was originally supposed to direct.  After he left the project Joel Schumacher took over and the resulting picture was a sleazy affair that was more odiously offensive than scary. 

When the Spanish film Tesis was released in 1996 it became something of a phenomenon in Spain…winning seven Goya Awards (the Spanish equivalent to our Oscar) including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay.  The only award it didn’t win was Best Actress…and rightfully so…but more on that later.

Tesis is a scary film, no doubt, but it derives its thrills from letting us merely hear the violence that is happening but only rarely see it.  For a film that involves a video where a girl is tortured and eventually dismembered via chainsaw, it’s not too gory and the blood flows slowly.  There’s a casual nature to how the film evolves…adding maybe a little too much padding to its bloated running time.  There are too many moments meant to ratchet up the tension that unfortunately let the air out of the scene due to some clumsy camera work and an even clumsier performance by our lead actress…but (again) more on her later.

It’s hard to view the 1996 film from our tech savvy perspective now because so much of the technology our characters use in the film seems out of the Stone Age.  VHS players, chunky phones, pagers, and the like elicit some guffaws when you consider how far we’ve come in the last two decades.  How much of the twists the film holds would hold up were it made now…I think a totally different film would have emerged utilizing the internet to its advantage.

Director Amenábar is noteworthy here for directing Nicole Kidman in the chilly/creepy The Others and that same attention to what scares you is present in this early film.  There are a few moments that made me wish I wasn’t watching it in such a dark basement by myself.  I instinctively pulled the blanket I was sitting under practically over my head when the lights zapped out on our actors at one point.  A truly scary finale should send you to bed with several lights on and a flashlight under your bed for good measure.

If the movie lags it’s not due to Amenábar’s direction or script but in his casting of Torrent as our leading lady.  Bland and nearly comatose for most of the film, she’s every horror film’s worst nightmare in that she can’t find any middle ground to operate on.  She’s so spineless that she can’t make any decision for herself and she’s too independent to let anyone talk any sense into her.  Torrent doesn’t ruin the film by any stretch of the imagination but one wonders what would have happened if Amenábar had cast someone with a bit more spunk in the role.  That way, when we see something that is actually scaring her…we can understand just how terrified she must be.  As it is, you get the impression that a wrinkled pair of slacks would scare her if the light caught them just right.

As with films like Julia’s Eyes, The Uninvited Guest, and The Orphanage, Tesis fits in nicely with the high-class ranks of Spanish horror.  It for sure has its moments that will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up…but it also has a decent story at its core.   It’s a miracle the film was never remade for the US…but I’m sure that the dismal failure of 8MM made it less desirable for movie studios.