Saturday, July 31, 2010

"She's Out of My League" (2010)

Starring Jay Baruchel, Alice Eve and TJ Miller
Written by Sean Anders and John Morris
Directed by Jim Field Smith

Jay Baruchel stars as Kirk, a lovable loser type who one day meets the girl of his dreams and is shocked to discover that she's actually interested in him, as well.  Kirk meets Molly when she accidentally leaves her phone at a TSA checkpoint at an airport where Kirk works.  The two agree to meet when she returns in order for him to give her the phone, and as a thank you, she invites him to a hockey game.

As the two of them grow closer, Kirk's insecurities and lack of self confidence start to get the best of him.  His friends and family don't help, constantly telling him that Molly is, well, out of his league.  Ultimately, this will cause the relationship to fall apart entirely.  Will Kirk be able to grow up and decide that he is actually good enough for Molly? 

"She's Out of My League" is a pretty funny mixture of gross-out, ribald humor and charming romantic comedy.  It's not destined to become any great classic, but as purely middle-of-the-road entertainment, it can't really be faulted in any way.  It seems more like a stepping stone to better films for pretty much everyone involved, including Baruchel who, much like Michael Cera, gives the impression of being capable of so much more, but seems to stay safely within a certain range that has made him popular.  He's got fine timing, and is definitely capable of eliciting laughs from his own awkwardness.

Alice Eve does well, too, as the buxom blonde Baruchel falls for.  She's fun, and charming, and it's easy to see why Baruchel would both love her and question why.  It would've been easy for this girl to be unlikable, for us to wonder why Kirk would like such a girl beyond the fact that she's smokin' hot.  But Eve imbues Molly with a likable personality beyond just her looks.

Kirk's gaggle of oddball friends provide a lot of the laughs in the film as well, with lots of wild, hilarious statements.  TJ Miller as 'Stainer' is the sort of Stifler-replacement for the film, and does an admirable job.  The other two, Nate Torrence as Devon and Mike Vogel as Jack, aren't featured as heavily, but both come across as silly and likable.  They both have excellent advice to give Kirk, it's too bad that he doesn't take it often enough (but then, that's sort of the idea). 

The problem is that these characters simply aren't the sort of material that make classic comedy characters.  No one here is going to become the next John Blutarsky, Peter Venkman or even the next Steve Stifler.  They're all perfectly funny in their own right, but sort of nameless faceless characters, like the guy who opens for Jerry Seinfeld - he's funny, but he's no Seinfeld. 

"She's Out of My League" has lots of funny bits, but probably isn't the sort of thing that will gain lasting fame or a big following.  It's solid, if disposable, entertainment. 

Thursday, July 29, 2010

'Stargate Universe' Season 1, vol 2 (2010) [blu-ray]

Starring Robert Carlyle, Louis Ferreira and Brian J. Smith
Created by Robert C. Cooper and Brad Wright

Picking up where the first half of the season left off, "Stargate Universe" amps up the problems the crew of Destiny face.  Colonel Young (Louis Ferreira) has marooned Dr. Rush (Robert Carlyle) on a barren alien world, but told the crew that Rush was caught in a rock slide.  The crew grow suspicious of this, with civilians like Camille Wray (Ming Na) deciding that enough is enough, and they begin to plan a mutiny to take over the ship.  Meanwhile, Destiny begins to encounter dangerous alien lifeforms intent on taking control of the ship.

And, of course, a third threat begins to build from a surprising place - back on Earth, the Lucian Alliance has managed to plant a spy in Stargate Command, and they may have found a way to board Destiny.  Young and his crew will have to learn to put aside their differences and defend the ship and their lives from these various outside threats.

The second half of this first season of "Stargate Universe" is a bit more energetic than the first.  The show ramps up the action quotient a bit, though in general is still a slower-paced show than previous "Stargate" shows.  This is problematic, however, because the show sometimes goes too far in the wrong direction.  The ideological conflict between the civilians and the military becomes rather grating towards the end when the civilians, especially Wray, become extremely unlikable.

Wray will often get in the way of things, claiming some kind of higher moral authority from being a civilian, when in such cases it's obvious that the military could and should remain in charge.  It's the sort of overly exaggerated 'liberal' character that does no one any favors.  The problem is that the show sets up the military being in the right whenever she comes around and starts talking about how in a civilized society, military takes orders from people like her.  Sure, that's all well and good, except that the situation never seems to fit her interpretation of the way things should be.

This isn't helped by the fact that Colonel Young can't ever seem to take ten seconds to explain to Wray why he does the things he does, somehow thinking that "because those are my orders" should be good enough for her.  In the episodes leading up to the finale, when Young is attempting to gather information from the uncovered spy, he hatches a plan to break the brain-washing the spy has undergone with involves removing the air from the room.  Wray, of course, objects to this on principle - "It'll kill him!"  Except that Young's plan isn't to kill the spy.  A couple of sentences along the lines of, "I'm not going to kill him, I just need to make sure he's not brainwashed anymore" would go a loooong way.

Still, despite these annoyances, "Stargate Universe" is a rather enjoyable show.  I certainly find it more entertaining than anything past the first season of "Stargate Atlantis."  The aliens Destiny encounter in the first few episodes of volume 2 are intriguing, more so than anything "Atlantis" ever did.  It's too bad they only appear for a few episodes before focus shifts back to the building threat from the Lucian Alliance, a "Stargate: SG-1" enemy that were never all that interesting to begin with and don't get any better here.

On blu-ray, the show looks great.  Watching it on TV, the show looks pretty decent, but doesn't really pop.  Here, colors are bright and bold, with the show seeming much more colorful and visually interesting than it ever does on TV.  The DTS-HD audio track is also quite nice, with crystal clear dialogue and booming bass usage.  Surround use is fairly limited, however, since the show rarely has more active events that require them.  Still, ambient noises aboard Destiny are fairly cool, and when the action does come, it's lively and energetic.

A small surprise, the volume 2 or "Season 1.5" blu-ray set came with a "Complete First Season" box that fits both the 1.0 and 1.5 releases in it.  Not bad, and it seems likely that a forthcoming "Complete First Season" release will simply be the two 1.0 and 1.5 releases contained in the same box for around the same price.

'V' (1983)

Starring Marc Singer, Michael Durrell and Faye Grant
Written and directed by Kenneth Johnson

I've been aware of "V" for quite some time.  I've heard my father talk about it occasionally, and seen it on the shelves of video stores for years.  I knew vaguely what it was about - aliens who pretend to be our friends arrive one day, but a select few people learn the truth and eventually begin to resist.  But I'd never seen it until I noticed it available for streaming on Netflix.  I added both "V" and it's sequel, "V: The Final Battle" and have begun watching them finally.

"V" is a pretty interesting alien invasion story.  It begins on a day like any other, when suddenly a number of alien motherships appear in the skies over Earth's major cities.  Panic and fear grip the world, as, for an entire day, these ships do nothing but hover silently over the world.  When the aliens do finally reveal themselves, the people of Earth are shocked to see that they look just like humans; the only difference being a strange vocal distortion.  These 'Visitors' ask for humanity's help manufacturing a chemical needed to repair the atmosphere of their world, and in return offer to share their incredible advanced technologies with humanity.

At first, this seems like a dream come true for the people of Earth.  But things soon begin to appear too good to be true.  Journalist Michael Donovan (Marc Singer), eager for a big story, discovers that the Visitors human appearance is a facade - underneath, they are hideous reptiles that eat live creatures.  The Visitors soon usurp control of the world, under the guise of security, saying it's in humanity's best interests.  Many go along with this farce, but some do not - specifically, the scientific community, who have now been targeted by the Visitors.  While the scientists feel the Visitors must think them a threat for a reason, others believe the scientists of Earth are just evil and trying to ruin it for everyone.

"V" is a pretty intriguing miniseries.  It's rather obviously a parallel to the events leading up to World War II, with scientists and their families in the place of the European Jews.  There are plenty of scenes where scientists are trying to hide or smuggle themselves out of Los Angeles.  The underground resistance that forms is very much like those of yore, small, scared, unprepared groups who sneak out under curfew.  The visitors themselves are very Nazi-like, and their symbol looks much like a swastika.  The wide cast of characters encompasses a number of different character types, from sympathizers, resistance fighters, and those who aren't courageous enough to do anything but sit back and hope not to get noticed. 

I was worried that this sort of obvious, ham-fisted approach might ruin "V", but it doesn't.  There is an elderly Jewish character who helps to remind other characters of what is happening, and forms an emotional thread for the audience to follow along.  "If we don't help," he says, "then we haven't learned a thing."  That pretty much ties all the themes of "V" together in one nice little bow.

The acting in "V" is fairly typical of TV miniseries; no one here is really knocking it out of the park, but the performances are perfectly solid and capable.  Sometimes the script is at fault; a few conversations go on a little too long, obviously trying to pad out the running time to fill two nights of material.  Characters will sometimes make their point two or three times in a scene, and occasionally will do things I can only describe as incredibly stupid, in order to lengthen the movie.

The visual effects, for the most part, are kind of cheesy but serviceable.  I'm sure in 1983 they looked pretty good, but in 2010, the most I can do is give it that much credit.  There's nothing here that looks atrociously bad, but it's definitely dated, both in design and execution.  The final dogfight at the end is probably the worst, but that's mostly because it's the most ambitious effects sequence in the entire film. 

I enjoyed "V," though with some reservations.  It's a little too obvious in its parallels to World War II, and occasionally has problems with pacing and characters doing stupid things, but overall it's a lot of fun.  I look forward to finishing it with "The Final Battle".

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

"Batman: Under the Red Hood" (2010)

Starring Bruce Greenwood, Jensen Ackles and John DiMaggio
Written by Judd Winick
Directed by Brandon Vietti

These DC Universe animated features have been pretty up and down, some decent, some not so much.  "Batman: Under the Red Hood," however, is easily the best of them all.  Excellent vocal performances and a top-notch script from Batman comics writer Judd Winick makes this one a more than worthy addition to the Batman franchise.

The film starts years prior, with Batman (Bruce Greenwood) racing toward a warehouse where the Joker (John DiMaggio) has kidnapped young Robin.  Unfortunately, he doesn't make it in time, and Robin is killed in the blast when Joker detonates a bomb.  Batman is crushed, and considers it his greatest failure.  Five years later, a mysterious new force arrives in Gotham.  Calling himself the Red Hood (Jensen Ackles), this new player begins to wage war on Gotham's criminal underworld by taking it over piece by piece, and killing anyone who gets in his way.  Batman takes on the investigation, aided by Nightwing (Neil Patrick Harris), the original Robin.

As Red Hood continues to cut and shoot his way through Black Mask's criminal empire, Black Mask becomes increasingly desperate, and makes the same mistake that Ra's al Ghul made at the beginning of the film: he trusts the Joker to do the dirty work for him.  But since the Joker can't be trusted, chaos ensues, and revelations will be made about the Red Hood's identity as he engineers a final encounter between Batman, himself and the dangerous Joker.

This is the first DC Universe feature that, to me, felt like it wasn't missing large portions of material in order to fit the 75-minute running time imposed by the studio.  It feels like a cohesive whole, with compelling characters and excellent action sequences.  This is definitely a well made, entertaining Batman adventure. 

Bruce Greenwood does well as the Caped Crusader.  He's able to bring good emotion through that gravely voice, at times reminding me of the best Batman ever: Kevin Conroy.  I know I've said this before in other reviews, but Conroy still has yet to be topped in his portrayal of the Dark Knight, whether in live action or animated form.  Greenwood is a worthy successor here, striking just the right balance of gruff.

Jensen Ackles is also fine as Red Hood, using his excellent comic timing often on display in "Supernatural" to breathe a little life into Hood, but also bringing good emotional heft to the performance when it counts. 

The real standout of the cast, however, is John DiMaggio's Joker.  Sort of a mixture of interpretations, he voices the character like a bridge between Mark Hamill's excellent take in "Batman: The Animated Series" and Heath Ledger's in "The Dark Knight."  Throw in a design that seems to evoke the Jack Nicholson version from 1989's "Batman" and you've got yourself a sort of conglomerate Joker of the last two decades.  The thing that makes it all work, however, is the sheer menace that DiMaggio's performance exudes.  This is a dangerous, utterly untrustworthy Joker - the best way to portray this character, if you ask me.  He's not some harmless clown, as he can sometimes be portrayed, but a true, sick and dangerous individual. 

The animation in "Under the Red Hood" is pretty solid.  None of these DC Universe features will ever win any Oscars in that department, but it's got it where it counts.  Unlike the "Superman/Batman: Public Enemies" movie, which suffered from low framerates, movement is rather fluid in "Under the Red Hood."  An early sequence with Batman and Nightwing taking on an Amazo android in Gotham's shipyards is really well done, as is a later fight where Batman defends Red Hood from a gang of assassins. 

So overall, "Under the Red Hood" takes the cake as the best of the DC Universe features.  A solid voice cast with an outstanding Joker performance from John DiMaggio, great animation and a really good, coherent script make this one a winner.

Monday, July 26, 2010

"Back to the Future" (1985)

Starring Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd and Lea Thompson
Written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale
Directed by Robert Zemeckis

My friend Jeremy said, "'Back to the Future' is the only film that can make the line, 'Apparently your mother is amorously infatuated with you instead of your father' sound innocent."  He's absolutely right.  For all the things in this movie that could have gone catastrophically wrong (including having your star, Eric Stolz, drop out in the middle of filming) "Back to the Future" is a pitch-perfect sci-fi comedy.  Mixing elements of science fiction, adventure and romantic comedy, seamlessly, "Back to the Future" has earned its place as a modern classic with a charming and witty script, iconic performances from a talented cast, and sure direction.

Michael J. Fox stars as Marty McFly, a teen with big dreams of becoming a rock star, but who seems stuck in his life as an underachiever, something he seems to have inherited from his father, George (Crispin Glover).  George lives under the thumb of his office supervisor, Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson) who also bullied him in high school.  Marty's mother, Lorraine (Lea Thompson) drinks and seems to regret having spent her life with George, even though she loves him.  Marty is also the assistant of a local eccentric scientist, Emmett "Doc" Brown (Christopher Lloyd).  One night, Doc calls Marty to the local shopping mall to help him out with his latest experiment.

Marty is shocked to discover that Doc has invented a working time machine, and built it into the chassis of a DeLorean.  Doc says, "If you're gonna build a time machine into a car, why not do with some style?"  However, in order to power the device, Doc had to steal a shipment of plutonium from a group of Libyan terrorists, who drop in just as Doc is about to take off for the future in his greatest invention.  With Doc dead, Marty uses the time machine to escape, but finds himself thirty years in the past, the year 1955, where he accidentally averts the event that causes his parents to meet and fall for each other.

Trapped in the past, Marty and the younger version of Doc must race against time to get his parents together and repair the time machine before a critical moment that will allow Marty to power the time machine without plutonium and get... "Back to the Future."

Let's start with the script: It's hilarious.  The dialogue in the film is full of wit and charm, with lots of jokes delivered in a hilarious matter-of-fact fashion.  The clash of eras between Marty's liberated 1980s teenager and the more restrained, "Leave It to Beaver"-type 1950s teens is fertile ground for joke after golden joke.  Marty is astonished by the downtown area when he arrives in the 50s; he stares almost shocked at a full maintenance team working at the local gas station that immediately files out to check the oil, air pressure and other parts of a car that rolls up.  He likewise does a short take when he notices that the movie theatre downtown is showing actual movies (one starring Ronald Reagan, no less) instead of XXX porno films.

Marty's use of slang is particularly enjoyable, especially when paired with both the social awkwardness of George and the scientific knowledge of Doc.  Marty's use of the word "heavy" to describe his situation elicits hilarious responses from Doc.  Marty: "Whoa, this is heavy." Doc: "Weight has nothing to do with it!"  Or, later, "There's that word again, heavy!  Why is everything so heavy in the future?  Is there something wrong with the Earth's gravitational pull?" 

The movie is also loaded with tiny details that I'm still noticing even though I've seen this movie many, many times.  Lines and images that seemed like throwaways earlier in the film come back around and pay off later.  For example, when Marty goes to meet Doc for the time experiment in the first act, they're in the parking lot of the Twin Pines Mall.  Doc tells Marty that back in the day, "Old Man Peabody" owned the entire area, and was obsessed with pine trees.  When Marty travels to the 50s, he finds himself on Peabody's "Twin Pines Ranch", and, trying to escape Peabody himself, runs over one of the pines in the DeLorean.  At the end of the film, when Marty doubles back to the mall parking lot to try and save Doc from the Libyans, the sign now says "Lone Pine Mall." 

This is exactly the kind of incredible density of detail that makes a fully-realized fictional world like "Back to the Future" worth returning to. 

Beyond the script, the performances by the cast are just plain excellent.  Michael J. Fox is great, with excellent comic timing and great chemistry with the rest of the cast, especially Lloyd.  You really do get the sense that Marty and Doc care quite a bit for each other.  Fox is more than able to sell everything he's asked in this film, whether its awkwardly refusing his mother's romantic advances, trying to shore up his father's self confidence or taking on school bully, Biff.  It's good that the Marty character is smart enough to know that he can't take Biff in a straight fight, which means that the action sequences in the film become fun chases where fisticuffs would seem a bit too violent or unnatural for the lightness of tone in this movie.

Christopher Lloy'd performance as Doc is just friggin' amazing, though.  His wild-eyed eccentricity is joyfully hilarious.  More so than Fox, he's also capable of eliciting huge laughs with just a well-timed look or facial expression.  Doc Brown really should be remembered as one of the best comedic portrayals of the 80s.  Lloyd is a genius for making this role work, because there are few actors out there that could've struck the right balance of genius and absurdity.

Crispin Glover and Lea Thompson also deserve a lot of credit.  They give it their all, and both deliver perfectly fun and charming performances .  These two probably have it harder than Fox or Lloyd because they both must give three wildly different interpretations of the same characters.  The original, unhappy 1980s versions, their teenage selves, and then the revised, successful 1980s versions at the end, which are all very distinct (and even include different makeup for the two aged versions).  The two have great chemistry together, and make a believable couple.  I noticed for the first time on this viewing the look that Thompson gives Glover early in the film.  Even underneath a fat suit and latex makeup to make her look 30 years older, Thompson is able to communicate, simultaneously, both love and regret with a single look. 

Robert Zemeckis directs without any pretense, giving the film a very straight-forward, matter-of-fact style.  The wackiness comes from the performances and the dialogue, without the director stepping in to try and force your attention one way or another.  He simply presents his information to the audience, and allows the audience to get out of it what they wish.  I seem to find new details in this movie every time I watch it, because Zemeckis just lets it all fly without waving neon signs everywhere going, "HEY, LOOK AT THIS, IT'S COOL."  He just constructs this world and lets the story unfold.  The action never gets lost in editing or poor cinematography.

Alan Silvestri's score is iconic, and I'll just leave it at that.

"Back to the Future" is a fantastic film, one of my absolute favorites.  As a child, I watched it and thought it was simply a great time travel adventure.  Watching it again as I get older, I've definitely realized exactly how hilarious this movie is.  Much like "Ghostbusters," most of the humor went right over my head until I was old enough to see it and appreciate it, which means that this film has only grown more rewarding with each viewing.  It's easy to love a movie as a kid and then revisit it as an adult and find that it's far less impressive than you remember.  But "Back to the Future" is not that type of film at all.  It's charming, funny, witty and exciting, and I love every minute of it.

As a further note, this is the first time I've ever seen the film projected on a movie theatre screen, which was a real treat.  Seeing it up there, bigger than I've ever seen it, in a great film projection, not some DVD, was a joy.  I do love the theatre-going experience, and this was a great one.  The crowd was mostly fans, cheering and laughing and clapping at all our favorite parts, which always makes seeing something in a theatre just that much more fun.  I have to give credit to Rob J. for letting me know that this screening was taking place, or I never would've had this opportunity.  I also want to throw out an acknowledgment to the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge for being so awesome as to screen all three 'Back to the Future' movies in one epic triple feature.  If I hadn't had to go to work, I would easily have spent my entire day there.

PS: I just wanted to say that "Back to the Future" marks my 100th review for this blog.  I want to thank everyone that's been reading it, and I hope you've all enjoyed it as much as I have.  Cheers.

"The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day" (2009)

Starring Sean Patrick Flanery, Norman Reedus and Clifton Collins Jr.
Written and Directed by Troy Duffy

What happens when you make a shitty movie, then ruin your chances by drawing the ire of all the most powerful movers and shakers in Hollywood by insulting them?  What happens when a documentary comes out revealing what a complete, talentless douchebag you are?

Apparently, ten years later, you get to try it all over again.

Troy Duffy, the Boston bartender and wannabe musician who nearly made it big by ripping off all the worst aspects of Quentin Tarantino and managing to sell it to Miramax bigwig Harvey Weinstein, somehow managed to wrangle a sequel to his terrible "Boondock Saints," and doesn't seem to have learned anything about filmmaking in the interim.

The MacManus brothers, Connor and Murphy (Sean Patrick Flanery and Norman Reedus) have been hiding out with their father (Billy Connolly) in Ireland for the last ten years after the events of the first film.  Back in Boston, someone murders a priest and makes it look like the work of the MacManus brothers, who were once known as the Saints, a pair of vigilante killers.  When the brothers hear about this, they cut off their terrible looking fake beards and head for America.  On the way, they recruit Romeo (Clifton Collins Jr.), a Mexican with the connections they need.

Meanwhile, FBI Agent Eunice Bloom (Julie Benz) arrives on the scene and partners up with the Saints' old allies, three bumbling Boston detectives.  They begin to investigate the murder, with the goal of finding exactly who is trying to frame up the boys.  Ultimately, they follow the trail of murder that leads to revelations about their father's past, and the true enemy.

Eventually all of these storylines might hopefully come together in a coherent, gloriously violent way.  But that assumption presupposes that Troy Duffy knows how to tell a story, or how to make a good movie.  Frankly, he doesn't.  "The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day" is a bad movie, just like the first one.  It's full of inane, stupid dialogue that wishes it were hip and cool, bad photography, terrible editing and more than a few atrociously bad performances.  The script isn't even intelligent enough to reference other (better) films without referring to them by name.  Too many lines in the movie say stupid things like, "This isn't a movie!" or some bullshit.  That's the kind of thing you can get away with once or twice and have it be funny, but Duffy decides he should pepper his entire movie with lines like this.  One scene involving a character trying to come up with some kind of badass catchphrase to use after killing a bunch of mafia types would be funny if it weren't so artificial and stupid.

Julie Benz is the worst offender, delivering her already awful dialogue with a stilted, horrific southern accent.  Duffy does her no favors by making most of her scenes involve her wearing some ridiculous costume and walking toward the camera as though on a fashion runway, with wind blowing her hair out behind her.  One scene in particular has her in some kind of faux-cowgirl getup walking like a fashion model through a chaotic gunfight sequence that's idiotically absurd, the worst kind of laughably bad attempt at being "deep."  Judd Nelson is also particularly terrible as a Boston mafia boss who can never find the right words (leaving one of his underlings to correct him, ugh). 

Like "Blood: The Last Vampire" all of this nonsense might be forgivable if Duffy could just give us a few cool action sequences, but he can't even do that.  Scene after scene in the movie is essentially the same, with the Saints popping out from behind cover and just laying waste to a group of gangsters or drug dealers who barely even have time to draw their own weapons and fire back.  Each time this happens, it seems to get more and more ridiculous and by the time the Saints are laying siege to Judd Nelson's hideout in the Prudential Center (ugh) it's just stupid.

Is there any redeeming value in this second, terrible "Boondock Saints" film?  Well, Flanery and Reedus genuinely seem to be having fun hanging out again.  The two of them have an easy rapport, and Clifton Collins Jr. joins the gang seamlessly, though ends up being the but of many racist jokes (of which the film has many, with a few homophobic and sexist bits thrown in for good measure).

In the end, "Boondock Saints II" is just another "Boondock Saints" movie.  That is to say, it sucks.  It wishes desperately that it didn't, and tries hard not to, but can't escape the fact that the man behind the curtain is just a talentless douchebag who didn't even deserve a second shot.  I don't even know why I bothered to watch this movie.  The first one is trash, and the second is just more of the same, but somehow even worse.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

"Blood: The Last Vampire" (2009)

Starring Gianna Jun, Allison Miller and Liam Cunningham
Written by Chris Chow
Directed by Chris Nahon

Based on the anime of the same name, the live action version of "Blood: The Last Vampire" is an intriguing piece of cinema in that the plot makes absolutely no sense, but the action sequences are pretty nifty.  The film is stylishly directed, making good use of its obviously low budget.  But the story is utter nonsense.  By the end of it, you find yourself asking, "...What?"

Saya (Gianna Jun) is a hundreds-years-old demon slayer, but she looks much like a teenage girl.  Her handlers in The Council, who charge themselves with ridding the world of demons that hide in human form, give her a new assignment: to go undercover as a high school student at a US military base just outside Tokyo, Japan where several people have turned up dead recently.  These deaths, the Council believes, were caused by 'underling' demons feeding in anticipation of the arrival of Onigen (Koyuki) the ultimate demon.

At the base, we are introduced to Alice (Allison Miller), teenage daughter of the base commander.  One day, her fencing instructor sets her up to be killed by two classmates. Saya arrives in the nick of time, and Alice witnesses Saya slicing and dicing her demonic classmates.  She calls her father, who locks down the area, but their investigation is thwarted by members of the Council posing as CIA officers.  But Alice doesn't take no for an answer, and begins attempting to dig deeper and her actions have disastrous consequences: A Council agent named Luke kills her father.

Why this happens, I have no clue.  Why he then ends up killing his partner and trying to kill Saya and Alice is never explained.  He spouts off some dialogue about how his partner had grown "soft", but that's no reason to kill him (y'know, since they were partners...)  It's not like Luke is actually going evil and worships the demons or something, he just randomly decides to kill his partner and the greatest weapon the Council has against the oncoming demon onslaught

Eventually, Alice and Saya escape, only to end up in some kind of dream world where they confront Onigen, who reveals that she is Saya's mother.  How or why any of this happens is also never explained.  Why Alice is allowed to wake up and rejoin the real world while Saya remains there after defeating Onigen, is never explained.  So what we're left with is a stylish film with solid performances, punctuated by cool, fun action sequences... but with no idea how or why any of the events in the film are taking place.  It all starts out well enough, but goes totally off the rails in the second half.  As a result, the film feels like key scenes are missing, a swiss-cheese sort of effect on the whole proceeding.  The holes are almost laughably distracting, but the action sequences are enthralling.

Watching Saya take out what must have been at least a hundred demons in a rain soaked alley way is the centerpiece fight sequence of the entire film.  It's filled with cool moves, and lots of general badassery.  Eventually this, too, stops making sense since the demons start out looking a lot like the vampires from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" but then they appear to be capable of further transformations into large, monstrous beasts.  This happens twice in the film, but one wonders why it doesn't happen more if Saya has so much trouble taking out the demons in this particular form.  Why did a hundred of them attack her as humans if they could just gang up on her as demons?  Who knows.  Still, these sequences are pretty fun.  A fight between Saya and a one-eyed demon while on a truck precariously perched over a ravine is pretty cool, too. 

The final battle between Onigen and Saya is another highlight, as Onigen's robes function almost like tentacles, whipping all around her.  It's visually quite entertaining, even though the story has long since stopped having any kind of semblance of coherency. 

I guess I can recommend "Blood: The Last Vampire" on that premise - Don't try to understand what's going on, but just watch those fights.  They're pretty cool.  At least, as a rental anyway.  I'm not sure I could say someone should own this movie unless they're an ultra-huge fan of the franchise. 

"Moon" (2009)

Starring Sam Rockwell and Kevin Spacey
Written by Duncan Jones and Nathan Parker
Directed by Duncan Jones

"Moon" is a 2009 sci-fi drama that reminds me a lot of Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey."  Sam Rockwell stars as Sam Bell, a man contracted to spend three years alone on the moon, the sole crewmember of a base responsible for harvesting elements necessary for fusion energy on Earth.  As the end of his three year tour looms, Sam, suffering from an encroaching sickness and a mild psychosis, crashes his moonbuggy into one of the roving harvesters.

Consequently, Sam wakes up in the infirmary in the moon base.  His computerized personal assistant, GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey) tells him he had an accident, but that memory loss is to be expected.  Sam soon begins to realize that something is not quite right, and takes a second buggy out to the malfunctioning rover.  There, he makes a shocking discovery: his injured body.

He takes his injured doppelganger back to the moon base, and the two begin to suspect that something really is quite wrong with their entire situation.   They accuse each other of being clones, neither one sure which is the real Sam Bell.  But they're also sure that GERTY is keeping something from them, and they suspect that the long-range communications "malfunction" may in fact be intentional to keep them from contacting anyone on Earth via live satellite feed.  As the two Sams overcome their differences, they formulate a plan to make it back to Earth before a "rescue" ship promised by the company on Earth arrives.  Both Sams are sure that the "rescue" will in fact be a team sent to kill them now that they've discovered the disturbing truth about their mission and the moon base itself.

Sam Rockwell gives an excellent performance.  The dual role he plays here is complex, since the two Sam Bells do have differing personalities.  He also must play one of them as he devolves into sickness, which adds another layer of difficulty.  But his performances both feel real and natural; Sam Bell has an everyman quality that is charming and likable.

Spacey's soothing tones help give a bit of life to the robotic GERTY.  "Moon" feels so much like "2001" at times, I kept expecting GERTY to go nuts and try to kill the Sams, like HAL.  But no, GERTY is programmed to help Sam, and that's exactly what he does, right down to the end.  In a move of simple genius, GERTY's "emotional" state is displayed through a series of emoticons on a small screen on his front.  It's a small, but excellent little detail in a movie full of small, excellent details. 

The moon base is an excellent set, with a realistic and lived-in feel to it.  The walls are white and cleanly designed, but scuffed and dirty in places, as are the doors.  Certain things don't work, or look like they've been working for a few years.  The film's visual effects are pretty minimal, but really well done; a mixture of miniature models and computer animation that's pretty seamless.  The models are excellently detailed and have good movement to them, as well. 

The real star of "Moon" is Rockwell's performance, though.  He really nails his dual parts, and even the few times where the script fails, he manages to pull it right along and back on pace.  "Moon" is a very effective, intriguing sci-fi drama.  It's the sort of film that doesn't often get made these days, when sci-fi mostly means battles and alien invasions.  Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course, but a little more balance might be nice.  "Moon" is quite a welcome change of pace, and a well-made one at that.

Friday, July 23, 2010

"Jeremiah" Season 2 (2003)

Starring Luke Perry, Malcolm Jamal-Warner and Sean Astin
Created by J. Michael Straczynski

The first season of "Jeremiah" was a reasonably entertaining, if cheaply produced, sci-fi series.  The second season, however, is pretty limp from start to finish.

The best thing about the first season was the chemistry between Jeremiah (Perry) and Kurdy (Jamal-Warner) as they take to the road searching for supplies and allies and investigating the mysterious and powerful enemy known as Valhalla Sector.  Season two jettisons this premise, splitting up the team of Jeremiah and Kurdy (after making the point that there is nothing these two can't achieve together).  Valhalla Sector is disposed with as the show's primary enemy within the first two episodes, replaced by your standard sci-fi Nazi analogue, the Forces of Daniel.

It seems that, though never mentioned previously, for years a man named Daniel has been taking over the east coast one city at a time, creating work camps and killing anyone who didn't have something to contribute.  The army of Daniel wears all black, which tells us that they're evil, and are led by a man named Sims who wears a long, black leather trench coat and speaks in a horrible southern accent.  They'll roll into town, say "Pledge your allegiance to us" and if the town says no, they'll burn it to the ground.

Jeremiah is made leader of a town called Milhaven, which had previously been a stronghold of Valhalla Sector, now liberated after that organization is conveniently and easily destroyed.  Kurdy is partnered with a mysterious newcomer named Mister Smith (Sean Astin) who claims to get messages from God.  I know.

Jeremiah also starts falling for a woman named Libby, a defector from Valhalla Sector.  But, randomly, it turns out that she was actually working for Daniel the whole time... even when she was working for Jeremiah's father in Valhalla Sector.  Speaking of Jeremiah's father, searching for him was a long-running story thread for the first season.  After the two get a brief reunion, the storyline and its related emotional heft are effectively dropped.  Devon appears once or twice throughout the rest of the season, usually to deliver expository dialogue, but that's about it.

So with the characters split up and in new and uninteresting roles, a new and uninteresting villain, Season Two of "Jeremiah" just sort of falls apart.  The episodes aren't particularly interesting on their own, though some momentum builds in the final stretch of the season.  While "Jericho" had the balls to end on the cusp of a second American Civil War, "Jeremiah" feels the need to resolve this storyline through some shoddy logic.  While the season one finale felt big and important, the season two (and series) finale feels disappointing compared to the buildup before it.  The writers put the characters into dire situations, and then resolve them too easily.

I have to put this season down as a big disappointment.  Sure, the first season was no great treasure, but it was fairly entertaining and had some good ideas going for it.  Season Two throws pretty much all of it away, which is pretty unfortunate.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

"Salt" (2010)

Starring Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber and Chiwetel Ejiofor
Written by Kurt Wimmer
Directed by Philip Noyce

You'll note up above that I typed "Written by Kurt Wimmer."  This is misleading, since I don't believe anyone actually "wrote" the new Angelina Jolie spy-actioner "Salt."  No, what I think actually happened was that someone said, "Dude, y'know what'd be kinda awesome?  If Angelina Jolie was like, a spy or an assassin or something."

Someone else replies, "I think I saw that one.  She like, can shoot bullets in circles or some shit."

"Yeah, dude," the first guy replies.  "That was cool.  We should make a movie like that, only... I dunno, like with more action."

"What about the story?" some poor third person overhearing this pathetic conversation chimes in.

"The whatnow?" the first two guys say, in unison.

There's ostensibly a "story" to "Salt."  I could explain it to you, fully and in detail, in two sentences.  One, if I decide not to care about grammar.

Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) is a spy for the CIA.  Years earlier, she was caught and tortured by the North Korean government.  Intervention by her future husband, a scientist who studies spiders named Michael, saves her life.  In the present day, a man walks into the CIA claiming to have information about a Russian sleeper agent that will attempt to kill the Russian president as he attends the funeral of the United States' vice president.  Who is this agent?  Evelyn Salt, of course.  Determined to prove her innocence and save the life of her possibly-endangered husband, Salt busts out of CIA custody.

What follows is essentially a series of chase sequences and fights as we follow Salt to New York City and then back to Washington DC, culminating in an assault on the White House.  The action sequences aren't particularly lengthy, but they are numerous.  Instead of blowing its wad on a few large sequences, "Salt" is content to pepper smaller ones throughout the entire film at a fairly even pace - Action sequence, moment to catch your breath, action sequence, moment, action sequence, etc.  Along the way, we are repeatedly told exactly how dangerous Salt is, and then we get to see her being dangerous.

Of course, about fifteen or twenty minutes into this nonsense, you'll probably care as little as I did.  Jolie gets about ten lines of dialogue in the entire movie.  She spends the entire time running, punching, shooting, running again, walking quickly, running some more, walking slowly, running yet again... I wish I could recommend "Salt" even as a brainless action thriller, but there's simply not enough fun.  I chuckled a few times at how ludicrous things were getting, but for the most part I watched this movie waiting for something cool to happen. 

Jolie is a credible action star, but her character is so slight it's hard to give a shit when she gets punched, kicked or shot.  Director Noyce doesn't allow us to really watch her in all her glory, either.  Too many of the fights are lost in shaky cameras shots and quick edits.  It doesn't get as bad as, say, the second Jason Bourne movie, but the fights give one the idea that there's something cool going on, if only you could actually see it.

Liev Schreiber and Chiwetel Ejiofor, usually fun, charismatic performers, are lifeless here, repeating the same dialogue in slight variations over and over again.  There are no characters in this film, there are bare skeletons of people that just sort of walk around doing things and getting punched or shot.  The two sentences of plot, which I won't even bother to spoil for you, aren't even all that great.  There's a kernel of a good idea here, and the ending leaves it wide open for a sequel that has the potential to go in awesome places.

But that one good idea is all there is to "Salt."  In the end, this is just sort of an origin story; a pilot episode for further adventures.   But will anyone really want to watch it?  I don't know.  I'd be hard pressed to drum up any enthusiasm for it before I saw a trailer.  Now that I'm thinking about it, the whole thing seems better suited for a weekly television series ala "Alias" than a movie every few years.  At least a TV show has room to grow quickly, and a poor pilot can be forgiven if the weeks closely following it pick up the slack.  But "Salt" isn't a TV show.  If a sequel is made, we won't see it until likely sometime in 2012, and I'll be long past caring.

Monday, July 19, 2010

"Jeremiah" Season 1 (2002)

Starring Luke Perry and Malcom Jamal-Warner
Created by J. Michael Straczynski

The world suffers a terrible cataclysm known as "The Big Death."  Everyone over the age of 15 or so is killed, painfully, by a horrific virus.  Civilization collapses as the world's children are left to fend for themselves.  Jeremiah (Luke Perry) was given charge of his younger brother, Michael, by their father Devon (Robert Wisden).  Somewhere along the way, Michael is killed, and Jeremiah wanders the countryside alone, adrift physically and emotionally.

One day while making his way through the town of Clarefield, Colorado, he meets Kurdy (Malcom Jamal-Warner).  The two strike up a friendship, albeit an uneasy one, and decide to travel together for a while.  In Clarefield, Jeremiah meets Simon, a man who says Jeremiah might be a suitable candidate for a job.  Jeremiah is uninterested, but followers of Theo, the woman who runs Clarefield with the iron grip of a high school cheerleader, see the two of them talking.  Jeremiah is imprisoned along with Simon.  Kurdy ends up rescuing him, but Simon is killed in the escape.  Before he dies, Simon charges Jeremiah and Kurdy with delivering a message to "Thunder Mountain," and its charismatic leader, Markus Alexander (Peter Stebbings).

Jeremiah and Kurdy discover that Thunder Mountain is actually the old NORAD installation beneath Cheyenne Mountain, and that the people who live there do so with luxuries the rest of the world can only dream of and barely remember.  Jeremiah and Kurdy join the population of Thunder Mountain, an organization which has decided to devote itself to rebuilding society under a flag of hope and cooperation.  But there are sinister forces in the world: Thunder Mountain receives word of a mysterious organization in the east known as "Valhalla Sector."  Who and what and where they are remain a mystery, but Jeremiah remembers his father once talking about Valhalla Sector, and he vows to discover its purpose and what it has to do with his long-dead father.

Jeremiah and Kurdy, for the majority of the episodes in this first season, go out on the road in fairly episodic missions.  They travel around in their pickup going from town to town and meeting people and helping them while forging alliances gathering intelligence for Thunder Mountain.  For the most part, this format works, but the best episodes are the ones more closely related to the show's mythology, discovering the origins of the Big Death and dealing with the looming threat of Valhalla Sector.  There are a few episodes that are a little bit too ridiculous, and the show is also at its best when it keeps more overt sci-fi elements at bay (one episode featuring a psychic just doesn't feel right at all). 

Luke Perry is fine as the titular Jeremiah, with a solid sense of humor to throw out the show's witty dialogue.  He works best when chumming around with Jamal-Warner, who, similarly, works best in that fashion as well.  Whenever these two are separated, the show seems to lose its energy.  Neither one is particularly impressive on their own, but together they really hold everything up.  The cast of secondary characters is fine, most of them I recognize from roles in "Stargate" and "Battlestar Galactica."  Especially "Stargate."  In fact, I'm pretty sure every secondary character and nearly all of the guest stars in this first season have been on "Stargate SG-1" at one time or another, and the producers barely even bother to hide the fact that the Valhalla Sector sets are actually the Stargate sets

The season suffers from pacing issues, as things will seem to ramp up considerably and then calm back down for lengthy periods without a real sense of rhythm.  The two-part season finale moves at a breakneck pace to make up for the fact that the preceding episodes were somewhat wasteful.  The individual plots of the episodes are mostly familiar, the sort of standard tropes that every show of this ilk will have.  Sometimes, they get a little too ridiculous.  An episode where Jeremiah and Kurdy decide to protect a library from book burners starts out well enough, but goes completely off the rails when Jeremiah abandons the mission to help an old friend's girlfriend spread her father's ashes, and the librarian reveals that he actually can't even read.

Also problematic is that even though the show's conceit is that there is no one in the world left over the age of 30, the producers often cast actors who look or are much older than that.  Luke Perry was nearly 40 when this show was produced, and although he can sorta pass as someone around that age, there are other actors that can't.  Disappointingly, his reunion with "Beverly Hills 90210" co-star Jason Priestley in an early episode doesn't end with the two of them in a physical confrontation.  I'd been waiting for it the entire episode as the two antagonize each other, but it just didn't happen, and that's a shame.

Probably the thing that really keeps "Jeremiah" from being more than solid, if unremarkable, entertainment is the show's cheapness.  The show stays away from expensive urban areas, or anything requiring large-scale special effects or lots of extras.  As a result, the post-apocalypse seems to have taken the form of the forests surrounding Vancouver (a problem that, yes, "Stargate SG-1" constantly suffers from).  With more money, a better sense of scale could really have improved "Jeremiah," and a different pool of actors definitely would have given the show less of a sense that it's just a side-project those "Stargate" guys do on a weekend.

"Jeremiah" reminds me a lot of CBS' oft-canceled "Jericho."  Both posit post-apocalyptic worlds populated by has-been and no-name actors struggling to rebuild and fend off evil remnants of the old government.  In the end, I have to give the win to "Jericho," which ended its first season on a better cliffhanger and had the budget for better production value. 

"Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" (2004)

Starring Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet and Elijah Wood
Written by Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry
Directed by Michel Gondry

I feel like every time I watch a Jim Carrey movie that's not "Ace Ventura," I'm on the defensive.  This is not to say that Carrey is incapable of dramatic performances, but that even when he is in the midst of a fine, serious character portrayal, he can't resist those little manic twitches and bizarre, contortionist facial expressions of his.  So when I sat down to watch "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," I found myself immediately in that frame of mind, without even really realizing it.

I think I sort of realized it about two thirds of the way through the movie when, and I can't recall the specific scene, Carrey contorts his face in a bizarre fashion for only an instant, which tore me right out of the film. 

Still, Carrey mostly succeeds as Joel, a schlub of a man whose boring life gets a shot in the arm when he meets Clementine (Kate Winslet).  They eventually begin to date, and form a deep and complex relationship.  Ultimately, however, this relationship self-destructs as each of their particular inadequacies build up over time.  Joel learns that after their breakup, Clementine has opted for a strange scientific procedure to erase her memories of their relationship.  Despondent, since he found out whilst trying to win her back, he decides to undergo the same procedure. 

While sleeping, three employees of Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) named Stan (Mark Ruffalo), Patrick (Elijah Wood) and Mary (Kirstin Dunst) enter Joel's home to perform the procedure.  Joel is sedated and hooked up to a machine.  Since the procedure is mostly automatic, Stan and Mary partake in various drugs and alcohol.  Patrick, meanwhile, it turns out is Clementine's new man.  He's been using Joel's memories to win her over.  Clementine calls Patrick while he's at Joel's and takes off to go meet her.

This is all the setup, however.  The guts of the film take place within Joel's memories as they're being erased.  We're taken in a trippy, surrealistic, non-linear maze of memory and emotion.  This is where the relationship between Joel and Clem is revealed and explored in sequence after sequence that zip along at almost breakneck pace.  Director Gondry uses a variety of special effects, lighting, makeup and editing tricks to make this all come to life and the results are really rather excellent, at times cool, at times utterly disturbing, and at times almost too subtle to notice. 

The relationship between Joel and Clem is pretty intense, and the film avoids any kind of cliched romantic Hollywood style.  These are simply two people who felt an attraction, came together, and then couldn't deal with the fact that their relationship (while intense) is also incredibly fragile.  They do indeed love each other, but they can't get over certain things they dislike about the other.  Clem feels that Joel is boring and won't communicate with her while Joel feels that Clem can be irresponsible and moody. 

But once Joel realizes, mid-procedure, that he doesn't actually want to forget Clem, despite his broken heart, things get even more interesting.  He begins to fight back against the procedure while still sedated in his own mind, which leads to some really wild imagery and fun sequences where he tries to hide Clem inside his other memories. 

Now that I'm thinking about it, this might be where Carrey pulled me out.  In a scene where he's portraying himself as a four year old, he can't resist playing an Ace Ventura four-year-old instead of just a four-year-old.  He recovers quickly enough, but this one scene sort of made me groan.  It's the closest the film comes to trying anything like broad comedy, and it doesn't particularly work.  The critic blurb calls the movie a "quirky comedy", but I wouldn't have called it that, not in a million years.  There are some funny moments, I suppose, but mostly I'd call this a surrealist drama. 

Probably the only thing that doesn't work in the film is the revelations regarding Mary and Dr. Mierzwiak.  They exist for a reason, and that reason fuels the ultimate resolution of the film, but they also come out of nowhere just for the third act.  Patrick's attempted seduction of Clem using Joel's things and ideas could use some more exploration, as well.  Still, the core of the film takes place in Joel's mind, so everything else feels a little slight.  I think the movie could have used another ten minutes to really flesh out those other storylines properly.

I have to mention that Kate Winslet is hot as hell in this movie.  She's also a spectacular actress, perfectly nailing the mercurial Clem.  It's easy to see how she might be almost any guy's girl of their dreams; gorgeous, smart, funny, outgoing... but that can turn on a dime.  She's dangerous, emotionally, and Winslet sells that perfectly.  A key line where she warns Joel about this is delivered with absolute conviction. 

"Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" is a fine drama with a ton of really intriguing dream imagery to sift through.  Once you put together the non-linear narrative, the whole endeavor is quite satisfying.  If only some of the subplots had a bit more meat to them, this would be a real winner instead of just a very good film.

Friday, July 16, 2010

"Inception" (2010)

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ellen Page
Written and directed by Christopher Nolan

Bear with me for a second.

Although Batman is without a doubt my favorite superhero, for a long time, and arguably to this day, Richard Donner's "Superman" was the superhero film to beat.  It's sense of wonder and fun is undeniably infectious, though its failings as a film are numerous.  Other superhero films came and went until Christopher Nolan directed "Batman Begins."

A few years later, Nolan unleashed "The Dark Knight" - the culmination of the growing sense of credibility for superhero movies. Christopher Nolan had delivered a superhero film, a Batman film, that was not just a great superhero movie... but an undeniably real, undeniably great film.

Nolan himself had been moving upward, since releasing the popular backwards mystery, "Memento."  But now Nolan himself has come to a culmination point, that point where he's merged entertainment and credible art.  He did it first with "The Dark Knight."

He perfects it with "Inception."

"Inception" is an amazing film.  Mind-blowing, if you can stomach the bad pun.  It is a film that spans multiple layers of consciousness, simultaneously, and yet the viewer is never lost in all this.  It is a film with a superb cast, working at the top of their game.  It is a film with assured direction from a highly qualified, might I say, fricken genius.

It's hard not to sit here worshiping at the altar of Nolan so fresh after coming out of such an incredibly satisfying cinema experience.  If I feel like "Inception" doesn't quite top "The Dark Knight," it's only because of my own longtime, personal connection with the Batman character that puts that film over the top.  But "Inception" is incredible, in every way.

Spoilers will follow.  I will be discussing the ending.  Beware.  

Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an expert at what he does... and what he does is go into your mind while you're sleeping and steal your secrets.  When he fails to steal a secret from the mind of an industrialist named Saito (Ken Watanabe), Saito is nonetheless impressed and offers Cobb a deal in order to escape the fury of his former employers: help Saito destroy the business empire of a rival, and Cobb's criminal record will be wiped clean, allowing him to go home and see his children once again.

How will Cobb do this?  A process called "inception," whereby an idea is planted in the mind of an individual, and that individual believes they came up with the idea themselves.  Cobb is uniquely qualified to do such a thing because he's the only person in the world who's ever done it before.  He gathers his team: Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the point man, Eames (Tom Hardy, coming up quite far from playing Patrick Stewart's clone in "Star Trek: Nemesis") the forger, Ariadne (Ellen Page) the architect, Yusuf (Dileep Rao) the chemical specialist and Saito himself.  Their target is Robert Fischer Jr. (Cillian Murphy), who will be traveling home for the funeral of his father.

In order to plant an idea in Fischer's head without him realizing the alien nature of it, Cobb and his team must concoct a deeply complex and dangerous plan to get into Fischer's trained mind.  While everything seems set to go, Ariadne discovers that the one hitch in the plan is Cobb himself: his guilt over the death of his wife can lead to dangerous imperfections in the dream world, ones that could put the team themselves in mortal danger of losing themselves in "dream limbo."

The "reality" of "Inception" posits a world where the technology not only exists, but is somewhat readily available, for going into and creating lucid dreams.  In one sequence we see a sort of opium den where people are jacked into their dreams, addicted - those dream worlds are the real worlds to them because they spend more time there than in actual "reality."  "Inception" does not spend time going into the technical science of this; it merely presents it to the viewer and says, "This is the way the world is."  And we accept it; it is completely and without question a part of that world.

The dream world is another thing altogether.  Different levels, dreams within dreams, lucid dreaming, and the rules of those world are fascinating and well-drawn in "Inception."  In the dream world, the other people inhabiting that world are projections of the dreamer's subconscious mind.  When they begin to suspect that something doesn't belong, things start to get wacky, fast.  Those projections begin to attack intruders, the subconscious defending itself, "like white blood cells," the movie tells us.  And when they do in the film, turning their heads in unison or staring coldly at an intruder, the effect is chilling.

The loopy imagery in the film is just astonishing.  That scene from the trailers where Paris folds up over itself, or where Arthur uses "paradoxical architecture," are just excellent.  A train barreling down an LA street, a spinning hotel corridor... all those bits you've seen in the trailers, but they simply can't sell how incredible it all is.  I literally sat forward with a childish grin on my face during the corridor fight sequence.  It's simply the sort of totally imaginative, technically astonishing scene that truly make me love movies.

It would all be for naught if there weren't some emotional core to all of this, either, and that rests entirely on DiCaprio's shoulders.  Much like his recent role in Scorsese's "Shutter Island," DiCaprio is a man struggling with the death of his wife, for which he blames himself.  The spectre of his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard) haunts him so deeply that he can't even escape her when he moves through the levels of other people's dreams.  She not only haunts him, she actively attempts to sabotage his missions, and this is the crux of the problem Cobb will ultimately face at the film's climax.  DiCaprio effortlessly puts on this character, proving himself to be one of the most talented performers out there today.

Tom Hardy gets a lot of the comic relief bits with his lively Eames character.  Hardy was sort of a nobody after "Star Trek," but recently gained some acclaim for "Bronson."  Ellen Page gets a bad rap for people just associating her with "Juno."  The truth is that Page is quite talented, running the gamut from over-intelligent teen ("Juno", "Whip It") to unsure superhero ("X-Men: The Last Stand") to revenge torturer ("Hard Candy"). 

Also of note is Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  Like DiCaprio, he came up from TV sitcom roots ("Third Rock From the Sun"), but unlike DiCaprio, isn't really hitting his A-list stride until now.  While DiCaprio has had a long career in the spotlight, Gordon-Levitt is just now getting big notice for roles like "(500) Days of Summer" and... well... "GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra".  But we can forgive that one.  Gordon-Levitt is an extremely likable presence, but here proves himself more than just a charismatic performer by ably taking on the complex and incredible action sequences, including that spinning hotel corridor fight, and a lot of zero-g work.

The film's climax is a marvel of moviemaking, and in my opinion, should earn Nolan that best director Oscar for 2010.  The fact that he's so seamlessly able to switch between multiple levels of consciousness, each with their own timeframes and color palettes, all going on simultaneously, without losing the viewer at all is just friggin' incredible.  Switching from the rain-soaked Los Angeles bridge to the warm hotel to the frigid mountain tops and "dream limbo" without missing a beat, this is a positively stunning, riveting sequence.  It's the sort of thing they should show in film school when talking about parallel action.  Forget that, "Inception" should be shown in film school, period.

If there's one problem I had with this entire film, it's that the ultimate resolution, or lack thereof, is slightly disappointing.  I feel like this film sort of needed a concrete resolution, but Nolan can't resist an almost cliched wink at the end with whether or not  Cobb's reunion with his family is real.  Personally, I think the film is more emotionally satisfying to me as a viewer if it is real.  If it's not, I wonder why in the hell I just sat through all of this - especially the climax where Cobb rejects the projection of Mal because she's not real.  He won't look at his dream-world children because he's desperate to see their real faces.  Why, then, would he be satisfied (or why should we as an audience) if, at the end of the film when he walks out into the sunlight to greet his children, finally, if it weren't real?  The film seems to imply that it is, but cuts out right before we get definitive proof.

My friend Jenny said that if it was real, why were the children wearing the same clothes and look the same age as his memories of them?  I can't answer that; what I know is that I feel it sabotages the character and his emotional journey to play that trick on the audience.  For me, I choose to believe that at the end, Cobb goes home to his children.  But then, that's something the characters are presented with in the film, isn't it?  In the scene with the "opium den," those people choose to live in the dream world because it's better for them.  I choose my own interpretation of the ending because that's better for me; your mileage may vary.

But I digress.  I loved this film, and I simply can't wait to see it again.  Great performances, astonishing action sequences and effects, "Inception" is that film that reminds me why I love movies so much.  Movies like "Inception" are why this blog exists.

Friday, July 9, 2010

"Predators" (2010)

Starring Adrien Brody, Alice Braga and Topher Grace
Written by Alex Litvak and Michael Finch
Directed by Nimrod Antal

"Man, I really wish the governor of California were here..."
The original "Predator" starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers and Jesse "The Body" Ventura is without a doubt, a modern classic.  It features a script full of lively, discernible characters taking on one of the best movie creatures the legendary Stan Winston ever designed, and a palpable atmosphere of rising paranoia.  John McTiernan directed the shit out of what could easily have been just a shitty B-movie and created something really awesome.

But, as they say, sometimes lightning can't really strike the same place twice.  "Predator 2" was a forgettable romp that replaced Schwarzenegger with Danny Glover and the South American jungle for... Los Angeles.  Many years, comic books, action figures and video games later, the franchise would be revived with the godawful "Alien vs Predator" - one of the funniest movies I've ever seen - and the incompetent followup, "Alien vs Predator: Requiem".

Then we come to 2010, and we get "Predators."  The first true sequel in the franchise since "Predator 2," it mostly just apes the first flick (and therefore feels much more like a sequel than "Predator 2" ever does).  Instead of a team of military badasses, we get a bunch of international badasses from all walks of life: Mexican drug cartels, Yakuza, ex-military, death row inmate, the works.  These people awake in freefall thousands of feet up in the air, loaded up with guns and ammo and a parachute.

When they hit the ground, they immediately begin to meet up with each other and wonder what's going on.  They all distrust each other, but once they realize that they're all in the same boat, they realize that strength in numbers is their best option.  Taking lead is an American mercenary, Royce (Adrien Brody) and a sniper named Isabelle (Alice Braga).  They find themselves grouped up with a Russian with a gatling gun (Oleg Taktarov), a Nigerian with an AK-47 (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali), a southern death row inmate (Walton Goggins), a Mexican kidnapper with dual MP-5s (Danny Trejo), and an unarmed doctor (Topher Grace).  Marching together through the jungle that none of them recognizes, they soon begin to learn that their situation is far more dire than they'd realized: they are not on planet Earth anymore.  Instead, they have been dropped on an alien world and are being hunted by creatures they cannot see and have no concept how to kill.

While "Predators" borrows a lot from its predecessors, it smartly avoids outright aping the first film beat for beat.  In the original film, Schwarzenegger's team was picked off one by one by this creature, and they never learn anything about it - in fact, Schwarzenegger is the only one who even sees the hunter in that film.  Here, the characters learn much more about their adversaries, both by finding the alien camp and inspecting it and through their own suppositions about hunting behavior, and by meeting Noland (Laurence Fishburne) a survivor of previous hunting excursions on this planet.

Through this, we as an audience also learn more about the predators, as well.  This is the sort of interesting world building, an expansion of scope, that a good sequel is supposed to do.  While the "Alien vs Predator" movies were content to make up absurd backstories about the Predators and Xenomorphs running amok in ancient Mayan temples or whatever the hell that movie was about, "Predators" decides to take the simple setup of the first movie and expand it in far more believable directions.

The problem with "Predators" is that none of the characters are as fun or memorable as Schwarzenegger's team of badasses in the original.  While those characters all had distinct personalities, most of the characters in "Predators" are just gravely-voiced angry-looking people.  Adrien Brody, for example, speaks in a low, gritty voice the entire time, delivering declarative sentences over and over and expecting the audience to take him seriously as a dangerous person.  The problem is that Brody just can't come off as a dangerous person.  Schwarzenegger looked like he could snap you in half with his little finger, and he had the necessary presence to command his team.  Brody can do neither.

Only Walton Goggins as the jokey, douchebag death row rapist comes off as being truly memorable.  He steals every scene he's in, and gets all of the movie's best lines.  Even Topher Grace surprised me, as his usual snarky delivery ends up in an unexpected place at the end.  I originally thought I'd had his purpose in the story pegged, but I was definitely wrong on that one.  Danny Trejo is criminally underutilized.  In fact, he's really the only true badass in the entire flick, and he only appears for a few minutes.  Laurence Fishburne's role is not much more than a glorified cameo, but he does well enough with it.  His mixture of knowledge and insanity makes sense in the role, as that of a man who has survived a long time being hunted by these alien creatures on a dangerous, unknown world.

Also problematic is that these characters don't really get any memorable lines, either.  The original film was littered with (admittedly somewhat cheesy) quotable bits like, "I ain't got time to bleed," or "If it bleeds, we can kill it" or "You are one ugly muthafucka" or the ultimate classic, "GET TO THE CHOPPA!"

But these characters are really the only problem with "Predators."  Otherwise, it's a fine sequel.  The violence is pretty intense, the creature effects are solid (though the CGI 'predator dogs' were somewhat cartoonish).  I suppose I could have asked for the world to seem more alien, but the movie was shot on a limited budget and for what it's trying to do, I can't ask for much more.  The designs of the Predator creatures themselves were a good evolution from Stan Winston's original, and the differences between them have an interesting story-related explanation, as well.

There are a lot of callbacks to the original, not the least of which is John Debney's score with utilizes all of the themes in Alan Silvestri's original work.  I don't know that I'd be able to tell the differences between the scores, really, other than that Debney's sounds newer thanks to better technology available.  Unlike Marco Beltrami's adaptation of Michael Kamen's work on "Die Hard" for "Live Free or Die Hard," or John Ottman working new themes into John Williams for "Superman Returns," Debney simply writes new uses of the old themes instead of adapting them into his own work.  This helps "Predators" further feel like a sequel, grounding it firmly in that universe.  The events of the original film are also referenced, since Isabelle recounts hearing about a lone survivor of an earlier encounter with such creatures. 

By no means a classic, "Predators" is still rather enjoyable.  It's certainly better than the two dreadful "Alien vs Predator" movies, and "Predator 2".  But the original Schwarzenegger flick is just too good.  I find myself wondering if there really is any way to top that, and I don't really think there is.  The characterization of the character is too limited to really allow much expansion of the franchise.  The Predator is a hunter, and that's all it is - that limits the storytelling possibilities, and yet, it's a popular creation, and therefore, the audience wants more.  It's like if you're hungry, and all you have in the house is pasta, you make a really good bowl of pasta and you want more... It's good, but you've still only got more pasta.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

"Ghost in the Shell" (1995)

Starring Mimi Woods, Richard Epcar and William Knight
Written by Kazunori Ito
Directed by Mamoru Oshii

Um... where to begin?  You know how George Lucas has been shitting all over "Star Wars" for the last fifteen years?  That's kinda like what's happened to "Ghost in the Shell," the classic anime from 1995 that was one of the few to gain any mainstream success in the United States, and became a major influence on "The Matrix" and therefore movies in general since then.

"Ghost in the Shell" tells the story of a government military/police unit investigating a hacker known only as The Puppet Master.  The Puppet Master has the ability to hack into peoples' minds and implant fake memories in order to get them to accomplish whatever task he wants.  When those people are apprehended by the police, their shattered psyches are of no use in tracking down the Puppet Master since nothing they believe is even real.  Still, Major Kusanagi and her partner Bato are dogged in their attempts to track down and apprehend the Puppet Master. 

Kusanagi is a cyborg, with her entire body save for parts of her brain, artificially constructed.  This gives her extraordinary abilities, and the technology she has access to as part of Section 9 extend even further, including "therm-optic" camouflage.  When one of the Puppet Master's hacked pawns is apprehended wearing such camouflage, Kusanagi begins to suspect that the Puppet Master may have ties to the government, and begins to uncover clues that point toward a conspiracy by a rival branch, Section 6.  Ultimately, the truth about the Puppet Master, who he is and what purpose he serves, is revealed after Kusanagi defies orders and goes after him without permission, being chased by agents of Section 6.

I won't spoil the revelation of who the Puppet Master is, or what connection he has with Kusanagi, but I'll say that the film's explorations of what makes a person unique, and the differences between artificial and organic is quite fascinating.  Kusanagi's musings on whether or not she's a real person if the majority of her body is robotic is a fun topic to dissect, and this is a film that has been analyzed to death over the last fifteen years since its release.

The problem is in this new "Ghost in the Shell 2.0" release, which is a bizarre abomination.  After the release of a sequel years later, director Oshii went back to the original and decided to update it to bring it more in line with the sequel.  Why he didn't just make the sequel more in line with the original is entirely beyond me.  I'd like to ask the same thing of George Lucas. 

"2.0" is mostly the same movie, but many scenes have been augmented and changed using modern CG techniques.  Much of the color palette of the film has been altered to more closely resemble that of the sequel, and entire sequences have been replaced by 3D CGI.  Frankly, it's kind of disgusting.  The new CG doesn't blend with the traditional animation whatsoever.  Apparently the original CG (and the original film did feature quite a bit, used for graphic displays like floating screens and maps and the like) wasn't good enough or something.  I don't know, I never had a problem with it.  But here, parts of the traditional animation have been replaced as well.  In the films famous opening, where Kusanagi leaps off a skyscraper, everything has been replaced - including Kusanagi herself.  So in several scenes of the movie, Kusanagi is computer-generated, but for the rest of it, she's traditionally animated.  The two things don't match, not in the slightest.  The transition between CG and animation is jarring and off-putting; the new scenes simply don't fit.

Also strange is the inconsistency with which things were replaced.  Aerial vehicles like planes and helicopters are now exclusively CGI, but car chase sequences are still traditional.  Kusanagi is also the only character in the film that gets a CG replacement.  Not even the tank she fights at the film's climax gets that kind of treatment.

Thankfully, the majority of the film is still traditional cel animation, and it is absolutely gorgeous.  "Ghost in the Shell" presents an extremely detailed world.  It's attention to small details is stunning, and even movements like Kusanagi putting on her jacket or a driver turning the wheel of a car is given an almost uncanny realism, despite the stylized designs of the characters.  Backgrounds are impeccably painted, with tons of overlapping cityscapes and signage and worldly detail.  The CG city can't hope to match the detail of the painted landscapes, which makes them only stand out even worse.  The fact that the CG sequences seem washed out and hazy doesn't help, either.  The film has a lot of soft halos, but never to the point where detail is lost - at least, not in the traditionally animated segments.

"Ghost in the Shell" is an entertaining cyberpunk thriller.  I wish Netflix would stream the original version, and in the original Japanese with subtitles.  I'm not a fan of English dubs.  The cadence is never right, and the translations never seem quite natural.  Inevitably, it sounds like the actors are rushing through their lines to make it before the shot changes and someone else has to speak, so there's very little room for actual performance.  All these things dampen my enjoyment of the "2.0" version, but much of the film is still a bang-up job, with gorgeous animation and some fascinating themes.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

"Bicentennial Man" (1999)

Starring Robin Williams, Embeth Davidtz and Sam Neill
Written by Nicholas Kazan
Directed by Chris Columbus

To this day, you're pretty much fighting an uphill battle by casting Robin Williams in any role that's not an outright comedy.  The man's a clown, through and through, and he can rarely resist the urges that come with that persona.  It's what keeps him a comedian instead of an actor for much of his filmography.

In 1999, he starred as the robot Andrew Martin in this film adaptation of Isaac Asimov's short story"Bicentennial Man" (and the novel "The Positronic Man").  Andrew begins his life as a robot in 2005, bought and purchased by Richard Martin, whom he calls "Sir" as a servant for the family.  He soon endears himself to both "Sir" and "Little Miss," the Martins' youngest daughter, Amanda.  The elder daughter thinks nothing of Andrew, and even attempts to rid the family of this bizarre creation.  Richard's wife, "Ma'am" is disgusted by Andrew, and easily becomes frustrated by his presence.

Over time, however, Andrew develops deeper relationships with both Sir and Lil' Miss, and even begins to show human traits such as curiosity and creativity.  Richard first notices this when Andrew carves a wooden horse for Lil Miss without copying it from a picture or other source.  He determines that Andrew is unique, and takes him to visit the head of NorthAm Robotics, a Mr. Mansky (Stephen Root).  Mansky realizes the value and the danger of a unique, sentient android, and attempts to purchase Andrew back from Richard, who balks at the idea.  Instead, he encourages Andrew to explore his potential.

Eventually, the family grows older, and Andrew is further integrated into the lives of Sir and Lil Miss.  Soon, he begins his own business making and selling intricate clocks and time pieces.  He amasses a fortune of his own, and is eventually given the freedom to start his own bank account.  He becomes further and further intrigued by the notion of "freedom" and with not only seeming more human but being more human.

More time passes, and eventually Richard dies and Lil Miss has had children and grandchildren.  Andrew begins searching out other androids such as himself, but finds none.  Realizing that he's alone in the world, he begins to fund the research of Rupert Burns (Oliver Platt) in an effort to improve himself and become more human.  He eventually gains a human body, and even the ability to taste and feel.  He soon finds himself in love with Lil Miss' granddaughter, Portia.  When she finally agrees that she loves him back, the two begin a romantic relationship and Andrew pursues his ultimate goal of being declared human.

"Bicentennial Man" is a mediocre sci-fi drama, one whose major themes have been covered better elsewhere.  It's major failing is the fact that even though the film is actually just over two hours, it feels like 200 years.  Too many scenes retread the same material that we've been over earlier in the film.  Andrew's advancement as a person seems to happen in fits and starts and most of it seems rather perfunctory.  His only real emotional development happens when he realizes that he's in love with Portia, which he is only able to recognize after being told that it's the likely scenario by Oliver Platt's character, Rupert.  There rest of it mostly deals with Andrew pursuing recognition of his unique status, like being able to open a bank account or the ability to 'create' something.

It might seem strange, but I have to argue that the same story was told much better and more concisely by the 'Sonny' character played by Alan Tudyk in "I, Robot" with Will Smith.  While that film suffered a bit too much from Smith's personality overpowering his character (something that happens often with Williams in "Bicentennial Man," too) Sonny's development seems far more interesting and emotionally satisfying to watch, and he wasn't even the main character of that film.   A huge part of the difference is that Sonny is intelligent enough to investigate emotions on his own, and the exploration of his dreams are key, as well.

Tudyk's performance as Sonny easily trumps Williams', as well.  At no point did I forget during this film that I'm watching Robin Williams as a robot.  Williams never disappears into his character, and there are too many clownish bits in the performance for me to ever really take his journey all that seriously, either.  Though Andrew sometimes seems to experience emotions, and does so more and more as he becomes more human, he never seems to understand that he is feeling them.  They don't come through in his performance at all, and not just because in his robot form he lacks much of the ability of human expression.  Tone of voice is extremely important, just as much as expression, in a performance, but Andrew's rarely varies.

Beyond just Williams' performance, there's a lack of emotional connection with pretty much everyone in the film, which is a problem I've had with other Chris Columbus films (notably, the first "Harry Potter," which felt like watching an adaptation of a check list of scenes from the book rather than a story). That's the thing that breaks this movie's back, ultimately, even more so than any other issue I might have with it.  The other characters in the Martin family appear and disappear for long stretches of time, and ultimately have no bearing at all on Andrew or even the other family members.  The elder sister, Grace, the one that hates Andrew, is never developed beyond her dislike of Andrew and ultimately is just dropped altogether from the film.

The repetitious nature of the script doesn't help at all, and it feels like we watch Williams going through the same motions again and again.  There are some genuinely charming scenes, and the arc of the story overall is fascinating stuff (otherwise, it wouldn't have been explored so often and so well in sci-fi) but "Bicentennial Man" fails to capitalize on that potential.

In terms of production design, Andrew seems very retro in a world around him designed to look very modern.  He looks very much like someone took an image from the cover of an old printing of Asimov's stories and built it around Robin Williams, while the semi-translucent CG robots of "I, Robot" looked far more in keeping with the world around them.

James Horner's score is an overwrought and overpowering piece of work, using huge cues of swelling strings to overcome the fact that you're not likely to give a damn about any of the drama of the film's characters.  It's like he saw how boring this movie was and decided that it was his duty to try and make up for it.  It doesn't particularly work.

In the end, I can't really recommend "Bicentennial Man" too strongly, if at all.  Its major problem is just that it's fairly boring, but not outright bad in any fashion.  The script is too repetitious, the performances aren't nuanced enough and the score is to overbearing.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

"Black Dynamite" (2009)

Starring Michael Jai White, Arsenio Hall and Tommy Davidson
Written by Michael Jai White and Byron Minns
Directed by Scott Sanders

"Cream Corn, NOOOOOOOO!"
"Black Dynamite" is a ridiculous, hilarious spoof of the "Blaxploitation" genre of the 70s.  It's loaded with stereotypes and racial slurs, but all used for hilarious effect, amping up the absurdity of those films to new heights and also winking at them in a sly manner.

Michael Jai White stars as Black Dynamite, a former soldier and CIA operative who finds out his brother has been killed by "The Man."  When he discovers that his brother was a drug dealer, he declares war on drugs in the ghetto, vowing to clean up this rotten town once and for all... by killing all the drug dealers.  He gathers his posse, including buddies with names like Cream Corn, Bullhorn, Tasty Freeze and Saheed.  Together, they clean up the town and discover some kind of large drug shipment coming into town related to a corrupt politician, Senator James (Tucker Smallwood).  But when they storm his warehouse, they find only cases of malt liquor.  But Black Dynamite doesn't accept defeat, and discovers James is connected to a vast, world-wide conspiracy by the Man to bring down the Black Man.

To give away the various twists and turns of this ridiculous story would just be cruel.  "Black Dynamite" is full of laugh-out-loud moments that come from startling, absurd revelations.  It's also full of more charming, subtle humor.  For example, during what could probably be called an "emotional" soliloquy by Black Dynamite about growing up in the hood and only knowing how to fight, a boom mike enters the top of the frame.  It stays there for the entire lengthy shot, and this would be funny enough, except that the film goes one step further and Black Dynamite actually notices the boom mike, does a double take, and still keeps delivering his lines anyway.  It's absurd, but charming and utterly hilarious.

White plays Black Dynamite with a delivery I didn't think he was really capable of.  I'd seen him in movies like "Spawn" and his small role in "The Dark Knight" but I'd never really seen him do much more than sneer and act threatening (and that's even as a good guy in "Spawn").  Here, he's able to take that similar sort of role and twist it upside down with a wink and a non-smile (trust me, that makes sense in the movie).  The way Black Dynamite will treat the people he loves almost the same rage-fueled way he treats the scum he's taking down is downright hilarious, especially when he apologizes to them afterward (again, that makes sense in the movie, too).

The film is shot and edited in the style of those 70s blaxploitation films, on grainy 16 mm film and a color palette that seems to skew towards orange.  Camera gaffes, poor lighting, editing mixups... it's all here, but this time it's intentional.  Director Scott Sanders has quite an eye for comedic pacing, and Jai's abilities as a martial artist are both put to good use and lampooned.  For every genuinely impressive move, there's another that obviously fails to connect but the thug will go down anyway.  The film has a look of cheapness that's downright hilarious, too.  Witness the scene in the orphanage, which you'd only know was an orphanage because of a sign behind the characters that says "Orphanage."

That orphanage scene is an absolute riot, by the way.  "Ain't nothin' in the world get Black Dynamite more mad than some jive-ass sucka dealin' smack to da kids!"  Watching a ten year old slap his arm waiting for a hit, or another asking Black Dynamite to pimp out whores for drug money... I couldn't stop laughing.

That's pretty much how the whole movie went, in fact.  It's hilarious, through and through.  I'm not very knowledgeable of blaxploitation as a genre, but this was not a problem at all with "Black Dynamite."  This film is funny, plain and simple.  It does for 70s blaxploitation films what "Hot Fuzz" did for big-budget Hollywood action flicks.  The gags are non-stop, and totally hilarious.  Watch this movie.