Wednesday, March 25, 2009
There are times when Knowing feels incredibly inauthentic, but admittedly, I am not usually interested in authenticity when I head out to the theater to watch a sci-fi movie. There are times when the capable Rose Byrne and Nicolas Cage cannot make their dialogue believable - make me believe they believe what they are saying. But Knowing doesn't rise and fall with its characters. This is a movie of grand ambition and atmosphere. The air of dread that director Alex Proyas (director of The Crow and the excellent Dark City) creates is what carries the movie to its arm rest clutching suspense thrill heights and popcorn thrills. There's more to Knowing than its entertainment. It raises good questions about if it is better to know your fate or, in contrast, if ignorance is bliss. On a thematic scale, you can place Knowing along with M. Night Shylaman's Signs. Each shows a once religious man turning his back from faith after the loss of a wife. It's only when a strangely complicated holy plan begins to reveal itself that Mel Gibson in Signs and Nicolas Cage in Knowing begin to think otherwise. Knowing is a capable big idea thriller, but doesn't elevate itself to the point of greatness. Proyas' skill cannot hide the screenplay's shortcomings.
"Love and hate and 'Knowing' -- or, do wings have angels?" by Roger Ebert 3/22/09
"Knowing" Review by Roger Ebert
"Knowing" Review by Joe Neumaier of NY Daily News 3/19/09
Saturday, March 21, 2009
There's much disparaging about Duplicity being difficult to follow and there being one twist too many, but I disagree. Trying to keep up with the plot is half the fun of con movies. Who knows what when and who can trust who is more than the other half. Add the palpable chemistry between stars Julia Roberts and Clive Owen first put to use as one of the bickering cheating couples in Closer, and you have quite the recipe for a fun movie. Writer-director Tony Gilroy has a lot of credit in the fan bank with me after his great Michael Clayton, and he only adds to it with this film. Duplicity is a slick, lean, breezy film adding the unique romance to the genre with wonderful dialogue and plotting. Even when I figured it out, I hadn't figured it out. But if a twist is the only thing you're after, you'll be surprised that the acting and directing are up to snuff as well. There's a great supporting cast that utilizes deft performances from no-name character actors and Paul Giammati and Tom Wilkinson (both past Oscar nominees) in small, but fun roles. Duplicity is the fun kind of movie that's fun to take off the DVD shelf every other month or so that also delights each time out.
Thursday, March 19, 2009
I finally saw the beginning of my beloved Mad Max franchise. I have to say, I'm a little disappointed. All the superior elements of the franchise are there: a brooding Mel Gibson, spectacular CGI-less car stunts, crazy (CRAZY) villains, and notable cinematography and style. The problem is that all these elements aren't perfected until The Road Warrior. Mel Gibson, despite of all his charisma, shows his lack of experience. The stunts are still there, but they're certainly less necessary. When the cars and/or motorcycles aren't driving across the endless asphalt, there isn't a whole lot to love in Mad Max. There are some very memorable shots in the movie, but these shots only punctuate the droll interlude between them. Thank goodness for Hugh Keays-Byrne's work as Toecutter, the psychotic leader or a motorcycle gang out for revenge after their even crazier former compadre is killed in the film's opening car chase. Toecutter is the snarling, edgy precursor to The Might Wez and Lord Humungous (The Road Warrior) and Master Blaster (MM: Beyond Thunderdome) of subsequent films. While he feels a bit out of place in Mad Max, it's clear writer/director George Miller is honing his world and style here. It's a good film with great moments, but it pales in comparison to its sequels. A great finish to a lackluster beginning.
Push isn't a necessary addition to the superhero genre, but it is a nice diversion. It looks great with it's bleached tones and vibrant colors. Some of the action pieces are well-photographed and staged (chiefly a short chase in a Hong Kong market). The basis of the plot seems so simple, but screenwriter David Bourla throws in a needlessly convoluted device to catapult the film through its climax. Like a time travel movie, it's hard to follow the movie through each step of its paces. When it ends, it's hard to tell if the whole thing works because you're still trying to figure out if the device works and, more importantly, if it was necessary at all. What Bourla gets right is his lingo. Each super-powered human type gets its own term ("mover", "sniffer", "watcher", etc.) that actually adds a unique aspect to the film. Chris Evans plays the lead and doesn't add anything special, but does prove that his solid work in Sunshine wasn't a fluke. He's not an A-list talent, but he fills this type of role just fine. Dakota Fanning, moving into teenage roles, is not a unique talent anymore. She's a fine actress, but this role isn't tailored for her skills. She's doesn't have the dry wit to pull off the attitude or her dialogue. But she's scores above Camille Bell, the beauty playing the question mark of the film. She's unquestionably beautiful, but she has all the charisma of a mannequin. Djimon Hounsou's talents are also wasted as the head villain. All in all, Push is pretty good; but is only notable for how good it could have been.
Underworld: Rise of the Lycans is nothing special and doesn't really have anything working for it other than its fanbase and mythology from the previous two films of the franchise. I count myself as a part of that fanbase, and on that basis, I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. If you don't give more than a hoot about any of the Underworld movies, you can skip Underworld:ROTL with nary a regret. I enjoyed seeing Michael Sheen reprise his role as Lucian and fight Billy Nighy (though Nighy has abandoned all restraint he may have possessed). The two actors have fun, even when saying the preposterous dialogue. All three Underworld films share a screenwriter, but something is lost when the dialogue is put back into the Medievalish language. Rhona Mitra is a rare beauty, but she cannot fill the heroine role the way Kate Beckinsale does in the first two films. Kevin Grevioux, one of the orginators of the franchise with a strangely deep voice and muscled physique, reprises his Underworld role. However, his talent is sorely lacking and more apparent with a larger role in this installment of the franchise. In the end, the film is a fun diversion on a Friday night and a welcome pleasure for fans who like their vampire films to take themselves seriously without actually being serious. Are there anymore of us out there?
Sunday, March 8, 2009
I could have sworn that I wrote a review for Leatherheads last April, but I can't find it anywhere. That makes it harder to recant my old star rating. I imagine the gist of the review would have read something like this: An throwback to old school screwball comedies that doesn't have enough laughs to cover up its self-concious stlye." Two stars (**) would have followed.
I purchased the movie for my mom's birthday present (along with a Snuggie) and she wanted to watch it that night. It being her birthday, I agreed while fully expecting to be unamused by the film again. The movie, for me, benefited from a second viewing. It's not a classic or a football lover's dream movie, but for what it lacks in original hilarity, it makes up with its considerable charm. It is self-concious in its style, and not all the comedy bits work, but there was far more to like than I remembered. Clooney hams well. John Krasinki was more natural than I remembered. And Renee Zellweger (!), that oft-talked-about cinematic creation is right at home with this style of movie. She's not a terrific actress, but she is terrific in this kind of specifically-mannered role. Not too many actresses can pull off the look and the talk of a 1920's dame, but Zellweger can.
About a half hour into Watchmen, as the rude and crude Comedian was being laid to rest with Simon and Garfunkel's "The Sounds of Silence" playing sweetly in the background I thought to myself, "Oh, no. This is self-important pretentious posturing." Then, fairly, I thought back to the source graphic novel - the comic geek's War and Peace if you will. "Was that self-important pretentious posturing as well?"
The truth is, these concerns quickly subsided as I again surrendered myself to the story and, in this oddest of cases for this comic geek. the incredibly reverent storytelling. Watchmen, the graphic novel and the film, are self-important pieces of fiction stemming from the arrogance of the brillant weirdo Alan Moore. But, as anyone who really works through the deconstruction of the superhero myth that Alan Moore laid out 20+ years ago, it is objectively important. A social commentary, epically told superhero story with heroes afflicted with the human condition in all its debilitating glory.
Rorshach, easily my favorite character in both mediums, is a psychopathic sleuth with a brutal, uncompromising sense of justice. He's a jarring character, an socially inept weirdo in a costume who is also a mentally and emotionally scarred deviant working outside the law. On the page, his words are put in scratchy, sketchy balloons and we as readers are left to imagine what sort of unusual voice would deliver such oddly drawn speech patterns. And perhaps that's where the gift of the film begins. Jackie Earle Haley, that newly rediscovered talent from the 70s, was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 2006 for his work in Little Children. I thought the whole performance was overrated. After seeing his work as Rorshach, I reconsider. You see, his characters, although both scarred social outcasts, are on opposite ends of the performance spectrum. His brutality, his growl, his stiff anger as Rorshach is the foil for his Little Children's character's weakness, sadness, and quiet anger. And that growl(!), I am more than pleased to say, is exactly how I imagined Rorshach would sound even if it never occurred to me until I heard Haley's first words in the trailer.
But each of these performers in the movie playing these characters firmly placed in my memory is for better or for worse the perfect person to play their part (save maybe Carla Gugino as Sally Jupiter, playing it campy). I say for better or for worse because naturally some of these characters work better on the page than on the screen. Laurie Jupiter (aka Silk Spekter II), is one of those characters. And I won't fault Malin Akerman for any of it, though many reviews I have read turn quickly on her. She fits the part to a tee and executes it wholley reverently. But something about Laurie fits within comic panels better than the confines of the silver screen. As the naive and sweetly sexy ingenue heroine acting as knowing commentary on the comic book medium, Laurie Jupiter works. But that role in a film, that medium where we haven't seen that obligatory gal in spandex to the same effect, the character seems an odd fit. And to see her and her mother as the transition from the Golden Age to whatever the geeks are calling this age makes eerie sense in the comics and very little on film where the Golden Age has all but been ignored completely.
Kudos to Patrick Wilson, Haley, Billy Crudup, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and Matthew Goode for their insight into bringing the pages and characters to life. Each is an uncanny fit for their character counterparts and whomever cast this film has to be pat on the back. Haley and Crudup are the standouts receiving all scant critical praise, and deservedly so. Crudup, in particular, delivers a performance of tremendous subtlety and restraint (albeit through a CGI avatar). His character is more than a comment on superheroes. Dr. Manhattan is a comment on religion and on God seen through a glass darkly. The insights, while not my own on this subject, are fascinating and bracing. It's a difficult character to bring to life, but Crudup and Snyder's team of special effects wizards more than conquer the challenge. Crudup's Dr. Manhattan, perhaps even more so than in his graphic novel incarnation, is an indelible film creation.
Zach Snyder and his screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse are aware of how to tell the story in this medium. The unnecessary parts of the graphic novel (or, for the fanboys who just gasped at the hint of anything in Watchmen being unnecessary, "medium-specific") are left out and the good stuff is left in. The big change to the ending pleased me the most. The crux of the graphic novel is perfect for that medium - a ugly monster spelling possible doom for the world and our heroes. But that doesn't work on the big screen where even the most outlandish of villains (I'm looking at you, Willem Dafoe as Green Goblin, and you, Colin Farrell as Bullseye) are more real than what is depicted in the last fourth of the graphic novel. So, bravo for the change. There's the fact that it is minor yet still makes the whole calamity at end actually work. The Black Freighter allergorical interludes and newstand gang on that iconic corner are largely absent from the big screen version. Good. These were my least favorite parts of the graphic novel and have no place in the big screen story. After all, we're watching the story of the Watchmen and there's enough of that story to adequately fill its runtime and more.
I like Zach Snyder. With Dawn of the Dead and now Watchmen, he has proven to be a visually savvy storyteller with a leaning towards the sensational. But anyone who has seen 300, fans and non-fans alike, can tell you he knows nothing of subtlety. His fetishizing of slo-motion and violence in 300 isn't at full-throttle in Watchmen, but he certainly isn't afraid to push the limits. The violence is brutal and graphic, but he eases up on his slo-mo habit enough to keep Watchmen watchable.
I was worried after I finished reading Watchmen for the first time last Spring. "How can they make this movie? No one will want to see it?" I say this knowing that, like me, there were leagues of fanboys frothing at the mouth at the mere prospect of a big screen adaptation. The "no one" in question is the general public, the ones who go to see the Spider-man, Batman, or (Heaven forbid) the Fantastic Four movies but more than likely would not care to see their heroes deconstructed. There was talk of this public being ready for a movie like Watchmen after the success of The Dark Knight, but I knew and you will know that this is a hasty comparison. Bruce Wayne as Batman is haunted and conflicted, but he is not the deranged Rorshach. If you could love the Joker (and some of us really did), then maybe you'd like Rorshach, but not as hero. In the end of the Dark Knight, after all the darkness and despair, Batman rides off as the "hero" in every sense of the word. In Watchmen, "hero" takes on its own meaning and the term "anti-hero" doesn't fully capture the complexity of its characters. Watchmen is not The Dark Knight, and I expect to see a sharp drop off in box office after all the marketing hoopla and hype dies down and that general public tells their general public pals it wasn't what they wanted.
This calls into question the audience. Who is this movie for? Zach Snyder has said that the movie is for fans first. I believe him. An editor for Rottentomatoes.com, after being told by another reviewer that non-fans won't be able to follow the epic story and mythology, said something along the lines that they, like she, won't care to. That's probably the case. So, what do we have? We have Warner Brothers thinking a $150 million dollar (reportedly) production budget (along with anywhere from 20-35+ million dollars for marketing) for a film taken from a cult comic book with critical acclaim will appeal to its targeting ticket paying audience. And they're wrong. The movie is good for me. I love the movie. And Warner Brothers will likely make enough money through box office receipts and DVD sales and countless special editions to make a profit. But in today's Hollywood, making $100 million dollars domestically isn't enough. Time will tell if Watchmen is viewed as a success for Warner Brothers. My question is what happens when they want to make something faithfully for us fanboys next time? I don't think it'll happen so easily (a joke if you consider Watchmen's 20 year production hell).
Let's just say for now, for me, I love it. I got chills several times. The kind where you see something imagined realized for the first time. And that's a special feeling Watchmen offers me and my geek brethren that we might have to wait another 20to feel again. Watchmen has always been something you finish with your emotions deflated and exhausted and your head spinning around the implications of it ending. Hopefully, not every one will leave the theater talking about what's in the movie and what isn't or what they wish it would have been like, but rather discussing that ending. After all the hoopla and hype are gone, that ending resonates over even the harshest of critics.
Joe Morgenstern Wall Street Journal Watchmen Review 3/6/09
Roger Ebert Watchmen Review 3/4/09
Box Office Mojo Weekend Report 3/8/09
Tuesday, March 3, 2009
When the superhero myth is broken down, it seems as though it is often to the detriment of the heroes themselves ala Watchmen (though that is a true literary marvel). They are given the basest of desires, insanity, doubt, and other human weaknesses. Mystery Men essentially takes that conceit and turns it on its ear for the comedic betterment of its genre and audience.
I can't say that I would have enjoyed Mystery Men as much if I wasn't already a comicbook enthusiast (aka geek). The fun of the movie is knowing how these characters and world are supposed to look and then seeing it through its funhouse of mirrors. Its not an artifact of comedic or cinematic genius, but it is perhaps a rarely well-told underdog story for grownups who still read about men in tights.
These characters are funny and unique and its their interactions (often in their favorite little diner) that make the movie worthwhile. Many of jokes in the movie are one-note, such as the Disco Boy henchmen, but it was that sort of lunacy that endeared the film to me. As long as I laugh, I won't argue with how you got me to.
There's nothing groundbreaking here. The jokes are broad enough that you don't have to be a fanboy to get them, but it helps if you are. For gravitas and groundbreaking, I'll wait for the fast-approaching Watchmen film adaptation. For a fun ride while I wait, Mystery Men does just fine.
It's hard to praise the third installment of The Mad Max Franchise, because it is essentially a retread of its own now familiar territory. Mad Max is a great character and anti-hero and his journey to stay alive without giving too much of himself to others is an intriguing one. I've read that before starting to plot out The Road Warrior, writer-director George Miller immersed himself in old Samurai and western films. Mad Max certainly fits within those forebearers' walls. In Mad Max Beyond the Thunderdome, he is even briefly referred to as the "Man with No Name," a not so subtle shout out to Clint Eastwood iconic character in Sergio Leone films.
But Mad Max places it's anti-hero in an original backdrop - a post-apocalyptic, gasoline and morally starved Australia whose inhabitants have taken to dressing like punks and renaissance fair rejects.
It's an intriguing setting for action, and it seems that, above all, that is the chief component of the Mad Max series.
When Max is thrust into the gladiatorial Thunderdome of the title, it's a sensational set piece - strange because it is used only once and because it echoes the poorly conceived gauntlets of the syndicated 90s American Gladiator show. Then, echoing the amazing final action set piece of The Road Warrior, director Miller sets the reluctant Max driving away from a horde of baddies on his tail. It's a bit too familiar, but still finishes in grand fashion.
Thunderdome features unique aspects, too. Tina Turner (?!) as the head miscreant rivals Lord Humungous for spiteful power. A little person using a masked brute as his vehicle/bodyguard who starts the film as a odd bully grows to be the more valuable of supporting characters. But most important and entertaining of the new additions is a group of Lord of the Flies/Lost Boys tribal kids who think Max is the one prophesied to take them to their own Promised Land. The scenes with the kids and Max eerily echoes the introduction of the Lost Boys in Hook to the point that my brother was blindly shouting "Rufio" over the action onscreen.
As I said earlier, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome isn't anything superbly new or exotic when compared to its prequels, but it is supremely entertaining and opens the Max's world to let more imagination in. And though Thunderdome is softer than its predecessors, it is dark and odd enough to rightfully be claimed a part of the Mad Max franchise.
I caught up with this 80s hit this weekend and half enjoyed it. It has some genuine scares. Those little delinquents with bad skin problems are pretty mischievous (what with their murder and vandalism). I think there's a good horror film there, but old mister Speilberg and Joe Dante (with ole Chris Columbus) decide to place the mayhem in Mayberry on Christmas. All scares and frights are dulled by the Norman Rockwell landscape and small town hijinks. Gizmo himself is a fun creation and when the Gremlins, his offspring, are introduced, it's strange and frightening enough to witness. It's when the Gremlins take to smoking a drinking and laughing incessantly in the town tavern that they lose whatever lurid allure that they once had. They're lunch-box villains with bad attitudes. It doesn't help that the human hero played by Zach Galligan has less charisma than his puppet co-stars. It's nice that Columbus and gang nod to their genre influences (homages to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, etc.), but there's not much to take this above a kitch classic.
There are few times that I will intentionally sit down to watch what I assume is a bad movie. Most of those times stem from the weird fascination with Hollywood disasters - what possessed these people to make these movies at these times? Judge Dredd seemed like just such a disaster, so sitting down to watch it last Saturday (with a sore throat and achy limbs) was an accepted diversion.
It turns out Judge Dredd isn't so bad. It is bad. It is a disaster. But it's not the train wreck that I had hoped for. It clear that Hollywood had inserted its formula in place - take the hero, add a beautiful babe with moxie, add a wise-cracking shlub, and let a dramatic actor run amuck through the film as the villain. Judge Dredd has an interesting central conceit - what if there were citizens acting as the enforcers, judges, and juries on our streets? Put that conceit in a dire and drab post-apocalyptic city and you have a possibility for an intriguing film even when Sly Stallone is your hero.
Instead, the filmmakers go for the faux-blockbuster punch of action and comedy (however slight). Rob Schneider offers the comedic (?) relief, and Diane Lane is the beautiful babe with moxie whose loyalty shows Dredd that there's more to life than the law he had based his life on. Lane shows none of the nuance or subtlety she showed in her Oscar-nominated turn in Unfaithful, though I'll place the blame on the screenwriters and director here.
Remember in the 90's when stars would take roles as villains so they could crazy-ham-it-up and chew the scenery in ways they'd never get away with as the heroes. I'm thinking John Travolta in Broken Arrow/Face Off/Battlefield Earth. Well, take Armand Assante (?!) and give him free reign and you have the worst part of Judge Dredd. As Rico (!?), Assante had never met a scene that didn't need a bit more "pizzazz".
This even distracts from the always wooden Stallone who might actually have been the best example of casting for this film. He looks the part, he grunts the part, now if we could just make the part worth playing...And if we could make the super-Judges plot make sense at all. What exactly is the nefarious councilman's end goal? To make the best Judges ever? Not so nefarious.