March 31, 2007

Blades Of Glory (03/31/07)

Lettergrade: D

We decided to see Blades Of Glory, a movie we would have otherwise skipped, because I was about to start work on a TV pilot that was being directed by the guys who made it. There were some laughs, but it's pretty much a one-joke movie that slides by without leaving much of an impression. It's not bad, nor is it especially good.

It feels like Will Ferrell as Chazz Michael Michaels went slumming a bit with this one... it's a movie that Adam Sandler or Ben Stiller (who produced the movie through his company) could have easily made. He's a one note character, who doesn't have much to him other than a few key gimmicks.

Maybe there's a whole other layer in here that I missed, not knowing jack shit about competitive skating. I'd be willing to bet, however, that the whole thing really is this mundane, regardless of whether or not I was "in" on the jokes.

March 16, 2007

Zodiac (03/16/07)

Lettergrade: A-

This flick covers the period from the 1960s to the 1980s, when the mysterious Zodiac killer terrorized the state of California by committing occasional, seemingly random murders, and more frequently by sending bizarre, coded messages to the San Francisco Chronicle with the demand that they be printed lest more murders follow.

I wasn't excited to see this movie, but we saw it the other night and I really thought it was quite well made. Despite the fact that the picture gets off to a somewhat slow and awkward start, what is ultimately delivered is a pretty damn good thriller with several outstanding scenes.

In ways, the picture feels more like parts of a mini-series that are being played back-to-back in the way it is set up. I suppose a story like this - that takes place over a long period of time and involves many characters and suspects - somewhat has to be done that way, but it means that some elements don't make immediate sense early on.

One of the initial decisions that seems most awkward, for example, is that the film shuttles back and forth between two sets of main characters: Two reporters at the Chronicle (Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr.) and the two Homicide cops assigned to the Zodiac case (Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards). Gyllenhaal plays up-and-coming staff cartoonist Robert Graysmith, who in real-life went on to write the book on which this film is based. Downey Jr. is an alcoholic, coke-sniffing, self-destructive narcissist. Fortunately, his character in the movie is too, so he probably didn't have to do much research before they started shooting.

Early in the movie in particular, a puzzling amount time is spent with Gyllenhaal where he's not doing much more than observing the letters come in at the Chronicle. The main action is left instead to Ruffalo and Edwards, who are there at the crime scenes and take us through the procedural side of the investigation. The two groups ultimately _do_ intersect in meaningful ways, but there are big sections of the movie where I had to wonder why we were spending so much time with one group instead of the other with no real pay-off in sight. All four of these leads sink deep into obsession in very different ways as the years continue with no conclusive answers.

There are also scenes, of course, which depict the Zodiac killings as they may have happened. Director David Fincher wisely stages the killings based on the vague descriptions that witnesses provided, but never quite reveals the Zodiac's face or gives a consistent impression of who he might have been. The silhouetted images and obscured views of a stocky, bespectacled man made a convincing argument to me that the Zodiac killer was, in fact, Drew Carrey. Laura's guess was that it was Penn Jilette. As it turns out, we were both wrong: The end credits reveal that he is played by several different actors throughout the flick.

The movie, shot on HD with the stunning new Viper cameras, is made in a gritty 70s style that instantly evokes the feeling of films of that era including All The President's Men and Dirty Harry (which itself was highly reflective the Zodiac killings which were in mid-stream at the time) among others. The picture is also somewhat evocative of J.F.K. in some ways. Many of the scenes succeed at being remarkably creepy and effective, despite the fact that it's really just people talking in rooms.

Among the complaints I've been hearing are that the movie is way too long and somewhat inconclusive. Those are definitely valid things to bitch about. Much like the real investigation that took place, many dead-end leads are introduced, pursued, and eventually abandoned when found not to be fruitful. They could have made a tighter, more cleanly told picture, sure... If I had anything to do with it, I probably would have argued to take out some of the sub plots that never go anywhere. There's something to be said for all the detours and side-streets that the movie embarks upon, though. Although there isn't always much of a pay-off, the abundance of detail and possibilities that exist here somehow got me just as wrapped up in the mystery as Gyllenhaal (and most of California) is in the film's second half. That's a rare and amazing thing that cinema can do, meaning that if I have to push through a nearly three hour behemoth to get there, I'm pretty much cool with that.

March 14, 2007

Ghost Rider (03/14/07)

Lettergrade: D, but it's one of the funniest movies of the year

So Laura calls just before she's about to leave work, and I tell her that I'm in the mood to see the worst so-bad-it's-funny shitpile in release right now. After perusing the local listings, we wound up selecting Ghost Rider.

Where do I start with this one? Maybe it's enough to say that at the right time and in the right company, this can be a highly entertaining movie. The time was right for me tonight: I pissed myself laughing during the whole picture. Some of the laugher was elicited through careful planning and execution by the filmmakers, but the majority simply came from how stupid and bad the whole movie is.

I don't think there's much point in getting into the plot, but I'll do it just in case. As a young man, Johnny Blaze (played as an adult by Nicolas Cage with an extremely ill-advised toupee) makes a deal with Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda) wherein his stunt-man father's cancer would be cured in exchange for Johnny's eternal soul. Johnny thinks this is a smart trade and viola! his dad is cured. He is abruptly killed, however, by a stunt gone bad shortly thereafter anyway, and Johnny then spends 20 years or something waiting for the day when Mephistopheles will show up to collect on the deal.

Cage plays the adult Johnny Blaze as a lazy, shiftless cypher with vague similarities to Elvis that include his diet, his entourage, and his lazy southern accent. When not performing mind-numbingly stupid Evel Knievel inspired stunts (such as jumping over a football field's length of big-rig 18 wheelers parked side by side), he's locked up in his shit-box apartment watching bad late-night television, eating jelly-beans, and listening to the same Carpenters song over and over again.

Soon, Wes Bentley shows up as the nefarious Blackheart, who is very dramatically revealed to be Mephistopheles' estranged son. Since we don't even really understand who the hell Mephistopheles is in the first place (other than that he's kinda like Satan, I guess), the revelation means very little to us. Nevertheless, the movie proceeds with the unveiling of this plot point as if it is as mind-blowing as the end of The Usual Suspects.

Blackheart wants some sort of artifact that will give him a bunch of indeterminate power which will presumably allow him to harm mankind in some nonspecific way. In response to this, Fonda calls on Cage to assume his mantle as the Ghost Rider and take Bentley and his minions out. The only thing noteworthy about his transformation -- apart from the classic Nicolas Cage scenery chewing it provides an excuse for -- is that the CG modeling on the Rider's skull when he's all lit up looks sort of like a jpeg from a bad heavy metal tribute page circa 1998. From that point on, things proceed pretty much as you might expect with few surprises along the way.

Several components of the movie are just plain weird. Whenever Fonda and Bentley have a meeting, for example, the editing style goes completely ape-shit, suggesting a scenario wherein the producers gave Andy Dick a month's supply of cocaine and locked him into the edit bay for a night.

Other scenes are absolutely flash-back crazy... such as the one where Johnny reunites with his childhood love (played as an adult by Eva Mendez). The picture actually dissolves back to a scene from earlier in the movie where we're looking at a younger actress who already looks exactly like Mendez before coming back to the present and continuing the scene. What... did the movie actually think we might not make that connection? On at least three other occasions, whenever Johnny thinks of his father we momentarily dissolve to his dad giving a speech that we already saw earlier in the movie. This serves no dramatic or thematic purpose and leads to no payoff later on... It's like there was some kind of post-production freak-out where someone decided that the movie had to be edited for people with virtually zero short-term memory retention.

A saving grace is Sam Elliott as the marginally-mysterious Caretaker. He's essentially the Ask Jeeves of the movie, and is conveniently around to explain the rules of Ghost Riding to Cage whenever some bulky exposition is needed. Late in the film it is revealed that Elliott used to be a Ghost Rider himself. He uses his last opportunity to "flame up" meerly to ride along-side Cage as he goes to his final confrontation with Bentley... not to actually help him defeat the guy or anything, just to ride next to him as he goes to do it.

The movie ends with Mephistopheles offering Cage the chance to be released from his Ghost Ridership once and for all. Cage turns him down, vowing instead to use his power against Mephistopheles himself, probably in a direct-to-video sequel. This, I assume, is the foundation on which Ghost Rider's adventures in the comic books are based. When the scene plays out in the movie, however, you can't help but marvel at how stupid he is for pissing off the devil so needlessly like that and denying himself a normal life and the opportunity to be with the woman he loves.

The movie never claims that Johnny Blaze is a quantum theorist or anything, but when the hero of your superhero movie makes decisions that would seem remarkably stupid even in a Larry The Cable Guy movie, you know you've got trouble.

March 2, 2007

Breach (03/02/07)

Lettergrade: B

While technically it's an espionage / spy thriller, most everything about Breach is muted and grounded in reality. I really appreciated that because I have a feeling that movies like this -- with strong actors and good writing -- can easily get all Bruckheimered out if special care is not taken. The picture is part FBI procedural, and part character study. It's not what you could really call a character piece, but it's a fascinating story and a pretty decent movie.

The film is based on the real-life events of Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper), a long-term Russian Intelligence analyst for the FBI who for years secretly sold highly classified information to the former Soviet Union: The most severe intelligence breach in U.S. history. The plot centers around Hanssen's last two months before mandatory retirement and the young agent (played by Ryan Phillippe) who was instrumental in the events that led up to Hanssen getting busted.

Cooper plays Hanssen as a man loaded with contradictions. He proclaims himself both deeply religious and unwaveringly patriotic, although he clearly knows he is behaving in ways that are decidedly neither.

At times, the contradictions are so extreme that they push the limits of dramatic plausibility somewhat. For example, Hanssen starts off as a real paranoid, hard-ass son-of-a-bitch during Phillippe's first few days on the job. Eventually, this wears away and Hanssen gleefully welcomes Phillippe and his wife (Caroline Dhavernas) to his house for a Norman Rockwell style Sunday supper complete with Cosby sweater. Then -- at work a few days later -- Hanssen slips right back into paranoid OCD mode once more with seemingly little motivation to do so. In a way, I think these weird personality shifts are somewhat the point, but I couldn't help but feel like the connective tissue is missing that would have made this guy seem like more a real person and less like a series of collected observations on Hanssen (the character Phillippe plays was a real-life consultant on the film).

Another interesting thing is that we are never given a clear sense of what exactly Hanssen has been leaking and what it means to our national security, other than that it is "really important." I'm sure a lot of this has to do with the fact that a good deal of what Hanssen sold to the former U.S.S.R. is still classified to us civilian folk. Still, though, one has to wonder that if the info Hanssen leaked is unknown, and if Hanssen's motivations are unclear and nebulous (the real Hanssen, now in Federal prison, refuses to disclose anything on the subject)... are we looking at a factual representation of something that really happened in contemporary American history or is it just a good thriller that happens to share some variables with actual events?

Whatever the case, both Cooper and Phillippe do a fine job. The always lovely Laura Linney is also in the picture, although she is a bit more "one note" than I've seen her previously. The main weak link in cast is Caroline Dhavernas, who says she's East German but whose accent ranges from "no accent" to "vaguely Swedish with bizarre, unclassified speech impediment."

Minor gripes aside, however, it _is_ a picture worth seeing, and a welcome breath of fresh air after weeks of seeing ads for shit like Ghost Rider and Norbit.