Tuesday, November 30, 2010


Hey...doesn't that movie poster look familiar?  It should.  Depending on who you ask, it's either an homage to or blatant theft of the poster for Anatomy of a Murder.  I don't want to get into an argument over intellectual property vs. public entertainment, so I'll go with the homage idea; as an homage, I guess we can assume that this movie will, like Anatomy of a Murder, examine one crime through the lens of somewhat amoral characters.  Well, this is a Spike Lee "joint," and he doesn't usually trade in films dealing with complex emotions, so I think that's a pretty safe assumption.

Clockers is based on Richard Price's novel of the same name, and he co-wrote the screenplay with Lee.  The title refers to a slang term for drug dealers; if you're clocking, that means you're dealing.  Strike (Mekhi Pfifer, in his film debut) is a low-level dealer in the Brooklyn projects.  He's not a total scrub, but he's not big time enough to have more than a few subordinates.  One day, the big boss, Rodney Little (Delroy Lindo), takes Strike aside and tells him that another drug dealer, Darryl Adams (frequent Lee bit player Steve White), is stealing from him.  And that is not tolerable; after making sure Strike has access to a gun, Rodney tells him that Darryl has "got to be got," and Strike needs to make sure he gets got.  Or gotten.  I'm not sure how to conjugate slang.  So, the clear implication is that Rodney wants Strike to kill Darryl.  Why?  Well, Rodney learned a long time ago that, if you are going to trust someone completely, you have to have the ability to blackmail them, just in case; if Strike is going to move up the not-so-corporate ladder, Rodney needs some serious dirt on him.  Realizing that Darryl works in a fast food joint next to a bar, Strike heads to the bar to drink a little liquid courage.  Inside, he meets his hard-working and honest brother, Victor (Isaiah Washington), and tells him that Darryl is a woman beater.  That riles Victor up some, but not nearly enough to get Strike off the job, so he leaves.

Later that night, Detective Klein (Harvey Keitel) is investigating the murder of Darryl Adams.  This is not a police procedural, though.  The police have a confession to the crime from Victor; Detective Klein doesn't buy the story, though, since Victor has a family, two jobs, and a story full of holes.  Klein concludes that Victor is covering for his scummy brother, Strike.  He doesn't have any proof, though.  Meanwhile, Strike is getting respect and admiration from Rodney and is even mentoring a young kid in the thug life.  Nothing screws up the upward mobility of a clocker like attention from the police, though.

I haven't seen many of Spike Lee's movies, but I can say with some knowledge that he is not a fantastic cinematographer or a symbolic filmmaker.  He comes up with a story and tells it, and in that he is competent.  Despite not having billing above the title, Mekhi Pfifer does pretty well in his first movie role, and it's the lead.  He's not great, but he does convey the proper complexity of emotion needed for someone who wants to improve his life, but is surrounded by trouble.  Harvey Keitel shares some of the spotlight with Pfifer as a detective that is more stubborn than caring, and his approach to the crime is unusually passive-agressive, which was interesting to watch. I wish John Turturro got a little more attention as his partner, not because I liked his character, but because he is usually fun to watch as an actor.  Actually, most of the police suffer from underimaginative dialogue; throw a racist term here and an inappropriate joke there, and you have 90% of the cop lines in the movie.  Delroy Lindo was pretty good as the manipulative drug kingpin and Keith David rounded out the main cast well as the angry parent figure in the projects.  Michael Imperioli, Sticky Fingaz, and Isaiah Washington are all solid in their small supporting roles.

The problem with this film is that the character of Strike is completely unsympathetic.  Why should I care about the struggles of a drug dealer that is willing to let his brother take a murder rap for him?  The movie spends a lot of time trying to come up with reasons (because he drinks Yoo-Hoo all the time, because he likes toy trains, because he appears to have stomach ulcers), but it's a waste of time because those answers just aren't good enough. You can argue that Harvey Keitel is the protagonist of the film, but that's not much better.  He's not pursuing this case because he needs to solve a crime (Victor confessed), or because he thinks it will make a difference (he doesn't), or because he needs to know the truth.  He's doing it because he thinks he's right, which  isn't as altruistic of a reason as it may sound.  Since Strike isn't supposed to be likable, it is important for Detective Klein to be.  Klein isn't a bad guy, but he's not very likable, either.

I get that this movie is about the self-perpetuating cycle of crime in the inner city.  I get that this movie isn't going to provide answers to that problem.  What I don't understand is why I should care about this story.  While Delroy Lindo and Mekhi Pfifer have pretty well-rounded characters, you can't root for them because they do bad things and don't care.  In fact, you can argue that they got to get got.  The police aren't much better as largely indifferent guys, just punching a time clock for their pay.  The most sympathetic and likable character in the whole film is Keith David's and he is barely in the movie.  There are so many examples of police procedural stories where you care about the police involved (Law and Order: Jersey Shore Unit), and there are many movies where you care about drug dealers either because they're sympathetic or charismatic (Boyz n the Hood, Scarface).  Sometimes, you get a blend of these two types of storytelling (the excellent The Wire), and sometimes the crime itself becomes the interesting part of the movie.  I see none of that here.  There are a number of good performances and no bad ones (except for Spike Lee's cameo, of course) and the story is told decently well.  When it was all said and done, though, I just didn't care.

Monday, November 29, 2010


"Why did you watch another video game movie, Brian?"  Well, voice in my head, it could be because hope springs eternal.  True, movies based on video games are, as a rule, pretty terrible.  Not that that stops people from making them, but even the more recent releases that should know better are still awful; Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li, House of the Dead, Alone in the Dark...you get the picture.  Basing a movie's plot on a video game isn't such a great idea, either.  Aside from the occasional gem like Scott Pilgrim, you get utter crap like The Wizard and Brainscan.  But Scott Pilgrim (and, hopefully, Tron: Legacy) proves that you can make a video game-based movie and make it as fun as the games that it is based on.  But the thing that convinced me to watch this via my Netflix Instant Queue was this fantastic plot summary they provided:
It's 2034, and humans can control and kill each other in a large-scale online gaming world. But Kable (Gerard Butler), a wrongfully convicted soldier forced to join the violent competition, tries to free himself by taking out its evil architect, Ken 
Whoa!  The bad guy is Ken?  That sounds pretty awesome!  I always knew that Barbie-loving man-slut had more backbone than pundits gave him credit for.  And 2034?  That's only two years after Demolition Man takes place!  I didn't know this was a sequel!

Actually, that plot description isn't too accurate.  The year is, and I quote, "Some years from this exact moment," which is an annoying cop-out for any sci-fi movie.  Take a stand, people; even if your claim of gang wars ripping Los Angeles apart by 1997 is wrong, Predator 2, at least you had the balls to make an idiotically bold prediction.

In the future, there is a wildly popular game, called Society.  Basically, it's like The Sims, but you pay to control real people; at home, you play on your high-tech computer, and your words and desires are carried out by people who have had nanites implanted in their brain, which assigns control of their bodies to a designated user.  The people being controlled in the game get paid, but nowhere near as well as the game's creator, Ken Castle (Michael C. Hall).  After a few years of being the world's richest man, based solely on this game, Castle introduces a new game, called Slayers.  In this game, players pay to control death row inmates in a massively multiplayer online (MMO) third-person shooter game.  So, if you controlled me, my life would depend on how well you can aim my guns and how quickly you react to the hectic warzone surrounding me.  Lucky me.  The game's biggest star is John Tillman (Gerard Butler), AKA Kable in the game, because he has outperformed every other player by a country mile; if Kable survives thirty games, he is a free man.  So far, he has completed twenty-seven, which is about twenty more than the next best player.  If he makes it out of the game, Tillman will find his wife, Angie (Amber Valletta), and child.  But he's not going to make it out of the game.  According to Humanz Brother (Ludacris), leader of the anti-Slayers/Society group, Humanz, Tillman knows an important secret about Ken Castle that Ken will stop at nothing to keep secret.  But what can Tillman do, when he's stuck being controlled by a whiny seventeen year-old (Logan Lerman)?  He's doomed!  Or is he?  No, he's probably not.

First off, I would like to congratulate this movie on its cast.  Not only was it able to snag one of today's more distinguished dumb action movie heroes, with Gerard Butler (what, was Jason Statham busy?), but the supporting cast is full of noteworthy actors.  Aaron Yoo, Alison Lohman, Zoe Bell, James Roday, Maggie Lawson, Milo Ventimiglia, and Keith David all have teeny tiny bit parts.  The parts were too small to be good or bad, but they all made an appearance.  Kyra Sedgwick underperformed in her role as a TV "journalist," but she was able to convey some of the duplicitous nature that profession requires.  John Leguizamo apparently needed some quick cash; he shows up for maybe three minutes of screen time, acts awkward (and a little funny) and is gone again.  None of these characters is important in any way to the larger story, but I was definitely impressed with how many actors I recognized in this.

I also like some of the lighter touches in the film.  I thought the occasional pixelation of the screen was a nice touch for a video game movie.  I liked that the villain was truly a monstrous bad guy, bent on world domination --- you don't see that too much any more, and it is also appropriate for a video game movie.  I was astonished that Disney let the filmmakers take a song from Pinocchio, although I'm sure it didn't come cheap.  Actually, I liked many bits that stayed true to playing video games.  Of course an obese man plays Society as a slutty woman.  Of course the Society characters wear clothes that no normal person wears, like rap video-style hot pants and latex suits.  And of course, in a shooter game played by teenagers, the dead characters get "teabagged" by those that have shot them.  Those little details did a good job of emphasizing that there is a game being played in this movie.

Of course, the plot is pretty terrible.  I don't care how much this movie wants to convince me that Slayers is a worldwide gaming/pay-per-view phenomenon, the amount of advertising shown in the "real world" for the show is just plain silly; every advertisement you see is for the game, be it dozens of full-building painted ads, or even one of the great pyramids in Egypt sporting a promo.  I don't care how popular something is, even in the undetermined future, over-saturation of a product leads to an inevitable public backlash.  The story is overly melodramatic and stupid, particularly in the moments after the climax.  SPOILER: After killing Ken Castle, Tillman politely asks Castle's cronies to deactivate the nanites in all the brains of Society and Slayer players.  They say, okay, it's done.  End of film, roll the damn credits.  Wha-?!?  The acting is about what you would expect in a Gerard Butler movie, with lots of grunting and facial stubble.  Amber Valletta, Ludacris and Logan Lerman would seem like important characters in this movie, but they ultimately serve as plot devices to get Tillman from point A to point B.  I enjoyed Terry Crews' appearance, even if it was absolutely over-the-top.  And I liked Michael C. Hall in the villain role, even though his southern accent drove me nuts; he played a despicable, unrealistic character and obviously had fun doing it.  I take that back...I liked Michael C. Hall toward the end of the movie when he was having fun overacting, but he seriously irritated me for the first half of the movie.  Characters like this are par for the course from writer/directors Neveldine/Taylor (that is their chosen professional name, so I will choose not to mock it just because it's as stupid as FaceSlashOff), who made the Crank movies before this.  They make ridiculously stupid action movies and went for more of the same here.  They weren't trying to do anything more or less than that, so I can't criticize them for succeeding in their goal.

Should this film even be judged by regular movie standards?  I think the filmmakers were intending to make a movie that mirrors the in-game experience of many of today's top video games.  The answer to my question is yes (if you don't want it judged like a movie, choose a different genre), but even if I looked at this film as an homage to violent shoot-em-up games like Call of Duty, MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, and sims like, uh, The Sims, this movie is still lacking. 

I don't care that the movie is dumb.  So are video games.  I care that it's often boring and pretentious.  Social commentary in films doesn't carry much weight when the films are idiotic, but that doesn't stop this movie from preaching that you shouldn't control the actions of others through video games.  Wow.  Way to take a bold stance on an important issue, guys.  I wonder if they are for or against turning babies into an affordable meat paste for poor people to eat?  I expected this movie to have more and better action.  Yes, there's plenty of action in the Slayer sequences, but it's just a few minutes of blurred images and bodies exploding; I wanted more action in the parts of the movie that advanced the plot.  And the plot...well, it could have been less complicated.  This could have been a story about how the user and the usee worked together to overcome the odds and survive the game.  It could have been about an underground group toppling the biggest entertainment empire in the world for corrupting humanity.  It could have been about the determination of a man to find his family again.  Heck, it could have been all about one man trying to kill the bad guy.  All of that, mixed together in a ninety minute movie, was just too much.
I suspect that this movie could definitely fall into Lefty Gold territory if I watched it with friends, but that is an experiment for another time.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Roadhouse 66

The first thing I thought of when I saw this movie's title was "Sweet!  They made sixty-five sequels to Road House!  And this one has Willem Dafoe!  Who says that sequels suck?"  Sadly, this movie has no connection to Patrick Swayze's touching tribute to the dive bar business.  In fact, this was made five years before Swayze's film, so unless they pull some sort of Terminator time-travel crap, this movie is destined to be less than awesome.  What the hell, that hasn't stopped me from watching bad movies before.

While driving cross-country across Route 66 to scout out some future locations for his father's (and eventually his) fast food pork franchise, Beckman Hallsgood, Jr. (Judge Reinhold) encounters a problem.  He can't fit his luggage and his name in his car.  Actually, some inbred-looking hicks pull up alongside him and start to heckle him.  And then one of them pulls out a gun and shoot a hole in his radiator.  So, let that be a lesson to you; if someone pulls up to give you any crap, you might as well shoot first because you know for a fact that they're about to go after your radiator.  Side note: Don't shoot other drivers, at least until your vehicles have come to a complete stop.  Beckman Hallsood, Jr. manages to make it to the next town, but his car needs repairs, and his name is Beckman Hallsgood Jr. --- he is obviously not a grease monkey.  Luckily, Johnny Harte (Willem Dafoe) happens to be there, and looking for a ride.  And man, that Johnny Harte is cool; imagine Willem Dafoe as a peripheral character in Grease, but with the line delivery he had in Spider-Man, and you get the picture.  The dude is creepy.  He patches the car up enough to get to the next town, which has a mechanic and, unfortunately, the hicks that shot the car in the first place.  And in case you were wondering, the bad guys are named Dink (Kevyn Major Howard), Moss, and the leader is Hoot.  So, essentially, this movie boils down to Beckman Hallsgood, Jr. against Hoot?  Sounds thrilling.  Anyway, Johnny and Beckman manage to fix up the car, but instead of leaving opt to enter into a race as a way to stick it to Hoot and the boys (Hoot always wins) and to prove their love for the two townie chicks that they suddenly are deeply in love with.  It's that kind of movie.

Well...what can I say?  The acting's not too terribly bad.  I mean, if you want Judge Reinhold to play an uptight nerd, then naming him Beckman Hallsgood, Jr. is a good start.  Willem Dafoe is creepy as ever, but I don't know how well he pulled off the I'm-secretly-a-rockabilly-legend aspect of his role.  He did sing a song on stage, and it was clearly Willem singing, so that's...something.  I always enjoy Dafoe, so even when he's slumming, he's better than most actors.  The supporting cast is universally terrible, with Kate Vernon doing an acceptable job as the townie love interest and Kevyn Major Howard managing to be just as awesomely bad as he was in Death Wish 2.  This was the directorial debut for John Mark Robinson, and it's no surprise that his next movie was made six years later.  I haven't seen his other movies, but I'm guessing six years may have been a little too soon for a follow up. 

Let's talk about what the movie does right.  Well, the characters have names that give you a decent idea of how the characters should act.  That's got to be worth something, right?  Actually, this movie's bad but it's not painfully bad.  It's just stupid.  Hmm...are these two heroes going to start a fight in a road house?  Is pride and stupidity going to be the only reason this movie is longer than twenty minutes long?  Are there only two moderately attractive girls in town, and the main characters have scooped them both up?  To all of those questions, I can only answer "mmmmmaybe."

Being a stupid movie, there are a lot of really dumb things in it.  Probably the first mistake this film makes is having Willem Dafoe as a supplementary character.  He basically is playing a mysterious Fonzie role here, where everyone keeps pointing out how cool he is.  Nobody ever mentions what a creepy knowing grin he has; it's a knowing smile, like he's letting you know that he knows what your sweat tastes like because he licked your face as you slept last night.  That might be reading into things a bit much, but I think it's justified.  But with Willem as a supporting role, we are supposed to root for J.D. Nerdington VI?  I didn't sign up for that!  If I wanted to see Judge Reinhold carry a movie, I would have watched...um...hmm...slim pickings, these...Vice Versa, I guess.  That's just a problem I have with the script, though.  I don't want to waste my time listing all the dumb stuff that happens in the movie, but I will leave you with this gem.  So, Uptight Fancypants III is about to start the big race when Hoot comes over to wish him luck.  They talk a little bit and Hoot very subtly drops a scorpion on the car seat next to Fancypants.  I would like to point out a few things with that scene.  First, when I say "subtly," I mean "totally obviously."  Hoot couldn't have looked more like he was up to no good if he had been singing "I'm just being a nice guy, fa-la, and not sabotaging you for the race at all, sha-na-na-na."  Second, I'm pretty sure that I would notice the sound of something dropping onto the car seat next to me.  Not that putting the scorpion there would be a fool-proof plan; it's an arachnid, not a killer shark with a taste for human blood.  It probably would have scurried under the seat.

I didn't like this movie very much, but I didn't hate it.  It's definitely a decent B-movie and it's awfulness is not offensive enough to generate any real hatred from me.  I just wish Willem Dafoe hadn't wasted the time to film this.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Winter's Bone

It doesn't happen often, but on rare occasions, a film forces me to look at my life with fresh eyes and consider just how lucky I truly am and how insignificant my problems are.  Sure, I may have been exposed to an experimental chemical that is slowly dissolving my eyeballs from the inside out, and I may have bookies hounding me night and day, thanks to the debts I've accrued from betting poorly on the LPGA.  Or, maybe not.  The point is, I am beyond thankful that I was not born poor white trash.

Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is not so lucky.  At seventeen, she is the sole responsible "adult" in her household, getting food when and where she can (hunt, scavenge, but never begging) and raising her young brother and sister; her mother has an undisclosed mental problem that leaves her in a catatonic stupor most of the time and her father is a known methamphetamine cook, a profession that rarely leads him (or any money) home.  Bad news, Ree.  The sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) suspects that your daddy, Jessup, is going to skip out on his bail.  Big deal, right?  Actually, it is.  Jessup didn't have any money to post bail, so he put up the family house and land, which means that if he skips bail, you lose your home.  With a no-you-didn't resolve that would make RuPaul proud, Ree decides that there is no way in hell that is going to happen.  The rest of the film has her hunting Jessup down, asking all the wrong people all the wrong questions.  Ree knows that she's asking for trouble; if she didn't know, then she would have learned quickly, because before she speaks to the meth-addicted backwoods scumbags she knows have information on her father, she is warned by their wife/girlfriend/lady-friends.  No one helps her.  No one encourages her.  She should fail, and her family should scatter into the wind.  But the only thing that will stop Ree from protecting her family is death.

I don't often finish watching a movie impressed by the female lead.  Part of this is my tendency to shy away from period piece dramas (where Oscar seems to think the best female acting comes from) and part of it is because Hollywood doesn't have much material for strong women characters.  I was extremely impressed by Jennifer Lawrence's performance; she deserves a nomination for a Golden Globe, if not an Oscar.  Her performance is quiet and nuanced, and her character could easily seem unrealistically optimistic.  Instead, she just seems to draw from an inner well of strength, which is a lot harder to portray on the screen than being cheerful or a bad-ass.  Or a cheerful bad-ass.  But she's not a bad-ass, she's just a kid playing another kid, one who refuses to give up hope.  This film absolutely depends on Lawrence's performance, with little help from the supporting cast, but John Hawkes, who played her uncle Teardrop (a family name, I assume), made a nice turn here.  He plays the kind of ragged, stringy piece of trash that will stab you in the throat because it's Tuesday, and his living-for-nothing attitude and actions provide a sharp and sometimes frightening contrast to Ree.  And yet, the film provides moments for even Teardrop's craziness to pause long enough to see him as an innocent again.  The direction of co-writer Debra Granik is nothing special, in terms of cinematography.  If Ree has to walk somewhere, the camera will show her walking away.  Nineteen year-old Lawrence's performance, though, implies that Granik has some talent for handling actors --- I'm interested in what she can do with a script that has more developed characters in it.

Despite the stellar lead performance, the depth of this cast is not very impressive.  Almost all of the characters are one-dimensional and Lawrence's performance makes me wish she had more to compete against.  I wish this movie had more of a Coen Brothers feel to it; they usually have a very well-defined main character, but their supporting roles are consistently fantastic.  The direction, while utilitarian, could have added a lot more to the picture, if only they had tried even a couple of shots to provide some subtle symbolism to the film.

In a lot of ways, this is a frighteningly realistic film.  I knew that meth was thinning our nation's poor white trash population, but the movie depicts this crippling drug trade without prejudice.  It's just how things are, and things are depressing as all hell.  I found the gender dynamics interesting; the women of the meth men always act tough, initially, to Ree, but it soon becomes apparent that they are trying to scare her off because they know enough to be frightened of their own lovers.  I'm a huge fan of noir, and this is one of the better modern entries in the genre I have seen in a while; it's tough, gritty, unemotional (except in very small, unexpected ways) and surprisingly uplifting for a film that gives you little to smile about.  This movie is not for everyone.  The pace is deliberate and its depression can lie on you like a heavy quilt.  But this is worth seeing, if only as a reminder that your life isn't so bad, after all.

Friday, November 26, 2010


I'm a dork. No, really, you can pick your jaw up off the floor. It's shocking, but true. Even with my near-encyclopedic knowledge of all things geeky in the movie world, I was surprised to find out that Surrogates was based on a comic book series for the same name. Even more shocking, I had never heard of the people that made this comic. Hell, I'd never even heard of the comic's publisher. Are those good signs or bad signs, I wonder?

Surrogates takes place in the future. Well, maybe. A year isn't given, but the introductory scenes give us several news reports with "Fourteen years ago" and the like given for reference, counting down until we have reached the present day. Congratulations, everybody! The present day has android robot things! Just like 1957 predicted! Let's just say that this takes place in an alternate reality and leave the question of time for another day. In the present day, people don't interact face-to-face (hey, you're reading a blog, so you know that), they use a robotic proxy called a surrogate to live their lives. These surrogates look like people, but have android insides, so you can drink ranch dressing all day, e'er day at home and the person that everyone sees is your perfect bodied surrogate. Basically, you lie down in a tanning bed (with scientific things touching your head) and you project your consciousness into the surrogate. That means there is now no violent crime or sexually transmitted diseases. Best of all, overweight male internet perverts who like to pose as naughty schoolgirls in chatrooms can now have a naughty schoolgirl surrogate --- your surrogate doesn't have to look anything like you.  Hooray!

And that's a key point. The movie begins with a surrogate being destroyed by a weapon wielded by a non-robotic person. Ordinarily, that would just be an inconvenience for the user. This time, though, the weapon somehow killed the user, miles away. Obviously, a weapon that can kill someone through their supposedly risk-proof surrogate is a big deal, so the FBI take the case. Agent Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) and Agent Jennifer Peters (Radha Mitchell) begin by following the clues. The only surrogate-unfriendly folks around are in the Dread Reservation (named, I hope, because they don't wash their hair) and are lead by the charismatic (and humbly) titled Prophet (Ving Rhames). The possible motive for the crime gets a little more complicated when Agent Greer learns that the dead surrogate is the son of the creator of surrogates, Lionel Canter (James Cromwell), and the son was using one of Lionel's usual surrogates that night. So, was the murder due to philosophical and religious reasons, or was it an attempt for a rival to eliminate Lionel from the business world? Or was it something completely different?

Okay, I have to ask. Shouldn't this movie have been named "Avatar"? Sure, I understand why that might have been a copyright issue, but the concepts behind this and that Smurf movie are pretty similar. In both cases, people get hooked up to a machine and live their lives through an artificially made creature. I would have thought that, with the obvious social commentary in this movie, that they would have chosen "Avatar" as a nod to the digital age. To be fair, this is an adaptation of a comic book, so I guess it should be the writers of the comic that are criticized for their vocabulary. Why do I care? I just enjoy when obviously different movies share identical titles, like The Patriot --- one had Mel Gibson (accent-free Aussie), while another had Steven Seagal (charisma-free lawman). You would think that Seagal was riding on Gibson's coattails here, releasing some straight-to-DVD crap in the hopes that someone would rent his movie by accident, but no. SS beat MG to the punch by two years. The more you know...!

Back to the movie at hand. I wasn't terribly impressed by the parts that made up Surrogates. Yes, Bruce Willis is a pretty solid actor, but he is no guarantee of a good movie (does The Jackal ring any bells?). I'm not quite sure why Radha Mitchell keeps getting cast in so many movies as a female lead. She's not super attractive and she has the kind of range you usually need to be smoking hot to get away with. At least here, she has an excuse for being disconnected from her character, since it's a surrogate. The rest of the cast spends relatively little time onscreen. Ving Rhames, who is often able to salvage a bad movie by being completely awesome, wasn't able to deliver here; perhaps his power is derived from his baldness and his huge dread-locked wig and cotton candy-sized beard acted as an awesomeness buffer between him and the camera. James Cromwell is fine, even if his character is the source of so much of this movie's stupidity. Rosamund Pike, who plays Agent Greer's wife, is supposed to act as the story's emotional anchor, but instead supplies the film with most of its sappiness.

I think it's pretty clear that I wasn't a fan of director Jonathan Mostow's work with his cast. I did like the look and pace of the movie, though. In fact, I really liked the first forty minutes or so, to the point where I was starting to think that I had discovered an under-appreciated gem. In that time span, the movie introduces a murder mystery, dipped deep inside of a sci-fi world, that did not appear to have anything in particular to say about that robot world. The technology introduced was pretty cool and it is a logical extension of what we already do as a society. I found it interesting that all of the main characters (except for Lionel) use surrogates that look very much like themselves. It's a little weird that Greer's surrogate has a head of blond hair on Bruce Willis' noggin, but I find it hilarious that Greer would choose a haircut and hairline that resemble no haircut Bruce Willis has had in the past thirty years. Some of the little touches are pretty cool, too, like police officers getting night vision upgrades.

And then...something dumb happened. Have you ever watched a movie where the bad guy is ridiculously stupid? I'm not talking about the normal James Bond-esque monologuing (although there is a bit of that), I'm talking about a villain taking steps early in the movie to ensure that the hero would end up foiling his evil plot. Do you want to know stupid? Here's stupid --- the villain, at one point, tells Agent Greer that he is too late, and that nothing can halt his evil plan now. That ignores the fact that there is plenty of time for Agent Greer to halt the evil plan, and he can thank the villain for committing suicide and forcing him to not waste precious seconds in witty hero-villain banter.

That's some stupid stuff, but I would have been more forgiving if the film had stayed on its hard-boiled crime route. Instead, the second half of the film spends a lot of time focusing on Greer's marriage and the difficulty they are having dealing with the death of their young son. Boo! Screw that noise! If I wanted to watch a movie about grieving parents, I wouldn't have selected the movie with androids. Detective stories are, almost by definition, all about the mystery. This movie starts out as a detective yarn, but then starts worrying about feelings, about the least detective-y things imaginable. And to make it worse, it was a clumsy and painfully transparent subplot.

The imagination shown in the film's first half ends up coming back to haunt it in the second half.  I liked that workaholics just leave their surrogates to charge at work; why waste time bringing them home, if your next move in the morning will be back at work?  That cleverness just got my mind working, which helped me notice a lot of failed opportunities for similar future design.  Riddle me this: why would surrogates need to drive cars? Why not build models with rocket-propelled roller blades in their feet? Or design some sort of tube technology; if personal safety is no longer an issue, public transportation has a lot of fresh opportunities. They could even ride in buses that treat the surrogates like luggage. In short, having a robot drive an SUV in the city seems like a waste of fuel and space.

The absolute worst thing about this movie is that it could have been so cool. Before it settled for a B-movie plot at the forty-minute mark, this movie was full of ideas and felt like a robotic noir. From what I understand, the film takes several severe liberties with the source material, so this could be blames on the writers, John Brancato and Michael Ferris, who worked with Mostow on Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. Bad screenplays are nothing new to Brancato and Ferris; they share partial screenwriting and story credits for Catwoman. Still, the movie, like a hillbilly child, had potential until it got involved with the wrong sort of people, so I will be generous and give it

Monday, November 22, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

Does this remind anyone else of Iron Maiden's "Run to the Hills"?
It's been a while since I've read a Harry Potter book. I've read them all, but in the intervening years, many of the plot details have faded from my memory. Maybe that's a good thing; when I'm too familiar with a story, I notice any variations acutely and also know every beat of the plot. For the seventh installment in the franchise, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, that was not an issue. I even completely forgot what a Deathly Hallow was, it's been so long. Isn't it a 70s punk band? Does that make this movie like a Scooby-Doo team-up episode (Harry and the Hallows take on Joker and the Penguin!)? Anyway, it was a nice change to know the gist of the story, but not feel the need to nit-pick every little change made. I have to wonder, though, if more familiarity would have actually helped with this film.

I'm going to make some basic assumptions about you, the reader right now. First off, you are familiar with the wizarding world of Harry Potter. You know that Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is a good wizard, and he must eventually battle the Bowser of the wizarding world, the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). Harry is accompanied primarily by his friends Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), and frequently aided by his school's headmaster (and Voldemort's only magical equal), Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon).

Now, here's a quick catch-up on the series. Unfortunately, Dumbledore was killed at the end of the last Harry Potter. Voldemort's bad guys are running the wizarding world through terror and murder, which are admittedly pretty non-magical ways to rule anybody; only Harry and his friends know how to stop Voldemort. Oh...you want to know, too? Well, Voldemort (let's call him Morty for short), in order to gain immortality, split his soul into six parts and hid them inside ordinary items. As long as one of these Horcruxes exists, so does Morty. The good news is that, through the events of earlier movies, two Horcruxes have already been destroyed. The bad news is that the other four could be anything, anywhere, and the longer it takes to find (and figure out how to destroy) these things, the more likely it is that Morty and his minions will kill Harry, removing the last viable threat from Morty's reign of terror.

This movie marks a distinct departure for Harry and his friends. Instead of going to Hogwart's and finishing their last year of wizarding school, they go on the lam. Morty's men are hunting them, and they need to lie low and run when they are found. That means that they stay outside of wizard communities and spend some time in London before ultimately settling on a series of desolate camping grounds scattered throughout England. As it turns out, without Dumbledore's help, these kids are pretty helpless. Like, you know, kids. They know that they need to find Horcruxes, but they only manage to find one for this entire movie. It takes them the entire movie to learn how to destroy it, too. Meanwhile, Morty spends his time searching for a special magic wand, one that will kill Harry. Things begin to fire on all cylinders when Harry and his friends get over their teenage attitudes and work together to solve their problems. Of course, that only gets you so far if you get captured by Morty's people...

The biggest difference between The Deathly Hallows and any of the preceding chapters is the tone. Gone is the sense of wonder at magic. That is replaced by a hopelessness that becomes the defining tone of the film. We're used to seeing Harry and his friends encounter a puzzle and solve it within two hours (even though those two hours encompass their entire school year). Seeing them stuck, with no promising leads, is surprising to see on the big screen; I liked this choice, because it actually makes their tasks seem suitably difficult for a lead-up to the inevitable big wizard fight. However, the movie can drag at points when nothing seems to be happening. It is at these moments, though, where we get to see how well these young actors have developed over the years. Director David Yates leaves a lot of moments as better shown than told, which is especially surprising in a family film (even if it is rated PG-13, this is a movie that young fans will grow into), a genre that usually leaves subtlety locked in the car with the window cracked. His confidence pays off pretty well; Emma Watson is still the class act of the bunch, but Daniel Radcliffe was pretty good and Rupert Grint looks like he might be a pretty good comedic actor at some point, even if he is so very, very ugly. This movie relies more on these three to carry the acting load than any other Potter film, with special effects and the always wonderful adult supporting cast making only occasional appearances.

The film is certainly not without fault. You can justly criticize this movie for having very little happen in its two-plus hours running time; actually, many things happen, but very little to advance the larger plot of Harry vs. Morty. I've also heard people complaining about an abrupt ending. It's not abrupt; the action leading up to the ending is sudden, when compared to the pace of the rest of the film, but the ending makes sense and I was okay with it.

What I didn't like about this film was the fact that it is clearly a set-up film. I actually enjoyed this movie --- it had action, humor, and several sad moments, even if it was slow --- and I think it did a fantastic job setting up The Deathly Hallows: Part 2, especially with the way it built up Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) as a prime villain. That doesn't make this a strong movie on its own, though. While I was okay with the ending, it isn't as strong or final as the other Potter endings; it definitely feels like a "switch to disc 2" moment. And that's too bad, because I think that, if they could have found a good stopping point, this could have been the awesome downer movie of the series; they are trying hard to be the wizard version of The Empire Strikes Back, where the heroes have had bad news all day, and are getting ready to attack those stupid Ewoks. It doesn't quite hit the same note of "we've taken their best shots, now it's our turn" feel, though. I also felt that this movie had scenes where you were just attacked by cameo appearances. Of the adults, only Bill Nighy and Ralph Fiennes had decent screen time, with Helena Bonham Carter, Toby Jones (as a voice) and Rhys Ifans also making good with their brief appearances. Alan Rickman, Jason Isaacs, Michael Gambon, Peter Mullan, Robbie Coltrane, Brendan Gleeson, David Thewlis, John Hurt, Imedla Staunton, David O'Hara, and Warwick Davis were all just flashes on the screen. Sadly, most of these (for the most part) very respectable actors were limited to less that four lines and maybe one visible emotion. Even the other child actors, like Tom Felton, Clemence Poesy and Bonnie Wright were barely given any time to much of anything. This barrage of familiar faces and characters was sometimes distracting for me, as I searched my memory to identify certain characters or recall why someone was in the position they were in (I'm still not sure why the Malfoys were on Morty's bad side).

There was a lot that I really enjoyed, though. I really liked Ben Hibbon's dark and visually interesting animated tale that explained just what the hell a Deathly Hallow is. I liked the supporting cast, even when their input was limited. I thought the emotional scenes were handled better than in any previous Harry Potter, and that includes an extended sequence of watching them mourn an ugly CGI character, which could have been hilarious if it was handled poorly. And this movie did what it set out to do (set up the final film), and it did it well. Does this story need to be two movies long? After all, the last three movies were also based on enormous books. I don't know, but I guess we'll see when Part 2 comes out this summer. As it stands right now, though, I expect that this film (both parts together) will prove to be like any classic double album in rock; bloated and long-winded, and certainly with some moments that could have been left out, but it's the White Album, what are you gonna do?


Space.  Apparently, it gets lonely there.  In the tradition of lonely astronaut movies like Solaris and 2001: A Space Baby comes Moon, a movie that has Sam Rockwell on screen for the entire length of the picture.  And that's a good thing.  I just find it interesting that, of all the movie genres, science fiction has shown me the most "lonely guy" stories, where the entire film depends on one actor, because it's all about his character.  Heck, even the notoriously lonely Jeremiah Johnson had a larger cast than this movie.

Moon is set on --- you guessed it! --- the moon; specifically, it is set in a mining base on the dark side of the moon.  Shockingly, the dark side of the moon does not have fantastic laser shows or old people getting high.  What it has is a group of largely automated helium harvesters.  Despite the automation, a human is needed to monitor progress and fix anything that goes wrong; it's cheaper to keep the maintenance guy on the moon than to fly him out on a spaceship every time something goes wrong.  As such, the sole occupant of the base, Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) has plenty to keep him occupied (like, say, naming his plants and building a scale model of his home town), but he is eager for his three-year assignment to end in two weeks.  The whole gig wouldn't be so bad if the base's communications devices ever worked; Sam gets infrequent video chat messages from his wife, Tess, but he is really incommunicado and out of step with everything happening on Earth.  Sam's only companion in the base is GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey), a robotic assistant that has a soothing voice (Kevin Spacey), but is limited in its expressiveness.  To give you an idea, here are his emoticons:
I hate emoticons, so that would drive me absolutely nuts.  Of course, staying three years with only a robot for company might do that to me anyway.  One day, Sam notices a malfunction at one of the harvesting machines and goes out to inspect it.  Along the way, he hallucinates and sees an unfamiliar woman standing on the moon's surface.  Distracted, he crashes his little moon buggy and passes out.  Sam awakes back in the base, with GERTY telling him that he had an accident that he cannot remember.  After undergoing some basic tests to make sure his noodle is still working, life goes on as usual for Sam.  Except when he almost catches GERTY on a live video chat with the corporate office.  And, for some reason, GERTY won't let him out of the base to fix a faulty harvesting machine.  The man is only human (and bored), so Sam does some minor sabotage in the base to give GERTY reason to allow him out of the base.  Once out and about on the moon, Sam heads to the damaged harvester and finds a wrecked moon buggy, complete with a live (but injured) passenger.  But why does this passenger look exactly like Sam Bell?  Anyone?  GERTY?  Any guesses?

Thoughtful science fiction movies are not for everyone, I will admit, but I love when I can find a good one.  First-time director and co-writer Duncan Jones (son of David Bowie and owner of the middle name Zowie) does a great job developing a film full of isolation and low-level dread and still finding moments for humor and optimism.  Sam Rockwell does a decent job in the film's first act, but he gets a chance to really shine once both Sam Bells are awake and interacting onscreen.  This is definitely the best non-Van Damme movie (to be fair, nobody can beat the master) to feature the same actor playing dual roles that I can recall.  This is another instance of how good Sam Rockwell can be; he plays two different Sam Bells and is able to make them distinct characters.  That's pretty fantastic.  Rockwell has been one of my favorite actors for the past few years because any one of his roles could make him a household name, they're all that good, and this role is no different.

The film is slow paced, but the story is good.  The mystery of the Sam Bells is answered quickly and is what you probably already suspect, so you're not drawn in to a serious puzzle.  Instead, this is a film about the concept of identity.  That may make the film sound pretentious, but this concept is addressed subtly and through two characters going through very different emotions, despite being the same person.  You might notice many similarities to 2001, with regards to the set and character design.  While the parallels are too obvious to be coincidence, I'm not quite sure if this is supposed to be an homage to that film, or if this movie is just supposed to take place in the future, as we imagined it back in the 70s.  The only complaint I have for this movie is that I felt the plot was a little easy to predict.  That's not a terrible thing, since the plot is really secondary to the conceptual core, but it was a minor flaw in an otherwise great sci-fi film.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)

The horror franchise "reboot" trend is an understandable one.  Most horror franchises start with a low-budgeted surprise hit movie, and the sequels add gore and special effects, but never match the effect of the original movie or idea.  I totally get why movie producers would want to scrap all the continuity and baggage from years of lame sequels and try to start anew.  Friday the 13th, Halloween, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre have all had reboots/reimaginings in the past few years, so breathing new life into Freddy Kreuger seemed inevitable.  Personally, I would have preferred the wish-it-would-but-never-gonna-happen Freddy vs. Jason vs. Ash to have been made, but that's just me: a fan of awesomeness.

The story begins with Dean (Kellan Lutz) nodding asleep while at a diner.  He doesn't want to sleep because he is having some nasty nightmares, but we don't get much insight into them here.  When Dean's girlfriend, Kris (Katie Cassidy), arrives to meet him, Dean falls asleep once more; this time, it's fatal.  In the dream, Dean tries to protect himself with a knife from a shadowy, fedora-wearing, clawed-glove-wearing villain.  The villain turns the knife inward toward Dean and slowly pushes it toward his body.  In the real world, it looks like Dean's knife hand wants to kill him --- and succeeds.  He basically committed hari kari on his throat.  With Dean's death, a group of kids in town, start to admit to having the same nightmare; some guy with a hat and a clawed glove is forcing them to have bad dreams.  But bad dreams can't hurt anyone, right?  Well, I doubt this is your first exposure to Nightmare, but here goes anyway...SPOILER: They can.  And will.  Anyway, at Dean's funeral, Kris notices a picture of herself with Dean as preschoolers.  That's weird...they met for the first time in high school...or did they?  It turns out that all the kids who are having (and dying in) these dreams --- Nancy (Rooney Mara), Jesse (Thomas Dekker), and Quentin (Kyle Gallner) all went to the same preschool.  And, thanks to some detective work, they figure out that the mysterious dream figure is a man named Freddy Kreuger (Jackie Earle Haley).  But why is he hunting these kids?  And how?  For God's sake, I must know the origin of this supernatural phenomenon!

Actually, I don't need to know how Freddy attacks you in your dreams, but it is interesting that this film never even makes a half-assed attempt to explain that unusual course of events.  Really, there isn't even any explicit motivation given to Freddy, either.  Sure, they retell his origin, making it grimmer for today's jaded viewer, but there's never a "Freddy's going to kill me because ____".  I find that strange.  They just accept that Freddy is in their dreams and that he's trying to kill them.  Well, okay.  Maybe I'm just the curious type.  But, while I'm asking questions of motivation, why is Freddy attacking now?  It's been between ten and fourteen years since Freddy's had motivation.  What's with the delay?  We can't all be Jimmy John's fast, but that's a long time to hang out in dreams, not killing people.

Obviously, I have a few basic issues with the basic premise behind this movie.  Beyond the villain's motivation, how was this movie?  Pretty terrible, actually.  The movie starts with a kid being murdered in front of his friends and stays that cheery throughout.  These teens are, at no time, even remotely happy.  They're not even sarcastic, which is far more shocking than the happy thing.  With such a serious tone, the movie doesn't really have anywhere to go.  I'm not saying that horror movies need levity, but I need the actors to show a variety of emotions, if only to indicate that one scene is supposed to be scarier than another.  The big story when this movie was released was that the filmmakers had decided to make Freddy less of a hyena-laughing jackass and more of a killer.  I love that idea (the "Vegas Freddy" movies are pretty terrible), but the execution leaves something to be desired.  For some reason, Freddy still likes to laugh, but he doesn't make jokes.  He's not even being mean (aside from all the murdering) or a jerk, so his chuckles come off as very unnatural.  And, I'll be honest, I didn't think the realistic burn victim makeup did anything to enhance Freddy's menace.  There were moments where the recessed eyes and lack of facial definition made me think I was watching a muppet designed to teach children about fifth-degree burns.  So, the tone of the movie was too one-dimensional and the villain felt a little off.  What about the story?  Let me answer that question with a question: how much do you love back story?  If you answered anything less than "a crapload," then you're going to be annoyed.  The movie makes it seem like there is a mystery in Freddy's origin that will blow your mind when it comes to light, so the story spends a lot of time trying to develop that secret.  But the secret ends up that Freddy is a mean bastard that likes to kill people.  It's a little underwhelming, as far as secrets go, and the story is all about uncovering it.  Blech.

The acting was as good as it needed to be in a horror movie with this level of prominence.  The kids all look fairly young (they ranged from 22 to 25 years old), which is nice to see in a movie about high school kids, but that's probably the best thing I can say about them.  Every single character was one-dimensional and had no chances to develop; they're scared of death, then they're scared of sleeping and dying, and then they die --- it's not much of a dramatic arc.  I don't think any of them were overly terrible (except Kellan Lutz, whose line delivery is on par with that of a bored corpse), but the plot and dialogue make that hard to determine for sure.  I thought Aaron Yoo's uncredited cameo (which I didn't think people made, unless they were really famous) was some of the film's best acting, but that's not saying much.  As the film's resident adults, Clancy Brown and Connie Britton both had their talents wasted, with few scenes and less dialogue.  Jackie Earle Haley took over the Freddy Kreuger role that Robert Englund had played in seven movies.  His take on the character was, at times, pretty sinister; unfortunately, this movie delivers no actual scary moments (or even the startling ones), so I was pretty disappointed with the new, meaner Freddy.  This was the first feature film that Samuel Bayer directed, after a distinguished music video career that includes Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit, Blind Melon's No Rain, and all of Green Day's American Idiot videos.  Bayer can tell a story decently well, but if he can work with professional actors to get the right performances, the proof is not evident here.

Forget all that "acting" and "story" junk, what about the violence?  This is a horror movie, so the violence and nudity should help grade this movie on a curve.  As for nudity, there is none.  At all.  There's nothing remotely sexual about this movie.  So that's definitely different than most horror flicks, but not unheard of in the Nightmare series.  As for the violence, there are only three death scenes and one of them was a remake of the ceiling kill in the original movie.  There's nothing wrong with recycling a classic kill, but it looked as good now as it did then --- it just wasn't as scary, since I had seen that exact kill before.  The third kill (the first one was the one that opened the movie) was only decent, but I liked how Freddy taunted his victim; this was one of only two times where Freddy was intimidating at all.  A Nightmare On Elm Street has never been, as a series, about the body count.  I was surprised that a reboot wouldn't raise the number of corpses, but I was shocked by how visually boring these scenes were. There were maybe thirty dream sequences in the movie, and only two were even moderately cool or imaginative, and I'm pretty sure they lifted something from Silent Hill.  This movie even directly lifted two of the original film's best moments (Freddy's glove in the bathtub and Freddy's face in the wall), so the best parts of this movie were done exactly the same way twenty-five years ago!  So, let's recap: no nudity, mediocre (at best) kills, and no originality.  Even by horror standards, this movie sucked.

Man, the dream sequences pissed me off.  This is a movie where you get killed or chased or whatever in your dreams...but we don't ever see any of these kids dreaming.  Freddy doesn't interrupt them during a dream about being a spy or the Dos Equis guy or seducing that special someone --- they dream about being in a creepy industrial warehouse or boiler room or something.  Way to miss the boat, people.  You can dream anything, so these movie sequences could add all sorts of character insight, visual appeal, or extraordinary things that are not limited by realism.  Shouldn't the scary thing about Freddy be that he gets us in our dreams?  This is just dull writing, but you can't expect much when a first-time screenwriter is brought in to polish up the script from the writer of Doom.

Since this is a remake, and I have seen every Nightmare to date, I might as well address how it stacks up to the other movies.  Nightmare, unlike most other horror franchises, has always been tangled in its story continuity.  Does anyone really care about the details about Freddy's life and afterlife?  The answer is no.  We want to be frightened by something that we have no protection against, a monster that kills us in our sleep.  I liked that this movie tried to escape the convoluted story of the series, but they just introduced the least mysterious mystery I have ever seen in a horror movie, instead.  This movie doesn't capture the defenseless fear that makes the original film and Part 3 fun to watch, either.  Instead, it takes a more serious and boring path to its final destination, the bad movie pile.  It should feel right at home, though, since it's about as bad as the rest of the Nightmare series.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Space Jam

As a child raised in the losing tradition of Chicago sports (My name is Brian, and... I am a Cubs fan), the Bulls first three-peat was something special.  When Michael Jordan abruptly retired in 1993, I was crushed.  After a brief taste of the sweetness of victory, was I doomed to a lifetime of rooting for teams that will never win again?  Well, in the case of the Bears and Cubs, probably.  As it turned out, though, that was not the case for the Bulls.  As everyone knows, Michael returned in mid-1995 and they began their second Championship three-peat in the 95-96 season.  I had always assumed that the reasons for Jordan's comeback were a mix of him coming to terms with the death of his father and the fact that he really sucked as a minor league baseball player.  It wasn't until I revisited Space Jam that I realized that it was, in fact, a documentary on what motivated Jordan to return to basketball.

With a name like Space Jam, it should come as no surprise that most of the movie takes place in space the land of Looney Tunes.  You see, an evil (space) amusement park owner, Mister Swackhammer (voiced by Danny DeVito), realizes that his (space) park is just not fantastic enough to draw crowds any more.  He comes to the conclusion that his (space) park needs the Looney Tunes as his star attractions.  Not one to risk being refused, Swackhammer sends his underlings, the Nerdlucks, to Earth with ray guns to help "convince" the goofy cartoon characters.  And, in case you were wondering where you can find the Looney Tunes, they live in the center of the Earth.  This is a documentary, so you can consider that a science fact.  Even when facing powerful ray guns, though, the Looney Tunes are still a clever and wacky bunch.  Just when Elmer Fudd, Foghorn Leghorn, Daffy Duck and the rest were ready to surrender, Bugs Bunny pulled out a tried and true standard; he scribbled in a book that he had retitled (in pencil) "How to Kidnap" that all kidnap victims get a chance to defend themselves.  The dim-witted Nerdlucks, who happen to top out at one foot tall, fall for the bit and let the Looney Tunes choose form of challenge.  Seeing that their opponents are very small, with short arms and legs, the Looney Tunes choose basketball as the form of challenge.

Obviously, the Looney Tunes, with their anthropomorphic height of approximately three feet tall each, dominate the Nerdlucks in the game and avoid a life of (space) slavery.  But wait...!  The Nerdlucks have a trick up their sleeve; they attend some NBA games and somehow steal the talent away from the best professional players in the game.  Who did they steal from?  Charles Barkley (Hall of Famer), Patrick Ewing (Hall of Famer), Larry Johnson (two-time All-Star), Muggsy Bogues (the shortest player in NBA history), and Shawn Bradley (who was tall and, uh, gangly), all of whom were left unable to catch a pass or shoot the ball without their talent.  With the "best" NBA talent in tow (more on that later), the Nerdlucks return to Lonney Tunes land and absorb their new talent, which gives them great strength, size, basketball skills, a new group name (the Monstars), and (of course) matching uniforms.  It also gives them a theme song.

The next time any of these five rappers claim to be "hard" or have "street cred," someone should mention the song they did for a Bugs Bunny movie.

Anyway, to counter the Nerdlucks Monstars on the basketball court, Bugs and friends kidnap Michael Jordan to play on their side.  He doesn't really want to, but the Monstars basically call him chicken, so it's on like Donkey Kong.  Apparently, Michaels everywhere have a problem walking away from an insult that grave.  I don't want to spoil the ending for you, but Michael rediscovers his love for basketball and his desire to humiliate Charles Barkley on the court.

With a cast so diverse as to include professional athletes, cartoon characters, aliens, and the occasional professional actor, you would be justified in wondering how good the acting is in this movie.  But guess what?  This is a documentary, so there is no "acting," just how things really happened.  That said, I would like to point out that Sir Charles has such amazing conversational skills that he can make Dave Grohl extremely uncomfortable in a matter of moments.  It is interesting to see Wayne Knight as Jordan's personal assistant, but it explains how he killed time between Seinfeld episodes.  Bill Murray is as awesome here, in real life, as he was in his other hilarious 1996 movie, Larger Than Life, where he co-starred with an elephant.  The athletes are a little awkward to watch on screen, trying in vain to time their punchlines, but they should not be judged too harshly, since the Nerdlucks stole all their talent.  This was just one of many features made by director Joe Pytka (IMDB gives him a whopping total of seven directorial credits) and while he may not have won any Oscars for this brave foray into documentary filmmaking, he did get nominated for a Director's Guild of America award for the "Hare Jordan" Nike commercial.

Now, if you didn't know any better, you might think that this was a cheap knock-off of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?  However, this isn't a movie with actors jumping around in front of a green screen and having their animated pals added in later.  This really happened.  Michael Jordan was kidnapped by Looney Tunes and later arrived at a minor league baseball game via a spaceship.  Fact.  And his house was just a normal suburban house, not a mansion.  Fact.  And young Michael, as a child, practiced what he would always get away with as an adult: traveling.

That's a good thing, because if this wasn't a true story, then some parts of this movie would just stick out as downright peculiar.  I'll ignore the wisdom of having an accused child pornographer/closet dweller/urination enthusiast performing the theme song to a movie aimed at families.  I'll pretend that Michael Jordan didn't play in a game with a final score of 78-77.  And I'll look the other way as Lola Bunny, despite her gender and three foot height, manages to dunk.  My problem is that the Nerdlucks identified Muggsy Bogues and Shawn Bradley as part of the NBA elite.  What, were Will Perdue and Dickie Simpkins busy?  Muggsy wasn't bad, but being the shortest guy in the league isn't a trait I would look for when trying to steal somebody's talent.  Shawn Bradley, though...that's just a terrible choice.  Honestly, I don't see a difference between his regular play and how he looked after his talent was stolen.  But, truth is stranger than fiction, and we need to accept that these are the facts.  With such ridiculousness inherent in the story, it was brave for Michael Jordan to risk ridicule by showing the world exactly what he went through and why he returned to basketball.  He did it to keep the Looney Tunes, and laughter, here on Earth.

If this was just an ordinary children's movie, I would have to give it
Nevertheless, this is, perhaps, the greatest true story (that eventually became a partially animated movie) of our time. 
 I reviewed this movie (and posted a slightly altered version of this review) at the request of my friends at NoBulljive, the best Chicago Bulls blog on the interweb.  Have a request?  Let me know.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Grumpy Old Men

The elderly are adorable!  They're not even people, they're like little pets, I want to just pinch their cheeks so badly!  At least, I do when they are foul-mouthed curmudgeons.  Grumpy Old Men is very much a movie about your favorite old person (or, if you're old, your favorite you).  You might see how the story ends a mile off, but it's a fun viewing because it's so pleasantly comfortable.

John Gustafson (Jack Lemmon) and Max Goldman (Walter Matthau) are neighbors and competitors in a never-ending battle of petty jokes and pranks.  Anyone else would admit that they are actually best friends --- they go to all the same places and do all the same things --- but these two have an imaginary grudge from years ago, and "Hello, dickhead" is as friendly as they get.  Actually, these two pay closer attention to each other than ordinary friends do; they either accompany each other around town, or peer through their window shades to see what the other is doing.  That rivalry heats up when a new neighbor moves in across the street.  Ariel (Ann-Margret) is exotic in this small, icebound town; she is not only in their age group and still attractive, she is from California and has all sorts of weird possessions and hobbies.  Ariel introduces herself to the townsfolk by going on an informal date with (seemingly) the town's entire senior citizen class.  That means John and Max are in direct competition for the last hottie either of them will ever have a chance with.  "Hello, dickhead" is starting to sound downright inviting.

The story of Grumpy Old Men is not fantastic or complicated.  It's really nothing special at all, except with the inclusion of ice fishing, something you rarely see in films because it's even more boring than regular fishing.  There are subplots and complications, secrets and reveals, but this story is just an excuse to see two old men insult each other for 100 minutes.

That's not a bad thing, mind you, but its effectiveness definitely depends on the cast.  Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau are both wonderful in this movie.  Their interactions are so natural and so nuanced, but the insults creative; their chemistry makes it feel like you're not watching a movie, but the dialogue is witty enough to remind you that this had to have been written down at some point.  It feels like director Donald Petrie didn't even have to direct his stars, just let them loose.  The nice thing about this movie is that both Lemmon and Matthau have opportunities to show the depth of their characters, so they're not just insult machines, like the Friar's Club roastmasters.  Most of the noteworthy supporting cast was fine (Kevin Pollack, Daryl Hannah, and Ossie Davis), but their roles had limited impact on the quality of the film as a whole.  Anne-Margret did a pretty good job, although I'm still not sure about some of her character's choices; name one old person that moved from a warm climate to ice fishing territory and didn't have family nearby.  And she dates Matthau?  Isn't he a little out of her league?  Burgess Meredith, in his small supporting role as John's father, is what bumps this movie up from "pleasant" into "funny."  With the rest of the cast, this is an above-average comedy, but Meredith is hilarious and improves the entire movie.

No, Grumpy Old Men is not revolutionary or unexpected.  It's comfortable and engaging and sweet.  And Burgess Meredith is amazing.  In a drama, I would care more about the story, but this is a comedy with three old men saying some pretty funny things that only the elderly can get away with.  It's interesting to think how much less funny this movie would have been with the same cast, only twenty years younger.  This is one of the only Hollywood movies that requires its actors to age gracelessly, and they do it well.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Fist Fighter

Have you ever wandered into a garage sale or a Goodwill and stumbled upon a treasure trove of VHS titles that you've never heard of?  And I'm not talking about some obscure Spaghetti Westerns, or some grindhouse movies --- I'm talking about the films that will never ever be released on DVD because even the director's mother gets embarrassed when they're mentioned.  My friend, who is the closest thing to a hobbit that I have ever met, picked up this title for either the $79.99 cover price (I kid you not.  It even said, "price may be more in Canada") or for the sticker price of $0.95.  Either way, Bilbo overpaid.

Fist Fighter tells the tale of CJ Thunderbird (Jorge "George" Rivero), a man on a mission.  Well, he's not on a mission so much as he is responding to a telegram.  Obviously, this is a film on the cutting edge of technology.  I wouldn't even know where to pick up a telegram, much less how to have one delivered.  Anyway, the telegram, sent by someone who is never seen or heard from again, tells CJ that the man who killed his friend is currently doing some underground bare knuckle boxing in Bolivia.  That is enough to get CJ to travel to Bolivia.  Now, you might wonder if there is going to be some flashback showing the friend's death, or at least a mention of the dead friend at some later point in the movie.  Wonder no more, it never happens.  Once in Bolivia, CJ finds the bare knuckle boxing underground and challenges the villain who killed his buddy, Rhino (Matthias Hues), but the man is the top ranked fighter.  CJ has to fight his way up the ranks to earn a challenge with Rhino.  So, he wins one fight (One!) and they schedule his fight with Rhino.  And then they fight.

Now, you might be thinking, "Well, that was a short movie."  It's not.  It is about an hour and forty minutes long.  And I mean loooong.  The filmmakers manage to reach the climax of the film after only half an hour and, worried that their audience will ridicule them for such a quickie, focused on baseball stats in an effort to prolong the magic.  And prolong it they did; the fight gets interrupted by some corrupt police and CJ eventually is sent to jail.  In jail, CJ misbehaves and is sent to the sweatbox for punishment.  Apparently, the Bolivian prison sweatbox must be air-conditioned and lined with velvet, because CJ emerges with blow-dried hair, looking rested.  At one point, CJ has to fight The Beast (Gus Rethwisch), a large man with a shocking amount of fake body hair to make him look almost as gross as this guy.  Fighting in Bolivian prisons earns you your freedom, so CJ returns to fight Rhino, and he wins.  He doesn't kill Rhino, or even Rhino's evil manager who owns Bolivia's police force.  He fights and leaves.  The end.

That might sound like a crap movie, but I left out an awful love interest (Brenda Bakke, who doesn't even have a line until the forty minute mark), a dog that clearly was embarrassed to be in the movie, and another character, nicknamed "Punchy," for CJ to befriend and have killed by Rhino.  You're welcome.

What's good about this movie?  It has undoubtedly the most punches in the face that I have ever seen.  This isn't really a movie about boxing, it's more of a tutorial on how to get a concussion.  The next course is how to end up looking like Mickey Rourke.  You know how Rocky always blocks punches with his face and then comes back at the end of the fight?  Imagine Rocky fighting himself, but not having that burst at the end, and you might have an idea of the fight choreography here.  I've seen Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots dodge more punches than these guys.  The other good thing about this movie is that the main character is named CJ Thunderbird.  Now, if you are unfamiliar with bum wines, you might just giggle at that name just because it's ridiculous.  Bum wine connoisseurs, though, know that Thunderbird is truly the gasoline-scented cheap wine of choice for amateur bare knuckle boxers (AKA homeless people).  What's the word?  "Thunderbird!"  Indeed.

Sadly, the main character goes by "CJ" instead of "Thunderbird," and the movie goes downhill from there.  It's not just the horrible acting, although I will admit that this is the best Jorge Rivero movie I have seen; the other was Werewolf, which was made into a Mystery Science Theater episode.  It's not even the constant presence of Peruvian flute music.  I would place the blame squarely on the plot.  There were only two or three plot developments throughout the movie, and I had to rewind the movie to figure out what was going to happen next.  I didn't want to rewind, but I was lulled into a hypnotic trace by the inertia of the story, my friends (and my own) witty comments, and the jalapeno pizza I helped consume.  Even worse than the boring story (that is boring despite including seducing a battered woman, having two buddies murdered by the same guy, and a prison break) is the payoff.  CJ beats Rhino in the ring, becoming the champion of the (apparently three member) Bolivian underground bare knuckle boxing league.  He doesn't kill Rhino, or disable him.  He just leaves town.  What is the idea there?  "I hurt his pride.  That's enough revenge for my two murdered buddies."  Awful, just awful.
 I will admit, though, that this movie is far more enjoyable with friends, which makes it a mediocre hit with Lefty Gold.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Single White Female

For some reason, I had it in my head that Single White Female was supposed to be an awesome thriller.  I'm not sure why I was so convinced of that before I even saw the movie, but it wasn't because of the director or the co-leading actresses.  Unless the movie was touted as a "sexy thriller," I don't see why I would think that a Bridget Fonda/Jennifer Jason Leigh vehicle would ever be too special.  Oh, wait...Steven Weber is in it.  Maybe that explains it.  Or not.

Anyway, for whatever reason, I saw Single White Female.  Allie (Bridget Fonda) is engaged to Sam (Steven Weber), but Sam is a cheating scumbag and slept with his ex-wife.  But is that really cheating?  Really, it's more like sleeping in your childhood bed than actively seducing someone.  Apparently, Allie is a prude with no sense of perspective, because she kicks Sam out of their rent-controlled NYC apartment.  Allie is a software designer, and her business is about to take off, but she apparently doesn't have enough income to pay for her RENT-CONTROLLED apartment on her own, so she places an ad for a roommate.  She chooses Hedy, an introverted but sweet country girl.  At first, Hedy's nice to have around, but she doesn't have a job...or any friends...or a life.  She just wants to hang out with Allie.  That's fine, I suppose --- I've roomed with a bum, too --- but it gets creepy when Hedy starts borrowing Allie's clothes.  And masturbating with the door open.  And then she dyes her hair and cuts it to match Allie's bob, so they look like sisters.  I would have kicked my roomie out after stage one, but Allie is horror-movie-stupid and just ignores the danger signs.  Since she's obviously fixated on Allie, I bet Hedy handles Allie and Sam getting back together with grace and aplomb.  Oh, wait...this is a thriller.  Maybe not so much.

Director Barbet Schroeder does a good job telling the story here, but since it's just a high-concept plot, that's not terribly impressive.  His handling of tone was inconsistent at best, though.  His cast isn't anything special, either, but he manages to get acceptable performances from all, although I don't think anyone's performance stood out particularly.  To be fair, Jennifer Jason Leigh comes across as completely crazy, in a I-knew-a-chick-like-this-in-college way.  I would have liked it better if they didn't try to explain why she's crazy; she has all the makings of an evil villain, but the story tries to humanize her, and the character loses some of her edge as a result.  Bridget Fonda is still the least talented Fonda, but she's almost attractive enough to get away with her awful haircut.  Almost.  As far as her acting goes, she almost gets away with that haircut.  Almost.  The rest of the cast (Steven Weber, Peter Friedman, and Stephen Tobolowsky) are serviceable, but nothing special.  Tobolowsky went outside of his normal "dry white toast" persona to play a more aggressive nerd, but it didn't really come off as believable.  I don't mean to challenge the Dilberts of the world, but seeing him as a sexual predator and macho man just seemed unlikely.  Weber's character didn't have much depth, but I thought he did a good job being creeped out by Jennifer Jason Leigh, even if their shared scenes are not particularly effective; their last scene together, while supposed to be frightening, ends up being pretty hilarious.

Maybe I went into this movie with too high of expectations.  This isn't a movie that catches you off-guard with the plot; like a train ride, you know where it's going, but you're not sure what you will see on along the way.  The roommate-from-hell concept is pretty basic, but I can't think of any other film I've seen that has devoted the entire story to it.  So, I guess this movie deserves some credit for making a watchable movie that can actually be described accurately by a pitch man.  But being "watchable" is not the same as being "good."  Single White Female has entered the lexicon as a term synonymous with psychotic roommates, so it was clearly effective at the time of its release.  But it's really not very good.  Most of the actions taken by Hedy are supposed to be scary, but are just ridiculous.  When Hedy kills should be when the film is at its scariest, but her seemingly benign actions, like cutting her hair, end up being the memorable moments.  That points to a problem with the tone of the movie, which means that Barbet Schroeder may have told the plot competently, but he did not tell the story well.

I would like to point out the unlikely situation where Allie has to put out a personal ad to get a roommate.  She has a cheap apartment (that she somehow can't afford) and owns her own business, and yet the only platonic friendship she has is the gay guy that lives above her?  Forget friends, you expect me to believe that she doesn't have any acquaintances that would jump at the chance to live in a rent-controlled apartment?  And the solution to Allie's rent problem is to room with the one applicant that doesn't have a job?  That's just stupid.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Bug's Life

I love when competing movie companies make films that have nearly identical premises and are released around the same time.  Some of my favorite examples include Deep Impact and Armageddon, Dante's Peak and Volcano, Finding Nemo and Shark Tale, The Illusionist and The Prestige, Indiana Jones and Oregon Harrison...the list goes on and on.  In this case, A Bug's Life, the second Pixar animated film, competed directly against Antz, the first DreamWorks animated film.  What does that have to do with the actual movie?  Nothing.  I just like pointing out when movies have twins.  And just like in real life, there's always a good twin and a bad twin.  Which is which?  Well, I don't see anyone in A Bug's Life with a goatee, do you?

A Bug's Life is the story of Flik (Dave Foley) and his attempts to save his colony from some vicious grasshopper bullies, led by the cruel Hopper (Kevin Spacey).  You see, Hopper's grasshopper gang forces the ant colony, led by The Queen (Phyllis Diller) and her heir apparent Princess Atta (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), to pay tribute every year in the form of food.  After offering their tribute, the ants then have to hurry to gather enough food to support themselves over the coming rainy season.  Flik is an amateur inventor who accidentally ruins the tribute and angers the grasshoppers.  As the colony rushes to gather enough food to satisfy Hopper, Flik is sent out on a fool's errand to keep him from accidentally ruining this tribute, too.  His task is to find some fighting bugs that will protect the colony.  He finds some bugs, but, under a mutual misunderstanding, he ends up with a group of circus performers who thought that they were going to perform for the colony, not protect them.  Whoops.

The story clearly borrows heavily from The Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven (which makes sense, since it's a remake of Samurai), with the colony being protected by a motley crew facing impossible odds.  Unlike those films, though, this is a kid's movie, so there is a lot less death.  There are a lot more sappy "The More You Know" moments, though.  The film's themes include the contributions of the individual, how size does not equal strength, and the power of numbers.  You might wonder at the wisdom of having a movie point out how important an individual is and then turn around and point out how important it is for a group (that includes that individual) to work together, but that conceptual problem is ignored in the film.  I mean, the points were made more than ten minutes apart --- that's practically a separate movie!

Once again, Pixar does a great job with their voice casting.  Dave Foley as the nervous Flik and a young Hayden Panettiere as little Princess Dot were both particularly good.  Kevin Spacey was imposing as the evil Hopper and Julia Louis-Dreyfus was obnoxiously whiny as the Princess.  The supporting cast was as colorful as ever, with Denis Leary being the standout as the male ladybug, but John Ratzenberger, Roddy McDowall, Brad Garrett, Bonnie Hunt, Madeline Kahn, Phyllis Diller, and David Hyde-Pierce all do good work here.

Being a Pixar movie, the animation is, of course, amazing.  While they weren't ready to pull off any human animation just yet, I liked the way primary writer Andrew Stanton played with his small scale; it's fun for kids to see ordinary things becoming huge dangers for tiny creatures, a la Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, and this is one of the film's strengths.  I don't like how obviously indebted the film is to The Seven Samurai, but that's a film buff's gripe when compared to the much more serious issue of the film's lack of emotion.  In the best children's movies, one of the characters has a major epiphany and goes to great lengths to keep what they now realize is the most important thing to them.  A Bug's Life still tries to do that, but it spreads the emotional payoff across several characters (Flik, Atta, Dot, and Denis Leary's ladybug), diluting its effect.

I'm sure that this movie will please most kids.  It's not bad, by any means, but it's lacking the depth that makes movies like this more endurable for adults.  Instead, it takes the easy route for cute jokes (the "outtakes" during the credits are a good example of this), and I was left a little bored.