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The rabid Paul Verhoeven fan approves.
Three and a half hours. In each direction. That is how much time I spent traveling (excluding putting up with certain other peoples' bullshit) to get to see Zwartboek ten years ago.
So when I tell you I would gladly let Verhoeven turn one of my manuscripts into a film, understand where I am coming from. Since one of the darkest times in my life in 1988, Verhoeven has taught me more about how to tell a story with feeling and message than anyone else in literary, film, or musical circles. There would be a statue of the man in my private home on the world I would design. But this is not just about Verhoeven. It is about his latest offering in the cinema, a curious rape-revenge story called Elle.
First of all, let us clear something up. Elle is a name given unto many girls at birth, but it is also the French word for "she" or "her". The central character in this tale is actually named Michèle, and she takes some getting used to, as unlike Ellis De Vries or Alex Murphy, Verhoeven does not want you to automatically like her just because she is the star of the story. The film begins with a fairly powerful depiction of her being raped on the kitchen floor of her house. I say powerful because it is repeated several different ways, but it never gets gratuitous or old. She is also raped again during the film, twice, but Verhoeven was paying attention in film school when the professor told the class "if your scene does not tell the audience anything new about anyone or anything in the film, get rid of it". We learn a lot about Michèle during this film, and because she is the most developed, most fully three- dimensional character in Verhoeven's entire career, a lot of what we learn churns our stomachs.
You may have also gotten the impression from certain "journalism" that the film attacks "social justice warriors" or the drive to make the world a place where people other than rich white males can enjoy their lives. This is false. If anything, the film tells us two things. One, the world is not a safe place for women in their homes, in public, or even in bits. Two, simply talking about the problem, as opposed to violently making the people who make the problem stop, will solve nothing.
Pretty much the entire film, we are watching Isabelle Huppert's character, Michèle go through the trials and tribulations of her life after a masked man rapes her in her home. Some might think the film is about the "suspense" of figuring out who this masked attacker is, but it is not. The real meat of the story is in seeing Michèle change as a person. Videos are circulated making light of her being attacked. Messages are sent to her, of a nature that only privileged men could think okay to send. And woven into this are several subthreads about her friends and family, including the fact that her son, in spite of being a foot taller than her or almost anyone else in the story, is in serious need of doing some stones-growing. She tells one man a story about the day her father, a mass murderer, was arrested whilst her ten year old self was standing in the yard, having helped father burn things within the house. This story was in the trailer, and in its proper context it is just as chilling coming out of Michèle's mouth as was the case in the trailer.
On a scale of one to RoboCop or Zwartboek, Elle is about eight. Even Verhoeven's worst films have something about them that makes them stand out from the pack, but Elle is by far his most thought- provoking piece. Long have I said that people who want to feel safe and are not rich white men are going to have to fight for it. I will not spoil the climax of Elle, but I do wonder if Paul overheard me. Paul has effectively sent the Overgrown Baby-focused Hollywood a message in Elle. Specifically, I (Paul) am too good for you. Amen, Paul.
Hellraiser: Revelations (2011)
You can make a good film, you can make a bad film, but...
...heaven help you if you make a *boring* film. I used to say that constantly when I was younger and full of pep and had just taken a walk into the DVD-Video format that refuses to go away in spite of looking like a dirty dish with a crack in it compared to actual (that is, not "upsampled") HD.
I started writing this "review" as a kind of response to a very surface-scratching and short attempt to defend this film. Because after they once again told us to forgive the film based on how little they had to work with, that is what comes to mind. The film is utterly boring.
It is also well worth noting that this film exists for one reason, and only one reason: to prevent the rights to this moribund franchise from reverting back into the hands of Clive Barker. It is one thing if one makes a bad film with honest intentions. For example, Ed Wood's intentions ranged from pleading for acceptance of transvestites (in the 1950s, I might add) to stopping the nuclear arms race before we ended up without a planet to live on. That his delivery of such messages through cinema was comically inept is beside the point, because although the message gets lost in the unintentional comedy, simply knowing that that was partly what he intended is enough to see he had more in mind than just money. Not the makers of Hellraiser Revelations. All they cared about was money, and it shows.
Stories generally go through a lot of rewriting before they are presented to an audience. Generally, when an author looks at his first draft, he sees mistake after mistake leaping out at him, crying for correction. Characters he was in love with during the first draft might seem like complete nonces whilst rereading, and are thus modified during the subsequent drafts. Actions undertaken by characters that got the basic plot from A to B in the first draft might make zero sense on rereading, and thus the author will rewrite the sequence of events to make more sense. Why am I describing these parts of the writing process? Because it is plainly evident that precisely none of that happened with this script.
The story as it unfolds in this film goes something like two spoiled brats go on a road trip to Mexico looking for booze, sex, and good times. The things that go wrong eventually lead them to sit in a bar where a bum who looks strangely like the bum in the original film offers them the box. Astute readers will note that this is quite a difference from the original, where one brother actively seeks out the box in a South-East Asian market because he is bored and jaded with all the thrills and spills the world can offer him. Dialogue is given in which one brat explains for the audience that he does not want to spend the rest of his life in what I inferred from this speech was a hicksville village (the film itself is not too clear about where they actually live). Although it was not great at doing this, the original gave the audience plenty to imply that one brother was a boring, tepid personality and the other a wild, outgoing man. In Revelations, almost everything is told to the audience rather than demonstrated. That can work with good actors, but the actors here mostly look like they would find it difficult to read out a battle scene from The Phantom Blooper in a way that stimulates interest.
Hellraiser Revelations is only useful for two things. One, to demonstrate there is no low to which the Weinsteins will not sink in order to keep a property, no matter how far they have run that property's value into the ground. Two, as a teaching tool at film schools. One film school teacher quoted in the Plan 9 Companion says one useful teaching tool is to show a student an example when film is not being done well and make them take notes of what is not being done well. Hellraiser Revelations offers a goldmine of material for a class like that.
A tale of two films.
When I walked out of my first viewing of Casino Royale, I declared to a person I had gone with the very simple truth of the matter. That is how Bond should have been from the get-go. No fantasy "shag-me-baby" Austin ****facing, no romancing of the trade of being Her Majesty's Secret Killer. Just the brutal reality as conveyed through making Bond watch his girlfriend die and endure one of the most terrifying tortures a Human male can undergo. For the first time, Bond was as grounded in reality as his premise needed him to be. Other Bonds, namely Lazenby and Dalton, went towards it, but Casino Royale was the first Bond film to dive in with both hands out. The problem is that after one rushed, truly insipid sequel that introduced shaky-cam to the Bond universe, and was derided as it deserved, the producers panicked. Skyfall had most of the things that made Casino Royale great. A truly memorable villain who challenged Bond in truly important ways, a sense of consequence, and the knowledge that the hole in Bond's soul grows that little bit bigger every time we see him.
Unfortunately, it also gave us what I will call "resurrections" of everything that I came to despise about Bond. The new Q looked like he really ought to be terrified of Bond, the new M, at least in Skyfall, looked like the sort of person Bond would break over his knee on the way to the main villain, and people in the audience could see me wincing every time the new Moneypenny spoke. Which brings us to Spectre. I call it a tale of two films because once you watch past a certain point, it becomes evident that two scripts were meshed together in order to make this story, and the fit is not a good one. The first half of the film, accounting for a hundred minutes or so, is exactly what I had been hoping for since Casino Royale and mostly got in Skyfall. A slow boiler in which Bond is pushed to his psychological limits and shows us through his eyes that even when you do it for King and Country, killing people can have consequences that last the rest of your life. But there is a certain point in the film, after Bond gets off a train in a desert, where I encourage everyone to stop watching. Go out the door and imagine your own ending.
Because when that point in the film arrives, complete with a clunky, ineffective attempt to recreate the awesome torture sequence that had every male in the audience weeping sympathetic tears, it all comes apart in a big hurry. It is still entertaining, do not get me wrong, but it is to Casino Royale as RoboCop 3 (or RoboCop in name only as it should have been titled) is to RoboCop. The Casino Royale sequence, as I said, made every individual with those bits in the audience grind their teeth in sympathy with Bond. The attempt to recall this sequence in Spectre, which brings to my mind the Get Smart joke "I murdered my dentist", is limp-wristed and ineffective. It may as well have had Roger Moore in it. And it gets worse from there. From the equally tension-free escape onwards, you might as well paint an S on Bond's chest and be done with it. Or call him James Rambond. Take your pick. Rambond. James Rambond. Yes, Casino Royale had him surviving things that have you desperately holding onto your disbelief, trying to stop it from breaking its leash. But Spectre subjects you to around 30-50 minutes of them.
To be fair, Moneypenny gets better things to do this time than make the audience ask her to shut the hell up. But she also gets some lines about Bond just getting started that make an intelligent viewer want to rip their seat out of the floor and throw it at her enormous mouth. And Rafe-M shows us he is able to be more than just Bond-nagger. But in the end, the second component of this uneasy blend demonstrates to us that true to the form they have been in for all but one of the prior 23 films, the Bond producers are cowards and will only try new things when their proverbials are to the wall. The Rambond half of the film is only comparable to Pierce Brosnan Bond at its best, and that is so far below the best of what Daniel Craig has offered thus far, there is just no comparison. The less we say about our main villain, the better.
Daniel Craig apparently is a co-producer in this affair. And he has but one film left in his contract. So if I could tell him what I wish he would do in the next film, it is this. Make the rest of the Bond production team go back to what made Casino Royale, most of Skyfall, and the first chunk of Spectre so great. Make Bond an ordinary man who has to endure the absolute limits of what men can be pushed to. Make him suffer the consequences of his professional choices, and make the audience feel it with him. Because the more consequence-free Bond is (as demonstrated in Other Half Of Spectre), the less he works as entertainment. Spectre could have ascended to be the Fury Road of this franchise. Instead, it is just another above-average.
Bai she chuan shuo (2011)
A horrible, godawful experience.
I have seen this film being called a love story, wonderful, and so on. I do not turn off films after eighty minutes because of these elements, but when I can no longer stand to watch because my cup has runneth over with hate for the antagonist, then the eject button gets hit like a drunk at a boxing club. Put simply, although the Jet Li character is set up as the protagonist during the early stages of the film, the scenes with the two snakes also set them up as heroic, caring, wonderful creatures. The fact that they are sensuous in an overt fashion and the film is unafraid to use this in order to keep interest makes a welcome relief from the chastity in art of the English speaking world. But then when the monk continually goes out of his way to make life difficult for the White Snake simply because she is a different kind of living thing to him, it is just too much.
Jet Li will be happy to know that until he publicly states that he is sorry for this film or that he regrets having played this character, I will never watch another film with him in it again. Why it did not occur to him to hand the script back to the studio and say "I will look like what mentalcritic spits the words 'child abuser' at, I am not doing this" or similar is something I cannot begin to fathom.
Shengyi Huang and Charlene Choi look and seem like wonderful women. They deserved better than this. There are basically two stories at war here. One is of two women falling in love with men that are separated from them by major barriers and fight to overcome that. The other is of a bigot telling everyone how right he is and not realising his entire audience wants to castrate him in front of everyone who thinks like him. Sadly, the second story ends up winning out, and for anyone who has problems with things like love for whatever reason (such as in my case having been abused), the film ends up torturous as a result. Avoid this one like I avoid family.
Rozario to banpaia (2008)
Well, nobody has reviewed it yet...
To be honest, reviewing things on the IMDb has become a very unattractive pursuit in the last few years, for reasons I shall not go into here. But to see an entry finally added for Rosario + Vampire and not see any attempt, leave alone a good one, to make readers aware of what to expect... well, what can I do? Rosario + Vampire can basically be discussed in a couple of parallel threads. There is the manga, and there is this anime. Comparing one to the other is important, because it is important to understand why fans of the manga still cry out for a visual media adaptation. Another good point of comparison would be the enormously successful HBO series True Blood.
Manga and anime alike start through the eyes of a boy in his mid-teens who goes by the name of Tsukune. Tsukune is a profoundly average boy, and has failed the entrance exams to pretty much every school in Japan. But this is not meant to be a commentary about the intellectual caste system of Japan. Rather, it is a setup to explain how Tsukune is enrolled by his parents in the Youkai Academy after his father happens across a flier dropped by a suspect-looking person. Of course, anyone who knows the meaning of Youkai in Japanese knows where this is going. Tsukune, upon learning that he is enrolled in a school for mythical creatures, begins to write his withdrawal notice and make his way toward the exit. But what stops him is the young woman he met earlier in the day, a Vampire who goes by the name of Moka. Where Tsukune is the most average, unremarkable Human, Moka is one of the most elite and powerful Youkai of the lot, extraordinary even by Vampire standards. And she finds the taste of Tsukune's blood very much to her liking.
It is more or less after this introduction that the manga and anime go on very different paths. Whereas the characters of the manga face some extreme challenges that go straight to the root of their psyches, the anime is mostly farcical and only superficially explores any of the feelings the characters have about anything. We get told that Moka is very frightened of Humans because of her experiences of trying to attend school in the Human world, but aside from flashbacks, we get very little to concrete it. Mizore, easily my favourite character from the manga, is basically reduced to running jokes about popping up in the weirdest places and taking her desire of Tsukune a little too far. In the manga, the arc that introduces her shows her dealing with trust and abandonment issues as one of the sensei tries to take advantage of her. The kindness that Tsukune shows her as she fights off that sensei once and for all makes it patently obvious why she loves him. In the anime, we are just expected to accept it as a given.
Where the anime partially saves itself is in the relationship between Tsukune and Moka. Seeing them grow together as people as they learn to deal with each others' differences is a major component of the early manga that has been sadly lacking in recent volumes. One almost wishes the series had been around for George Lucas to watch when he was writing scenes for a pair of characters earlier in this decade. Since the anime is also very brief and to the point, there is a lot less gnashing of teeth about why Tsukune has to be so indecisive about which of the women chasing him he wants. But the biggest selling point of the anime by far is Nana Mizuki's voicework as both Inner and Outer Moka. As the more demure, gentle Outer Moka, she sounds sweet and childlike in a way that manages to not sicken this jaded old viewer (quite a feat in itself that Harry Potty et al could never achieve). Then when the Inner Moka comes out, she gently, calmly sounds like she could tear the viewer's head off just to see the rest of them twitch. It is no coincidence that all of the theme songs also feature Mizuki's voice prominently.
So if you are curious as to whether to introduce yourself to Rosario + Vampire through this series, I feel a comparison says it best. The manga is like Tim Burton's Batman. The anime is a somewhat more grown-up version of the Adam West abomination. But who knows? Maybe one day we might get that Takashi Miike R+V adaptation I hold my breath for.
Iron Man 2 (2010)
Did Brian Lowry and Kirk Honeycutt watch the same Iron Man films I did?
...Because the Iron Man that I saw had me checking my watch constantly throughout its running length. It was basically a lot of talking with a few paltry action sequences that ended too soon and had no real oomph. Had it not been for Jeff Bridges and Robert Downey junior, Iron Man would have been another Hulk. And by Hulk, I do not mean The Incredile. The improvement shown in Iron Man 2, by comparison, is like the improvement between X-Men and X2, only five times over. The difference being that X-Men had been 98 percent awesome to begin with. Maybe if this trajectory of improvement continues with the inevitable third Iron Man film (which in itself would be an awesome feat), it will be in the same ballpark as X2, or maybe even as awe-inspiringly brilliant as RoboCop, the exercise in suffering for the most wonderful art that the comic book Iron Man helped inspire. But I digress. The point I am trying to make here is that anyone who uses words like "less fun" as a put-down in context of reviewing a story like Iron Man 2 should be shot in order to lessen the pollution of our gene pool. I happen to find stories that deal with serious concepts like revenge and hatred far more fun than catchphrase fluff, Brian and Kirk.
You cannot have a superhero film without a good actor to play the titular superhero. Whereas Christian Bale is hampered by his director's ego and an inability to be intelligible, and Hugh Jackman is currently chained down by some of the worst superhero film scripts since Batman & Robin, Robert Downey junior and his script are at the top of their game here. Originally when I heard that the story in this film would show Stark descending into alcoholism, I thought they at least picked the right man for the job. But the script provides something more in giving Stark a very credible motive for it. Downey is very convincing when pretending that he is dying and deciding to destroy himself as a result, but the arc of how an archival message from Howard Stark causes Tony Stark to lift himself out of the hole and fix the problem that is killing him is touching in multiple senses. And I speak as someone who has dealt with multiple addictions and compensatory life destructions here.
But the real star of the show is Mickey Rourke as Ivan Vanko, the real villain of the piece. Ivan is to Tony what Khan was to Kirk, only more so. Whereas Khan had the eventually-fatal flaw of not having as much experience in where he engaged his enemy, Ivan if anything knows quite a bit more about the world he is taking on than Tony. The desperate poverty we see him in at the beginning lends itself to that. When he goes out onto that racetrack and starts to chop up cars, he knows to expect no quarter, and thus tries to not give any. Lengthy speeches are also a tricky thing to pull off in any kind of film, lending themselves to ridicule or contradiction. But in a ten-second speech, Mickey Rourke gives the audience every reason to believe that his character has a right to feel hard done by. There is a reason why Rourke is experiencing a minor new surge of interest, and it is on display in every frame that features him. It is a credit to Robert Downey junior that he can stay credible whilst sharing the screen with Rourke.
One of the most controversial aspects of Iron Man 2 was Marvel's choice to replace Terence Howard with Don Cheadle, their original choice to play Rhodes. Howard made much noise about it, but Marvel made the right decision here. Cheadle is far more credible as the Colonel despite being noticeably physically smaller. During one scene in which Cheadle dons the suit and acts in a fight with Downey, his delivery of the dialogue ("you are not fit to wear this suit!") is much more credible to boot. Also holding up their end of the platform are Gwyneth Paltrow, Samuel L. Jackson, and Scarlett Johansson in some of the best support roles thus far seen in a superhero film. Paltrow in particular scores top points for performing as a responsible woman trying to hold up a boss she cares for like a husband but is psychologically disintegrating into a mess before her very eyes. Jackson, for his part, plays the same Jackson he plays in every other film he is in, but it works well with the role of Nick Fury, so why not.
The story itself is fairly simple and linear, without any extra layers or references for the viewer to take something out of. But instead of seemingly endless dialogue that has very little linguistic verve interspersed with the aforementioned so restrained it feels like a dog collar action sequences, Iron Man 2 has mostly very riveting dialogue and action sequences that, although nowhere near the standard set by the likes of Verhoeven, are at least entertaining to watch and contribute something to the plot. In fact the only aspect of the original that I prefer over this film is the score music. Whereas the Iron Man score had powerful themes that lifted certain shots well above the drudgery of the rest of the film, Iron Man 2's score is almost non-existent and remarkably tame. And while we are on the subject of music, whilst the Iron Man of the Black Sabbath song and Iron Man would not recognise each other if they met, can we please get something better than AC/DC? They have not released a single good record since I was born.
Iron Man 2 is a ten out of ten film. To paraphrase a line from an early sequence: **** you, Brian and Kirk, **** you.
Death Race (2008)
A film so bad it motivated me to come out of retirement
Typically, when I contemplate offering my commentary on a film, the one question that always comes to mind is what difference I will make by making my voice heard. Sometimes, with dehumanising propaganda like Mozart And The Whale or Rain Man, it is not so much important to convince anyone to stop watching as it is to simply voice objections. Sometimes, with masterpieces like RoboCop or Night Of The Living Dead, convincing a skeptic who might have otherwise not seen the film to do so is its own reward. And then there's films like Death Race, where commenting seems like something you do out of obligation, kind of like when you file a report after being raped or robbed. The irony here is that some commentators seem to think Roger Corman's approval of this remake somehow indicates quality. What they do not know is that Corman wanted the original to be approached as seriously as this bloated turd, and it was only Paul Bartel's knack for making the most of an opportunity that saved Death Race 2000 from being the complete disaster that Death Race is.
Death Race 2000 was made on a budget that likely amounted to a few hundred grand at the most. And more than likely half of that budget went up the filmmakers' nostrils. So when I tell you that Paul W.S. Anderson's remake is not only rightly compared to the original, but is on the losing end of such a comparison, that should tell you all you need to know about what went wrong here. Themes and ideas fly by the screen in an almost manic fashion. In one shot, they are trying to satirise the concept of reality television. In the next, they are trying to give a shout-out to the original. In another, they attempt poor jokes based on a character's sexual orientation. And they get every single thing they attempt utterly wrong. Where Bartel's original shone in particular is also where this Death Race is an epic failure. Anderson attempts to sell the idea that authorities will allow a gladiatorial racing sport in the prison system due to the collapse of the economy. Which could have worked if the person running said sport was not made out by the script to be functionally retarded.
Not helping matters any is that the structure of the race itself makes absolutely no sense. Cars run over lit markers in order to activate their weapons, but absolutely no concern is given to how their activation works for the story. Guards switch the markers on and off like crack-addled children in the hopes of giving favoured contestants an advantage. Racers detach armour plates that are helping to prevent their fuel tank from exploding. Racers leap out of cars that are moving at speeds in excess of a hundred miles an hour without suffering so much as a broken collarbone. Any competent director would have sent this shooting script back to the studio and told them to shoot its author in the head twice. But possibly the worst aspect of this film is Machine Gun Joe, an inferior rip-off of the Machine Gun Joe Viterbo character Sylvester Stallone made his best ever performance. Not only is the new Machine Gun Joe a urination upon blacks and homosexuals the world over, but how often do you see actors compared to Sylvester Stallone and finding themselves on the losing end for aspects other than action-heroism?
My father was a semi-professional photographer once (he mostly did weddings and the like). I photograph things both as a hobby and as a vociferous protest in favour of my own civil rights. I shoot my video footage with an interlaced HD video camera and painstakingly edit it on a computer that is not even the top of the line for home consumer use. And I can heartily attest that if you made me drink enough vodka to kill a bodybuilder then held a gun to my head as I cut together footage of races, I could easily slap together something both more cogent and exciting to watch than the drivel that passes for race footage in this mess. If I could go back in time with two bullets and the exact locations where Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini will be at certain points, I would take a detour and shoot the monkey who invented shaky-cam twice before bashing his head in with a brick. Considering that Paul W.S. Anderson used to shoot films so that the audience could actually see what the hell was going on, my disgust with him is getting ever more severe.
Joan Allen looks completely lost trying to follow the direction of a director who clearly no longer knows which end of the camera to point at her. If I were to spit on Tyrese Gibson for his performance in this film, I do not doubt for a second he would cry racism. In fact, I would like to film him doing just that for the benefit of the homosexual community. Natalie Martinez is quite apparently frustrated by a role so underwritten it makes the sacrificial lamb in Death Race 2000 look like Scarlett O'Hara. But the biggest disappointment of the lot would have to be Jason Statham as the central hero. Where David Carradine was so deadpan and smooth that he made the most absurd material work, Statham plainly cannot give a stuff about what he is part of. It literally seems all he can do to not ask where his paycheque is. Everyone in the film save for Gibson has that patented "I am in a bad film and I know it" look.
Death Race is the embodiment of a two out of ten film. If Roger Corman had the slightest bit of sense, he would disown it. Defenders of this puke be advised: your opinion regarding the colour of the sky is of no interest to me.
Resident Evil: Extinction (2007)
Humanity has reached a new low...
There are statements people can make that instantly tell you everything you need to know about them. When Albert Einstein stated that the simple version of relativity was akin to how quickly time moved in different situations, for example, it told the world they were dealing with an intelligence too great to be easily understood. So when a person tells you that Resident Evil: Extinction is a good film, you instantly know that they are a grade A moron who is best swiftly removed from the gene pool. And it is not like the filmmakers failed to try this time. After the exercise in failure to deliver that the previous sequel turned into, this installment simply had to get better by comparison. The unfortunate downside to this being that a lot of mouth-breathers who have obviously never seen a Romero or Fulci film have the unfortunate habit of confusing "better" with "good". Websites dedicated to the savoring of bad films will tell you that a film is in trouble when it starts to remind you of better ones. RE:E takes less than four minutes to remind viewers of the substantially better original.
By now, we know better than to go to a Resident Evil film expecting anything like good acting or a well-told story. But what separates the first film from its sequels is a little quality called atmosphere. Simply put, the look, the feel, the music, and even some of the performances, were "right". Resident Evil took the time to suspend the viewer's disbelief and draw them into its world. The sequels absolutely fail at this deceptively simple step because they take it for granted that the viewer has been drawn in. This becomes painfully obvious when voiceovers describe how the T-virus has somehow dried up the oceans or other such rot. No matter how lethal and easily transmissible a virus can be, one that destroys the environment that it is meant to thrive in is not well-equipped for long-term survival. But since we are meant to accept this virus as being able to instantly adapt to whatever needs the plot requires, we also accept that making sense is not high on the list of priorities the filmmakers have.
If only the film having a voice of its own was a higher priority to these filmmakers. As said previously, RE:E wastes no time in reminding the viewers of better films. Aside from the original in the series, RE:E also attempts to steal from not one, not two, but three George Romero films, all from the same series. Say what you will about Day Of The Dead especially, but Day Of The Dead's subplot about attempts to domesticate the zombies made an interesting metaphor for the intolerance human society was and is developing for natural behaviour that does not meet the expected norm. In RE:E, this subplot is handled with such clumsy focus on attempting to move the plot forward by any means necessary that any social commentary is lost in the disbelief at how inept the storytellers seem. The concept of parties raiding old towns for supplies is also about as original as a third-generation fax, but it is done so badly here that it truly makes one appreciate how Land Of The Dead negated questions about what the heroes are going to do when the leftovers run out.
And even if RE:E fails to remind one of much better films, the philosophy that less is more completely and utterly backfires. One reason the Resident Evil sequels remind this viewer a lot of Romero's Dead series is because Romero's Dead series allocated sufficient time to explore enough of the characters that their plight and struggles seemed real and compelling. The manner in which the shopping mall environment slowly evolves from a safe paradise to a prison is very palpable due to the acting in Dawn Of The Dead. The real Dawn Of The Dead, I mean. When you see Omar Epps return for another performance in RE:E, all the toning down of the bling bling act in the world cannot help but bring back memories of his performance in the previous film. Which in turn leaves audiences who can read and speak at an adult level wishing to see his character die a gruesome and horrid death. While RE:E is not quite as softcore as its immediate predecessor, its seemingly unending ability to leave the viewer wanting more is a stark contrast to how Dead films can make even the most hardcore viewer wonder if they are perhaps going too far.
All this leaves one wondering exactly what Capcom think of how these second-tier studio gatherings have used their property. The first film in the series at least had a freaky sense of atmosphere and some replications of game conventions to tie it to its source material. If you changed the titles of the two sequels and removed all references to the Umbrella corporation, they would be unrecognisable as connected to Capcom's games. Simply put, the Resident Evil title is nothing more than a transparent ploy to fanboys and video game addicts to pay for films that are increasingly poorly-written. If truth in advertising laws were more stringent, they would be required to be titled something along the lines of We Have No Respect For You At All, Videogamers: Just Give Us Your Money. The saddest part of it is that this kind of corporate shill film designed to whip consumers into a money-shedding frenzy is exactly what previous, far superior works such as (the real) Dawn Of The Dead were trying to warn us about.
Resident Evil: Extinction is a film so bad that it makes misfires like Day Of The Dead seem like Zwartboek by comparison. It is a two out of ten film in every sense: too bad to be worthwhile, not bad enough to be entertaining. Avoid.
Quite a lot less than meets the eye, actually...
It seems Transformers splits viewers firmly down the middle, with people either denouncing it as a lot of crap or saying they loved it. I do not denounce people because they have an opinion, not unless they want to tell me I am diseased and incapable because I was born different to the expected norm anyway, but this... film... goes beyond the limit of bad writing. Hence, when a defender of this film tells me that the sky is blue, I will ask someone else for their opinion. You see, I was a hyperlexic child in 1986 (that means I had a wider vocabulary when I was in elementary school than most people have when they enter tertiary education). Hence, I not only enjoyed The Transformers, the real Transformers, I could have explained to you in very lucid terms why the physics of their abilities are not only impossible but, in light of feasibility on a planet that is not blessed with a literally infinite power source, completely ridiculous. Why do I say all that? It is very simple. This film does not just insult my intelligence, it assumes that I am like my onetime elementary school teachers and have none.
Like all the truly bad films, there are moments when you start to just care about some of the characters. The soldiers who first meet one of the titular robots are likable, genuinely interesting guys. The teenagers that the film spends the majority of its time following, on the other hand, are the most insipid and annoying pieces of human filth it has been my displeasure to watch. In contrast to the Spike, Chip, or Sparkplug that gave the audience an element to relate to in the real Transformers, the Sam, Mikaela, and Maggie that pollute this abortion of an adaptation slow down the interest factor to a halt. It is one thing to make a film about a war between disparate factions of intelligent robots uninteresting. It is another altogether to make the human factor so monotonous and cliché that even the moments of interaction between people are boring. The "oh my god I do not know how to talk to another human being because it is feminine" act is so 1950s, guys.
Adding to the misery are the action sequences. Yes, the parts of the film that are meant to give relief from the monotony of the dialogue or the who-cares tepidness of the human characters actually bring the most pain. This is because director Michael Bay, like all directors who do not know how to make an action film interesting when all else has failed, resorts to the tried and tired method of making sure the audience cannot see what the hell is going on. Michael Bay, if you are out there and can read this, I promise you that if we ever meet, I am going to make you feel as dazed and nauseous as your piece of crap film has made me. I will sign a contract to do so in blood if you want commitment. Bay should really have trusted his original instinct, as he has made nothing more than a stupid toy film. Put simply, I did not just hate this film. I turned it off feeling like Bay had just shaken his ding-dong at me for two hours.
And what of the characters we were bracing ourselves to see on film? Well, Bumblebee is the one we get to see first, so let us deal with him. Put simply, Bumblebee's function in the real Transformers was to demonstrate that size alone does not make a person worthy. In spite of being not much bigger than your average Human, he often steered his fellow Autobots out of danger when it was really needed. Or rescued the human element. Take your pick. But in Michael Bay's conception of the world, everyone who is worth anything is at least 6'7" and weighs 250 pounds, minimum. Do not try telling him Albert Einstein was a mere 5'9", it will fall on deaf ears. And it gets worse from there. The real Optimus Prime was a leader because of several things. One, he was as intelligent as he was large (that's right, Michael, intelligence counts for A LOT in battle). Two, he was unafraid to serve the greater good, even if it came at the cost of his own life. Three, he led by example. Four, he led by example. Five, he led by example. Six, well, you get the idea.
When you add all these things together, you find they contradict the very nature of the robots Michael Bay presents to us and asks us to believe are the Transformers. Optimus Prime in this film cannot even take one of his human wards to retrieve a vital element of their mission without crushing major backyard ornaments and, along with his fellow Autobots, making enough noise to alert an entire city block to their presence. Oh, and by the way, Jazz had class. He was not a twenty foot tall expression of bling-bling culture. Ugh, being that I could read Tolkien when Darius McCrary was probably failing elementary school English, his presence in this film is an insult to everything the original series was about. It is one thing to have characters who are, to quote George Clooney, dumber than a bag of hammers. This film goes a lot further This film assumes that its audience is made up entirely of four year olds who have never read a cereal packet. In so doing, it takes everything that such writers as Dennis O'Neil and Bob Budiansky created and perverts it.
Transformers as directed by Michael Bay is a two out of ten film in every sense. Avoid.
4: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007)
More like the Barely Adequate Four...
Thirty years ago, when Star Wars was just being released to theatres and Superman was in production, this film might have been impressive. Twenty years ago, a little before Tim Burton slapped a lot of expectations upside the head and redefined the way comic book adaptations are filmed forever, ROTSS as I will call it henceforth might have been mildly impressive. But the thing about storytelling is that once your audience has seen or heard a good story told in an impressive fashion, the bar is instantly raised. Ten years ago, in the wake of the stink that was Batman Forever, this half-baked offal might have seemed passable. But after the incredible statements on how far we have not come since 1945 that the real X-Men films turned out to be, ROTSS is woefully inadequate. As I stated in my comments about the previous Fantastic Four film, ROTSS is more a case of X-Men Dumbed Down For Infants, and the fact that director Tim Story was not fired after his appalling effort on the first film demonstrates that not everyone at Fox has their act together.
One of the most commonly-cited complaints about the original Fantastic Four film was that the characters seem largely indifferent to their newfound powers and their situations. This was because, with the sole exception of Michael Chiklis, the actors are never given any time to explore their characters, their characters' emotions, or their characters' situations. We ended up knowing less about the Four than we do most characters in a soap opera, and as a result, they seem less real. Even in Dark Angel, arguably a top ten contender for the worst-written dialogue ever heard on television, we had more reason to care about the support characters there than we do the titular heroes in ROTSS. And that is the one big problem which ROTSS just cannot recover from. Because these so-called heroes live like celebrities and are treated like rock stars, we end up with no reason to care what happens to them. In one memorable (for all the wrong reasons) scene, as Reed is using his flexibility to impress women in a nightclub, we cannot help being reminded of Rogue's abject fear of even touching someone.
In the original Fantastic Four, this effect was bad enough on its own. Its poor time economy and seeming inability to properly develop the characters left this sequel with little or no foundation to balance itself upon. Where X-Men 2 had the inevitable attack of the Normalness Patrol upon its heroes and its anticipation, the biggest event in ROTSS when going in is the wedding of two characters. Since the two characters have about as much character as the leads in an episode of Neighbours, we are not just indifferent to this event. We literally just flat out do not give a crap. And considering that ROTSS has to make do with a mere ninety-two minutes of running time, you cannot count on any story development to give you an investment in what happens to the characters, either. When Victor Von Doom steals the silver surfboard for his own purposes, one ends up being too aware of how little time remains in the film's running length to really get worked up about the possibility of anything exciting.
Not helping anything is the mostly-droll acting. Jessica Alba looks more comfortable here whining about the inevitable challenges of her nuptials than she does convincing us that she regards the safety of our world as her responsibility. Ioan Gruffudd and Chris Evans are just there, and just basically adequate. Even Michael Chiklis is ultimately reduced in this sequel due to his character being given all of the perks of fame without a single drawback being given the slightest exploration. Julian McMahon could not play Victor Von Doom on the most maudlin day of his life, and in this film his credibility as a genuine threat is almost as sorely missed as that of the Silver Surfer. Speaking of the Silver Surfer, the film attempts at one point to flip gears and make him into an unwilling servant of a much greater menace, but one ends up caring a lot more about those millions of civilians who were presumably killed when he dug one of his little holes in the Earth's crust. This is not helped by the fact that when the Silver Surfer attempts to explain why he does what he does, it amounts to a lot of tell and no show.
Not helping matters any is the parameters of the softcore PG rating. Exactly what convinced the MPAA this film was even nearly as adult in tone as either of the real X-Men films is going to be one of the great unsolved mysteries years from now. The action is about as intense as the effort with which I blow my nose, and only a delusional crackhead could find any suggestive content here. You could probably shave another five minutes off this film and get it a G rating in Australia. And when you consider that this film is dealing with the possibility that every life on Earth might be extinguished, such beating around the bush is simply not on. I am not saying that the film needs to be another RoboCop, but when you present the audience with a situation in which people will inevitably be killed, reminding the audiences that there are consequences to detaching a chunk of a building from its foundations is actually a good thing. And no, the impalement at the end does not count, because like one of those ghastly Narnia films, the director cannot resist the temptation to invoke the magic reset button.
Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer is the epitome of what I call a two out of ten film. Even twenty-five years ago, I would have told the nearest adult to turn this kiddie trash off.
The Lawnmower Man (1992)
So bad it becomes good then becomes bad again, all within half an hour...
It perplexes me, seeing people give this film ten out of ten ratings. I generally trust the opinions of people who do so to the extent that if they told me the sky was blue, I would look out the window and see for myself. Because no matter how you look at it, The Lawnmower Man was a film with a terrible script, based on some terrible ideas, trying to trade off the name of an author who was at the peak of his commercial success. Said author, one tall American by the name of Stephen King, liked the idea of his short story being used to bolster the bleak commercial prospects of this film so much that he took the producers to court and demanded they stopped using his name. Having read Stephen King's The Lawnmower Man for myself, I completely understand why. Stephen King's The Lawnmower Man is a surreal terror story that twists suburban convention in a manner that only Stephen King can. Brett Leonard's The Lawnmower Man has not an original or well thought out idea anywhere in its little head.
Part of the problem stems from the basic story of the film. The central story involves a scientist attempting to use virtual reality to train simpler minds such as those of monkeys to perform tasks that any normal human being would regard as complex. When our bold scientist meets a man who is, to put it bluntly, quite retarded, a light goes on in his head. What if the virtual reality simulator could be used to accelerate the functioning of this gardener's brain to the point where at least nominal calculations are no longer beyond him? And therein lies one of the problems most critics never pick up on. The human brain is demonstrably more complex than an electronic board or an engine, and accelerating it or repairing it is a much more complex process than this film gives credit for. When you add to that the fact that if Albert Einstein had been born around the same time as I was, he would have been diagnosed with High-Functioning Autism, this film's conception of the difference between simple and god-like becomes very shaky indeed.
Not helping matters any is the apparent lack of research or planning that permeates the screenplay. In one memorable scene, we are told by the supposedly brilliant Doctor Lawrence that Jobe has mastered the Latin alphabet in a matter of hours, whereas it took him a year. This prompts the question of who is really retarded in this scenario, given that the Latin alphabet is something every child in the English-speaking world learns between their fifth and sixth birthday. At other times, the script seems to have been written by a twelve year old who has been listening to Black Sabbath songs like Iron Man a little too closely. Jobe's proclamation about how he will take over every computer system in the world being the best example. But the worst parts come when the script paints the characters into corners that they have no possibility of escaping, so the writers shoehorn in a convenient device. The writers here clearly had no idea of what a security backdoor is or how it works in the real computing world.
Fortunately, Hollywood productions tend to have at least one strength they can fall back on when all else fails. Since the Hollywood system attracts some of the best actors money can buy, it stands to reason that The Lawnmower Man would have some commendable performances in spite of the terrible screenplay. Jeff Fahey's performance as Jobe easily rings the truest in this entire film. Pretending to be retarded is enough of a challenge for an actor. Pretending to be retarded, then suddenly gifted with mental faculties that would make Newton or Tesla envious, then given over the megalomania, is quite an acrobatic act. That Fahey pulls it off so well in spite of the script he is working from is a credit to him. Pierce Brosnan is no slouch, either, even though his performance as a scientist has little to discern itself from his performance as a secret agent. Somehow, this matter-of-fact, questioning portrayal really suits the scientist a lot better. Brosnan's performance as the man wondering where he went wrong is the only real anchor this film has.
Much has been made of the virtual reality environments around which some of the plot is based. In 1992, simulating a self-contained environment within a computer was a frontier, and someone in the studio obviously thought this would be a good trend to cash in on. What they did not anticipate was that computing was becoming a very monolithic market, and a lot of the fantastic dreams we had about the future of computing were about to fall by the wayside. At the same time, the ability of computers to splice funky effects into films was growing at an exponential rate. A year prior, a little film called Terminator 2 had dazzled audiences with a combination of very simple computer-generated effects and practical effects that made the villain of the piece seem almost invincible. By comparison, the attempts to convince an audience that our characters had found their way inside a computer system were so half-hearted that it left audiences wondering if this were some kind of joke. Sadly, the end result has that Ed Wood touch of broadcasting a failure to think things through.
As a result, this production of The Lawnmower Man ends up being a classical one out of ten film. Film school students can look at it for examples of when an ambitious effect or series of effects are not done well.
School for Scoundrels (2006)
My new definition of irony...
As I was about to do a search on this film, I actually began to type in the words "school of missed opportunity", because that is what constantly comes to mind when trying to summarise this ill-conceived attempt to capitalise on Billy Bob Thornton's sudden notoriety as a master of flagrantly abusive interaction. And it is not like School For Scoundrels did not have a lot going for it, because the actors are rock-solid at all times. It is only when the screenplay lets them down that things really go awry. Jon Heder is a dopey foil for Billy Bob Thornton's merging of his Bad Santa character with the softer side of R. Lee Ermey's schtick. However, a problem emerges when we want to explore exactly why Heder's character so desperately yearns to be more assertive than his initial configuration allows. The screenplay errs in overpopulating the cast with too many characters and a lot of lopsided development. With the tuition fee that Thornton demands early in the piece, the initial class size looks like it could almost buy him a house in New York State.
This, unfortunately, is where the act begins to fall apart. In addition to a large classroom full of individuals that wind up unnamed, we also have to contend with the ins and outs of love interest Jacinda Barrett's social circle. The trick to a comedy like this is that one has to make the characters either pathetic in an endearing way or abusive in an endearing way. Bad Santa aced this trick. School For Scoundrels falls flat on its butt thanks to some performances from Sarah Silverman and David Cross that leave the more Powell-Aspie types in the audience like myself wanting to punch them. A film like this one needs as few main characters as possible, and these miserable sacks, along with half of the class, would have been the first to get deleted from my script. Aside from adding nothing to the story, they leave a bad taste in the mouth and distract from what actually works. Adding to the woes is that Thornton's presence leaves one constantly comparing SFS to Bad Santa, and SFS keeps coming off second best.
Thornton is capable of playing this role in his sleep, and the manner in which he delegates to Michael Clarke Duncan would have provided an interesting dynamic had the film been willing to go all of the way and turn into the sort of boot camp for Bad Santas that the audience might expect. Unfortunately, the cast overcrowding leaves Thornton and Duncan battling each other for space. Fortunately, they are more able to effectively manage the problem than the rest of the cast. If the focus had been more upon them, the film would have been a nonstop laugh-riot. Unfortunately, the film instead chooses to cast them as villains or antagonists. If Dr. P had been a genuinely altruistic man who merely wanted to help his fellow man reach his fellow man's full potential or something where a bit more thought is a requisite, for example, that might have made for more comedy. Still, Thornton and Duncan take a script that often seems to have added them as an afterthought and squeeze it for all it is worth.
No, the real problem is that their students are the kind of people that real drill sergeants of Thornton's or Duncan's apparent inclinations would look at and declare beyond helping. Heder is required to portray a gormless wimp at the beginning of the film, and a powerful man of action at the end. The problem is that he is quite a long way more convincing at one than he is at the other. People who have seen Bad Santa or The Ice Harvest will know which I mean already. I can already think of a thousand actors beside John Cusack who would have been a million times better in Heder's role than Heder. Hell, even Ben Stiller, who makes a cameo appearance in the final act, would have been a better choice. Nowhere is this more apparent than in scenes where Heder is in the same frame with Thornton. One of them is a charismatic man who one would take seriously if he told you he was going to punch you senseless. You do not have to have seen either actor's previous films in order to work out which I am describing there. Someone in casting should have seen that problem well in advance of production.
By now, I am sure that it sounds like I am condemning the film outright. However, with the element of surprise, SFS is a decent and watchable little comedy. The problem is that in the hands of a director or writer with more moxie, it could have been so much more. This gulf between what the film is and what the film could have been is on display from the second Thornton announces his presence in that indescribable manner one comes to expect of him. The A.V. Club is right on the money when they inform us that SFS is too flabby to be funny, as if it needed a drill instructor of its own in order to whip it into shape. Speaking as someone who unfortunately finds himself in need of a bit more than just Dr. P, I felt somewhat cheated once the credits had begun to roll. When I rented School For Scoundrels, I thought I had ordered a veal schnitzel with some fries and gravy. What I got instead was a steak that was comprised of fifty percent fat and ten percent bone. Sure, you can cull a decent sandwich out of this film, but that is the limit of it.
School For Scoundrels is a five out of ten film. It is worth a rental, maybe watching once, but the results you get from watching it all the way through will be inverse to your expectations.
Dead Mary (2007)
A word of advice to those trying to emulate The Evil Dead...
When you are trying to tread the same ground as a well-made classic that has all of its best elements in place, there are really only two possible outcomes. You can either do a good job and be compared to the original in somewhat flattering terms, or you can do a bad job and end up the joke of the industry. The latter is what happened to director Robert Wilson and his writers when Dead Mary rolled out onto home video. A big part of the problem is their inability to provide a proper undercurrent for the story, with no credible explanation for the film's events in sight. It does not matter how preposterous your story is on the surface. If you do not provide it with at least a small anchor in reality, you will lose your audience. For a good example of a preposterous story going to glory because its makers took the time to anchor it in some turf of reality, one need only look at such pieces as RoboCop, Ghostbusters, or Desperado. Dead Mary proposes a preposterous idea and does nothing to anchor its audience in its reality.
That would have been forgiven, or even mended, if the film had taken just a little bit of time to introduce the cast of characters and give them a hint of a personality. For a good example of this done right, one can simply go back to The Evil Dead again. Within the first half-hour, we are given subtle yet strong hints of who each character is and what they are like as people. Dead Mary's writers attempted to cheat this by grafting soap opera archetypes into the characters, and it unfortunately backfires. By the time the film goes into the gory payoff, all we know about these characters is who is married to whom, who is cheating on whom, who is upset with whom, and who failed to arrive. Outside of the parameters of this semi-outdoor trip that was done far better in The Evil Dead, we know so little about the cast of characters that caring about them is next to impossible. Half of the time, we do not even know their names. The other half of the time, their names have so little weight it would have been more effective to simply call them 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.
Making it even worse is that the central premise is so vague and ill-defined that it ends up making less sense as time goes on. In The Evil Dead, our heroes wind up fighting one another because they have stumbled upon the results of an archaeological expedition that turned up secrets they could barely grasp the implications of. In Dead Mary, the heroes play a stupid game that was quite obviously culled from Candyman and given no mechanism of actuation. Quite literally, one moment our characters are having a dispute on what was meant to be an idyllic vacation, then the next they are regenerating destroyed flesh and doing bad David Vincent impersonations. It becomes such a non-sequitor that all of the impact is lost. Another comparison to The Evil Dead that Dead Mary cannot stand up to is the moment when we learn that Cheryl has been taken by something the group resurrected by accident. The dramatic buildup and payoff of The Evil Dead was arresting. Dead Mary is by comparison poorly-written and shot even worse.
Does this make the entire project a waste? Well, no, there are moments when the film does look like breaking out of its amateurish writing and becoming something more substantial. Dominique Swain and Maggie Castle do the best they can with a screenplay that gives them absolutely nothing to work with. One can see the frustration crossing Dominique's face as she struggles with staggeringly inept screen writing. When the film gets confused as to what it is trying to emulate and even attempts to borrow from The Thing, Dominique and Maggie slot into the important roles of that particular story nicely. Marie-Josée Colburn also does well trying to give her character a haunting or threatening vibe, but is undone by the fact that the screenplay tips its hand way too early, and makes the revelations to the rest of the cast so perfunctory that the audience is a solid hour ahead of the heroes. People despair of the constant-rewrite culture that pervades Hollywood, but films like Dead Mary demonstrate why most screenplays should be revised at least five times.
Another problem Dead Mary falls into is that it constantly needs to fade to black in order to jump from one character to another. For a film that supposedly takes place over the course of a night, this is not only unnecessary but serves to deflate the dramatic tension. Another area where The Evil Dead excelled was that with the exception of some very seamless cutaways, the entire thing achieves the feeling of taking place in real-time. The result is that by the time the hero emerges into a dismal morning sunrise, the viewer feels gobsmacked that all this mayhem and death took place over the course of one night. The final death scenes of the possessed characters left the audience in awe. In Dead Mary, the perfunctory execution of the one character we know to be possessed is edited so poorly and executed in such a who-cares fashion that it ultimately robs the film of any memory of dramatic tension. There is a reason why I keep comparing Dead Mary to other, better films. Namely, Dead Mary is so obsessed with what not to do that it ends up not doing anything at all, and the result feels more like a collection of unused footage than an actual film.
Dead Mary is very much a two out of ten film. It is so pedestrian in style that it ends up being neither good nor bad. It is simply boring.
Herbie Fully Loaded (2005)
I do not know where to begin...
Actually, I do know where to begin. Never having seen any of the Herbie films of which snippets are shown during the opening credits, I was prepared to give this film a chance in spite of being marketed as a "family" film. I should have known better after my experiences with Inspector Gadget In Name Only, or indeed pretty much anything Walt Disney's name has been applied to. My only real reason for even making the attempt was to see if Lindsay Lohan's acting could measure up to the exaggerated mythology about her consumptive habits. Bluntly put, it does not. But moreover, Herbie Fully Loaded, hereafter referred to as HFL, makes me incredibly glad that I never saw any of the other seven features that are based around the car known as Herbie. I dismissed them as a load of kiddie garbage, some might say presumptuously, when I was a boy. As a man, I have to say that I would never be so cruel as to subject a child with the level of intelligence I displayed during my childhood to this sugar-coated mindless garbage.
Jello Biafra would have a field day with the idea of Lindsay attempting to pass herself off as a musician, but the biggest poseur in this production by a long road would have to be director Angela Robinson. In one featurette that was included with the DVD, she waxes about how she wanted to stay "true" to the Herbie mythology and all that sort of rubbish that directors who adapt or continue a well-known series of stories say as an unconscious warning to the audience that they possess not a solitary clue about what they are doing. While I am all for the presentation of a perspective on life that was valid in the late 1960s when the proper realistic viewpoint is added, I think you would have to be legally retarded in order to miss the fact that the world of 2005 is a frighteningly different place. Unfortunately, neither the director nor writers seem to be aware that for individuals of the apparent age Lohan's character is meant to be, the modern world is one of slavery and negation, not exploration or finding oneself.
Of course, that would contradict the flavour of syrup that the Disney corporation wishes to spew at an audience that is too young to know much better. A search for the words "a watched populace never boils" should turn up a few good ideas of why Lohan's character would not merely run from the NASCAR circuit town she apparently exists in, but sprout wings in desperation and fly away. There is a reason why cities the size of Rome, New York, London, or Berlin get to be the size they are. It is because ideas get exchanged in those places, and people learn to coexist with peoples who might not perfectly match them. Or match them at all. I know not whether this is a fair reflection of 1968's The Love Bug or not, but director Angela Robinson seems convinced that people being happy to remain in nowhere and let their brains go to a wasteful rot is consistent with the mythology of that film and its sequels. So once again, after seeing this steaming pile, I have to say I am glad I have never seen the others.
Another major problem facing the film is its inability to recognise when it is taking the fantasy too far. Of course, the other films asked us to accept that a car could become sentient and form attachments to other cars (which then magically become sentient themselves as if reciprocating), but this was an unfortunate requirement of the story's proposal. Fortunately, the realities of special effects when the last Herbie film to be shown in theatres was made required the directors to design the special effects around a believable story. Here, the story exists only to serve the special effects. Okay, so Herbie is meant to be capable of doing some things that cars of similar make and model would find impossible, but HFL not only provides inadequate explanation within the parameters of the story, it crosses the line between amazing and outright stupid. Scratch that, it does not merely cross that line. Lindsay Lohan throws up on it, the car leaks hydraulic fluid over it, and Michael Keaton sneers it out of existence.
Speaking of Michael Keaton, while no performance in this film requires anything remotely resembling acting skills, it becomes apparent during his scenes with Lohan that he is just cashing a paycheque here. His sole purpose is to hit the requisite Disney movie-dad points one by one, a task at which he proves to be reasonably adept. The problem, or at least the primary problem when he is trying to get into character, is that the script gives him next to nothing to work with. For a man who has worked multiple times with the great Tim Burton to put in a performance like this, something has to be missing. Literally anyone could have played this part, which I suppose is a good reminder of the days when Disney had a whole closet full of stock actors they hauled out to play parts whenever they wanted to make a dollar. If I could get one of my own stories into production as a film, I would be glad to offer Keaton and Lohan roles, as they both appear as though they could do with the challenge of playing a character that has dimensions two and three. I am not kidding.
Herbie Fully Loaded is the walking definition of a two out of ten film. It is not just a boring or insulting film. It is an attempt to resurrect something that quite honestly is best left dead and buried in the dark ages.
Hannibal Rising (2007)
It begins with mediocrity...
When The Silence Of The Lambs was released nearly twenty years ago to critical acclaim and overwhelming box office success, the prospect of sequels was hungrily discussed among critics and financiers alike. But as time passed, studios went bankrupt, and markets were saturated, the hunger for stories of an articulate, clever serial killer diminished. And so it was in 2001 when director Ridley Scott set his sights upon author Thomas Harris' sequel, a rather dull and tepid novel named after its main character. Unfortunately, in deleting details from the novel that stood out and gave the novel its redeeming characteristics, Scott made a film that should have forever slammed the door on Lecter. Instead, a remake of Red Dragon (albeit a significantly better one) and another novel later, both Harris and director Peter Webber have brought us yet another mediocre serial killer film that in this case tries to pose as an intellectual human drama. It fails so miserably at this that in contrast to Hannibal, Hannibal Rising has not a redeeming feature.
Part of the problem stems from the mentality of the audience that the film panders to. In the eyes of the audience, murderers are evil and therefore must never be understood, merely exterminated like vermin. Of course, the same applies in their mentality towards those who hear a repetitive load of garbage when others hear a grammy winner, but that is partly the point. A general, a warrior, or even a good chess player will tell you that in order to really defeat an enemy, you must first understand him. And that is, to an extent, what Hannibal Rising in both novel and film format has attempted to provide. The problem being the same as that experienced when dealing with the Daleks, Michael Myers, Pinhead, or any number of other villains you care to name. Namely, the more we know about Hannibal, the less interesting he becomes. Of course, this is partly the fault of the manner in which Harris fills in details, but it is also the choice of which details you fill in that make all of the difference.
The Silence Of The Lambs allowed us to speculate about how Hannibal Lecter is able to escape some unusual containment measures. His guards get sloppy, and he takes advantage of the fact that he is much more clever than them at just the right point to necessitate 2001's Hannibal. This is more than enough to generate a good story and some powerful scenes. But Hannibal Rising has to take it a few steps too far. For instance, did you know that Hannibal Lecter had a Japanese aunt with whom he was beginning to have a semi-incestuous relationship? Granted, the film leaves out a mass of details that I picked up from the synopsis on the back of the novel, but that is partly my point. The aforementioned synopsis has it that Lecter puts up a struggle against the demons that have been riding on his shoulders since the end of World War II. The film does nothing to so much as indicate a struggle. He simply gets it into his head to kill someone he thinks he recognises in a fit of pique.
This might have flown if they had picked an actor with enough charisma or presence to portray a teenaged Hannibal Lecter. I have grown tired of reading comparisons between the great Anthony Hopkins and his apparent successor, one Gaspard Ulliel. Gaspard is not merely a bad choice for Lecter because he is a lesser actor than Hopkins. Anyone who has read any of the Lecter novels will know that Lecter not only oozes class, but has a big problem with those who have no class or are impolite, or both. Being that I have not read the novel, I can only take a guess about this, but I have a funny feeling that if Hannibal killed a man who insulted his Japanese aunt, it would simply be a judgement upon the man's lack of class or communicative ability. It would not be such an emotion-charged execution. The use of an illustration of the man's severed head was a nice touch, but like the hanging and disembowelling depicted in Hannibal, it has all the impact of footage of a fluffy rabbit bouncing through the snow.
Since people have been beating Ulliel's performance to death, I think it is fair to discuss the other poor performances. They say that a protagonist is only as good as his antagonist, so one has to talk a bit about Rhys Ifans. Rhys has a pretty thankless task, portraying a villain who is not only meant to be without any redeeming features, but has also been left by the screenplay without a third dimension. For this film to work as a tragedy in the sense that Hannibal ends the film as worthy of fear and scorn as his childhood captors, Grutas has to have more than just an evil face. He does not. He is not even a credible evil figure. All we know about him at the beginning of the film is that he is a deserter from the German army as the Russian army closes in on the Eastern front. We are never told if he had ambitions to be anything else, what he thinks of what he did towards the end of the war, or what effect, if any, the knowledge of the past has on him. He is a cardboard cutout, and this robs young Hannibal Lecter of any of the credibility or emotion he has as a character.
Hannibal Rising is a two out of ten film. If it missed the mark any more thoroughly, it would be an episode of MST3K that does not even require commentary. With such a proliferation of better ideas out there, its presence is an insult.
Reign Over Me (2007)
Sandler hits a home run
Adam Sandler has a long and rather perplexing history in cinema, beginning his career as little more than an obnoxious prat who did not mind looking like he had a mental age of ten years in order to get a laugh out of his audience. Then something began to happen in recent years. Beginning to a minor extent with his performance as a surrogate father in Big Daddy, the obnoxious idiot child Sandler began to give way to the confused, complex adult Sandler. When Tom Cruise turned down the role of a major PTSD sufferer who basically lives in the kind of hell those outside of it cannot see due to the loss of his family, Sandler stepped in and made it his own. Naturally, the cinema-going public was somewhat skeptical, wondering if Sandler had the dramatic ability to pull off such a character. Convincingly acting out the struggles of one who has an interest taken in him by an increasingly overloaded public mental health system is a challenge for any actor. It is, in point of fact, one of the few things harder than intentional comedy.
So when I say that as an autistic sufferer of PTSD myself, I find Sandler's portrayal constantly hitting the nail upon the head, I want you to understand my full meaning here. Everyone who has been let down by the system, even if it is not to the extremes brought about by the WTC attacks, can take comfort in the fact that Sandler and the script he worked from were willing to speak out on their behalf. Although the story only seems to depict a handful of days in the character's life, Sandler convinces us that his although his character is putting up a good pretence otherwise, he is literally going through hell. The scene towards the end when we see a flashback of Sandler's character in a happier time with his wife and children is reminiscent of the house-walking flashbacks in RoboCop. They are just brief images of what once was, but they are such a contrast to what is now in the reality of the film that they simply cannot fail to induce tears. That Sandler handles his character so well in all scenes of this nature proves he is more than his Happy Gilmore act has suggested.
Of course, no film can deliver such a complex story without a good supporting cast. Everyone from the secondary lead to the cameos is spot-on here. Don Cheadle is simply magic as Sandler's onetime college roommate. The two characters joke with each other in a highly personal and sometimes borderline offensive manner that only two men who have known each other inside out can do. Saffron Burrows strikes dramatic gold as a nymphomaniac character who alternates between threatening to make big trouble for Cheadle and attempting to redeem herself. But the real surprise here is Liv Tyler as a psychiatrist who eventually agrees to attempt to help Sandler. I say she is a pleasant surprise because in context of my dealings with the poor souls who are bravely trying to help with the flood of traumatised autistic patients among my generation, Ms. Tyler's performance reminds me very much of them. Several scenes show her attempting to fight a system that often fails to recognise a conventional approach frequently does more harm than good.
Donald Sutherland gets a walk-on that would make Judge Judy proud, too. One of Reign Over Me's most endearing plot threads is the attempts by the in-laws to bring themselves into the lives of Sandler's character, whether he likes it or not. After the stress of more terror alerts and more isolation gets to be too much for Sandler's character, an incident involving the police ends with these in-laws attempting to negate his attempts to deal with his own problems in his own way. Sutherland gives this rather dullard mob the kind of talking to they deserve, in what would have to rank as one of the most satisfying moments Reign Over Me has to offer. And believe me, there are quite a few of those. Reign Over Me does not satisfy because it wraps everything neatly in a happy ending. It satisfies because it puts the characters who need it most on the beginnings of a new path. It is no exaggeration to say that if social services and psychiatric services were this successful all the time, our world would be a much happier place.
If I do have a complaint about Reign Over Me, it is that some details of the film seem a little rushed or incomplete. Details such as how Cheadle's character deals with Sandler's coming back into his life and how apparently messed up Sandler's character is seem a little threadbare at times. The attempts to get advice and help from a professional psychiatrist are very well-done, but the moments of outbursts on Sandler's part seem a little confused in their writing. Perhaps these segments of the plot were cut for time, I do not know. On the other hand, some areas of the film benefit from the lack of detail. Aside from the moments when Cheadle's character interacts with Sandler's, we have little idea of what the latter does from day to day. All we learn along the way, up to the point where things boil over and the professionals become involved, is that the life of Sandler's character is an unstructured mess. I found myself relating to that on so many levels it was scary.
In all, Reign Over Me is a nine out of ten film. The editing and writing sometimes fumbles the ball, but the actors all pick it back up again and hit it out of the park. It is even more fun to watch and speculate on why Tom Cruise turned it down.
El laberinto del fauno (2006)
Not the best film of 2006 by a long shot, but so close...
It seems ironic that the films considered by many to be the best films of the previous year are both set in an episode of history long since past, but should never be forgotten. El Laberinto Del Fauno only misses out on being the best film of 2006 because Zwartboek took so awfully long to enter production, but its virtues exceed its faults by such a long way that it will always be a benchmark in storytelling. When I say it is based to a great degree on ancient fairy tales such as those written by the Grimm Brothers, it would be all too easy to mistake El Laberinto Del Fauno for being aimed at children. And that would be selling it oh so very short. Like all of the fairy tales that have been bastardised into something puerile by Disney, El Laberinto Del Fauno is a story that every adult should learn from. Children will be frightened and saddened by it, but intelligent or hyperlexic children (or both, such as I was), will get far more out of it than the G-rated tosh that they seem to expect intelligent children to enjoy nowadays.
Set in a remote farm outpost in Spain during the Civil War, a forgotten episode in what is indisputably the darkest days of the twentieth century, El Laberinto Del Fauno concerns itself with one extremely dysfunctional family. The mother has just married a Captain of the Spanish army, an incredibly evil man who is without redeeming feature. It is amazing to see another film in the vein of RoboCop, Total Recall, or Zwartboek where the true villain of the piece is so unremittingly evil that one is unafraid to hate his guts for the film's duration. It makes the payoff at the end of the film that much more satisfying. The torments and injuries the Captain endures through the course of the film are gruesome enough, but we are allowed the luxury of believing he deserves every bit of it. As a nemesis for his stepdaughter, the Captain is one of the best-drawn middlemen of evil since Darth Vader. Yet, in spite of how he can gouge a man's eyes out without pausing for breath, he is by no means the most frightening thing in the film.
El Laberinto Del Fauno, as you would expect with a film bearing such a title, is entirely in Spanish. This obviously necessitated the use of subtitles to translate the dialogue in countries where Spanish is not the primary language, but the nuances of the language would also make dubbing a crime. Even if you do not understand the phrases being spoken, their enunciations make the intent in every sentence plainly obvious. El Laberinto Del Fauno moves and plays like a silent film, where the combinations of body language and music allow the viewer to draw their own conclusion regarding the scene. One could even treat scenes like the Captain conducting his torture sessions as being a comedy if that is their inclination. Quite frankly, I feel it is a sick one, but that is the viewer's prerogative. To be quite frank, scenes in which participants torture one another have a much better aural quality to them when the dialogue is in Spanish. As a result, El Laberinto Del Fauno is the only film I have seen to date, other than Paul Verhoeven's Dutch-language efforts, that I feel uncomfortable watching at times.
Special mention must go to the special effects team who, for one reason or another, chose to make the film using practical effects for what amounts to a majority of the screen time. CGI seems to have been limited to such tasks as painting out an actor's real legs or other such fine details that could not otherwise have been accomplished. The faun is such a marvel of practical costume design, puppetry, and digital erasure that one wonders if the whole team did not suddenly become possessed by the ghost of Jim Henson. However, unlike Ludo, Kermit, or Animal, the production team in this case has mastered the one emotion that Henson was never able to invoke in an adult audience: fear. Yes, even this grown man who continues to stand in horror as the realisation dawns that we have not learned a thing from the time this film is set in feels a shudder of genuine fear when the faun appears to lose his patience with Ofelia. Perhaps it has something to do with the complexity of the character.
If you have not already seen the film, I advise skipping this paragraph, but it is necessary to discuss the final moments in order to illustrate a point. I must also praise the writers for the maturity and power of their story. The ambiguous nature of how the ending is phrased can lead the viewer to entirely different conclusions. If they choose, they can believe the princess was rewarded for her willingness to shed her own blood in place of her half-brother's. Conversely, they may also choose to believe the reward was little more than a dying hope on the behalf of yet another victim of a senseless war. Either way, praise is due to writer/director Guillermo del Toro for refusing to take the easy way out and simply throw a clearly happy ending into the audience's lap in order to appease them. This is a bold move that Peter Jackson especially fumbled by failing to execute in a satisfactory fashion. And that is partly the point. In spite of not being based on one of the most celebrated novels in the English language, El Laberinto Del Fauno will be remembered long after The Lord Of The Rings In Name Only is forgotten.
El Laberinto Del Fauno is a ten out of ten film that everyone, but especially those with an interest in storytelling, should see at least twice.
I have seen the best film that will ever be set in World War II...
and it is called Zwartboek. Rather than recap the plot and point out a few details that make it so great, I will simply focus on the things it does better than others. I am an extreme fan of Paul Verhoeven, of course, so the man can almost do no wrong in my eyes. However, for the sake of understanding why Zwartboek moved me to tears at times whilst other World War II films had me stone-faced and unimpressed, one must contrast it with not only other films of the genre, but other films in general. First, however, let me get the most gushing praise out of the way. I knew Zwartboek was going to be a good film for Verhoeven, being that it seems to show him learning from all the mistakes of the past twenty years while purging the demons that drove him to make them. What I was not expecting was the best film I have seen since RoboCop. Where one shows a younger Verhoeven adjusting to the quirks and idiosyncrasies of a very different film industry, the other shows him as a master fully in control of his art.
Now, onto the reasons why Zwartboek is the best thing I have seen in twenty years. There are a few films that have attempted to use diabetes as a plot device in the past. Thy Neighbour's Wife and Memento are easily two of the worst recent examples. Zwartboek avoids their mistakes by bearing in mind that killing someone with insulin requires that someone's trust, even if it is gained through deceit. It also requires a larger amount of insulin than shown in most films where this device is used. Zwartboek shows a bit of a hint at just how much (five milliliters might be fatal, by comparison the largest standard syringe used for the purpose of injecting insulin has a capacity of one milliliter). About the only place where Zwartboek departs from reality is the rapid onset of hypoglycemic symptoms and how little our heroine eats to counter the attack, but these points can be explained away by complex factors. Verhoeven has shown the right way to portray diabetes in Zwartboek.
Another problem with the vast majority of World War II films is that the good guys are shown as so very good and the bad guys so very, very bad. Zwartboek, like Soldaat Van Oranje, shows that there were good Dutchmen as well as bad Dutchmen before taking the bold step of showing that there were also good Nazis and bad Nazis. Sebastian Koch shines in his portrayal of what we see at first as a very bad Nazi until understanding of the situation and political backstabbing motivate him to take up the cause of good. But it is a scene in a prison for accused collaborators after the war is over that will be burned into my memory forever. For the most part, Verhoeven has shown us heroic Dutchmen who resisted the occupation in any way they can, but then he turns our perceptions right on their head by showing how they celebrate their victory. Carice Van Houten acts with a grace and dignity throughout the film, but it is when her character's own countrymen are dumping the camp's filth upon her that Houten really shines.
In contrast to most of Verhoeven's films, Zwartboek is mostly told in flashback. But it is the scenes set over a decade after the end of the war that really seal the deal. When we are first shown Rachel, she is an ageing teacher in a school within a camp located in what the audience would presume to be the Israel of the 1950s. We are given some hints that the war has caused her to grow old well before her time, but it is not until we see her again at the end of the film that we fully understand. As she leads her family back into the camp to the sounds of sirens, and we see soldiers lining up behind wire fences, we see Verhoeven's most subtle and effective use of symbolism ever. Yes, Leonard Maltin, Verhoeven knows WHEN to be subtle. What one takes from this scene depends a lot on what they take in before they see it, but to me, it symbolises the fact that no matter where Rachel goes from now on, she will always be in some way stuck in the Netherlands of 1944.
Like all Verhoeven films, Zwartboek is bloody and graphic. People are shot, stabbed, beaten, tortured, and sometimes all of the above. Paul Verhoeven has said previously that his goal is to be completely open in how he films a story, and Zwartboek is one of his most open films to date. Without the MPAA or American political system breathing down his neck, the honesty Verhoeven brings to Zwartboek reinforces the tragic nature of the story. The film also contains what would have to be the single most *subtle* death Verhoeven has ever portrayed on film. Yet, in the mind of the intelligent audience that he is catering to, it comes across as also being one of the most gruesome. In this day when directors attempt to shock us by severing ears without giving us a context (or a realistic amount of blood for that matter), Verhoeven's honesty and educated approach is king. In a way, the symbolic scene I just mentioned also symbolises how Verhoeven apparently remembers World War II, and he is utterly unflinching in demonstrating how that affects him to this day.
Zwartboek is the epitome of a ten out of ten film. Once, I told a relative that if I were offered a dollar to let Verhoeven adapt one of my writings into a film, or a billion to let Peter Jackson do the same, I would choose Verhoeven every time. Zwartboek is a perfect demonstration of why.
Rocky Balboa (2006)
So help me, it is actually good...
When I heard that Sylvester Stallone was attempting to get a sixth film about the boxer character that made him a star made, I thought Stallone was out of his mind. In a way, it makes sense. Rambo aside, no other character Stallone has portrayed has really brought him the money, even when the respect was waning. Indeed, by the fourth film, Rocky had become such a farce that it obviously put a lot of financiers off the idea of paying for more. The fifth Rocky film was a transparent attempt to close the book on the character, and while it had a good story at its heart, the screenplay was desperately in need of a good polish. In some ways, however, Rocky reflects the man who created him, so a sixth film was almost inevitable. While it would have been all too tempting to go the path of Casino Royale and ignore all the embarrassing sequels, Rocky Balboa instead embraces its checkered past. While the references to previous sequels are subtle, the film does tie itself nicely together with the original, and is all the better for it.
Rocky Balboa, like Rocky, is a very different beast from Rocky part two through five. In the original Rocky, the boxing match was a punctuation mark on a lengthy story about a man who is slowly warming up to the idea that he is more than his actual situation lets him think. The difference is in the details. However, Rocky Balboa takes a pretty preposterous idea and only does half a job of suspending the viewer's disbelief. Set in the modern world, Rocky finds himself stuck in the trap of looking back on his glory days and wishing his life could be like that again. Talia Shire's appearance in the film is literally reduced to flashbacks that depict her the way she was when Adrian and Rocky first met. The surprising thing, like all surprising things in Rocky Balboa, is that it works. The old neighborhood has become an even darker and dirtier place, with poverty rising to such an extent that buildings in minor disrepair at the time of the original Rocky have fallen apart to the extent of looking like a bomb literally hit them.
I have to tip my hat to Milo Ventimiglia. The character he portrays is both very deep and yet thoroughly unlikeable for the first half of the film. He captures the sense of a young man who has lost his place in the world very thoroughly. For where Rocky might have captured the spirit of people living in the mid to late 1970s, Robert Balboa junior is a walking portrait of how the spirit has been sucked out of twenty-somethings after the year 2000. His story arc is a very subtle one, steered along by a very unsubtle man, but it is when Robert learns to fight his being stuck in a rut that the story picks up a few paces. Another great surprise in the film is Geraldine Hughes as Marie, the girl who had called Rocky "creepo" in the original. I must admit, it was jarring at first to see how the contrast between young Marie and middle-aged Marie was toned down, but it works beautifully. It seems the biggest lesson Sylvester learned in the twenty-seven years since Rocky II was that subtlety works.
The device to get the titular former-champion back into the ring might be about as subtle as a nuclear strike on an outhouse, but it does work in its own way. Antonio Tarver's performance as Mason Dixon is as important to the film as Stallone's as Rocky. When we see him fighting a string of fights that fail to satisfy his audience, and wondering what he has to do to get respect, it evokes the situation boxing has been in since the 1990s. However, unlike the real-world boxers of these recent times, Mason is a sympathetic character. He simply wants to be able to look at himself in the mirror. The question is, however quickly, asked in the film's press conference of what he could possibly gain by fighting a man who is at least thirty years his senior. And I have to hand it to Stallone, the match at the end of the film answers the question in a way I never would have thought of. Rocky is there because he wants to have one last fight before he goes off into the good night, but Mason is there because he wants to prove that he can overcome a challenge.
Helping matters is that Antonio is in fact a real boxer, and only the second real boxer to appear in the Rocky series. For where the fights in the other five Rocky films were transparently choreographed, Stallone chose to make what he promises is his final appearance as Rocky as authentic as possible. It works. So help me, I actually felt like getting up and throwing punches whilst watching the climactic match. But the real unsung hero of the series is Burt Young as Rocky's brother-in-law, Paulie. As Stallone points out in the audio commentary, Paulie's life situation reflects his way of living through it. Every insult and harsh word he says to others is reflected right back at him, and he just keeps going through it. Films that decide to rely upon a comedic sidekick could really learn a lot from watching Burt Young's performances throughout the Rocky series. Stallone might be the rock and the brain of the Rocky series, but Young was its heart most of the time. Both Young and Stallone could retire after this film and be proud of themselves.
I gave Rocky Balboa an eight out of ten. Some of its plot threads do not work due to the editing, but this is easily the best Rocky since the first. It is a wonderful way to spend a hundred minutes.
Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)
In our darkest moments do we find the things worth fighting for
One of the greatest challenges we take on when we challenge ourselves to tell a story of wars is to tell the stories of our enemies. The challenge we face is twofold. We must face our own demons, and we must face the humanity of our enemies. When we demonise our enemy, we rob ourselves of our own humanity, yet if we excessively humanise our enemy, we magnify our own demons. This is the challenge that Spielberg and Eastwood took on when making Letters From Iwo Jima. It is the same challenge Petersen took on when making Das Boot, and whilst Eastwood does not triumph over the challenge as greatly as Petersen did twenty-six years ago, it certainly is not for lack of trying. The battle for Iwo Jima was, and still is, no different from the battle for the Atlantic, or the battle for Stalingrad, or the battle for Normandy. Two groups of nations sent massive groups of men to kill one another, and until recently, only one side's story was really told. Okay, pardon my hyperverbosity for a moment, I will dispense with it shortly.
Looking at a war through your own eyes is hard enough, looking at a war through your enemy's eyes is probably the greatest challenge of all. That Eastwood dared to take on the latter challenge at all is a testament to his fortitude. That he does it so well is a testament to his maturity as a filmmaker and storyteller. If there is a weak link in this production, it would definitely be the manner in which the stories are being told. Letters attempts to fit stories of a legion into a hundred and forty minutes. That the story of only two men comes through clearly should surprise nobody. That it is the story of a nobody, a mere footsoldier (and I apologise in advance to those who might be offended to hear him described in such terms), that comes off the best is both a surprise and a disappointment. A surprise because a lowly Private called Saigo ends up the real hero of the story, and a disappointment because we long so much to enter the mind and heart of the real General Tadamichi Kuribayashi.
Ken Watanabe puts in a performance as General Tadamichi Kuribayashi that stands in such fine company as Sir Ian McKellen as Magneto, Jürgen Prochnow as Henrich Lehmann-Willenbrock, or Ed Harris as Major König. The viewer is overwhelmed by the desire to hate or fear him, yet he comes across as so overwhelmingly human that these urges are soon overwhelmed by the respectful desire to sit down with the character for a beer. Both the script and the actor give the character such depth that it is unfortunate that the editing sabotages them in the middle act. Just as we are about to have a moment of clarity with Kuribayashi, the film degenerates into an action-fest with blazing guns, actors screaming at one another, and cameras shaking about. Unlike Flags Of Our Fathers, where the erratic and wild movement of the camera actually does succeed at creating the illusion of soldier's perspective, it only succeeds in throwing us out of the action at a critical moment. And it is the character of Kuribayashi that suffers the most for the lapses.
Where the film does succeed is in the opening and final acts. As we are shown the Japanese soldiers making preparations, we are shown how very much in common they had with the young hopefuls the Allies threw into the battle. About all that differs is the methodology by which the leadership gets them to lay down their lives for a goal that seems so nonsensical with six degrees of detachment. Where the American soldiers are told that they will come home and see a brave, free future that stems directly from their efforts, the Japanese are told in no uncertain terms by their commanders that they will only win this war if they make some other idiot die for their country. If they come home under their own power, they can consider that a bonus. Both the similarities and the disparities between the two armies (assuming one has watched the companion piece, Flags Of Our Fathers) smack us right in the face. But what really got this viewer going was the General's whispered remarks about what should be done in place of what is being done.
A friend of mine who once read through everything I had written at the time told me that what distinguishes a great critic from a good critic is his ability to dish out barbs equally between both sides. To point out the flaws in equal proportion, so to speak. Films about the inhumanity and flawed psychology of America's approach to war are a dime a dozen, so Letters' application of very American flaws to historical Japan's prosecution of the second World War is surprisingly refreshing. Like Flags, Letters demonstrates that the vast majority of a war effort takes place a great distance away from the battlefield. Granted, Letters is accurate neither in a historical or scientific sense for the most part, but by acknowledging this point in such brutally honest fashion, it transcends the need to be. Rather than bend over for the hobbyists who would pick apart every historical detail for their own pleasure, Eastwood keeps his sights firmly upon the proverbial big picture, and ends up with a film that, while not on the level of Unforgiven, does provide a whole new way of looking at a previously forgotten chapter of our history.
I gave Letters From Iwo Jima an eight out of ten. Sure, it is not perfect, but I can think of far worse ways to spend a couple of hours. This is one film everyone should see.
Unfortunately, the studio only made it worse...
On the surface, Idiocracy had all the right ingredients for a comedy that would be remembered by audience members who have commonality with its protagonist long after its release. Sort of like a Repo Man for the twenty-first century, to use a comparison. Unfortunately, however, the studio found reactions from test audiences to be underwhelming, and made drastic alterations in the hope of increasing its mass appeal. The problem is that instead of improving the film, this interference served to exacerbate the flaws that were already in the story. One clue that self-proclaimed intelligent viewers seem to miss is that the premise of the film is based in some very faulty assumptions regarding the nature of intelligence and intellectual development. For Mike Judge's story idea to work, Pauline and Hermann Einstein would have to have been extraordinary geniuses who were capable of turning the world on its head with new ideas regarding the laws that govern our universe. The same would need to be true of the Teslas, the Newtons... you get the idea.
So when I say that Pauline and Hermann were just an average, ordinary couple who happened to raise a high-functioning autistic child who developed an intense, pervasive interest in theoretical physics, the fundamental flaw in Judge's idea is exposed. During the setup of Judge's future world, several assumptions are made about divisions in the human race for a start. IQs in Judge's world are either above the range we consider normal (above 120 for those who do not already know), or below that range (below 90). No middle ground exists in Judge's world, and this is unfortunate because the middle ground is exactly where the majority of interesting stories occur. Additionally, Judge makes the assumption that two parents of lower intelligence will necessarily produce a child of lower intelligence, or that a child of lower intelligence will not grow up to want a better life than the trailer trash that Judge seems to believe constitutes the entirety of the populace whose IQ can be measured in two digits.
It should therefore come as no surprise that the only watchable parts of Idiocracy are those that take place in the year 2005. The world of 2005, although only seen through what a visualist might call a keyhole, shows so many more shades of grey than the imagined world of 2505 does in the entire remainder of the film. Not helping matters is how the world of 2505 begs so many questions about how the place is kept running, if not optimally then sufficiently for people to do business. I never thought I would be saying something positive about a Stanley Kubrick film, but in Dr. Strangelove, we are shown in rather horrifying terms how the world is the way it is because the best and brightest are in charge. The key element in how intelligence or simple aptitude (which are not the same thing) keeps our world going is not the actions of those at the top of the curve, but the gulf between them and the average citizen. As is said so brilliantly in Caddyshack, the world needs ditch-diggers, too. But Judge seems unable to guess what would happen without the scientists.
Historians will tell you that the best way to predict what happens in a future situation is to look at things that have happened in the past. A society that becomes complacent and stagnant will eventually fall into ruin and be erased by a more optimal or ideally-positioned society. To put it less baldly, the world has a way of righting itself when things get too out of balance. Historians familiar with the Spain that Christopher Columbus left behind on the fateful trip that ended in the Americas will know that humanity is a doomed species without medical care and research. In a world with garbage piles so huge as to provoke avalanches, and doctors who cannot even form a coherent sentence in their native language, mankind is literally target practice for every virus known or unknown. That the human race could have survived like this for more than fifty years without getting a rude wake-up call is perplexing even to those who have not memorised the contents of Paradise Lost.
And this is the big problem for Idiocracy. In attempting to create a story about the rule of the stupid, Mike Judge finds himself resorting to exaggeration to an extent that turns his commentary into an insult to the intelligence of the audience. The word satire is absent from many descriptions of Idiocracy, and with good reason. A satire usually has something to say about its subject, and a good satire says it without being terribly obvious. Idiocracy throws so many obvious jokes at the screen in an attempt to get the audience to laugh by rote that it just leaves the intelligent viewer dumbfounded. The hypocrisy inherent in dumbing down a comedy about dumbing down for mass consumption, for mass consumption, might strike people as ironic. Unfortunately, it would take a radically different edit of Idiocracy to convince me that the man who created it was not, to use George Clooney's classic line from a much better comedy, dumber than a bag of hammers. The material is literally that idiotic.
Hence, I gave Idiocracy a two out of ten. As a human being who has higher aspiration and divergent thought hardwired into his brain, I find it insulting. That should tell you everything you need to know about how well it accomplished its storytelling goals.
A Scanner Darkly (2006)
A bizarre and extreme experiment
Ask most observers what is wrong with most so-called drug education campaigns, and they will tell you. The distortions of facts, the irresponsible caricatures of real human beings in the situation, the inability to consider the real-life conditions that lead to drug use. All add up to an illusion of drug use that makes some picture their heads exploding the very second they so much as get a whiff of a drug by-product. And when that illusion is broken by the more subtle, vastly more complex reality, all hell starts to break loose. A Scanner Darkly is borne of the same kind of realism as I have just described, but it takes things a step further. Set in a future where the police have been given absolute power in their prosecution of the war on drugs, and of course the politicians still have failed to notice their tactics are not working, A Scanner Darkly tells the story of a policeman ordered to go to any extremes in order to incriminate the people he associates with. At any cost to himself.
Being that I have not read the source material, I am only assuming that this adaptation is faithful. Others have said this is the case, and that this is where most of the fault with the film lies. I can understand that. Often, the film attempts to convey things that are incredibly difficult to portray in a visual medium, and especially at this running time. Scenes that properly quantify the fact that the society of the law-abiding is miserable are sparse, and the world of the stoners is too outlandish to take seriously. At a couple of points of the film, we are told that (possibly anti-) hero Bob Arctor is taking illegal substances in his efforts to find a link to his acquaintances' supplier. The problem is that his superiors do not care that this is something he has to do in order to accomplish the goal of his job. When he starts to pay the heavy associated cost, all they seem to care about is the criminalisation of his acts. Total criminalisation, a concept first broached on a Frank Zappa album, is the pervasive theme of A Scanner Darkly.
For certain, the film presents an interesting visual representation of a world that has gone so mad in its hysteria over drug consumption that it will imprison anyone. Thousands of hours went into rotoscoping the film, and the irony here is that the results would be great to watch while stoned. Unfortunately, the process also necessitates the shortening of the film in order to cut costs. Apparently, each minute of film took five hundred hours to merely rotoscope, and one can imagine how this would have had studio executives leaning over Richard Linklater's shoulder, reminding him that they only have enough money to make a hundred minutes of film. The problem here is that the resulting simplification of the story only serves to make the story even more confusing to watch. The transition from Arctor's job being a harmless way to kill time with stoners to a complete meltdown is very jarring, with no structure to give the narrative any focus. It is one thing to write a bizarre story about stoners. It is another thing to write like a stoner.
In an absurd happy accident, the actors involved are perfectly cast for their parts. Woody Harrelson and Robert Downey Jr. are perfect as the stoners Arctor spends much of his screen time wasting away with. Downey plays the calm, casual, pseudo-intellectual stoner with an eerie accuracy. Harrelson plays the paranoid, dim-witted stoner in a curious mix of earlier performances that somehow works because of how many times we have seen Harrelson act in this manner previously. The biggest surprise is Winona Ryder as Arctor's supplier and eventual girlfriend. Although her methodology in this film is little different than is the case in most of her other films, the film finds a function in which she can perform well rather than attempting to wedge her into a role for which she is inappropriate, like a number of prior films I could name. But the real scene-stealer is Rory Cochrane as a customer of Arctor who has come to the edge, peered over, and put both feet forward without taking a breath. Every scene with Cochrane is a classic unto itself.
Unfortunately, the editing is where the whole thing starts to come undone. As was the case in Smokin' Aces, characters and scenes that need the greatest share of screen time go begging whilst characters and scenes that could do with some judicious editing seem to be allowed more than their share of footage. A scene between Downey Jr., Harrelson, and Natasha Valdez drags on way past its welcome with some very predictable stoner-talk. The addition of a clever thought bubble showing Valdez' character undressing does not help in any way since it only serves to generate even more annoyance with the growing disconnect in one character's mind with reality. While I appreciate the director's choice to respect the intelligence of the audience and let them work out parts of the story for themselves, a condition of that choice is that one must leave them enough pieces to work out the things left to the viewer's mind within the film's running time. A Scanner Darkly would have benefited no end from an extra ten minutes of breadcrumbs.
A Scanner Darkly is a film where the good conflicts with the bad so much that it takes several viewings just to discern its overall quality. After two viewings, I have settled on a score of seven out of ten. It is a great film hidden inside some very questionable editing and writing decisions.
The Quick and the Dead (1995)
The end of Sam Raimi, the innovator
In 1995, Sam Raimi had become known as the director of a rather quirky and original horror film that, in spite of being shot full frame with terrible actors, displayed a talent for composition not seen in some time. However, he had also given himself a rather large black mark in the form of an attempt to be "cool" with a horror-comedy where violence has no visible consequences, and everyone speaks like a reject from a teen soap opera. Individuals singing Raimi's praises will have you believe such was the best thing Raimi had done at the time. Unfortunately, what it really was was Raimi demonstrating that he had run out of ideas that he could call his own, and was now getting his repertoire fed to him by the most disingenuous money-men of the industry. In spite of a heroic attempt a few years later to return to the style of creating characters with The Gift, The Quick And The Dead can be labelled the moment where Sam Raimi, the innovative new voice behind The Evil Dead or Darkman, was gone forever.
While it is all but taken as read that a Sam Raimi film will be a hamfest with more clichés than a film-making class nowadays, nobody was quite prepared for how he displayed the fact in The Quick And The Dead. They say that when you put together a film in which the characters are the story, you best have good actors behind them. Unfortunately, with the exceptions of Russell Crowe, Lance Henriksen, and Gene Hackman, every actor in this film comes off as being utterly terrible. Even Lance, who by this time had the making of great characters out of terrible scripts down to an art, comes off as a complete non-entity here. Hence, I have no hesitation at all in placing a share of the blame upon writer Simon Moore. For all of his faults, Raimi at least knows how to salvage a character in the editing process. And when your cast includes the men who played Bishop or Lex Luthor, it is hard to blame the problem on the actors. Henriksen's performance, however, will get the more ignorant placing the blame on the cast.
Sharon Stone makes that an easy mistake to make, unfortunately. From the second she enters the town set, she makes it abundantly clear that she has seen one too many Sergio Leone films and thought "I can do that". And to be fair, for those who have not seen The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly or Once Upon A Time In The West, Stone appears to be doing a good job. Compounding the problem, however, is that neither writer nor director seem to have any idea which scenes they should not be stealing from. The final moment when Harmonica's flashback is completed in Once Upon A Time In The West is such a gob-smacker in its original form that smart directors know not to try and ape because it was more than just a means to an end. It was literally the final word. Unfortunately, Raimi tries to one-up Leone's signature scene in a flashback where Hackman forces Stacy Linn Ramsower as the young Ellen to shoot her father dead. Not only is the tone of the scene entirely off, the total absence of any proper lead-up completely undercuts the drama of the sequence.
Equally terrible is Leonardo DiCaprio as Fee, or The Kid as he is called during the film. DiCaprio has finally proved in such pieces as Blood Diamond or The Departed that he can act, but after The Quick And The Dead, anyone could be forgiven for thinking DiCaprio came straight from a high school drama. During the entire film, The Kid is only a whiny brat who starts to bawl when things do not entirely go his way. When he meets his end, the scene is so perfunctory, so devoid of weight, that while Hackman lends some much-needed credibility with his totally unmoved reactions, Stone destroys the whole thing with some incredible overacting. It is not entirely DiCaprio's or even Stone's fault, as the script gives them absolutely no development or buildup for this moment. DiCaprio is clearly in over his head playing a character that the writer and director apparently could not give two figs about. The sad thing is that with all the weight Stone was throwing around on the set, it would have done wonders if she had recognised this problem and addressed it.
This partly leads me to believe others may be right when they say that The Quick And The Dead needed another hour of footage (or script) in order to accomplish its goals. With more time and development in the early stages, the constant parade of characters both minor and major could have had some impact. Unfortunately, with very few exceptions, and minor ones at that, the deaths in The Quick And The Dead are merely a parade of images. Perhaps The Quick And The Uninteresting would have been a more appropriate title. And when one remembers that this film was put together by the same man who gave us such a haunting, creepy atmosphere in The Evil Dead, or such a horrifyingly real tragic hero in Darkman, it makes The Quick And The Dead such a bitter pill to swallow. Not that we honestly could have expected much more. The Western as a genre has been thoroughly tapped out, and it would take a truly incredible film to give it new life. The kind of film that The Quick And The Dead is not.
The Quick And The Dead is a four out of ten film. I have seen plenty of films that are worse, but in light of what its director used to be capable of, I have seen very few that are so incredibly frustrating.
Smokin' Aces (2006)
An exercise in frustration
In a pair of articles on the Filmwad site, Smokin' Aces is described as the most frustrating film in the history of cinema, and one in need of another hour of footage. While I disagree with one article in that I have seen films far more frustrating (X-Men 3 comes to mind), it would take a miracle of the most extreme proportions to convince me that Smokin' Aces is not both too long and too short. But I will get into that later. What is important to understand is that films based on stories and ideas with this kind of potential are an everyday event in Hollywood. A handful go to glory, a bigger handful live up to their potential, a larger handful fall short of their potential, and then a microscopic number screw it up as royally as is the case here. Yet, in spite of being so hideously flawed that it would otherwise be in the trash heap, Smokin' Aces also redeems itself with some great action sequences and awesome characters. The latter, however, becomes more frustrating for the editing reason I outlined earlier.
This is going to take some time to explain, so I will start with the bad. The cast of characters in any film where multiple criminals are fighting one another for the same goal is the single most important element. Films like Snatch or Lock, Stock, And Two Smoking Barrels get this right by recognising that the support characters are every bit as important as the leads. Smokin' Aces fouls this up by having a couple of characters one wants to follow, a lot of characters who fail to make so much as a blip, and a handful of characters that leave the viewer wondering what the screenwriter was smoking. In spite of being the whole focus of the film, "Aces" Israel gets about ten minutes of screen time. I disagree with the other choice Filmwad made regarding the other good character. I find Ray Liotta's performance in the film far more compelling than Jason Bateman's, but since both characters are so underutilised they utterly frustrate, the difference between them is neither here nor there.
It is the worst characters that count against Smokin' Aces, because they also happen to be those with the greatest share of screen time. Alicia Keys and her staff are sheer torture to listen to, and their every scene is accompanied by the audience wishing they would just shut up and get the hell off the screen. Not that they are alone in this. Zach Cumer's character is not only an incredibly bad stereotype that belongs only in the mind of a schoolteacher from twenty years ago, he constantly begs the question of why nobody is slapping the little moron so hard his eyes rattle. Of course, answering the question of what happened to Martin Henderson's character requires some footage, but there are far more economical and endearing ways to do this. Ones that do not require the screenwriters to add a pair of characters who are either vacant or just plain irritating. Like the Tremor brothers or Soot, Zach Cumer comes off as having been spliced in from a very different film that I would not even consider worthy of a rental.
Adding to the problems is that the directorial style is, put simply, awful. The fight between the Tremor brothers and hotel security had all the makings of a gorefest on the level of RoboCop. But what RoboCop had that Smokin' Aces did not is a director who understands that audiences need to see clearly what is going on for the proverbial money shots to have any real impact. In other words, payoffs are wonderful, but only when the setup is sufficient to make them so. The setups in the battle between the Tremors and hotel security are confusing, badly edited, and badly shot. Hence, what should have been the equivalent of the raid on the drug factory is instead a series of cutaways so uninvolving they reinforce the fact that the film cannot decide what its tone is meant to be. However, it is not until the final act, when the film attempts a twist that fails to, as Ryan Reynolds so elegantly puts it, make it make sense. In fact, as a result of this twist explanation for the rest of the film's events makes it make even less sense than it does thirty minutes in.
As a result of these severe plot holes, editorial goofs, and comparisons to films that turned out so much greater, it is hard to see Smokin' Aces as anything but a monumental blunder. It is fortunate, then, that some solid performances from Ray Liotta and Andy Garcia keep the whole thing from dissolving into total disarray. In spite of a plot that frequently fails to make sense from a logical point of view, a small handful of actors keep the audience invested in caring about the fates of their characters. That is a feat that, in a film as messed up as is the case here, takes talent. The initial explanation of Buddy Israel's importance to the Mafia and FBI alike also does a great job of hooking the audience with a compelling and layered fable, but it also promises so much that the rest of the film does not deliver. Hence, Smokin' Aces is not quite the most frustrating film that I have watched in my lifetime, but I would definitely put it somewhere in the top ten. Considering how many previous attempts Joe Carnahan has made to create a masterpiece, I suspect this really is the best he is capable of. Which is a shame.
I gave Smokin' Aces a five out of ten. It is a good film to show to students in direction and writing as they attempt to list all the things Carnahan gets wrong and right.
A Walk on the Moon (1999)
Not even worthwhile for a rabid Anna Paquin fan
Previous commentator Steve Richmond stated that A Walk On The Moon is, in his words "not worth your $7". I ended up paying a bit more than that to import what is one of the worst-quality DVDs I have yet seen, of this film or any film in existence. Even when you ignore the fact that the DVD is clearly sourced from an interlaced master and just plain nasty to watch in motion, the film has no redeeming qualities (save Anna's presence) to make watching a top quality Blu-Ray transfer worthwhile. Not that this is any fault of the other actors. Liev Schreiber, Diane Lane, Tovah Feldshuh, and Viggo Mortensen all score high on the relative to Anna Paquin acting ability chart. Far more so than Holly Hunter or Sam Neill did in spite of an equally lousy script, anyway. Director Tony Goldwyn's resume is nothing to crow about, but Pamela Gray's resume includes Wes Craven's most dramatic excursions outside of the horror or slasher genre, so one could be forgiven for thinking this is a case of bad direction.
As I have indicated already, the sole reason I watched this film is Anna Paquin. In her acting debut, she literally acted veterans of the industry with a minimum of twelve years' experience above hers under the table. While she is not as far ahead of her castmates here, her performance as a girl that starts the piece as a brat and grows into a woman whose world is crashing down around her proves her Oscar was no fluke. For some time I have been stating to friends that she would be the best choice to portray the heroine of my second complete novel, and a dialogue seventy-three minutes into this film is yet another demonstration of why. This woman could literally act the paint off walls. Anna aside, only Liev Schreiber comes close to eliciting any sympathy from an audience. Sure, his character spends the vast majority of the film neglecting a wife with an existential crisis, but he plays the angered reaction of a man who feels cheated brilliantly. I should know, even if it is not from the same circumstances here.
Viggo Mortensen also deserves credit for his portrayal of a travelling salesman, although perhaps not to the same extent. In a manner of speaking, he is the villain of the piece, but he successfully gives the character a third dimension. Yes, his actions even after the whole thing explodes are underhanded, but not many men would act any differently in his situation. Nobody wants to be the other man in this kind of messed-up situation, so Viggo deserves a lot of credit for giving it a try here. Unfortunately, these are all participants in a story about a woman who feels trapped in a stagnant marriage where Tovah Feldshuh tells us that the Mills And Boon archetype of women being the only ones who feel life is passing by simply does not exist. Either writer Pamela Gray or director Tony Goldwyn thought they could just put this line into the film without thinking of how the audience might receive it. Anna even gets to speak the mind of the audience when she asks Diane who she is to be lecturing anyone about responsibility.
That said, the film does have a couple of things besides Anna going for it. Mason Daring's original music, while not standing out in any way, gives the film a certain feeling of being keyed into the time depicted that helps where the other elements do not. Roger Ebert is right when he points out that while Liev is a great actor, putting him alongside Viggo in the story of a woman forced to choose between her marriage and her fantasy is a big mistake. He is also very correct in that when the film lingers over scenes of Lane and Mortensen skinny-dipping or mounting one another under a waterfall, it loses focus from being a story of a transgression and becomes soft porn. The film seems terminally confused about the position of its story. No matter how many times I rewatch Liev's scenes, I cannot help but feel he has been shortchanged in the direction or editing. One does not have to make their leads particularly handsome or beautiful, but taking steps to make them the most interesting or developed characters in the piece would have gone a long way.
Ebert also hits the nail right on the head when he says that every time he saw Anna on the screen, he thought her character was where the real story lay. Stories about the wife feeling neglected and running into the arms of a man who seems interesting or even dangerous are a dime a dozen, to such an extent now that even setting the story in parallel with an event as Earth-shattering as the moon landing will not help. In spite of feeling revulsion at the manner in which her character's story is presented, Anna might as well be walking around with a neon sign above her head asking the audience if they would not prefer to see the whole thing through her eyes. While I am all too aware that it is difficult to control exactly which character your audience will find the most interesting from your cast, it is very much as if they did not bother to try with Lane and Schreiber. Fans of these two would be well advised to look elsewhere. Hopefully by now my ramblings about the respective performances will give some idea of where the whole thing went wrong.
I gave A Walk On The Moon a three out of ten. Anna Paquin earns it a bonus point with one of her best performances (and that is saying something).