Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Smokin' Aces

Smokin' Aces - Dir. Joe Carnahan (2007)

Is it possible for a movie to have a ton of stuff happening, but have nothing happen at all? Sure, that movie is called Smokin’ Aces, a tangled web of uninteresting plotlines and anarchic filmmaking. The film is like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World filtered through the eyes of Quentin Tarantino, then filtered again through the lens of Guy Ritchie. Not surprisingly, Joe Carnahan first emerged among the pack of indie filmmakers of the post-Tarantino era. His debut film Blood, Guts, Bullets, and Octane followed in the footsteps of Ritchie’s action/comedy Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. Carnahan gained some instant credibility with the gritty crime drama, Narc, which won over Tom Cruise as a fan. Cruise would help Narc gain a wider release and hired Carnahan to direct Mission: Impossible III. The two had creative differences and Carnahan was later replaced by J.J. Abrams. Looking at Smokin’ Aces, it’s easy to see why Ethan Hunt gave Carnahan the boot.

The focal point of the story (such as it is) is a Vegas magician named Buddy “Aces” Israel (Jeremy Piven). Israel’s shows garner a strong following with the local mobsters and pretty soon he’s playing cops and robbers with the big boys. Things don’t work out and Israel is arrested, but promptly skips bail to hide out in a penthouse in Lake Tahoe. Seeing him as a liability, mob boss Primo Sparazza puts a million dollar bounty on the head of Israel. Soon, contract killers and assassins come out of the woodwork to take on the job. Accepting the job are Georgia Sykes (R&B singer Alicia Keys) and her lover Sharice Watters (Taraji P. Henson), master of disguise Lazlo Soot (Tommy Flanagan), the sadistic Pasqual Acosta (Nestor Carbonell), and the psychotic Tremor Brothers, Darwin (Chris Pine, the new Capt. Kirk), Jeeves (Kevin Durand), and Lester (Maury Sterling).

The FBI wants to get their hands on Israel, seeing him as a star witness to topple organized crime. Deputy Director Stanley Locke (Andy Garcia) puts agents Richard Messner (Ryan Reynolds) and his mentor Donald Carruthers (Ray Liotta) on the case. Not to be counted out are a trio of bail bondsmen Jack Dupree (Ben Affleck), Pete Deeks (Peter Berg), and Hollis Elmore (Martin Henderson) who also want to capture Israel. There are still a few other characters that I left out, but I can barely remember half of them. Thank goodness for my old friend Wikipedia.

The first half hour of the film is practically dedicated to exposition. We are methodically introduced to each character and whatever history they have. None of this backstory is particularly interesting or, at least, isn’t told to us in any sort of interesting way. We’re told the Tremor Brothers are neo-Nazi rednecks, but nothing they do or say is any indication that they are neo-Nazis or rednecks. They just dress oddly and carry around big guns and chainsaws. Carnahan seems to be tossing a bunch of goofy caricatures onto the screen to cover up his lack of writing skills. There’s a wacky kid with ADD who practices martial arts and speaks in gangster slang that shows up, if for no other reason than he’s a wacky kid with ADD who practices martial arts and speaks in gangster slang. The same goes for another scene where Bateman’s character wears women’s underwear. I don’t know who he’s supposed to be or what he’s adding to the story, but he’s wearing a bra and panties, so Ha ha ha.

Muddying up the proceedings even further is a subplot involving the cold case murder of an undercover FBI agent. First, the heavy-handed resolution of this B-story can be seen coming from a mile away. Secondly, it feels like something from a different film. In all honesty, I might have enjoyed the film if Carnahan went straight for the jugular and made this an orgy of carnage, bullets, and bloodshed. I could have been happy to check my brain at the door for a battle royal between hitmen and scumbags. Instead, we get this pseudo-FBI thriller/mystery element thrown in to add even more exposition than needed.

I’m shocked that such a hackneyed script was able to acquire such an amazing cast including an unrecognizable Matthew Fox. I’m even more taken aback that Carnahan does absolutely nothing interesting with any of them. Having far too many characters leaves little room for the them to breathe and develop. Not that Carnahan is very interested in that sort of thing, prefering anarchic mayhem and bad jokes.

I’m a big fan of Piven and not just as Ari Gold. I always thought he stood out in the supporting roles he’s played in films like Grosse Pointe Blank and Old School. As Buddy Israel, Piven isn’t so much a humorous character as a man who degenerates both physically and emotionally. However, I couldn’t help but think he could have done more. Reynolds who can display a great, cheeky humor doesn’t get the chance to do any of that here. Andy Garcia is another of fantastic actor wasted in a nothing part as he just sleepwalks through his role. About the one who’s a little more interesting, as an actor and character, is the debuting Alicia Keys as hitwoman Georgia Sykes. She and Tarija Henson add a tough feminine touch to the otherwise testosterone heavy production. It’s too bad they didn’t get meatier scenes. It also doesn’t hurt that Keys looks great in fishnet stockings and thigh-high leather boots.

Smokin’ Aces is about a decade too late to join up with the other Reservoir Dogs, Lock, Stock knockoffs. The film isn’t nearly as hip and cool as it makes out to be.

Rating: * 1/2

Monday, March 30, 2009

Mister Lonely

Mister Lonely - Dir. Harmony Korine (2008)

Harmony Korine burst onto the cinematic landscape as the co-writer to the controversial, unflinching Kids. He made his debut as director with Gummo, a redneck David Lynch-esque look in a small Southern town. He followed that up with Julien Donkey Boy, Korine’s entry into the Dogme 95 movement. Both films cemented Korine’s status as a polarizing filmmaker. Some critics lauded him as a unique voice others considered his films incomprehensible and reprehensible. Korine’s career was derailed by drug problems and after a nine-year gap, he returns with Mister Lonely, co-written with his brother Avi.

Mister Lonely opens with a scene of a Michael Jackson impersonator (Diego Luna) riding around a go-kart track on a yellow mini-bike as Bobby Vinton’s hit song plays over the credits. This is exactly the kind of thing Korine is the master of, finding beauty in the strange and unsettling. This faux-King of Pop earns a living in Paris and meets a Marilyn Monroe impersonator (Samantha Morton) while performing at an old folks’ home. Marilyn invites Michael to the Scottish countryside where she and other celebrity look-alikes have formed their own commune. They have a James Dean, a Madonna, a Buckwheat, the Three Stooges, the Pope, Queen Elizabeth II, Sammy Davis Jr., and a foul-mouthed Abraham Lincoln. Marilyn has a daughter, a doppelganger of Shirley Temple, and is married to an insensitive, piggish “Charlie Chaplin.” Oddly, their ranks also include a Little Red Riding Hood (played by Korine’s wife, Rachel). There’s also a completely unrelated subplot involving filmmaker Werner Herzog (in a scene stealing role) as a priest in South America charged with airdropping food to poor villages. One of his nuns falls out of the plane, but miraculously survives, an act of God, no doubt.

This quiet commune acts as a microcosm for our own society. The impersonators look to fashion their own idyllic fantasy world, but find the realities of life creeping in. Their sheep get sick and need to be put down. Despite creating alternate personas, those in the community still suffer from all the same neuroses and jealousies as anyone else. For all of Korine’s intentions and best laid plans, Mister Lonely feels like two incomplete films slapped together. There’s thoughtfulness and tragedy to be found as well as tedium and pretension.

Rating: **

Sunday, March 29, 2009


Push - Dir. Paul McGuigan (2009)

Push is a worthy successor to Jumper in the crappy films about boring, good-looking people with superpowers genre. It’s Scanners produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, part-X-Men, part-Heroes. The film opens with a prologue explaining that the Nazis experimented on pregnant women to turn their unborn offspring into super-soldiers. The U.S. government continued these projects and created a wealth of individuals with various mental abilities. There are Movers (telekinetics), Pushers (mind control), Shifters (temporarily alter appearances of objects), Watchers (psychics), Stitchers (healers), Wipers (who erase memories), and even Sniffers (who can sense an object’s history by smell).

The Human Torch, Chris Evans plays Nick Gant, a Mover living in exile in Hong Kong, a haven for super-powered expatriates. Years ago, Nick’s father was killed by Henry Carver (Djimon Hounsou), a powerful Pusher working for Division (the evil government baddies). He’s been on the run since and doing a decent job of it until a young Watcher named Cassie (Dakota Fanning) knocks on his door. Cassie enlists Nick’s aid in rescuing her mother, a Watcher held captive by Division. In order to do so, they await the arrival of Nick’s ex-girlfriend, Kira (Camilla Belle), who has just escaped Division with the film’s requisite MacGuffin. She’s stolen a briefcase containing an experimental drug that can either kill the test subject or exponentially boost their abilities. Our heroes must evade both Division as well as their counterparts in the Chinese government.

Push is a slickly made actioner, shot guerilla style on the streets of Hong Kong. The set pieces are fast-paced and cool to watch, but the most of the story doesn’t make a lick of sense. The final act features Nick coming up with a secretive plan so convoluted that the villains won’t know what they’re doing. Well, neither does the audience. It doesn’t just feel like the heroes are making things up as they go along, but the writers as well. It seemed as if screenwriter David Bourla was more preoccupied with setting up loose ends for potential sequels than building a film that could stand alone.

Chris Evans does a fair job in the role of square-jawed hero while Dakota Fanning has a fun scene playing an angry drunk. Everybody else is just spinning their wheels. Well, at least, we get Ming-Na Wen and her lovely presence is enough for me to save this from a complete dud.

Rating: *

Saturday, March 28, 2009


Coraline - Dir. Henry Selick (2009)

Based on the novel by the great Neil Gaiman, Coraline wraps the best and worst of childhood into a mesmerizing fairy tale filled with the haunting imagery they used to have before being Disneyfied.

Coraline Jones (Dakota Fanning) has just moved from the busting urban life of Michigan to the rainy, remote woods of Oregon. Along with Mother (Teri Hatcher) and Father (John Hodgman), they take residence inside a creepy Old Victorian home that’s shared with a pair of retired actresses (a reunited Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders) named Miss Forcible and Miss Spink and Bobinsky (Ian McShane), a Russian acrobat with an army of trained mice. Coraline is instantly bored and can’t get a minute of attention from her parents who are far too busy putting together a gardening catalog. Like any good writer, her father has grown gaunt and pale while sitting in front of his computer. The closest person to a friend Coraline finds is Wybie (Robert Bailey Jr.), an odd boy who follows her around on a motorbike while wearing a skeleton mask.

While exploring her new home, Coraline discovers a little door that’s been bricked over. One night, she finds the passageway unblocked and crawls through to discover a lavish parallel world. Everything is more colorful and fantastical on this side. She meets her Other Mother and Other Father who look just like her real parents except they have black buttons instead of eyes. They fix her an exquisite feast and take her for a ride in the garden on a mechanical praying mantis. However, Other Mother grows more and more possessive and Coraline finds there’s a heavy price to pay.

Nightmare Before Christmas director Henry Selick mixes his own sensibilities with the Gothic surrealism of the Quay Brothers for this modernized take on Alice in Wonderland. It’s as much a coming-of-age tale as it is a wonderful piece of fantasy with all its Freudian imagery of our plucky heroine crawling through a birthing canal towards a field of blossoming flowers. It’s funny, heartwarming, and a little creepy, but in the most fun of ways.

Traditional hand-drawn animation is still clinging to life against the rampant glut of computer animated films, but stop-motion is a dying art form. Coraline is evidence that the medium still has legs. It’s far more gorgeous than anything you could pull off on your Macs. If you get the chance, view the film in 3D. Coraline manages to use 3D as an enhancement rather than a cheap gimmick where characters throw objects at the audience. It allows the audience to immerse themselves in the world of Coraline and enriches the environment. This is a breathtaking animated film and an easy contender for the Oscar. The achievements of the filmmakers is even more amazing when you take into account that everything was built by hand and shot a frame at a time.

Rating: *** ½

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Incredible Hulk

The Incredible Hulk - Dir. Louis Leterrier (2008)

The Incredible Hulk doesn’t hit it right out of the park as Iron Man did, but it’s a respectable triple. Whereas Ang Lee’s Hulk was more talky, less smashy, this new Hulk is more smashy, less talky. Ed Norton pulls double-duty for this latest adaptation of the Green Goliath. He’s pitch-perfect as Bruce Banner and, though he got hosed on a writing credit, his rewrite of Zak Penn's script is an excellent melding of action and drama, which utilizes elements from the classic TV series, Bruce Jones’ seminal run of the comic and the Jeph Loeb/Tim Sale miniseries, Hulk: Gray.

It’s a shame so much of the meat was plucked off the story's bones. It feels as if Marvel was a little too trigger happy in the editing room due to the backlash of the previous Hulk. Much has been made of the row between Norton and Marvel Studios over the final cut of the film. About twenty minutes of footage was trimmed from the movie in order to maintain a faster paced and more commercial cut at less than two hours. Scenes from the trailers such as Bruce’s one-on-one with Doc Samson and his trek to the Arctic (where we were supposedly to catch a glimpse of Captain America) are gone. You can definitely feel that there was something missing in the film, especially considering how thinly written characters like Blonsky and Betty Ross were written. Samson is relegated to little more than a cameo.

The Incredible Hulk certainly lacks the visual punch that Ang Lee brought to the previous film. The Hulk’s encounter with the army on campus doesn’t match up to the widescreen action of the Lee Hulk’s battle in the desert. The final fight between Hulk and Abomination isn’t too bad considering we're just watching two CGI cartoon characters punching each other.

I should stop picking apart the film as this was a damn, good time. As I said, Norton is fantastic in the lead role. He might not look as good in the part as Sam Elliot, but William Hurt equates himself well as Thunderbolt Ross, Marvel’s answer to Captain Ahab. Tim Roth is another great actor, but he doesn’t have much to do as Blonsky. There’s also just the right amount of humor sprinkled into the film. Liv Tyler isn’t the most nuanced actress around, but she’s best during those lighter moments, especially her scenes in New York City. Tim Blake Nelson probably puts in the most fun performance of anyone in the cast as Dr. Samuel Sterns. As any comic book fan worth his salt knows, he’ll return to plague the Hulk’s life as the cranially-enhanced supervillain, The Leader.

And that’s another element diehard fans will get a kick out of. The film packs in numerous Easter eggs and cameos (including a certain man of iron) for the geeks to squeal over. I spotted about 5 of them just in the opening credits. Stan Lee makes his obligatory appearance, but one that actually plays an integral part in the story. Lou Ferrigno is there and they even found a way to work the late-Bill Bixby into the movie.

If we could have just gotten Ang Lee to direct THIS version of the Hulk, that would have been a kickass comic book film. The Incredible Hulk doesn't have the innovative visual style of its predecessor, but it is a more faithful adaptation. Hulk isn't just a worthy follow-up to Iron Man, but it also continues to build the foundation for a shared Marvel universe to be brought to life on the big screen. It acknowledges the past while giving us a taste of the future where we'll find a star-spangled super-soldier and the phrase, "Avengers assemble!" becomes a distinct possibility. Let's just hope the behind-the-scenes tiffs aren't enough to drive Ed Norton away. I can't imagine a Hulk sequel or an Avengers pic without him as Bruce Banner.

Rating: *** ½

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

I Love You, Man

I Love You, Man - Dir. John Hamburg (2009)

I Love You, Man is a hilarious, manly take on the romantic comedy, applying those same issues of awkwardness and companionship to a platonic heterosexual relationship. The film manages to remain fresh while still following the typical rom-com formula beginning with the meet-cute followed by the montage, the big fight, and even a last-minute confession during the third act wedding.

Real estate agent, Peter Klaven (Paul Rudd), has never had any close guy friends, let alone a best friend. He’s always gotten along better with the opposite sex. He’s closer to his mom (Jane Curtin) while his gay brother, Robbie (Andy Samberg), and dad (J.K. Simmons) are the best of buds. With Peter and his fiancée, Zooey (Rashida Jones), about to get married, the women is his life decide to help Peter find a best friend. They set Peter up on a series of man-dates to poor results. During an open house at the estate of Lou Ferrigno, Peter bumps into Sydney Fife (Jason Segel) who openly admits he’s only there to pick up vulnerable divorcees. He’s in investments though we never see him do any kind of work. Sydney lives in a house by Venice Beach and has set up his garage as the ultimate bachelor’s pad with electric guitars, drums, and a special recliner for masturbating. Sydney’s candidness, free-wheeling life, and love of Rush strike a chord with Peter whose idea of a good time is staying at home and watching Chocolat.

Neither the script nor the direction by John Hamburg (whose last big-screen credit was Along Came Polly) are anything to crow about. The appeal of I Love You, Man rests solely on the shoulders of its leads. Jason Segel is in-demand following his writing/starring turn in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but it is these second banana roles (How I Met Your Mother, Knocked Up) that he excels at. He has a quirky, easy-going charm, most definitely someone you’d want to hang out with. His co-star, Paul Rudd, already has a proven track record as a strong supporting player in any comedy (The 40-Year Old Virgin, Anchorman). If there’s any justice in the world, the one-two punch of Role Models and I Love You, Man will cement his status as a bankable leading funnyman. His deadpan, sardonic wit makes him the perfect foil to Segel’s Sydney while spouting nonsensical slang like “totes magotes” or “latres on the menges.” Throw in the lovely Rashida Jones as well as Jon Favreau and Jaime Pressley as a quarreling couple and just a little bit of scatological humor make I Love You, Man the funniest movie of the year, so far.

Rating: ***

Monday, March 23, 2009


Duplicity - Dir. Tony Gilroy (2009)

Michael Clayton was on my top ten list of best films for 2007. It’s a movie that gets better with each viewing. I was looking forward to writer/director Tony Gilroy’s follow-up though I was taken aback by the first trailer. I thought it was going to be a dark thriller cut from the same cloth as Clayton, instead it was a frothy Ocean’s Eleven-type film. Duplicity is part romantic comedy, part heist film and tries to be a little too clever for its own good.

Clive Owen is MI-6 agent, Ray Koval, who picks up a beautiful woman at the US Consulate in Dubai. That woman turns out to be Claire Stenwick, a CIA agent who drugs Ray and steals secret documents from him. They run into each other years later, now working on rival sides of a corporate espionage death match. Claire works for Burkett-Randall, headed up by CEO Howard Tully (Tom Wilkinson), while Ray is part of a security team for Equikrom under the auspices of CEO Richard Garsik (Paul Giamatti). Both corporations have been trying to steal sensitive information for each other and it only intensifies when Tully announces he is ready to roll out a revolutionary new product. We learn Claire is actually working as a mole for Equikrom and, not only that, she and Ray are looking to double-cross everybody to cash in on the secret product for themselves. That’s only the beginning of the twists and turns of Duplicity.

I’m all for twisty storylines as long as they are properly set up and make sense. Gilroy doesn’t so much set us up as he drops the twists right into our laps. It’s difficult to become invested in the plot when the rug keeps getting pulled from under us. The true appeal of the film is watching the movie stars act like movie stars. Clive Owen is always in a well-tailored suit and Julia Roberts (at 41) looks the best in her career and shows cleavage on an Erin Brockovich level. They meet each other for clandestine affairs in Rome, the Bahamas, and even Cleveland (where Owen has a funny dialogue about frozen pizza). Gilroy goes for a classic Hollywood feel to their relationship, something on par with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. Though they have chemistry, they aren’t lighting up the screen as much as you’d want.

Duplicity begins on a high note with some clever use of split-screens and a slow motion slap fest between Wilkinson and Giamatti. The rest of the film doesn’t live up to the promise shown by the excellent opening sequences. It’s worth a rent if you’re in the mood for some lightweight fluff.

Rating: ** 1/2

Sunday, March 22, 2009


Knowing - Dir. Alex Proyas (2009)

Nicolas Cage continues the downward slide into direct-to-video limbo land with another lackluster effort. It’s not as bad a stinker as Bangkok Dangerous, but isn’t nearly as good (relatively speaking) as either of the National Treasure films. To his credit, Cage tones down the odd mannerisms and dons a believable hair piece for his role of John Koestler, an astrophysics professor at MIT. The son of a pastor, Koestler has turned away from his religious upbringing following the death of his wife in a hotel fire. He is left alone to raise his son, Caleb (Chandler Canterbury). He hardly speaks to his younger sister, Grace (Nadia Townsend), and never speaks with his father.

Koestler boils the film’s themes down to a classroom lecture when he poses the question, is life a series of calculated & planned events or does shit just happen? Determinism vs. Randomness. Koestler believes shit happens and a lot of shit happens in Knowing.

In 1959, a class of elementary school students draws pictures to place inside a time capsule which won’t be opened until present day. One strange girl, Lucinda (Lara Robinson), hears whispering voices that compel her to jot down a page full of numbers. Flash forward to 2009 and Caleb receives Lucinda’s letter. Koestler discovers the numbers contain the dates of tragedies and disasters for the last fifty years along with the death tolls. 9/11, the Oklahoma City bombings, Hurricane Katrina, they’re all there. Soon, Koestler learns that the final numbers point to imminent catastrophes. Plus, there are a group of pale strangers with sinister intentions for his son.

If G.I. Joe has taught us anything, it is that knowing is half the battle. Knowing is half a film or, at least, two-thirds of one. The film is a hodgepodge of The Twilight Zone, Close Encounters, X-Files, and Left Behind. It ramps up suspense and creeps while building and building towards a big finish that can’t possibly live up to the expectations it sets. The predictable finale is heavy on the special effects, but light on any sense.

I’m a fan of Alex Proyas’s work. I loved The Crow and Dark City, both inspiring in their stylized Gothic/noir look. Yes, I even liked I, Robot. Not so much for the flimsy story, but more for the stunning eye candy. I’m not Proyas’s only fan. One of his biggest supporters is Roger Ebert who championed the cause to raise awareness for Dark City. Ebert gave Knowing four stars in his review and called it one of the best sci-fi films he’d ever seen. I must not have been watching the same picture. Visually, Knowing is a strong production. The film features two amazing set pieces. The first (shot uninterrupted) is a plane crash in which we follow Koestler through the rubble as he futilely attempting to help survivors, some on fire. Another major sequence is a subway crash in which two trains derail and cause massive damage. Both scenes are extremely visceral, but the film goes off its tracks just as badly, fizzling out to an anticlimactic finish.

Rating: * 1/2

Saturday, March 21, 2009


Watchmen - Dir. Zack Snyder (2009)

”For this is the soul’s secret: only when the hero has abandoned it, then only approach it in dreams – the superhero.” - Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

I never thought I’d see the day when the feature film version of Watchmen would finally hit the screen, let alone see anything Watchmen related outside the comic book shop. Now, you can walk into Target and buy the trade paperback. There are huge displays of Watchmen books, CDs, and posters at Borders. There are Watchmen action figures, Watchmen on the cover of mainstream magazines, and segments about Watchmen on Entertainment Tonight. It’s been a strange, strange journey to get to this point. It’s been in development hell for nearly 20 years, passed through the hands of several big name directors (Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky, Paul Greengrass), seen lawsuits and its co-creator wash his hands of the entire thing. Fans thought it would never happen, but Watchmen has arrived.

Originally published by DC Comics as a 12-issue mini-series in 1986, Watchmen has gone on to become one of the most revered comic books ever published. Time magazine listed it as one of the 100 greatest novels published since 1923. Written by Alan Moore with art by Dave Gibbons, Watchmen was originally intended to star a stable of lesser-known characters DC purchased from the defunct-Charlton Comics line. When DC realized Moore’s story would render these characters unusable, they directed him to create a cast of original costumed heroes. Moore had already begun challenging the accepted notions of what superhero comic book should be with his work on Miracleman and Swamp Thing by dealing with adult themes of authority, theology, and existentialism. Moore looked to further shatter those preconceptions with Watchmen which acted as both a psychological deconstruction of the superhero mythology as well as a comment on the Cold War politics of the time (a continuation of the themes from V for Vendetta). At a time when Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were two of the most powerful people in the world, Moore hoped to point out the dangers of entrusting one’s life and safety in the hands of other individuals simply because they had the power. Who watches the watchmen?

With Watchmen, Moore imagined what the world would be like if costumed adventurers really existed. What would the heroes be like if they had all the same hang-ups as real human beings? It was practically revolutionary when Stan Lee created Spider-Man as an awkward teen who couldn’t get girls or pay the bills. Here, the superheroes are sadists, masochists or psychopaths. How would the superheroes affect the socio-political structure of the world? And how exactly do you solve society’s problems by dressing up in a costume and punching people in the face? The costumes themselves were meant to look intentionally silly for some and for others, heightened into sexualized, costume fetish wear. Moore played up and tore down various superhero tropes that had been in place for decades when creating the inhabitants of the Watchmen world.

The Watchmen film opens in 1985 in an alternate reality where Nixon is still president and the world is on the brink of nuclear holocaust. Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) who once operated as The Comedian sits in his high-rise apartment watching the news of Russian forces amassing on the Afghanistan border. Just then, an unknown assailant bursts through the door and the pair engages in a rousing fist fight until Blake is hurled out the window, plummeting to the ground below. From there, the film really shows off its ingenuity with a brilliant opening credit sequence (set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’”) highlighting the history of the masked vigilantes and how they influenced society. We are introduced to the Minutemen, a group of garishly clad heroes whose look and sensibilities matched the simpler times of their era and the Golden Age of comics. We also watch the brutal and tragic fates that befell some of the Minutemen. Dollar Bill (Dan Payne), for example, was shot to death after getting his cape stuck in a revolving door.

As we learn in the opener and the rest of the film, Blake was the second gunman on the grassy knoll during JFK’s assassination and likely murdered Woodward and Bernstein before they could expose the Watergate break-in. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. The Comedian is a glorified thug and a representation of the dark side of American history. As amoral as he is, Blake is the only character of the bunch that sees the futility of caped crusaders slugging it out with purse snatchers while the world is on the brink of destruction.

His murder is investigated upon by Rorschach (Jackie Earl Haley), a gravel voiced vigilante who hides his face behind a mask of moving inkblots. He has the trenchcoat, fedora, and short stature of Bogart with the seething vitriol of Travis Bickle. Rorschach is driven by a fanatical moral code which finds its origins in Ayn Rand’s objectivism. To paraphrase Rorschach, not even in the face of Armageddon will he compromise. Believing in a vast conspiracy to eliminate costumed heroes, Rorschach goes to warn his former partner, Dan Drieberg (Patrick Wilson) who operated as Nite-Owl and was armed with an array of gadgets and an airship nicknamed Archie. Now, he’s retired, out-of-shape and directionless, mostly moping in his basement while his costumes collect dust in the closet. Rorschach and Dreiberg get in contact with more of their former colleagues. There’s “the world’s smartest man,” Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode), aka Ozymandias who turned his costumed career into a multinational conglomerate built on toys and health books. There’s Laurie Juspeczyk (Malin Ackerman), the Silk Spectre, who only became a superhero because she was pushed into it by her mother, Sally (Carla Gugino), the original Silk Spectre who was more Bettie Page pin-up than crime fighter.

The last of their group of Watchmen is the only one who has actual superpowers, the glowing, blue-skinned Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup). Manhattan was formerly physicist Jon Osterman until a lab accident inside an intrinsic field separator vaporized him. Osterman somehow managed to reform himself into something akin to Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man with abs of steel. The Vietnam War was over in a week because of Manhattan, a living weapon of mass destruction. He has the power to do just about anything including teleportation, telekinesis, and matter manipulation. He has evolved to a quantum state of awareness, no longer experiencing time as we do. Manhattan views the past, present, and future simultaneously, not unlike how we view the panels on the page of a comic book. He has drifted further and further away from humanity, seeing things only in subatomic particles. To him, there is no discernable difference between a live or dead body on a microscopic level. Needless to say, this puts a serious damper on his relationship with girlfriend, Laurie.

I won’t reveal anymore of the plot, but the rest of the film extends from a simple murder mystery to a vast conspiracy of epic proportions. Zack Snyder, the visionary director of 300 (which I still can’t say with a straight face), directs from a script written by David Hayter and Alex Tse. The filmmakers have stayed remarkably close to the original source material. Many shot compositions are lifted right out of the comic book while many scenes are stuffed with Easter eggs that only die-hard fans will recognize. However, like the majority of adaptations, changes were made with mostly minimal impact on the overall story. Only the ending goes through any significant change. I won’t spoil either the film or the graphic novel, but will say the new conclusion comes with positives and negatives.

Snyder mixes in his own sensibilities, ratcheting up the action sequences and violence. Bones are snapped in half, meat cleaver meets human skull, and bullets rip through the flesh of a human leg. Human bodies explode with bloody viscera splattered across the faces of gawking bystanders. The slow motion effects that were ludicrously overused in 300 rear their head here, but not enough to detract from the scenes. Neither does the music. The score by Tyler Bates is a mixture of harsh heavy metal with a jazzy, 80’s synth sound that evokes Vangelis. The soundtrack selection is a bit obvious though some were also referenced in the comic. They are effective in placing the audience into the time period. One-hit wonder, “99 Luftballoons,” doubles as a sly allusion to the ticking clock as the song is about nuclear war. However, Snyder’s use of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” during an overly long sex scene elicited far too many chuckles from the audience I was with. I don’t blame them.

Watchmen has long been thought of as ‘unfilmable.’ When Terry Gilliam attempted to bring Watchmen to life, he asked Alan Moore how he’d adapt it. Moore simply replied, ”I wouldn’t.” The original mini-series was a dozen issues long with each issue featuring supplementary material such as mock-ups of interviews, magazine articles, and documents that further flesh out the history of the world. Even with a runtime of approximately 2 hours and 40 minutes, Watchmen still feels rushed. The film desperately tries to juggle a large ensemble of characters as well as attempting to educate the audience about this alternate reality that not every plot thread or character is given enough screen time. The story is relies heavily on flashbacks to do this. Each issue of the comic focused on a different character. Lost producer and Watchmen fan, Damon Lindelof, has admitted to lifting this method for his show. While the flashback structure works in an episodic environment, it might test the patience of those expecting more forward momentum in the picture.

The acting is good across the board with Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Jackie Earl Haley as the stand-outs. Morgan really relishes the role and dives right in giving a weariness and roguish charm to the morally repugnant Comedian. And who would have thought the biker kid from Bad News Bears would turn out to be so ruthless and darkly comical? Haley’s Little Children co-star, Patrick Wilson comes off well as Dreiberg whose nerdy Clark Kent mannerisms are almost as good as Christopher Reeve’s. The cast members that weren’t as strong were Malin Ackerman who looked great in tight latex, but gave a couple stilted line readings, and Matthew Goode who played his hand far too strongly. Both of them suffered more from being marginalized when their characters should have been given more screen time.

Those of you unfamiliar with the comics may be satisfied with Watchmen as a big-budget action spectacle. It works on that level. Just don’t expect this to be X-Men where clean-cut heroes battle the forces of evil. As an adaptation, it’s like reading the Cliff Notes version. Everything has been condensed and distilled. Most of the tiny details you had to read between the lines to figure out are completely spelled out for you in the film version. Part of the problem is that Watchmen is such a unique product of its medium. Even the structure and layout of the panels on the page played a significant role in its reading. It has been called the Citizen Kane of comic books. Like Citizen Kane, it only truly works in its original form. You could read a novelization of Kane or view it as a stage play, but you lose a lot of the essence.

Rating: ***

Friday, March 20, 2009

Race to Witch Mountain

Race to Witch Mountain - Dir. Andy Fickman (2009)

Disney somehow manages to move forward by going backwards as they once again cannibalize their past. I watched the original Escape to Witch Mountain numerous times as it was constantly rerun on the Disney Channel. It hasn’t really stood up to the test of time. Maybe my tastes have grown more sophisticated over time. Race to Witch Mountain will appeal to the younger demographics today as the original did to the children of the 70’s. The original relied on easy contrivances and hokey special effects. The remake does exactly the same, but with a bigger budget.

Dwayne Johnson (no longer the Rock) is the manly named Jack Bruno, a former ex-con, now working as a cab driver in Vegas. After a run-in with the henchmen of his former boss, Jack finds a pair of siblings named Seth (Alexander Ludwig) and Sara (AnnaSophia Robb) who hand him a wad of cash and tell him to drive. Seth and Sara are aliens whose ship has crash landed in the Nevada desert. The former has telepathic and telekinetic powers while the latter has the ability to shift his molecular density. The two kids must retrieve an alien doohickey and return to their craft or their home planet will be destroyed and Earth will be invaded. There’s also an assassin called the Siphon that kills everything in its path to capture the children. Jack receives assistance from astrophysicist Dr. Alex Friedman (Carla Gugino). In an interesting note (one of the film’s few), Dr. Friedman is respected by neither her serious-minded colleagues who mock her beliefs in extraterrestrial life or UFO enthusiasts who only want to hear stories about anal probes and cattle mutilation.

The original film had the right idea in packing the supporting cast with veteran actors, such as Donald Pleasance and Eddie Albert, to lend some credibility to the goofiness around them. The remake does the same casting Ciaran Hinds as a humorless Man in Black, Garry Marshall as a renowned UFO expert, and Cheech in a thankless bit role as an auto mechanic. Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann, who starred in the original, make cameo appearances as a waitress and small-town sheriff.

Johnson equates himself well in the role even if he’s not the most multi-faceted actor around. He’s likeable and charismatic, but not enough to carry the weak material.

Rating: * ½

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li

Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li - Dir. Andrzej Bartkowiak (2009)

Legend of Chun-Li takes the Batman Begins approach in its realistic reboot of the Street Fighter franchise. Usually in a reboot, you’re supposed to make it better, but the new and improved Street Fighter is actually even worse than the Van Damme vehicle. The previous Street Fighter achieved a transcendent Batman & Robin level of awfulness that it could be enjoyed in a Mystery Science Theater 3000 type of way. There is no joy with this latest installment which gives us the much-needed back story of a video game character.

Smallville’s Kristin Kreuk takes on the titular role of Chun-Li, one of Street Fighter's few female combatants. She is re-envisioned as a piano prodigy trained in wu-shu by her father who is eventually kidnapped by the villainous M. Bison (Neal McDonough). This time around, Bison ditches the red military uniform for a tailor-made business suit. Bison is an Irish orphan left behind to grow up on the streets of Bangkok. Despite living in Thailand nearly all his life, he still has an Irish accent. Or at least, it’s supposed to be an Irish accent. I think Neal McDonough went to the Kevin Costner school of accents to learn it. Chun-Li grows older (and less Asian) until she receives a mysterious scroll that sends her to Thailand in search of a martial arts master named Gen (Robin Shou in yet another video game role). Previously living a pampered life, Chun-Li struggles on the streets until Gen decides she’s ready for the requisite training montage. She gets plenty sweaty and dirty for those of you into that sort of thing. Once that’s over and done with, Chun-Li can work on taking down Bison’s criminal syndicate, Shadowloo.

Don’t look for any appearances from Guile, E. Honda, or Sagat. The only other characters from the video game in the film are Bison’s henchmen, Balrog (Michael Clarke Duncan) and Vega (Taboo from the Black Eyed Peas). There’s also a subplot involving Moon Bloodgood as a Thai detective teaming up with Interpol agent Charlie Nash (Chris Klein).

If not for the titles, nothing in the film screams out, Street Fighter, and not just because we never hear anybody shout, “Shoryuken” or “Tiger Uppercut.” Chun-Li wears a blue dress and puts her hair up in buns for a lesbian nightclub dance scene (don’t ask). She also busts out the Kikouken and a variation of the Spinning Bird Kick as a nod to the game. That’s about it. All the color of the games has been sapped for the adaptation.

For a film called Street Fighter, there isn’t as much fighting as you’d expect. What action there is has been shot as blandly as possible by Bartkowiak whose stellar filmography includes Cradle 2 the Grave, Romeo Must Die, Doom, and Exit Wounds. His streak of crappy films remains unbroken.

Screenwriter Justin Marks has recently become the wunderkind of genre films. He’s been tasked to write the scripts for new versions of He-Man and Voltron as well as the comic book adaptations Hack/Slash and Supermax (starring Green Arrow). Chun-Li is his first produced credit and I can only hope his skills have greatly improved since this sad effort. The film’s worst sin is treating its audience as a bunch of idiots with the attention span of a goldfish. The movie is dotted with narration by Kreuk which helpfully points out all the nuanced, multi-layered motivations and emotional turmoil that we just couldn’t figure out for ourselves.

While nobody expects award-winning acting in a video game movie, special attention MUST be called to the acting of Chris Klein which is so horrendous that it borders on some type of twisted performance art. Klein sports stubble in a tough guy cop role that straddles the thin line of parody, falling somewhere between Sonny Crockett and Nic Cage. Klein’s mind-boggling line readings will likely pop up on YouTube as a video response to Cage’s infamous “Ah, not the bees, not the bees” performance in the ill-advised Wicker Man remake.

Rating: DUD