June 27, 2007

Live Free Or Die Hard (06/27/07)

Lettergrade: B

Having been burned by shitty "part 4s" in the past, I feared the worst for Live Free Or Die Hard. The TV ads, which have been shoved into every known crevice in the television broadcast universe, depict a level of surreality that seemed foreign to Die Hard. In them, John McClaine (played once again by the venerable Bruce Willis) is a one-man wrecking machine, spouting off ridiculous one-liners and taking part in insanely elaborate, unrealistic action. Consider, for example, the trailer-friendly segment where an astonished Justin Long stares agape at Willis' recent stunt: Running a car up a ramp so that it smashes into a helicopter that's been shooting at them. "You just killed a helicopter with a car!," exclaims the 'Macintosh' half of the popular Mac / PC commercials. "I was out of bullets," replies McClaine cooly. This seemed to be a far cry from the earlier movies, where McClaine was more of a reluctant every-man caught in a crazy-but-vaguely-plausible situation.

After seeing the picture itself, however, I'm pleased to say that despite all the insane action, silliness and general implausibility, Live Free Or Die Hard is actually pretty good. Well... by "good," I mean "entertaining." It's more like an old school Bruce Willis action movie from the 80s than the trailers would have you beleive, and it surprisingly feels pretty much in keeping with the spirit of the other movies.

Each successive movie has upped the scale a bit, while adopting increasingly stupider titles. Die Hard had McClaine in an LA office building taken over by German terrorists. In Die Hard 2: Die Harder McClaine battles mercenaries who hijack the communications systems of Dulles International Airport and threaten to crash planes unless a South American drug lord is released. In the third movie, Die Hard With A Vengeance, a mad bomber threatens to blow-up various parts of New York City unless McClaine and Samuel L. Jackson run around town and play his deadly game of "Simon Says." The dude doing all the bombing (Jeremy Irons) is the brother of Alan Rickman's character from the first movie. This might explain the With A Vengeance part, but the title still sucks.

Which brings us to Live Free Or Die Hard. Derived from a famous state motto symbolizing aggressive American independence, the title suggests that we'll finally be getting what fanboys have dreamed of since the series began; Die Hard: New Hampshire. Alas the film never visits the Granite State, but McClaine is sent off on a wild race through much of the east coast when a band of cyber terrorists hack into pretty much every computer in the US simultaneously, holding the entire nation hostage unless paid a shitload of money. I am barely tech-savvy enough to post this movie review, and as such I have no clue if the film's scenario is even remotely possible, but I'm guessing it's mostly fantasy. I'm willing to go with it, however, as long as the action scenes and the vague semblance of story remain engaging (which they do).

The key problem with the shitty-but-enjoyable Die Hard With A Vengeance is that it didn't really have the heart of the first two pictures. In 1 and 2, Willis was working to rescue his wife, played by Bonnie Bedelia, who was in various ways in peril as a result of what the bad guys were doing. I know it would have been silly for McClaine to be saving his wife in every single movie, but the alternative they came up with in part 3 was to turn McClaine into an alcoholic burn-out, estranged from his Bedelia altogether. Part 4 introduces McClaine's daughter, seen briefly as a child earlier, I believe, and uses her pretty much in same way that Bedelia was used.

A major weak link in the movie is that the main antagonist isn't especially interesting or threatening. Alan Rickman as Hans Grüber in the first Die Hard expanded on the James Bond tradition and forever changed what scenery-chewing villains were all about. The lead bad guy here is played by the exceedingly metro-sexual Timothy Olyphant, who looks like he's running his entire cyber-terror operation out of a Banana Republic outlet center. I've liked him as an actor in the past, but I think he was the wrong guy for the roll.

Another problem I have with the movie is that the bad guys have apparently hacked the nation's cyber security to the point where they can press a button and make anything happen anywhere pretty much instantly. While I can understand the screenwriter(s) impulse to do this, I sort of feel that they diminished the tension by giving the bad guy too much power. It's sort of like what they did with the female Terminator in Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines... she could control "anything with a microchip" ala Maximum Overdrive, making her powerful, yes, but oddly not as menacing as Robert Patrick as the T-1000 in T2, who had limits.

A word about the editing... The general thinking is that it's often tough to evaluate how the editor did unless something really isn't working. For the most part, the cutting here is smooth, albeit a little hyperactive in places. There is the occasional scene, however, where I seriously did not know what the fuck was happening. Not only is it unclear where people are in the scene (and who is looking at what), but there is, without question, the most inept ADR that I've ever seen in a movie. I assume that some of these scenes were edited like this to compensate for plot changes that happened during post production. Why not, however, simply hold on McClaine's face for a little longer while Justin Long says whatever he's saying off camera?

And now for a bit of unsolicited personal history. I wasn't always as jaded and cranky about movies as I am now. There was a time when I was much more excited about summer blockbusters and action movies than the black-hearted pessimist who's been keeping this blog the last several months. I know when the change happened, too; It was July of 1998, when I excitedly plunked down my money to see Lethal Weapon 4. I had really liked the previous three movies, which I considered to be fine character-based storytelling combined with the added bonus of shit blowing up semi-frequently. Part 4, however, as anyone who was unfortunate enough to have seen it knows, ranks among the most perfunctory piles of shit ever shoveled into theaters. I read that the movie had been rushed into production only seven months before it was released because of a hole in Warner Bros.'s summer release schedule after Tim Burton's proposed Superman reboot dissolved. And it showed: Mel Gibson was playing a character who in no way resembled the guy he was playing in the first picture, and I later found out that producer Joel Silver basically cut-and-pasted the script together from four completely different attempts at writing a sequel previously!

From that point on, I've had a certain hostility toward schlocky, corporate studio decision-making, and manipulative misleading marketing bullshit. I will say, however, that if I - nearly 10 years later - can go to see a picture like Live Free Or Die Hard and walk out pretty much satisfied, perhaps there's hope yet.

June 23, 2007

SiCKO (06/23/07)

Lettergrade: A-

I was in high school when a friend made me watch Roger & Me, Michael Moore's first movie which depicted the effects of General Motors' decision to close its factory in Moore's home town of Flint, Michigan. I can honestly say it became one of the most influential films of my youth. I was simply amazed by what Moore was able to pull off: during the film I felt angry, I felt deep empathy and sadness, it made me realize that I needed to educate myself and read the news... and of course at times it was very funny. I understood immediately (and had a lot of affection for) what Moore was trying to do. At the risk of repeating myself, I'll mention my former writing instructor's contention that using humor to tell a grim story is an excellent way to get people to listen to what you've got to say.

These days, of course, Moore needs no introduction. After several films, two TV series, a slew of books, an immensely popular website, and legions of both supporters and detractors, Moore is about as public as it gets. His new picture, SiCKO centers around the American health care system and contrasts it with that of other nations. Like his previous movies (Bowling For Columbine in particular), the film is structured as a collection of vignettes that all deal with social issues loosely surrounding the same subject. SiCKO is actually a little less scattershot than his previous two movies, focusing largely on insurance company horror stories, and then shifting to the pathology of U.S. private health insurance, and the country's long-standing aversion to socialized medicine. The latter part of the film is spent visiting several other nations and having a look at how their public care systems work.

Is it propaganda? You bet. As always, Moore has a masterful way of using music, pop-culture references and juxtaposed images to make his point. People cry on camera - which he milks for all he can - and interview fragments are taken slightly out of context to make certain people seem slimier and more calloused than they might have appeared otherwise. Moore makes no bones about wearing his biases on his sleeve, and frankly I have more of a problem with news and documentaries that clearly use similar tactics, but do it while claiming to be objective.

The big criticism of the movie is that Moore spends a good deal of time painting a very rosy picture of the socialized health-care systems in Canada, England, France and Cuba. My finaceé's parents are from England and lived in Canada before moving to the US. One of my sisters also lived in Canada for several years and is now in France. Although each will commend certain things about health-care in those respective countries, there is also a good deal to complain about in terms of having to wait weeks to see a specialist, etc. I can't remember if the film brought this up, but it is common for the wealthier citizens of France, for example, to have private health insurance to supplement the service that the government provides. These complaints go virtually unaddressed in Moore's film, and have already been major attack points for its critics.

The omissions are also disappointing because it seems he missed an opportunity to underline a point that is suggested at in the movie, but never stated clearly: While none of these other countries are devoid of problems, some kind of American socialized medicine system, however flawed, would at the very least be a God-send for the 50 million or so who cannot afford it or cannot get it through their employer (to say nothing of the thousands more who are left out in the wind when their insurance company refuses to approve something necessary). Such a system in America would not be perfect and would certainly mean significantly higher taxes (another point the film doesn't annunciate clearly, although it should be kept in mind that one might no longer pay for private insurance). The unspoken reality is that a combination of the systems detailed in Moore's film will probably be needed if better health-care is to materialize in the US.

While Jon Stewart has been careful to remind people that The Daily Show isn't trying to be great social commentary, Moore seems to be a bit more eager to promote himself as the spokesman for the angry and under-represented of America. You can safely call him a muckraker (in the very best meaning of the term, of course), and it's fair to call him obnoxious at times as well. One of my friends who is _not_ a Michael Moore fan recently described him as a blunt instrument, lacking subtlety on pretty much all levels.

These are all valid complaints, but I will say that I'll always have a soft spot for guys like Moore. Not because I agree with his politics all the time (although I frequently do) or because I think he has some good ideas for the country (some of them are good, some of them are bat-shit crazy), but really because he's achieved a certain kind of celebrity and a particular public podium which he uses to prompt discussion on ideas he really cares about. Both Moore and Stewart take delight in running footage where politicians give wildly contradictory statements on the same issue. Both point out when newscasters and politicians alike are fear-mongering, spreading misleading information, or otherwise exhibiting behavior that we should not tolerate from our nation's legislators and decision-makers. People who might not be inclined to read a lot of news or take part in political discussion could perhaps watch for the entertainment, but walk away a bit more informed. I'll gladly take that over any Michael Bay movie you can show me.

June 17, 2007

Fido (06/17/07)

Lettergrade: F

Fido is the sort of film that makes for a funny trailer, but a dull, laughless movie. Produced in Canada and starring some moderately well-known actors, the film takes a look at what would happen if - after space dust turns the Earth's deceased into flesh-eating zombies - those zombies were then domesticated and put to work in closed-off communities that resemble the American 1950s for no reason whatsoever. It's a horror/comedy that is frequently gruesome rather than scary, and marginally clever rather than funny.

After we saw the movie, the guest host on Ebert & Roeper reminded me that the picture is pretty much derived from a 12 second gag at the end of the infinitely superior Shaun Of The Dead, where a news clip announces the government's program to do pretty much the same thing that the government does in this movie. The concept could make for a funny movie, I suppose, but in Fido it all plays out in a surprisingly lengthy way that makes it almost impossible for anything to have a good comedic snap.

Fido himself is a zombie that is bought by an unhappy family. Mom and dad (Carrie-Anne Moss and Dylan Baker) don't interact much with one another, or with their adolescent son Timmy. Timmy isn't popular at school, and Fido (played by an unrecognizable Billy Connolly) becomes his only friend. While playing in the park one day, Fido's restraining collar momentarily deactivates and he savagely chews the arm off of the old woman who lives next door (I could fish around on IMDB and try to figure out what her character was named, but fuck it). Anyway, because a zombie bite will turn you into a zombie, Timmy whacks the old lady's head off with a shovel and buries her in a local park. Unfortunately, she rises from her grave (it is later explained that a zombie head can reattach itself) and starts a whole wave of zombie killings in the town that need to be covered up by Timmy and his mom (who has become smitten with Fido for reasons that are unclear).

What I just described plays out over 45-50 minutes... quite a bit more time than would seem to be needed. We understand right away that it's a Leave It To Beaver / Lassie type world in which zombies live. It takes maybe 40 seconds of screen time to communicate that, and yet the movie found it necessary to set the premise up somewhat meticulously, as if we'd start questioning things if details were glossed over. We also might feel like we're a little more in on the joke if the human characters more closely resembled campy archetypes from TV of that era, but instead the film puts some effort into giving them nuance and depth where it is really not required. It's all an unhappy marriage of material that probably shouldn't have been combined like this.

Yet another inhibitor to the comedy is the film's slick production value: The cinematography is bright and saturated, the sets and costumes are elaborate, and there's a wall-to-wall music that sounds like it was recorded with a big orchestra. I generally feel that movies like this - which try to strike a bizarre / satirical / subversive chord - are better when they feel cheaper (or at least give the illusion of cheapness).

It might have been okay as a bizarre retro-comedy ala The Brady Bunch Movie or some of the more successful segments of Grindhouse, but Fido's nearest relative might surprisingly be 1998's Pleasantville. In that movie, Tobey Magurie and Reese Witherspoon are sucked into a Donna Reed like TV show to illustrate the point that while it might be easy to romanticize the past as this wonderful time where everyone was nicer to one another, in truth there was a lot of repression, bigotry, and pressure to stick to social norms that people selectively leave out when getting nostalgic. Maguire learns that a little rebellion and social progress can be a really good thing, while Witherspoon starts to understand that an excessive amount of the same can be quite bad.

Fido operates in a similar way, setting its people and zombies in a fictional past, the likes the which never existed. There's a character arc toward the end that seems to be trying to make the point that the uninhibited zombies sort of of show the living how to really live. If the movie is indeed trying to be deep on this level, however, I don't understand what the filmmakers want us to take away from everything. The zombies teach people who would never have had to endure such social conditions to throw up their heels in a way that really isn't relevant to anything going on today (or at least, it's not all that relevant to life as I have experienced it). It's okay if your movie doesn't have a "central message," but I've got a problem with movies that act like they're about something when in fact a small amount of critical thinking directed at the plot makes everything completely unravel.

I'm not saying that every movie has to have an underlining theme or a message, you understand, but I somewhat feel that if you're not going to have a good reason for existing, you at least need to be entertaining on some level. Fido doesn't do either of those things, and as such it should pretty much be avoided.

June 2, 2007

Knocked Up (06/02/07)

Lettergrade: B

The marketing campaign for Knocked Up sort of went nuclear the week before the film came out. The 92% freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes -- along with the hearty endorsement of most critics, several internet sites, and Oprah -- all suggest that it's the funniest movie of this year and many another. Of course, the problem with this sort of astronomical hype is that it sets expectations that no movie can really meet. Joe Audience is bound to be disappointed when such a well-reviewed picture turns out to be merely "good."

And in spite of the media blitz, Knocked Up is pretty good. The movie was written and directed by Judd Apataow, who made 2005's The 40 Year Old Virgin among other quality projects. Like that film, this one is a surprisingly well-written, layered movie that hides inside a very vulgar, funny one.

The movie starts with the tried and true tradition of pairing people who normally wouldn't associate. Alison (Katherine Heigel) is a floor director at E! Entertainment Television. Ben (Seth Rogen, who was also in Virgin) is in the country illegally, lives off a settlement he got from a car accident when he was a teenager, and doesn't do much other than smoke a lot of weed with his five roommates. The two go their separate ways after an awkward breakfast following a drunken hook-up. Weeks later, she discovers she's pregnant and calls to let him know. Alison considers the options and decides she wants to have the baby. Ben, after a great scene where his father (played by Harold Ramis) says that having a son is the best thing that ever happened to him, decides that he wants to be there and as supportive as possible.

It might sound a little like Look Who's Talking without all the talking baby shit, but it really isn't. One thing that usually pisses me off about this sort of movie is when characters behave in ways that no one in real life ever would. I appreciated that Knocked Up is mature enough to deal with ideas and situations relevant to actual relationships that people have. The movie tries to find humor in reality, rather than twisting reality to accommodate some contrived gag. When Alison and Ben have an argument, it's over something highly plausible -- not because of a cheap plot device such as her snooty ex-finaceé showing up at the weekend house suddenly, or because she walks in and finds him with his dick in a pie. For instance, I liked the scene where Alison and Ben scream f-bombs at each other in the waiting room of her OBGYN, which manages to be incredibly uncomfortable, tragic, and entertaining all at once.

That's not to say the movie doesn't have a couple leaps which don't entirely add up, but it's not as insulting as your average bullshit Ben Stiller / Adam Sandler / Ashton Kutcher movie these days where the lead guy is some overly cute, independently wealthy frat boy who everyone loves, despite his clear psychological issues and man-child like aversion to responsibility. In this movie, you can understand why Alison starts to fall for Ben as they get to know one another better, and it is refreshing that at the end not all the problems are solved or tied up neatly.

I had a writing instructor in college who often would underline the difference between telling a depressing story in a depressing way, and telling a depressing story in a less obvious, possibly comedic way. The meaning I took is while any method you choose is perfectly valid, a "light" approach to heavy material can often make what you're trying to say more palatable to people who might not listen otherwise.

That's sort of over simplifying things, of course, but the neat thing about Knocked Up is that it manages to contemplate having children (whether planned or not) and accepting the responsibility and the role of being an adult, while still pleasing a crowd the way something like There's Something About Mary or Talladega Nights might. You can argue that Knocked Up isn't as funny as those movies, but it does have a lot of interesting thoughts and layered ideas in it, and for a big summer comedy to pull that off is something worth seeing.