Thursday, December 31, 2009

Movie Ranking 2009

In case anyone gives a damn, here's an arrangement of the 66 movies from 2009 I saw this year, listed from best to worst.

You may think this ranking represents mere opinion, but that's not true because I've quantized everything with a little help from my hundred-point scale. So obviously you're wrong.

Here's the list!

SCORE / MOVIE

93 / An Education
88 / Watchmen
87 / Zombieland
86 / Adventureland
85 / The International
85 / Knowing
84 / The Hurt Locker
82 / The Hangover
80 / The Twilight Saga: New Moon
77 / Paranormal Activity
75 / Whatever Works
74 / Tyson
73 / (500) Days of Summer
72 / Up in the Air
72 / Drag Me to Hell
72 / Ninja Assassin
72 / Extract
72 / Paper Heart
71 / 2012
70 / Jennifer's Body
68 / Public Enemies
68 / Fired Up
66 / It's Complicated
66 / Underworld 3: Rise of the Lycans
65 / Two Lovers
64 / Obsessed
63 / Inglourious Basterds
62 / The Proposal
62 / The Fantastic Mr. Fox
58 / The Men Who Stare at Goats
58 / Moon
57 / GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra
57 / Bruno
56 / The Blind Side
56 / It Might Get Loud
56 / A Perfect Getaway
54 / Fast & Furious
54 / Sunshine Cleaning
51 / The Soloist
48 / Sorority Row
46 / Pandorum
46 / Sherlock Holmes
44 / Orphan
42 / Avatar
42 / The Invention of Lying
42 / Observe and Report
38 / Whiteout
36 / Surrogates
35 / Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire
33 / Land of the Lost
32 / Friday the 13th
22 / District 9
22 / Crank: High Voltage
22 / The Final Destination
22 / Duplicity
21 / Terminator: Salvation
19 / Wolverine
19 / I Love You, Man
19 / Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
18 / Star Trek
18 / State of Play
18 / The Box
17 / Confessions of a Shopaholic
14 / Street Fighter 2: The Legend of Chun-Li
12 / The Girlfriend Experience
12 / Echelon Conspiracy

It's Complicated

Conventional wisdom says you've got to make movies for teenagers.

Conventional wisdom's mostly right. But "mostly" is a qualifier large enough for writer/director Nancy Myers to have made a career of.

As a writer, she broke in with "Private Benjamin" way back in 1980. She went on to write a handful of typical 80's comedies like "Jumpin' Jack Flash" before doing something interesting.

She aged.

More remarkably, her writing aged with her, and more remarkably still, it only made her more successful.

1991 was the turning point when she wrote "Father of the Bride," the Steve Martin starrer aimed at -- gasp -- middle-aged folks with grown children of their own.

And we all know those people don't see movies.

But they saw that one. And they saw her directorial debut in 1998, "The Parent Trap," a remake of a 1961 movie that baby boomer audiences -- and, evidently, Myers, a boomer herself (born in '49) -- remembered fondly.

They saw her next writer/director effort too, the Mel Gibson/Helen Hunt comedy "What Women Want," and they saw the one after that, the Diane Keaton/Jack Nicholson comedy "Something's Gotta Give."

Now Myers has written and directed "It's Complicated," a story of sectagenarian divorce and reunion starring Alec Baldwin and Meryl Streep.

Streep is our protagonist. She runs a french bakery, has three darling young adult children and one darling child-in-law (played by John Krasinski of "The Office.") These children are the offspring of both Streep and Baldwin, who split up ten years prior.

Our story begins with Streep and Baldwin crossing paths at a family function.

Because they don't just cross paths. They "cross paths," if you take my meaning.

The catch is, Baldwin is married to thirty-something sex bomb Lake Bell. The other catch is, he's not the most noble guy in the world. Even at fifty-eight, the Alec Baldwin character is a bad boy, proving that women's attraction to bad boys never really goes away.

Further complicating things is the presence of Steve Martin, a nice guy architect who presses suit with Streep in all the right ways. Naturally he loses out to Baldwin's sleazy advances.

But there's lots of twists and turns and some great set pieces, some of which feature lots of alarming nudity from Alec Baldwin.

Overall, "It's Complicated" is a good movie. It's funny, it's familiar and despite the moral complexity the movie dabbles in, it has a kind heart.

I hope that doesn't sound condescending, but the truth is, you baby boomers are getting old. And the world's a different place than it used to be.

If Nancy Myers doesn't give up this relationship nonsense and start writing about robot wars and boy wizards, I worry for her future.

Nahhhhhhh...

She'll be all right.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 66/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 62/100

How Impressed I Am by Nancy Myers' Career: 93/100

(thanks to Joni Gaughan for getting me to see this movie)

(Happy New Year's, everyone.)

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Sherlock Holmes

Three different screenwriters took separate passes on "Sherlock Holmes," each of whom made enough of a contribution to get an individual writing credit. One of these writers, and one of the movie's producers, also got separate story credit.

And then there's Guy Ritchie, the stylish director of all those British crime flicks, who certainly brought his own artistic sensibility to the process.

All in all, there were a lot of cooks in the "Sherlock Holmes" kitchen, and the end result reflects that.

The movie is pulled in several different directions as it tries to encompass Doctor Watson's imminent marriage, the reappearance of Holmes' old girlfriend, and the machinations of a seemingly supernatural threat to London.

The movie opens with an engaging action sequence in which our boy Holmes stops the dastardly Lord Blackwood -- who hardly had a chance in life with that name -- from performing another ritualistic human sacrifice.

Lord Blackwood is sentenced to the gallows and duly hanged. But, like the Nazarean on whose birthday "Sherlock Holmes" opened, Blackwood's death proves temporary.

The mystery of Lord Blackwood's apparent return from the grave, while initially intriguing, grows overly complicated fast, and Holmes' investigation descends into a drily procedural march from point a to point b to point c.

There's a reason the mystery genre has vanished from the big screen. Its stories are too intellectual. Feature audiences crave raw, throbbing emotion, and while there's some of that in "Holmes," especially in the opening hour, it's not enough. The fear and the fun and even the humor all fade away after awhile.

Part of the problem is the boring villain, Lord Blackwood. He's a cardboard cutout lacking any personal grudge against Holmes -- or vice versa -- so we're left waiting for Professor Moriarty in the sequel.

Also, Blackwood's plan for world domination is unusually stupid. It would never have worked even without Holmes' intervention. (Spoiler: it involves fooling the world into thinking he is a devilish sorcerer through the power of illusion, and then ruling everyone through fear. Yep. That'll work.)

This is not to say "Sherlock Holmes" is a complete failure. There's more to a movie, after all, than the script. (I intend to erase that sentence in a few days so it does not enter the archives.)

Robert Downey Jr. is such a superb match for Holmes -- a fun, physical, modernized Holmes -- that he carries the movie for a good forty-five minutes before the weight of the story puts a damper on things.

Jude Law is also good as Doctor Watson, and the fact that the heart of the story revolves around the Holmes-Watson relationship is just as it should be. Rachel McAdams is fine as the attractive Irene Adler, but the real romance is the platonic one between Holmes and Watson.

The characters are in place and the tone has been figured out. All Sherlock needs now is a really good story and the game will be... aw shucks, what's the word...?

SCORE

How Accomplished: 46/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 48/100

Monday, December 21, 2009

Avatar

Good James Cameron Movies:

-The Terminator
-Aliens
-The Abyss
-Terminator 2
-Titanic

Bad James Cameron Movies:

-True Lies
-Avatar

Don't take it out on me. I'm just the messenger.

The message is: "Avatar" is a 3-D movie with a 2-D story and 2-D characters.

We can start with what's good about the movie. The expressiveness of computer-generated facial features has come a long way. There's no sign of The Polar Express "dead eye" syndrome. The central alien creatures of the film, the Na'vi, look convincingly real. And that's a huge accomplishment.

Now to the bad...

The special effects try too hard to please. The distant moon Pandora ends up looking fake because everything on it resembles the most incredibly beautiful oil painting you've ever seen. There's not a single spot on the whole planet that DOESN'T look like a post card, and that's not how we're trained to see nature. You have to contrast beauty with ugliness or beauty loses its effect. On Pandora, everything is beautiful, so nothing is.

Also, the third dimension is fine, but it doesn't add much to the viewing experience. A good or bad cinematographer still makes all the difference to how a film looks. As much as they would like, the studios can't 3-D their way past the necessity for creative visualization. And "Avatar" is only mediocre in terms of (virtual) cinematography.

And then there's the story.

For the first hour, it's jarring how clumsy the exposition is. Cameron has imagined in minute detail the world of Pandora and the human avatar program that allows us to visit it. He is determined that we absorb every last bit of it.

The result is a monotonous voice-over and at least one character (Norman) whose sole purpose is to tell us things. Ironically, this most visual of movies does a lot more telling than showing.

If you're not familiar with the plot, it's "Dance With Wolves" in space. And while it's fine to model your story on a forerunner, the beat-for-beat copying of the 1990 best picture winner becomes ridiculous at times.

In fact, the alien Na'vi are so obviously modeled on Native Americans that it reduces the strangeness and scope of our supposedly interplanetary journey. The Na'vi might be blue-skinned and inhumanly tall, but they ARE Native Americans, right down to the war whoops, tribal councils and bows and arrows.

"Avatar" only deviates from "Dances With Wolves" in the quality of the storytelling. Where the characters in "Wolves" were layered and complex, "Avatar" is full of stereotypes. The greedy corporate point man, the trigger-happy military captain, the curious scientist, the nature-loving aborigines. You know everything you need to know about these characters the moment you lay eyes on them.

A love story between our avatar-ed human and a Na'vi princess plays out in the most conventional, formulaic way possible, and fails to engage the emotions. The entire movie fails to engage the emotions at almost every point.

"Avatar" looks kind of neat. After five minutes that wears off. But you've got two hours and thirty-one minutes to go.

Good luck with that.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 42/100 (lots and lots of work went into the technical aspects)

How Much I Enjoyed: 30/100

Friday, December 11, 2009

Up in the Air

This is a good movie with some glaring flaws.

They come late, so it's easy to think you're in the presence of greatness -- or at least excellence -- for quite some time.

"Up in the Air" is the story of a business traveler played by George Clooney. His business is firing people. Business, of course, is good.

Firing people entails flying all over the country. In fact, it entails spending much more time on the road than at home. And that doesn't bother Clooney at all. His home is the road. The road in the sky.

Clooney spends so much time flying that he's closing in on ten million air miles. Only six other people in commercial air travel history have ever logged ten million miles. He wants to be person number seven.

His life develops two complications. The first is that he meets a fellow business traveler of the sexy, slinky variety. She is Vera Farmiga. They meet in an airport lounge and bond over a comparison of their elite customer travel perks.

This is a complication because Clooney normally tries to remain emotionally aloof. His heart is always in transit, like his body. But sexy and slinky is also smart and funny. Soon our boy George is in love.

The second complication is the appearance of a young, brash co-worker played by Anna Kendrick.

Kendrick's eager ambition manifests itself in a proposal to do away with face-to-face firings. She creates a business plan which will turn the entire company's operations virtual. This will save money on travel, but it will rob Clooney of the only home he's ever had. Not to mention any chance at those air miles.

So Clooney protests.

To make a longish story shortish, Clooney gets put in charge of showing Kendrick the ropes, of taking her on the road and giving her some on-the-job experience. This creates a terrific dynamic because the two characters are opposites. Experience versus immaturity, cynicism versus idealism, caution versus recklessness.

And here's the deal: this relationship IS the movie.

Let's pause for a note directed at storytellers everywhere (my humble self included): any time you can tell a love story WITHOUT the physical love, you should go for it. The results are often superlative.

In "Up in the Air," the relationship between Clooney and Kendrick works because there is no sexual tension. At one point Clooney overhears Kendrick telling her boyfriend she doesn't even think about Clooney in "that way." Why? Because "he's olllld."

In the absence of sexual agendas, what develops between Clooney and Kendrick is something much better than a romantic attachment. What develops is a human attachment.

The occasional presence of love interest Vera Formiga only adds spice. The best scene in the movie takes place when Clooney and Farmiga try to console Kendrick after her boyfriend dumps her. They draw on their considerable life experience to put the pain of a broken heart in perspective for their young friend, but Kendrick is hard to persuade. Instead of accepting their wisdom, she ends up dishing out a sequence of hilariously unintentional insults.

It's a sweet scene. It's funny. And it's real.

So you can imagine my consternation when Anna Kendrick vanishes from the last thirty minutes of the film.

And then Vera Farmiga turns into... well, someone other than what we thought she was. Someone a lot more like Tiger Woods.

Before we know it, the movie flies off the tracks. Or crashes into a mountain. Whatever the appropriate analogy is.

After setting up a transformation from traveling loner to man who learns the joys of home and hearth, the movie does Clooney's character -- and the audience -- a disservice by leaving him curiously unchanged.

He ends the movie alone, up in the air, just where he started. The only difference is that he's gone from being perfectly satisfied with his life to feeling empty and purposeless.

To me this reeked suspiciously of Oscar-hunting. Everyone knows the shortest road to Oscar gold is the sad ending.

It's too bad, too, because it's not in the DNA of "Up in the Air" to be depressing. All the twists and turns that unfold at the end feel out of place.

As a result, the movie reminds me of last year's "The Reader." Like that artistically minded also-ran, "Up in the Air" is blessed with a strong central premise, a great central relationship and some excellent stretches, but ultimately becomes a pointless venture that does not resonate.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 72/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 71/100

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Fantastic Mr. Fox

Well, "Fantastic" is pushing it.

He's a better-than-average Mr. Fox. How's that? He's a pretty good Mr. Fox.

Mr. Fox, of course, is the main character in the new Wes Anderson film based on the Roald Dahl children's book. George Clooney provides the voice of the eponymous fox.

It's an animated affair, using stop-motion photography. This doesn't always work but the results are good here. The film has a quirky look in keeping with the tone of the story.

Said story is about not just Mr. Fox but his entire family. He has a wife, a son called Ash and a visiting nephew by the name of Kristofferson. They live in a spacious tree within sight of three bustling chicken farms.

And that's the rub, for the sly Mr. Fox likes nothing more than to steal chickens from maximum-security pens. This high-risk activity puts him at odds with his wife, who wants to raise their son in peace and safety.

Mr. Fox ends up doing as he pleases, as husbands are wont to do, and endangers not only his family but the entire local animal community when he inspires the three farmers to band together in an effort to eradicate the poaching fox.

Thus we are treated to a theme of selfishness versus self-sacrifice, which is perfectly fine. Unfortunately it doesn't mesh with the theme of self-worth in the subplot, which concerns Ash's feelings of inadequacy vis a vis his high-achieving cousin Kristofferson.

Furthermore, Mr. Fox's transformation from a thrill-seeker to a contented family man (fox?) is unconvincing, since we only ever see him in the grips of a pressing emergency, which is the opposite of the quiet domesticity he claims, at the end, to embrace. Alas, it's very easy to imagine Mr. Fox feeling another yen for chickens a couple years after the events of the movie.

If you can't tell, I definitely take the movie as an allegory for adultery. Which makes the cursory resolution of theme all the more disappointing. We could use a good insight into the apparent hopelessness of human fidelity. Or even an expression of anguish in the face of it. We get neither here.

Bereft of thematic coherence, emotional heft or noteworthy insight into human nature, "The Fantastic Mr. Fox" is reduced to a pleasant adventure had by talking animals.

And there's nothing wrong with that.

But director Wes Anderson gave us "Rushmore" once upon a time. Since then, he has been an auteur in search of a story. His quirky style is undimmed, but eventually style alone starts to pale.

It's hard not to feel that a stop-action chase movie peopled with furry creatures is a subconscious attempt by Anderson to avoid the hard grapple with substance every artist of a certain caliber is obligated to engage.

I wish Anderson would stop dodging that responsibility and start grappling. What movie-goers in every generation want and need is something hard and honest, and it doesn't matter if it's delivered by people or animals.

But it must be delivered.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 62/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 57/100

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Ninja Assassin

Hiiiyaa!

Judo chop!

"Ninja Assassin" has plenty of ninja action. Make no mistake.

It's got flying chinese stars, it's got katana broadswords, it's got aerial kicks and secret moves. There's even a pair of num-chuks or two. All in all, I haven't seen another movie this year with as much ninja action as "Ninja Assassin."

And you know what? I LIKE ninja action. Therefore I liked "Ninja Assassin."

Oh, I forgot to mention the movie's signature weapon: a throwing knife attached to a long stainless steel chain. This is a weapon that can inflict bodily harm a NUMBER of different ways. And don't worry -- each and every one of them is explored in "Ninja Assassin."

So what about that title? Many have alleged it is a redundancy, since every ninja is, by definition, ALREADY an assassin. According to script doctor J. Michael Stracynski, who wrote the last draft of the script:

"That's not the point of the film. It's about an assassin that goes after ninjas."

And if that's not the coolest idea you've ever heard, then you and I are not simpatico.

Let's make sure. Here's the concept one more time:

"It's about an assassin that goes after ninjas."

I'm presold on that premise, but much of course depends on who this "ninja assassin" is.

He's Rain, a Korean pop star, who plays Raizo, an orphan inducted as a child into an elite ninja clan ruled with an iron fist by Ozunu, a grim martial arts master who insists on total subordination of the individual to the group.

Here we stumble across our theme. For our boy Raizo has a conscience, deeply buried though it may be. It is unearthed by fellow ninja cutie Kiriko.

This conscience gets them both in trouble, and eventually leads to Kiriko's execution by the clan and Raizo's declaration of war against said clan.

Into this primal clash between prodigal son and overbearing father stumble two western doofuses, Europol agents Mika and Maslow. (I didn't even know there was such a thing as Europol. Turns out there is!) They ask questions the audience needs to know ("So what IS a ninja?") and put themselves in danger early and often, requiring Raizo to unspool that dagger-on-a-chain and save their sorry asses.

A nice relationship develops between Raizo and Mika, through which Mika proves herself useful by the ending. And what an ending it is!

The final showdown takes place on the mountaintop where the clan trains. It involves a full-scale clash between a major detachment of modern military forces, replete with heavy gunships and automatic weaponry, and the entire clan of ninjas. Of course, all this fighting comes down to a personal combat between father figure Ozunu and errant son Raizo.

If you don't want to see how that fight plays out, then I guess you don't want to see the movie.

But if you liked the brilliant 80's sci-fi movie "Aliens," then you ought to like "Ninja Assassin." The two movies play out in somewhat similar fashion, with fast-moving ninjas taking the place of snarling aliens.

There's a lot of joy in "Ninja Assassin." By which I mean there is a lot of reckless carnage, flashing swords and brightly-colored fake blood.

A user comment left on the movie's imdb page summed things up nicely. It read:

"Only one ninja was harmed in the making of this film.

The rest were killed."

SCORE

How Accomplished: 72/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 85/100

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Blind Side

Michael Lewis might be the best non-fiction writer in America.

His twin passions are economics and sports. Any time his pen touches paper on either of these subjects, the results are dazzling.

In 2006 he wrote a book about the NFL called "The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game."

It examined the transformation of the left tackle position on the offensive line, a position that became critically important after Hall of Fame defensive end Lawrence Taylor tore through the league in the 1980s. Taylor showed the devastating impact a pass-rusher could have attacking a (right-handed) quarterback's "blind side," i.e. the left side of the offensive line.

If someone like Taylor could not be blocked, victory would be impossible. This truth changed the game of football.

Instead of assigning unathletic fat guys to the underpaid and largely overlooked left tackle position, NFL teams began scouring the nation for the strongest, quickest, most athletic (but still fat) young men it could find. It desperately needed these rare body types to protect pretty-boy quarterbacks who made offenses productive.

Teams needed these physical specimens so badly they would pay millions for their services. Suddenly, men who couldn't get a job in the NFL had they been born a generation earlier found themselves the second-highest paid players on the team, behind only those glamorous quarterbacks with the wavy hair they kept intact.

At first this may seem a dry subject. Lewis' breakthrough was to combine abstract strategic analysis (the "evolution of a game") with the unlikely story of one of the "new men" selected by the NFL to play left tackle, an inner city gentle giant named Michael Oher.

Oher's childhood was sad and hopeless. Born to a crack-addict mother in a crumbling ghetto, Oher was never taught to read or write which, combined with his extreme shyness, created the impression he was borderline mentally retarded.

The truth was, Michael Oher was a highly intelligent kid who had never been given a chance to develop the most rudimentary intellectual skills, let alone the self-esteem he would need to take advantage of them.

This changed when he was spotted by wealthy Ole Miss booster Leigh Anne Tuohy, a football fanatic who saw a potential player in Michael. She and her husband assisted Michael's efforts to play for the all-white Christian academy where their own children went to school. Along the way they took a liking to Michael -- a feeling that was reciprocated. Eventually Michael moved in with the Tuohys and became part of their family.

Michael went on to play for Ole Miss and get drafted (in the first round) by the NFL. What should have been a wasted life instead became an exceptional success story.

It also became a fantastic book by Michael Lewis.

When writer/director John Lee Hancock was given the assignment to adapt Lewis' book, he made the critical decision to dump the half of the story that dealt with the NFL and instead make his movie exclusively about Michael Oher and his rescue by Leigh Anne Tuohy.

This was almost certainly a decision Hancock gave much thought to, but it resulted in a movie that plays like a Hallmark After School Special, a soft drama that often veers into schlocky sentimentality.

Sandra Bullock is excellent as Leigh Anne, brassy and tough with a feeling heart. Her performance does much to carry the movie. Also good is Quinton Aaron as Michael and Jae Head as fast-talking twelve-year old SJ Tuohy.

The problem is, the beats in the Michael Oher story are too conventional. They were too conventional back in Charles Dickens' day, which is why Dickens did what Michael Lewis did, he combined the personal narrative with an overall look at the impersonal workings of larger society.

Absent this, John Lee Hancock's "The Blind Side" plays overly simplistic with a deus ex machina ending -- "annnnnd he gets drafted by the NFL" -- which feels unsatisfying because it has not been set up.

"The Blind Side" is a good movie that derives from a great book. This makes it disappointing but not bad. And it's doing well at the box office, so Hancock's decision to go after a family audience may well have been the right one in a business sense.

And if that makes him happy, who am I to say it shouldn't?

SCORE

How Accomplished: 56/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 61/100

Friday, November 27, 2009

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Alternate title: "Boring Lieutenant: Port of Call Artistic Disaster."

What's notable about "Bad Lieutenant" isn't what's done wrong. What jumps out is the total absence of anything done right. There is no driving vision. There is no overarching story. There is no coherence of style or theme. Even the color palette veers from white to blue to orange without rhyme or reason.

All this is somewhat suprising given the director is famed documentarian Werner Herzog, and goes to show that glitzy Hollywood film-making ain't as easy as it looks.

Herzog is working off a script by television writer William Finkelstein that is full of cliches, inauthenticities and a shocking lack of action. For a movie whose dialogue sucks, "Port of Call" is all talk talk talk.

The plot, and I use the word generously, follows homicide detective Nic Cage's investigation of a quintuple murder in New Orleans.

The investigation lasts about half the movie before Cage confesses he doesn't care about the murder. All he cares about is snorting cocaine, hanging out with prostitute Eva Mendez -- who isn't allowed to be sexy at all! For shame! -- taking care of his recovering alcoholic father and drug-using stepmother, and settling accounts with both his college football bookie and the ridiculously caricatured Italian mafia whose money he inadvertently steals from one of Mendez' clients.

So you see, this isn't a plot at all. It's just a bunch of stuff that happens!

To do a "slice of life" story like this, you really have to nail the gritty realistic tone of life on the literal and figurative street.

But that's impossible with Nic Cage playing a "tough" cop, Mendez playing a "savvy" prostitute and rapper Xzibit playing a "badass" drug dealer.

The dialogue is so trite and the situations so contrived that every scene in "Bad Lieutenant" feels staged.

And that's before Herzog plops the camera in front of the action like we're watching a three-camera sitcom minus the laugh track. You only do that when you have supreme confidence in what is unfolding in front of the camera, like when Tarantino had Sam Jackson and John Travolta talk about foot massages at the end of a long hallway in "Pulp Fiction." You don't do it when Nic Cage is hyper-ventilating about Tennesse covering the spread against Alabama.

Move the camera, Werner! I implore you!

Of course, in the department of be-careful-what-you-wish-for, Herzog occasionally takes an utterly bizarre point of view with the camera, like when he shows a scene unfold from the vantage point of an iguana the Nic Cage character is hallucinating. That was a change of pace, I grant you. But it also added nothing. Every choice Herzog made went astray.

And maybe it didn't matter. When the script is a mess, what kind of power does a director have anyway?

Despite all the goofy hallucinations, the sprawling cast of characters, the nonsensical plot, one of Nic Cage's worst hairdos and weirdest performances, the movie doesn't even achieve a level of campy fun.

Why a bad movie doesn't cross the line into "so bad it's good" territory is hard to discern, but maybe here it's because of Herzog's slow pacing, slack editing and failure to find striking images anywhere in the film.

I guess no matter how bad a script is, a bad director can always make it worse.

And yes, I understand it's heresy to call the hallowed Werner Herzog a bad director. But he's way out of his element here and it shows.

It doesn't help that fat Val Kilmer is hardly in three scenes. Why even cast fat Val Kilmer if you don't intend to use him?

SCORE

How Accomplished: 19/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 16/100

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Twilight Saga: New Moon

It's always fun to defy the odds.

That's what I did by seeing the new "Twilight" movie this weekend. Exit polling showed that four out of five audience members were female, which makes me part of a select group of men (too strong a word?) who sat pondering the romantic choices of Bella, a brooding high schooler courted by a vampire on one side and a werewolf on the other.

And I even liked the movie. Screw you, gender stereotyping!

The "Twilight" franchise is THE franchise in entertainment today. It's what Harry Potter was ten years ago: an absolute blockbuster of a book series that crosses every national boundary and translates easily and profitably to film. "New Moon" just opened to the third biggest weekend ever. (Behind "Dark Knight" and "Spider-Man 3.") And then there's the merchandising money. It all adds up to more cash than I want to think about.

I missed the first "Twilight" and haven't read any of the books. Maybe this worked to my advantage. I joined Bella's story in medias res, which is a good way to do it.

Bella's an eighteen year-old girl who lives in the Pacific Northwest and goes to high school with a family of vampires, one of whom, Edward, is her boyfriend. Edward is of course a teenage girl's idea of the perfect man: distant, soulful and devoted. He's also a hundred and nine years old, which makes him experienced and wise but still eminently castable with 23 year-old Robert Pattinson. Can't do better than that.

The tabloids report that Pattinson and Kristen Stewart/Bella are a real-life couple, which is a nice break for the series because their onscreen chemistry is excellent.

And it better be. The relationship between Bella and Edward motivates everything that happens in "New Moon." Here's the plot in short: Unwilling to subject Bella to the danger and heartbreak that inevitably come with dating a vampire, and unwilling to turn her into a vampire herself, Edward makes the difficult decision to withdraw from Bella's life. He and his family skip town.

Bella is devastated by this. She can find no consolation in life except... except!... for the company of Jacob, a burly teenage gearhead who turns out to be the werewolf of our premise.

These two of course fall for each other. Then Bella gets news that Edward is going to kill himself because he can't stand living without her and -- hoo boy! -- we've got an old-fashioned melodrama on our hands.

And there's nothing wrong with a good old-fashioned melodrama, especially if it's spiced up with modern genre conventions and some hip young actors. And a good score and decent special effects.

The movie does suffer from a few plot problems and half a dozen clunky lines of dialogue, but overall the craft of screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg -- who knows her way around melodrama, having written for the fun prime-time soap "The O.C." a few years ago -- and director Paul Weitz of the immortal "About a Boy" -- is competent at its worst and surprisingly artful at its best.

The love between Bella and Edward is big business these days, and why not? We were all teenagers once, and sometimes it's nice to revisit a mindset that insists love is all that matters, if only for a couple hours.

Does that make me less of a man?

Yeah, I figured.

SCORE:

How Accomplished: 80/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 83/100

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire

"Precious" is the kind of movie people feel strongly about.

It's a movie that deals directly with race. It deals with poverty. It deals with educational inequalities. It deals with obesity. It deals with incest and rape. It deals with violence, cruelty and hopelessness.

It deals with things that are real and raw and provoke a reaction.

Because of this it has become a Movie of Importance, enjoying widespread critical acclaim as well as box office success.

For these reasons I bet it makes a serious run at the Oscars in a few months. All things considered, "Precious" will be one of the small number of notable films from 2009.

And yet, as a piece of storytelling, it is an utter failure.

The movie follows the travails of Clarice "Precious" Jones, an obese 16 year-old black girl who lives in tenement housing with her abusive mother, attends a zoo of a public school and finds herself pregnant with a second child sired by her now-absent father.


Precious catches a rare break when a school official enrolls her in an alternative education class taught by compassionate instructor Ms. Rain, who is a lesbian.

Get used to dependent clauses like "...who is a lesbian," because the loose threads in "Precious" outnumber the threads that tie into the main plot. I imagine this suits the novel on which the movie is based, but the lack of streamlining by first-time screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher and second-time director Lee Daniels is an unfortunate dereliction of duty.

Ms. Rain tries to teach Precious to read and write, and in one scene imparts the wisdom that learning involves pushing oneself in the face of difficulty. Presumably this is where the novel got its title, but the movie does not embody the notion of pushing oneself, for despite her sympathetic plight and likeable nature, Precious never actually does any pushing. She suffers -- unquestionably -- but she does not strive.

She suffers primarily at the hands of her mother, a shiftless chain-smoker who continually defrauds the government of welfare checks by faking child dependency and avoiding employment inquiries. This unredeemable woman spends the balance of her time throwing solid objects at the back of Precious' head, which happens often enough to turn unintentionally comic. It's a game performance by single-monikered actress Mo'Nique, but ultimately the mother is a caricature, like every other character in the story, including nice guy Nurse John played by rock's Lenny Kravitz and sympathetic social worker Mrs. Weiss played by pop's Mariah Carey.

The mother is the theoretical antagonist of the story, since the climax involves Precious telling her mother off and storming into the outside world with her two children in tow. We are thus meant to feel that Precious has somehow triumphed over her circumstances, that she has persevered. But Precious' situation at the end is no better than it was in the beginning. Except that now she has two kids to look after.

As a pampered middle-class white guy, I have little insight into the realities of life in an urban ghetto. But I question whether anyone involved in "Precious" has much insight either, since every media stereotype is bluntly reinforced.

Random misfortune after random misfortune gives "Precious" a monotone quality the viewer quickly becomes numb to. There may be a point to this, but if so it's an obvious one. We already know life in the slum is not a barrel of laughs.

As an idea for a movie, "Precious" has shown itself to be a smashing success. But the movie itself is dreadful. I wish it were otherwise.

SCORE:

How Accomplished: 35/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 35/100

Monday, November 16, 2009

2012

I want to rip Roland Emmerich. I really do.

Emmerich's made some of the worst Hollywood movies of the last decade, including "Godzilla," "The Patriot" and "10,000 B.C." I would've thrown "Independence Day" in there too, but lots of you yahoos seem to like it, so I showed restraint. (I'm kidding. Relax.)

But I can't rip Emmerich. Not totally. 2004's "The Day After Tomorrow" was a surprisingly effective disaster flick, and the same is true of last weekend's big box office winner "2012."

The movie is predicated on an ancient Mayan prophecy of global doom scheduled to kick into high gear on December 21, 2012. Personally, I'd be impressed if the ancient Mayans could name next year's Super Bowl winner -- never mind the apocalypse -- but the movie is canny about staying away from mystical mumbo jumbo. It references the Mayans but does not bog itself down with any questions, let alone answers, about Mayan weather forecasting techniques.

Instead it pursues a simple scientific course. A massive solar flare has altered the mass of solar neutrinos from zero to something slightly greater than zero. This has the unhappy result of boiling the Earth from within like a burrito in a microwave.

This is rationally bankrupt, of course, but it does enable the earth's crust to shift about haphazardly, which allows for not just one spectacular catastrophe but EVERY spectacular catastrophe. We've got volcanoes, tsunamis, earthquakes, you name it. And in cinematic terms, that's pretty cool.



What's also cool is Woody Harrelson's comic turn as an eccentric radio broadcaster in Yellowstone National Park. Harrelson is rapidly turning into his generation's Dennis Hopper, someone who can play weird without creeping anyone out. (Well, excessively, anyway.)

The narrative focus of "2012" is twofold. There's the scientist who tries to warn everyone about the crisis, played by the consistently enjoyable Chiwetel Ejiofor -- good job for not adopting a stage name, by the way! -- and the more easily pronounceable John Cusack, who plays a limo driver trying to escape various calamities with his estranged family.


These plots, and several others, converge on a secret location in China, where vast ships have been built in preparation for the end times. In a good twist -- spoiler alert -- the ships aren't spacebound vessels but boats designed to endure what will be a very biblical flood.

Hence humankind will survive the events of "2012" and rebuild, but the question of which specific characters will make it to the boats before the gates have closed is a question that sustains our dramatic interest to the end of the story.

It's telling that "2012," which opened day and date nearly everywhere in the world to a massive $225m take, contains no A-list movie stars. For that matter, neither did any of the other smash hits this year, including "Transformers 2," "Star Trek" or "The Hangover." The idea that movie stars are necessary to open movies is suffering from a reality deficit problem.

The money that would've gone to star actors in "2012" was spent on special effects, which are solid all the way through the film's considerable -- and yes, somewhat too long -- two hour and thirty-eight minute running time.

As a result of special effects excellence, some sound storytelling and a bit of directorial fluorish, "2012" feels big at all times. It feels epic, and that's a critical delivery on the promise of bigness the movie promotes.

This is going to hurt to say, but...

Good job, Roland Emmerich.

Ouch!

SCORE

How Accomplished: 71/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 75/100

How Much I Enjoyed Enjoying it: 06/100

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Box

Good golly!

Who greenlit THIS thing?

It's not that "The Box" is bad, though it is.

(Oh, it's bad, baby.)

What really astonishes is that anyone at Warner Brothers thought it would work even if it had been good.

"The Box" is an old-fashioned morality tale about a creepy old man who shows up at a suburban couple's door one day and presents them with a box featuring a big, red button. They are told that if they push the button, they will receive a million dollars (or as Doctor Evil would say, ridiculing just this kind of nonsense: one meeeeeel-yun dollars) and, at the same time, an innocent person will die. The choice... is yours.


We later discover the creepy old man is an alien -- a Martian, in fact -- sent to test the worthiness of the human species. Will we measure up? Oh golly, I hope so!

If you're a Warner Brothers exec, do you REALLY want to throw fifty million dollars of your boss' money at that?

Of course, that's not what Warners did. They threw fifty million dollars at Richard Kelly, the writer/director who made a big, culty splash with "Donnie Darko" eight years ago. By writing Kelly a blank check, Warners was subscribing to something called the auteur theory. (You can do a google search under "French crimes against cinema.") This theory has gotten executives fired many times before and it will continue to get them fired for years to come.

It may have gotten someone fired this weekend!

To succeed these days, movies have to be one of two things: they have to be really really good, in which case they can break rules (this will happen once or twice every five years), or they have to have some degree of cool inherent in their concept. They have to be the kind of thing teenagers instantly respond to. This explains why the "Transformers" movies are such a big hit: there's nothing cooler than giant robots smashing into each other. It also explains why the Star Trek reboot with young, sexy actors was such a good idea.

But back to the box and that big, red button. And the terrible moral choice that would chill audiences across this great land... if only it were the year 1955.

The alien conspiracy, a story I generally go for, doesn't work here for a bunch of reasons, one of which is an old bugbear of mine: the full range of the Martians' powers is never made clear. Which means they can close plot holes with magic whenever they want to.

Antagonists with unlimited abilities make plots easy to construct (and defend) but they are a vice the serious writer must never indulge. Certain things, like writing feature-length screenplays, are MEANT to be difficult.

Since I'm already slamming the movie, I might as well mention the directing is sluggish, the editing is sloppy and the score is unacceptably amateurish.

"The Box" should be placed in one, buried, and never spoken of again.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 18/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 18/100

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Men Who Stare at Goats

There's nothing more disappointing than a movie that starts with vivacity and confidence, boisterous brio and a rollicking joie de vivre, only to collapse in the third act under the weight of the most basic storytelling responsibilities.

Early excellence is dangerous. It promises too much.

"The Men Who Stare at Goats," from its intriguing title to a moment of teetering decision at the three-fourths mark, succeeds wonderfully.

We quickly learn the men who stare at goats are an army unit created in the seventies to explore the possibilities of paranormal warfare against our enemies, the Soviets. They stare at goats because the goat is a test animal they are trying to kill with the sheer power of their psychic energies.

Only one man ever succeeds at killing a goat with his mind: George Clooney, the one real McCoy amongst a unit of hippies and frauds.


Or is he? Most of what we know about Clooney's character -- and the army unit he belonged to -- comes from Clooney's character himself. He tells his story to Ewan McGregor's journalist, who accompanies him on a secret mission into dangerous sections of Iraq during the second Gulf War.

A series of goofy misadventures ensue, highly reminiscent in tone of last year's "Burn After Reading," the Coen Brothers' spy comedy starring Clooney. Like that movie, this one will not be to everyone's taste.

What ought to be to no one's taste is act three. Act three comprises the last thirty minutes of a movie, and it's where "Goats" falters. The precise moment where things go wrong is when Clooney and McGregor discover a secret army base hidden in the desert. This base is the surviving continuation of Clooney's old psychic unit, now being run by Clooney's old rival, Kevin Spacey.

The problem with this is: as long as Clooney's tales of walking through walls and killing goats psychically could be entertained as the possible delusions of a maniac, with only the barest possibility of their truthfulness, they were highly enjoyable. Crazy stories told with an earnest belief. But as soon as Clooney's tales are revealed to be "true," it invalidates the credibility of the movie and undercuts much of the fun we've already had.

I think the way to go would have been to keep the reality of Clooney's secret army division a mystery never solved by McGregor's journalist. I would end the movie with McGregor still uncertain whether any or all of what Clooney said was true. The filmmakers could still have their funny last shot of the movie where McGregor, back home in Iowa, tries to run through a wall.

"Goats" is three-fourths of a good movie. But the last fourth nearly drags down all that has gone before.

SCORE

HOW ACCOMPLISHED: 58/100

HOW MUCH I ENJOYED: 63/100

Thursday, October 29, 2009

An Education

Hands down the best movie of the year so far.

A paragon of lean, efficient storytelling with a huge heart and plenty of hard-earned wisdom at its center, "An Education" follows the relationship of 16 year-old British schoolgirl Jenny with sly charmer David, a man twenty years older played by the always-fantastic Peter Saarsgard.

You would think the age difference would be obstacle enough to create a meaty drama, but David's hiding a secret. There is more to him than first appears, and not in a good way.

Jenny's parents are deeply invested in Jenny's studies. They have serious plans for her to attend Oxford and make an accomplished life for herself. She is on pace to achieve this when David enters her life. One of the many delightful surprises of "An Education" is how Jenny's parents do not respond with cliched fear and disgust at David's presence in Jenny's life.

Rather, they are as charmed by him as Jenny is. When he eventually proposes marriage, they think it's a wonderful development. Even if it means Jenny must forsake Oxford.

Half the beauty of this is that the decision -- David or Oxford -- is thrown back on Jenny. With her parents taken in by David, Jenny is morally on her own. Which is exactly where every main character should be. (There's a reason Obi-Wan Kenobi got killed by Darth Vader at the 2/3rds mark of Star Wars.)

I haven't spoiled the surprises of the movie, but I'm about to. Stop reading if you haven't seen it.

Relatively early on, David -- who is totally in love with our Jenny -- reveals his secret to her. He is a con man by trade. He specializes in defrauding the elderly of precious artworks whose value they do not suspect. It's not a pretty line of work and David isn't proud of it, but he does defend it with a stirring speech containing a Darwinian logic and culminating with the brilliant line:

"We're not all clever like you. So we have to be clever in other ways."


The twist is that this is not the twist.

We think we know what the score is. David's a con man but he sincerely loves Jenny, and she loves him back, warts and all. As long as they can keep David's secret from Jenny's besotted parents, they will be fine.

And then we find out David's already married.

Gotcha.

So many stories would have worked the reveals the other way around. First we might find out he's married, but he's on the verge of divorce or whatever, and then, later in the movie, we find out he's a con man and all his promises are lies. That would be fine. It would be conventional. It would make sense.

But it works much better the way "An Education" does it.

Here, David's criminal activity is revealed as a minor transgression next to the wanton heart-breaking he continually inflicts on innocent girls with his complete inability to restrain himself from falling in love with someone new every six months. This is a personal crime, and as an audience it touches us far more deeply than anything involving mere property.

In "An Education," the reveals are properly structured because the film-makers have a subtle eye for what really matters in life; for what is really permissable, and what is not.

I haven't even mentioned the magnificent character of Miss Stubbs, Jenny's teacher and the only person in the movie who cares for Jenny exclusively for Jenny's own sake.


Miss Stubbs is played by Olivia Williams, who has a nose for getting herself in classics, having appeared also in "Rushmore" and "The Sixth Sense."

Here's a personal confession: late in the movie, Jenny asks Miss Stubbs perhaps the most poignant, vulnerable question one human can ask another: "Will you help me?"

Miss Stubbs' response had this reviewer watery-eyed and sniffling. And this reviewer does not sniffle easily!

(Okay, maybe he does.)

The underlying story comes from the memoir of sharp-tongued British interviewer Lynn Barber (aka Jenny), but the screenplay was written by Nick Hornby, the British novelist whose book "About a Boy" was adapted by Peter Hedges in 2002, resulting in the best Hollywood comedy of the decade. This movie is another feather in the cap for everyone involved.

Some movies justify the entire year in which they debut. "An Education" did that for me.

SCORE:

How Accomplished: 93/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 94/100

Monday, October 26, 2009

Paranormal Activity

In 1999, a low-budget horror flick made by guerilla filmmakers caused a splash at film festivals, got picked up by a Hollywood distributor, became a word of mouth sensation and earned everyone lots and lots of money.

We all enjoyed "The Blair Witch Project."

Ten years later we are enjoying its reincarnation, "Paranormal Activity," a movie that copies "Blair Witch" in tone, style and structure -- almost down to individual plot beats. But somehow the movie establishes an identity all its own and manages to scare audiences just as effectively as its spiritual predecessor.

PA tracks the story of Katie and Micah, two live-in lovers who have a ghost problem. A real bad ghost problem.

The ghost in question -- which, we soon learn, is technically (gasp!) a demon -- has a thing for Katie. It's had a thing for Katie since she was a child.

And this is brilliant. It's the conceptual breakthrough that makes PA work. Since the demon is centered on Katie instead of being a standard house-haunter, there is no utility in leaving the damn house, which has been a logic problem for haunted house movies since the dawn of time.

The demon evidently has trouble breaking through the dimensional barrier (my term) separating its plane from ours, but if it could only do so it would grab Katie and take her home with him. Since it cannot, it is restricted to doing scary things like opening and closing doors and thumping the occasional wall in a threatening manner.

Enter Micah and his video camera.

Fascinated by his girlfriend's guardian devil, Micah starts videotaping every aspect of life in the couple's San Diego home. According to a visiting ghost consultant, this is unwise behavior that may provoke the demon to redouble his efforts to breach the plane separating our worlds.

Which is a great lesson horror films teach us: always do what the spooky occult master suggests. Curiously, one should apply the exact opposite lesson in real life.

In any event, our movie remains firmly rooted in the house, which suits both its budget as well as the fundamental Aristotelian unity of place. In fact, much of the action takes place in the bedroom (va-voom!), as the demon likes to make his presence felt in the depths of the night.


There is of course an element of cliche to this, but there's also an element of good sense. Sleep is an inherently vulnerable state, and the idea of someone... or some-THING... in the room with you while you sleep is inherently terrifying.

It was Theodore Roosevelt who said "three o'clock in the morning courage is the best kind to have." But I don't have it. Katie and Micah don't have it. I bet you don't have it. I bet even Theodore Roosevelt didn't have it.

So lots of effectively frightening things happen during the night. And despite Katie's repeated entreaties, Micah refuses to stop filming them.

It is established early on -- by Katie -- that Micah is an immature man-child who enjoys electronic gadgets and a false sense of his own invincibility. This gets both Micah and Katie in extreme trouble throughout PA. It also creates a suspenseful dynamic -- we're bringing this on ourselves! -- that serves the movie well. Even if, as an audience member, you don't like Micah, you do need him. Trust me.

Which brings us to the much-discussed ending. Supposedly the ending in the theatrical version comes directly from Steven Spielberg, whose Dreamworks shepherded the movie into theaters. It's a decent ending that provides a nice jolt, but it's not as psychologically upsetting as the ending of Blair Witch. (Remember that standing-in-the-corner bit? Yikes.)


PA was reportedly shot for fifteen thousand dollars over the course of seven days by software designer Oren Peli. I wonder how he chose to tell his boss "I quit!" when the first big check rolled in. Did he make a dramatic scene of it? Or was he just gone one day, like "Good Will Hunting."

PA is a good reminder that movies are, at their heart, neat ideas for stories. Nothing more nor less. As such, it was gratifying to see PA beat "Saw 6" in its first weekend of wide release. Once upon a time, "Saw" was itself a neat idea for a movie. Now it's an idiotic franchise with all the creativity drained out of it by the corporate automatons who run Hollywood studios.

The very fact that PA was so low-budget -- and crafted in the utter absence of the studio development process -- became its greatest asset. While the acting isn't of the highest caliber, the casting is spot on. Katie Featherston is particularly effective because she seems so real. She's good-looking in a real-life kind of way, not a Hollywood or fashion model kind of way. I think movies would be a lot better if they were populated with actors less physically perfect. And that's not idealist-Neil talking, that's scheming-for-any-possible-advantage-in-audience-sympathy-Neil talking.

He's a bastard, that one.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 77/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 79/100

Friday, October 9, 2009

Zombieland

A movie doesn't have to be a comedy to have a sense of humor.

Case in point: "Zombieland," a fast, fun and witty take on the zombie apocalypse.

Our main character is an unlikely survivor in his late teens played by Jesse Eisenberg. Eisenberg is a loner but not the cool kind. He is the unpopular kind of loner who stays in his apartment eating takeout pizza and playing World of Warcraft.

He operates by a system of rules that have kept him alive when the vast majority of humankind has perished. His rules are commonsensical and funny, like "Beware of bathrooms" and "Don't be stingy with bullets."

He is all alone till he runs across Mad Max wannabe Woody Harrelson, whose secret to survival is moxie. Woody fights zombies with a fearless joy and avoids any but the most cursory attachment to the living. He agrees to give Eisenberg a ride, however, and our movie is underway.

Said movie is a road trip, from the east coast of the US to the west. Along the way Eisenberg and Woody pick up (in a roundabout way) a pair of sisters played by hottie bad-ass Emma Stone and Little Miss Sunshine herself, Abigail Breslin. The sisters are savvier and more ruthless than they first appear, and a curious (and funny) rivalry develops between the genders.

Eventually, to no one's surprise, our four characters develop a cozy family-like relationship. What is surprising is how damn well this plays out. The chemistry is terrific, perhaps because each character is so well-defined and such a stark contrast with the others. Woody's character in particular is sensationally vivid. Not a single line of his dialogue could be mistaken for anyone else's.

What helps this achievement in character is focus. The four characters I've mentioned are the only non-zombie characters in the entire movie -- except for a brief flashback of Eisenberg's and a movie star cameo that has received much attention.

Here's the spoiler:

The movie star is Bill Murray, played by Bill Murray. Our foursome takes refuge in his Beverly Hills mansion and discovers the man himself is home -- and miraculously not a zombie. This is a hugely crowd-pleasing sequence, since everyone loves Bill Murray, but I thought it detracted from the overall sense of reality, bizarre as that is to admit in a comic zombie road movie.

Nevertheless, Murray enters and leaves the picture, and our characters continue their quest for the amusement park that Little Miss Sunshine has always wanted to enjoy. The climax is thrilling, surprising and even moving. (But most of all, fun!) I liked every choice the film-makers made.

And who are those film-makers? They are director Ruben Fleischer and screenwriting team Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick. What few credits they have to this point are obscure ones. Anyone could be forgiven for not knowing who these guys are.

But we know who they are now. They're the guys who made "Zombieland."

SCORE

How Accomplished: 87/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 89/100

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Invention of Lying

Argh!

I'm a huge fan of British comedian Ricky Gervais. I love "The Office," I love "Extras," I love his stand-up, I love his podcasts and I even love his blog.

I'm a card-carrying member of the chubby funster's fan club.


But like Gervais' first foray into the movie world -- last year's "Ghost Town" -- his new one, "The Invention of Lying," is a crashing failure.

This makes Gervais oh for two on the big screen.

Which underscores an important point. Being funny does not mean you will make funny movies. If it did, then Ricky Gervais' movies would be utterly hilarious.

This is hard for people to accept and it frequently gets Hollywood into trouble, since it's only human to want to entrust writing duties to someone who is "good in a room," as Hollywood likes to say.

But go ahead and take a look through history. Shakespeare was a beautiful poet who stole his plots. Dickens was a master stylist who wrote the same story over and over (most novelists do.) Steven Spielberg has cherry-picked the best scripts from many different writers to sustain his glittering career (most directors do.)

The evidence is incontrovertible. A professional writer with a good track record will bring a level of clarity, tightness and polish to a movie script that you cannot count on from your typical amateur. What a professional cannot do is summon a superior story. That comes down to luck.

And luck, maddeningly, is not with Ricky Gervais in "The Invention of Lying," despite the fact that the film is blessed with a sensationally clever premise conceived by newbie co-writer Matthew Robinson.

To wit: In a world where no one has ever thought to tell a lie, one unremarkable man stumbles across the idea of deception which -- because no one will disbelieve a word he says, no matter how fantastic -- gives him almost limitless power.

Can you think of a better idea for a comedy?

I can't.

So why doesn't it work?

Heck, I dunno -- I'm still mad that it doesn't. But since I have to do better than that, I'd say there's too much attention paid to theme and not enough to the exciting possibilities for dramatic fun that flow from the premise.

In fact, so much attention is paid to theme that there are two of them. The first deals with the fact that Gervais' love interest, Jennifer Garner, can't fall in love with him no matter how successful he is or how much she enjoys his company, because he simply isn't good-looking enough for her. In addition to this being a bad misread of female psychology, it has nothing to do with the other theme, which is about religion. Gervais' character inadvertently recreates belief in God when he mouths some platitudes about heaven, news of which quickly spreads around the world.

You can make a go at either of these themes but not both. It kills the story's focus.

Compounding this problem, the movie spends very little time exploring the ramifications of its peculiarities. There are big unexplored corners in "Lying." Here's one: surely people still utter statements that are false or inaccurate by mistake in this world. Surely there are still people with mental illness. So when Gervais claims he invented the bicycle, why wouldn't people assume he was delirious or unhinged? And why wouldn't they feel the same way when he claimed a personal relationship with God?

This may seem needlessly analytical, but if you create a fictional world with rules that are different from our own, you have to sell it. "Groundhog Day" did. That landmark comedy proceeded in sections, methodically exploring the various aspects of living the same day over and over: the good, the bad and the ugly. And what's left over when you've exhausted all the above.

"The Invention of Lying" skips quickly over this sequence as if it were a chore. But it's not a chore. It's the movie.

The biggest names in comedy appear in bit parts throughout "Lying," including the red-hot Tina Fey and Jason Bateman. Presumably they all wanted an opportunity to work with Gervais. The man is seriously respected in the entertainment community.

And he should be. He gave us "The Office." Next year HBO is running a half-hour series that will be an animated version of his insanely funny podcasts with Stephen Merchant and the man whose head is shaped like a f***ing orange, Karl Pilkington.


That ought to be fantastic.

Let's keep our minds trained on that...

SCORE

How Accomplished: 42/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 42/100

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Pandorum

I feel so conflicted.

There's a lot that works in "Pandorum." Starting with the premise: an officer on a vast spaceship wakes from a state of suspended animation to find himself completely alone. No one else is awake on the darkened, dilapidated ship -- except for some flesh-eating monsters that may or may not be the other members of the crew.

Wow.

Who doesn't want to see that movie?

But there's stuff that doesn't work.

None of it manifests itself until about the forty-five minute mark, so it's heartbreaking to see the movie, which generates so much good will in those first forty-five minutes, slowly but inexorably unravel into threads.

Let's start with the first good forty-five minutes:

Ben Foster's Corporal Bower comes out of hypersleep. He doesn't remember who or where he is.

Temporary amnesia is a symptom of extended hypersleep and a fabulous dramatic device. After a bit of searching, he wakes up the only other frozen crewmember he can find: our boy Dennis Quaid.

Quaid plays Lieutenant Payton, and he can't remember much either. Together the two officers try to escape the locked compartment they are in. This involves sending Bower through the air ducts while Quaid directs him by radio.

After much creeping around in the spooky ship, Bower encounters this fetching mystery woman:


She doesn't want anything to do with Bower. She just wants to keep moving because, as it turns out, there are monsters all over the ship. The monsters are disappointingly derivative of the subterranean creatures in Neil Marshall's excellent "Descent," but hey, they're monsters. On a spaceship. I'm still pretty happy.

Then Bower runs into Cung Le, a mixed martial arts fighter who plays Manh, another lone mystery person running around the ship. Manh doesn't speak any English so he isn't able to shed much light on what's going on.



If things are starting to feel complicated, we are just getting started.

Because the ship's reactor is soon to explode, there's the matter of Bower's missing wife, and I haven't even mentioned pandorum itself, which is not the name of the ship we are on (that's the Elysium), but a psychological phenomenon which afflicts travelers in deep space.

All this explains why "Pandorum" eventually turns south.

A good story should get more complicated till about the halfway mark, at which point it should get less complicated till, at the climax, every question has been resolved but the final one: will the protagonist defeat the antagonist or not?

"Pandorum" continues to get complicated right to the end, where it reaches a rolling climax -- lots of struggles in lots of different areas of the ship -- because it doesn't really know what, as a story, it is about.

So why would the German Film Fund spend forty million dollars on a story that doesn't know what it's about? (I'm exaggerating: the Germans didn't foot the entire forty million dollar budget, just a substantial portion of it.)

The answer is: it's hard for a story to know what it's about. In some ways, it's the HARDEST challenge a screenwriter faces. Complexity and contrivance are easy. Just keep adding cool ideas, then find a tortured way for those ideas to connect.

Simplicity, on the other hand, means taking perfectly good ideas and throwing them away because they don't fit.

Hard.

So...

...while I hate to say this about a movie that tracks people crawling around a derelict spaceship...

..."Pandorum" is a near-miss.

Damn it all!

SCORE:

How Accomplished: 46/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 54/100

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Surrogates

Ferris and Brancato strike again!

While this writing team gave us 1997's fun thriller "The Game," they also gave us the unintentionally hilarious Sandra Bullock movie "The Net," Terminators 3 and 4 (also known as "the bad ones") and the Halle Berry career-wrecker "Catwoman."

And they've got the threequel to "XXX" with Vin Diesel on the board for 2011.

Stop the madness, Hollywood!

"Surrogates" is a sci-fi movie -- and I use both terms loosely -- about a future where people never leave the house. Rather they navigate the world remotely through the use of android surrogates who are stronger and more attractive than their users. Also they cannot be hurt, so presumably bungee jumping is a popular activity in this vision of the future.

It's not a terrible idea for a movie. You can tell because the summer saw a movie with an almost identical premise (called "Gamer"), the winter will see a much-anticipated James Cameron flick with a similar premise (called "Avatar"), and there is a TV show with the premise currently running on Fox (called "Dollhouse.")

So with a decent but unremarkable idea, this movie comes down to execution.

And that's where Ferris and Brancato fail to earn their paychecks. "Surrogates" follows the story of police detective Bruce Willis and his partner Rhada Mitchell who are investigating the deaths of two surrogate robots -- which evidently caused their remote users to die as well. And that shouldn't happen!


The investigation leads to the father of one of the victims, the billionaire inventor of surrogates, James Cromwell. Cromwell is of course the bad guy. He has a nefarious plan to break into police headquarters, furiously tap away at a keyboard (exciting!) and kill off everyone currently using a surrogate.

Why would he do this? Because of vague philosophical reasons having something to do with the first-hand experience of life being preferable to living at a virtual remove. Which, hey, might make a good article for The New Yorker, but it's hardly worth killing a billion people over.

So the bad guy is intent on doing something no one in their right mind would do. He's just being a bad guy to be a bad guy.

But can he be stopped?

After losing his surrogate to a mob of luddites, Bruce Willis has to go into the world using his own (Hollywood-party-weathered) body.


This journey into vulnerability doesn't really land because all of us go into the world with our "actual" bodies every day. We're not impressed that Willis would go to the convenience store to pick up some milk -- in person!

Movies are meant to be journeys that take us somewhere, but "Surrogates" stays on familiar ground and fails to make us see it in any new way. Most of the dialogue is obsessed with the background information necessary to understand the details of the evil plan to kill off surrogates and their users.

The action sequences are utterly unremarkable, the tension is so thin you could drop your knife and asphyxiate, and the central relationship of the story, that between Willis and his wife (who prefers surrogacy to real life) is so perfunctory you wish the director had just put up the words "character scene here" each time instead of making us sit through it.

A friend had a good line walking out of the theater. He said:

"I wish my surrogate had watched that movie for me."

SCORE:

How Accomplished: 36/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 32/100

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Jennifer's Body

There are two selling points to this movie:

1.) The writing talent of screenwriting celeb Diablo Cody.

2.) The "body" of the title, provided by screen babe Megan Fox.


Our stars, off-camera and on.


So how's the writing? And how is Megan Fox?

Well, the writing's pretty good. The dialogue doesn't capture, or even attempt, the galloping speed and cleverness of Cody's breakthrough "Juno," but that's probably a good thing. You're not going to outdo Juno's wit, you're just going to remind us we're not watching Juno.

Besides, according to interviews, "Juno" isn't the kind of movie Cody would likely watch anyway. She likes fun and messy gorefests. So that's what she wrote.

Her script tracks the friendship between Amanda Seyfried's high school shy girl Needy Lesnicki and Fox's glam, cheerleading Jennifer. In a nice bit of compact pacing, Jennifer gets abducted by members of a travelling indie band and turned into a monstrous succubus within the first twenty minutes or so.

A succubus is, of course, a female demon. (What's the matter, you never played Dungeons & Dragons?) Jennifer still looks human, delectably so, but she needs to feed on the entrails of a high school boy every thirty days or so. If she doesn't, she weakens, not just physically but in the beauty department. Her skin goes blotchy, her hair loses its bounce, her eyes their shiny glow. She literally needs to consume boys in order to remain beautiful.

Aha!

Symbolism!

Kudos to Cody for making her point without lingering on it. The dramatic question takes precedence, and that question is: what is Needy going to do about the fact that her best friend is now a demonic serial killer preying on her classmates?

If you've seen "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," you know full well what she's going to do. She does what everyone now does when confronted with mythical creatures. First she hits the books. Then, armed with occult tomes, she confronts the beast. She does not succeed at first, but eventually we get to our climax and someone takes a sharp blade to the chest.

In the meantime there are some fun revelations and one sizzling hot lesbian sex scene. Woo hoo!

Diablo Cody deserves a ton of credit for avoiding a sophomore slump on her second screenwriting effort. The gal's got skillz, and she'll be fun to follow over the next few years. Here's hoping she continues to write original screenplays and does not content herself with taking big-time Hollywood money to rewrite bad scripts that studios should never have bought in the first place. You can disappear into artistic obscurity pretty fast that way. It's not worth it, Diablo.

As for Megan Fox, she looks very attractive throughout, as you would expect. Better news still, she does an okay job of acting. If she were committed to improving she could actually make a run at a respectable career. The fact she chose to work with a noted writer like Cody suggests this is possible -- though of course it may have been her agent's idea. The next few movies will tell the tale of Megan Fox's ambition.

This movie had a disappointing opening weekend, pulling in only six point eight million dollars. This has led to fingerpointing at the Megan Fox-heavy marketing campaign, but we're coming to the end of a long recent run of horror films. Maybe there's horror fatigue out there. Whatever the reason, this movie deserved better than the fifth-place finish it opened with.

SCORE:

How Accomplished: 70/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 70/100

Friday, September 18, 2009

Sorority Row

This movie borders on competence.

The undistinguished director and his pair of undistinguished writers give us a largely undistinguished slasher movie, but I'd like to accentuate the positive. There are things the film-makers do well.

Here's one. We're dealing with a group of five sorority sisters who accidentally kill a sixth during a prank gone awry. They hide the body but yada yada yada, someone starts killing them one by one. You've seen this story a thousand times. What's good about this one is the five particular sorority sisters at the heart of it. They are:

-the bitch leader

-the pseudo-bitch second-in-command (who's not really that bad, she's just trying to fit in)

-the wise-cracker

-the quiet, nerdy girl

-the conscience of the group, our main character

This is a pretty good character distribution for a horror movie. A lot of recent horror movies have gone with the following, much less effective, formulation:

-bitch

-jerk

-worse bitch

-worse jerk

-Hitler-in-the-making

At which point we are actively rooting for the hockey-mask-wearing demon to cut everyone's head off as soon as humanly (demonly?) possible.

But as I said, "Sorority Row" doesn't do this.

Instead we get good girl Brianna Evigan, who didn't approve of the prank in the first place. Evigan has such a breathy voice and sexy tomboy look, I took her for Demi Moore offspring Rumer Willis at first. Instead Rumer plays the quiet nerdy girl. She doesn't look much like her mom, but she's fine here.

Anyway, Evigan -- who starred in last year's enjoyably campy "Step Up 2 The Streets" -- that's right, I liked "Step Up 2 the Streets," you got a problem with that? -- earns points for not getting along with the bitchy powers-that-be in Theta Pi. She also gets points for not enjoying the year-ending sorority house bacchanalia where our action takes place.

This party is staged with such over-the-top promiscuity and peopled with such a collection of model-perfect young bodies it made me want to sneak out of the theater because I just knew I wasn't invited. And truth be told, I wouldn't want to be. Crazy college parties are one of the best examples of an activity that looks fun on paper but is rarely fun in practice.

But the party takes a turn for the better when people start turning up dead.

That's when the Scooby-Doo mystery investigation kicks in. The story's premise may be hackneyed, but giving the protagonists a reason NOT to call the police at the first sign of trouble is a critical barrier to the success of any horror movie. Once you get there you're halfway home. Sometimes it's worth sacrificing a little originality.

Also, our perception of the characters changes when they switch from hunters to hunted. Even the bitch leader becomes a character we're okay with toward the end, since her take-no-prisoners, let's-kill-this-fucker bravado becomes a useful quality as the killer gets closer and closer.

Princess Leia herself plays a cranky old den mother who gets jiggy with a shotgun for a couple minutes before... well, I'm not going to spoil it for you... but it does not involve living happily ever after.

In fact, hardly anyone gets out of this flick alive, which is okay too.

Although I felt let down by the early exit of Margo Harshman's Chuggs, the wisecracker of the group. Harshman's an actress I have a mild crush on -- she appeared in this year's "Fired Up," which I liked as well. I muttered an audible "awwww" when she fatally took a vodka bottle to the larynx.

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An early casualty

The writers made the correct choice with the identity of the killer. They didn't figure a way for it to make any sense, but dramatically it works. Here's a hint: it's the person you least suspect. Always the right way to go.

SCORE:

How Accomplished: 48/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 56/100 (being a hetero male helps get you through this movie)