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12 Rounds (2009)

Director: Renny Harlin
Starring: John Cena, Aiden Gillen, Ashley Scott, Steve Smith
Rated PG-13  Running time: 108 minutes
Released by 20th Century Fox

It's loud! It's dumb! It's improbable! It's also one of the best action movies of the year, and most shockingly, it stars wrestling superstar John Cena. Cena plays New Orleans cop Danny Fisher, who foils a plot orchestrated by international arms dealer and all around d-bag Miles Jackson (Aiden Gillen; Mayor Carcetti from "The Wire"). As he is being apprehended, Jackson says, "I'll remember you." And he does. A year later, Cena's girlfriend (Ashley Scott) is kidnapped by Jackson, and Cena is forced to solved a series of twelve puzzles in order to save her. Twelve puzzles that cause spectacular car crashes, fiery explosions, tiki bar oblierations, and a fat guy to go SPLAT.

Yes, it takes one hell of a suspension of disbelief to appreciate, and the plot is a blatant ripoff of Die Hard With A Vengeance. But what makes 12 Rounds work is it's willingness to dispense with logic and be a pure action movie with the mentality of a monster truck rally. Director Renny (Nightmare on Elm Street 4, Cliffhanger, Prison, Die Hard 2) Harlin never lets up on the pace, which accomplishes two things: 1. it never allows the audience to get bored and start thinking too much, and 2. it doesn't allow much opportunity for John Cena to "act." Seriously, apart from a five minute sequence after Jackson is captured, virtually all of the film is one long action sequence. Cena is actually pretty good as the musclebound cop hero since he spends all of time punching people and yelling, and Ashley Scott does a good job looking pretty and scared as the kidnapped nurse. It's Aiden Gillen as Jackson that really stands out, though. Gillen does a terrific job playing the Hans Gruber-style super villain with a vague European accent. He manages to exude that oh-my-god-I-want-to-punch-him quality that works as the perfect counterpoint to Cena's earnest badass character.

Don't think. Just watch it. Preferably on the biggest television you can find.


Danika (2006)

Director: Ariel Vromen
Starring: Marisa Tomei, Craig Bierko, Regina Hall
Rated R  Running time: 80 minutes
Released by First Look Pictures

It's The Sixth Sense meets "Desperate Housewives" in the dull, confusing thriller from Ariel Vromen (Rx). Marisa Tomei is Danika, a working wife and mother of three who just might be losing her mind. She's wracked with fears about her family (husband cheating on her, innocent daughter is a hellion at school, older son is going to catch AIDS from his hot latin girlfriend, etc.) and is growing dangerously preoccupied with a series of child disappearances in her city. And to top it all off, she's beginning to suffer from increasingly violent and nightmarish hallucinations that begin blurring the line between reality and fantasy. Is Danika having visions of the future? Or is she in need of an extended stay at the local nut hatch?

All is revealed in a predictable "twist" ending that makes the preceding 75 minutes of Danika a waste of time.

Marisa Tomei is excellent as the fragile title character, but nothing else in the film arouses much interest. Imagine a Lifetime Television remake of Jacob's Ladder and you'll get a good idea of what kind of movie this is. Lots of J-horror inspired shocks and dreary photography add a dark tone to what is essentially the kind of tedious melodrama that your mom will probably like.

A couple of zombified boobs, a decapitated head or two, and a solid performance from Tomei can't save Danika from a predictable script and tired horror conventions.

Laid to Rest (2009)

Director: Robert Hall
Starring: Bobbi Sue Luther, Kevin Gage, Sean Whalen, Nick Principe
Unrated  Running time: 90 minutes

Special effects whiz turned director Robert Hall (LIGHTNING BUG) returns with a relentless, gory slasher that's a throwback to the days when cinematic massacres were more fun. A nameless and busty brunette (Bobbi Sue Luther) awakes in a  coffin in a funeral home run by genre vet Richard Lynch (Bad Dreams). She has no idea who she is or how she got there. Before she can begin to put the pieces together, the film's star arrives: Chrome Skull, a hulking, unstoppable killer who wears a shiny skeletal mask, a video camera mounted to his shoulder, uses shiny, expensive looking weapons and drives a very slick car. He's sort of the James Bond of the serial killer world, if James Bond casually murdered everyone in sight.

So she runs. And runs. And runs. In fact, the rest of the movie involves the girl (and two guys who end up getting dragged into it) trying to figure out just how she got in this predicament while avoiding getting butchered by Chrome Skull. In the meantime, Chrome Skull eviscerates nearly every character who appears in the film with creative gusto. Faces are chopped off, guts are spilled, heads are crushed, you name it. All of which is masterfully done. I'd even go as far as to say that the splatter effects (by Hall's Almost Human FX) are some of the best I've ever seen. One scene in particular, a brutal head stabbing that occurs early in the picture, is almost guaranteed to make you squirm.

Gore isn't the only thing going for the film, however. The film's protagonists - the girl, the trucker with a bum leg (Kevin Gage), and the uber-nerdy computer whiz (Sean Whalen) - are actually likable, a quality which is absent from 99.9% of the slashers on the market. Everyone else, well, they make good targets for Chrome Skull.

Highly recommended for fans of old-fashioned special effects and cinematic mayhem. LAID TO REST is a fun and gory little slasher.

3.5 out of 5.


Life Is Hot in Cracktown (2009)

Director: Buddy Giovinazzo
Starring:  Evan Ross, Illeana Douglas, Brandon Routh, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Tony Plana, Kerry Washington, Desmond Harrington, Richard Portnow
Not rated, 102 minutes

Less than five minutes after the film begins, we see a young woman being led into an alley where several nasty teenagers with really bad intentions have made plans to gang rape her. She begs, she pleads, she screams, she threatens to tell her brother, but none of it does any good. At the point when the gang begins tearing the girl's clothes off, we start to expect the film's hero to appear with a shotgun and a one-liner and put an end to the attack.

But it doesn't happen. Each member of the gang gets to take his turn, and they cap the event by urinating on the naked, crying woman.

There's no one around to save the girl, or anyone else for that matter, in Buddy Giovianzzo's Life is Hot in Cracktown, a relentlessly bleak drama about life in a California slum that shows that Giovianzzo's worldview hasn't brightened much since his 1985 debut, Combat Shock. Adapted from the director's book of the same name, Cracktown is a loosely connected series of stories involving hookers, crackheads, abusive parents, psychotic teenagers, terrified elderly people, trannys, and the men who love them. While it doesn't possess the same apocalyptic fury of Combat Shock, Cracktown shares the same life-is-a-nightmare-and-the-only-way-out-is-death tone that makes it one of the year's more unsettling motion pictures. Giovianazzo has lost none of his edge, none of his ability to kick the audience in the gut and then rub their face in their own sick.

Rapist, gang leader, and all around jerk Romeo (Evan Ross) does his best to look hard  for the camera.

While there is no real star, the most compelling character by far is teenage gang leader and all-around scumbag Romeo (Evan Ross, son of Diana Ross!). He's the only character in the film that is almost impossible to feel any sympathy for, and is interesting to watch just to see what terror he's going to inflict next. From organizing the film opening gang rape, to a long, hard-to-watch scene where he and his gang torture a frail old man with an enema bag, he's one of the most evil little bastards you'll ever see in a movie. His character would be right at home in an early 80's revenge thriller like Death Wish or Tenement where we would at least get the pleasure of seeing his head getting blasted with a sawed-off shotgun. But in Giovianazzo's world, the bad guys live on while the decent and well-intentioned pay and pay and pay.

This is one dark little movie, full of beatings, rape, child abuse, do-it-yourself abortions, with a feeling of pending doom permeating every scene. Suffice to say, this isn't one you want to watch with Grandma. But if you've got the stomach, Life is Hot in Cracktown deserves to be seen.

3.5 out of 5.