Friday, August 24, 2012

"Battleship" Sinks To Lowest Echelon of Alien Invasion Movies

How many guesses would the average person need to
arrive at which board game inspired this screen still?
It would be easy to dismiss Battleship, the movie based on the Hasbro board game, because of its source material (or rather, it’s lack thereof). That, I think, would be short sited.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl and Clue are proof of the fact that a very entertaining film can be culled from a flimsy source like a theme park ride or a kid’s game. And films like Crimson Tide, The Hunt for Red October, and U-571 have more than proven that consumers will pay to see enjoyable naval-based films. So there was certainly a chance this could turn out good.
It didn’t, but there was a chance.
In many ways, adapting such a non-detailed brand could have been quite a boon for a creative filmmaker. Unlike the likes of GI Joe and Transformers, Battleship has very little structural necessities other than the general concept of naval warfare. In other words, it offers instant name recognition with the masses without any cumbersome pre-established characters or overriding story arcs. 
A Battleship movie could have really gone in any direction*, provided it offered a few interesting characters and ultimately featured some sort of intense naval standoff. And so, of course, when given this tremendous amount of freedom to toil in a cool genre, the producers turned the whole thing into a dumb, Transformers-cribbing, alien invasion movie.
* I’m envisioning something in which a mutiny erupts and a sect of disgruntled Naval officers overtake a fleet of boats, particularly the battleship and submarine, in an effort to carry out some sort of terrorist plot that involves holding some important person or peoples on the accompanying aircraft carrier hostage. And standing in their way would be a motley crew that somehow managed to commandeer the small but speedy destroyer and a patrol boat. This heroic group could be led by a young cadet and some disgraced and colorful rouge past his prime (who just happens to have a hidden agenda or a complicated history with the lead terrorist, who can’t be positioned on the battleship, because at some point he needs to declare “You sunk my battleship!”). You know – mostly The Rock with a dash of Pirates of the Caribbean thrown in... I don’t know. I’m just spitballing here.

This guy and Brooklyn Decker are given a boring B-plot
that's only worth the time invtested because Decker is hot.
The problem with this approach is that it makes for a confusing marketing campaign that became an instant butt of jokes in a way that I don’t think a “more realistic” take would have. However, while the alien angle likely helped increase the inherent silliness and thus lead to a huge financial losses for Universal, it isn’t the main culprit for why the movie wound up being so bad. In that respect, the fault lies in the “human” story, which focuses on Lieutenant Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch) whose hotheaded and rebellious demeanor disappoints his brother Commander Stone Hopper (Alexander Skarsgård) and fails to impress the high-ranking Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson), who just so happens to be the father of Sam, Alex’s mega hot fiancée-to-be Sam (Brooklyn Decker).
In and of itself that central story isn’t even a bad one, but the way it’s handled is beyond awful. None of these characters (as well as a slew of other supporting naval officers, including Rihanna and Turtle from Entourage) are developed in a way to engender viewer loyalty or sympathy; in fact, most come across as cloying. For an excellent example, look no further than the opening scene, which offers a blueprint on how not to do a “meet cute” (Sam enters a dingy bar by herself looking for a chicken burrito and the chivalrous Alex decides to break into a gas station to steal her one).
To be fair, while the first half-hour or so of this movie is a real chore to sit through, once the action starts kicking in, it actually gets somewhat watchable in a “meh, ok, that’s not totally terrible” kind of way. There’s a fairly humorous nod to the game that sees the main characters taking shots at alien crafts and declaring “hit” or “miss,” and its is actually somewhat engaging. And the climax, which sees the protagonists recruiting some geriatric veterans to utilize an old-time battleship, is endearing in its cheesiness. The special effects are pretty strong as well, and although all of her scenes are pointless b-story filler, Brooklyn Decker is just as fun to watch.
Throughout my Battleship viewing experience, I kept thinking of two things:
1)      Battle Los Angeles, a middling alien invasion movie that had some very effectively rendered action sequences. Except then I remembered that film had some characters worth caring about, including a bad-ass lead played by Aaron Eckhart, and I realized, ‘Wow Battleship doesn’t have nearly as much to offer as Battle Los Angeles,’ which basically serves as a good indicator for just how far down the list of alien invasion movies this thing has to be.
2)      Why exactly did a director like Peter Berg agree to do this thing? He’s generally been very solid (The Kingdom, Friday Night Lights, Very Bad Things), and considering he was coming off of his biggest hit (Hancock), I’d have thought he would have his choice of projects, especially if he was going to follow it up with a big budget studio picture. I later read this article, which made sense of my initial query. In short, he held his nose and did Battleship so he could direct passion project Lone Survivor.
Taylor Kitsch probably should consider a new approach
in this whole movie busiess thing.
However, now, in the wake of the colossal bomb, my lasting thoughts on the film mostly concern Kitsch who made a name for himself on the Berg-produced Friday Night Lifts TV series. With both Battleship and John Carter striking out this year (not to mention Savages doing pretty piss poor as well), he’s in a tough spot career-wise.
Orlando Bloom’s ascent to the A-list was stalled when he double bombed with Kingdom of Heaven and Elizabethtown, both of which were actually smart career choices, seeing as they were from heralded filmmakers. And Bloom had two franchise successes – Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean – in his back pocket, so who knows how this will affect Kitsch moving forward considering he hasn’t earned such good will? On the plus side, he has a fan in Berg, who is bringing him along in a supporting role on Lone Survivor. If he gets good notices there, things could be looking up. If not, Kitsch's stock may totally plummet.
Anyway, getting back to Battleship – it’s a worthless movie that somehow manages to take a simple and possibly promising idea and turn it into convoluted garbage, without making it so bad that it becomes a guilty pleasure (ala something like In The Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale). As is, it’s mostly just Transformers without the cool robot-on-robot fight scenes and even more of the pointless human drama. D

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

"The Dark Knight Rises" Proves A Satisfiying Trilogy Capper

Christopher Nolan once again shows that ambition and
scope have a place in big budget blockbusters.
In the weeks since it hit theaters, The Dark Knight Rises has divided critics. On the one hand, there are the staunch defenders who marvel at the thematic potency and grand scope Nolan injected into his trilogy caper. On the other, there are those that found the film overly ambitious and structurally scattershot, a far cry from the quality of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.
In truth, both sides have valid points, but I tend to have a mostly positive assessment of the film. Yes, it’s not as good as the first two, but that would’ve been a pretty herculean task, and it’s unfair to judge the film solely based on that standard. As a trilogy caper, The Dark Knight Rises has different goals in mind, and wrapping up a story can be quite hard to do in a satisfying way. The fact that Nolan achieves a rewarding and appropriate ending, all the while offering first-rate entertainment – that’s a commendable achievement.
I’m not going to deny the film gets silly in parts (i.e. Bane’s wall street plan is goofy, as, with all those witnesses, it would seem pretty easy to prove fraud), but that’s not exactly new to this trilogy. The outcome of Joker’s boat experiment in the second film was almost impossible to swallow and set off the bullshit alarm, but, as is the case here, it was set up well and was a means to an end narratively and thematically.
I have many more sprawling thoughts on the film that I think it might be best to just attack these musings in sub categories. Yes, I could certainly find a way to more cohesively write this thing up, but this is how my mind is working here, so let’s just get into it.
Thematic Continuation
My favorite part of the film is how it continues to highlight the same themes in new ways, offering shading and evolution on ideas Nolan first established in Batman Begins. All three films feature villains convinced Gotham is a cesspool unworthy of saving, and in each one Batman (Christian Bale) is tested and must prove that, given a glimmer of hope, the city – his city – can prevail.
Batman continues to believe Gotham is worth saving.
Nolan has said in interviews that his brother Jonathan used A Tale of Two Cities as a major influencing factor when writing the final chapter and this makes sense given the thematics at play. The film even quotes the coda from the Charles Dickens classic during the eulogy Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) delivers at at Bruce Wayne’s gravesite: “I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss. I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy. I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence. It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”
In line with this, The Dark Knight Rises continues to investigate the importance of legends, symbols and ideals and plays them up in ways that are simultaneously thought-provoking, thrilling and even moving. In Batman Begins, when Bruce Wayne first decides to become Batman, he tells Alfred (Michael Caine), "People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy and I can't do that as Bruce Wayne. As a man I'm flesh and blood. I can be ignored. I can be destroyed. But as a symbol? As a symbol I can be incorruptible. I can be everlasting.” In the second film, Batman and Gordon attempt to salvage a new symbol (Harvey Dent), by corrupting what he once intended to be incorruptible (Batman), and, throughout the third film, this is portrayed as a failing on their part. As a result, much of the film is dedicated to Wayne’s effort to restore the symbol of Batman, so that it can inspire hope and become “everlasting” once more (thus, the title “The Dark Knight Rises”).
Many have questioned if John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) will become Robin or Nightwing, but it’s obvious that he will continue as the Batman. The Robin reference was just a cute, knowing nod to the fans (and a pretty awesome one to boot). The whole Blake arc is extremely well done (outside of that wretched “You missed a spot” line he says when Batman saves him from some bad guys). I’ve heard people complain about the predictability of it all (as soon as Gordon-Levitt was cast, people began speculating on this story thread), but it seems a weak complaint. Just because it’s predictable doesn’t make it any less involving and appropriate – the main reason it’s been so well established that it’s almost preordained.
The Villains
I’ve heard many complaints about Bane (Tom Hardy). He’s no Joker. His voice is weird. He’s no Joker. He gets wiped out so easily. He’s no Joker…
He may not be the Joker, but Bane is a badass and distinct
Batman villain. The mask? The voice? Awesome.
Really, it’s all nonsense in my mind. As presented here, Bane is a great Batman villain. With his brute strength and brilliant intellect, he’s the perfect foil for Batman, and, although he doesn’t quite measure up to the Joker, he is just as terrifying due, in equal parts, to his fanaticism (he’s such an extremist that Ra’s Al-Ghul excommunicated him) and his amazingly creepy and distinguished look (props to whoever put together that costume).
Hardy doesn’t get to steal the movie in the same way Heath Ledger did, but as part of the puzzle, he excels. He brings an awesomely raw physicality to the part that, combined with the crisp, easy-to-follow camera work (Nolan has come a long way as an action director since the first film), really makes the fisticuff scenes with batman pop. And, although restricted by his mask, Hardy does some interesting acting with his eyes and voice to really add nuance to the role. Speaking of the voice, I know some people are hating on it, but I loved it. It was weirdly hypnotic, unsettling and larger than life, and I couldn’t be happier they went with such a bold choice over a more traditional, grunt-like intonation.
I even love the way Bane goes out. When Talia Al-Ghul (Marion Cotillard) leaves and tells him to keep Batman alive so he can watch the fire, I love that he says “We both know that I now have to kill you. You’ll just have to imagine the fire,” and then I love that he just jarringly gets killed by a bat missile. Some have said it’s a poor exit for the man, but he already got his great last fight scene, and really, it plays like gangbusters.
The one thing I’m not crazy about is how he gets defanged by his relationship with Talia, which undermines the whole fanatical buildup of the Bane character. I’m generally on board with the Talia stuff – it’s a nice nod to comic book continuity and works fine in the film – but keeping her identity a mystery from viewers really diminishes the character by forcing Nolan to keep her on the shelf for the entire outing. It’s fairly obvious, even though they keep Cotillard in the shadows, that she must have a bigger role than that of a thankless romantic entanglement (she’s an Oscar winner!), and so I’d have greatly preferred if the story didn’t treat her reveal like a big twist. It should obviously be a surprise to Wayne, but since it’s not going to surprise many audience members (and absolutely no Batman fans, especially once an heir to Ra’s Al-Ghul is mentioned), why be so obscure?
Bale Continues to Own the Batman Role
It’s often said that the hero is overshadowed by the villains in Batman movies. Although you could make a case for the Joker in The Dark Knight, one of my favorite things about the Nolan outings is that Bruce Wayne and Batman have always remained center stage. In the first, Bale beautifully depicted the Batman origin story, from brash anguish to righteous crusader, all the while playing up the playboy cover story. Then, in the second, he was resolved and committed to his mission, naively hopeful about the progress being made and ultimately terribly wounded due to the death of Rachel Dawes. Here, Bale gets a multitude of notes to play, bitter, disillusioned and beaten down, but also heroic and occasionally light and charming. And he nails it.
Weak reclusive Bruce Wayne was an interesting choice
I don't think full worked. But Bale still brought it.
Still, I do wish they wouldn’t have opted to make Wayne a totally broken down recluse for the eight years between The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, which is problematic decision for a multitude of reasons. For starters, it takes the realism away when both Batman and Bruce Wayne resurface after such long absences… at the same time (it’s only slightly less annoying than Superman and Clark Kent reappearing after long simultaneous absences in Superman Returns). I mean, seriously, no one would figure this out? Especially when they both die at the same time?
There’s also other issues related to this as well. Batman being away so long really diminishes any sense of betrayal he might feel over the reveal that Miranda Tate is actually Talia. If it had been established they had some sort of relationship that had built over time, it would’ve been a far more crushing blow, and his faith in her (in giving her access to the machine anyway) would’ve made much more sense. Furthermore, his being so weak in the beginning (which admittedly leads to a funny scene with the great Thomas Lennon as Wayne’s doctor) really doesn’t make sense later on (when he climbs from the pit sans machine leg), while also lessening the impact of Bane’s brutal, back-breaking beat down.
Oh, and while I know many people would’ve preferred if Batman bit the dust at the end, I thought the ending was well done. I’m not saying the death of Bruce Wayne wouldn’t have been powerful, but considering they build up the fact that he’s not afraid of death, but rather unable to heal his wounded heart and psyche, I thought it was a better arc for the character as developed. Doing things the other way would’ve at least required a bit of a rewrite throughout to feel truly earned and fulfilling.
Hathaway Earns Her Claws
This is the second Batman movie to have Bruce Wayne and
Selina Kyle dance at a high society ball. Still favor the
magnetism of the first pairing, but all four actors create
uniquely compelling versions of their characters.
Even more so than Heath Ledger in the build up to The Dark Knight, Anne Hathaway had some pretty big shoes to fill in taking on Selina Kyle/Catwoman. Michelle Pfeiffer was so dazzlingly off-kilter and sexy in Batman Returns that attempting to essay the same character had to be daunting. Hathaway’s casting was met with a decent amount of criticism, but she silences the naysayers in the film, offering up a Catwoman (although that name is never used) that is cunning, shifty, sexy, wounded and badass. Here, they play down the psychological issues inherent in the Pfieffer version and instead stick closer to the original playful, cat burglar interpretation. Although she’s consistently shown range in the past, I think this performance is going to open a lot of eyes and it instantly primes Hathaway for serious Oscar consideration for the upcoming Les Misérables.
As good as Hathaway is, I do have some issues with the way the script uses the character. Kyle predominately functions as a plot device for Wayne, and although Hathaway and Bale sport a good back and forth, and the film makes it clear that he is instantly intrigued by her, I didn’t really buy the development of the romance (halfway through, I still wasn’t sure if she was in a relationship with the Juno Temple character). Another scene or two would’ve been nice, and by that I mean something that seems natural and not the repeated encounters where Wayne indicates his out-of-left-field confidence in her integrity and character.
That said, she plays the whole thing well, and her return at the end is a major crowd pleaser. As much as I didn’t fully buy the idea that they were falling for each other (unlike say Bruce’s relationship with Gordon or Alfred, this trilogy doesn’t truly earn any relationship Bruce has with a woman – it just tells, tells, tells, with very little show), I liked the idea and the ultimate ending.

Gordon-Levitt makes an excellent adition to the ensemble,
while Oldman continues to shine.
Batman’s Buddies
Although Morgan Freeman gets very little to do, Oldman and Caine continue to craft excellent interpretations of their famous comic counterparts. With Bruce Wayne getting a happy ending, Oldman’s Commissioner Gordon is probably the true tragic hero of the trilogy, having sacrificed his morals and lost his family in his pursuit to keep Gotham clean. Oldman nails the weight of that, and it’s also one of the biggest payoffs of the movie when Batman reveals his identify. Meanwhile Caine once again carries the most emotional scene in a Batman film. In the first it was the scene in the elevator, and then, in the second, it was the one where he covers up the note. Here it’s the breakup confrontation, and it’s raw and heart wrenching. 

Meanwhile, Gordon-Levitt is a seamless addition to the cast, and he underplays everything with a nice steady resolve. Gordon-Levitt has always been an actor I greatly admire and enjoy, but some have indicated a belief that he is too twitchy and self-conscious in his indie work. It would be hard to levy that criticism against him in his collaborations with Nolan (both here and in Inception), as they have provided him an opportunity to play regular, to-the-point men of action, and he’s met the challenge, offering assured and compelling work.
Plot Holes and Extraneous Characters
In some cases, this movie is downright silly. I already mentioned the Bane plot at the stock exchange, but there’s plenty more beside that. For instance, Batman gets back to Gotham awfully quickly after escaping his prison and it’s pretty dumb that the nuclear bomb has a countdown clock on it. Then there’s the issue of Batman’s bum leg not presenting much issue with his jump out of the prison, and the fact that Bane continues to provide for all the buried police officers, despite killing so many other people at will. And can someone explain how the icy river is sturdy in that scene where Batman reappears to Gordon and his men?
Also, while I get the thematic significance of Matthew Modine’s character, I wasn’t a big fan of the character (and it annoyed me he wore that whole getup, gloves included, in the final fight). The amount of screen time he was awarded just seemed excessive. It also was somewhat distracting to have Juno Temple on hand as a sort of buddy to Selina Kyle and then do nothing with her. I know she’s not a super big name yet, but it was distracting. I think cutting her and Modine would’ve given more time to flesh out the budding romance perhaps, which would’ve strengthened the movie as a whole.
Tech Aspects
The simple bat graffiti that peppers Gotham in The
Dark Knight Rises is perfect piece of iconography.
I know I’ve gone on too long here, but I’ve got to add that this movie looks and sounds awesome. From the little iconographic details (the cracked Batman mask, the little bat graffiti) to Wally Pfister’s excellent cinematography (I already alluded to how great the fist fights are, but there’s also that great scene with Blake in the bat cave and a ton of other majestically shot scenes) to the awesome special effects (the stadium implosion and plane hijacking are real show stoppers). It’s all perfect. Just perfect. And I say this as a guy who didn’t see the film in IMAX, which I’m sure was a pleasure to behold. Oh, and let’s not forget the work of Hans Zimmer, who continues to be a stupendous collaborator for Nolan and really sets the tone here.
Still Reading? Ok, Let’s Close It Down
I do quickly want to point out how dumb the basic summary of this movie could sound: “Yeah well Batman wins, and then he retires, leaving the business to Robin and living happily ever after in Europe with Catwoman.” Yeah… I know! Considering that logline makes it even more impressive that Nolan pulled this whole thing off.
I’ll close by saying that while The Dark Knight Rises is not as good as the preceding two Batman films, it stands alongside the likes of Return of the Jedi and Lord of the Rings: Return of the King as a somewhat flawed, yet enjoyably awesome and satisfying capper to a major blockbuster trilogy. It’s a very hard thing to stick the landing on an enterprise like this, and Nolan does so here. Looking at the grand total of this trilogy, it’s damn hard not to be impressed. A-

Video Review: Surprise, "This Means War" Stinks

Yes, Chris Pine has a swimming pool in his ceiling that he
stocks with hot women. Needless to say, CIA gigs pay well.
This Means War mostly sucks. It’s an action comedy with sporadically tepid action and a modicum of lukewarm laughs, and it fails to offer even one standout scene. Still, the film is inoffensive, easy-to-follow and features three attractive and charming leads, so it’s not a total bust. It’s just the type of movie that’s best viewed as ancillary stimulation while you’re busy doing something else like building furniture from IKEA, writing holiday cards, or, I don’t know… cross-stitching.

Sadly, I was not multitasking during my viewing of This Means War, which focuses on playboy FDR (Chris Pine) and sensitive Tuck (Tom Hardy), two best buddy CIA agents vying for the affection of Lauren (Reese Witherspoon), unbeknownst to her. Since the movie had my attention, I was able to notice several indicators that the filmmakers were most likely keenly aware of the film’s destiny as nothing more than background filler.

Take for instance a car chase sequence in which Tuck tells Lauren to take the wheel so he can assist FDR in shooting at their pursuers, but instead of saying “Take the wheel, Lauren,” he says “Take the wheel, Reese.” Then there’s a gag at the end of the movie, where FDR reveals he once slept with Tuck’s baby-mama (whom Tuck has resumed a relationship with). On its face that would seem fine, except for the fact that it is strongly hinted earlier in the film that this woman is FDR’s cousin. 

"Steal a lame action comedy? Don't mind if I do."
I like to imagine that someone caught these issues, but that, when brought up to director McG, he responded by saying, “Seriously? Nobody’s going to remember Reese’s character name – I’m directing this movie and couldn’t tell you the name. I’m not making Tom do another audio dub. It’s pointless. And we need a last gotcha line in this thing, because audiences, they love those kickers. We don’t actually come out and explicitly say the woman is related to Chris’ character, so let’s just roll with it. I mean do you really expect people to use simple context clues here when they’ll probably be 80 to 90% preoccupied with something else like making homemade guacamole or playing Jenga?”

That’s really my take away from this movie, but I guess it’s worth pointing out that Chelsea Handler does some nice work here as Lauren’s vulgar and encouraging friend Trish. Any humor in this thing is mostly due to her, and IMDB indicates she adlibbed much of her lines, so nice work there.

And, can someone please explain to me what is happening with Angela Bassett’s career? She’s a fantastic actress, and I know good roles are hard to come by for women as they age, but the last few roles I’ve seen her in aren’t just bad; they’re so paper-thin and throwaway that it’s insulting to her talent. As in The Green Lantern (check my review here), Bassett is cast as a high-ranking official in a government agency, and yet the film totally drops the character, giving her even less to do that that film did.

McG and the screenwriters did Angela Bassett a disservice 
here. The hair and wardrobe people -- they did nice work.

Looking at her upcoming slate, it looks like she could be in store for more of the same, as she’ll be playing the Secret Service director in the Gerard Butler thriller Olympus Has Fallen. What gives here? How exactly did the star of What’s Love Got to Do With It, Waiting to Exhale, and how Stella Got her Groove Back become typecast as a government agent head (a role she also filled in an even more nonexistent part in Mr. and Mrs. Smith)? I know she’s in her 50s, but she’s got chops and is still stunning, and I have to think her name still has some cache with audiences. Somebody needs to give this woman a meaty part on a cable drama or something. Sigh… at least her other upcoming film Black Nativity seems a bit more interesting and challenging.

OK, I’m done with my Angela Bassett rant. Getting back on point: This Means War is a bad film, but would do in a pinch if you need something to “watch” while e-filing your taxes. D-

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Despite Being a Muddled Mess, “Prometheus” is Still Worth Catching

As the ambiguous android David, F-bender continues to
prove why he's one of the most exciting actors around.
Going into this summer season, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus had about as much heat as any movie not named The Dark Knight Rises. A pseudo prequel to the Alien franchise Sir Ridley helped launch 33 years ago, the film was clouded in mystery and had built some great momentum with a slew of viral ads (one of which acts as a worthwhile epiologue to the film) and some haunting imagery.

I was one of the many who were pretty pumped to see the film, and, in fact, I saw it at an advance screening prior to its June 8 opening. And yet, here we are, over two months later, and I’ve still yet to write a word about it.

That’s partly because I’ve been busy with school and moving into the new house, but it’s also because I wasn’t sure exactly what to say. I didn’t have passionate love for it, but I also didn’t hate it, and so it sort of just receded to the background. In the end, I mostly agree with what is currently written on the Tomatometer consensus over at the film’s Rotten Tomatoes page: “Ridley Scott's ambitious quasi-prequel to Alien may not answer all of its big questions, but it's redeemed by its haunting visual grandeur and compelling performances -- particularly Michael Fassbender as a fastidious android.”

The film certainly is ambitious, and I can say with confidence that I was engrossed while watching it. The visuals are undeniably stunning (more on that in a bit) and there are two sequences in the film – the surgical abortion scene and the first foray into the Alien caves – that are just absolutely masterful, specifically the abortion one, which could go down as the best scene of the year. And while I wouldn’t say the performances are universally compelling (almost every character is vastly underdeveloped), Noomi Rapace certainly brought it and Michael Fassbender outright stole the film (this guy IS the next great Hollywood actor).

But, man, this is a problem movie. Generally speaking, I think the film faces unfair hurdles related to expectation. People expected an action movie in the vein of Alien and instead were presented with muddled existential ruminations strung together by a few action set pieces (at least one of which – the scene where Logan Marshall Green’s Charlie goes all Event Horizon on the crew – seems out of place and solely included to up the action quotient and off most of the cast).
This right here is in the running for best scene of the year.
In that respect, Prometheus was bound to disappoint even if it did deliver on all the esoteric stuff, and that kind of stinks, because I really liked the fact that Scott was willing to revisit Alien (and in fact, lift the film’s structure) with a completely different goal in mind. Still, I can tell you that the majority of the audience I saw this with seemed pretty annoyed by the film’s tone, which isn’t really a fair film criticism, as much as a practical reality.
Having said that, there are a whole lot of actual flaws here that bring the movie down a few pegs. First and foremost, while I like that the film ambitiously attempts to tackle big ideas, the undertaking is undercooked, with plenty of unanswered questions, poorly developed characters, plot holes and confusing character motivations that make the film nonsensical (and even borderline incoherent) at times. I don’t really feel like listing them all to prove a point, but this video here does a pretty good job highlighting most of them, so if you’re interested, check it out.
Then, of course, there’s the whole approach the film takes in mostly being one long set up for a potential sequel. I’m not totally against that on occasion, but generally, that type of approach compromises a film. When it’s a franchise with an individual episode that mostly stands on its own, that’s ok, but when it’s this type of mindbender, it feels like a cheat.
Despite all of these problems, the film deserves major plaudits for its transcendent visuals. Prometheus marks the third film to use 3D in which I actually enjoyed the technology and thought it added to the experience (the first two being Hugo and Avatar).* The ability for the camera to exploit depth and spatial nuance here is striking and so realistic that at one point I got annoyed that a woman’s head was blocking my view until I realized that was actually Charlize Thernon, obstructing the camera’s view of the video feed she was watching as her character Mereditch Vickers.
*Is it just me, or is it odd that the two filmmakers to fully utilize and take advantage of the 3D advancements made in the post Avatar world are 69-year-old Martin Scorsese and 74-year-old Ridley Scott? Isn’t this the type of thing one would expect younger, less established directors to embrace (ala when George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, and Cameron himself were leading the charge on special effects advancements throughout their 30s and 40s)?  Instead it’s the old hands who are pushing the new medium, and I guess that’s not about to change, as the 58-year-old Ang Lee (same age as James Cameron) seems destined to join the group with Life of Pi.

In the end, the movie features too many positives – the sublime Fassbender, that abortion scene, and some Oscar-worthy visuals – to totally disregard. Prometheus is somewhat of a failure, but it’s a noble and interesting one that can really stir a lot of rousing debate, and that earns it a certain level of respect in my book. B-

Video Review: “In Time” Wastes Interesting Premise With Lazy and Contrived Approach

Timberlake runs a lot in his first action outing, but fails to
run even a fraction as well as top-grade action star Tom
Cruise. If you're not a Bruce Willis, it's all in the running.
Science fiction is generally ripe for allegory and metaphorical overlay.  
At its best, the genre tends to package interesting and exciting action with thought-provoking ruminations on heady topics like political corruption, government surveillance, class warfare, the perils of technology, and environmentalism. As a testament to this we can look toward the works of George Orwell and Isaac Asimov, and, more recently, films like The Matrix, District 9 and Wall-E.
In Time aspires to this level of sci-fi greatness, and it seemingly has all the pieces in place to achieve such heights. The premise, cast and crew are uniformly excellent, and then, of course, there’s the presence of writer/director Andrew Niccol, whose Gattaca and The Truman Show were diverse and excellent entries in the genre.
Here, Niccol skews closely to Gattaca in terms of theme and content, albeit with more commercial leanings and a very specific allusion to the 99% movement. None of that is bad conceptually, but it all leads to some pretty generic and lazy scripting that works to torpedo what could’ve a pretty awesome ride.
The film takes place in a dystopian future where people stop aging at 25 at which point a clock on their arm begins counting down the remaining time they have left to live – one year. The catch is that, in this reality, time has become currency, and so it can be earned, traded, spent, stolen, or donated. A cup of coffee costs four minutes, 10 minutes with a hooker goes for an hour, a month of rent runs about several days – you get the picture.
The story focuses on Will Salas (Justin Timberlake), a 28-year-old slum dweller, who, like many (including Olivia Wilde as his mother and Johnny Galecki as his pal), wakes up each morning with less time on his clock than hours in a day.
Meanwhile, fat cats like wealthy bank owner Philippe Weis (Vincent Kartheiser) live life in slow motion – with thousands upon millions of hours, the rich content themselves by attending parties and spending lavishly in an attempt to enjoy immortality.
And then there are the Timekeepers and the Minutemen, the former being a police force of sorts that monitors time and the latter being a gang of thugs who rob slum dwellers of their time, effectively murdering them.
The film takes off when a mysterious 105-year old man (Matt Bomer) who has become disenfranchised with immortality gifts Will a century before effectively committing suicide. The gift doesn’t come in time for Will to put it to good use in saving his mother (in need of a recharge, she reaches him a moment too late), and, inspired by her death, he decides to take on the system, which allows many to die so that a few can be immortal. Populating this
Will ventures to an upper-class zone where he attends a few parties, plays cards with Weis, and makes googly eyes at Weis’ daughter Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried). When he draws the attention of Timekeeper Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy) he takes Sylvia hostage and soon they are on the run from the Timekeepers and drawing attention from the Minutemen. Sylvia very quickly joins Will in his mission, love blossoms, and they go all Bonnie and Clyde by way of Robin Hood, robbing her father’s banks and giving the proceeds out to the poor.
Accoridng to In Time, bank robbing ain't a thing.
This all reads fine, but the way it plays out is just horrendous. A big reason for that is the dialogue, which, even excusing the litany of bad time puns, is still awful through and through (click here to get a taste). But even more problematic are the generic plot contrivances and shortcuts that repeatedly make the bullshit meter sound off.  For starters, there’s the way Sylvia so instantly and inorganically joins Will and turns on her seemingly loving, if overbearing, father. And then there’s the fact that Will and Sylvia easily rob bank after bank with seemingly no issue at all, despite no indication they have the requisite skills.
And don’t even get me started on the Leon character, who I’m supposed to believe forgets to recharge his time, despite at least half a century of living this way. It’s supposed to say something about the character that he only ever carries a small amount of time, which allows for the climax to play out as it does, but that’s bullshit. If I’m meant to believe in the integrity of this world, how can I possibly believe this guy would forget to recharge? It’s not quite as silly as forgetting to breathe, but it is damn close.
There’s other annoyances too – the way Will and his mom find each other and she runs out of time just a second too soon; how Galecki’s character drinks himself to death because he just had so much time on his arm; the clunky way the political message is handled – but really it’s easier to just stop here.
Timberlake isn'r all that bad, but the script gives him little to play, and he doesn’t compensate for it the way some bigger personality actors might. After breaking through as an actor with his vulnerable Alpha Dog performance, he’s cultivated a screen persona as a fast-talking, slickster type (The Social Network, Friends with Benefits), and provided some nice shading in doing so. Here he still exhibts screen presence but is miscast as the stoic unflappable antihero. It's possible the guy could do well in an action role (he’ll need a few more duds before he certifies, like Ben Affleck before him, that it’s not for him), but this time out, he manages to offer up his least impressive film work to date.
The cast is filled of some solid actors, but none offer standout work. The best that can be said for the likes of Murphy, Kartheiser, Bomer and Wilde is that they don’t do much to embarrass themselves. The same can’t be said for Seyfried. I want to like her because her presence is particular and strong, but she really has found a way of picking bad projects and then being downright awful in them (i.e. Red Riding Hood). Of course, it doesn’t help that she has the flimsiest character and gets some of the worst dialogue.
All of that said, with Roger Deakins on board, the film does look great. So, that’s something I suppose. However, for those that don’t care about such things, In Time has very little to offer outside of disappointment over the wasted possibilities the premise offers. It’s mostly just laughably bad dialogue, mediocre action and a half-baked allegory that is… well… a waste of time. D

Friday, July 13, 2012

Video Review: Beginners Offers Low-Key Entertainment But Doesn't Stay With You

One thing I didn't mention in the review is that the dog
occasionally has subtitled thoughts. It's sort of cute.
Beginners is a low-key movie about real people and real emotions, the kind of piece that never really grabs you but that still impresses with its style, restraint and attention to detail. That said, it’s definitely not for everybody. My wife drifted to sleep about half way through, and while I liked the movie well enough, it’s left little lasting impression.

Going in, I’d expected a genial movie with a tour-de-force supporting performance from Christopher Plummer (it won him the Oscar), but that’s not what this is. Plummer plays Hal, a man who decides to come out of the closet at the ripe age of 75 only to soon discover he has terminal cancer. Despite the overt theatricality that could come with such a role, Plummer’s performance, like the movie itself, is delicate and restrained.
The veteran actor does a lot with very little, and is particularly adept at communicating the joy and comfort he takes in being “out,” as well as the underlying regret about having limited time to experience it. This is far from the crowning performance in his legendary career (The Insider really should’ve been the one to bring him the gold*), but it’s an affecting and worthy performance, especially considering his career excellence and the relatively weak competition he went up against last year.
*It’s worth noting that Plummer wasn’t even nominated for his towering performance as Mike Wallace, despite four of five nominees offering inferior work (Tom Cruise’s career-best work in Magnolia is the only one in the same class). The ultimate winner was Michael Caine, an all-time acting great who nevertheless managed to do far less to win that Oscar than Plummer
does here (despite already having one and therefore not having the caveat of being “due”).
Written and directed by Mike Mills, Beginners is a somewhat autobiographical film that focuses on Oliver (a typically strong Ewan McGregor), a sullen artist dealing with the coming out of his elderly father (Plummer) and his subsequent death. Actually, it’s more than that. The film jumps back and forth in time, showing Oliver in three distinct time periods, while also utilizing narration stylistically intercut with Oliver’s sketches for an album jacket and time-appropriate photos from each of the three periods to explore ideas of love, sadness, loneliness, and commitment.
Goran Visnjic plays Hal's young boyfriend. He was on ER.

The time periods include:
·        Oliver’s youth, during which he was far closer to his lonely eccentric mother (Mary Page Keller) than his distant father.
·        The period of time from his father’s coming out to his death, during which they grow far closer and warmer than they ever were.
·        The period of mourning after his father’s death in which he finds himself caring for Hal’s needy dog, attempts to make a grand statement with his art and falls in love with Anna (Mélanie Laurent), a quirky French actress.
A great deal of the action occurs in the final period, which is actually the one fictional part of the film. I’ve heard complaints that this portion is too twee, but the connection between McGregor and Laurent is powerful and I found myself enjoying it as much as the section featuring Plummer. It’s mostly an examination of Oliver’s ability to take a cue from his father’s decision to break free from the distancing loneliness of repression and open up to the possibility of love and happiness. Because of that, Anna isn’t fully fleshed out, but Laurent is alluring and relaxed, and contrasted with her excellent work in Inglorious Basterds, her work here is even more impressive. Like Marion Cotillard before her, Laurent is a French actress with real charisma and talent, and I hope to see more of her work.
As I mentioned at the outset, Beginners isn’t all that gripping, but it offers great subtle acting and some well-observed and affecting moments. For Mills, it’s a major step up from his first full-length feature Thumbsucker, which, despite being similarly low-key, quirky and character-focused, was far less effective. B

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Magic Mike Effectively Straddles the Line Between Camp and Art

This pictures captures the first of many, many stripping scenes.
With Magic Mike, director Steven Soderbergh and producers Channing Tatum and Reid Carolin (who star and write, respectively) pull a pretty neat trick.

This is a male stripper movie headed up by Tatum and Matthew McConaughey, and it delivers the goods promised in the trailers. Unsurprisingly, it’s bound to repel straight men, while also providing guilty pleasure to countless women (and gay men) hoping to ogle, hoot and holler with a group of friends.* 
* This really is the type of movie you want to see in a packed theater. In my theater, groups of women and gay men were out in droves and their good natured glee was infectious. Even better: the response of a straight man that came unaware of what he was in for. Somewhere in the middle of the first stripping sequence, when a character disrobed to a thong and jiggled their ass at the camera, he stood up, screamed "Hell no!” and marched out of the theater. Laughter followed.
At the same time, this is a Soderbergh film, and although he doesn’t shy away from offering the audience multiple helpings of manmeat, he also injects Magic Mike with his patented clinical approach and indie sensibilities. The end result is a fun raunchy romp that simultaneously plays as a dark and shrewdly observed slice of life that is as revealing in its details and character moments as it is in its lively and numerous stripping sequences.
The movie tells a pretty simple and formulaic story. Mike (Tatum) is a self-described entrepreneur who has his hands in a variety of businesses in the hopes of raising enough money to eventually start his own custom furniture business. His main source of income just so happens to come from his role as Magic Mike, one of the "cock-rocking kings of Tampa" at Xquisite, a male strip club owned by stripper mentor and emcee Dallas (McConaughey).
In his seven years as a stripper, Mike’s only saved $13,000 toward his dream, but he has created a portfolio, moved into a fairly luxurious pad, and led a high partying lifestyle that includes, as we see in his introductory scene, three-way flings with fuckbuddy  Joanna (Olivia Munn)** and random girls whose names neither can recall. 
** Guys wary of all the male skin, may be interested in the fact that the popular Munn does show off her assets in an early scene (they are displayed shortly after Tatum shows off his behind).
While working his roof tiling gig, Mike befriends Adam (Alex Pettyfer), a 19-year-old who threw away a football scholarship and is now adrift and crashing on the couch of his sister Brooke (Cody Horn). Mike eventually takes the kid under his wing, and it isn’t long before he’s impressed Dallas and joined the crew of Xquisite, alongside Mike and the likes of Ken (White Collar’s Matt Bomer), Big Dick Richie (True Blood’s Joe Manganiello),Tarzan (former wrestler Kevin Nash), and Tito (CSI: Miami’s Adam Rodriguez).
As the story progresses, we see Mike toying with the idea of life after stripping, pursuing his business interests and falling for the straight laced Brooke, all the while Adam begins to venture further and further down a sordid path that not only includes stripping, but also druggy sexual encounters and even some ecstasy dealing.

A girl fails to resist the charms of the guy who brought her kid
brother into the world of stripping and drug use.

The narrative setup isn’t exactly original, but the dialogue and characters are finely written and the execution so assured that there’s no mistaking this for a gender-reversed Showgirls. The film, which is reportedly inspired by Tatum’s previous life as a male stripper, really embraces the little details, showing Mike in a quiet moment flattening crumpled dollar bills or a bespectacled Bick Dick Richie working on a thong with a sewing machine.
It also offers Tatum, who impressed earlier this year in 21 Jump Street, his best role to date. Hollywood is starving for a young movie star, and given the 2012 he’s had and the projects on his upcoming slate, the quickly rising star may be it. Like Brad Pitt and George Clooney before him, he started his career as a sex symbol, but has consistently sought to grow as an actor, seeking out interesting projects, many of which have been headed by fantastic directors. None of them have been better than Soderbergh (who, incidentally helped legitimize Clooney as a big screen force), and it’s worth noting that he saw enough in Tatum when working on Haywire, to work with him on his last two theatrical releases before his much-discussed retirement/break from film.
Tatum rises to the challenge and really digs in with a winning performance that exploits and fine-tunes the laidback charm and restless vulnerability he’s showcased in his better roles. What really makes the performance is how effortless and naturalistic Tatum comes across, whether he’s donning a suit and glasses to talk equity with a loan officer, break dance stripping in the club (displaying moves kept under wraps since his breakthrough role in Step Up), or falling over his words as he tries to convince Brooke (and himself) that he “is not his lifestyle.”
The question of whether or not Mike is, in fact, his lifestyle provides the backbone of the story. He talks about starting his own business and works hard, and yet he’s still living vicariously and has only saved $13,000 in seven years. For a guy brining in several hundred a night tax free, that’s not exactly a lot of money. We’re told Mike has bad credit (and thus can’t get a bank loan), so the implication is that he, like Adam, may have made some dumb decisions when he was a young, wide-eyed party animal and has fallen into a slippery slope situation. 
McConaughey is awesome.
If Adam is the Mike of days gone by, Dallas is set up as what lies ahead for Mike if he doesn’t get off his current course. Dallas is a successful and astute business man, but he’s also a self-deifying blowhard who relishes his seedy existence. While everyone around him gets plenty of chances to strip on the catwalk, the movie wisely saves McConaughey’s big number for the film’s final moments, setting it as the backdrop during which Mike decides whether or not to withdraw himself from such an undesirable future.
The key supporting players are strong.  Pettyfer understates the melodrama nicely, while Horn, despite getting stuck playing the nag, grounds the film and displays excellent chemistry with Tatum. Meanwhile McConaughey, who has unjustly gotten a reputation as a bad actor due to years of mailing it in with generic romantic comedies, reminds how sly a performer he can be, offering up an interpretation that is equal parts magnetic, hilarious, creepy, and delusional. This is a bold performance that literally peaks with McConaughey bending over in from of the camera, and the fact that he was willing to put himself out there, while also delivering on the acting front, is laudable.
Tech aspects are excellent across the board. Serving as his own DP, Soderbergh employs a sepia-tinged filter and offers up some pretty atypical shot selections. Some of these are beautifully evocative and disarming, but the most memorable uses a widescreen frame to depict Adam stumbling upon Big Dick Ritchie fluffing himself prior to a performance (leave it to a craftsman like Soderbergh to shoot a demonstration of penis enlargement both humorously and artfully). 

Having said all of that, the movie isn’t perfect. It’s at least 10 minutes too long, and while almost every scene has a refreshing authenticity, Adam’s first few scenes in the club (particularly the one that necessitates he must go on stage) are silly and poorly constructed. 
And although the casting director deserves plaudits for brining in an eclectic group of beefcakes (particularly Manganiello who has become a major object of lust for the many True Blood fans and Boomer who’s probably one of the most popular gay icons out there right now), they are vastly underused. Initially, I suspected the movie would give them something to do (the first scene with the crew is funny and the roles feel lived in), but they devolve into nothing more than window dressing. Surprisingly, it’s Nash who leaves the greatest impression, injecting a Mickey Rourkeian vibe into his role as Tarzan.
Soderbergh and Tatum will team up for a third time in next
February's The Bitter Pill.

Overall, this is a really strong effort from all involved. There’s obviously a level of camp to the film, and most of the plot beats are formulaic, but the care put into the characters, dialogue, acting and craft aspects enable to film to transcend the core material. It’s a simple story with familiar themes, but Soderbergh and Tatum really hit it out of the park. Their next team up, The Bitter Pill, will see them working with a script from frequent Soderbergh collaborator Scott Z. Burns (The Informant, Contagion), as well as a cast that includes Jude Law, Catherine Zeta Jones and Rooney Mara (in her first performance her Oscar-nominated turn in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). The film his theaters in eight months, and seeing what the duo has accomplished here, I’m anxiously anticipating it. A