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A Fistful of Movies 

The King of Kongs; Eastern Promises; Sydney White; Shoot 'Em Up; more

There's no Maverick on view in The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (***1/2 out of four), but there are definitely an Iceman and a Goose. And if referencing Top Gun in a review about a new documentary that centers on a video game seems like a stretch, think again.

For better or (mostly) worse, Top Gun was one of the defining movies of the 1980s, and here we have a current release that equally bathes in the pungency of those times by focusing on an old-school arcade game. When the video game phenomenon exploded during the early 80s, the charge was led by such innovative -- and now charmingly retro -- challenges like "Pac-Man," "Centipede" and "Asteroids." But it was "Donkey Kong" that emerged as the most popular -- and reportedly most difficult -- of all these primitive games (I wouldn't know, having been a "Galaga" diehard myself). The King of Kong initially centers on gaming deity Billy Mitchell, who, as a teenager back in the day, set the "Kong" high-score record, a feat that hadn't come close to being equaled in over 20 years.

Right from the start, Billy comes across as being too aloof and full of himself, but we can easily admire his confidence, optimism and can-do attitude. "He's a winner," states Billy's dad, and we believe it, as evidenced by Billy's success in his "adult" career (hot sauce entrepreneur) as well as the rock-star status he enjoys within the gaming community.

But cut to the present, and along comes Steve Wiebe, a family man who, possessing a pinch of the autistic about him, proves himself to be a "Donkey Kong" player extraordinaire. Steve catches the attention of the gaming community, and the old guard begins to worry that this affable Goose can overthrow the Iceman himself. As for Billy Mitchell, he turns uglier and uglier right before our eyes, as his actions resemble those of a bratty child more than a world champion.

Documentaries about competitions (Spellbound, Mad Hot Ballroom, Wordplay) invariably lead to a climactic contest to determine who's the best of the best, but with The King of Kong, director Seth Gordon has managed to tap into a true-life tale that veers off-course more than once. It's not revealing too much to state that Steve gets the upper hand on Billy, since that occurs about midway through the movie; what's fascinating is the ensuing portrayal of Billy as a weakling afraid to tamper with his own legend and the continual emergence of Steve as a career benchwarmer who finally makes it to the big leagues, only to be frustrated by an inner clique reluctant to embrace him as a member.

A study of both chronic adolescence and the need to win (and keep winning), as well as a compendium of memorable characters (wait until you get a load of the self-named "Mr. Awesome," who's anything but), The King of Kong is a documentary that successfully takes it to the next level.
 

ONE OF THE CENTRAL GAGS in Knocked Up involves the efforts of Seth Rogen and his pals to create a Web site that catalogues all the nude appearances made in motion pictures by actresses of all ranks. Of course, sites of this nature really do appear all over the Internet, though it's unknown (at least by me) if a similar site exists that tackles male movie-star nudity with such dedication.

If so, then Viggo Mortensen's turn in David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises (***) will be right at the top of the site's "Most Searches" list. In one of the climactic scenes, Mortensen's Nikolai Luzhin, a taciturn chauffeur who works for the Vory V Zakone outfit (the Russian mafia) in London, is relaxing in a steamroom when he's attacked by two knife-wielding (and clothed) assassins. Without time to even pick up his discarded towel, he ends up fighting both assailants in the buff, and thanks to cinematographer Peter Suschitzky's camera angles, we can examine Mortensen from vantage points that even his personal doctor probably hasn't seen (it's astonishing that the prudes on the MPAA board gave the film an R instead of an NC-17). Some might think that Cronenberg is merely giving the ladies in the audience equal time, but on a thematic level, the skirmish makes sense: Nikolai has been living a life full of betrayal and deceit, and it's time to strip down to his essence in order to make an attempt to reclaim his true identity.

In a sense, Eastern Promises is a bookend to the last film made by Cronenberg and Mortensen: 2005's excellent A History of Violence, about an ordinary cafe owner who may or may not have been a vicious mobster in his earlier years. Both films run along parallel tracks, full of whispery menace, marked by probing studies of masculinity at its extreme boundaries, punctuated with bursts of sexual and violent excess, and coping with abrupt endings. A History of Violence's hurried third act still carried enough weight to leave viewers satisfied, but Eastern Promises falls a bit short in the final count, taking some turns that are far more conventional than just about anything Cronenberg has ever done in his long and eccentric career and not allowing viewers enough time to come to terms with these contrivances.

As the mob driver and occasional enforcer, Mortensen delivers a measured and restrained performance, whether dealing with the drunken son (Vincent Cassel) of the powerful crime lord (Armin Mueller-Stahl, absolutely chilling as the soft-spoken yet vicious kingpin) or trying to protect a hospital midwife (Naomi Watts) whose recovery of a dead prostitute's diary places her right in the middle of a particularly sordid scenario. Of course, his passivity disappears during that raw and realistic fight scene, one which redefines the slogan "Letting it all hang out." If only Frodo could see him now.

THE TITLE SYDNEY WHITE  (**1/2) only tells half the story: Since this is clearly a modern-day version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, a more apt marquee filler would have been Sydney White and the Seven Dorks (reportedly the movie's shooting title). Yet whatever its moniker, the news flash here is that this mallrat bait frequently rises above its formulaic trappings to score some points with more discerning audiences as well.

For that, we have to thank scripter Chad Creasey, who manages to come up with an admirable slate of contemporary alternatives to the high points in the beloved fairy tale. Here, our heroine, far more resourceful than the hapless and helpless Snow White from the Disney cartoon, is Sydney White (Amanda Bynes), who was raised by a widower dad (John Schneider), grew up around construction workers (she's handy with tools), and now trots off to college to join the sorority to which her mother belonged. But said sorority is headed by a frigid blonde beauty named Rachel (Sara Paxton), who takes an instant dislike to Sydney and does everything in her power to discredit her in the elite social circles. Eventually, Sydney ends up rooming with the campus geeks, seven misfits who benefit by her presence in their midst. Meanwhile, a handsome prince shows up in the form of Tyler (Matt Long), a fraternity president who responds to Sydney's warmth and quirky sense of humor.

That a hunky frat boy would show empathy for the college nerds -- let alone date beneath his Greek status -- is a more fantastical notion than anything dreamed up by Walt Disney, Hans Christian Andersen or the Brothers Grimm, but swallow that contrivance and the rest largely falls into place. Too often, Creasey grows slack with the satire, and what's left is a standard teen comedy, no better and no worse than many others that have glutted the multiplexes. But when Creasey's game is on, the movie is both clever and charming. The updates to the magic mirror and the poison apple are both inspired, yet what really won me over was the spin on "Heigh-Ho." And no, I won't reveal it here.

IT WAS SIMPLER back in 1974, when it was called Death Wish. After thugs murder his wife and rape his daughter, businessman Charles Bronson hits the streets with the purpose of blowing away any and all human vermin. As a film, it's unpretentious, straightforward and effective as hell.

The Brave One (**1/2) is basically a retread of Death Wish, only with a sex change for its protagonist and, given the director (The Crying Game's Neil Jordan) and star, a more distinguished pedigree. It also purports to add dramatic heft to the moral implications of the situation at hand, with an ad line that blares, "How Many Wrongs To Make It Right?" But the movie itself clearly doesn't believe in its own promotion, resulting in a finished product that works as exploitation (like Death Wish) but fails at anything more socially relevant.

Jodie Foster stars as Erica Bain, the host of a particularly dreadful-sounding New York City radio show called Street Walk. She and her fiancé David (Naveen Andrews) are blissfully happy, but everything changes after a brutal attack by street punks leaves David dead and Erica in a coma. Once Erica awakens, she's become a different person, afraid of the city she calls home and terrified by even the thought of leaving her apartment. Mustering up her courage, she goes out and illegally buys a gun for protection.

Quickly learning that happiness is a warm gun, she sets about using the weapon on anyone who threatens her, from punks on the subway to a killer in a convenience store. Detective Sean Mercer (Terrence Howard) obviously has no love for the victims, but he feels that it's nevertheless his duty to stop this vigilante. Via a massive coincidence, he also becomes friends with Erica, little suspecting (at least at first) that she and the vigilante are the same person.

Obviously believing they're creating something meaningful, Jordan and scripters Roderick Taylor, Bruce A. Taylor and Cynthia Mort add superfluous moments that lessen rather than heighten the story's impact. Most tasteless of all is a sequence in which shots of the doctors cutting off Erica's bloody clothes after the attack are intercut with flashbacks of David gently removing Erica's clothes during a lovemaking session (Sarah McLachlan's "Answer" is playing in the background during the whole scene, and won't that stir gruesome memories the next time viewers hear this plaintive ballad on the radio!).

Still, the very setup of the movie makes it impossible not to line up firmly behind Erica, and on that primal level, The Brave One delivers the goods, as a string of evil men get what's coming to them. Tempering the bloodshed is the openhearted relationship that develops between Erica and Sean, as he provides her with a sympathetic ear. Howard is effectively low-key in his role, just as Foster brings everything to the table for her emotionally anguished performance. I just wish that she would accept a part that would allow her to again justify her standing as one of America's greatest thespians. Foster is rarely less than excellent, but for years now, she's settled into making movies in which she portrays a largely desexed woman who's all business and no pleasure (Panic Room, Flightplan, Inside Man, etc.). Mind you, I'm not suggesting an insipid romantic comedy opposite someone like Bruce Willis, but I'm sure there's a happy medium to be found somewhere.

BETWEEN THIS PAST SPRING'S The Hoax and now The Hunting Party (**1/2), Richard Gere continues to demonstrate that he's in his prime as an actor -- left behind are the smug smiles and crinkling of the eyes that passed for character development in many of his earlier films. And between the new releases The Brave One and The Hunting Party, Terrence Howard is fulfilling his promise as a rapidly ascending actor, having already scored an Oscar nomination for Hustle & Flow and continuing to choose interesting roles. The Hunting Party benefits immeasurably by having both along for the ride.

Writer-director Richard Shepard's The Matador, about the relationship between a hit man (Pierce Brosnan) and a family man (Greg Kinnear), was a smooth blend of jet-black comedy and hard-edged drama, and it's clear that he's going for the same mix again. Therefore, we find television journalist Simon Hunt (Gere) and cameraman Duck (Howard) covering the world's hot spots, drinking, joking and whoring as they make their way through dangerous terrain en route to various awards banquets honoring them for their achievements. But one day, a slaughter in a Bosnian village causes Simon to lose it on the air, and as a result, his career is over.

Five years later, Duck (since promoted to a desk job) returns to that particular area, with a virgin reporter (Jesse Eisenberg) -- the son of a network V.P. -- in tow. They encounter a disheveled Simon, who needs Duck's help to land an exclusive interview with an exiled war criminal known as The Fox (Ljubomir Kerekes). Soon, the trio is combing the mountains for The Fox's hideout, mistaken for CIA agents and putting their lives in considerable danger.

Loosely based on an Esquire article by Scott Anderson, The Hunting Party opens with a disclaimer that "only the most ridiculous parts are true." As it stands, that's only partially correct. It's no problem accepting that everyone (including the CIA and the United Nations) knows the whereabouts of the world's most heinous war criminals but can't be bothered to apprehend them; we are, after all, living in a country that gave up the hunt for Osama bin Laden a long time ago, and bureaucratic incompetence is all too easy to believe. Rather, the ridiculous parts of the film that are hard to digest are the ones that feel more like movie conventions than anything based in the real world: the Lethal Weapon banter between the two leads, the shoehorning in of a sketchy character (Eisenberg's) for nebbishy comic relief, the dramatic last-minute rescues. It's a testament to the convictions of Gere and Howard that the movie succeeds at all; without them, The Hunting Party would continually be shooting itself in the foot.

A CONFIRMATION has proven difficult to nail down, but it's long been rumored that Clive Owen, who was seriously considered for the role of James Bond, turned it down early in the series revamping process, presumably because the Oscar-nominated Closer actor wanted the freedom to explore more serious fare. But if Shoot 'Em Up (**) -- the antithesis of "serious fare" -- is any indication, Owen turned down the role because -- let's face it -- Bond is kind of a wuss when compared to the he-man Owen plays in this nonstop demolition derby of a movie.

Certainly, 007 bedded his share of women in the Ian Fleming franchise, and plugged holes through an endless succession of villainous henchmen. But both at the same time? A piece of cake for Owen's singularly named Smith, who never experiences coitus interruptus with sex partner Donna Quintano (Monica Bellucci) even as he rolls around the bed and floor (and slams up against the wall) while simultaneously banging Ms. Quintano and bang-banging the baddies. "Talk about shooting your load," he quips upon completion of his twin tasks.

Clearly, Shoot 'Em Up is simplistic, nihilistic, misogynistic, sadistic and just about any other "-istic" that comes to mind. Just as clearly, this is the movie that writer-director Michael Davis obviously wanted to make: It's a picture with a purpose, and that purpose is to shoot first and never get around to asking questions later. From its opening scene to its final image, it's an orgy of death and destruction, and while gorehounds and fanboys will line up (if only to see two examples of death by carrot stick), it's 50-50 as to whether other palates will savor this particular dish. To be honest, I found the first half-hour extremely painful, but once the absurdist heights to which Davis aspires become obvious, the remainder is easier to endure.

Sharing some plot DNA with Eastern Promises, the story involves the protection of a newborn (and instantly orphaned) baby by folks who want to keep the child out of the clutches of murderous mobsters. That's pretty much where the similarity between the two films ends, as Shoot 'Em Up takes its cue from Looney Tunes cartoons (Smith even says "What's up, doc?" while munching on a carrot) more than anything else except maybe the Quentin Tarantino oeuvre. This stylish but soulless picture also gives us a lactating hooker (don't ask), a having-its-cake-and-slinging-it-too plot strand involving the blessings of gun control (this from a movie that makes The Wild Bunch look like On Golden Pond by comparison), and a sneering turn by Paul Giamatti as an eye-rolling scumbag who at one point exclaims, "Fuck me sideways!" Sideways? Is that line merely a coincidence, or a deliberate reference to Giamatti's career high point? Only the actor's agent knows for sure.

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