Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Law Abiding Citizen

I wish the tag line to this movie was "...or Is He?"  Obviously, a movie with the title Law Abiding Citizen and the tag line "The system must pay" makes my tag line a joke, but...this isn't a good movie.  It should take its smiles where it can.

This is a revenge flick, so somebody needs to die, right?  Gerard Butler's wife and daughter are murdered before his eyes; there are two men involved, one that is clearly unwilling to spill blood, and the other that likes to kill and is obviously in charge.  When both men are arrested, the Assistant District Attorney (Jamie Foxx) makes a deal with the bloodthirsty crook, in order to guarantee a conviction and get the timid crook a death sentence.  Butler doesn't like this, but it was Foxx's call to make, and he made it.  Ten years later, Gerard Butler starts killing everyone involved in the case, from the criminals to the judge to the DA's office.  The twist is that Butler allows himself to be arrested...and the killings not only continue, but increase.

Whoa!  What a twist!  How does Butler do it?  Well, you have to thank Kurt Wimmer, the screenwriter for this beauty as well as Ultraviolet and Equilibrium, because it does not make much logical sense.  Okay, the reason Butler is able to kill people, even when he's locked up in prison, is because he is a strategist.  No, really, that's why.  Because he can plan stuff.  Okay, fine.  Butler's a long-established military genius, wait...when the movie opens, he's an inventor of gadgets.  Hmm...well, I guess this generation changes occupations more often than our parents did.  How do you get into that field, I there an application?  Is there a check box for revenge-fueled inventors?  No matter.  The dude can plan stuff, and that stuff is death.

Now that would be pretty cool if it was how the movie played out.  If Butler was a Bobby Fisher-level chess genius who could see ten steps ahead, it would be pretty sweet to see all the mean stuff he would set up.  Instead, what we get here is a remote-controlled car outfitted with missiles and a lot of car bombs.  Heck, my creepy high school lab partner can do that.  I will admit that there is a totally awesome cell phone-related death, but that's definitely the only original kill. At first, there is an air of mystery to how Butler does all this, but the last fifth of the movie answers almost everything.  Understanding how Butler does it could be awesome, especially if it was treated as a moment of recognition where everything clicks for Jamie Foxx's character.  Instead, we get answers that aren't terribly original or interesting.

Where does this movie fail, aside from plot originality and violence?  In the area of nudity, for one.  When Butler is arrested (at a time and place he chose) he got naked.  There is no sex in this movie, so there was no need for me to see Butler butt, but a decision was made: the arrest must be pantsless.  You'd think that this would be remarked on by somebody, either the arresting SWAT team (yes, he was waiting at his front door, naked, for the SWAT team), the judge, the lawyers or somebody.  Apparently, I live a sheltered life.

The acting wasn't great, but it wasn't bad.  Butler was his normal self, which makes accepting him as a genius a little difficult, but not impossible.  Foxx plays a lawyer that isn't nice, but he is competent here.  The supporting actors are fine, I guess.  Colm Meaney, Bruce McGill, and Leslie Bibb have all had better roles in their careers, but their work here is nothing to be ashamed of. This doesn't do much to recommend the directorial talents of F. Gary Gray, but like his other films (The Italian Job, Friday), this films ends up resting on the charisma of its stars.

The biggest problem for me was the characters.  The problem is that the two major characters are unsympathetic.  Butler's character is driven by revenge.  He doesn't want to only kill those responsible for the death of his family, but those that failed to see his view of justice fulfilled.  Okay, that's not too bad.  He's a sympathetic villain (at least, as long as his victims were convicted criminals), making a political point, but he's still a villain.  Jamie Foxx is an ADA with his eyes set on a fabulous career; he made a questionable call when he accepted the killer's plea bargain, but he did it because he did not want to hurt his conviction record.  When Butler starts killing everyone, Foxx does not get any more sympathetic; he is largely an absentee dad and is generally a cocky SOB.  You want to side with Foxx, but he's stubborn and stupid throughout the film.  So, you might think that the viewer is supposed to side with Butler.  The obvious target for Butler, once he murders the killer and the accomplice, is Foxx; after all, he made the deal and told Butler to his face that it was going to happen, regardless of Butler's feelings.  But no, Butler car bombs half a dozen people in the District Attorney's office that had nothing to do with his case.  He killed his targets' chauffeurs and protection details.  That, by any definition, goes beyond the notion of justice and makes Butler at least as bad as the men that killed his family.  Foxx is not as morally reprehensible as Butler, but he does not learn a lesson or admit guilt, so his character is still a cocky SOB.

If this film was taking a stance on vigilante justice, I might be able to understand the shades of gray with the main characters.  It doesn't, though; any point it might be trying to make is nullified by the ending.  Foxx never apologizes for letting a criminal off easy and Butler never admits that killing lawyers and judges is sometimes bad.  The ending actually makes such complaints moot, since Foxx's actions are about as far from the right choice as I can imagine.  With neither character having a developmental arc to their character's feelings on the issue in question, there's no drama.  No drama, a lack of creativity and sub-par action make this a bad movie.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Boondock Saints

Okay, let me get this out of the way right now.  This is not a subtle movie.  It doesn't really have much of a plot.  It is gratuitously violent.  The director (Troy Duffy) clearly was aiming more for cool moments than a cohesive film.  Several characters are simply punchlines with legs.  It is moronic.  Willem Dafoe dresses in drag and is considered attractive.  The social commentary is boneheaded.  All in all, this is a truly ridiculous movie.

And I love it, just the same.  The movie stars Sean Patrick Flanery and Norman Reedus as fraternal twins who kill a couple of Russian mobsters in self-defense.  Nothing wrong with that, right?  Well, this acts as just the first instance of them killing criminals.  With the help of their friend/ low-level mob gopher (David Della Rocco), the brothers track down criminals of varying prestige and shoot them dead.  Why?  Um... because... villains are scum?  Actually, the brothers have a dream that tells them to.  Really.  Of course, the mob opts to defend itself, calling in Il Duce (Billy Connolly), a famously deadly assassin.  All the while, the Boston police and FBI are hot on the trail, with Willem Dafoe playing the part of a brilliant FBI agent.  As the film progresses, Dafoe starts to understand the brothers' motivation and must choose whether to arrest or aid them.

Taking the already stated weaknesses of this film into account, how can I enjoy this?  There are a lot of movies with similar problems that I despise (the sequel, for instance), but somehow this one gets off the hook.  How?  The secret is in the film's joy.  This movie looks like it was a blast to make, but that does not necessarily make it good (see: Rat Pack movies).  While the movie is ridiculous, both in its action and its dialogue, the movie never veers into parody.  That would be a mistake for a better director, but first-time writer/ director Troy Duffy isn't very talented; had he tried to make this a clever movie, it probably would have come off like The Doom Generation, AKA Brian's Most Hated Movie.  When Duffy tries to be clever or smart, it's really annoying, like when he has the "man on the street" interviews during the closing credits.  No, this movie works best when it is simple and gleefully dumb.

Helping that is the Z-list supporting cast.  Take, for starters, the presence of David Della Rocco.  Rocco plays a character named Rocco, which implies that the actor couldn't remember his character's name, so they changed it.  I don't know that for a fact, but that would be my first guess.  Rocco isn't much of an actor, but he can deliver dialogue with great comedic timing.  I never thought a dead cat would make me laugh, but he proved me wrong.  The talents of the three local policemen on the case range from poor to mediocre, but Bob Marley (Yes, the reggae legend.  Just with a lot of makeup, facial prostheses and, oh, not dead) delivers several great lines.  The other cops are fine, but Marley plays the idiot, so of course his lines should be either funny or annoying.  Luckily, they are the former.

The bigger name supporting cast does a good job, too.  Willem Dafoe steals every scene he's in, even if the things he's required to say and do are stupid.  Cross-dressing and river-dancing are just two examples, but he is still charming and funny throughout.  Yes, he's over-the-top here, but this is a conscious choice; his acting is on par with the tone of the film.  Unfortunately, a lot of his character's moments (especially the slow-motion action scenes) seem derivative of Gary Oldman's character in The Professional.  Oldman did it first and did it better, but Dafoe shines when he investigates the crime scenes.  Billy Connolly does not do much in the movie, but he definitely looks dangerous and cool.  That still counts for something.

Sean Patrick Flanery and Norman Reedus, on the other hand, aren't terribly talented actors.  Luckily, the movie doesn't require much acting from them.  Really, the film is written like a series of punchlines with action scenes spliced in during flashbacks.  Flanery and Reedus do their jobs, sounding Irish, telling jokes, and looking handsome.  That's all their asked to do, and they do it well.

Some may find the lighthearted reactions to violence off-putting.  I can understand that.  This isn't a movie with heart, so the violence doesn't really hold any meaning.  That's what makes it gratuitous.  Everyone involved, though, goes for broke here.  Dafoe and Della Rocco are both wonderfully over the top.  The dialogue is often funny, partially because it is well-paced and partially because a lot of the lines are unexpected.  Basically, this movie is like movie popcorn: delicious, unhealthy, and best forgotten once you are finished.  Is this a great movie?  No, not at all.  Is it stupidly awesome?  Definitely.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

To Live and Die In L.A.

It is weird how wildly a director's output can vary.  William Friedkin directed The French Connection, The Exorcist, and The Boys In the Band, all very well directed movies, and all classics.  On the other hand, Friedkin also directed Cruising, Jade, and the least exciting hand-to-hand combat movie ever, The Hunted.  While he may have an Oscar for Best Director, William Friedkin is not someone you can trust to make awesome movies every time out.  This time, though, he managed to make a good movie, seemingly against all odds.

The film stars William Petersen (of CSI fame) in his first major film role as a rough-and-tumble loose cannon Secret Service agent.  If this was a pitch meeting, I would say something like "He's gonna bring the bad guys to justice, even if he has to break the law to do it!"  Trite as that sound-byte is, it's a pretty good description of Petersen's character.  Of course, the loose cannon gets paired with the straight-laced partner, played by John Pankow (from Mad About You and Ally McBeal).  Pretty obvious, stereotypical stuff so far.  Since they're the Secret Service, they need criminals to chase.  John Turturro has a small role as a minor player, but the main villain is Willem Dafoe.  Dafoe is running a counterfeit operation and Petersen's original partner died while investigating it.  This puts a bee in Petersen's proverbial bonnet, and so the counterfeiter must be arrested, at all cost.

Obviously, the basic plot isn't anything special.  The script isn't particularly memorable, either, at least in terms of dialogue.  It's not bad, mind you, and Turturro's character in particular has some nice lines, but there are some odd choices.  For some reason, Petersen uses the word "amigo" as a synonym for "wuss," as in, "I'm sorry you feel that way, amigo, but I'm gonna do this my way."  Yeah, this is LA in 1985, but that's just awkward every time it's used.  Ooooh!  Petersen's partner, playing an aging cop about to retire, does say "I'm getting too old for this shit," which predates Lethal Weapon by two years.  So, I guess that's memorable, although always attributed to Danny Glover.

Okay, so the plot and the dialogue aren't too special.  As I watched this, I didn't think the characters or the script were too special, either, but then it got interesting.  The movie is progressing along the well-tread path of most 80s cop movies, but then Petersen's character makes some odd choices.  These choices aren't your usual M. Night Shyamalan, out of nowhere, end-of-the-movie twists.  They make sense for the character; they're just not in the top twenty logical choices sane people would make.  This is where the film differentiates itself.  The characters are well established, but you don't know them well enough to know exactly what they will do.  And yet, the choices they make, and how they react to things, still make sense.

Petersen's character is a classic hard boiled detective; he's smart, a world-class jerk, takes risks, and would rather be right than be legal.  Pankow does a good job as the reluctant partner and both characters develop naturally as the story progresses.  Dafoe (who is surprisingly not hideous in 1985) does a good job as the pragmatic villain.  Sometimes, movies make white collar criminals represent the extremes of the criminal world.  Either they're weak, or they have a hundred tough guys willing to do their evil bidding.  Dafoe is somewhere in the middle and I appreciate that.  It's hard to believe that Petersen, Dafoe and Turturro were still a year away from starring in classics like Manhunter, Platoon, and The Color of Money, respectively, because their performances here show how ready they were for a larger audience.

This movie is rightly described as a noir.  Noir might be my favorite film genre, at least in part because the bad noirs rarely make it onto DVD.  Still, the simple plots, tough guy leads, and character-driven stories are always welcome in my home theater (such a it is).  While this movie has weak points, the good definitely outweighs the bad.  If it could have overcome some cliches and drawn me into the plot sooner, this would be a great film.  Still, this stands as one of the best noir films of the last thirty years.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Constant Gardener

 Most of the time, when I finish a movie, I know how I feel about it right away.  I'm pretty good at articulating my responses, so when I find myself at a loss, it's noteworthy (to me, at least).  I guess that makes The Constant Gardener noteworthy, then.

The film is based on a novel by John le Carre, author of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, which I haven't read.  I'll be honest, I'm more of a Robert Ludlum type of guy than a le Carre fan, but for those that are unfamiliar with him, he writes spy novels filled with lots of subtle moments instead of big action.  So, despite the presence of a gun on the movie poster, I assure you that this is not an action packed spy film.  Instead, it is a love the middle of a deadly conspiracy.

Ralph Fiennes is married to Rachel Weisz; he is a British diplomat and she is an activist.  They are in Nairobi for his job when Rachel's character is murdered, reportedly by her friend.  When Fiennes starts to investigate the murder on his own, he realizes that his wife had uncovered a corporate cover-up.  I don't want to spoil anything (the plot is very detail-driven), but the cover-up risks billions of dollars, which always leads to important people trying to cover their assets (see what I did just there?  I'm so clever).

While this film is plot heavy, it is a more character-driven piece than any other conspiracy or spy movie I have seen.  That's partly what makes this an odd film for me.  Most of the time, in a movie like this, you have a spy that is a total bad-ass as the main character.  Or you can go the other way, and have an every day guy  thrust into extraordinary circumstances.  This, though, does not feel extraordinary; it feels all too plausible.  Fiennes' character is the prototypical uptight British man; he tends to repress his emotions and is very understated.  This makes for a realistic portrayal, but it bored the crap out of me.  Fiennes' acting really saved the film for me.  He was able to show a wide of emotions range with limited source material; Ralph Fiennes needs to be cast in bigger movies because he has a ton of talent, but has been using it in too many bit roles lately.  Rachel Weisz, on the other hand, plays a very over-the-top character and brings her down to earth.  Weisz absolutely deserved the Oscar she won for this performance; she should have been nominated for the lead acting role instead of supporting, because she totally could have beaten Reese Witherspoon in Walk the Line.  The juxtaposition of the uber-emotional Weisz and the anti-emotional Fiennes is interesting to watch because the characters show their love in different, subtle ways.  Yes, Weisz is dead as the film begins, but this movie is really about their romance and Fiennes' realization of its importance once she is gone.

Danny Huston was good as a back-stabbing scoundrel, although I barely recognized him...apparently, this is his normal appearance, not how he looked in 30 Days of Night.  Silly me.  This is also the best dramatic work I've seen from Bill Nighy, a very capable comedic actor, but a dreadful action star (ugh...Underworld...).  In fact, if the two lead roles were not played so capably, Nighy's work would have been the standout for this film.

The acting is very noteworthy, but the film style is quite unusual, too.  The film proceeds in a dual-linear chronological fashion.  In other words, the plot proceeds chronologically, but frequently cuts to an extended series of flashbacks for Fiennes' character that also occur chronologically; for example, when Fiennes identifies Weisz's body, he has a flashback to the moment they met and as he deals with his loss in the present, his flashbacks proceed in time from that first moment they shared together. Most of the time, when a movie has flashbacks, they are usually just one or two important scenes that add background to a character's history.  The rest of the time, the film is edited so that the chronology is out of order, but there is a sense of thematic unity closure (like Pulp Fiction or Memento).  While not unprecedented (Slumdog Millionaire and the director's City of God have also used this device), telling the story this way made it interesting to watch, for a change.  These two characters should not have liked each other, but the flashbacks show how important Weisz was to Fiennes, which made his actions in the present seem more logical and have more meaning.

Okay, so far it all sounds pretty good.  Why was this a difficult movie for me to respond to?  Well, as technically impressive as this film is, and the acting and editing show how much director Fernando Meirelles did, I had a hard time caring.  Is this a good movie?  Yes, but I don't think I'll watch it again for a long time.  My problem lies with Fiennes' character.  Since he is the focal point of the movie, he needs to be interesting and he is not.  Fiennes is capable of so much charisma on screen, so it's frustrating for me to watch and appreciate his work here and still not enjoy it.  Really, the plot is good, the acting and directing are great, but when the main character is painfully and deliberately plain, it's hard to overcome.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Three Days of the Condor

Three Days of the Condor is a Robert Redford thriller based on the novel, Six Days of the Condor, by James Grady.  I'm assuming that the tag line for the film was "All the thrills of the book in half the time!"  The director was a frequent Redford collaborator, Sydney Pollack.  I'm  not a huge fan of Redford or Pollack, to be honest --- I'm sure they make good films, but they rarely pique my interest --- but this one is actually pretty solid.

This film has a sense of plausibility that rings true, and it feels like the flip side of Redford's Spy Game.  In that movie, Redford is the ultimate CIA insider, pulling strings and playing games to get things done; in Condor, Redford is a novice in the spy game, trying to figure out what the pros are doing.

The plot is relatively simple for a spy movie.  Redford works, in a non-spy capacity, for the CIA.  His job, and that of his entire department, is to read fiction and enter the relevant plots and codes into a computer, which compares the fictional data with actual CIA missions (planned or otherwise).  One day, while Redford is out getting lunch for the office, his entire department is assassinated.  Suitably alarmed, he contacts his superiors at the CIA to arrange for them to take him into protective custody.  This would make for a short movie, but it turns out that he is double crossed, and is almost killed at the pick up.  From that point on, Redford has to use his own knowledge of CIA plots to figure out why somebody wants him dead.  Like I said, it's not a terribly complicated plot.  In fact, there is a part where Redford has been up all night trying to puzzle out his situation and the camera shows the paper he has been writing on; the paper had maybe four things on it.  Whoa, there, Robert!  Don't get caught up in the details!

With a plot that sparse, the actors must carry a heavier load.  Here, Redford does a fine job as a man out of his element, but clever enough to know what to do and how to counter some basic spy techniques.  Faye Dunaway plays a random woman that Redford forces to help him, and her character's emotional arc is pretty natural. Still, I think being kidnapped, more or less, by someone who looks like Robert Redford made her character's compliance a little more believable.  Somehow I doubt that John Cazale would have had such an easy time telling a beautiful woman "I'm not going to hurt you, I just need some place to rest."  Well, he could say that, but he wake up in prison.  Max von Sydow does a very good job playing an assassin-for-hire.  His second scene with Redford was both charming and disconcerting at the same time.  Unfortunately, he only shares the screen with Redford twice; the rest of his scenes show significantly less depth and character.  Cliff Robertson (Uncle Ben in the Spider-Man movies) is Redford's CIA contact; his everyman looks may lend credibility to the role, but I felt that his acting was mediocre.  Not good, not bad, but maybe just a little above Charles Bronson.

Overall, the lack of a convoluted plot was refreshing to see in a spy movie.  Redford and Dunaway did their jobs well, and von Sydow turned in one of his better performances here.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

A Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master

"Terror Beyond Your Wildest Dreams," eh? That's not only a bold statement, but a presumptuous one, too. Who knows what is even in my wildest dreams?  Oh, that's right...Freddy Krueger.  Who's Freddy?  Here's a quick recap: Freddy Krueger (played by Robert Englund) is a basically a powerful aspect of dream that can kill people in their sleep.  In particular, Freddy seeks revenge against his murderers by killing their children in their dreams.  In A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors, Heather Langenkamp returned to the series (she was the main actress in the original film) to help a group of kids being terrorized by Freddy; together, they managed to find the mortal remains of Freddy, sanctify them, and bury them, thereby "killing" Krueger. Langenkamp and three other kids managed to survive, but they are the sole survivors of the children whose parents killed Freddy Krueger.

One of the survivors, Kristen (played by Patricia Arquette in the last film), is played by Tuesday Knight.  Don't be fooled by her possibly porn-industry name; the girl is a true triple threat.  She is an actor, an amateur smoker (when she pretends to smoke cigarettes in this movie without any that's acting), and a semi-professional singer.  Yes, that is Tuesday singing the opening theme to this movie and, yes, she is probably looking for work as we speak.  She didn't last long in this movie, that's for sure.  Deciding that there was no reason to actually stay dead, Freddy chooses to come back to "life."  The scene involves a dog peeing flames and his bones growing muscle tissue; the logic governing this course of actions is never actually explained.  Well, Freddy makes quick work of Kristen and her two other fellow Dream Warriors survivors, thereby succeeding in his mission to kill the children of those that killed him (although nobody ever mentions Langenkamp for some reason, shouldn't she be considered a survivor?  Okay, I'll shut up).  That's not good enough for Freddy, though; in this film, he branches out from simple revenge to harvesting souls.  It's nice to see a grown man that can change careers so easily!

Oh, before I forget, Kristen manages to use her dream powers to pull a friend into her last dream and transfer the dream powers to this new girl, Alice.  You might wonder why...or how...but you shouldn't.  If there's no explanation for how Krueger returned, you can be reasonably sure that the transference of one-of-a-kind supernatural powers between friends through a dream is not a priority; basically, the writers are assuming that, if you believe in dream-dwelling serial killers, this will not be a hard pill to swallow.

You can guess the plot from here.  Alice uses her new powers to stop Freddy, but not until he has killed most of her friends.  But, right before the end, there's an interesting idea.  According to some ancient mythology, there are two gates to the realm of dream, a good dream gate and a nightmare gate.  Each has a guard.  It's implied that Freddy is the guardian of the nightmare gate, while Alice (and, presumably, Kristen before her) is the guardian of the good gate.  Okay, that's not a horrible way to enrich the history of Freddy's character.  But, of course, that's just an idea that I developed, based on maybe two lines in the actual film.  A teacher mentions the gates in passing and Freddy later says that he's guarded his gate for a long time.  Oh, well, so much for ideas.  Speaking of clever ideas, guess what defeats Freddy this time around.  Go on, guess.  That's right, a mirror.    For a movie about dreams, there's not much creativity here.  I'd like to say that this is director Renny Harlin's worst movie, but that title is owned by The Adventures of Ford Fairlane.

That's really the big problem with this movie.  Doesn't anybody want to think out of the box for this franchise?  Where are all the one-liners?  Where are the cool dream deaths?  Here, we have not one, not two, but three people die from Freddy stabbing them in the stomach!  Another dies by drowning!  Another by asthma!  Really?  Look, I understand that this is the fourth movie in a series, but that means that the deaths and insults should be getting more gruesome and creative.

Oddly enough, The Dream Master was the highest grossing film in the series (until Freddy Vs. Jason).  It was also the only movie to have a video game released in conjunction with it; along with The Dream Warriors, this was the basis for the truly horrible game for the original Nintendo console.  It even had a Fat Boys song on the soundtrack that featured Freddy rapping:

Sadly, this is also the first Freddy movie that doesn't really try to scare you.  It's kind of like Freddy got a horror movie "pass for life," where his scariness is always assumed and never requires proving.  From this film on, Freddy is less of a monster and more of a performer.  So, I guess you could call him "Vegas Freddy" or "Fat Elvis Freddy."  Another weird thing about this film is that there is no direct connection to the "Freddy house" that appears in each movie.  In the first two movies, the characters living in the house were terrorized by Freddy.  The logic in the first movie was because Freddy wanted his revenge, but it's less clear in the second.  In the third, Heather Langenkamp returned and Patricia Arquette dreamed about the house.  Here, though, and in every subsequent movie, the house is abandoned.  None of the kids after The Dream Warriors even recognize the house, much less live on Elm Street.  Why is this house used in every movie?  It's even implied that this was Freddy's house, but it wasn't.  Sorry if I'm paying too close attention to continuity, but it's odd to have a recurring image that has no real relevance.

While there isn't much to recommend this movie, I did like the effects when Freddy died and finding that Fat Boys video made me smile.  I also liked the fact that, by killing all the Elm Street kids, Freddy essentially won.  But, god, it is terrible.

Friday, March 19, 2010


Director Roland Emmerich hates buildings.  I know what you're thinking.  "Whoa, whoa, whoa, Brian...Just because the guy directed 2012, The Day After Tomorrow, Godzilla, and Independence Day doesn't mean he hates buildings.  Maybe he just likes to direct insultingly stupid special effects movies."  Well, then, riddle me this: if he doesn't hate buildings, why did he write the screenplay for all those films?  Check and mate, Mr. Argumentative-voice-that-I-hear-in-my-head-as-I-type-this.

Now that I've got that off my chest, let's get to the movie.  Well, not so fast...did you see the poster?  The movie poster for the film has "We Were Warned" as a tag line.  Warned?  By who?  Okay, the movie is named 2012, and there is the famous Mayan Long Count calendar that starts with the date August 11, 3114 BC and ends with December 21, 2012 AD, so I'll assume that the Mayans warned us.  I have to assume this, because the movie only casually alludes to the Mayans a couple of times, never giving an in depth connection of how they knew the Mayans were warning us.  Alright, let's make that assumption.  What did they warn us about?  Presumably, since this is a disaster movie, the end of the world.  I'm not about to debate the merits of that idea (Well, maybe just for a calendar ends on December 31, 2010.  Does that mean we all die on New Year's Eve?), but let's just assume that end of their calendar equals disaster.  The tag line implies that we are responsible, though.  "We Were Warned."  What?  "Don't let time continue in a linear fashion past December 20, 2012, or you'll be sorrrrrrryyyyyy!"  You'd think this preordained global event would tie in to nuclear war or global warming or dinosaur-killing asteroids, but no, not this film.  The earth just decides to go for humanity's jugular.  There are a lot of earthquakes, tidal waves (same idea, I know), and typhoons.  No tornadoes, oddly enough.  But "We Were Warned" that nothing humans did had any effect on the planet, and we were all just living on borrowed time.  We took out a loan from Mother Nature, and she's coming to collect on 12/21/2012...with interest!

Dear marketing team for 2012, I hate you so much.  Sincerely, Brian.

This movie could have also been titled "John Cusack: Faster Than Nature."  On four separate occasions, Cusack is being chased by a force of nature (an earthquake, volcano fumes twice, and a tidal wave) that tends to travel faster than a person, but apparently not John Cusack.  Don't get me wrong, I like John Cusack, but the man doesn't like being in good movies any more.  I also believe that, no matter how good a driver you are, you cannot drive a limousine through an office building that is falling down without crashing.  That's just my opinion, but I dare you to prove me wrong.

The plot to this masterpiece is pretty bare bones: the token scientist that everybody listens to (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) realizes that the world is going to end.  He and his friends have even calculated how much time we have left.  He tells the government, the government listens, and the governments of the world agree to secretly prepare some way to survive.  That's the plot. 

Reading that, you'd think this movie was 45 minutes long, but it clocks in at over two-and-a-half hours.  How do you fill all that extra time?  Well, Roland has the tried and true method of having one or two main characters, and the disaster happens, and it impacts the main characters and their loved ones.  In Independence Day, it was Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum; in The Day After Tomorrow, it was Dennis Quaid; in Godzilla, it, I remember rooting for Godzilla, so she must have been the main character.  In 2012, the main characters are Ejiofor and Cusack.  How does that work out for their loved ones?  Let's see...Ejiofor fails to save his family or any of his friends, while Cusack's estranged family almost makes it through the film unscathed until his beloved replacement as husband and father (seriously, they really liked this guy) dies at the very end.  Don't feel bad for them; they just have Cusack fill in the newly vacant position.

The main idea in the film is the optimistic notion that, when all the chips are down, people are inherently good and will try to help each other because it is the right thing to do.  John Cusack's character wrote a (not terribly successful) book with that as its theme, and Ejiofor is reading the book.  The natural disasters occurring represent the tough times, and now it's time for humanity to save itself with its inherent goodness.  That's not a bad theme.  I don't necessarily disagree with it, either.  But every movie needs a villain, and in this movie it is Oliver Platt.  And nature, but nature has no dialogue.  Oliver Platt is the government guy who is trying to save the few thousand people he can in the time that Ejiofor gives him.  But Ejiofor's estimates are wrong every time (making him the worst movie scientist ever), which forces Platt's character to act aggressively to get the survival mission off the ground.  Don't get me wrong, Platt is a jerk in this film, but he's a logical jerk.  He does not try to save his 89 year-old mother because she's old and they will have to rebuild society if they survive; he allows rich people (instead of smart or genetically superior people) to pay billions of Euros for spots on the survival ships because the survival ships cost billions to make; when one of the survival ships can't be used, Platt chooses to not let them on board his ship because the final killer tidal wave will arrive in five minutes.  Is he a nice guy?  No, but his actions are understandable.  But Ejiofor has to make a swinging-for-the-fences-and-striking-out speech about how, if humanity is going to survive, it can't let go of its goodness, its...humanity.  And everyone but Platt totally agreed with him.  What?  Really?  Nobody says, "Let's try and get past this first extinction-level threat and then we can start being nice?"  Man, I must be ripe with villainy to think like that.

So how are the actors?  Well, the star of the show, Special Effects, was okay.  Buildings got destroyed.  Water rose.  Whatever.  Cusack was fine, but he needs a new agent.  Ejiofor was less good, but is generally a solid actor, so I'll give him a pass this time.  Cusack's son could be out-acted by lukewarm yogurt.  Amanda Peet and Thandie Newton are women; that's all the script really says about them.  Danny Glover looked really tired as the most depressing President of the United States ever...he's basically the anti-Bill Pullman in Independence Day; where Pullman had everyone fight back against annihilation, Glover just said "I quit, time to die."  Woody Harrelson plays a convincing crazy dirty hippie (he actually reminded me of my uncle in Montana, if my uncle was absolutely poo-flinging crazy), but it's still not a good role.  George Segal is in the movie for reasons that are never revealed.  There are some characters from China and India, too, but you're not supposed to care about them.

Really, that's the problem with this movie.  It spends so much time and effort (and did I mention time?) trying to make this feel epic, it has no room left for the characters.  And there are so many characters that just serve as cannon fodder to show how deadly the end of the world can be.  "Epic" means something with huge scope, but it always comes back to the characters.  Or, it's supposed to.

I give this film two stars for the effects, two stars for Cusack's charm, one star for Danny Glover not saying "I'm too old for this shit," and one star for killing George Segal, but I take away three stars for royally pissing me off.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Boondock Saints II: All Saint's Day

It's been over ten years since the original The Boondock Saints was released; it was a bad time for ultra-violent films, since it came out right after the Columbine shootings.  For those who haven't seen the movie, it's about two brothers who decide to become vigilantes and, more or less, start killing all the criminals they can find.  Despite never getting wide release, the film became a cult classic and a huge hit on DVD.  Personally, I love The Boondock Saints, for what it does right and wrong.  It's even become something of a tradition to watch it on St. Patrick's Day.  Now, the long awaited sequel is on DVD.  Does this mean that next year, I'll start watching two movies every March 17?  The short answer is "no."

This movie has every reason to succeed.  The writer/director of the first film (Troy Duffy) returns, along with the three stars, Sean Patrick Flanery, Norman Reedus, and Billy Connolly.  The three Boston policemen from the first movie return.  Heck, the bad guys even get upgraded in this movie; in the first flick, Ron Jeremy was the most famous villain, but here we have Peter Fonda and Judd Nelson.  There are two notable absences, though.  While the lovely and talented Willem Dafoe is relegated to a cameo, he is replaced by television actress Julie Benz (of Dexter and Angel fame); that is not an improvement, but more on her later.  Also, the funny, but not much of an actor, David Della Rocco is more or less replaced (he still cameos, but he died in the last film) by the less funny,  but arguably a better actor, Clifton Collins, Jr.

More or less, the team that made the first movie so much fun was back in business.  So, how's the script?  Well, when I was watching it, I commented that it felt like the script was written in two days, but Troy Duffy spent the next ten years making sure to turn everything up to eleven; in other words, every line in every scene feels like it was tweaked so that it would be ultra-memorable.  Duffy probably re-watched The Boondock Saints critically and concluded that he wasted too much time having dialogue that built character and advanced plot; this time around, every line would be a "zinger."  Seriously, this movie is very tiring.  You know when you have a friend that's funny, but feels that he's being ignored?  He overreacts by trying to make every single thing he says funny, and in the process just becomes annoying.  Well, your friend's name is The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day.

The plot isn't much better.  After the events of the last movie, the MacManus brothers (Flanery and Reedus) are living in seclusion with their father (Connelly) as sheep herders in Ireland.  Somebody kills a priest in Boston and leaves their trademark after the crime, so the brothers return to Boston with the plan to kill everyone involved with the crime.  Okay, so far, so good.  Revenge and honor are as good a reason as any for vigilantes to start killing criminals, right?  And that's basically what happens.  Sure, they are lacking David Della Rocco, so they pick up an equally bumbling sidekick in Clifton Collins, Jr.  Yes, they're being chased by the FBI again, but instead of their accomplice, Dafoe, they get his apprentice, Benz.  Billy Connolly is not in much of the movie (just like last time), but when he is, the plot focuses on him (much like last time).  Ugh.  It's the same movie, but not nearly as good, despite all its efforts.

So, if the movie is basically the first movie, but with a lot more insults and supposedly memorable lines, where does it fall short?  Let's start with the MacManus family.  When the movie begins, the brothers are going incognito; their hair and beards are shoulder length.  While this actually looks natural on Reedus, Flanery looks like he Velcro-ed woolen socks to his face for his beard.  Okay, that's a small complaint.  But, when they decide to return to Boston, where the FBI will undoubtedly be looking for them, they cut their hair and beards to look exactly the same as they did when the last movie ended.  Very incognito.  The brothers are sharing the same tattoo this time around; they both have Christ on the cross in the middle of their backs, but Flanery has Christ from the head down to the waist, while Reedus has the legs and feet.  Really?  What were they thinking?  What position do they have to be in for that to look cool?  Even if Flanery was getting a piggy back ride from Reedus, there would still be a gap in their flesh portrait!  You know what would have been better?  If they shared the same tattoo, but it was split down the center; when they are back-to-back, preparing to execute a criminal, only then does it come together as one portrait.  The brothers are still amateurs, too.  They get in the same fights that they did in the last movie over the same things.  They still play jokes with unloaded guns.  They still plot their attacks like they are in a bad action movie (well, they are, but you know what I mean).  In short, over ten years, the only noticeable change in these characters is that Flanery looks older.  Oh, any Billy Connolly (who is the best part of the MacManus family) is barely in the movie; instead, we are treated to a Godfather II-esque origin story for him.  In a word: LAME.

The supporting cast isn't better, either.  Benz has the strongest (and worst) southern accent I have heard this side of sketch comedy.  I don't like her motivation and I think the way it was introduced to the Boston cops would have been much more effective if the MacManus brothers were not in on the secret.  Her part was too similar to Dafoe's, to the point of mockery.  Peter Fonda sports an Italian accent that made me yearn for his surfer turn in Escape From L.A.  Clifton Collins, Jr. was both a cartoon and, in some ways, extremely charming.  I wavered between hating him and laughing at him, so his performance canceled itself out for me.  Judd Nelson (and I can't believe I'm typing this) was underused in this movie, and I wish he had more screen time.  Willem Dafoe's cameo was welcome, although it opened the movie up for an obvious sequel (that might actually happen, since the film was profitable in the US alone).  David Della Rocco's cameo acted as a mission statement for the movie; while it was not at all subtle, Rocco is fun to see on the screen.

Overall, this is a movie that is living in the shadow of its predecessor.  Boondock Saints II wants to be the Terminator 2 for its franchise, the sequel that takes all the great things from the first movie and makes them James-Cameron-HUGE.  It certainly succeeds in making things louder and dumber, but that doesn't make it better.  Is it violent?  Yes.  Does it have a lot of creative dialogue?  Too much.  Does it make sense?  Kind of.  The main problem with Boondock Saints II is that it loves the original so much, the characters can't escape its formula. 

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare

"They saved the best...for last."  Riiiiight.  That statement isn't correct in any way, shape, or form.  Not only is this not the best Freddy Kreuger movie, it's not even the last.  Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare is the sixth installment of the A Nightmare On Elm Street series, and it takes the nightmare-dwelling slasher flick star and propels him into the future...for no particular reason.  No surviving characters pop up in the film, so the placement in the future is completely arbitrary.  Unless, of course, this "ten years later" refers to ten years after someone watching it...which means it is dependent upon viewers to happen.  So, if I was the last person to ever watch this movie, then in ten years, I would be indirectly responsible for the events in this film!  God, that's a depressing thought; I'd sure hate to share the blame for this crap with director Rachael Talalay (who also directed Tank Girl).  The sad thing is that there is an outside possibility that I will be the last person to watch this movie.

So, who wants to hear the plot?  Anyone?  Show of hands?  Yeah, me neither.  While the plot is unimportant here, there are a lot of revelations that add (and detract) from the Freddy mythos.  For instance, we learn that a young Fred Kreuger was still a sociopath; we watch him kill a schoolroom gerbil with a large hammer.  Why was there a large hammer available to young Kreuger?  Um.  Maybe it was "Bring Your Favorite Weapon" day for show-and-tell?  We also see Kreuger teased by kids chanting, "Son of a hundred maniacs!" over and over.  Leave it to the innocence of schoolkids to turn a tragic origin, where a child's father could be any one of the hundred violent inmates in a psychiatric ward that repeatedly raped his mother, a nun, and turn it into a fun little chant!  Kids say the darndest things!  And who told the kids about that, anyway?  Did somebody's parents teach them the joys of taunting rape victims?  Presumably, yes.  Later, as a teen, Freddy takes to self-mutilation as a way to handle (and enjoy) the physical abuse that his adoptive/foster father (played by Alice Cooper) heaps upon him.  Oh, and Freddy murdered his own wife, after she discovered evidence that he was murdering the kids of Elm Street.  Oh, and he did it in front of his heretofore unmentioned young daughter.  Now, from a writing perspective, it's a totally valid idea to create some history for Freddy's character that helps explain why he was so evil, and maybe even make him a little more sympathetic.  A good way to do this would be to show him being tormented as a child in school, or to see him being beaten by the only father he knows.  A bad way to do this is to show him being a sociopath from day one.  I'll give the screenwriters credit for making an effort, even if they totally undercut themselves.

Well, I would give them credit, but then they decided that, when Freddy was about to be burned alive, he was approached by Dream Demons who promised Freddy eternal life and the ability to continue being evil in exchange, nothing.  Demons: not driving as hard of bargains as you might expect.

Another good idea stems from the fact that no returning characters, aside from Freddy himself, are in this film.  This allows the writers to show a Springwood, Ohio (where Elm Street is) where Freddy has run amok, killing every child but one in the town.  This, reasonably, drives the parents crazy.  However, nobody outside of Springwood seems to know about the tragedy of the town.  Not very realistic, but this is a movie with a recurring nightmare man, so I'll let that pass.  This means that nobody knows about Freddy or how to defeat him, which leads to a novel concept: if you grab Freddy in your dream and wake up, you can bring him into the waking world with you. Outside of dreams, Freddy doesn't have power, so he can die.  Although, if you fail to kill him, can Freddy return to dreams?  I don't see why not.  And Freddy still has a lot of dream powers in the real world, for some unknown reason, including physical transformations, healing, and more.  But a pipe bomb?  That'll kill him.  Seriously.  So...plot holes?  Got 'em right here! 

Freddy's ultimate plan in the film is to manipulate events so that his daughter will return to Springwood.  Once there, Freddy will hop inside her and...control her?  Or live in her subconscious?  Or what?  That's left a little fuzzy.  Regardless, she will act as a transport for Freddy, so he can find children of different towns and create new Elm Streets.  After all, he cackles, "Every town has an Elm Street!  MWA HAHAHAHA!"  Why couldn't Freddy leave Springwood?  Isn't he demon-powered?  Well, yes, but Dream Demons aren't allowed to cross the street without holding the hands of a grown-up.  What?  I can't make up dumb rules, too?  Why does Freddy need to establish more Elm Streets?  He hasn't been limited to Elm Street since Nightmare Part 2

This Nightmare has only three kills in it, so there's not a lot to distract from the plot.  On the plus side, one of the deaths shows a head exploding.  Anther has a young Brekin Meyer (mediocre actor and co-creator of the excellent Robot Chicken show) being controlled by Freddy, as Freddy plays a Nintendo-style game console.  Brekin's death isn't noteworthy, really, but Freddy does manage to fit in a Nintendo Power Glove joke, which I rather enjoyed.  There are a few cameos that are noteworthy, too, aside from Alice Cooper.  Being the "final" Freddy movie, Johnny Depp made an appearance, since the first Nightmare was his first movie.  Also, Tom Arnold and his then-wife, Roseanne, popped up as Springwood residents; Roseanne impresses as an obnoxious woman with a loud mouth, showcasing the acting chops of a bar of soap.  Former James Bond villain Yaphet Kotto also has a small role in the movie, but he's basically a plot device, so he didn't add much.

Overall, this is a bad, bad, movie.  It's not as bad as part 5, though.  It sure isn't good, either, but there are some bright spots.  The poor plot manages to make the smart choice to ignore continuity with the preceding films, which allows viewers insight into Kreuger's character.  Not great insight, but more than ever before.  I'll be honest, if it wasn't for the Dream Demons, I would say these character insights weren't terrible.  Yes, this movie has a bunch of characters that you don't care about.  Yes, this movie has a movie monster that is not scary at all, but instead aims at being allegedly funny.  But the saving grace for the film is Freddy himself.  Robert Englund is not a great actor, but you can tell that he loves every second of every scene of every Nightmare.  If this was, indeed, The Final Nightmare, I will admit that he had a pretty good performance in a film otherwise devoid of anything approaching acting.  So, that's one star for Englund, one star for a moderately creative (if terrible) character history for Freddy, and one star for a Nintendo Power Glove joke.

Saturday, March 13, 2010


I was talking with a friend at work about this movie and he said "There's nothing wrong with Zombieland."  I am going to have to wholeheartedly agree with that.  Do you need to know anything more than that?  Well, I guess I'm forcing my opinion out into the internet ether by having a blog, so I will go on, regardless.

Zombieland is set in the near future, when the inevitable zombie apocalypse has finally struck.  This movie is different from most zombie flicks (excepting, of course, George Romero sequels) because we don't watch the zombies rise up.  Zombies are a fact of life, and you have to "nut up or shut up," in the words of Woody Harrelson's character.  While the plot doesn't do anything to surprise you, it doesn't let you down either.  Basically, it's about zombies.  And awkward young love.  And zombies.  And family.  But especially zombies.

Jesse Eisenberg does a good job as the awkward Point of View character for the film.  His character has many rules for survival in the post-zombie world, and they appear on-screen whenever appropriate, serving both as reminders and subtle jokes along the way.  When you have an awkward lead male, he is obviously going to fall in love with any girl close to his age, so Emma Stone plays the part of the bad girl that he has a hell of a time trying to impress.  Not that Emma has a lot of other non-zombies to choose from, but even after the apocalypse, it's still ladies' choice.  Abigail Breslin plays Emma's little sister with her usual competence and Woody Harrelson plays a zombie-stomping bad-ass.

From those descriptions, I know it's hard to figure out which is my favorite character, but it's Harrelson.  Generally overlooked for his work (possibly because people remember The Cowboy Way and Money Train), Harrelson is always good in his movies, and he performs with relish here.  Yes, the script has a lot of good dialogue, but Harrelson's character could have been cartoon-ish in the hands of a lesser actor.  Here, he's bigger than life and is truly getting the most out of living in a world with zombies.  Jesse Eisenberg, who is sometimes unjustly seen as a low-rent Michael Cera, plays his usual awkward character here, but he has come a long way since Roger Dodger because he now has timing and delivery down pat.  I'm also enjoying the development of Abigail Breslin; while she doesn't have a whole lot to work with here, nothing seems forced.  Really, her character serves as a plot device to justify the cast traveling to a Disney-esque theme park, but on the rare occasions where Breslin is called upon to personify childish innocence and/or ignorance (the fact that her character didn't know who Bill Murray made me feel sooooo old), she delivers.  Plus, she just seems like a lot more fun than Dakota Fanning, the only other credible actress in their age group.  Emma Stone does a decent job, too, hitting all the right notes, but I didn't feel that her performance was anything special.

None of this does justice to the joy that is Zombieland, because I don't want to spoil the many small moments that make this fun and funny.  There are a number of recurring character moments that really pay off, whether it be the one food on Earth that Woody Harrelson is craving, or the thing that scares Jesse Eisenberg the most.  Here's a hint to that last one:
 Come on!  That is so awesome!  This movie has a cameo by Bill Murray that is easily the best bit part I have seen in years.  And you'll notice that I haven't even mentioned the inevitable violence of a zombie movie.  Well, there are a lot of good zombie kills, too.  This movie really has everything: violence, gore, humor (not stupid or gross humor...real humor), romance, emotional arcs for the characters, and Bill Murray being awesome.  Yes, you can see the plot twists coming a mile away, but that's not always a bad thing in a comedy.  Comedy is about setting up expectations and then meeting them...or not meeting them in a fun way.  This film could have been a Shaun of the Dead knock-off, but it instead comes across as a fun adaptation of Max Brooks' Zombie Survival Guide.  I can't believe that this is essentially Ruben Fleischer's first directorial work.  And I mean that in the best possible way.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Hurt Locker

I'm trying not to review movies that I have watched in the past, but rather movies that I just finished watching.  I think that reviewing a movie months or years after the viewing is unfair to the film in question.  I saw The Hurt Locker when it came out on DVD last month, but since it just won Best Picture, I figured it was okay for me to bend the rules and throw my two cents in now.

War movies are, as a genre, a mix of testosterone and malestrogen (the bodily chemical that causes Man Tears).  If you disagree, watch your grandpa's reaction to the end of Saving Private Ryan; when the elderly Matt Damon character is talking to Tom Hanks' grave, I guarantee gramps will be quietly leaking tears made of beer, sweat, and cursing.  The Hurt Locker plays against type by never really having that malestrogen moment, or for that matter, much of anything when it comes to small moments.

Jeremy Renner plays a bomb technician who joins a new company after their friend and bomb technician is killed in action.  Renner plays the new guy entering the established status quo, which consists of a three man team, played by Anthony Mackie, Brian Garaghty, and now Renner.  Renner is a lone wolf who is seemingly oblivious to danger, while his teammates are all too aware of it.  This acts as the main conflict in the film, as Mackie and Garaghty's characters are just trying to survive the remainder of their deployment, while Renner is just interested in defusing bombs, regardless of his own or his team's safety.  Unlike a lot of war films, then, the conflict here is an emotional one between a small group of people.

Renner does a pretty good job as a bomb technician.  Yes, he's overly confident and casual about danger, but I see that as realistic for a character that decides that war isn't dangerous enough, so he decides to defuse homemade bombs.  It's a good thing that Renner's performance is pretty good, since Mackie and Garaghty don't do much with their parts.  Mackie spends most of his screen time scowling and Garaghty might as well have been doing a screen test to play Linus in a live-action "Peanuts" movie.  Neither performance is bad, mind you, but both could have done better.  Both have a moment, though, after the three of them get drunk together that was pretty good.  Renner has one scene in particular where his character shines in a very understated way.  It's a simple scene, featuring him speaking softly to his infant child, trying to articulate why he likes the army and why he feels uncomfortable as a civilian.  It's a simple, understated scene that could easily have been sappy or overblown, but is allowed to be subtle and trust the intelligence of the viewer.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of smaller bits that knock the movie down a few notches for me.  The first is the movie's slogan, "War is a Drug."  Now you know that director Kathryn Bigelow, the director of such subtle masterpieces as Point Break and K-19: The Widowmaker (AKA "Harrison Ford can't do accents"), is going to be using metaphors.    I understand that the movie feels like a grind to watch at times because the soldiers' lives have a lot of boredom and repetition, despite the dangers.  Understanding what the director was going for doesn't mean that I appreciate it, though; it kind of reminds me of Christopher Nolan's Insomnia... yes, it felt like I was suffering from insomnia like Al Pacino, but it doesn't mean I ever want to see the movie again.  There are two other scenes where Renner's character shows his humanity (or, really, one long scene), but when Renner's character slips off the Army base, the purpose of the scene loses its direction and impact.  David Morse's bit part rubbed me the wrong way, too, the way he acted like Flavor Flav to Renner's Chuck D; I think the viewers can figure out that Renner's a "madman," he doesn't need a hype man.  It was nice seeing Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes in a decent movie, but their parts were so small that these excellent actors could barely leave an impression.

Overall, the film tries to make some intelligent points about war and the people that choose to be in the Armed Forces.  The movie had some wonderfully eloquent, subtle scenes, but it countered those with ham-fisted metaphors.  Renner was pretty good, but the director didn't get enough out of the supporting cast to fulfill the potential of this well-shot film.

Monday, March 8, 2010

A Nightmare On Elm Street 5: The Dream Child

If you didn't know anything about movies, you might assume that, if the fifth film in a franchise is released, it has the daunting task of living up to its predecessors.  Thankfully, horror movie franchises go out of their way to correct us of such thinking.  Why make good sequels when you can just make the first one look even better by comparison?   I think that may have been the director's plan when making The Dream Child.

For those of you who haven't seen all the Nightmare movies (shame on you!), here's what you missed: Freddy Kreuger was a child killer who was arrested, but was not convicted due to a never specified "technicality."  The Elm Street parents didn't like the idea of Kreuger going free, so they burned him alive and hid the remaining evidence of their deed, because mob rules and hiding evidence are the symptoms of truly justified individuals.  It's interesting that his lawyer was not murdered as well; maybe he was, though, and he just litigated the parents... from beyond the grave!!! Somehow, Freddy mysteriously became a creature of the dreamscape and sought revenge against his killers by striking against their children.  At the end of every movie, some kid figures out that their fear gives Freddy his power, so they find some way to banish him forever...or until right before the credits, so you can totally tell that there's going to be another sequel.  

Well, in A Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, Freddy finally kills off the remaining original Elm Street kids.  End of story, right?  Well, it turns out that Freddy is greedy and wants power, so he continues killing kids in their sleep, although now completely without the justification of the original movie.  The Dream Master ties directly into The Dream Child, with the character of Alice Johnson starring in both.  Alice has the power to bring sleeping people into her dreams, or to enter another person's dreams.  This allows her to fight Freddy with friends; in the last installment, Alice trapped Freddy within herself and basically locked away the key.  If he can't beat her, the Dream Master, he can't escape into the dreamscape and attack others.  It's all just that simple, and by "simple," I of course mean "horribly convoluted."

Alice gets pregnant in The Dream Child's opening sequence.  Presumably (although never explicitly stated), her unborn child has inherited her powers.  That means that, since babies are stupid and weak (I'm paraphrasing the screenwriters here, this is not necessarily my opinion), Freddy can influence or even assume control of the fetus' power to enter the dreams of others.  And since fetuses basically sleep whenever their moms are moving around, that means that Freddy can attack even when Alice is awake.  I'm pretty sure the movie makers would have loved for that last sentence to end in an exclamation mark, but it's all I can do to just mock this movie.

In a Freddy movie, you basically look for two things: creative death scenes and Freddy's terrible jokes.  This movie doesn't do much for the former and the best death scene has a comic book nerd becoming a super hero to fight off Freddy... and getting owned a minute later.  I'm pretty sure that only three people died in this movie, too, which never helps a crappy horror sequel.  On the bright side, the main theme won a 1990 Razzie for worst song:

Now, so far the movie doesn't sound too bad.  Not good, by any means, but not terrible.  But it is terrible.  The script is awkward, like the screenwriters were sixty year-old Soviet political prisoners, locked away since 1946 and had never met a teenager in their lives.  We get to see the implied rape of Freddy's mother, a nun, by "one hundred maniacs."  It's off-screen, but gang rape is rarely in good taste.  We also get to see Freddy as a fetus, looking like a heavily scarred tadpole; not scary, but definitely disturbing.  The kids in the movie are a motley crew, again probably because the writers had never met teenagers but heard that The Breakfast Club was pretty characteristic of social groups.  The movie is terribly edited, too; in order to avoid an X-rating (which, trust me, it never even came close to with the final cut), the director allegedly had to make a lot of last-minute edits.  The problem was that the director (Stephen Hopkins, of Predator 2 fame) never bothered to make sure what was left fit together.  The viewer is left with props popping in and out of scenes with no explanation and bits of character-building taken completely out of context.

Don't get me wrong, I love horror movies for the good and the bad that they can bring to the table.  This one just leaves the "good" table bare and piles loads upon the "bad" one.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Foul Play

Foul Play stars Goldie Hawn with a supporting cast that includes Chevy Chase, Burgess Meredith, Dudley Moore, and Brian Dennehy, and it was directed by Colin (Harold and Maude) Higgins.  I had never heard of the film, so I gave it a shot.  Now I know why I had never heard of it.

This 1978 movie was clearly designed as a starring vehicle for Hawn, who was still two years away from making Private Benjamin and almost ten years away from Overboard.  This was Chevy Chase's first major film role, and it's definitely a supporting one.  Brian Dennehy's career was mainly in detective TV episodes at this point.  Dudley Moore hadn't even made 10 yet, THAT'S how old this movie is.  So, the cast was just on the cusp of respectability and stardom, which could have made this a diamond in the rough, right?

Well, it could have been.  Here's the plot: Goldie Hawn accidentally gets involved with a plot to assassinate the Pope, and Officer Chevy Chase helps her try to prevent it.  That doesn't sound too bad, right?  Well, it's a slapstick comedy.  And a thriller.  And a romantic comedy.  I know what you're thinking: "Trying to kill the Pope?  That's bound to be comic gold!"  No?  Hmm...that's okay, though; if the premise doesn't get you ready for belly laughs, they threw in a dwarf, a killer albino, Japanese tourists, loneliness, the notion of rape, and Dudley Moore.  And yet, somehow, inexplicably, it never really gels together.

The performances are fine.  Hawn does her "Ooh!  I'm surprised!" look well, but her dialogue doesn't really give her much to work with.  She's treated like a prop in the film; she doesn't really act so much as she is acted upon by the other characters.  Chevy Chase is his normal back-when-he-was-funny self, and it wouldn't surprise me if he wrote or ad-libbed a good deal of his dialogue.  I'm not saying he was especially convincing as a police officer, but he was funny.  Dudley Moore was okay, I guess, as an especially horny Brit, but the best part of his scenes were the props in his bedroom.  Most of them are played up for laughs, but he had a fur-lined piano that wasn't a piano, but a fold-out bar...and that is just plain awesome.  Seriously, I would love a piano covered in faux tiger fur that opened into a wet bar.  Burgess Meredith was apparently never under the age of 75; here, he plays a snake-loving, former black belt landlord.  The fact that he has a lengthy karate fight with a woman gives you an idea of how this movie turned out.

There are two fairly random plot elements that are played for laughs, as well.  First, Goldie Hawn's best friend keeps warning her about getting raped.  Hilarious!  The second is a pair of Japanese tourists who accidentally end up in a one vehicle car chase; they're really scared until Hawn explains that Chevy Chase is a cop, like Kojack.  Apparently, Japanese tourists in the 70's loved Kojack.  File that factoid away for future use.

Despite all this, the movie never really comes together.  It's not bad, mind you, but it is odd.  The thriller scenes are treated like they are in a thriller movie.  The romantic comedy scenes are shot like they are for a romantic comedy.  And the slapstick scenes glue everything else together.  Probably not the choice I would have made for glue, but nobody asked me.  All in all, good supporting performances overcome a weak story and weaker genre mish-mash.  In fact, I would go so far as to call this movie competent.  Plus, it gets an extra star for the Japanese tourists and the piano bar.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Dark Passage

On paper, having Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in a movie that involves a prison break, murder, blackmail, and love seems like a no-brainer call for a movie classic. And, three times out of four, you would be absolutely right. The other entries in the Bogie-Bacall catalog are fantastic. This one? Not so much.

Don't get me wrong; this is not by any means a bad film. Bogart and Bacall are their usual tough-as-nails and cool-as-ice selves, which is always fun to watch. The supporting actors are good too, particularly Tom D'Andrea as the cabbie. The pacing of the film is good, too. There aren't dull points, or areas where the director should have cut; it's barely over 100 minutes long.

The plot isn't bad either. Bogart's character is wrongly convicted of killing his wife years ago; the movie begins with him breaking out of prison. Bacall recognizes him and chooses to help him get to safety by smuggling him to her home. Bogart then gets plastic surgery to alter his face and spends his recovery time with Bacall. With a new face, Bogart has to either skip town or try to find who killed his wife.

So, what's the problem? Well, if Bogart is going to have plastic surgery to end up looking like Humphrey Bogart, then who will he look like for the first half of the film? Remember, this was made in 1947. It would have been extremely difficult to have another actor play Bogart's role and then dub Bogart's voice in over the other actor's (because a face change can be explained, but a voice change wouldn't make sense). Director and screenplay writer Delmer Daves opted to avoid this problem entirely. We don't see Bogart's face until after the plastic surgery is done; in fact, we don't see Bogart without bandages on his face until about the one hour mark. Instead, Daves shot the first half of the movie from the perspective of Bogart's character. You almost never see extended use of the first-person perspective in mainstream cinema; it's usually relegated to brief scenes in slasher pics or porno. While this movie certainly rates above most (but not all) of those movies, I just expected the POV camera work to have some other meaning. If a director allows a scene to be filmed in an unusual manner, there should be an ulterior motive, something that tells the viewer more about the character or the scene than the screenplay suggests. Sadly, this unusual camera work seems to just be a way to get around the technical limitations Daves found himself with.

Oh, and there is one problem with the plot. Bacall chooses to help Bogart because her character's father was convicted of killing her mother, and Bacall believed her father to be innocent. Bacall admits that she helped Bogart because his situation reminded her of her father's.  You would expect Daddy issues of this size to play a large part in the film, but that was apparently a motivation taken at face value in the 1940's.

Ultimately, the main weakness in this film is the fact that it stars Humphrey Bogart as a noir hero, and yet we don't get to see him act for the first hour.  That doesn't make the movie bad, but it sure limits the potential for greatness.