Friday, March 27, 2009

Duplicity

In life, everyone is a victim of duplicity at some point. In the movie "Duplicity," the victim is everyone in the audience. The movie itself is a pathological liar, and a sloppy, unconvincing one at that.

For the first twenty minutes, the movie plays fair. Clive Owen is a British spy who spots a good-looking Julia Roberts at a soiree in Dubai. He charms her into his hotel room, where she drugs him and steals the classified documents he's hiding under his mattress. It turns out, she's a CIA agent who was secretly seducing him all along.

Okay?

Okay. We cut to twelve years later. Clive is now a corporate spy on his way to a secretive meeting with a fellow insider at a rival company. He meets the fellow insider and it's, surprise, Julia Roberts herself. They're both in the private sector now, and both working for the same company.

That's as much of the plot as I will describe because it is as much as I understand. What follows is a mish-mash of betrayals, reconciliations and further betrayals that make no sense whatsoever because the true motivations of every character in the movie are a closely-guarded secret.

The film-maker, Tony Gilbert, still glowing from the undeservedly good reception "Michael Clayton" received, has it in mind to fool the audience. He wants to completely bamboozle us. Knock us senseless. The way he accomplishes this is by having every character lie their way through the entire movie without giving the audience a single clue as to who is lying or why.

The plot macguffin is a super-secret technological innovation soon to be unveiled by the company Julia Roberts has infiltrated. I foresaw the final twist, and you will too, but if it helps you understand anything that leads up to it you've got a better mind than I do.

What makes the story far more opaque -- and boring -- than it needs to be is the repeated, egregious violation of the "show don't tell" principle. Practically the entire movie takes place in dialogue. Characters are incessantly telling us what they did ten minutes ago, off-screen.

Presumably the reason so much of this story can't take place in front of the camera is because then the audience would know too much. They would be able to see for themselves whether a character actually did what they have claimed to do. That's verboten here. Rule number one is: the audience must know nothing. Therefore nothing can be shown, only explained. And explanations cannot be trusted. The result is confusion, dissatisfaction and this audience member's brooding preoccupation with the fact that Julia Roberts is starting to visibly age.



SCORE:

How Accomplished: 22/100

How Confused I Was: 92/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 12/100

Monday, March 23, 2009

Knowing

"Knowing" has an awful title, a ridiculous lead actor and a premise that involves children with some connection to a sinister spirit world.

And it's fabulous. Who'da thunk it?

Here's what happens: A young schoolgirl assigned to draw a picture of the future instead pens a long sequence of apparently random numbers. Her list, along with some bad sketches of flying cars, gets buried in a time capsule, where it is retrieved fifty years later and given to the son of MIT instructor Nic Cage.

Cage discovers the numbers are not random. They accurately predict every major catastrophe of the last fifty years, as well as a few that are yet to come.

This remarkable discovery puts Cage's character under a lot of pressure. He must try to avert imminent catastrophes. He must learn everything he can about the little girl, now middle-aged, who wrote the numbers in the first place. At the same time he must ward off a group of mysterious strangers who have an unexplained interest in his son and who, it becomes increasingly clear, are probably not human.

The movie is exciting, scary and suspenseful, despite the presence of some unnecessary "cheap trick" scares, like Nic Cage's sister creeping up behind him to startle him -- and us -- for absolutely no good reason. Directors of thrillers always get paranoid if there isn't a scare every three minutes. I imagine if the writer had directed his own film, he would have shown a subtler touch.

"Knowing" bears an uncanny resemblance to M. Night Shyamalan's alien invasion thriller "Signs." Most strikingly, both movies contain a protagonist who years ago tragically lost his wife and as a consequence has abandoned his faith -- in "Signs" it's faith in God; in "Knowing" it's faith in a universe of purpose or meaning of any kind. In both movies, the end of the world approaches and the protagonist's lack of faith is challenged.

The difference is that "Signs" falls apart at the end, whereas "Knowing" kicks into an even higher gear. I'd like to make some comments about that ending, so I'm going to place them under the following warning:

SPOILER ALERT

Seriously, if you don't want to know how the movie ends, stop reading.

I mean it.

Okay. At the end of the movie the planet Earth gets destroyed by a massive solar flare. This is cool for a number of reasons.

First of all, it's unexpected. The Earth blowing up is a bit of a downer. Hollywood doesn't like downers. You better believe there were story conferences where alternate endings were pitched. But the studio stuck with the appropriate ending, and they deserve credit for it.

Second, the ending forces our boy Cage to fully explore the theme -- namely, what meaning there can be in a universe where death is unavoidable and final. If you let Cage escape death, you cheat both him and the audience.

Third, the ending allows irony into the story. The mysterious strangers, revealed now to be aliens, take Cage's son and a group of other human children to a faraway world to restart human civilization. Cage dies with the knowledge that, while Earth is doomed, humanity is not. Life will go on. Somewhere.

To me, the idea that life will persist even if our lives will not is as intelligent a rationale for optimism as we're likely to find.

It also makes for an extremely climactic ending. Compare with the anti-climaxes of "Signs" or "War of the Worlds," or any other alien apocalypse story that has to bend over backwards to spare humanity in what is always an unsatisfying cop-out.

This is not to say there are no logic problems in "Knowing." Where advanced aliens are involved, there are always logic problems.

My biggest quibble here is: if the aliens have all these spaceships and all this high technology, why didn't they just protect our planet from the solar burst? Surely they could cobble together a large shield or something, especially given fifty years advance notice. Hell, if they'd just given us a heads-up, we'd have had fifty years to do it ourselves. Those aliens may have meant well, but they sorta screwed us over.

Regardless, "Knowing" is a ton of fun at the local cineplex. A Nic Cage sci-fi thriller has absolutely no business being this good.


Score:

How Accomplished: 85/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 90/100

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Sunshine Cleaning

I read this script a couple years ago. I was working in the file room of the agency that represented writer Megan Holley, and I heard good things about it.

Everything I heard was true.

The characters read like real people. The dialogue was authentic. The southern trailerpark atmosphere felt lived-in. At the core of the script was a relationship between two sisters that was both moving and genuine. Even the idea was novel: with the help of her younger sister, a former prom queen fallen on hard times starts a dead body clean-up business.

It was fresh and subtle, and everyone who read the script liked it.

There was only one teensy little problem I never realized till I saw the movie this morning: the story is not in any way cinematic.

That doesn't mean it's bad. It just means it plays better on the page than on the screen. And that's got nothing to do with epic vistas or giant robots or flying mutants. It's got to do with the shape of the story.

In a novel, or its cousin the literary screenplay, the story can take any shape it wants so long as it is consistently entertaining. We just want to keep turning pages, and whatever makes that happen is good.

Movies demand infinitely more structure. At the seventy-minute mark of a movie, the scene we are watching had better damn well be MORE entertaining than the scene that preceded it. Movies have to build and build, then end in a big way. A confrontation must take place we have been waiting hours to see. This is true regardless of genre. The departure of Mary Tyler Moore at the end of "Ordinary People" is one of the most cinematic climaxes I can think of. Another great one is "Caddyshack," where the last scene of the movie has the climactic putt of the climactic tournament hinge on the fact that the golf course is literally exploding around the players. Funny... and cinematic.

"Sunshine Cleaning" fails to do this. It just moves along for a couple hours, then stops.

Director Christine Jeffs appears cognizant of this. Some rewriting has taken place since I first read the script. Now, events build to a sort of climax, and the requisite tearful conversation between the sisters about their dead mother takes place. But it's all pro forma and feels like an add-on. The DNA of a satisfying climax has to be written into every word and gesture of a movie. You can't swoop in and impose meaning in the last ten minutes no matter how many execs in suits say it's what the market demands.

"Sunshine Cleaning" is what it is: a movie about real people undergoing real struggles which never really get resolved.

It has its funny moments. It has its cute moments. But after awhile it starts to drag because in the end, much like real life, nothing climactic happens.


How Accomplished: 54/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 44/100

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Watchmen

Every now and then forbidden love is consummated at the movies. The idea for a big-budget action movie somehow gets into bed with a quiet arthouse film and something truly unusual is conceived.

Most of the time, this offspring is non-viable. Which is why moneyed interests in Hollywood descry the practice as an abomination against God and Man.

But if the bastard child comes from a widely popular pre-existing property, sometimes he gets all the nourishment only a pure-bred would normally get. Then, if the special effects industry is up to the task... if the casting is spot-on (and preferably star-free)... and if the director has a strong enough sense of story...

...you get something like "Watchmen."

A sparkling, inventive, audacious plunge into mystery and weirdness with a philosophical riddle at its core -- in this case, what does it mean to be good? -- and a palpable empathy for the ultimate sadness of the world.

"Watchmen" is a grown-up fairy tale. Very, very grown-up, from the unselfconscious but unexploitative nudity (male and female) to the fundamental failure of the good guys to remain good and the bad guys to remain bad.

The story of both the film and the graphic novel begins with a death. A man named Edward Blake is murdered. What makes this noteworthy is that Edward Blake used to belong to a now-defunct group of superheroes called the Watchmen.

On the trail of the killer is the Batman stand-in Rorshach, a deranged sociopath or an incorruptible crusader, depending on your perspective. He decides someone is stalking ex-heroes, and he will not rest -- seriously, he will not rest -- until he finds the responsible party.

Rorshach's simple quest drives the story, and it's a good thing too, because the plot quickly becomes vastly complex. There are five principle characters at play -- six if you count the gone but not forgotten Edward Blake -- each of whom conceals an inner drive and a terrible secret. Expect long digressions into backstory.

Here are some short ones:

Malin Ackerman's Laurie Jupiter is a sexy tomboy born into the family business who discovers that blue demi-gods don't make great boyfriends.

Patrick Wilson's Nite Owl does make a great boyfriend. He splits Batman duty with Rorshach, incorporating all the sane aspects of the caped crusader.

Matthew Goode's Ozymandias is billed as the smartest man in the world. By the end of the movie, you believe it.

The omnipotent and bright blue hero Doc Manhattan learns over time that the more you really study a person -- or an entire world of people -- the less judgmental you become. That's also the experience of the audience at the end of the story.

Most movies bring the audience home from their journey via a restored sense of justice and order. "Watchmen" does not. It leaves you stranded somewhere strange and alien. This leaves a bitter tang in the mouth that will not be to everyone's taste. I enjoyed it immensely, after the manner of an especially dark coffee roast or a nice red wine. It's not a can of Mountain Dew. Not everything is trying to be a can of Mountain Dew.

One final warning:

The movie presupposes not just a familiarity but a level of absolute comfort with the superhero milieu. Doc Manhattan is a naked blue muscle-man of nearly infinite power. He is not what's weird about this movie. He is what's NORMAL about this movie. You can't even blink at the fact that people have superpowers. You'll need your suspension of disbelief for other, far stretchier, things.

If you like superhero comics or films, here's one on acid. If that idea doesn't excite you, you'll probably want to stay away. The run-time is 2 hours and 43 minutes, and it does feel long. It's a satisfying meal but a five-course one.


Score:

How Accomplished: 88/100

How Much I Liked It: 93/100

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Street Fighter 2: The Legend of Chun-Li

Movies like this give video game adaptation sequels a bad name.

What could have been spunky, goofy fun is instead a joyless, lurching chore of a movie. For shame, Andrejz Bartkowiak. For shame.

Hey, there are lots of good foreign-born directors, but when it comes to action movies we always seem to import the world's worst. Mister Bartkowiak, a long-time cinematographer of movies like "Species" and "Dante's Peak," here gets the upgrade to director. On behalf of the American movie establishment, I would like to say "Oops."

SF2 feels very much like a direct-to-video cash grab. It features lots of low-wattage almost-stars like Chris Klein and Michael Clarke Duncan, and the eponymous hero is played by Kristin Kreuk, formerly of TV's "Smallville." I will not recount the plot here for the simple reason that there is no plot. Sometimes people talk. Sometimes people fight. That is all.

I liked Kristin Kreuk in "Smallville." She played the teenaged Superman's love interest, Lana Lang. Here she fails to satisfy on a bunch of levels. She is patently unathletic and simply not good-looking enough (bad-looking is, alas, not good-looking enough) to stare at in lieu of following the story. Frankly I blame her lack of appeal for the fact that I absorbed as much of this movie as I did.

And when she tries to act... hoo boy, it's a lot of acting. You can almost hear tendons pop, she's acting so much. Everyone over-emotes here, especially when it's inappropriate, and director Bartkowiak has a talent for catching actors in extreme close-up when they are at their absolute worst.

There's a "cop" subplot with Interpol agent Chris Klein and homicide detective Moon Bloodgood (that's the actress' name -- a fictional character would never have a name that ridiculous.) During the movie I played a game with myself. I tried to count the number of lines between Klein and Bloodgood that were spoken WITHOUT sarcasm. The game wrapped up when the end credits rolled. My total was zero. It wasn't much of a game.

I'm not saying "Street Fighter 2: The Legend of Chun-Li" is an insult to every rational impulse ever to cross a human brain between the Age of Enlightenment and right now. But I'm not not saying it either.

Score:

How Accomplished: 14/100

How Much I Liked It: 14/100

Echelon Conspiracy

Every so often a movie comes along...

...to remind you that movie-making is really, really hard.

Because when the creative enterprise goes foul, you might have an "Echelon Conspiracy" on your hands.

Among my many -- many! -- problems with this movie is the fact that the story contains no conspiracy. The villain is a single computer named Echelon. So at least half the title works.

I wish half the movie worked.

"Echelon," as I am going to call it, is about a dorky nerd everyone hates called Max Peterson, played by a TV actor I've never heard of (Shane West -- spent a few years as a doctor on ER, according to IMDB) who should never appear in a movie ever again. He is arguably the least charismatic film lead in years.

Wispy, fidgety and terminally over-expressive in the manner of a high school drama club president, Dr. McDorky plays a computer security consultant randomly mailed a cell phone that gives him strange, cryptic instructions via text message.

Following these instructions, McDork starts winning vast amounts of money at a casino, whose overboss -- Ed Burns, whom you'll remember from, well, just from being Ed Burns -- turns suspicious.

You see, Burnsy was an FBI agent in a former life, and when his ex-partner Ving Rhames shows up to arrest McDork (for receiving instructions from a supercomputer gone mad), Burnsy refuses to exit the movie.

Instead, he and Rhames convince McDork to help them track down "Echelon" itself, an NSA-created computer program which has apparently seen the movie "The Terminator."

Almost as if sensing how inadequate Shane West is as the lead character in a film, large stretches of the action are driven not by McDork, but by Burns and Rhames. Martin Sheen plays a high-ranking NSA supervisor whose principal duty is to listen to underlings spout long expository speeches full of technical nonsense and then say, "Let's do it!"

There is an unbelievably phony love interest subplot where foxy chick Tamara Feldman falls for McDork, and even sleeps with him, in the most improbable turn of events in movie history.

Unless she saw one his ER residual checks...

This movie was so bad it inspired me to resuscitate an old device of mine: the hundred point movie scale. I think the "four-star" system is ludicrously difficult to understand. I never know if two and a half stars is supposed to be good or bad.

On the hundred point scale, anything over fifty is considered good. Anything under, bad. A perfect 50, a rare score, is a movie balanced precisely between the forces of good and bad, such that I walk out of the theater with an utterly blank mind.

There is greater resistance to overcome at the very top and bottom of the scale. Anything in the 90's is outstanding, with a 97 being considerably stronger than a 94. Likewise, the drop from, say, 08 to 04 indicates a plunge from "worst film this year" to "I will never smile again." There is no 01. We shouldn't even think about an 01. Likewise, 100 has never yet been seen.

The scale will be divided into two categories for added confusion: the first indicates how well-made or accomplished I consider the movie, and the second indicates how much I enjoyed it. These numbers will often diverge wildly. That's human nature for you.

And so without further ado I give you the first rating on the hundred-point scale:

ECHELON (CONSPIRACY)

How Accomplished: 12/100

How Much I Liked It: 12/100