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Europa Report (2013)
Horror B-Movie Masquerading as Sci-Fi
Billions of dollars spent for the first manned mission to Europa, and the first words spoken from the surface are, "I can't believe I'm here!"
This is essentially a movie about how a bunch of screenwriters travel to outer space. There is no science here, there is minimal attempt to explain gravity on the spaceship, and even less to explain all the other numerous scientific questions such a journey would entail. Wardrobe questions are answered, food questions are not. A character is allowed to go wandering around on the surface when her oxygen is already low. These are not decisions intelligent people make-- this is a big dumb slasher movie with (1) no slashing, and (2) a budget higher than it deserved.
In a slasher movie, normally intelligent characters suddenly make a monumentally stupid decision for no reason, resulting in their death. And while one or two of these decisions are debatable, mostly they're just out-of-character moronic for no reason other than it movies the plot along (during moon missions, astronauts gave the lander an external once-over to make sure they were good to go. But we're not doing that on Europa in 2013? One more gigantic hole in a screenplay full of them).
The direction is hit-and-miss, sometimes allowing the actors to put emotion behind long streams of technical jargon, when these are (supposedly) scientists on a mission, not buddies on a field trip. The performances are as good as the director allows them to be, but none of that matters because this is a big dumb horror movie with no horror, that is pretending to be smart. It's not. 4/10 (including bonus point for convincing Sharlto Copley to be in it).
Top Gear USA (2008)
Rough First Draft
Top Gear US is currently rockin' a 4.1 on the IMDb. While it is a shallow echo of the original and brilliant UK series, it is by no means deserving of such disrespect.
The first season of the show aired Nov. 2010-Jan. 2011. I did not watch nor hear of it until May of 2011; I do live in America, but I'm just not a big watcher of the History Channel. I'd heard there was going to be a US remake, but it took so long and internet news kept changing and contradicting itself, I just forgot about it and assumed it would never happen, and if it did, it certainly wouldn't be good (especially if it was on NBC).
So I sought out that first season a few months later, just to see how it went. The results? Not terrible. But there is room for improvement. And the show obviously knows it.
The pilot is terrible. There is no chemistry between the hosts, the scripted, heavily-edited patter is insulting, and nobody seems to know anything about cars. But, what the hell, the season was 10 episodes, so I stuck with it. That first show featured a field piece that was kind of fun, so maybe there'd be more of those? As the season went on, the field pieces got better, and the chemistry of the hosts improved. The show stopped insulting my intelligence, and I was genuinely entertained watching the guys hang out, and wished the show would rely more on that, instead of the still-obviously-scripted (but by now less frequent) studio throwbacks. Clearly the producers adapted as the show went on, and I've heard it said on these boards that the first UK series wasn't very good, either.
The hosts have their own issues: Adam Ferrara seems to know nothing about cars, frequently picking New York City staples for off-road tests, when any moron with a junior high school degree would know you don't drive a Coup de Ville through the woods. He's a New York boy and made no effort to educate himself. On the flip side, Rutledge Wood actually did work with cars prior, on the Speed Channel, and while he knows his techs and specs, he's still a good ole boy from the country at heart, and as such, made the exact same "homer" mistakes as Ferrara. Wood and Ferrara's ignorance wasn't endearing, as on the UK show when James May or Jeremy Clarkson screw something up... it's frustrating, because this is a car show, and I should not know more than the hosts.
Tanner Foust is obviously a car guy, he's worked on movies, he's a professional drift racer. He makes for a charismatic host, but he needs somebody to play off of, and the show doesn't offer that. On the UK series, there's a clear leader... Clarkson runs things and May and Richard Hammond are allowed to chime in. Here we have three really polite personable guys who have no strong opinions or, if they do, are not allowed to express them.
Episode 9 features an Alaskan Adventure, showcasing "the great American pick-up trucks." And while I respect that's the theme, a 4th truck-- a Toyota-- was brought as a back-up in case one of the American cars broke down. There was no effort made to talk about the Toyota, to discuss its pros and cons, to compare it to domestic trucks. I felt like I was watching a propaganda film for the US auto industry, and that made me want to rate the show a lot lower than I did. The entire point is to talk about ALL cars, not just what's convenient. And to be honest and objective, and not suck up to companies who might be advertisers.
If you're interested in the concept, or just a fan of cars, or Top Gear, stick with the UK show. But the first season of the US version was an experiment, an audition, a first attempt. It's enough to make me want to watch a season 2, and hope they replace either Ferrara or Wood, preferably with someone who can teach me something about cars. How about a female? Would that be so bad? 60% is passing and I give it a 6/10. But that's still a D. Stop giving them copy and let them talk about cars, and if they can't do that, they don't need to be on this show.
Sucker Punch (2011)
What If You Spent $50 Million on a CGI Man Taking a Dump?
It's kind of difficult to comment on the movie, without just writing, "Terrible," and clicking the submit button. To write a good comment, one must write WHY it is terrible... but where to begin? If someone came into your home, and defecated in the middle of your living room, would you need to explain in a calm manner, three reasons why the person was wrong for doing such a deed? No. You'd toss them by their ear out onto the street, left with the unenviable task of having to clean up. Perhaps you'd even call the police.
If, on the other hand, you spent $50 million (or whatever the budget was; it was too high, in any event) to have someone take a CGI dump in your living room... is that any better? There are three actors in this movie: Scott Glenn, Jena Malone, and Carla Gugino. Four, if you count Jon Hamm, but he's not in the movie long enough to matter. There are these three, and everything else is there to talk until it's time for another special effect. Jena Malone isn't even required to do any of these things, but because she has actual experience as an actress, bothered to create a character and reflect an emotional state during the 'story.' Everyone else just showed up, put on the costumes, and talked until the director said 'cut.' Vanessa Hudgens should have been a clue.
Even if the story is awful, unmemorable, or predictable (Suckerpunch is all three), other Hollywood movies may rely on memorable action sequences or visuals. In a movie roughly 100 minutes long, these action sequences take up roughly five minutes of screen time. Then Snyder detonates an explosive in New York. Again.
It's not so much that Zack Snyder hates audiences, it's just that he's incredibly naive, like a 12-year-old suddenly given the keys to his dads liquor cabinet. He wants you to like a character, he makes them female and puts them in a low-cut top. He wants you to hate a character, he makes that character a rapist or molester of children. He does this again and again; these appear in every movie he's ever made, save for his first (and best) film, "Dawn of the Dead," which was written by someone else entirely. Someone who understands subtlety and character development. Realize, too, that I'm saying this about a movie where a smarmy rich dude accidentally chainsaws his most recent sexual partner.
Whatever fancy visuals made it to the trailer, the movie is this: Zack Snyder wrote a script with his camera-man, and it is neither funny nor exciting. It's a 100-minute demo reel, and considering this is his fifth movie, he really should have actually created something with weight, by this point.
I'm not going to call the police, but I am going to be mad for a week, because even though I've cleaned my floor, the smell lingers on. 3/10.
Tropa de Elite (2007)
Michael Bay's "Full Metal Jacket"
When rating or reviewing an American movie, the process is simple: Decide how much you liked the movie in a scale of 1 to 10. Usually this pertains to how much you enjoyed the story, or the style of filmmaking, or the actors. Most American movies are made for mass consumption.
On these terms, "Elite Squad" succeeds because it's a well-told, fast-paced story, told with the simplistic, high-on-adrenaline documentary style of filmmaking. There are a few good shots, but mostly the director just cares about getting in the face of the viewer, and quickening their pulse. For the most part, he succeeds.
But, this being Brazil, we must also look at the movie from another perspective: What is it trying to say? For certain, you can just ignore the politics of the film and focus on the gun battles, but there are long scenes of cops with their wives and girlfriends, or going through training, which for the "Squad" of the title, is really more like boot-camp.
I don't live in Brazil, I have never been to Brazil, but from my perspective the politics behind the film are shockingly naive. The characters claim to be fighting this great evil, slowly caving under the pressure of being the best cops in their nation, surrounded by corruption and dishonesty on all sides. And at the same time, they routinely lump in hard drug users, pimps, pot-smokers, and abortionists in the exact same category, while ignoring blackmail, bribery, and having beers after work. The film is not trying to say something about these cops-- it agrees with them, the protagonist spending the entire film training possible replacements, speaking passionately about the top two candidates via voice-over narration, as he hopes and prays the new squad leader will run the squad in exactly the same way as it was before.
If Brazil is this conservative from top to bottom, no wonder it's falling apart. "City of God" made us look at the favelas, the type of life their residents live in every day, and how hard it is to escape. It made us feel, and made us sympathize. In "Elite Squad," there is not a single redeeming character, and every male in it destroys countless others for his own selfish needs... while each and every woman and child is just there to get in the way, or else serve as punching bags.
The criminals are psychotic, the cops equally so, with innocent bystanders caught up either in the middle, or ignoring things from the sidelines. If director Jose Padilha is trying to tell us anything, it's "Brazil is an awful place, populated by awful people." I'm sure that's not true. But as long as the body count keeps stacking up, why would the audience care?
Filmmaking: 8/10 (its current IMDb average). Politically, 4/10. Bill O'Reilly would love this movie, because its message is even more idiotic than any movie Michael Bay ever made: "If we can only arrest or kill every pimp, every pot-smoker, every prostitute and every person who has an abortion, the country will be great again." Not only is that an impossible goal, it's the statement of an insane person. Compared to this, "Transformers" is positively intellectual.
Get Rich or Die Tryin' (2005)
What If It Wasn't a Biopic?
I remember when this movie came out, it was universally panned across the board. "50 Cent can't act," "The script is terrible," "The dialogue sounds like it was written by a third grader," "What's so special about 50 Cent that he needs his own movie?" I stayed away from it for years, but then I happened to watch my first Jim Sheridan movie recently, "The Boxer." It was well-acted, well-crafted, the tone was consistent and dark throughout the movie, while illuminating the viewer into a world that he or she may never have seen before, all while putting well-rounded characters through the ringer. This plus universally positive reviews of every Jim Sheridan movie except this one, made me wonder if IMDb users (statistically mostly white teenagers) weren't just hating on this movie out of typical cultural bias. If you run down the list, after all, most every "urban" film, regardless of quality, gets a pretty low rating on this website. Sometime it's deserved. But sometimes it isn't.
"Get Rich or Die Trying'" isn't a terrible film, and is far better than the current 4.1 rating it currently holds, which would put it on par with Uwe Boll movies and any post-Oscar Nicolas Cage movie. While it isn't Citizen Kane, it's better than all of those, a well-crafted drama that could be enjoyed by anyone, whether or not they enjoy rap music.
Can 50 Cent act? He's not terrible. At no time does he look like he's reciting lines, and his natural charisma plus Jim Sheridan's direction makes for a passable performance. He's not better or worse than, say, Mark Wahlberg, who has a similarly limited range, but has utilized it to great effect.
Is the script terrible? No. It gets clichéd in parts (the beginning of the first flashback is the most over-used cliché in movies like this, and was parodied over a decade ago in "Don't Be a Menace..."), but overall tells a tight, fleshed-out story that wavers only periodically between poetry and cheese. 90% of the time, it walks the line between the two and does a credible job. Every character is well-drawn with their motivations clear, with the notable exceptions of Charlene and Bama. The script makes no effort to show who they are or why they act the way they do, and while the actors work to show depth to what's on the page, ultimately it is a large flaw in the film-- but this is no better or worse than any other Hollywood film, that fails to give dimension to even one female character.
Is 50 Cent worthy of his own movie? Look. He's not Elvis. He's not the Beatles, or Johnny Cash, or NWA, or Jay-Z. His music is middling at best and even in 2011 he's still a one-hit wonder. So if 50 Cent isn't as towering in the music game as all these others, the question we must then ask is: Is his story worthy of being told, if Marcus were played by someone other than Curtis '50 Cent' Jackson? The dude was shot five times and lived. His mother died on the streets. He made it out, and made enough of an impression to get a movie like this one made. Even if you don't like his music, it's a story we don't often see, and one worthy of being told... not unlike 'The Boxer.' There's a moment early on, in the first scene, where our main characters are riding to a robbery, and 50 Cent is playing on the soundtrack. We catch Marcus himself lip-syncing to the radio... in essence, lip-syncing to HIMSELF. I don't think that's a coincidence. The music is Any Music, the time is Any Time. It's a dramatic epic and reflection of a specific time, with painstaking detail used to recreate music, culture, and fashion, of a culture we don't see often given respect on film. Yet despite the specifics, it manages to remain a universal story for any community that has to face this kind of violence, and Jim Sheridan clearly knew this when he signed on.
Upon the films release, teenagers may have been expecting "Scarface," and this wasn't it. Adults may have been expecting a typical urban violence-fest, and stayed away... but the film wasn't that, either.
Ultimately, despite some fantastic camera-work, Sheridan didn't make art on the level of 'The Boxer,' and certainly not on the level of 'My Left Foot,' 'In the Name of the Father,' or 'In America.' But 4.1? It certainly deserves better than THAT. Six years on, and the film is no longer a publicity stunt made solely to peddle CDs... it's just a movie, and a good one.
Hawaii Five-0: Lanakila (2010)
Some questions: first off, why does the Five-O get their own logo in this episode? They started calling themselves the Five-O as a joke, starting in the last episode. Now it's painted on the floor of their HQ. Nice use of tax dollars.
Second, how can a waitress at a café in Hawaii afford a brand new 2010 Chevrolet Malibu? Maybe I should move to Hawaii.
Third, why does the bad guy keep shooting hostages, even after the knows the cops are after him? Did he not want to leave a witness, even though he knew he was already being chased? Plus he fires off a gun in the middle of a crowded bank, when he's already trying to keep a low profile. Worst. Bank robber. Ever.
Other than that, this episode holds together better than any other episode since the pilot. The action was fun, 3 out of the 4 leads get some character development this time around, and the helicopter chase wasn't completely ridiculous (except for the awful CGI).
I dug the bit with the sister. I didn't dig the bit where McGarrett plays ten points of prison yard basketball but somehow fails to break a sweat. Still, this is better than any show with "CSI" in the title. 8/10.
Hawaii Five-0: Malama Ka Aina (2010)
Still Playing Catch-Up with the Pilot
After a pretty well-put-together pilot, I was pretty angry to see such a mess of an underwritten, poorly paced second episode. I was ready to write the show off completely, but at least this third episode made an effort.
It still has the hindrances of a typical police procedural-- minimum character development, necessary coincidences to streamline plot resolution-- but at least it was an entertaining hour of TV. More so than episode two.
With the exception of Danno, no character is really given much growth, though they put forth a medium amount of effort for Chin (Daniel Dae Kim) this time around. Good, but not great. Bonus points for Max Casella.
Hawaii Five-0: Ohana (2010)
Makes the Pilot look like Shakespeare
Dug the pilot. Written by screenwriters returning to TV, and directed by film director Len Wiseman. This show could be the rare remake that works, I thought.
Episode 2 was generic TV crap of the easiest kind. Every show that fails makes the same mistake: shoot the pilot, make it good, get it picked up, then pawn off the rest of season 1 to inferior writers and directors. Episode 2 fits that cliché so neatly, I almost turned it off, but suffered through it just to say I gave it the chance.
The direction is lazy, with long scenes of uninteresting talking, shot as flatly as possible, before the next action sequence that (unlike the pilot) turned out to have little or no meaning. The ending can be seen a mile away. Even though the Governor gave our heroes carte blanche to do what they "had to do" to catch the bad guys (in the pilot), no explanation is given why our heroes can't just call the cops in on this case, since an important guy is kidnapped for his hacker skills. Our heroes find him thanks to random coincidence, our heroine finds out who the spy is thanks to random coincidence, and the Asian characters are ignored by the white characters except when it's time to give orders.
This is why remakes get cancelled. I'll give Episode 3 about twenty minutes, but if it's not interesting, then I don't care what the rest of the show has to offer. It's not fun, it's not funny, and only Scott Caan even bothers to play an actual character. I'm out, and I suspect the rest of America will be by mid-October.
Gangs of New York (2002)
An Absolute Mess
There's over 1000 comments on the film a this point, so I can't say I have anything new to add or any new point to argue. The characters are exceptionally weak, and the screenplay reeks of a vanity project written by committee.
After watching "The Deer Hunter" for the first time a few months back, I was looking through criticism for that film, and recall one critic of the time saying that given too much money and time, it is entirely possible for a filmmaker to become so self-important that he could literally climb up his own ass.
More accurately, in her review of "The Deer Hunter," Pauline Kael spoke thusly: "(It is) a small minded film with greatness in it... with an enraptured view of common life... (but) enraging, because, despite its ambitiousness and scale, it has no more moral intelligence than the Eastwood action pictures." The consensus of that film, released around the same time "Gangs" was conceived, was "Its (The Deer Hunter) greatness is blunted by its length and one-sided point of view, but the film's weaknesses are overpowered by Michael Cimino's sympathetic direction and a series of heartbreaking performances from Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, and Christopher Walken."
"Gangs of New York" is precisely all of these, except without the great acting performances. Daniel Day-Lewis goes beyond superb and achieves something even greater, but the film around him is so ambling and weak (despite spectacular production-design), that there's still no reason to watch it. A different filmmaker made the far more wise decision of letting Day-Lewis chew scenery as a lead and not as a supporting player, and that entire film was lauded with praise and positive reviews it richly deserved. "Gangs" deserves none of these.
DiCaprio, though still a commanding presence, remains a weak actor without an ear for accents, as in this film he is only occasionally Irish. He feels it is his job to simply arrive on set and glower (or cry), and Scorsese is content to let him. The film is weaker for it, despite grand performances from every supporting actor, including Cameron Diaz. There is no shortage of attractive blondes in Hollywood, but even in 2002 she was aware she'd better put something on screen besides her piercing blue eyes, and shockingly, she does... despite the incredibly meager material. She is charming and damaged all at once, from the first time we see her until about 80 minutes into the film... the instant her character has sex with the hero, she becomes a glorified extra.
The entire film is similarly rambling, with no direction or clear plot. We're vaguely aware our hero wants to kill the man who killed his father, but he is given the chance several times and does nothing. In voice-over, we are told, "You don't kill a King alone in the dark, but in front of the entire Court," but of numerous chances given, some of them are indeed quite public. None are taken, as Amsterdams reasons for not doing so exist only in Scorsese's head, and not anywhere on screen.
Scorsese must have known this was a mess, because he pushed back the films original release date by a year, in order to keep working on it (something unheard of, and a concession that could only be made to a director of his reputation). He's made three more films with DiCaprio since then, and "The Departed" is easily the best of them, though by no means even in the Top Five for Scorsese's once-storied career.
If you're a fan of DiCaprio's strong presence, or weak acting, or his toned abdominal muscles, there are other films from not just Scorsese but other directors as well. If you are a fan of Day-Lewis' chameleonic transformations, there can be no other option but "There Will Be Blood." If you are a fan of violent history lessons, the 21st century has given us The History Channel.
The IMDb trivia section says Scorsese wanted to make this film in the early 1980s, but the failure of Heaven's Gate (Michael Cimino's follow-up to "The Deer Hunter") caused studios to shy away from making big-budget, expensive historical dramas. Miramax should have done the same in the early 2000s, because there's nothing great about this film, and the only reason it got made is not because of any perceived greatness of Scorsese... he got here simply by outlasting all the rest. Maybe he's a little less Amsterdam, and a little more Bill, after all... in which case we should thank him for his past services, and hit him with something heavy if he keeps trying to make any more movies.
5/10, would not recommend to anyone, not even fans of Scorsese's.
The Pink Chiquitas (1987)
Spoiler Alert: Everybody Stays Dressed
I caught this years and years ago on the USA Network, at something like 3 a.m. At the time I was young and impressionable, and I thought I was watching something very dirty indeed. There wasn't much to see, but I was convinced I was watching an edited-for-TV version of a soft-core masterpiece. Did I mention I was young?
Years later I saw the thing on DVD (WHY is this on DVD?), and figured, what the hell. And, well... to call this thing PG-rated is being generous. There had been ZERO editing for that basic cable airing. No one get naked, and there wasn't even any swearing that I could recall. Even the underwear is pretty chaste.
The acting is terrible, the writing is embarrassing, the lighting/costumes/makeup are beyond amateurish, and the "music" (written by Frank Stallone himself!) is instantly forgettable. So if your plot is a pink meteorite that falls to earth and turns the local women into Amazonian nymphomaniacs... wouldn't the only possible saving grace be having naked women in your movie? (or, for the two women in the audience, at least one attractive male?)
There is NO skin, no jokes, no movie... The only reason this exists is so you can see the title on the IMDb and say to someone, "Did you know Sylvester Stallone had a brother? Who was in a movie?"
The Hard Easy (2006)
45 Minutes of Movie, Padded to Feature Length
David Boreanaz is not the world's greatest actor. I know this. He has good instincts, and has even been decent in some projects, but without an experienced director to really tell him what to do, he does tend to come off looking a little amateurish.
Don't know who Ari Ryan is, but kudos to him for getting a film made. I'm sure he was paid very well. But his direction is simplistic and camera-work uninspired (and at times confusing), and for the first hour, all the characters do is bark at one another, whining about how they're not going to take part in a heist that we already know from the first scene is going to take place.
There ARE a few good one-liners... but veteran actors like Peter Weller, Bruce Dern, and even Henry Thomas (hey, he's been doing this since 1982) know how to make it work. Gary Busey managed to act sober for nearly all of his scenes. Vera Farmiga was a year away from "The Departed," and certainly does her best with what's given her, though that isn't much. Her character takes an unnecessary u-turn late in the movie, and she motivates it as best she can. But left field is left field, and lousy writing is lousy writing.
The rest of the performances just kind of lay there. To even call Nick Lachey an actor is an insult to actual actors. The plot synopsis promised two gangs of thieves doing a heist at the same bank on the same day, but the reality is that (a) it's not a bank, it's a jewelry store, (b) they're not thieves, they're amateurs, and (c) we see a bit of the heist in the opening scene, then we flashback and they spend 90 minutes talking about it, to get us back there. We already know it's going to happen, so where's the dilemma? Get to the good stuff, man, it's fun to watch RoboCop berate people and all, but no one's going to see your movie just because of Weller in a supporting role.
Really you could ditch most of the movies first half; Henry Thomas' character is at least interesting (the lovable loser), but then the movie takes a giant crap on everyone around him in the final act, making all that set-up completely irrelevant. Boreanaz' half of the movie isn't interesting at all; His character is a selfish, materialistic jerk, and he's surrounded by selfish, materialistic jerks. The audience isn't interested. Get on with it.
As a short film, this might work. It was a good idea. Unwatchable action sequences, too much exposition and too many bad actors nearly ruin the whole affair. The few good actors make it watchable... but when it ends, you'll wonder what the point of the first 60 minutes was, if the filmmakers care so little about the characters they took pains to create.
6/10. Someone give Henry Thomas a better movie, already.
Mie jue qi qi (1980)
The Timeless Appeal of the Porn Mustache
Bruce Le (that's not a typo) stars in an action film, with a script by Bruce Le and Poon Fan. If you're not laughing yet, keep right on walking. There's nothing more to see here.
Still reading? Awesome: Fast cars, faster women, a stereotyped asexual martial artist starring along side a sex-addicted American super-agent named Richard Cannon. Seriously. The first time you see him, he's playing tennis against two topless women. Simultaneously.
Did I say action film? It's a softcore adult film. With kung fu. And Chong Li from "Bloodsport." The acting is non-existent, the dubbing is awful, and the plot has something to do with a formula that can make a man sterile, able to have all the sex he wants with no repercussions. Is that good or bad? I'm not sure. Neither is the movie.
THERE IS NO DOWNSIDE HERE. I saw this on accident, as it came as part of a double feature with "For Y'ur Height Only," starring 2'9" Filipino action superstar Weng Weng. For once, this was a double-feature with everything. And I think this movie was actually the better of the two.
Judge for yourself, won't you? You'll be glad you did.
Kingdom of the Spiders (1977)
Shatner vs. Tarantulas!
Recently, Hollywood has seen fit to remake "Prom Night," "The Hills Have Eyes," "The Hitcher," "The Hills Have Eyes 2," "Black Christmas," "Halloween" "The Amityville Horror," "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," and more than a handful of other older horror movies I can't even remember right now.
This movie is better than every single one of those remakes. Plus it's got Shatner in it. Why pay eight bucks for a movie ticket when you can rent this for free?
Hey, in 1977, this was probably considered a good movie... unlike the remakes in the first paragraph, which weren't even considered good movies when they were only available in trailer-form.
PROTIP: Tarantulas don't spin webs. If you've seen all the original 1970's horror flicks that didn't need to be remade in the first place, then track this one down. It's not any dumber than "Jaws 2."
The Defender (2004)
"All this s#!% for nothing."
I'd read somewhere that Dolph Lundgren got into directing a few years ago, when the next in a long line of straight-to-DVD cookie cutter action movies had its director get sick, so Ivan Drago himself just stepped in and took the reins. Then I forgot about the movie for four years.
I'm flipping channels today, and see the first two names in the credits: Dolph Lundgren ... and JERRY SPRINGER. I make a bet with myself to watch it until Springer shows up, and Springer is playing the PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES.
With all this going for it, it should be one of the grandest movies of the 21st century. Except, no.
While not the worst movie I've ever seen, nor the worst action sequences I've ever seen, the action is still choppy, shot from entirely too close a range to see what's going on. The acting isn't terrible (except Dolph, though he's only required to stand there and look chiseled), but the plot is telegraphed in every scene. Every good guy that turns out later to be shady, acts shady the moment they come on screen. Every character who is going to die, the camera lingers on them long enough to give them extra footage for future demo reels. And Dolph's character is named "Lance Rockford." Seriously. I am not making this up.
Every action sequence is essentially the same, just a whole lot of bullet sound-effects and nothing interesting to look at or remember. There was some mumbo-jumbo at the beginning where Lance Rockford was a POW in his past, as if to explain that the character is damaged or something. It's completely unnecessary, as is about 45 minutes of the movie. By the time Lance Rockford is faced with a crucial moral dilemma, I honestly don't see how anyone watching it could care.
There are better places for your action fix, and better places for your Dolph fix. It's currently averaging around a 5.0 on IMDb, which is about right. It's by no means worth a theatrical release, but nor is it Uwe-Boll-quality, either. Guns fire, people shout a lot, and you'll find yourself getting bored when you're not studying the scars from Dolph's face-lifts. But hey, Jerry Springer plays the bad guy, so that's worth a bonus point.
Dead Like Me (2003)
How Not to Run a TV Show
I caught "Dead Like Me" on DVD having been curious about the premise, and the knowledge that Mandy Patinkin has not been bad in anything, ever. And the pilot did not disappoint-- the show was funny, witty, and clever. Everything we've come to except from Bryan Fuller, who would go on to create the similarly clever but low-rated "Wonderfalls," and the critical and popular smash "Pushing Daisies." His first show as creator, "Dead Like Me," begins with much the same tone of these shows.
Whatever mess was going on behind-the-scenes, however, quickly began to spill over onto the show. It swiftly began to lose its direction, being conceived as a dark comedy with moments of drama, but by the end of its first season, it's far more dramatic with only sparing moments of humor. From the first episode to the last of season one, the Gravelings (the tiny little CGI that 'cause' deaths) go from dreaded demons to wacky comic relief. In season two, their definition, motivations and character are changed completely.
Anytime a show re-used footage from a previous episode, the writer of that previous episode was given a screen-credit, which is unheard of in television-- it wreaks of petty backstage squabbling and ego. The first season sets up that George (our main character and protagonist) does not appear as herself to mortals, but by midway through the second season (when Fuller was no longer involved), this has been dropped from the show completely, first when a character reacts to her supposed 'hotness' (even though we've established that mortals see her as quite homely), and then she appears in a mirror as herself later on, sealing the sloppy writing by the new staff.
By the end of season two, the show had become a melodrama; season one was dark but witty in the beginning, even appropriate for children over 13... at the end of season two, a guest character attempts to rape a regular character, and is subsequently killed on-screen by a third character. Fans of the early episodes could not be pleased with what the show became, and fans of whatever the show ended up as, could not have known what was going on, because they were never watching in the first place. The show was cancelled at the end of season two, and mercifully so.
For a good time, watch the first half of season one, until Rebecca Gayheart's character departs (Fuller departed after episode four). After that, it is quickly downhill, as new writers are simply and obviously there just to collect a paycheck, clearly having petty arguments behind the scenes, and on top of all that, none of them have any clue whatsoever what to do with George's family. But hey, at least everyone got paid.
9/10 for the first 4 episodes, 4/10 for the series as a whole.
Flash Gordon (2007)
Not Talented? In Denial about it? Then the Sci-Fi Channel would like to throw money at you.
Yes, we all love BSG. But what if a creative team were given a show on Sci-Fi... a creative team that THOUGHT they were every bit as creative, talented and original as the BSG team, when in reality they were nowhere close? If this were to happen, the resulting show would be very much like "Flash Gordon." Ancient Hollywood property? Check. Same character names all around? Check. Exciting, new editorial changes, invented to showcase how brilliant the new producers are? You betcha.
Whereas BSG has drama, and tension, and memorable characters, the "writers" of this new Flash Gordon have made a series with none of these things. It's not an action series, it's not funny, there is no dramatic anything. The first episode after the pilot seemed like it was headed in the right direction (insect from Mongo stings Earthling, must rush to get antidote before victim OD's on seratonin), but then it went right back to nonsensical boredom, characters we don't care about on missions we care even less about, with the cheese of the 1980 movie removed and nothing new put back in.
To showcase the "genius" of these new "writers," let's look at their new contributions: they gave Dale a cop boyfriend (tension, fine, whatever), they made Ming's henchman a generic-looking toadie, but one who rides a segway under a trenchcoat, and oh yes, they replaced Ming, an iconic bad guy from the last 80 years, and replaced him with... a generic-looking soap actor, with no facial hair and my dad's haircut. This would be like remaking Star Wars and deciding to replace Darth Vader with Scooby Doo. The producers should be slapped in the face.
Other comments mention the acting, but the acting isn't all bad: the nerdy scientist, the bald best friend (who vanished after the pilot, returned to get stung by that bug, then vanished again), and Flash himself are all decent enough actors, I feel bad for them that they got stuck here. Dale and the cop aren't horrible either, but neither are they given much to do; their performances, as with the bounty hunter and Ming's daughter, are only one note because that's how they're written (as far as we know), though if we recall, Ming's daughter in the 1980 movie was pretty one-note, too.
The staff writers don't seem like they're incompetent, but their bosses are. The direction isn't terrible, but what does it matter when the scripts are boring and empty? After the 4th episode, I was done, and I'm pretty forgiving. Then I watched episode 5 just to see what they did with the Hawkmen. Answer: You don't want to know.
'Flash Gordon' has enough mystique and history as a character and series, that it will overcome this. For all of our sakes, I hope the careers of those responsible for this "show" never, ever recover.
There is no reason to watch this. Even if you're just curious, please just read the bottom line: It's horrible. Don't.
Mr. Fix It (2006)
I Was Amused
There's a shot pretty early on in this movie where the camera zooms in on a screaming woman (who has just been wronged by Mr. Fix It), continuing to zoom right into the back of her throat to her uvula, which then dissolves into a punching bag at a gym. I had low expectations going in, but I see that shot, and I point at the TV screen and say, "HOLD UP now, this guy is a freakin' genius." I haven't seen this director's other films (and judging by their IMDb synopses, I don't want to), but "Mr. Fix It" is cleverly written, well-paced, has some great visual gags, and Paul Sorvino for no apparent reason. It's by no means theatrical quality (you can see the end coming from ten miles away), but for straight-to-DVD, it's in the top tier.
The actors all start to look alike after a while (they're all fairly generic LA-types, except for Sorvino and the radiant, subtle Alana De La Garza), and Boreanaz has limited range, but knows how to play to his strengths (unlike, say, that other half of his former TV-romance). He's the smug fratboy who's just a little bit more aware of what's going on around him, closer to his character on "Bones" than the dark, brooding... well, you already know his resume.
The meat of the story was fun to watch, the set-up is clever, and this guy does some really evil things to the women he's trying to chase back to their former boyfriends. Does he get his comeuppance? I don't think it's too big a spoiler to say that he does. What happens after that, though, takes only about 5 minutes of screen time and kinda ruined the movie for me. It's difficult to talk about with spoiling it, but essentially, there's a new character introduced at the very end of the story, and we never get to know her, so we don't care. Where a clever plot-twister like "Wild Things" spends 10 minutes of the closing credits revealing the behind-the-scenes, "Mr. Fix It" spend 30 seconds, and expects it to be satisfying.
But whatever. The getting there was fun, and I wasn't expecting art. And I always enjoy a good go-kart race. 7/10.
Earth to Director: Stick with Directing
I had a longer thing here, but ultimately this movie isn't worth that many words. It can be summed up in just a few, actually: Matthew Vaughn, longtime producer, directed the movie "Layer Cake." Nice debut.
For some reason, afterwards, he decided he was a screenwriter too. He isn't.
His screen writing partner is someone with no writing to her credit, and according to the IMDb seems to be little more than a TV personality. Their screenplay is awful, trite, simplistic and condescending, but you can still see the starlight of a brilliant book (which I have not read) shining through.
The actors mostly bring their A-game. Claire Danes is passable, but isn't a star (either within or outside the movie), and has a horrible British accent. Robert Deniro doesn't even attempt an accent, so at least he's playing to his strengths (sort of). Name actors are given very little to do, and no-name actors are given huge parts to play. The results are mixed.
I did enjoy the movie while I was watching it, but afterwards I had time to ask questions. Questions like "why the heck was there only one guard on the wall 24-hours a day? didn't he have back-up?" or, "Why the heck did they cast three younger actresses to play the old witches, and only one (Michelle Pfeiffer) is ever seen as herself? Why not just cast 2 older actresses and save on the wrinkled latex?" It's incredibly sloppy construction, but Vaughn wanted to add to his audition reel, I guess, and hung his fancy suburban home (er, flat) on the blueprints of a Beverly Hills mansion. This is a C-minus movie that should have been an A+.
Just because you can direct a film does not mean you can write a screenplay. See also "Spider-Man 3." In the case of "Stardust," I heard the book was phenomenal, and the Neil Gaiman I've read defies description.
This movie doesn't. It's just pretty okay. See you at the library.
DOA: Dead or Alive (2006)
Absolutely Fantastic... if you're watching it in 1996.
In 1999, the martial arts movie was redefined by "The Matrix." What people forget is, the martial arts movie was previously redefined four years earlier, with the release of 1995's "Mortal Kombat." Of course, yes, "The Matrix" left everything before it in the dust. But for that 4 years, we had a short-lived champion... exciting action sequences, fair-to-cheesy dialogue, and a thumping techno soundtrack. It took something as historical as the Wachowski Brothers to knock it off its perch.
"Dead or Alive" features action sequences about on-par with "Mortal Kombat," dialogue scenes that are only slightly more painful, and the added presence of Eric Roberts, which takes two full points off its IMDb rating just for attaching his name to it.
I didn't hate DOA; it was miles better than "Mortal Kombat: Annihilation" and director Corey Yuen ("Transporter," "So Close") is certainly light-years better than Uwe Boll, if that even means anything.
Slightly better than your average rental, but not worth a $7 movie ticket. In 1996 this would have made a bundle, but today it's just something that might actually hold your attention on cable at 3 a.m. 6/10.
Ocean's Thirteen (2007)
An Excuse to Hang Out in Vegas
It's been about 48 hours now since I saw "Ocean's Thirteen." I saw it with a group of people (the only way to see a movie), and the movie took so long to get going, I really got the impression that my friends were hating it. The theater didn't laugh very often, I laughed less, and when the lights came up, my friends told me what a good movie it was. "Definitely better than the second," they said.
I disagreed, but it took me a while to figure out why. "O13" isn't bad, per se, and I didn't really hate it while I was watching it, though it did take a while for it to get going. I think, ultimately, the reason the first movie was so good, was because it was fun, funny, and witty, but still knew the difference between "when to be funny" and "when to not be funny." Andy Garcia's character was dangerous, and treated as such. The situations were potentially dangerous, and you got the sense of real peril for the characters. You knew what was at stake. It was a real movie, and just as good on repeat viewings, due to a really original and fresh approach (as well as some great one-liners).
The second movie wasn't reviewed nearly as well, and having watched it again since, it's really not bad either, except for the huge and sudden changes in tone throughout, as well as the fact that it pulls the last 10 minutes out of its rear end. It was originally written as a different movie, then re-tooled for the "Ocean's" cast, and you can kinda tell; it's darker, tries to be more clever than it actually is, and as a result, is a lot less fun.
Whatever strengths the first two movies may or may not have had, the third is lacking them all, except the actors. Everyone from Clooney on down, including Pacino, Vincent Cassel and Eddie Izzard, all bring their A-game, and are pleasant to watch. But the plot is minimal; whether there was a screenplay or not (and there was, from the writers of "Rounders"), you still get the impression that this is just an excuse for buddies to hang out in Vegas and shoot a movie, a la "Blue in the Face" back in the mid-1990's. No one has to do any heavy lifting, and the only actors who even try are the bickering brothers of Casey Affleck and Scott Caan, and of course Pacino, though he could be phoning it in too, and you'd never know it.
Whether you're a movie fanatic or not, the three films can still be summed up by their opening shots. In the first film, cut to: a chair. Clooney sits down in it. The movie itself is really about him, and what makes his Danny Ocean tick, not just before, but during, and after the action. In the second film, cut to: a magnifying glass. Brad Pitt walks into a room, and the next 100 minutes is a closer look at Rusty's life and his relationship with the woman he wakes up in that first scene. Third film? Cut to: a toy store. Yeah, that sounds about right. Soderbergh ain't so dumb.
Fincher vs. the Police Procedural
Few directors have name recognition these days, and even fewer directed their first film in or after the Clinton administration. But David Fincher is a household name in some circles, his visual style in unmistakable and unequalled, and some might say, he can do no wrong.
The biggest problem with "Zodiac" is that if it were a book (and it is), it would be in the True Crime section of you local bookstore. Books of this type sell very well, but I've never been a big fan. This film is essentially a police procedural, with not one protagonist but two-- Jake Gyllenhaal's Robert Graysmith disappears for huge stretches as the story focuses on Mark Ruffalo's Inspector Toschi, and his attempts (with Anthony Edwards' Inspector Armstrong) to track down the titular killer. Is it riveting to watch? Absolutely. Is Fincher's visual style evident in every frame? I think so, yes... you can't look away. Early in the film, Ruffalo looks out at late 1960's San Francisco, as a fire truck drives down the street toward him. Everything behind Ruffalo is 100% computer generated, and it's as gorgeous as anything to come out of that era of film-making. The attention to detail is mesmerizing.
The question for the story is, would I watch it again? Probably not, but you can't have everything. "Fight Club," "The Game," "Panic Room" are films I own and can watch over and over. "Alien3" and "Se7en" every once in a while. "Zodiac" is a fictionalized story from a non-fiction book, and though the human element is what pulls you in throughout the film, and the characters are all people I was fascinated to hang out with for nearly 3 hours... the story is still what it is, and while well-told, doesn't reveal anything new. Bonus points for style and some outstanding casting, but as for rewatchability... I'm not so sure. Time will tell.
The Way of the Gun (2000)
Noir Ain't Dead-- It Was Just Resting
What I fail to understand is why if "The Usual Suspects" was so incredibly popular (because it was so freakin' good), "The Way of the Gun" gets stepped on, both at the box office upon its initial release, and in various, snarky IMDb user comments.
This movie isn't just good. It's INTENSE. It's DARK. There's not a single character in the movie who's likable, and some viewers attack that like it's a bad thing. The story line is complex, the relationships between the numerous characters are subtle and nuanced; and still, some viewers attack that like that's a bad thing.
Just because a viewer doesn't understand something, doesn't make the film bad. It's a difference of opinion, absolutely, but that doesn't make "The Way of the Gun" a bad film. Au contraire, this is a very smart film... and when a filmmaker is making a smart film about amoral, gun-toting outlaws, the people who come to see that sort of movie are going to feel confused and angry. Because they wanted it to be simple. They wanted easy answers, a clear-cut good guy and bad guy, and a happy ending. The way movies have gone since film noir faded away, decades ago.
But this film is not so simple, and neither are the characters within it, nor is the plot. Chris McQuarrie refuses to write something so cut-and-dry, so black-and-white. It's taut, it's tight, it rides a bad vibe from the opening sequence all the way down to the last line. This film is so gritty it makes me feel dirty after watching it... McQuarrie may be a victim of his own success, because it was released in the aftermath of "The Usual Suspects," but if it built up an underground following like "The Killer," it would be on the shelf of must-haves next to John Woo, Guy Ritchie and any other art film your parents wouldn't approve of.
Every character has his own motive, has his own backstory, and not all are necessarily spelled out for you. The dialogue is wound so tight, it snaps: "Fifteen million dollars is not money. It's a motive, with a universal adapter on it."
I own this movie, and on a dark, rainy afternoon, I'll whip it out on the unsuspecting guest... "It's from the writer of 'The Usual Suspects'" I tell them. And from the opening scene, they're INTO IT.
It's not for everyone. But don't you dare call it a bad film. This is where YOUR favorite filmmaker steals all of his ideas.
A Scanner Darkly (2006)
People like to throw around words like "auteur" and "art film" and all that, but it's important to remember that Richard Linklater isn't, and neither is this film. Remember, this is the guy who brought us "Dazed and Confused," "The Newton Boys," and "School of Rock." He is far, far from an artist. He's only ever pointed the camera at the actors, and added a fair-to-great soundtrack.
With the name Phillip K. Dick all over the publicity, I eventually caved to check "A Scanner Darkly," primed for a trippy experience. And so, once again, was I underwhelmed. It's Linklater, after all, so all he did was... point the camera at the actors, and add a fair-to-great soundtrack (depending on your feelings about Radiohead, the sole band that you'll be hearing).
With the animation technique, I expected it would somehow tweak itself throughout the film-- that it would lend something to the story, that it would take the visuals someplace they wouldn't ordinarily be able to go with conventional 2-D actors. And... it doesn't. There are the "scramble suits," which are extended special effects, but that's it. A character turns into a bug during a drug trip sequence (it's been done, see "The Naked Lunch"), objects appear and disappear. There's no need for this animation; it's a gimmick, a way to cover up the green screen technology that was used far more effectively in the underwritten "Sky Captain" and the under-directed "Sin City."
The story of "Darkly" seems to concern one Bob Arctor, drug user by day (or is he?) and narcotics officer by... er, also by day (or is he?). When everything is revealed at the end, it's inconsistent with what came before... the novel seems to place focus on the drugs and how they affect Arctor, the story seems to want to be his journey down the drug-induced path. The film doesn't know where its focus is, as it glances over important aspects of Arctor's life (how he became a narcotics officer, or any aspects of his personality, for that matter), dutifully shooting scenes in the book but giving them no context-- this is merely "Dazed and Confused" all over again, with some great actors but no point, riffing from scene to scene until we're just out of story to tell.
There are better drug movies out there, better Phillip K. Dick adaptations, and better Richard Linklater movies. I didn't wholly dislike "A Scanner Darkly," but neither can I recommend it. When some filmmakers make experiments, the result can be quite interesting. This one just kind of lays there, begging to be understood, but with not enough depth to really be a comment on anything. If drug use is this boring, no one will ever do them again. So the movie isn't a total waste. 6/10.
Bloody Brilliant-- Once It Found Its Voice
Doctor Who spin-offs have tried and failed, but Russell T. Davies has had such an amazing run with the return of Doctor Who, I had to track this series down here in the States. And the pilot (written by Davies) was pretty good... but what I've learned from American series is any show that gets canceled, seems to do so based on the strength of the first episode NOT written by the show's creator. Oftentimes, that'll be episode two. And it will be awful, and no one will ever tune in again.
The second episode of "Torchwood" was by far the worst, itself a gimmick to get people to watch. "Look at us!" it screamed. "Sex! We're an adult show!" I wasn't impressed, but I kept coming back, hoping for improvement. It struck me like the first season of Joss Whedon's "Angel"... it didn't immediately know what it was about. Indeed, it took until episode four, "Cyberwoman," for the show to hit its stride. And that episode had everything the show had been lacking-- distinct characters, blistering emotional conflict, as well as the dark and shadows that had previously been implied in the tone, but never in how the series was shot. The murder, the mayhem, the true sense of peril (not to mention the staggeringly dark world view) in this episode was the moment when the series clicked, and I was hooked from that moment forward.
There were some missteps here and there, but mostly the show holds together, particularly in the final two episodes of the first series. The acting is fantastic, and every actor brings an emotional depth to their roles you weren't even expecting, and not at first glance even necessary... but it grows on you, or at least it did on me. Every writer of the show seems to take great joy (and skill) in making sure these are real people in an unreal situation-- looking over artifacts of unbelievable power, invented by species other than our own.
The smugness of Captain Jack Harness is gone from the Doctor Who series... he's a changed man. Owen is a bit of a pratt, but not without some medical skill. Tosh seems to be a genius, and loves her computers... Gwen is far more passionate about her new job than she ever could have expected, and her boyfriend feels the same way. Ianto is the savant-like uber-butler, and every single one of these characters is given an incredible history and emotional background (and baggage), all in the first dozen episodes. Not even "Angel" can claim that, and some of those characters had existed for years previous.
Of the 13, it's the last ten episodes that I enjoyed thoroughly, and the cliffhanger was a doozy. Could this be the "Doctor Who" universe leaking in around the edges? Or something new? It's impossible to guess yet (or maybe ever), and that more than anything is what keeps my rapt attention. A sci-fi show this serious is something I never knew I needed, and though "Battlestar Galactica" is great in a different way, the present day-ness of "Torchwood" is an experience all its own. B-Plus-Plus.
The Covenant (2006)
In the DVD's lone extra, a few of the cast are heard commenting on how the film is shot really creatively, with unique angles and a distinct visual flair. This is true. This is also really all the movie has going for it.
Remember "The Quick and the Dead?" Early 1990's, directed by Sam Raimi. What we got here is a "Quick and the Dead" situation: name director takes random script out of the pile, and creates a movie that's really style over substance. Except Raimi had a fantastic cast that would later all be famous... Renny Harlin, director of "Cutthroat Island" and "Mindhunters" hires a cast of pretty-boy, medium-talent no-names who couldn't even land a guest-spot on "Everwood." Sure, they all have different hairstyles, but I still can't tell them apart. No one bothered to make me care.
The movie starts in the middle, and the first 30 minutes are spent developing a character who becomes background noise for the last hour. The special effects are nifty, the love interest is lovely, and the four male leads are all easy on the eyes, or so I'm told. This is a good double feature at a slumber party with "The Craft" but is rated PG-13 and isn't really meant for anyone much older than that. It's also the nail in the coffin of Renny Harlin's career. Good riddance.
Screenwriter J.S. Cardone has a long IMDb filmography of straight-to-video movies. Renny Harlin was enough of a name to get this a budget and a theatrical release, but it didn't deserve it. 5/10.