Saturday, May 2, 2009

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

This movie made me: Kinda Pissed


I think we can all admit that the X-Men franchise took a big step backwards with X-Men: The Last Stand. That retreat continues with X-Men Origins: Wolverine, where Hugh Jackman once again finds himself as the moody antihero surrounded by clich├ęs, explosions, and a whole lotta nuttin’.

Logan (Jackman) and Victor (Liev Schreiber) are two seemingly ageless brothers fighting in every war they can get their hands on. Both of them are blessed (cursed?) with unusual powers – including the bony claws that extend from Logan’s hands. Soon they are drafted into a ragtag bunch of mutant fighters, led by Colonel Stryker (Danny Huston.) But that life doesn’t appeal to Logan, so he takes off to life in isolation with his true love (Lynn Collins.) But Logan’s is a power that can’t be ignored, and those who want to rein him in will stop at nothing to get him back.

When someone shouts “NOOOO!” while the camera takes off into the air every ten minutes, you know you’re veering more into The Last Stand than X2. The filmmakers throw as much as they can at Wolverine without wasting time for explanations or anything. Even when he is finally injected with the adamantium coating (which takes too long to get to, by the way), we’re not even really sure why he did it. More than once, he simply glares at someone and asks, “Why?” The answer is always, “Because it’s a movie! That’s how it’s supposed to happen!”

We get one glimpse of a shiny rock early in the movie, and about a half hour later Stryker’s been able to manufacture enough adamantium to coat an entire skeletal system. No explanation other than, “You remember that rock? Well I found more.” The script zips from here to there, never quite deciding what it wants to be. It starts off as a comic (albeit unfunny one) adventure about a bunch of quirky mutants. Five minutes later, it changes its mind and morphs into a “someone’s-hunting-down-mutants” thriller. Five minutes later… let’s make it a revenge movie instead.

It’s to Jackman’s credit that this film is even slightly watchable – he’s still the perfect Wolverine. He can simultaneously balance strong heroism and dramatic angst, no matter what bile he’s stuck with. Unfortunately, he’s the only saving grace. Dominic Monaghan, Taylor Kitsch, and Ryan Reynolds have mere minutes onscreen, and none of them have the chance make the best of it. And as the doomed love, Collins pretty much just looks nice and spews out a bunch of cringe worthy “love will always find a way” speeches.

Director Gavin Hood (Tsotsi) has no idea how to make a big-budget action movie. The explosions look pretty, but that’s the best you can say about the action in this movie. You’ve seen everything else before – and much better, too. Couple that with some terrible CGI work – Wolverine’s claws sometimes look like three lines drawn on screen with a silver sharpie – and you’ve got one big summer bust.

As sad as I am saying this, X-Men Origins: Wolverine is even worse than The Last Stand. At least that one had some fun set pieces to offset the sucky. Wolverine is just morose and mind-numbing. If this downward spiral continues, the X-Men movies could soon be on the level of Batman and Robin – they’re already in the Fantastic Four danger zone. It’s not the humans who need saving anymore. It’s the X-Men.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Observe and Report

This Movie Made Me: Shocked (In a Good Way)


Let’s get this straight: Ronnie Barnhardt is more Travis Bickle than Paul Blart. Despite arriving only a few months later than this year’s other mall cop movie, Observe and Report is in no way a rip-off. Writer/director Jody Hill gives us an awkward comedy on steroids, where we’re the ones who are wonderfully disturbed by what we see.

Ronnie (Seth Rogen) is a bipolar mall cop at the Forest Ridge mall. He spends his days dispensing knowledge to his mall cop underlings, harassing a Middle Eastern vendor, and pining over make-up counter girl Brandi (Anna Faris.) But when a trenchcoat-wearing flasher appears in the parking lot, assaulting various women – including Brandi – Ronnie realizes he has a mission. He will be the one to track down the pervert, even as the city sends a snide detective (Ray Liotta) to head the investigation.

But instead of laughing at the deluded Ronnie, we’re troubled by him. Hill treats his illness with the utmost seriousness – and the violence that ensues from it is shockingly real. Ronnie’s life is incredibly dark – he still lives with his pass-out-on-the-floor drunk of a mom, and he’s completely unaware of how stupid people think he is. But that’s all part of the edgy humor. When vicious drug dealers on a street corner surround Ronnie, we’re genuinely afraid. But his bone-crunching, face-smashing revolt is at once hilarious and horrifying.

It’s to Rogen’s credit that Ronnie is as heartbreakingly ignorant as he is. He isn’t the lovable yet despised goof that Ace Ventura was – he’s a genuinely troubled individual whose delusions are more sad than funny, but Rogen and Hill find humor without shortchanging reality. Faris (America’s preeminent ditz) brilliantly channels her comedic strengths while making Brandi as realistic as Ronnie. She’s a heartless creature; when Ronnie takes her on a date and mistakes her increasing drunkenness for affection, we can’t help but cringe. Even so, Faris turns Brandi into one of the most hilarious onscreen drunks in years. And when the night ends in a decidedly unromantic tryst, we’re shocked once again.

Time and again, Hill pushes the limits of decency and challenges us not to laugh at it. Nearly every filmic taboo smashes us in the face – drug and alcohol abuse, rape, disturbing male nudity – but he manages to make it all right in the end. Ronnie is dangerous but earnest. Even if we’re afraid of what he might do, we want him to win. But when something goes right for Ronnie, we're both cheering and scratching our heads. We're happy he's happy, but we're also questioning our own sanity when we support him. It takes a lot of guts and skill to create such a deranged but likeable character (especially in a comedy), but Hill and Rogen pass with flying colors.

This comedy is as dark as dark can get. Ronnie is an unhinged person, and is often frightening in his intensity. We never know what he’s going to do next – but that’s all part of the fun. Observe and Report will probably be the most polarizing movie of the year, and I have to credit the studio for releasing the film the way it is. You may end up disgusted, but if you’re in the mood for a film unlike any other… Observe and Report is for you.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Fast & Furious

This Movie Made Me: Neither Fast Nor Furious


The newest installment of the “Fast and the Furious” franchise is SO exciting, they don’t even have time to waste on stuff like “the.” For all those people who thought the best part of the original film was its cast (and not something like… the cars), their prayers have finally been answered. And it only took Hollywood two films to hear them. But even with the reunited cast a couple of cool cars, there’s nothing in “Fast & Furious” to get remotely excited about.

Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and girlfriend Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) are living the high life south of the border snatching oil and speeding under tumbling, fiery gas tanks. But when someone close to Dom is killed, he finds himself back in L.A. on a mission for revenge. His target: a Mexican drug lord who traffics goods over the border via a shaky (and completely CGIed) mine shaft in the mountains. Also on the case is FBI agent and former rival Brian O’Connor (Paul Walker), who puts his life and career on the line to bring the villain to justice. Dom’s terse sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) shows up once in a while, as do a few high-speed car chases.

But the film is focused on two men; one driven by revenge, one driven to do what’s right. So it’s clearly strong on plot. (Snicker.) But anyone who goes into a “Fast and Furious” film expecting a lot of plot is hopelessly deluded. What really matters is the awesome action. Unfortunately, the action here is decidedly unawesome. A race through the streets of L.A. is a pale imitations of the other movies, even with regular traffic providing lots of veering and horn honking. The rest of the film lets computers handle all the hard work. Only one problem: the graphics are at the level of a good Nintendo 64 game at best. It’s like watching someone else play “Cruis’n.”

A big point in the advertising has been its reunited cast – four of Hollywood’s best and brightest… eight years ago. Does it make a difference? Well, not really. No one is really required to do anything besides posing and looking nice. The most challenging thing Diesel and Walker have to do is be Aggressive (with a capital A!) – a.k.a. punching each other and shouting when any emotion is called for. While watching, one can’t help thinking that the only reason this movie was made was because none of them had anything else to do.

I’m willing to bet most moviegoers weren’t clamoring for a fourth “Fast and the Furious” movie, and this gives us no reason to be glad they actually did. Yes, they may have brought back all the original stars. But for all they’re given to do, they might as well have brought back all the original stunt drivers instead. It would be the same film. There was one exciting moment, however. Halfway through the first car chase, two people in the theater stood up and started yelling at each other. Now that was fast and furious!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Race to Witch Mountain

This Movie Made Me: Bored


Disney’s 1975 sci-fi family flick “Escape to Witch Mountain” is a classic example of the House of Mouse’s output at the time – not all that good, but enough to enchant kids long enough to make it a family mainstay. Now it gets the high-tech, big budget updo with “Race to Witch Mountain,” starring Disney’s newest family man Dwayne Johnson. But despite Johnson’s affable sense of humor, explosions galore and a pair of precocious aliens, the film is more of a walkathon than an actual race.

Jack Bruno (Johnson) is a down-on-his-luck cab driver in Las Vegas caught in the middle of a UFO convention – one that introduces him to everyone from two nerdy Storm Troopers to a va-voomy astrophysicist (Carla Gugino.) But suddenly Sara (AnnaSophia Robb) and Seth (Alexander Ludwig) appear in his cab with thousands of dollars in cash and geographic coordinates for a destination. After a high-speed chase with a couple of black vans and a terrifying encounter with fireball-spewing assassin, Jack begins to realize there’s something… otherworldly about those kids. They’re soon on a breakneck race to Witch Mountain, a top-secret military base that’s housing their spacecraft. And if they don’t beat the government and the assassin tracking them, Earth’s very survival will be at stake.

If that’s not how you remember the original, don’t worry. “Race to Witch Mountain” is one of those that purports to be a “re-imagining” instead of a remake. But this re-imagining throws out everything imaginative in favor of a standard let’s-run-away-from-the-bad-guys shtick we’ve seen a million times before. The villains are a bunch of government suits, distinguishable only as the serious guy, the smart guy, and the whiny guy. The brother-and-sister aliens still have their powers, though this time around they can do cool stuff like wreck cars and pass through solid materials.

These new super kids should have made this movie all the more exciting, right? Not really. Looks like director Andy Fickman (“The Game Plan”) had no idea how to make an action movie. The chase is pretty much relentless, but the movie is so dark, shaky, and fast that it is often incomprehensible. They were clearly trying to emulate the “Bourne” style of action; but the end product is messy, not masterful.

Johnson is a genuinely entertaining performer, and he tries his best here. The problem is that the script gives him no opportunities to showcase his macho-chicken sense of humor, or even his action prowess. It doesn’t give anyone any opportunities, really – except to run and spew sci-fi babble. The characters don’t have any motivation other than “that’s what you’re supposed to do in an action movie.” Case in point: when Jack and his alien chums are cornered in a small-town diner, the town sheriff and a friendly waitress come to their aid without hesitation. Why? Probably because they’re played by the original film’s stars, Kim Richards and Iake Eissinmann. It’s a nice throwback to the film’s roots, but you’d think they’d at least wonder why a guy and two kids are being chased by the government.

It’s not like a “Witch Mountain” remake/re-imagining/whatever was a bad idea, especially one molded around Johnson’s comedic action antics. But you can’t help but be bored when the best joke is an alien asking, “Are we there yet?” Too unexciting to be an action film, too unfunny to be a family comedy, “Race to Witch Mountain” is a perfect definition of “meh.”

Friday, March 6, 2009

Watchmen

This Movie Made Me: Kind of Disappointed



It’s been a 23-year-long trek to the screen for Watchmen. Handed from director to director and studio to studio, the heralded graphic novel has finally hit screens courtesy of Warner Brothers and director Zack Snyder (300.) Adapting the dense work is no small task for anyone, but Snyder and company are so slavishly faithful the film loses most of the suspense and subtext that made the graphic novel so thrilling.

In an alternate version of 1985, where Richard Nixon is still president and U.S./Soviet tensions are higher than ever, society has shunned all forms of costumed heroes. The reclusion takes a violent turn when The Comedian is violently beaten and thrown to his death. Sociopathic vigilante Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) decides to track down the killer, convinced there’s a force determined to rid the world of costumed crime fighters. He reconnects with his former partners to warn them, but they’ve got problems of their own. But after a former hero survives an assassination attempt and Rorschach is framed for murder, the Watchmen begin to realize that Rorschach’s suspicions may be true.

The graphic novel’s strength lied in its complicated, compelling characters. These former crime fighters are all struggling to adjust to normal lives: the truly powerful Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) is becoming increasingly less concerned with human matters, much to the distress of his ex-partner/girlfriend Laurie (Malin Akerman). The former Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) is aging and dealing with impotence. Only Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode), the world’s smartest man, seems to have adjusted to post-hero life by licensing his alter-ego and becoming a successful businessman. But with this fresh-faced cast, their world-weariness comes off as whininess. Akerman and Goode are especially miscast, short on years and dramatic subtlety. Their one-note performances shortchange two of the film’s most intriguing characters.

Thankfully the cast is not uniformly bland. Haley and Crudup are tailor-made for their roles, giving remarkable life and vitality to their characters. Haley’s diminutive stature makes him an unlikely hero, but his frightening determination and hard-edged voice are something to behold. Dr. Manhattan, astonishingly rendered, becomes tragically conflicted in his alienation – all thanks to Crudup’s tender, quietly contemplative voice. And Carla Gugino is alluring and affecting in an all-too-brief performance as Laurie’s mother.

Not that Snyder gives them much time to grow. It’s easy to admire Watchmen for retaining as much of the graphic novel as it did. But by doing that, they’ve lost what it all really means. Plenty of images are taken directly from the novel, as well as a great deal of dialogue. It’s as if the filmmakers saw the graphic novel and figured if they replicated it exactly, they’d get the same meaning. The whole film is rushed through, with the exception of an irritatingly slow and indulgent sex scene (which shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s seen 300.) The big moments are sped through, and have no more dramatic weight than Superman rescuing a kitten in a tree.

Even more frustrating are the things they got right. The two major diversions from the book – the opening credits and an altered ending – are among the most exciting moments in the film. They’re different, but they are completely faithful in spirit. If only the filmmakers had taken more chances. The use of music is often brilliant, from Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable” echoing through the violent opening scene to Philip Glass mythologizing the creation of Dr. Manhattan.

This film could have been directed by Gilliam. It could have been directed by Aronofsky or Greengrass. Instead we got the guy who thinks slo-mo is the most awesome thing ever. As a fan of the book, it’s all anyone could ask for. As a fan of films, it’s playing it too safe. Watchmen could have been a whole lot worse, for sure. But in the hands of a more daring director, it could have been so much more.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Two Lovers

This Movie Made Me: Meditative


The chamber room dramas of the 1970s are perhaps some of the greatest films ever made. Kramer vs. Kramer, Interiors – character studies that were quiet, contemplative, and ultimately shattering. With Two Lovers, director James Gray (We Own the Night) takes these sensibilities and a few strong performances to create a bleak but transformative tale of love.

Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix) recently moved back in with his parents. Still reeling after a failed engagement, Leonard teeters on the brink of suicide. His parents set up a meeting between him and Sondra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of the man taking over his father’s dry cleaning business. Soon after, Leonard meets upstairs neighbor Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), an exciting but destructive woman having an affair with a married lawyer.

Leonard is desperately in love with Michelle, but she can’t break things off with the lawyer. Sondra adores Leonard, but he’s ready to throw everything aside for a relationship with Michelle. Leonard must decide who to turn to – the woman he adores but may never reciprocate, or the woman who would devote herself to him entirely.

Sondra is in the same place as Leonard; they both love someone who only wants friendship. He implores Michelle to accept him, telling her she’ll learn to love him with time. Should he follow Michelle and risk rejection, or should he turn away and save Sondra from the same kind of rejection?

At the heart of Two Lovers is the enigmatic Leonard, brought to stunning realization by Phoenix. His speech is slurred, and he shuffles around with a world-weary look – he is completely real, a broken soul looking for a reason to live. He’s quiet and earnest with Sondra, outgoing and jokey with Michelle. Phoenix splits Leonard into two people, and seeing which side survives is absolutely thrilling.

Paltrow’s Michelle is wild and exciting – teetering on the edge of control. Shaw’s Sondra is quiet and sweet, too devoted to speak out when Leonard turns away. They create completely different scenarios, and Shaw and Paltrow put in fine, thoughtful performances. As Leonard’s mother, Isabella Rosselini also puts in an impressive performance where looks mean more than words.

The screen is filled with images that constantly infer Leonard’s place between Michelle and Sondra. As Leonard and Sondra make love, the camera drifts over to Michelle’s window across the courtyard. The style and mechanics of the film become almost invisible, paving the way for the elegant writing and natural performances to lead the way.

Two Lovers shows how dependent love can be – how a relationship cannot be fulfilled without reciprocation. It seems like a no-brainer, but Gray and Phoenix show it isn’t as simple as it seems. If Two Lovers is remembered only for being Phoenix’s last performance (apparently), then that’s all the better. With any luck, future filmgoers will turn to it and find an honest reflection on the things that affect us all.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Coraline

This movie made me: Unsettled


You know how the old saying goes: be careful what you wish for. Not everything is as it seems. When young Coraline discovers the family she always wanted, she soon learns that dreams can quickly turn into nightmares. And courtesy of author Neil Gaiman and director Henry Selick, those nightmares transform Coraline into one of the most inventive and mature animated films in years.

Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning) has just moved into a creaky old house, and she isn’t happy about it. Her parents are too busy working to notice her, the neighbors are unbearably eccentric, and nearly everybody calls her “Caroline” instead of her real name. Then, one night, she opens a small door in the house that leads to an exact replica of her apartment. Her family is there, too – or her Other Family. The people of this world are filled with affection and love for Coraline. The only thing off is the black buttons sewn in place of their eyes. But when Coraline refuses the Other Mother’s offer to stay forever, the sinister truth behind this new world begins to show.

There are several frightening images in this other world, and the audience isn’t spared a bit. It’s refreshing to see a family film put so much faith in its audience’s maturity, and it is legitimately unsettling. Coraline’s nightmare is truly that – a terrifying place where the worst will happen without a moment’s warning. It moves from charming to unnerving on a whim – thanks in no small part to Teri Hatcher’s inspired work as the Other Mother, a surprisingly subtle mix of sweetness and wickedness. This twisted darkness only sets it apart from more generic kid’s fare, and enhances its brilliance.

Every inch of talent Selick displayed in The Nightmare Before Christmas has been increased two-fold. Every frame bleeds with Gothic frenzy; the drab and angular real world is perfectly contrasted with the colorful Other World filled with dancing mice, talking bugs, and flowers that tickle. It is a feast for the eyes, and easily the most accomplished stop-motion animated film in over a decade. No amount of praise is enough for Bruno Coulais’s magically creepy and brilliantly unconventional score.

It’s easy to say that Coraline is too scary for kids – indeed, it takes animation to more intense levels than most filmmakers would dare go – but to advise anyone against seeing it would be a crime. A triumph of boundless creativity and masterful storytelling, it is simply a film that must be seen to be believed. Like the best nightmares it is disturbing, unsettling, and – most importantly – unforgettable.