July 31, 2008

Stepbrothers (07/31/08)

Lettergrade: F

In Stepbrothers, Will Ferrell and John C. Reily play 40 year-old stepbrothers. Normally this is the part where I'd start to describe the plot a little, but that's pretty much it. The crippling vacuum that dwells where a detectable story-line might have been is filled by many scenes that all work off this same rudimentary joke, and the result a pretty painful 100 minutes. Believe me, I enjoy intentionally stupid movies as much as the next dude, but at the same time there's nothing more tragic than an expensive cinematic jerk-off session for some talented actors who have previously been pretty funny.

It's the third movie that Ferrell has co-written with director (and former Saturday Night Live writer) Adam McKay. The other two were Talladegah Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby, which had an absurd slickness that I really enjoyed, and before that Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy, which I found frustratingly random and somewhat anemic. The key difference between the two comes down to the presence of a solid hook which drives the plot. My contention is that there doesn't have to be a terribly original or profound device, mind you, just something to keep the silliness moving in a particular direction. Note that Ferrell has made several sports comedies now with plot trajectories virtually identical to that of Talladegah Nights: In Blades Of Glory, Semi-Pro and Kicking And Screaming he plays an arrogant sports star who loses everything, and then must find some way to overcome his issues reclaim his former status having gained valuable perspective on life along the way. It's the most predictable, by-the-numbers horse-shit imaginable, and the screenwriters involved should be ashamed of themselves. NEVERTHELESS, I will say that it is also a basic plot outline which, in spite of its over-use, manages to be somewhat effective in terms of turning what would otherwise be a collection of loosely associated skits into film stories that at least have some shape.

Moving on, though, it's a little disappointing to see John C. Reily, who was so good in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, back playing a slightly beefier version of the supporting roles that he was playing a couple years ago. Another thing that I don't really like in these movies is that there is always, ALWAYS a "wacky cameo" from another active member of the Judd Apatow universe at some point, the modern-day equivalent of having Laverine and Shirley pay a visit to Al's Diner on Happy Days or giving Norm and Cliff from Cheers a layover in the Wings airport. This time, it's Seth Rogen, who has a genuinely amusing bit part to play, but I still think it's needlessly distracting.

Other issues I have with flicks like this are when characters wind up doing something that completely violates the few parameters the movie had bothered to lay out for them. In the film's flaccid attempt at some plot-progression late in the picture, Ferrell asks his brother, whom it has been established he hates more than anyone and anything else in the world, for a job at his company. Although Ferrell is in a fairly tough spot at that point in the movie, it just seems so improbably contrary to everything else we've learned about the guy previously. Things like this really shouldn't bother me, particularly when we're talking about a movie that aims as low as Stepbrothers does, but even a movie that's not intended to be taken seriously needs to take it's own character development seriously on some level. Otherwise what's the point?

Skip puerile junk like this. Don't even rent it.

July 25, 2008

The X-Files: I Want To Believe (07/25/08)

Lettergrade: C-

The first hour or so of The X-Files: I Want To Believe feels sort of like a cheap TV movie knock-off of The Silence Of The Lambs. In it, David Duchovony and Gillian Anderson are called out of retirement (and back to their signature roles) in order to help FBI agent Amanda Peet locate some missing people with an assist from a possible psychic played by Billy Connolly. It isn't until roughly the half-way point that someone suddenly takes defibrillators to the picture and things start getting good, but I'm not entirely sure that the end sum is worth the ticket price.

I was never that into the X-Files TV show. The closest I got to watching it regularly was in college when I'd hang out with a couple on Sunday nights who happened to be fans. Nevertheless, I have the distinct impression that the movie will be a slight disappointment to most of the hardcore devotees and to newcomers alike. The show often dealt with ongoing conspiracies and interconnected mysteries, it seems, and it's a little strange to revive it all five years later for what is essentially a stand-alone installment. Like Indiana Jones 4 earlier this summer, this second X-Files flick's main crime is that it doesn't really advance the lore of the series at all, and as such, you have to wonder why they went through the trouble of making it. It's sort of like they got the band back together, but they're not playing any of their hits.

There's an update of Scully and Mulder's personal relationship, I guess... oh, and you get to see Duchovony wearing a fake beard for a while. Somehow, though, I feel like a movie investigating how that beard mysteriously got approved by the art department would be more interesting than what the film is ultimately about.

In a summer full of wondrously-photographed spectacle like The Dark Knight and even Hellboy II: The Golden Army, it's easy to forget that having virtuoso talent behind the camera is usually a rare and awe-inspiring thing until you see a picture like this which is staged far more conservatively. That's not to say the flick is poorly photographed, but it probably wasn't wise of 20th Century Fox to put the film out between two flashy entries like Batman and The Mummy 3: Curse Of The Jade Scorpion (which, despite how shitty it looks, probably at least makes use of a crane every now and again).

July 18, 2008

The Dark Knight (07/18/08)

Lettergrade: A

The Dark Knight is a better movie than 2005's Batman Begins, which itself was pretty good. Even moreso than its predecessor, this picture feels like a crime drama ala Heat or The Untouchables (with the occasional dash of James Bond) in which Batman also happens to be a key factor, rather than the other way around. That's not to say it doesn't make use of a number of familiar comic book movie cliches, but director / co-writer Christopher Nolan sets it all in a gritty, semi-relatable world not too dissimilar from some of our sketchier cities of today, and that's what makes the difference.

I was talking with my sister the other day, and we realized that this is the first Batman movie in our lifetimes to be more or less a direct sequel to its predecessor. Each new flick in the 80s and 90s seemed to bring with it a completely new look and tone, and nearly as often, a new actor playing the lead. Even 1992's Batman Returns, a rare anomaly in that Michael Keaton agreed to play the role a second time, was such a departure from the first film in terms of art direction, script, and even the general quality of the world Batman exists in, that calling it a "sequel" at all doesn't seem to accurately describe what the movie is in relation to the first. The Dark Knight, not to be confused with the 2001 Martin Lawrence classic Black Knight, benefits greatly from picking up where Batman Begins left off.

Like a number of other excellent part 2s (The Godfather Part II, The Empire Stikes Back, Another Weekend At Bernie's, etc), The Dark Knight ups the ante by taking the proceedings in more of a dark, tragic direction. The criminals and mob-thugs on screen legitimately seem pretty scary, and the Joker's anarchic wave of terror through Gotham City is laced with touches that make it feel like an extreme version of something you might see on CNN. All the details are there to make it visceral and distantly plausible.

The Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher Batman movies, none of which I really like watching anymore, all fell victim to letting the bad-guys suck up all the screen time, leaving Batman himself a little underdeveloped. Although Begins avoided this problem, The Dark Knight does not. Bruce Wayne / Batman does have decisions to make in this picture, but the film keeps us largely on outside, abandoning the lengthy, moody passages from the previous flick, and more or less making Batman an agent of action rather than introspection. A similarly "outside" approach was taken with the Joker, who is unnervingly portrayed as a blank slate. You don't know how he became like he is because he keeps telling different stories about his origin. You don't know what he wants because his goal seems to change every few scenes or so, although his general approach of trying to create as much trouble as possible remains constant. The returning cast is excellent, as before, and the late Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker, despite the fact that it had been hyped into the stratosphere before the film's release, is indeed pretty mesmerizing.

One minor complaint is that much of the dialogue, particularly in the first half of the movie, either solely exists in order to advance the plot or to ham-fistedly allude to events that are going to happen later. I'm not saying that throwing in long, rambling speeches ala Quentin Tarantino would have made the movie better, but sentences that were a little more coy might have benefited the script somewhat.

There's also something a little weird about the fact that the Joker and the other bad guys can pretty much make any impossible thing happen with little to no planning. Take, for consideration, a scene early in the flick where a judge is killed while supposedly awaiting her police escort. She gets in her car shortly after starting a trial featuring suspected mob management, and then abruptly gets blown up. So... she didn't have any kind of task force around her after such a high profile case had begun? And what the hell is a wealthy judge with a huge townhouse doing parking her Mercedes on the street after taking on the mob anyway? There are several other instances where Batman foils the Joker's plans, only to realize later that he unknowingly played into some larger, more elaborate plot that the Joker apparently anticipated after clairvoyantly predicting that the first part of his plan would be undone in highly specific, virtually unpredictable way. Well, either that, or the Joker is simply a hell of a contingency planner.

Nevertheless, so much about the movie works so well that it's hard to complain about things like schlocky dialog, loose plotting, and the typically generic score co-composed by shit-maestro Hans Zimmer. The Dark Knight stands firm as one of the best pictures of the summer, and probably the year (although I may be saying something different when I get around to seeing Space Chimps).

July 8, 2008

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (7/8/08)

Lettergrade: A-

I didn't like the first Hellboy. In fact, I've tried to watch it several times now and have always been bored out of my fucking mind. I caught an advanced screening of Hellboy II: The Golden Army this week, however, and thought it is a vast improvement over the first, to say nothing of an excellent dark fantasy in its own right.

In the interim between the two Hellboys, director Guillermo del Toro made the acclaimed Pan's Labrynth which, in addition to sucking up awards like a sorority girl during Mardi Gras, won him the freedom to make his next picture pretty much as he pleased. Despite offers to direct Harry Potter 6, I Am Legend, and all other kinds of fantasy pictures, he curiously chose to continue with this series. I must say I didn't understand why until I saw how the movie expands upon and moves away from the material he was working with in the first.

The basic scenario is largely in line with what I remember from that first picture: Hellboy, the ex-pat spawn of of Satan (or something), is fated to bring to about the destruction of the Earth someday. Fortunately, until that happens he's agreed to work for the U.S. Government in a division called the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Development ("the BPRD"). Along with other colorful characters like the amphibious Abe Sapien and Hellboy's girlfriend Liz, played by Selma Blair, who can burst into flames at will (sort of like one of the guys from X-Men), the BPRD's purpose is vaguely like that of the Ghostbusters and the Men In Black: They show up when there's been some kind of paranormal disturbance and get everyone's shit in order.

This time, they're trying to stop the androgynous Prince Nuada (played by Luke Goss, although it looks a hell of a lot like Jake Busey under that make-up) from reawakening the fabled "Golden Army" and thus starting a war between the Earth's monsters and humans (in which the human's would likely get their asses handed to them). Nuada himself, looking strongly like a rejected villain from Legend or The Dark Crystal, isn't a terribly interesting bad guy, but the way in which he antagonizes Hellboy for being shunned by both the human and the supernatural worlds gives the movie a lot of unexpected poignancy. He also has a twin sister, Princess Nuala (played by Anna Walton, although I'd swear it's Calista Flockhart), who kindly informs our heroes of the details of the plot in addition to providing a love-interest for Abe. It chills me to the bone to think about a amphibious fish-man trying to make dirty love to a pasty white, anorexic tree-princess, but that's a subject for another essay.

One thing that makes Hellboy II: The Golden Compass really stand out from similar pictures these days is the heavy emphasis on guys-in-suits and puppets. It's so nice to see a scene in a movie where everyone was actually on set interacting, be they latex-clad or not. As in Pan's Labrynth, which feels more like a direct predecessor to this movie than the first Hellboy does, the creatures are unique and imaginative with a lot of personality. There's probably something deeply symbolic in how several of del Toro's creations do not have eyes where traditional beings tend to have them, but I'll be fucked if I know what it is.

The other wonderful emphasis is on elaborate stunt work and well-choreographed fight scenes. There are plenty of sequences where even though we know we're looking at a dude in a mask, he's still doing something that appears incredibly difficult and impressive. I give del Toro a lot of credit for understanding that watching a stuntman in a suit is way more effective than seeing a thousand CG monsters fighting a thousand other CG monsters... the route that most of these movies seem to take.

In fact, I think that sentiment applies to much of what I really liked about this picture. Del Toro went in a very old-school direction with pretty much every aspect of the production. So old school, in fact, that the sets, the monsters, even the lush score by Danny Elfman are brimming with unbridled reverence for the classic Ray Harryhausen pictures of eld. Only the most astute of film nerds will be able to pick up on all the references to Jason And The Argonauts and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, among others. Hellboy II: The Golden Shower's story, while imaginative, doesn't reinvent the wheel in terms of fantasy-picture plotting, but that's not what del Toro is trying to do anyway. Instead, it is an imaginative revival of that kind of filmmaking, which at the same time manages to be darkly beautiful, and in a very unique way, memorably haunting.

This summer's array of popcorn flicks promised to harken back to my movie-loving youth by producing sequels to long-dormant franchises (Indiana Jones) and offering new if underwhelming spins on tried and true material (Speed Racer and The Incredible Hulk). Leave it to a sequel to a movie I didn't even like in the first place, however, to manage to finally do what those movies could not.

July 5, 2008

Hancock (07/05/08)

Lettergrade: C

Hancock has really gotten its ass reamed out by critics. I actually sort of liked the movie myself, but will admit that the critical rimming has not been administered without just cause. The main problem is that the tone is amazingly erratic. The picture starts as something of a send-up of today's seemingly endless stream of comic-book flicks with PR guy Jason Bateman helping an unlikable, alcoholic superhero (Will Smith, playing the Superman-like title character) win affection from the irate people of Los Angeles. About mid-way through, once Hancock's initial problem has been somewhat remedied, the film moves completely away from any attempt at comedy by introducing some key twists, a bit of nifty superhero mythology of its own, and of course, the necessary elements for an action climax. I enjoyed both "parts" of the movie for different reasons (although the latter part makes for a more worthwhile experience than the first), but I don't think the two make for a terribly happy marriage overall.

The first section of the film would be utterly repugnant if anyone less naturally charismatic than Smith had been in the role. The humor depends on the audience getting a kick from seeing a traditionally iconic, universally loved figure get all sloppy drunk and abusive. While this was used to great effect in Bad Santa, the Bobcat Goldthwait classic Shakes The Clown, and the segment of Superman III where Superman, having been exposed to faulty, man-made kryptonite, acts like a super-dick to everyone, it is merely "functionally entertaining" here. Which is to say not bad but not especially noteworthy either.

There were rumors abound about how the film had been reshot, recut and rescored pretty much right up to point where Columbia Pictures had to release it, and many of them centered around how dark that leading "Superman III" segment should be. About 20 minutes in, for example, a warrant is issued for Hancock's arrest, and Bateman convinces him that it would be good for his public image to accept the consequences of his actions and do time in the slammer. The film is cut to make it look like the warrant was issued due to some property he destroyed earlier, but the film as originally shot apparently had Hancock getting busted after banging an underage girl he picked up in a bar!

Jailbait aside (and who among us hasn't been there?), when the film buckles down and ventures into more familiar superhero territory, there is a neat character arc that deals with Hancock starting to understand where he came from and what his purpose should be. This aspect of the picture appealed to me in the same way that M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable did, and the whole last part of the film and its conclusion are actually pretty cool and engaging.

The movie's crime is not that it tries to introduce satire and parody into an otherwise perfectly acceptable idea for a superhero movie, but that it does it so awkwardly. Bateman's character, for example, wants to change the world for the better and is frustrated that he cannot do so. He works to improve Hancock's public image because he sees in him great potential to do what he cannot. Nevertheless, this thematic point is played largely for its sit-com style absurdity in the first part of the movie, and then pretty much disappears during the second (along with Bateman himself, oddly), before popping back up at the end and making an attempt at being somewhat meaningful.

At the end, Hancock turns out to be a fairly decent movie, but the path it travels to get from the first scene to the last is winding and strange. I guess if nothing else, it's an example of how a highly problematic movie can get reworked into oblivion and not wind up a complete disaster.

July 3, 2008

Wanted (07/03/08)

Lettergrade: C

Wanted takes the anti-society ennui of Fight Club and mixes in the cool-ass, logic-defying style action of the Matrix trilogy. The result is a movie that's mildly fun, but largely empty. These days I don't get excited for films that are about cool shots and shit blowing up (or at least, not as much as I used to), and as such I have to rate this one as a solid "meh." I'm not sorry I saw it, necessarily, but I don't believe my life has been enriched for having bought the ticket either.

Early in the movie, we are introduced to James McAvoy, who's life sucks in the way that angsty, twenty-something movie characters' lives usually do. He hates his obnoxious boss at his monotone job, and his surprisingly attractive girlfriend is secretly banging his astonishingly unattractive friend Barry. One night at a White Hen Pantry, he meets the heavily tatooed Angelina Jolie, who says that his long-absent father was actually a super-secret assassin who was killed the other day in the line of duty. Apparently McAvoy has super-abilities too (such as being able to shoot wings off of flies and jump over tall shit, etc) that he was never aware of until now (for completely unexplored reasons).

After an intense action scene in which dozens of innocent Chicagoans are senselessly killed or injured, McAvoy is introduced to a secret organization calling itself "The Fraternity." Headed by Morgan Freeman, who gets to drop the f-bomb in one scene, they select their targets in a perfectly logical way: They translate irregularities in fabric that comes from a giant, magical loom into binary code, and then use that binary code to come up with names of people that they need to kill for the good of all mankind. Now already I know we're way past the point of all plausibility and credulity here, but I can't help but wonder what happens when names like "Bob Smith" come up. Who do they kill? All of them? Including the Bob Smith who presumably runs the Bob Smith Used Toyota Dealership in La Crescenta? I can't imagine that his death would benefit mankind. In fact, with the great deals on used Toyota Camries that Bob Smith regularly offers, I'd imagine quite the opposite would be true. That aside, though, the movie also claims that the Fraternity has been doing this for "a thousand years." Um... how long has binary code been around for?

Anyway, McAvoy begins an intense training regimen, which largely consists of people beating the living fuck out of him, followed by no actual training. Fortunately, he's able to learn everything he needs to know about being a super-assassin in the course of a six-minute montage, and soon he's off killing people on his own. There are a number of big plot twists thereafter which I will not reveal, but suffice to say that it shatters everything McAvoy thought he knew about the world... yadda, yadda, etc.

Although I had a number of problems with the movie, the big one is that McAvoy, while charismatic, seems to only be interested in joining the Fraternity for shallow reasons... largely because it seems like a cool, self-empowering thing to do. As the movie goes on, avenging his father's death becomes vaguely more important to him, but I wondered if I'd feel same way seeing as this is a father he didn't know, and in fact, never met. I'm not saying that it wouldn't strike an emotional chord with me to be told what McAvoy is told early in the flick, but when it comes down to it, we are talking about a virtual stranger who had zero presence in his life and never made any attempt to be in touch with him.

Aside from the fact that the assassins are taking their orders from fucking cloth, my other main beef is the sheer recklessness on display toward the movie's innocent bystanders. There is an excellent sequence on a commuter train about 2/3rds of the way through the movie, for example, which results in the train skidding off the rails and ultimately plummeting to the rocky canyon below. McAvoy and Jolie make it out alright, but I can't imagine anyone else survived. As my buddy Chris recently pointed out, it's one thing if a terrorist or something causes all that indiscriminate death, but when the good guy is responsible for it and there's no kind of acknowledgment or remorse, it's just kind of fucked up.

Similarly, the big climax of the movie has McAvoy using his super-spy training to kill a warehouse full of people in order to get to the corrupt head of a supposedly good organization. I had conflicting feelings about that too, as all the people who are mowed down seem to basically think that they are good guys doing the right thing.

The movie ultimately ends on something of a glib note, suggesting that Russian director Timur Bekmambetov was more interested in making a picture where cool shit happens than he was in telling a story with any greater meaning. Now that he's proven he can make a good action movie in English, he should probably focus on trying to make one that actually tries to mean something by the end.