May 30, 2009

Up (05/30/09)

Lettergrade: C

Pixar's Up has been getting a lot of four-star reviews. If we were talking only about the film's first 10 minutes - which beautifully encompass Carl's meeting, courtship and marriage to Elle (up to and including her passing) - I would agree completely: They're as poignant as any sequence Pixar has done previously. Unfortunately, though, those stellar 10 minutes are followed by a very strange movie which I must say I didn't much like. Mostly because of a bizarre lack of focus or cohesiveness: It's just too random and weird.

After Elle is gone, Carl, a life-long balloon salesman, is having trouble adapting to life. He's about to be sent to a retirement home courtesy of a court order, and so he decides to do the only logical thing: He ties enough balloons to his house so that he can fly it and all his possessions off to South America in order to fulfill his wife's childhood dream of living on a large cliff-face next to a majestic waterfall. Okaaaaay, but then things get strange: They make it to South America easily enough, but once they get there, they need to walk the remaining several miles with the still-floating house tethered to their bodies. Meanwhile, they're being chased by vicious dogs who all wear robotic collars which allow them to speak English to each other. Meanwhile still, there's a very old adventurer, resembling Ted Turner but voiced by Christopher Plummer, living out in the jungle trying to accomplish a particular mission which he feels will revitalize his credibility. Um... Carl and Elle watched his news reels when they were kids... and the press notes say that Carl is 78 now. How old is Charles Muntz supposed to be, exactly? And why has he been living in South America for the last 60 some years on his own? Why would he want to?

Around the time the talking dogs showed up I found myself wondering just what the frig this movie was supposed to be about. Now that I've made it to the end and have had time to think about it, I still don't know. There are too many comic subplots which seem to be there for laughs and no other reason. It's like they had a bunch of ideas they really liked sitting around and they finally found a movie to park them all in. Maybe if they had done a scene where Carl drops a bunch of acid before the balloons lift his house off its foundation, the rest of the movie might be more explainable in a Wizard Of Oz kind of way.

As is, I can't help but give the film a very dark reading: Carl is flying his house off on a trip that will probably kill him, in order to park his home next to a waterfall where he will essentially starve and die. That's fine to do a story like that (hey, it's what Ice Age was about), but it is diluted with so much comic relief that this aspect of the story seems barely present in the finished film. And if Carl had opened the book that Elle gave him earlier in the flick, wouldn't most of the movie have been avoided? In the film's second half, he's remarkably spry for a 78 year old, running up the side of dirigibles, and swinging on ropes through the air.

"But John," I can hear some of you asking, " What do you expect, it's a goddamn cartoon!" Yes, but this is Pixar, creator of masterworks like Toy Story 2 and Ratatouille, meaning that it should probably be held to a higher standard, which I am. The most successful of their movies exploit a simple premise well: "when people are not around, toys have a life of their own", "a rat becomes an expert chef at a famous Parisian restaurant", etc. The less successful are more like Cars, which takes place in an alternate reality that is exactly like Earth as we know it, but the with autos existing in the place of humans. The premise is just so funky and unrelatable that it somewhat loses contact with reality. Or at least, it loses contact with me, which clearly hasn't hurt their business in the short term, but might in the long run if they keep making fluff like this and I finally wise up and stop buying a ticket to see it. At times, Up feels like a semi remake of Scent Of A Woman and Into The Wild with a dash or two of Bad Santa thrown in whenever the fat fuck kid does something.

I guess it is entertaining, but apart from the scenes with Elle at the beginning, the movie is more like a series of ideas rather than a story. In retrospect, I'm a little annoyed that they put such a great opening sequence in a movie that has so little else going for it. That's Dreamworks Animation type shit... Shrek, Madacascar, Monsters Vs. Aliens... Actually, scratch that: More recent DW efforts like Kung Fu Panda have had a bit more of a point. A familiar point that has been done before, yes, but at least it has one. Maybe there's something in Up about not living in the past and choosing to let go and move on when a certain segment of your life is over, but frankly I feel that's big stretch to impose some meaning onto a movie that doesn't seem to be interested in having any.

May 19, 2009

Angels & Demons (5/19/2009)

Lettergrade: C

I used to think that the National Treasure movies were really stupid, but that was until I saw 2006's The Da Vinci Code and realized how much worse it could really be. Perhaps I was holding it to a higher standard because the latter was based on a best-selling book and starred Tom Hanks (as opposed to a more bald-faced popcorn flick produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and starring world-class shit magnet Nicolas Cage). But now that I think of it, I don't know of anyone who has read Dan Brown's novels who hasn't said something to the effect of "there are some clever ideas in there, but the writing is AWFUL!" In any case, Angels & Demons, the sequel to Da Vinci, is probably a better film than its predecessor. Although it is effective as a religioso crime-thriller, I found it off-putting for similar reasons.

Here's the plot: The previous Pope has died, and the Catholic church is in the interim period where they're about to appoint a new Pope. Someone has kidnapped four Cardinals, who are seen as being the top candidates for the position. The bad guys promise to kill one would-be Pope an hour -- all along something called the "Trail of Light," which was made up of meeting places of the Illuminati, a secret organization devoted to science that has a centuries-old beef with the Catholic church (or something like that). Since so little is known about the Illuminati, no one could possibly begin to know how to find this trail. No one, that is, except ROBERT LANGON!

Hanks portrays ace "symbologist" Langon as a smug know-it-all who may or may not be aware of what a condensing prick he comes off as to pretty much everyone he interacts with in the movie. My big problem -- and this is more of a writing / directing thing -- is that he and his comely female sidekick (the stunning Ayelet Zurer) will begin to decode a mystery, and before you even start to have any idea what they're talking about, they've arrived at the answer, and are racing off toward it. It's like they're flooding you with factoids in the interest of showing off how well the screenwriters can use Wikipedia.

After the bad guys run out of Cardinals, their plan is to detonate an anti-matter bomb (don't ask) at midnight, wiping out virtually all of Vatican City. And so... our heroes basically need to run around recreating the storyline from Die Hard With A Vengence, but with a lot of Catholic shit and art history mixed in. Without giving anything away, the last part of the movie attempts a big God vs. Science debate. I guess they thought it'd be powerful or something. The movie does work as an above average thriller, however, and it is masterful at evoking the right amount of tension when needed.

The other big problem I would point out to you is this: The evil doers are going to a lot of trouble to kill these potential Popes at places of historical (albeit secret) significance, but then they're going to blow up everything anyway. The bodies would never have been found had Robert Langdon not stumbled into the mix, so what was the point? It is supposed to be an intellectual game of cat-and-mouse, but who would the mastermind be matching wits with had someone not randomly decided to bring in Langdon? Another annoying thing is that Langdon seems to have a gift for consistently showing up right at the exact moment a Cardinal is about to be killed. He also has a habit of dramatically shouting out the name of something that's clearly visible to everyone on screen and to the audience: "It's a pentagram!" Shades of Dan Brown's influence?

The flick was made by Ron Howard, whose pictures always have a highly professional sheen, but often lack any personality or soul. The bludgeoning score was composed by Hans Zimmer, whose music I would describe the exact same way. The two are perfectly suited to work with each other. Both turn in well-made, middle-of-road work. It is like inoffensive adult contemporary jazz, really: It's not bad, but it's not especially good ether.

My review of National Treasure 2: Book Of Secrets

My review of Frost/Nixon

May 7, 2009

Star Trek (05/07/09)

Lettergrade: B-

I'm not really a hardcore Trek fanatic, but I've seen all 10 of the features that were made prior to this one. I must admit that I thought at least half of them were, well, kinda shitty. The 4 or 5 good ones understood that while it is important not to weigh the audience down with with a lot of bullshit cumbersome Trek lore, there is also a lot of satisfaction to be had from picking up on threads from the previous episodes and letting them play out as part of a continuous story-line.

J.J. Abrams' Star Trek movie understands this perfectly. Despite all the ads which proclaim that it is "not your father's Star Trek," I was actually surprised (and satisfied) by how much the movie really has in common with the original six Shatner flicks, right down to the fact that -- unlike the less successful Next Generation movies which followed -- it is largely enjoyable, well-written, and reasonably exciting.

Although a Trek reboot featuring a young Kirk and Spock had been rumored since the late 80s, the finished movie probably owes its existence to the success of Batman Begins four years ago more than anything else. Trek's approach is actually more like that of Bryan Singer's Superman Returns in that it pays heavy homage to the earlier films in the series (In this case, Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan, which pretty much all the later films have drawn inspiration from). Unlike Singer, though, Abrams was smart enough to give the picture a clear, new identity, and not let his hard-on for the earlier flicks get in the way of making this one appealing to people outside of the fan base. The story even has a built-in device which signals that this Star Trek exists in a slightly different reality than the other Trek incarnations. I like that: The Shatner adventures are what they are, but the sequels that are made to this movie will be doing their own thing, which is how it should be.

Chris Pine takes over the Shatner role, and he is fantastic. Cocky, self-assured, womanzing... he simply feels right at home in the part. Same goes for Karl Urban, who is excellent as Dr. McCoy and Zachary Quinto, who takes over the role of the younger Spock (also played by Leonard Nimoy, who reprises the character later in the film). All in all, the film is fantastically well-cast. I'm glad they went for actors they felt would do well in the parts, rather than people who resembled the originals (which was another open ditch that Superman Returns drove right into).

The bad guy in this one is Nero, a genetically enhanced Romulan from the future, who plans to dominate the galaxy by inventing a popular line of self-titled CD burning software, and forcing it come pre-installed on all Windows operating systems. It's sort of a thankless role, but Eric Bana fills it ably.

I won't say much else, but the one thing that bothered me a bit was that a lot of alien species that are encountered in the movie look really stupid. Consider an early scene where Pine tries to pick up the chick playing Uhura in a space bar. There's an alien sitting between them... I don't know if he was a dude in a mask or a computer creation or what, but whomever was responsible for him should be ashamed by how cheap and crappy the end result looks. This galaxy is populated by several other discount aliens as well, but fortunately the story works to the point where they're a mild distraction rather than anything else. And hey, the original series had a lot of crappy looking creatures as well, so maybe it's all part of the homage?

I've never been able to make it through an episode of the original Shatner series from the 60s. I've enjoyed episodes of the Next Generation and Deep Space Nine series whenever I've happened to catch them, but while I've tried to watch episodes of Voyager and Enterprise, the sheer dullness of those shows usually put me to sleep within minutes. The producer responsible for all those series (except the original) was Rick Berman. The man was a serious cancer on the franchise, and the fact that he has nothing to do with this movie whatsoever was my first indication that it had a fighting chance of being good.

Still, though, I think Paramount Pictures is thinking that this film will have more mass appeal than it probably will. Despite the fact that it is an entertaining, exciting, well-made movie, Star Trek is still on the marquee, and for many people I know, women especially, that's the deal-breaker. I don't know if it's the best movie in the series, but it's a good one, and that's more than you could say for any other Trek project in recent history.

May 1, 2009

Wolverine (05/01/09)

Lettergrade: C+

I will promise you this: You will experience more pain than any man can possibly endure! But you will have your revenge.

There's nothing especially inspired about Wolverine. Deep down, I know it's a fairly average movie - more than likely, a bad one - with more than its share of cheese-ball lines in addition to a couple truly awful scenes. And yet I sort of enjoyed it. I enjoyed the three X-Men movies that preceded this spin-off / prequel as well, even the much reviled X-Men 3: The Last Stand, although many of my friends who are well versed in the series lore convulse and spit bile whenever its name is uttered.

I myself only know the intriguing X-Men universe from the movies: I've never read any of the comics, and I've never caught a single episode of the cartoon show. Because I haven't seen these characters and story lines handled better than the movies have handled them, I don't have a sense of the opportunities they're passing up. Which is, perhaps, why I haven't disliked these last two flicks the way the general fanbase seems to.

When it was first announced, Wolverine was described as being an edgy independent-style movie. The end result is more of a dumb visual effects extravaganza, and crappy effects at that. The movie begins in the 1800s with two mutant kids going on the run after a violent domestic dispute that is completely incomprehensible. The opening credit montage shows that they grew into Hugh Jackman, the Wolverine we know and love, and Liev Schriber, who plays Wolverine's even white-trashier half brother Victor Creed (aka Sabertooth). Wasn't there a Sabertooth in the first X-Men movie 9 years ago played by a different guy who looked totally different? Sure, but what the hell.

They participate in every major US war, which they seem to enjoy as they do not age and cannot be killed. Eventually we land in the 70s where General Stryker (played by Brian Cox in 2003's X-Men 2 and by Robert Hayes in the 1980 classic Airplane!) is assembling a crack commando squad made up of mutants to go on special assignments. The new dude who plays Stryker is one of the most conspicuously bad parts of the movie, bringing to the role all the charisma of a pack of life-savers.

Anyway, on one of the assignments, Wolverine realizes that Creed has become too blood-thirsty for his own good. Although this revelation is motivated by a fairly insignificant incident, he decides to walk away, retreating into a life of quiet, non-violent solitude. What brings Wolverine and Creed together again is a crude revenge story, which also incorporates Wolverine allowing Stryker to inject his body with this super-cool liquid metal from space, coating his bone claws in indestructible steel. This is a moment that has been made into a huge deal by the other X-movies. When it finally happens, it is disappointing to see that it only took about 5 minutes, and seemed to be more akin to having a cavity filled.

There are some good action bits in the movie, which is why I sort of recommend it. The most pleasurable parts for me were the other cool mutants that Wolverine encounters in the middle of the flick while on his quest to locate Creed. Again, however, most of my friends who are better in tune with the comics bitch and moan that some of these great characters are only given what amounts to extended cameos. The climax of the movie in particular is shoddy. The face-off with fan favorite "Deadpool" reminded me of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade games that I used to love as a kid, only without the same dramatic heft.

So why did I kind of like this movie? I don't know. I like the character of Wolverine and think that Jackman is great in the part. Very little else about the movie works. It's not bad, as much as it's kinda lame. I guess I bought the ticket expecting that, and I wasn't pissed off when the flick delivered exactly what I thought it would.