Wednesday, July 29, 2009


Director: Zack Snyder
Starring: Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley, Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Carla Gugino

Running Time: 162 min.

Rating: R

★★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

For months I've been kidding people that I planned on reading Alan Moore's seminal 1986 graphic novel, "Watchmen" before viewing the film. I say kidding because anyone who knows me knew I had no plans to do such a thing. I never read the book BEFORE seeing the film on which its based, wanting to always go in completely fresh. It's a policy I'd implement even if I weren't reviewing movies and one that's always seemed to work well, so there's little reason to change it. The last thing I want to to do is turn into one of those whiners who complain that "the book was better." And when you consider just how many movies I see and how many of them are based on novels, it's safe to assume that my perception and possible enjoyment of these films would be substantially altered (if not ruined) by reading the books they're adapted from.

I've never been more pleased with this policy than after seeing Zack Snyder's take on Watchmen, especially given all the controversy its adaptation has caused. This supposedly sacred text, long considered "the Citizen Kane of comics," has always been labeled more or less unfilmable and when the shocking news broke that it would be attempted, irate fanboys were up in arms. So isn't it ironic that Snyder went out and made a movie that would only appeal to those who thought it shouldn't have been made? Then it's released and he's publicly dragged through the mud for being too slavishly true to the source material. Poor guy can't win. Having not read it I can't comment on how true it is to the novel (though I've heard it's VERY) but it does play like an insane amount of effort was put into capturing the look and visuals, even if deep ideas don't always come along for the ride.

In its over two and a half hour theatrical version it's a sprawling, sometimes brilliant mess as frustrating as it is unforgettable, without making the slightest effort to be accessible to casual viewers unfamiliar with the novel. And that's the double-edged sword of a "faithful" adaptation. Damned if you do, damned if you don't. Yet in spite of all its attempts to alienate me I strangely became absorbed in it all anyway. For what its worth, the film drips in stylistic cool, is unmatched in visuals and production design and earns its R rating. None of this is a surprise considering it comes from the director of 300, who isn't exactly known for his subtlety.

There are definitely glimpses of a masterpiece in here and for the first 10 minutes it sure seems destined to be one. But there's still this nagging feeling (made much more evident in the director's cut than the theatrical one) that something more emotionally resonant could have been unearthed with tighter, more focused direction. Even someone completely unaware of the source could tell this was a very tough work to translate to the screen and Snyder deserves credit for at least having the guts to try, as divisive as the results may have been.

The film opens in an alternate 1985 where Richard Nixon is serving his fifth term as President and the threat of war with the Soviet Union is a very likely possibility as the "Doomsday Clock" counts down toward Armageddon. We're introduced to a group of superhero vigilantes known as the Watchmen who have been outlawed by Nixon since 1977, their costumes retired and identities kept under wraps. Only two still remain under government employ: Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), formerly scientist Tom Osterman, created as a result of a nuclear accident and possessing the power to control the universe. And the brash Edward Blake/the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) whose gruesome murder in the film's opening scene sets the plot's wheels in motion.

The exiled, ink blot masked Rorschach (a brilliant Jackie Earle Haley) suspects foul play and recruits the very reluctant Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) back into action. Joining them is Dr. Manhattan's assistant and girlfriend, Laurie Jupiter/Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), who faces the thankless challenge of living up to the legacy of her superhero mother, the original Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino in retro pinup mode). The final member to again suit up is Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias, the "smartest man in the world," who revealed his identity to the public, using his name to make billions funding scientific research. Rorschach is determined to uncover what he believes is not only a massive conspiracy to wipe out the group, but something with more disastrous results for the entire human race.

It was inevitable that with the success of The Dark Knight we'd be seeing darker superhero films and it's a credit to Snyder's direction that as messy as this is it doesn't suffer as badly as you'd expect in direct comparison to Nolan's film. A lot of that could probably be chalked up to the fact that Moore's story (or however much of it survived in David Hayter's script) is just so bizarre and original that it's forced to be judged on its own terms. Like The Dark Knight it asks the intriguing question of what would happen if superheroes really existed. What would they look like? What would they do? How would they affect society? But unlike Nolan's film, the tone sometimes comes across as campy, while still finding a way to entrench itself in a kind of pseudo self-seriousness. What really needs to be said about a film that features a ship ejaculating? Snyder really struggles to effectively balance this tone from time to time because the material is just so challenging and he isn't quite there as a filmmaker yet. But he's close.

The big ideas that are present are front and center in the opening minutes of the film with one of the best title sequences I've ever seen. Unforgettably set to Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A Changin," the sequence somehow manages to be both movingly poignant and hilarious as the Watchmen and their superhero forebearers, the Minutemen, are shown via fake newsreel footage shaping the events of this alternate history. Give the studio credit for biting the bullet to pay for the use of the entire song. A fortune for sure, but worth every penny. It marks the first of many classic rock songs on Snyder's playlist (which also includes Hendrix, Simon & Garfunkel and Leonard Cohen) that will sometimes distractingly invade upon the picture at the strangest of times. At least he has good taste. Unfortunately, this groundbreaking opening sequence also sets up unrealistic expectations for what follows.

The film's structure is muddled and sometimes confusing, jumping back and forth between Rorschach's murder mystery investigation and attempts to draw the Watchmen out of retirement as we're given flashbacks and all their backstories. The device feels like something that could have been directly lifted from the novel and if it isn't I'll stand corrected. Through these flashbacks, some substantially more involving than others, we learn that they're less superheroes than deeply flawed, psychologically damaged people who wear costumes and are working through some major issues.

None except maybe two could even be considered the slightest bit likable with the worst of all being the film's victim, the cynical Comedian, a depraved rapist and murderer whose bleak outlook on the world isn't completely unlike Ledger's Joker. In his view, society created him and will have to live with the consequences. What little sympathy we initially felt upon his demise is quickly wiped away after we actually get to know the guy. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is terrifying and funny in a role that's larger in importance than screen time. While the characters are unsympathetic and difficult to like I did care what happened to them, and much of that can be chalked up to the other strong performances, one of which is possibly award worthy.

Jackie Earle Haley should give his agent a raise for having this be the big role to follow his Oscar nominated comeback in Little Children from a couple of years ago. Under the mask he's effectively scary as Rorschach but it's toward the middle section of the film when he's locked up and it's taken off, exposing Walter Kovacs, that we're given insight into the sociopath who wore it. And that's when the brilliant ferocity of Haley's performance as really takes over in string of memorable scenes. Billy Crudup, best known for playing a "Golden God" in another film is a blue one here and aided by some great CGI brings a unique calmness and low-key tranquility to Dr. Manhattan, who's essentially a prisoner of his own powers and we maybe see more of than we'd like. The most intriguing flashbacks of the film are to his life before the accident.

A nearly unrecognizable Malin Akerman has been cited by many as the weak link as Silk Spectre II and while she's unproven as an actress and this part was probably more than she was ready for, I thought she fared as well as could be expected. Those claiming she's so dreadful probably all read the novel and carry delusions of grandeur in terms of what they think the character should have been. Although it is kind of funny to think that the actress whose most notable work until now was in the awful Farrelly Brothers comedy The Heartbreak Kid beat out all others to land such an iconic role. But it fits, possibly because I haven't read the novel I have problems picturing another actress bringing more to the part (or the costume for that matter).

The relationship between her character and Patrick Wilson's Nite Owl is handled well with the always reliable, underrated Wilson proving once again that he's pretty much capable of anything, this time playing a paunchy, out shape dork afraid to come out of superhero retirement. It kind of reminded me how Clark Kent should be played, if he was to be played again. He's both literally and figuratively impotent with Dan being nothing until he puts on that costume. Wilson portrays that reluctant transformation perfectly.

On the flip side, Matthew Goode projects very little in the way of charisma or intelligence as Ozmandias in the film's flattest performance. He just has no presence at all in a role that seems to have been written especially to convey that. It's the one part that feels like it was miscast and should have been filled with a bigger star capable of coming across as a larger than life personality. It starts to become an even bigger issue for obvious reasons toward the third act of the picture, resulting in an ending that comes across messier than it should. This, and an embarrassing caricature of Richard Nixon (realizing our worst fears of how stupidly he could be portrayed onscreen) are the two biggest faults of the film.

Snyder would have just been better off not showing the Nixon character or shooting the actor from behind since his physical presence is inconsequential to the story anyway. Actor Robert Wisden is less to blame than all the latex he's buried under which makes you wonder why they just didn't put a Nixon Halloween mask over his head and call it a day. Where's Frank Langella when you need him? But the funniest thing about this unintentionally hilarious depiction of Nixon is that it does somehow strangely fit the bizarre tone of the film.

When Watchmen ended I had no idea what I thought of it, which isn't rare for me. Usually when something like that occurs a second viewing is required. Except that second look came in the form of the over 3 hour director's cut which makes for a great point of comparison or a terrible one, depending on your perspective. I'm leaning toward the latter. Unaware of its gargantuan running time beforehand I was hoping this version would not only clear up questions I had about the narrative, but also enhance the overall experience as many director's cuts have done in the past. Instead it accomplished the exact opposite, diminishing much of the film's power.

Usually, I have nothing against director's cuts (my all-time favorite film is one) but there's just no restraint shown at all here. The seemingly minor flaws in the theatrical version are magnified and a story that didn't have the tightest focus to begin with became much more muddled with useless, excess breathing room. The additional 24 minutes ADD NOTHING. But beyond that, they actually take away from what was already there by piling on scenes that would only interest someone deeply familiar with the source material. In other words, drooling fanboys and no one else. Did I really need to see Hollis Mason's death? Of course not. It's a total waste of time. Those who read the novel are probably gasping at that statement but that's exactly the point: You read the novel. Many others didn't and a movie has to be made for them also.

While the theatrical cut finds a good balance in appealing to fans and newbies alike the extended version flies off the rails with self-indulgence, feeling like it was storyboarded to death to cram every little detail in. We get more of bizarro Nixon and a bigger dose of Rorschach than is necessary, especially in regards to his sometimes over-explanatory voice-over narration. The decision to use that in any version is a questionable call, but it seems worse in the director's cut, recalling that infamous Blade Runner voice-over debacle. Scenes that were wisely cut short initially extend well past their saturation point, which sometimes makes for a trying viewing experience.

It's cruel and unusual punishment, regardless of how dense the material it was adapted from is. It reeks of bloated egotism on the part of the director. And I'll think twice now before siding with a filmmaker who complains he wasn't allowed to "fully realize" his vision...IN OVER TWO AND A HALF HOURS! It's great to want to please fans of the novel and do the story justice but sometimes less should be more. Instead of locking Snyder and his over 3 hour cut in a cell and throwing away the key, Warner Bros. stupidly gave in to his con job by actually giving this unnecessary version a limited theatrical release earlier in the year. I've yet to revisit the original version since but after viewing the director's cut but it'll be interesting to see how it plays now.

Watchmen's release was accompanied with the tagline: "FROM THE VISIONARY DIRECTOR OF 300." That effort was disposable war porn but here Snyder comes one step closer to earning that "visionary" label. Nothing about this is forgettable or lacks vision, despite carrying that similar "style over substance" vibe. Luckily for Snyder I'm reviewing the FAR SUPERIOR theatrical cut which is only fair considering that's how it was released. And if you think I've talked about both just to avoid forming a solid conclusive opinion on the film, you're completely right. But I do know I'd see it again in a heartbeat and can't stop pondering the story or the characters, making me believe this could be one of those times where those telling me "the book is better" may be right.

Alan Moore took his name off the film just as he did V For Vendetta before it and you can't blame him. It's his baby and he has every reason to be protective. But after that, there's nothing he can do to control our reactions to it. I didn't even read the novel and can tell this makes for a fascinating study on adaptation and how hard it is to please everyone, even if you've stayed as true as possible to the source as possible. That Watchmen leads to conversations and analysis like that is the highest compliment it can get and proves why every work, regardless of stature, should be fair game for cinematic interpretation. Just don't expect me to read the book first.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


Director: Alex Proyas
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Rose Byrne, Chandler Canterbury, Lara Robinson, Ben Mendelsohn
Running Time: 121 min.
Rating: PG-13

(out of )

So, here we go again with Nicolas Cage. And his hair. Except this time things are a little different. His chronic overacting tendencies are tempered slightly while his hair is more in control than it was in Ghost Rider, Next and Bangkok Dangerous. Fewer actors have made poorer choices and seen more undeserving box office returns than Cage. And since winning his Oscar over a decade ago no actor has has caused us greater disappointment and frustration.
When his sci-fi thriller Knowing opened earlier this year after collecting dust on the shelf and wasn't screened for critics, it stood to reason that we had another one of his infamous action stinkers on our hands.

The director attached to this Cage project wasn't just some hack, but Alex Proyas, a gifted filmmaker responsible for two films that helped define sci-fi in the '90s: The Crow and Dark City. The latter, over time, has emerged as a cult classic in the genre while it remains a testament to Proyas' talent that former has transcended the tragic circumstances surrounding its star's death to be remembered as the visionary achievement it is. You wouldn't be far off to call either a masterpiece. Despite abysmal advanced word of mouth and widespread panning, Knowing surprisingly tore it up at the box office in March, resulting in a wide critical and commercial split not seen again until, well, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen opened a couple of weeks ago.

The lone voice of dissent among a barrage of terrible notices came from Roger Ebert, who very controversially awarded the film four stars, calling it "among the best science-fiction films I've seen -- frightening, suspenseful, intelligent and, when it needs to be, rather awesome." Of course, in the minds of many this just confirmed long-running suspicions that he completely "lost it" after cancer surgery. For better proof of that, they probably should have submitted his opinion of this film as evidence instead. Either way, giving generous star rating doesn't constitute "losing it." Failing to articulate your opinions does, and no one could ever accuse him of that.

His review just might be more interesting than the actual film, which is fascinatingly sloppy. It's the weakest script Proyas has had to direct yet and is all at at once a mystery thriller, an action movie and a science fiction allegory. There's greatness in it to be sure and it isn't difficult to see why Ebert loved it, or why anyone who is a serious sci-fi fanatic would. And it's easy to see why mainstream audiences embraced it as well, as there's enough action to compliment the enormous ideas the script introduces but doesn't completely follow through on. Luckily, Proyas picks up a lot of the slack and the ideas are so big you wonder if it was necessary or even possible to follow through on all of them.

The film centers around a mystery that must be solved and then completely changes the rules veering in a different direction entirely, far from what we expected containing moments that are truly scary as well as a couple of sensational child performances. As messy as it all feels at times, you can't say it isn't original or ambitious, especially the ballsy conclusion. It's science fiction with at least a few brain cells and a premise so interesting that even Cage's over emoting (thankfully kept to a minimum here) can't screw it up. While not the film it could have been or wants to be, Knowing has a lot more on its mind than it got credit for, and a great deal less.

John Koestler (Cage) is a widowed M.I.T. astrophysics professor whose lively lectures consist of trying to understand the universe and make sense of the controversial debate centering around Evolution and Intelligent Design. He comes closer to that debate than he ever wanted to when his son Caleb's (Chandler Canterbury) school holds a ceremony to unearth a time capsule buried under the school's grounds in 1959 containing children's drawings of what they think the future will hold. Except Caleb's sheet isn't a drawing. It's covered with a series of seemingly random numbers, scribbled by a creepy, disturbed young girl named Lucinda Embry (Lara Robinson) who we meet in a very effective prologue sequence. Upon examining the numbers Koestler discovers that they form patterns that accurately predict nearly all the major disasters of the past fifty years.

Naturally, the one person Koestler can count on, his colleague, cosmologist Phil Beckman (Ben Mendelsohn) thinks he's crazy and seeing something that isn't actually there, even suggesting he's using the list to subconciously make sense of his wife's death. In searching for the truth Koestler is able to track down the late Lucinda's daughter Diana (Rose Byrne) and her granddaughter Abby (Robinson pulling double duty). The children are a key component to the story, especially Caleb who hears noises through is hearing aid and is being stalked by mysterious "Whisperers," shadowy, pale figures who eerily recall the "Strangers" from Proyas' Dark City. Where things go from here is entirely unexpected and can't be discussed without heavy spoilers. It's much bigger than you think.

Sci-fi premises don't get much stronger than this. The set-up is so strong that the film almost backs itself into a corner immediately by presenting a mystery so deep and philosophically interesting that it's practically impossible for the script to resolve it in a satisfying way for all. But it does try it's best and final 10 minutes are so exciting and ambitious it could almost make up for the mistakes that precede it. Chief among them is the decision to have Koestler go into action hero mode stumbling (sometimes accidentally and sometimes not) into various catastrophic disasters and trying to save the day, against the backdrop of obvious, but visually impressive CGI. On another filmmaker's watch I could just imagine how terrible and cheesy looking these huge scenes could have been but Proyas succeeds in making them terrifying, especially a fatal plane crash that has a frantic Koestler desperately trying to rescue survivors in one long, uninterrupted shot.

The bizarre direction the story takes could have come off like a bad mythology episode of The X-Files but doesn't because there are some genuinely scary moments and suspense is effectively built. The "Whisperers" are absolutely terrifying, with their presence only enhanced by Simon Duggan's shadowy cinematography and a Marco Beltrami score that seems to pop up at just the right moments, effectively underlining the horror.

This film doesn't succeed because of Cage. He's one of those actors who has made choices so bad in the last few years that the second you see him up on screen you're almost immediately taken out of the film, with all thoughts shifting from what's happening in front of you to wondering how bad the movie will be because he's in it. As far as his recent bad paycheck performances go this is definitely one of his better ones and he's a lot more understated than usual. He's also more believable than you'd expect in the role of a college professor. Still, his mere presence rather than his actual performance makes the movie seem less than what it is and casting another actor in the role would have been a wise move creatively. The truth is any actor could have played it. Some better, some worse. This is in no way a return to form for him. We'll have to keep waiting.

It isn't difficult to see why most already had their knives sharpened and were prepared to rip Cage a new one before even seeing a minute of the film. I'm guilty of it myself. That's a problem and it's unfair, but he has no one to blame but himself for building up such a poor reputation in choosing projects. He's given strong support with exceptional performances from Canterbury and Robinson and anyone familiar with Byrne's work on TV's Damages knows what she's capable of as an actress so it's a relief that she's really given an opportunity to cut loose. She brings dimension to a role that should have been forgettable.

Ironically, Ebert's opinion of the film, as lofty as it is, seems closer to reality than the bashing it took from his peers just because it was the latest Cage action release. Those going in anticipating that will find more to think about than they expected, but those (like myself) who would have been happier that they didn't try to squeeze a typical blockbuster into the middle of it will walk away a bit let down that a premise so promising ONLY lets us consider the ideas rather than attempting to dig deeper and explore them itself. The film has a bunch of screenwriters credited to it which isn't a surprise because it does feel like there were too many cooks in the kitchen trying to craft a story that appeals equally to the mainstream action crowd and hardcore science fiction fans. Originally, Richard Kelly was the only writer attached to this project and I probably don't have to tell you how much better I think this would have turned out had he penned it.

Sometimes I just have to wonder what my opinion of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button would have been if I didn't know beforehand that David Fincher directed it. We enter films with certain mindsets and expectations, all of us guilty of altering our viewing experience to match them. And that's as we should because once we stop doing that we stop being passionate about movies. Ebert is obviously a huge fan of Proyas and this genre so that could have influenced his opinion greatly. Nothing wrong with that at all. I'm more likely to seek out a movie he overpraised not because I necessarily think it will be good, but because I know if it isn't, it'll at least be interesting and worth watching. In that regard, this didn't disappoint and neither did Proyas, who further confirms what everyone's suspected since The Crow, except this time with a messier template to work with. So that's at least an accomplishment for him. If he can do this much with material below his talent level just imagine the possibilities if he were given a top shelf script. The ideas presented in Knowing could easily fill up hours of discussion, even if the film itself can't.

Friday, July 10, 2009

12 Rounds

Director: Renny Harlin
Starring: John Cena, Aiden Gillen, Ashley Scott, Steve Harris, Gonzalo Menendez, Brian J. White, Taylor Cole
Running Time: 108 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

For John Cena, timing is everything. And I'm not just talking about his wrestling career. He's lucky enough to be starring in an action movie that's following one of the worst action movies I've seen in years. It was pretty much a given that 12 Rounds, the latest WWE Films release would at least be more entertaining than the latest Transformers sequel. What was less clear was whether it would actually be any good. It really isn't, but it's still the most impressive WWE produced film yet and thoroughly entertaining in its badness. There's actually some level of directorial competence at work here and it appears someone at least knew what type of film needed to be made. It's a cheesy, mindless direct-to-DVD actioner of the week with a lot of laughs and stupidity. Approach it as that and it's at least possible to enjoy yourself, which is more than can be said for most of their other efforts.

I guess it's a credit to director Renny Harlin that he fills the film with such unintended hilarity and craziness that Cena's performance is the last thing on our minds. The movie isn't dependent on him in any way and his weaknesses are well hidden, if not completely invisible here. That's how it should be. Harlin actually does such a good job covering for Cena's shortcomings as an actor maybe he can have a future directing episodes of WWE Raw on Mondays.

The script, on the other hand, is off the wall, even for this type of film, and features one of the more unnervingly bizarre villains in a recent bad action movie. It's hard to tell what's weirder: The performance of the actor playing him or the character's 12 round "plan," a conceit so complicated and time consuming he may as well be auditioning as Jigsaw's next apprentice. Still, despite not caring a lick about the protagonist's fate or his mission, it's hard to really slam a movie that lets us follow the journey of an obese man down an elevator shaft all the way down to the bottom, gives us a grown man raising a toy Matchbox car in victory, or employs the use of a defribillator in a mid-air showdown. It's bad, but boy is it funny.

Cena is New Orleans Police Detective Danny Fisher, who a year ago was part of a sting operation that put notorious terrorist and arms dealer Miles Jackson (The Wire's Aiden Gillen) behind bars and unintentionally resulted in the death of his girlfriend, Erika (Taylor Cole). Now he's out and wants revenge on Danny for taking the love of his life. The plan: kidnap Danny's girlfriend, Molly (Ashley Scott) and make him complete a 12 round game to save her, with each round presenting a challenging life or death task. If he completes all 12 rounds, she lives. If not, they both die. This is made all the more challenging by the involvement of bitter F.B.I. agent Aiken (Steve Harris) whose motives for helping Danny get through this are questionable and selfish. Keeping Molly alive is close to last on his priority list, or at least far behind making an example of Miles. He has his own axe to grind and if innocent people have to lose their lives in the process then so be it. Will Danny make it through all 12 rounds? Will Molly survive? Will Triple H. ever retire? Well, okay, that last one isn't directly related, but you get the idea.

Daniel Kunka's silly script is absolutely insane and makes little to no sense. Best of luck trying to figure out what constitutes a "round." I got the first two. Miles blows up Danny's house and kidnaps his girlfriend. It's after that where things start to get a little fuzzy as at times during the film multiple "rounds" are crammed into single tasks (like one involving a bomb). The perilous situations themselves vary from being ridiculously complicated to mind numbingly simple. There's just no in between as Kunka seems to be throwing ideas out there to see what sticks. Some are much more exciting than others, namely that aforementioned elevator scene and Danny's attempt to stop a runaway bus as it plows through the streets of New Orleans in a sequence that recalls (or rather rips off) Speed.

As a director, Harlin's track record contains some genre hits (Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger) and many more misses (Cutthroat Island, Driven and The Covenant) but the man does know how to shoot an action scene efficiently, which helps here a lot. His best days as a filmmaker are obviously behind him but for this kind of low level B action movie material his style (or what there is of it) is suitable. One scene where Danny comes face to face with his adversary but for reasons I can't reveal is unable to do anything, is tense and well staged.

If you get past Aiden Gillen's uncanny resemblance to former Survivor contestant Johnny Fairplay (which I honestly had problems doing) and are able to decifer whether he actually is speaking with an Irish accent, you'll find his performance to be a hoot. Existing in an acting realm somewhere between being brilliantly awful and awfully brilliant he doesn't really have a menacing presence at all and that's why it kind of works. It makes the role a little more believable because he looks and acts like a regular guy with a plan.

Gillen actually plays him like he's smart and ahead of the curve, which is a sharp contrast to the ridiculous actions this screenplay have him carry out. To put it mildly, Miles' plan has some big holes in it and at times I found myself laughing hysterically at the amount of years this character must have put into his master plan, which besides allowing no room for error, feels like it came straight out of a Hollywood screenwriting factory. The script also makes the mistake of having his motivations be revealed as being significantly less than they first appeared, robbing the story of what little psychological intrigue there is and making the villain seem more like a small-time crook than a mastermind. It's an odd decision that doesn't benefit the dramatics of the story in the slightest.

It's a real irony if you're familiar with Cena's in-ring career that the failings of this film fall squarely on the writing, not him. None of this would have been improved if he was replaced by any other B or C level actor as the lead and his work in this is a vast improvement over his embarrassingly stiff turn in The Marine a couple of years ago. The role of a risk-taking police detective also seems to suit him much better. This isn't to say it's a emotionally engaging performance at all, but it's at least a competent one that doesn't make the film any worse than it already is. He's your prototypical, action action hero and for a generic action thriller like this, that's enough.

Because his performance is merely adequate the strain is on the script to get us to care about Danny's relationship with his girlfriend and his quest to save her. I didn't. Ashley Scott is horrid in her limited role and no time is donated to the two of them. We haven't a clue why he'd even bother, other than the fact that she's supposed to be hot. This was expected though and it's hard to come down too hard on that decision. This is supposed to be a mindless action movie and I fear if time were actually spent in establishing a meaningful relationship between Danny and Molly the two actors wouldn't have been up to the task of conveying it and the film would have sunk further. Do you really want to see Cena playing house with his girlfriend? I can't even picture it.

No attention or background is given to the Miles character either, which does hurt the film a little. That could have been interesting and enhanced the narrative. Miles' motivations were more important than Danny's in caring what happens. The most interesting sub-plot concerns Harris' renegade F.B.I. agent, thanks in no small part to his commanding performance, which almost seems to be out of a better film. Even with all its problems though, the 108 minutes thankfully came and went quickly.

You could make an airtight case that WWE should just stay out of producing feature films altogether but as long as they turn even the slightest profit either in theaters or on DVD that isn't going to happen any time soon. We're stuck with them. Next up: The Marine 2 (can't wait). I would say this nudges out The Condemned as their best effort and technically it's difficult to argue that it didn't deserve a brief theatrical run (albeit about 3 days). It's also difficult to argue that it shouldn't have gone straight to DVD. And in a way, it did. Supposedly, all WWE films are now going straight to the bargain shelf, which is probably a good move. But if they're serious about producing movies, 12 Rounds is at least the type of movie they should be making. And Cena can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that he gave this his best shot.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Director: Michael Bay
Starring: Shia LeBeouf, Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson, John Turturro, Isabel Lucas
Running Time: 147 min.
Rating: PG-13

★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

For the longest time I've shared in the widespread belief that different people have different reactions to particular films. There's no right or wrong, just different opinions and reasoning for backing it up. Sometimes critics hate a movie that audiences love and vice versa. It's just the way of the world. When we don't agree, we agree to disagree. It's entirely subjective. Or at least that's what I thought before I endured Michael Bay's brutal, painful assault on the senses and brain known as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, which is every bit as bad as you've heard and then some.

It's less a film than an ordeal and it's taken me nearly a week to recover from it. Having already grossed over $400 million dollars worldwide and counting doesn't it stand to reason that Bay must have done something right? No, he hasn't. I don't care how many people saw this movie and loved it, how "critic-proof" it supposedly is or how much repeat business it's drumming up. The audiences are WRONG.


The critics are RIGHT. Everyone was warned and didn't listen. There's hardly a single redeeming quality about this piece of cinematic trash and it was the first time I exited a theater in actual physical pain. I had a headache, my back hurt, my ass hurt and I felt nauseous. Going in, I felt fine. You may have read reviews of this movie that claim it "insults the intelligence" of moviegoers. How I wish that were true. I'm breaking one of the unwritten rules of film criticism to take a cheap shot at audiences. But you know what? They deserve it. And if you sat in the theater I did you'd agree with me. When the final credits rolled this film got a standing ovation.


I can't remember any movie I've ever seen that's gotten a standing ovation. But I should have seen it coming. So much enthusiastic laughter and applause filled the theater you'd think you were at a George Carlin stand-up show. What movie were they watching? What planet did I land on? You'll have to forgive me because during the course of this review I'll occasionally be referring to Michael Bay as "MIKE Bay." It just seems more appropriate... and funnier. Can't you just picture this guy him introducing himself with sunglasses and a smirk saying "No, call me Mike." So I will.

As much as I want to completely place all the blame on him for this nearly 150 minute disaster I just can't. He's just doing what he was paid to do and happens to do very well: BLOW THINGS UP .And he makes it look as pretty as possible. He's giving everyone what they want, which just might be the scariest revelation to come out of the success of this movie, other than the fact that Steven Spielberg co-produced it.

For the most part, I have no problems with Mike as a filmmaker. I enjoyed The Rock. Didn't mind Armageddon. Don't carry the same seething hatred for the ridiculous Pearl Harbor that everyone else seems to and thought the first Transformers film was crazy fun. I'm also all for "checking your brain at the door" and losing yourself in an action spectacle. But this doesn't even work as that. You know it's a bad sign when blatant racism is the LEAST offensive aspect of your film. Rather than re-cap the plot in detail (which would be impossible anyway) it's better just to list the things that sent moviegoers bursting into uproarious laughter and applause.

- A robot humping Megan Fox's leg

- A robot with testicles

- the words "bitch" and "pussy" constantly being thrown around for shock value in a film based on a children's toy line.

-John Turturro in a thong

- A middle aged woman getting high off hash brownies and making a spectacle of herself on a college campus.

-Two racially caricatured robots, Skids and Mudflap, speaking in ebonics and bragging about how they can't read.

How hilarious. Between those scenes, the loud explosions, robots killing each other and mile-a-minute editing, an incomprehensible story is somehow squeezed in. In an opening that comes off as a nursery school version of 2001: A Space Odyssey, we're informed that the war between Autobots and Decepticons has been raging since prehistoric times. Now the Decepticons, led by their original master, The Fallen (voiced by Tony Todd), have returned to Earth to resurrect Megatron (voiced by Hugo Weaving) and kill Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen). Once that's accomplished they can destroy the sun...or something like that.

The only hope is college-bound Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBeouf) who discovers he possesses a shard of the Allspark that's causing his brain to see all sorts of crazy symbols and images. When he's not busy trying to save Earth from an invading alien race he's dealing with his annoying, overambitious roommate Leo (Ramon Rodriguez) and fighting off the advances of a sexy student (Isabel Lucas).

The less said about the relationship with his parents (Kevin Dunn and Judy White) the better. At least they seemed like real people in the first film. Here, the script has them re-play the same tired unhappily married joke over and over again with the added detail that mom's a pothead. Sadder still, is that while poorly executed and unfunny, the college-set scenes are probably the most tolerable in the film. It's all downhill from there. The rest of the movie is some sort of seizure inducing blur. There isn't even a second to come up for air and reflect upon how messy everything is or how little sense it makes.

This is Mike's middle finger to all the critics who dared find fault in his 2007 film, which not only boasted a far more coherent story than this, but a genuine sense of wonder and discovery. It was far from any kind of landmark achievement in storytelling but it got the job done in an effective manner. It would stand to reason that a sequel would at least be able to equal that considering the bar wasn't exactly set too high to begin with.

Everything that worked in the first film is trashed all while managing to magnify what was bad to excruciating levels. Wanted more screen time for the robots? Now there's too much. Less human relationships? Now there's none. Ironically, the one relationship we cared most about in the first film, between Sam and his Bumblebee Camaro, is all but completely excised and, with the exception of a brief scene early, Bumblebee is hardly in the film at all.

The "relationship" between Sam and his porn star girlfriend Mikaela (Fox) is far less effective than in the original, probably because of the pathetic attempt made at evolving Mikaela from a lust object into Sam's girlfriend. Fox just isn't believable as ANYONE'S girlfriend on screen and I don't necessarily mean that the way you think I do. Can you picture yourself going to the movies with Megan Fox? How about just hanging out? Or playing miniature golf? See my point? She's just there to look hot and have Bay ogle (or more accurately, nearly rape) her with the camera. That wouldn't be such a problem if the screenwriters knew her role and weren't dense enough to actually force a dynamic between her and Sam.

There's a sub-plot centering around who will say those three magic words first. Of course, since the only three magic words we'd ever believe Mikaela would hear from anyone are, "I LUST YOU," it's a little hard to buy. I described Fox's performance (as if it mattered) in the first film as "fine." To call her performance in this wooden would be an insult to wood. To her credit she seems to understand that, or at least understands the necessity of giving quotable soundbites that cater to her many fans.

This is a movie where even she wears out her welcome. It's like being given a gourmet meal at a restaurant while the waiter keeps screaming in your ear how great it is. As a result, my appreciation for her decreased about 50 percent.The next Angelina Jolie? She has a ways to go. And this is coming from someone who doesn't think that's even an admirable goal to shoot for. But she's right. These films aren't about acting. In related news, the Earth is round. By dwelling on Fox this much, does that make me as bad as Bay? Maybe, but you can't deny that the public's fascination with her is a million times more interesting than anything in this film.

Spielberg's adopted son gives a performance that isn't awful so much as it's irrelevant. He's a little more grating than in the first with his stammering, awkward everyman character, but that's in line with Bay's tendency to amp everything up this go around. He does fine with what he's given but it's getting to the point where we have to ask ourselves why Spielberg hand-picked this kid out of every single young actor working today to become the biggest star in the world. We have to find out soon, before Shia's star power eclipses his talent, if that hasn't happened already. In other words, he needs to pick more diverse projects with better directors. If not, don't be surprised if he comes forward with some very incriminating photos of Spielberg soon.

I'd be more willing to let Spielberg off the hook for producing this and assume he took a more "hands off" approach this time if he hadn't been involved in the making of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Eagle Eye. But he was and each new project he's credited to these days seems to be yet another stain on his previously impeachable filmography. Now we're going on almost a full decade where he's not only failed to contribute anything of substantial value to the film world, but is responsible for producing some real junk. This begs the question: How much longer is he going to get a free ride from critics and audiences based solely on accomplishments from over 15 years ago?

John Turturro's eccentric goverment agent returns except he isn't a government agent anymore. But he's more eccentric. He actually gives the most entertaining performance in the film and his interplay with Rodriguez's Leo is a highlight. But most of that is relegated to the third act, by which point I was starting to lose conciousness from all the mind numbing effects. By the time Sam's parents just showed up in the desert for no reason and without explanation I was completely lost. And this was scripted by Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman, who were most recently responsible for penning the very successful recent Star Trek reboot. In the film's only improvement from the original, Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson's military officers are fittingly given nothing to do at all since their roles were pointless to begin with. You know things are bad when I find myself actually missing Jon Voight. The forgettable Isabel Lucas takes over for Rachael Taylor as the second place hottie and accomplishes the impossible in giving a worse performance than Fox with far less screen time.

The controversy concerning Skids and Mudflap is overblown not because the robots aren't offensive stereotypes but because they hardly see any screen time and serve no purpose other than to get some cheap laughs. Their inclusion is pointless, which may be the the most offensive thing about it. Comparisons to Jar Jar Binks are unwarranted. He's more annoying than these two, but at least his primary purpose wasn't to piss people off. It was just a bad judgment call on Lucas' part. This feels like something uglier than that. And stupider.

A temptation exists to give this a lower score than one and a half stars but doing so would be unfair since this is a "technically" impressive motion picture that could have only been made by a talented filmmaker. And at 147 minutes at least it doesn't drag. How can it when it's too busy pummeling you into submission with sensory overload? This is Bay at his absolute worst, or best, depending on your perspective.

This review is more indicative of my disappointment with the film's success and what it means for the the movie industry than the actual work itself, which is obviously pretty awful. One thing's for sure though: There's a party at Stephen Sommers' house and Sienna's bringing the keg. I'd be shocked if Sommers' upcoming G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra isn't a better Hasbro adaptation than this. Just watch me eat my words later on that. In any event, I'm sure he's waiting with open arms and knows it bodes well for him that audiences would so willingly embrace a film this dumb.

I'm not missing the point here. I know what movies like this are supposed to accomplish. We all do. Or at least I thought we did. This doesn't accomplish it. It's as if elements from previous summer blockbusters were fused together and Bay's faking it. I go to movies to watch stories with characters, not things blow up for two and a half hours.

My biggest worry when I review movies is that I come off as some sort of psuedo-intellectual snob. I just want to have fun and consider myself a fan first and a critic second. This appeals to neither in me and when it ended I had little desire to either talk or write about. The critics really earned their keep this time (with one predictable exception). But maybe I should stand corrected that fans fully embraced the film They did have one major problem with it: That Megatron bowed in servitude. Oh the horror. I don't know how I'm going to sleep tonight knowing such an oversight could be made amidst the film's other gargantuan problems.

2008 was a bad year for movies. Could 2009 actually be WORSE? Is it possible? If Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is any indication it very well can be. When it ended I felt ripped off...and I saw it FOR FREE. If audiences keep turning out for junk like this you have to wonder where we should really place the blame. Hotshot action directors need to earn a buck also. Michael Bay will continue making movies like this only as long as we go to see them.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Friday the 13th (2009)

Director: Marcus Nispel
Starring: Jared Paladecki, Danielle Panabaker, Aaron Yoo, Amanda Righetti, Travis Van Winkle, Derek Mears
Running Time: 106 min.
Rating: R

★★ (out of ★★★★)

When I heard Friday the 13th would be the latest horror movie franchise subject to "re-imagining" for a new generation of audiences, I actually thought it was a great idea. Much like Halloween, the series had been beaten into the ground by its many worthless sequels and the only logical option left was a reboot. I also couldn't sympathize with fans who complained at the proposed plan to get Jason in the hockey mask as soon as possible, unlike the 1981 original. The iconic hockey mask IS Friday the 13th. Without it there's no film, or at least not a film anyone would be interested in seeing. To their credit, at least the filmmakers knew that.

Incidentally, one of those filmmakers just so happens to be Michael Bay, who when not raking in gazillions of dollars making racist robot movies, has a little side hobby of butchering horror classics for his Platinum Dunes production company. They were responsible for the two Texas Chainsaw Massacre remakes, which at the time I kind of enjoyed, but now looking back, seem slick yet entirely forgettable. The same problem surfaces here but worse as this prequel/sequel/remake or whatever you choose to call it almost seems to be trying too hard, while simultaneously putting forth no effort at all.

In attempting to jam all the aspects of the first four films into one movie to appease hardcore fans the project instead turns into a structural mess with too many characters, too many killings in rapid succession of one another and a total lack of suspense. It's your typical torture porn, not necessarily any superior to the other recently unsuccessful remakes of Prom Night and My Bloody Valentine. It isn't so much a Friday the 13th film as it is just going through the motions of one. But that's not even what I take issue with. The real problem is that it just isn't any fun.

Yes, the original films were bad, but at least they were bad in the best possible way. The very definition of a guilty pleasure. It's also the only horror series I can remember that maintained the same consistency of badness throughout. You can sit on the couch for hours to watch a marathon and marvel how each film is as bad as next. No better, no worse. That's impressive. There's something to be said for consistency. It's no wonder they spawned a great NES game and a short-lived TV series arguably better than the films. They were just so much fun and I don't think I fully appreciated how fun they really were until watching director Marcus Nispel attempt to suck the joy out of them with this tiresome effort. It's a testament to the Jason mystique that even this film manages to have its moments. Not many, but a few. It's just unfortunate that they come too late.

The movie opens by clumsily cutting and pasting the first film's narrative into a 2-minute flashback sequence showing how as a child the hideously deformed Jason Voorhees witnessed his mother's death at Camp Crystal Lake. Say what you want about Rob Zombie's Halloween remake but at least he dared to try something different with the backstory and didn't just relegate it to a forgettable throwaway sequence two minutes into the film.

Flash forward to present day and a the first group of nondescript, interchangeable teens arrive at the now abandoned Camp Crystal Lake for some sex and drugs, skeptical of the Jason urban legend. Their skepticism soon ends when he hacks them up one by one. But notice I said the FIRST GROUP. That's because the film's first twenty minutes is actually a PROLOGUE. So went through all this and the movie hasn't even started! A needlessly complicated approach to what should be a relatively straightforward story.

Now it's six weeks later and Clay Miller (Jared Padalecki) is searching for his missing sister, Whitney (Amanda Righetti) who was a part of that ill fated group. Along the way he encounters another group of teens heading to a lake house that belongs to the parents of frat boy prick Trent (Travis Van Winkle). Take a guess as to whether or not he survives until the end of the film. He's joined by his girlfriend Jenna (Danielle Panabaker), who to Trent's dismay takes a liking to Clay and is sympathetic to his situation. Along for the ride are their friends, token Asian sidekick Chewie (Aaron Yoo), aspiring rapper Lawrence (Arlen Escarpeta), slutty Bree (Julianna Guill), annoying Nolan (Ryan Hansen) and his would be girlfriend, ditzy Chelsea (Willa Ford). They are a step up from the first group and while a few of them even have identifiable personality traits of some sort, one word descriptions suit them just fine.

Choo is essentially reprising the same goofy role he played in Disturbia, 21 and Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist with worse results while Hansen is channeling his obnoxious Dick Casablancas character from Veronica Mars all over again, but accomplishing far less. The only standouts (if such a word could even be used in this case) are thankfully the two leads, Padalecki and Panabaker, who at least manage to give performances that aren't completely awful. The rest of the cast is forgettable, something that can't often be said for previous entries in the series (especially The Final Chapter). But that hardly matters. They're all there to scream and die anyway. In the film's final hour Nispel actually seems to remember that and the story picks up some steam, cleverly referencing some of the series' most famous moments, albeit with far less creativity and excitement.

There's at least one memorable kill scene, well shot and choreographed at the lake that makes you believe the ingredients were there for an inspired reimagining of this material. The problem with the rest of it is there's just no suspense and intrigue, the script falsely approximates teen speak and there's an undercurrent of mean spirited humorlessness that isn't found in even the worst of the previous films. Even the trademark gratuitous nudity and drug use feels forced and strangely out of place, as if the screenwriters were just marking off a checklist. So much weed is either consumed or talked about I thought I was watching a Cheech & Chong movie. And remind me to petition the MPAA to pass a law blocking the use of Night Ranger's "Sister Christian" in any film not directed by P.T. Anderson. It's sacralege hearing it in the opening minutes of a film like this.

As for the big hockey mask moment, when we see how Jason settled on his favorite brand of face wear, it doesn't feel like such a big moment because Nispel draws such attention to it. When we saw him surprisingly appear with the mask on in Part III it felt like a huge deal because it was a surprise and we had no idea at the time how important it was. You can go back and watch it now and it'll still get the same reaction, regardless of that film's quality. Here, when Jason graduates from sack to hockey mask the only reaction you're likely to have is: "Oh, there's the hockey mask." The important element of surprise is missing no matter how much the music is pumped up or how Nispel chooses to frame it. They would have been better off just starting the film with Jason in the mask than attempting to compete with the legacy of the franchise, as silly as it is.

Stuntman Derek Mears does a fine job stepping in for Kane Hodder, who many consider to be the best actor to play the role up to this point. I say that with reservations since I haven't a clue what special talent it takes to run around in a hockey mask and stalk people. It can't be difficult and it stands to reason anyone physically imposing could play the part well enough. But a mistake is made in speeding up Jason's movements. Nispel is already clueless as far as building suspense and that decision just makes it worse. At least when Jason was lumbering around in the previous films there was time for tension to be built. Now it's kill after kill after kill. It just doesn't mean anything anymore. At least not like it used to. None of the other movies were scary, but some of them were suspenseful...and funny. This is none of the above.

The writers of the film were Damian Shannon and Mark Swift who previously penned 2003's disasterous Freddy vs. Jason. They've said in interviews they learned their lessons from the mistakes they made on that film. I'm curious what they thought those were. Just once I'd like to see a horror movie written by first-class screenwriters and a great director and see what we'd get. And it would have to be fun. Actually maybe a lesser director so the films wouldn't look so much like slickly made music videos.

These types of movies have grown by leaps and bounds technically but so what? That approach doesn't HELP a horror movie, especially if there's no suspense or story. If that were to happen perhaps the horror genre would be able to shake the terrible (and somewhat deserving) stigma it's currently stained with. Instead, a sequel to this is being planned and we have A Nightmare on Elm Street remake to dread also. That it stars Jackie Earle Haley as Krueger makes me feel a little better but not much. The most disappointing aspect to the Friday the 13th reboot is that it's completely indistinguishable from every other horror remake. This is successful only in reigniting a renewed interest and appreciation in the original films. It turns out they were much better than we thought.