Hacksaw Ridge(12/19/2016)

It must take a special kind of insanity to willingly go to a theater to see a movie you’re 90% sure you won’t like out of some strange belief that you need to be involved in “the conversation.”  That’s especially true when you’re under no professional obligation to see anything and the range of people who care about your opinions is… limited.  Still, for whatever reason I do feel a certain pressure to go see certain movies that have a degree of relevance critically or commercially or in awards season.  In the case of Mel Gibson’s new movie Hacksaw Ridge I was desperately afraid that would end up happening.  The film’s trailer makes it look awful; like the worst kind of pandering mess made to appeal to the lowest common denominator and I was desperately afraid that it would become a big red state hit along the lines of an American Sniper or Gibson’s own The Passion of the Christ, but that never really ended up happening.  The movie actually did end up earning a good sixty million dollars at the box office, but it certainly wasn’t an unavoidable sensation.  Oddly enough, the critics were actually more enthusiastic or at least they were a lot less harsh on it than I expected, but they weren’t swaying me either.  What did finally force me to break down and see the damn thing were the award bodies.  Somehow the movie managed to make it to the National Board of Review’s top ten, and then it was nominated for a BFCA award, and then it somehow even managed to get a best picture nomination from the Golden Globes.  What the hell?  I’m now pretty worried the thing could somehow get an Oscar nomination (if The Blind Side could do it…), and given that I felt I had to see the movie so that I could complain about its success with credibility.

The film tells the true story of Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield), a man who grew up in rural Virginia in the Seventh Day Adventist church and believed in a strict form of pacifism because of this and because his father Tom Doss (Hugo Weaving) had awful experiences during the First World War.  However, once World War II began, Doss felt much the same obligation to fight as his peers did and as such he enlisted but only under the provision that he be trained to be a medic and not be forced to personally fight or even carry a weapon into battle.  This is met with skepticism by his fellow cadets as well as his drill instructor Sargent Howell (Vince Vaughn), and he’s even sent to face a court martial for his unorthodox demands, but eventually he gets his way and he’s deployed with the rest of his unit to Okinawa where they’re all asked to take over a heavily fortified position at the top of a steep ridge… the Hacksaw Ridge.

Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan has to have been one of the most influential movies released in my lifetime.  Before that movie there really weren’t that many World War II combat movies being made at all and the ones that were getting made didn’t look anything like the ones that have been made since.  Today it’s pretty much impossible to depict that war without muted colors, graphic violence, and soldiers who don’t look like action heroes.  However, time has dulled the effect of this style and what was once exhilaratingly original is now kind of a cliché.  Between Flags For Our Fathers, Fury, Pearl Harbor, Enemy at the Gates, Defiance, Windtalkers, Miracle at Saint Anna, two separate “Band of Brothers” series, and various video games I kind of feel like this style has been run into the ground.  That’s not to say that filmmakers absolutely need to stop making their World War II battles like this, just that this kind of spectacle alone does not really impress me anymore and I need the film itself to be doing more.  That is a problem for Hacksaw Ridge given that it’s one and only really redeeming feature is that much of its second half consists of an elaborate re-enactment of the battle atop Hacksaw Ridge, which is admittedly pretty well staged but adds almost nothing to the usual WW2 battle formula outside of its general size and the amount of screen time it takes up.  This sequence is notably gory even by modern war film standards, which isn’t an inherently incorrect decision given that the film wants to juxtapose the main character’s pacifism with the horrors of war, but Mel Gibson has long had something of a sadistic streak in his directorial efforts and it’s not hard to question his motives here.

It’s a good thing that the film eventually does at least become a serviceable battle movie because pretty much everything else about the movie absolutely sucks.  Andrew Garfield, an actor whose talents are increasingly appearing to be rather suspect plays Desmond T. Doss as the most punchably earnest sap that you could ever imagine.  His accent seems notably phony (a problem the movie has in general given that almost all the actors except Garfield and Vince Vaughn are from Australia) and Garfield never really makes this character seem believable or grounded.  Granted this is partly the fault of the material he has to work with, which can charitably be described as hagiographic.  If there’s any moral gray area in Doss’ decision to conduct himself in the way he did, the movie completely dismisses it in its pursuit of canonizing this guy.  Also, make no mistake, the fact that this guy was a pacifist is not really what the movie finds so admirable about him.  The movie does not give a damn about universally ending warfare and is very much of the belief that Japanese violence needed to be met with violence.  What the movie really likes about Doss is that he was unapologetically religious and that he “stuck to his guns” on the topic.  The film was clearly designed to do well with the “faith-based” audience and I’m thinking that the goal was for evangelical audiences to view the film as a sort of allegory for their own struggles in the face of public ridicule as they protest the teaching of evolution or picket abortion clinics or whatever the fuck those people are doing now.

Really there’s no limit to how corny this movie’s first half is with its goofy flashbacks, half-assed romance sub-plot, and silly court room theatrics.  It’s perhaps a testament to Gibson’s skills as a filmmaker that the movie ends up feeling bad rather than howlingly terrible by the time it ends, which is the result of a combination of that battle scene being pretty decent and just a sort of Stockholm syndrome that makes you inured to some of its dumber elements by the time you get to that second half, but make no mistake this is not a good movie.  It’s easily Mel Gibson’s worst directorial effort and I’m genuinely baffled that so many critics have completely given this thing a pass and that these awards bodies are giving it the time of day at all.  I for one would genuinely rather re-watch Pearl Harbor than sit through this thing again.

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Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice(3/26/2016)

I liked Man of Steel.  A lot.  To the point where it was in my top ten that year.  This was not a popular opinion.  I spent the better part of 2013 getting into fights with people who absolutely hated that movie and it was kind of draining to defend the movie as much as I did because I didn’t really have an intellectual silver bullet to prove the movie’s worth.  At the end of the day it was all a matter of taste, I thought it was a very well made superhero movie with a certain grandeur to it and I didn’t come into it demanding that it reflect whatever it was Superman was supposed to represent in the past.  Other people disagreed and were turned off both by the fact that it avoided the candy-colored lightness of the Marvel movies and also by the fact that Superman was depicted in a more human and fallible way and by the fact that it ended in a big destructive fight sequence that didn’t strike them as heroic.  I kept trying to explain that the collateral damage in the finale was mostly caused by the villains rather than the hero and that it wasn’t reasonable to expect Superman to stop and save random individuals on the street when there’s a bigger battle to be fought against a rampaging villain, but most people just don’t want to listen after they’ve found a high horse to get up on.  Anyway, given my appreciation for that movie you’d thing I’d be excited for director Zack Snyder’s follow-up, but that hasn’t really been the case, in part because it sounded like DC was cravenly trying to ripoff Marvel’s already tenuous “make superheroes team up” formula and was taking too many other dumb suggestions from the peanut gallery.  I’d like to say I was wrong to doubt Snyder and that I’d once again have a movie worth defending but alas, the critics are going to be right about this one.

The film picks up a little over a year after the events of Man of Steel and introduces audiences to our new Batman (Ben Affleck).  This batman has much the same origin story as the character we’re used to but has been engaging in his war on crime for quite a while by the time we enter into his story.  Bruce Wayne has been suspicious of Superman (Henry Cavil) since his introduction, in part because he lost friends during the disaster in Metropolis.  The public at large is also uneasy about this new entity in the world, especially after he’s blamed for a number of deaths in a rescue mission gone wrong in Africa.  There are congressional hearings into that incident and the high profile Metropolis billionaire Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) begins searching for a substance called Kryptonite that could be sold to the government in order to bring down this superhuman one and for all.  As tensions rise between all involved parties, it becomes clear that all these forces could come crashing into one another in an epic battle royale.

Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice has a whole lot of things it has to do: it needs to be a sequel to Man of Steel, it needs to introduce a new Batman, it needs to set up the formation of a Justice League down the line, and it needs to make good on its title and show Batman and Superman get into a great big fight.  Doing any one of those things would be a tall order and doing all four is s nigh impossible task and one also has to question if some of these things was a good idea to begin with.  The decision to create a DC Cinematic Universe where a bunch of separate heroes join up reeks of a company aping off of a competitor’s success and I don’t think that the Superman created in Man of Steel was ever meant to be part of a larger universe of superheroes, at least not this quickly.  Ultimately though I don’t think that part of the challenge is really the problem here, although it does lead to one embarrassingly clunky scene where three new heroes are introduced to audiences via CCTV footage.  Instead I think the biggest problem is the pressure of finding a good reason to actually have Batman and Superman fight.

The film’s opening scene depicts the finale of Man of Steel, but from the perspective of Bruce Wayne, who was apparently on the ground that day trying to reach his corporate headquarters.  It’s an interesting scene in that it shows Bruce Wayne doing exactly what everyone apparently thought Superman should have been doing in that scene: saving people.  He manages to help life debris off of one guy and manages to save one girl from a falling object all while doing fuck-all to actually stop General Zod or end the crisis at hand.  That’s the thing about the ending of that movie, people claim that Superman’s actions were needlessly destructive but he did kind of save the whole world in the process and I personally think he has nothing to apologize for.  But fine, whatever, assuming that his actions were indeed controversial with the public why don’t they just run with that?  Why is there also this incident in Africa in which Superman is blamed for the deaths of a bunch of people who were clearly shot rather that punched or vaporized by heat vision or any number of other telltale signs of Superman related slaughter?  That’s a waste and it’s frankly never exactly clear how the public at large feels about Superman, but it’s clear that Batman doesn’t like him at all.  You’d think that since Batman is himself a misunderstood vigilante (one who uses particularly questionable methods in this one) he wouldn’t be quick to judge Superman, but view him as a threat he does and the movie even goes so far as to stop everything and display an interesting looking but completely out of place dream sequence to underscore this.  It makes even less sense that Superman thinks ill of or particularly cares about Batman, but there is an underdeveloped sub-plot where Clark Kent wants to do a series of stories about Batman even though this shouldn’t really be news at this point in Batman’s career.

Ultimately the thing that brings these two to blows is an incredibly elaborate scheme by Lex Luthor and one that really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense as it plays out.  For starters, the direction they decided to go with Lex Luthor was completely wrong from the start.  The idea was to turn the character into a young Mark Zuckerberg style billionaire, but didn’t make him a self-made innovator so much as an heir, and then lazily cast the guy who straight-up played Zuckerberg in a different movie.  What’s more Luthor is depicted less as a ruthless, power-hungry, and brilliant criminal and more as a raving maniac who just wants to instigate mass destruction.  There is very little real motive for Luthor’s actions in the movie, Superman doesn’t seem to be on his case at all and as far as he knows neither is Batman so it’s quite unclear why the guy is so obsessed with killing either of them and especially not to the point where he’s going to go to such wildly extreme measures.  The whole movie would actually make a lot more sense if they’d just ditched Luthor and replaced him with The Joker, a character who would actually have a vendetta against superheroes and would have a lot less to lose by going to such extreme measures.

Zack Snyder is going to catch most of the blame for the movie even though his direction is almost certainly the best thing about it.  The film certainly looks good and there are some action scenes here that are really well done.  There’s a fight towards the end where Batman takes out a room of armed thugs which is basically the action scene we’ve long waited for from the character, the promised fight between the two characters isn’t bad once it gets started even if it ends in the stupidest way imaginable, and the chaotic final action scene is… well, it has problems but it certainly works better than it might in other hands.  In fact I think the most does sort of find its footing in its last half hour or so and becomes fairly effective as superhero action film but the damage is already done at that point.  I certainly don’t think that Snyder is blameless for this thing and there are some scenes like a poorly rendered car chase that he should have handled better, and people who were displeased by the collateral damage in Man of Steel will be just as mad at this movie.  In fact, I’m a lot less willing to forgive this one myself in that regard because Batman is a character that generally seem more rigid in that regard and some of the deaths here generally seemed more avoidable.

Really, the guy who needs to be fired for this thing is David S. Goyer… actually I’m not sure I want to pin this on him either because he was frankly given a rather thankless task.  The people truly responsible are the Warner Brothers marketing people who gave them an impossible number of things to do with one movie.  The decision to make this thing without first introducing Batman in a solo outing made sense given that no one really wanted a Batman reboot this early after the Nolan trilogy, but they probably should have just done that because trying to introduce a character in a massive crossover project like this proved to be too much.  What’s more, they should have never gotten it into their heads that this needed to literally be Batman versus Superman because the extent to which they had to contrive in order to bring these guys into opposition was a waste.  A simple team-up would have been sufficient.  Finally they shouldn’t have used this as an opportunity to cravenly introduce a larger universe of heroes because it really comes off desperate.  The Wonder Woman introduced here is decently rendered but the movie is too overstuffed as it is and the other cameos are just shameless. If they had discarded some of the excess baggage this thing might have had a chance but as it is the damn thing is an unsalvageable mess.  DC flew way too close to the sun with this one, they saw that Avengers money and decided to just dive in head first before they learned to swim.  It’s a shame because I do think that the grandiose and sincere style that Snyder was developing was sound and that they were right to try to do things differently from Marvel but they completely botched the execution along the way.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire(12/22/2013)

Warning: the following review contains plot spoilers

Regular readers will know that I’m not a reader of YA literature and I’m also not overly interested in the film adaptations of YA novels.  Hell, it took me over twelve years to even see a Harry Potter movie.  Still, when the film version of The Hunger Games came out last year I did kind of get caught up in the hype and went ahead and saw the film simply to better understand what the buzz was all about.  I didn’t end up loving the film, but it was better than I thought it would be.  It had a couple elements I really liked (namely Jennifer Lawrence’s performance, some of the political allegories, the dystopic world it was set in), and a couple elements I didn’t care for at all (namely the action, the pacing, and some of its questionable production values).  Most of the things I disliked were things that could easily be smoothed over in future sequels, so I was pretty hopeful that what I’d seen could serve as the foundation for a franchise that would be better than its first installment.  The decision to replace the first film’s director with Francis Lawrence, a man who is pretty good at building worlds and helming action scenes, made me all the more excited to see where the series would go.

And yet, once the film was finally released I actually wan’t all that excited to go.  The first film had come out in early March, a week that is generally devoid of competition, and that played a big role in my decision to begrudgingly give the film a shot a couple weeks after it had opened.  This time around, Lionsgate opted to open the film in the middle of November, a time when there are probably a million other things I could be seeing.  As such I decided that I’d have to skip it.  I even stuck to that decision for five weeks, but then almost on a whim I decided that this was a little too big of a film to ignore, especially when everything I’d heard suggested that it was indeed an improvement over the original.  Besides, I needed a blockbuster to cleanse the palate in-between prestige films, so I took the plunge.  And after having seen The Hunger Games: Catching Fire I’ve got to say, I kind of wish I’d stuck with my guns and skipped it because it is not only not an improvement over its predecessor but it’s a substantial step backwards.

Set one year after the events of the last film, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire picks up with Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) back in her home district and having made a new enemy in the form of President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland), who is angry that her conduct in the games last year seems to have fanned the flames of rebellion within the districts.  His hands are tied though because the people of the capital did not recognize the rebellion in her behavior and have become obsessed with the supposed romance between her and her Hunger Games partner Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson).  To deal with this, Snow and the new gamekeeper (Phillip Seymore Hoffman) devise a plan to turn the next year’s Hunger Games into a sort of tournament of champions as a means of forcing Katniss back into the arena, where she’ll presumably be forced to do some less than popular things and then be killed in the process.

In many ways The Hunger Games: Catching Fire feels less like the second part of a larger story and more like a simple sequel.  As in, the kind of sequels that used to get hastily thrown together to cash in on a film’s success back in the day when film franchises weren’t carefully planned out from the start.  Like those old-school sequels the idea seems to be less “lets further explore this world” and more “let’s take the formula from the old film and make it bigger.”  That’s going to be the backbone of my case against this film: it feels like a complete rehash.  Like the first film, it starts with Katniss in her district, then moves on to the capital where she needs to train and also solicit sponsors, and finally its second half is a fight to the death in the Hunger Games arena.  As such it retains a lot of the same flaws that hurt the original film like the fact that it wastes way too much time in the capital before getting to the arena or the fact that it’s populated with garish costumes that have entire scenes dedicated to showcasing.

Whenever the film does deviate from the formula though, it’s almost always for the worse.  For instance, the decision to have the games be populated by former players (many of whom are adults) pretty thoroughly robs the high concept of a lot of its disturbing power.  These “tributes” seem less like scared masses being forced into a bad situation and more like the freakish “stalkers” who hunted down Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Running Man.  When these guys get killed in the game it feels less like the result of a brutal society and more like a bunch of bad guys simply getting killed off.  In fact, for the most part, the environment seems to be a much bigger threat to Katniss and her allies in this Hunger Games than any of her actual opponents.

I also thought that the character motivations in this installment were all over the place.  For example, early in the film the Peeta character is given an opportunity to not participate in the games, but chooses to anyway in order to spare the Haymitch Abernathy from having to compete.  Why?  Haymitch is an old drunk, what in the world would make Peeta want to sacrifice his own safety in order to save him?  I suppose it could have been that Peeta was part of the conspiracy that is revealed in the film’s final moments (more on that later), even then he should have had some kind of explanation for this sudden nobility because it sure doesn’t fit with the narrative that he and Katniss are trying to sell to the wider population of this world.  And speaking of people who are inexplicably trying to save other people who they seemed to previously express no affection for, why is Katniss so hell bent on saving Peeta?  She spends most of the movie’s first third expressing that she’s just not that into him and that their supposed romance is just an act, but then at about the halfway point she starts to seem downright devoted to him and starts insisting over and over again that he “needs” to survive the games.  This is odd firstly because, well, it kind of makes him look like a punk bitch, and secondly because she’s the one who is a symbol of resistance in this world and is clearly more important to the world than he is.

As for that twist ending… I fucking hate it.  Firstly I think it’s illogical.  That the conspirators keep the whole thing a secret from Katniss is itself ridiculous and kind of diminishes Katniss as this resourceful hero.  Also, their whole plan seems to be entirely predicated on Katniss making a spur of the moment decision without any kind of prodding.  I have no idea how they knew that that was going to happen, especially when one considers that that thing that she does which makes the big escape is kind of ridiculous.  Arrows can’t generally be shot that high, and if that dome is going to completely shatter over that… it’s just silly.  It’s also abrupt.  It felt like the games were only barely afoot when I looked at my watch and saw that the movie was almost over.  I thought to myself “how are they going to wrap all this up in so short a time.”  Needless to say, I was not impressed when the answer was more or less “they aren’t.”  Instead they do this convoluted and rushed plot twist that is conveyed largely through this brief dialogue scene at the end which feels more like a complete cliffhanger than like a portent for what’s to come.  At least end on some kind of shot of the people marching in the street or something, don’t just cut from Katniss crying like a baby over her non-boyfriend to some cheesy looking logo.

I will give new director Francis Lawrence credit for one thing: he does seem to have a slightly better grasp on how to film an action scene than Gary Ross did.  He also seems to have been given a slightly higher budget to work with, so the film generally does look a little better than the last one, but the improvement isn’t necessarily by leaps and bounds by any means.  If anything it kind of makes me think I was too hard on Ross, at least he seemed to have a better grasp of how to pace his time in the Hunger Games arena.  In fact, I’d say that this movie generally gave me a better appreciation of that first film insomuch as it showed how everything about that movie could have potentially been done worse.  Even Jennifer Lawrence seems to be phoning it in here so that she can focus her energies on her David O. Russell projects.  I remember liking her a lot in the last film, but her performance here seems to be off, there are definitely some rather brutal line readings here that she seems to botch.

More than anything, this movie’s biggest sin is that it just never seems to justify its own existence.  Most of the pleasure I derived from the first film came from being introduced to this crazy fantasy world.  Here we learn very little new about that world and instead just see all the stuff we saw in the first film all over again.  What’s more, the story itself just seems to be treading water and setting things up for the third film, which is presumably where all the real action is going to be.  Hell, pretty much everything that’s really interesting about this installment seems to be happening off screen.  I would have much rather seen the rebellion being built out in the districts or seen the conspirators come up with their elaborate plan to help said rebellion than spend the whole installment watching Katniss lackadaisically replay her last adventure while being stuck in the dark about all the good stuff.  All in all, I think this movie is kind of a disaster.  I was about as let down by it as one could possibly be by a film that one waited five weeks to bother going to.

*1/2 out of Four

DVD Catch-Up: Limitless (8/22/2011)

The first thing that came to mind whenever I thought of the movie Limitless was that Kanye West song “Power,” which played through the film’s trailer.  That’s a good freaking song and it works good in trailers (it’s been in many), and it makes sense that they’d choose it to represent a movie about the dangerous side of a man getting incredible thought capacity (“no one man should have all that power,” after all).  In fact I might go so far as to give Mr. West a substantial amount of the credit for the film’s 155 million dollar worldwide gross, because there’s nothing about “low budget, high concept sci-fi thriller starring ‘that dude from the Hangover’” which screams blockbuster.  But put a good beat (possibly one with tribal chants and a King Crimson sample) and you’ve got yourself something that actually looks pretty substantial and exciting.  Of course there’s not a lot of truth in advertising but the movie still looked kind of cool, and at the very least it was a commercial film from Hollywood that wasn’t a remake and didn’t feature a super hero, so I thought I’d give it a spin.

The film is about Eddie Mora (Bradley Cooper), a struggling novelist living in squalor who’s about to be dumped by his girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish).  At his lowest point he bumps into an acquaintance named Vernon Gant (Johnny Whitworth) who offers him a sample of an “FDA approved” drug that will increase his brainpower tenfold and allow him to accomplish things with amazing speed.  Mora tries the pill and is able to finish a novel in a matter of hours.  Amazed at what the pill can do for him he returns for more only to find Gant dead in his apartment, murdered by some unknown assailant.  Before allowing the police into the crime scene Mora finds Gants sizable stash of the wonder pill and pockets it.  Cleared of all charges, Mora is free to use the drug in order to amass a fortune working for a powerful entrepreneur named Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro), but soon he finds himself plagued by both the side effects of the drug and sought after by the people who eliminated Gant.

Where do I start with this script?  Well, let’s start with its horrible, pointless, lazy use of voiceover.  This is not a story that couldn’t be conveyed without Cooper walking the audience through the plot, nor does the voice over add any extra color or insights to the proceedings.  I’m not even sure why they thought this voice over was necessary because it really serves no purpose.  That’s just water under the bridge though, because this script also has holes and contrivances that make no sense when the slightest scrutiny is applied to the proceedings.  For instance, early in the film Mora borrows $100,000 dollars from a loan shark named Gennady (Andrew Howard) in order to kick start his investment scheme.  Not two scenes later it’s established that Mora’s character has already become a millionaire through this scheme, and you’d think the first thing he’d do is pay back the debt he owes to this violent sociopath, but no, that would have ruined the “surprise” return of the loan shark into the story late in the second act.  The script also has a lot of other half baked “surprises” in store that you’d think someone with super-powered intelligence would see coming like when Robert De Niro’s character points out that one of his business rivals is a prodigy who came out of nowhere two years ago.  Uh huh, that couldn’t possibly have something to do with the wonder drug that Mora’s been taking, could it?

All of this might have been a little easier to overlook if the execution were better, but director Neil Burger mostly just confirms his reputation as a mediocrity here, and his lack of innate talent is only more pronounced here given that he’s trying some visual tricks that don’t work out.  For one, Burger makes the decision to brightly illuminate all the scenes where Mora is under the influence of the wonder drug and then give all the scenes where he’s not under the influence a dark and gloomy look.  It’s a rather tacky and distracting palette and it isn’t helped by the fact that both lighting schemes are rather ugly.  Elsewhere Burger tries to illustrate the effects and side effects of the drug through a variety of flashy music video tricks (including a sex scene shot in what appears to be a 300-style speed ramp) which he simply does not pull off with any kind of real panache.  A good actor in the central role would have also helped the film, but alas, Bradley Cooper does not bring any kind of likability or even some relatable humanity to the main character.  As such Eddie Mora comes off as something of a selfish and irresponsible douchebag throughout the film, which only make the film’s anticlimactic ending all the more frustrating, because [spoilers ahead] the character basically gets away without any consequences and is actually rewarded for his behavior.  I’m just going to assume that the studio was to blame for this lame ending, firstly because you can really see the moment where things start to feel tacked on and secondly because this is just generally the kind of idea that only marketing committees can collectively be stupid enough to come up with.

Are there any redeeming qualities on display in Limitless?  Well, there are a few.  I suppose the basic premise does bring up some fairly interesting questions like “what’s the point of gaining intelligence if you can’t retain it,” even if the script doesn’t adequately explore the implications.  I guess there are also a couple of scenes in which the character’s increased intelligence is at least used somewhat creatively… I’m reaching here.  Really though, aside from the theory about the trailer that I outlined at the beginning I have no idea why this thing resonated at all with audiences.  This is exactly the kind of dumb Hollywood movie whose shortcomings can only be masked by distracting the audience with special effects and explosions, and this doesn’t even have that.  It’s a poorly executed update on the Faust legend that doesn’t even have the balls to punish it’s lead character for selling his soul to the devil.

*1/2 out of Four

DVD Catch-Up: Halloween II(2/5/2010)

            Dammit Rob Zombie, why can’t you ever live up to your potential?  For those who don’t know, Rob Zombie is a rock star turned film director who has embraced violent 70s grindhouse films as his aesthetic of choice.  His debut film, The House of 1000 Corpses, showed some potential in spite of its many flaws and this potential was tapped into for its sequel The Devil’s Rejects.  Rejects remains Rob Zombie’s only complete success as he choose to follow it up by making an awful remake of John Carpenter’s classic Halloween.  Granted, Rob Zombie was probably able to inject that project with more interesting ideas than the average music video director would have, but the movie he made was an aggressively unpleasant piece of work.  I had a viscerally uncomfortable experience watching that thing and it wasn’t in a good or deliberate way. It was so visually dark, so pointlessly violent and worst of all it was a completely unneeded remake.  His sequel to that remake is probably a little better than the 2007 film, if only because it’s treading on less sacred ground, but it’s remains a complete mess that should generally be avoided.

            Set a few years after the initial remake, this sequel follows Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton) as she lives with the fallout of her brush with danger.  It should probably ne noted that it was the director’s cut which I saw, in which Strode’s life is a mess.  This is actually one of the more successful aspects of the movie; I found this depiction of the character a lot more interesting than the one in the 2007 film.  Meanwhile Dr. Loomis (Malcolm McDowell), who apparently survived his violent death in the 2007 film, has written a book about Michael Myers and is on a high profile tour to promote it.  This sub-plot is probably the worst part of the whole movie, Dr. Loomis is one of the most iconic non-violent characters in horror cinema and this depiction of him is completely out of character, which I could forgive if I thought he served any real story purpose but he doesn’t. 

Amidst all this, Michael Myers also comes out of the woodwork and starts randomly killing people. The handling of the actual Myers material is particularly weird, as he feels almost like an afterthought in his own flick.  Also, the logistics of his stalking does not make very much sense.  He seems to just emerge at all parts of the town in order to murder people, how he manages to travel from place to place so fast is never explained.  A lot of the killing scenes almost just feel like filler, inserted into the movie in order to increase the violence quotient, which is the same purpose that the well executed but bizarre and pointless twenty minute dream sequence that opens the film.

Stylistically, Zombie feels a bit more at home with this movie than he did in the 2007 film.  Zombie shoots the film in a pretty cheap and gritty way, and this suits his style better than the Carpenter imitating that was going on in the 2007 film.  He also seems a bit more willing to include Zombie-esque tangential kitsch which is can occasionally be fun.  This is probably what saves the film from unwatchability, I certainly didn’t find it as actively unpleasant as that 2007 version, but this is an incredibly flawed work just the same.

*1/2 out of Four

DVD Catch-Up: X-Men Origins: Wolverine(12/11/2009)

            Oh how the mighty have fallen.  The X-Men franchise used to be a leader in the superhero genre; the original X-Men basically kicked off the current craze and X-Men 2 was able to one-up all the other emerging franchises back in 2003.  Then a man named Brett Ratner came onto the scene and Yoko-ed the whole thing up.  X-Men: The Last Stand was a major step down from its predecessors, eliminating all the classiness that kept the series ahead of its competitors and reduced the whole thing to merely being a generic 00s action movie in the worst possible sense of what that can mean.  It’s like the series had gone from something on par with the Bourne Series and suddenly turned it into something closer to the XXX series.  To turn this into a musical analogy; the band just put out a pathetic album and decided to split up, now the popular lead singer has put together a mildly talented group of studio musician and put out a bland solo record called X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

            Those who were somewhat intrigued by the prospect teased in the trailers of a story about an immortal living through the course of history, this movie will be a disappointment.  All that material is finished by the end of the opening credits, in which the instantly healing Victor Creed (Liev Schreiber taking the role originally played by Tyler Mane) and Logan (Hugh Jackman) live through multiple wars throughout American history.  This run ends in Vietnam where their power is discovered by Major William Stryker (Danny Huston taking the role originally played by Brian Cox in X-Men 2), who decides to recruit them for Team X, a group of mutants who engage in black ops for the government.  Logan approves of this for a while, but the carnage begins to wear on him.  After a particularly tense mission, Logan decides to leave and the team disbands.  The film picks up six years later when Victor returns and murders the woman Logan was living with (Lynn Collins).  Swearing revenge, Logan agrees to undergo physical enhancements from Stryker, but soon learns that Stryker is not someone to be trusted.

            The first problem here is the new set of mutants.  Liev Schreiber is pretty good in his role, even if they make no attempt to connect the continuity between his role and the Sabretooth from the first X-men film.  The rest of the cast is second string at best and embarrassingly stupid at the worst.  Many of the actors here like Taylor Kitsch and Daniel Henney feel like bland models from central casting.  Will.i.am, an incredibly lame musician who makes one of the worst screen debuts in recent memory, plays a teleporting mutant who’s basically a poor man’s Nightcrawler.  Then there’s The Blob (Kevin Durand), a character they really just shouldn’t have tried to translate from page to screen.  Compare this cast to the rest of the series, which was populated by great character actors like Patrick Stewart and Ian Mckellen, even the smaller roles were filled by cool character actors like Alan Cumming and Anna Paquin. 

            To the film’s credit, it has two action set-pieces that are pretty cool.  One is scene where Wolverine is attacked by a helicopter while fleeing on motorcycle, which is probably the film’s highlight.  There’s also a fight scene towards the end which is fairly creative.  However, outside of those two scenes the action here is lame.  The problem is that all the mutants here are not just super-powered, they also seemed to have acquired crazy matrix-style acrobatic moves that they use to ridiculous results.  The biggest offender here is the character of Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) who can apparently deflect the bullets of multiple fully automatic rifles with his swords and then split a bullet in half in mid air… right.  He’s not the only one either.  In the previous X-films the characters had powers, but were essentially human outside of them, this went a long way towards grounding the films.  In this film pretty much every power automatically comes with superhuman speed, strength, endurance, agility, and balance.

            There’s a wide variety of other problems of course.  The political allegories which even the bland Brett Ratner movie had the courage to tackle had basically been abandoned here.  Also, the special effects can be pretty bad at times, they’re fine in the big set-pieces but the CGI gets iffy during some of the quieter scenes in need of effects.  The movie also has a lot of trouble staying in the continuity of the series, I already mentioned the Sabretooth disconnection that can only be seen as a retcon, but there’s also a nonsense plot device added to explain how Wolverine no longer had his memories in the later installments.  There’s also an astonishingly predictable twist that the audience is in on long before Wolverine is.

            What hurts about this movie is that it really could have been good if the people producing it had actually given a damn.  There was room for interesting material in Wolverine’s origin, and every once in a while the movie shows signs of life, but its ultimately undone by its compromised by a central lack of ambition.  It’s clear that the producers had done the math and realized they could get a great opening weekend by slapping the X-Men name onto any semi-competent movie and decided to deliver just that, a semi competent movie, and by all accounts they were able to fool a lot of people into showing up to see it.  To return to my music analogy, the 20th Century Fox had better hope that this band can settle their differences and make a comeback album, because audiences aren’t going to put up with these half-assed solo albums for much longer.

*1/2 out of Four