Saturday, August 29, 2009

It Might Get Loud

Yes, it might. But it never does. And that's the problem.

A documentary about three generations of famous guitarists -- Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White -- "It Might Get Loud" never gets intense enough to justify the effort of making it -- or watching it. Though sometimes wistful, sometimes nostalgic, sometimes insightful, it never gets quite honest or thrilling enough. Even the music never gets loud enough.

This is not the fault of the subjects. Each one is a great musician and an affable interviewee. And each one is apparently committed to the project, devoting their time to extended interviews and even a few road trips, like a visit to the elementary school where The Edge first picked up the guitar. There was potential here.

The documentary weaves together individual interviews with cuts from a meeting of the three guitarists on a soundstage. All three are soft-spoken, polite and respectful of each other -- particularly Jack White, who, in the presence of the others, is fidgety and unsure of himself. (It's kind of cute to see The Edge act overly solicitous of White, the way you would encourage a shy child on the rare occasion he opens his mouth.)

But that gets to the heart of the problem. Three nice-guy guitarists on a stage does not a gripping documentary make. We are human beings, after all, and if we're sitting in a darkened theater we crave suffering and pain. We crave conflict. We crave weakness and regret. We crave courage. And no matter how interesting a discussion of the technical aspects of the reverb pedal might be, we want a story.

And I refuse to believe there was no story to be had. Each and every one of us carries around our own measure of anger and fear. We all have scars that still throb. Take a writer/musician like those in this documentary, and you can multiply that felt emotion by a factor of ten. But the filmmaker (David Guggenheim, a television director who also did the superior Al Gore documentary) never takes us anywhere near the emotional vitality that makes these artists what they are.

Oh, we get the basic biographical information, but it's so boring. Did you know Jimmy Page got started in skiffle? Or that The Edge got into U2 by responding to a flyer on a bulletin board? Or that Jack White's first album was recorded in the furniture upholstery store where he worked? This confuses detail with meaningful detail.

There's a reason America's most famous interviewer, Barbara Walters, is renowned for one thing above all others: getting her interview subjects to cry. It's cheap, it's manipulative, and it's the stuff of great interviewing. If you don't get your subjects to cry you haven't pushed them to reveal anything beneath the polished, practiced, anesthetized and ultimately false veneer we all present to the world. You might as well interview their public relations agent.

Great music is about strong emotions at least a little out of control. So is great storytelling. And at the end of the day, a documentary has to tell a story.

This documentary maker showed too much respect for his subjects, and not enough brazen, ballsy curiosity.

SCORE:

How Accomplished: 56/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 44/100

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

Artistic achievement is so elusive.

Once anything works, everyone else rushes to copy it until the original masterpiece, done to death, starts to look like hackwork.

The "Die Hard" saga ran like this. So successful was Bruce Willis' first foray against terrorists in an L.A. high-rise, every action writer spent the next twenty years pitching stories that were like "Die Hard" but on a boat, or a blimp, or an exploding volcano. According to Hollywood legend, the process came full circle when an executive was pitched the idea for a movie that was like "Die Hard," but in a building.

Sometimes, though, an artist comes along with a voice so fresh and an approach so unconventional, there is no good way to copy them. Tarantino was like that when he hit the scene in 1994 with "Pulp Fiction." The clones that did appear were limp and few.

The best Tarantino imitator turned out to be Tarantino himself. Over the past fifteen years, Tarantino has written and made the stylish, fast-talking, nostalgic-for-the-seventies "Jackie Brown," "Kill Bill," "Grindhouse" and now, a World War Two picture, "Inglourious Basterds."

"Basterds" follows, hoo boy, a whole bunch of characters. It follows the charmingly evil nazi investigator Hans Landa. It follows incognito young Jewish woman Shoshanna Dreyfus. It follows Brad Pitt's Tennessean army lieutenant and his gang of behind-the-lines guerillas (only a couple of whom are fleshed out, and those to no purpose, as their lives are dispatched more or less randomly.) It follows a German war hero. It follows a German movie actress. It follows a British commando slash film afficionado. It follows Hitler. It follows Goebbels. If you yourself were not followed in this movie, you are an unusual case.

This is not atypical for Tarantino. "Pulp Fiction" had a million plot threads too. Its brilliant predecessor "Reservoir Dogs" also went wherever it damn well pleased. But it seems an inviolable rule that every reiteration of a masterpiece dilutes the original magic. I feel this is the case with "Inglourious Basterds." It looks like "Pulp Fiction," it acts like "Pulp Fiction," but it is not "Pulp Fiction."

Who can say why movie magic is hard to recapture? I can't. I just know it is.

One structural flaw of "Basterds" is that the two plot threads that endure to the climax never really come together. Brad Pitt's plan to blow up Hitler in a cinema and Shoshanna Dreyfus' plan to blow Hitler up in the same cinema are redundant, and neither saboteur is ever aware of the other. Another flaw is nazi investigator Hans Landa's abrupt motivation-change near the end of the movie. (spoiler alert) Landa, a merciless predator, suddenly decides to help Pitt's crew kill Hitler in exchange for immunity from prosecution at the war's conclusion. This makes a certain sense historically, but as a movie motivation it doesn't work at all since this is the first hint we've had that Landa is looking beyond the war. It plays out like plot convenience, and at the worst possible time -- the climax!

These may be reasons the movie didn't work for me, but ultimately they don't explain much since the same accusations can be levelled at "Fiction," my favorite movie from the nineties.

The heart of the problem, I think, is that Tarantino has done this kind of thing before, and much better, and no matter how many times I'm told I should judge a movie impartially, without reference to a filmmaker's past work, in practice this is impossible to do.

Every great artist faces the choice of becoming the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. The Beatles changed constantly, always groping for the fresh and new. As a result, their artistic achievements exceeded anyone else's in their field. They also imploded within a decade. How could they not?

The Rolling Stones, on the other hand, stopped being artists around their own ten-year mark and started being performers. They recycled themselves and spent the next thirty-some years on cruise control, content to have a sound and a style that never changed.

Fifteen years after "Pulp Fiction" and seventeen years after "Reservoir Dogs," it's clear which path Tarantino has chosen. He's going to have a long, dependable career. He's going to be consistently popular. He's going to be a Rolling Stone. And that's fine. Truly.

I just wanted him to be a Beatle.

SCORE:

How Accomplished: 63/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 38/100


(And just for nostalgia purposes...)

PULP FICTION

How Accomplished: 99/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 104/100

Thursday, August 20, 2009

District 9

So many questions.

So few answers.

Anytime you do an alien invasion story, you have a responsibility to make a few things clear. Why are the aliens here? What do they want? What are their abilities? What kind of tech level are we talking about? How smart are they?

You have to answer these questions because we've seen so many alien invasion stories we can assimilate the fact of an alien arrival very quickly. (In the movies, anyway.) Within seconds we're wondering what KIND of aliens we're dealing with.

Now, if you as a storyteller want to deliberately withhold the answer to a particular question and make it the focus of the story -- "Yes, these aliens are amazing, and all they seem to do is help us out, but what do they REALLY want?" -- then have at it, good for you, I can't wait to see the flick.

If, on the other hand, you withhold answers to these questions because you don't really know the answers... if you present contradictory answers that shift around in response to plot demands... if your human characters don't even ask these fundamental questions... if your aliens are a conceptual mess in every possible way...

...then you've got something like "District 9."

The idea behind this movie is that aliens show up on Earth one day and get their asses handed to them so badly that we feel sorry for the aliens. This premise is so implausible it's hard to imagine how it could be saved. "District 9" gives us no clues.

The movie opens twenty years after the aliens (called "Prawns") have arrived. Here's a list of ridiculous and/or unexplained things that happen:

--The Prawn mothership has come to rest over Johannesburg, South Africa. (From what I hear of JoBurg, it's a fantastic city, but the South Africans are barely in charge of South Africa. At best this is a random choice on the part of homework-shirking aliens.)

--The United States has no interaction with the aliens because the U.S. has no territorial jurisdiction in South Africa.

Okay, stop the list. Stop the list!

This one item is so outlandish it's almost impossible to continue. In a movie about alien visitors appearing on Earth, there are no Americans anywhere to be seen. Literally there isn't a single American character. This is arguably more fantastical than the appearance of aliens.

In a way it's sweet that young film-maker Neill Blomkamp thinks the United States would let South Africa -- or the curiously fictional multi-national task force called MNU (why not just use the existing United Nations?) -- represent humanity. But much like the war in Iraq, any global situation that menaces the security of the USA will see personal intervention from the USA. To pretend this isn't the case badly hurts the movie's sense of reality.

It's almost as if "District 9" were a big F.U. to the United States for the movie "Independence Day," in which Americans were portrayed as the only people strong enough or spirited enough to offer the slightest resistance to an alien takeover. If that is indeed the case, then... touche, "District 9."

Okay, on with the list:

--MNU troops board the mothership, only to discover the aliens are practically lying on the floor in a heap, victims of either malnourishment or illness. Neither possibility is explored or explained in the subsequent twenty years. Really? Isn't it kind of important to figure out what happened to these aliens?

--The Prawn are removed from their mothership and quartered in a city slum, the District 9 of the title. Again, I'm pretty sure America (or Japan, or China, or the United Nations) would put the Prawn up at a first-rate research facility for the chance to study and learn from them, but the South Africans are running things, so... it's off to Shantytown with you guys. There the Prawn live in shacks, rooting through garbage heaps like animals. And Americans are left to mutter "Dang! I wish they'd appeared above Cleveland!"

--And indeed the Prawn are animals, intellectually. Although they can speak, their functional intelligence is low-human at best, high-dog at worst. Mention is made -- once, that I can recall -- that the mystery illness may be responsible for this, but the idea is abandoned as soon as it is raised. "Dumb aliens" is simply part of the premise of the movie.

--So, twenty years after the arrival of the Prawn (i.e. the present day), MNU decides to evict them from District 9. Why do they do this? I'm glad you asked! You see, the residents of neighboring slums don't like living beside the criminal-minded (!!!) Prawn. I guess the Prawn, clueless when it comes to the concept of private property, steal stuff. Yeah. You know why I don't like living next to creatures from another planet? One of 'em stole my bike last year.

--To properly evict the Prawn, MNU needs their signatures on consent forms. I don't know what else to say about this. Moving on...

--A bureaucratic paper pusher named Wikus Van De Merwe is placed in charge of this operation.

--Wikus is also on the lookout for illegal weapons. When he finds a strange cannister with alien markings on it, he sprays himself in the face like an idiot.

--This is bad for Wikus, as it gradually turns him into a Prawn himself! Wow, you're saying, that's incredible. Was it designed for that purpose? Nope! It's actually a kind of fuel, this tar-like substance. It's necessary for the operation of Prawn technology. But if a human touches it, he or she turns into a Prawn. I wonder what else it can do. Clean your apartment while you're out, maybe!

--Wikus is taken to a bio-containment facility for medical study i.e. vivisection. Lots of greedy, cold-hearted people stand around marveling at how valuable a bio-weapon based on human/Prawn hybrid technology would be. Did I mention the Prawn spend their time rooting around in garbage heaps? A human/Prawn hybrid strikes me as less valuable than a simple human, but MNU intends to vivisect poor Wikus over it. Okay.

--This evil plan fails because Wikus... are you with me here?... pushes a couple people out of the way and runs out of the building, escaping into District 9. I think he shows flashes of "alien" strength, but geez, you'd think they'd perform the surgery in a locked room, just to be safe, instead of the highly escapable hangar bay.

--Wikus (who is growing a Prawn arm now) seeks out the Prawn who lives in the shack where he sprayed himself. He learns that only technology found on the Prawn mothership can reverse Wikus' transformation. And the only way to get to the mothership is to recover the remaining fluid in the cannister. That fluid can be used to power the small space capsule the friendly Prawn has buried underneath his shack. Unfortunately the cannister is in MNU's possession, and we are made to suppose that MNU headquarters is a lot harder to break into than it was for Wikus to break out of.

And so at long last we have a plot goal -- sheesh, it took us awhile to get here!

--Wikus and his Prawn friend need weapons to break into MNU, so they go to... a Nigerian weapons dealer living in the slum. Wikus apparently goes to an ATM, withdraws some cash, and runs over to the weapons dealer's shack. Unfortunately, the weapons dealer wants to eat Wikus' arm because he thinks it will give him the powers of the Prawn (the aforementioned rooting-around-in-garbage-heaps.)

--Not to worry, though. Wikus employs his patented "push a couple people out of the way and run out of the building" approach to escape. To be fair, he does snatch a Prawn rifle lying on the ground to help his cause. And I don't mean to throw stones here, but if I were a Nigerian weapons dealer intent on eating someone's arm, my rule of thumb would be "don't leave rifles lying on the floor," ESPECIALLY if they are "alien" laser rifles that only work for people with alien DNA, like the guy whose arm I'm trying to eat. But I'm not a Nigerian weapons dealer. Maybe that's why.

--So Wikus has himself some guns. He and his Prawn friend break into MNU, shooting everyone in sight. They grab the cannister of alien fluid (which has been left in a drawer), and shoot their way out. Yes, Wikus does push a couple people out of the way during his escape. It's what he does.

--Where does that leave us? Oh yeah, Wikus and his buddy take the fluid back to the home shack, fuel up the space capsule and take off. Ahhhhh. Success! Except that an MNU baddie fires a rocket launcher at the space capsule, making it crash. Sigh.

--Wikus gets captured not by MNU (who have REALLY poor ground troops) but by the Nigerian weapons dealer, who AGAIN tries to eat Wikus' arm. To make a verrrry long story short, Wikus ends up in a suit of mechanized Prawn battle armor -- don't ask -- and shoots his way out.

--Once free, Wikus battles the slow-arriving MNU ground troops, who are trying to stop Wikus' friend from getting back to his space capsule and resuming his flight up to the mothership. After a loud, artlessly-staged fight sequence (there are no other kind in this movie), Wikus sacrifices himself to buy time for his Prawn friend to escape.

--His Prawn friend reaches the mothership and somehow pilots it out of orbit, bound for home at last. Raising ALL kinds of questions like 1) so you only need one person to pilot this thing? 2) Then why are there normally thirty thousand Prawn on board? And 3) Why did Wikus' Prawn friend leave all the rest of the Prawn behind? 4) Couldn't he use the tractor beam technology shown earlier to lift the Prawn out of District 9 and into the mothership? And of course, the mother of all questions in this movie, 5) If it were within Prawn power to repair the mothership and fly home, WHY DID THEY STOP HERE IN THE FIRST PLACE?

As an American, I'm kind of glad my country wasn't represented in "District 9" because every human comes off terribly. Even Wikus, the main character, treats the Prawn horribly until he needs one of them to keep him from turning into a Prawn. And he's the best of an awful, evil bunch of human characters.

The movie is meant to be an allegory. I get that. But the best allegories are buried beneath dramatic plausibility. Otherwise they ring hollow.

Blomkamp seems to want to make a point about man's inhumanity to man -- through the prism of man's inhumanity to aliens -- but his story plays out so ridiculously that I end up disagreeing with his thematic premise. I do not think humanity would treat aliens this shabbily, and therefore I don't think humans are as hard on fellow humans as Blomkamp supposes.

And I have a dim view of humanity! In a perverse way, Blomkamp has given me hope for all of us by making such an ineffective movie about humanity's barbarism.

For that, I guess I should thank him. I'm not going to, though.

SCORE:

How Accomplished: 22/100 (movie gets five points for the Prawn looking good on a modest budget)

How Much I Enjoyed: 14/100 (As a veteran of alien-invasion stories, I'm probably a little harder to please than most.) (Also, the jittery handheld camera made me want to punch Blomkamp in the face.)

Sunday, August 16, 2009

A Perfect Getaway

You've gotta be careful with titles.

You've GOT to be.

Entertainment reporters love clever headlines, and you can't give them ammunition. You can't use the word "bomb" in your title. Or "flop." Or "dud." All you're doing is giving them an incentive to dislike your movie so they can seem clever by writing something like "'The Biggest Bomb' Is Just That".

There are about fifty movies that could have been called "The Ripoff," but the studios have been smart enough to steer clear of the title.

Similarly, you can't get too cocky, because it's easy to flip the meaning of an overreaching title with a simple tweak. Therefore I object to the title "A Perfect Getaway" on the grounds that it's going to generate a million headlines that are some variation of "An Im-Perfect Getaway."

'Cause hey, that's what it is.

The thriller stars Milla Jovovich (hands down the greatest female action star ever -- not necessarily the most successful, that's Angelina Jolie, but the greatest) and Steve Zahn as a pair of newlyweds on their honeymoon in beautiful Hawaii.

Things go wrong -- and we have a movie -- because there is a killer loose in Hawaii. A pair of killers, in fact. And they are targeting cash-rich honeymooners. Not to be daunted, Milla and Steve continue their hike into the wooded seclusion of one of the smaller islands, where they meet -- uh oh -- another happy couple, played by the charismatic Timothy Olyphant ("Deadwood" fans will recognize him as the reluctant lawman, and if you're not a "Deadwood" fan you should be) and little-known actress Kiele Sanchez.

Olyphant and Sanchez are fun and likeable, but a little crazy, and clues start to emerge that they might in fact be our honeymoon killers. A third couple is floating around the island also, comprised of two bad-ass trailer trash blondes (male and female) who sure act like serial killers, but probably aren't because that would be too obvious.

Midway through the movie a fourth couple turns up, a sketchy guy from the convenience store in the very first scene and his girlfriend. The sketchy guy claims he's here to give Steve and Milla their hiking permits, which they accidentally left behind. This seems highly suspicious, of course. He could have been planning to follow them ever since meeting them, back when they were acting like the carefree doofuses they are.

So far, so good.

Lots of tension, lots of suspects. Lots of dense foliage behind which terrible things can be done to a person. There's even lots of good dialogue, especially between Olyphant and Zahn. Olyphant claims to have been a special forces soldier back in the first gulf war, and Zahn, a Hollywood screenwriter, shows some interest in him as a possible screenplay subject. They banter about what makes a good screenplay, about the writer's eye for detail and the various structural signposts a movie must observe. There's obviously a bit of meta-fiction going on, which is usually dangerous, but writer/director David Twohy has been writing Hollywood scripts a long time now and he has an unusually good feel for the way a discussion of craft between a pro and an amateur often goes. I thought it added to the fun.

And then it all goes wrong.

Shortly after the midway point, a police helicopter shows up. (Violating one of the first laws of thrillers. Keep the police out of it!) The cops take the blonde couple into custody, apparently having found evidence that they are the honeymoon killers. To make matters worse (dramatically, not situationally), the sketchy guy and his girlfriend abruptly leave of their own volition, never to return to the movie.

Twohy has unwisely narrowed the range of suspects way too early. Instead of increasing our sense of uncertainty (and fun), he has returned us to our starting position, where we know the killers absolutely have to be Olyphant and Sanchez, or...

...or!...

That's right, the honeymoon killers turn out to be Steve and Milla themselves. It's the big twist, and technically it's the correct one for the story. The problem is, it's sprung on us way way way way too early. If the main characters are in fact the psychos, that should be revealed in the last three minutes of the movie. Or if you can pull it off, the last thirty seconds.

Here we've got half an hour to go when we learn our heroes are our villains and vice versa. So the movie must switch focus, taking Olyphant and Sanchez's point of view as they try to escape the clutches of the suddenly-sinister Steve and Milla. This doesn't work because all our sympathy has been invested in Steve and Milla, and to ask us to sit in a theater for half an hour sympathizing with someone new just doesn't work. Instead we spend the half-hour thinking about previous scenes in light of our new knowledge, counting just how many fudges and outright impossibilities were foisted upon us. Airtight, this script is not.

So anyway, Olyphant and Sanchez do in fact escape the evil Steve and Milla, with a little bit of help from the cops, again. (Bad writer. Bad writer!) It's nice to have a happy ending, and Olyphant is so darn charming I was happy to see him survive, but in a guess-the-killer movie like this I don't want to have any idea who the real killer is until the very end. I don't think you do either.

It's ironic that a script which spends so much time talking about scripts in a knowledgeable way ends up violating some of the most straightforward tenets of genre and structure itself.

And that's about the only kind of irony that doesn't work in movies.

SCORE:

How Accomplished: 56/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 68/100 (I had already enjoyed a lot of it before the big twist ruined things -- and no one can take that away from me)

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Paper Heart

Charlyne Yi's laugh is a loud, abrupt bark.

It's a good laugh. Maybe it's a great laugh. Director Nicholas Jasenovec knows it's a good laugh because he uses it to punctuate the opening scene of "Paper Heart" and returns to it frequently throughout.

"Paper Heart" is a documentary about 23 year-old Yi's journey across the United States in quest of a satisfying definition of romantic love. Yi confesses to a shaky understanding of the concept, never having felt it herself and worrying that she may be incapable of it.

Yi interviews a variety of experts on the subject, including an evolutionary biologist, a divorce lawyer and a romance novelist.

Accompanying Yi on her journey is Jake Johnson, an actor portraying Yi's actual director, Nicholas Jasenovec. And so, we see, this isn't a straight-up documentary. It's a documentary with fictional elements. The interviews are real, or at least they appear to be, but the drama unfolding behind the camera is not.

Most of that drama involves Yi's burgeoning relationship with actor Michael Cera (played by actor Michael Cera), whom she meets at a house party early in the documentary. Though mutually attracted, they are both shy, and their tentative courtship is cute and fun to watch.

Eventually, they actively date. This too is fun, partly because of Yi's contract with Jasenovec that nothing she does with Cera will take place off-camera. The documentary is about love, Jasenovec argues, and it would be artistically dishonest to withhold from the audience whatever truths about love Yi is personally experiencing. Jasenovec is good at guilting Yi into things.

This ends up complicating Yi's relationship with Cera, who doesn't want his love life exposed on thirty-two millimeter film. He ends up breaking things off with Yi, and thus we enter the heartbreak section of the story.

Too bad, too, because the light-hearted early stages of a relationship suit the tone of the documentary -- and Yi's somewhat adolescent persona -- much better than the sadness of a relationship's end. It's when things get serious that "Paper Heart" stops being fun.

While this section lasts too long, it doesn't last forever, and things get fun again before the end.

Nearly everything that works about "Paper Heart" flows from Yi's adorable personality. The girl is quirky, awkward, nerdy and utterly charming. All these qualities manifest themselves during her interview with the leather-clad denizens of a smokey biker bar. The way these gruff road warriors open up on the subject of love is both touching and fascinating, an example of how Yi's unselfconscious sincerity, her child-like vulnerability, can cut through even the most jaded exteriors.

My exterior isn't jaded much at all. Yi had me with her first loud, barking laugh.

SCORE:

How Accomplished: 72/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 82/100

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra

A disaster-in-the-making. That's what "GI Joe" was supposed to be.

First came word that Stephen Sommers, auteur of the mediocre "Mummy" flicks and the hideous "Van Helsing," would direct. Then came word the script had to be finished in seven weeks because of the writers strike. Then came word that Sommers was fired in mid-shoot because the studio (Paramount) was so unhappy with how the movie was turning out.

And then there were those awful trailers.

All things considered, it's hard to think of a non-sequel that entered theaters with more baggage than "GI Joe."

So how is the actual movie?

It's okay! It's gloriously, spectacularly, shockingly okay!

I mean, it's a noisy, kinetic, emotionally retarded series of action sequences, but hey, it's a movie based on a toy, and to compare apples to apples, it's much better than the first "Transformers." It's certainly the movie Paramount was trying to get into theaters. In that sense, "Joe" is reminiscent of Paramount's other big gamble this summer, "Star Trek." The product may not be flawless -- or even memorable -- but it gets the breezy tone of schmaltzy fun just right.

So, down to brass tacks. Here's what's good about "GI Joe":

Sienna Miller's Baroness, a slinky bad girl who makes a nicely mysterious appearance during an early -- you guessed it! -- action sequence. The Baroness carries the plot for the first half of the movie (as far as Joe can tell, the Baroness IS Cobra), and perhaps because of this, the first half is the best half.

Also good is Rachel Nichols in her yes-I-am-that-good-looking breakout as Scarlett. A red-headed vixen with an attitude that's all business, Scarlett attracts the eye even when she's on-screen with a crowd. Maybe that's just me, though.

The ninja fights are sufficiently fun. You did know there were going to be ninja fights, didn't you? One of Joe's best fighters is the mute martial artist Snake Eyes. It turns out he's the adoptive brother of the evil Cobra ninja Stormshadow. Like everything in this movie, there's something ridiculous yet cool to the idea that a special forces unit's top soldier would disdain firearms in favor of a sword and some throwing stars.

The globe-trotting nature of the story is a welcome nod to the old cartoon as well as a good way of establishing franchise identity. Fights take place in nearly every climate Earth offers. The sequel is going to have a hard time coming up with a new arena to stage a battle.

In a movie full of action, the chase sequence through Paris deserves special mention. Director Sommers pulls off a frenetic fight/chase on an epic scale without losing track of where things are in relation to each other, which is the ultimate test of any action sequence, especially one as crazy and reckless as this one.

So what's weak?

Um, let's start with the theoretical protagonist "Duke," played by bland hero-type Channing Tatum. Duke is supposed to have had a previous relationship with the Baroness, but this never rings true because Sienna Miller's character has a thousand times more charm than Tatum's. Furthermore, Miller comes off as highly intelligent (not saying she is! I read the tabloids too!) whereas Tatum's default facial expression is a blank stare that seems to indicate he couldn't spell SAT, let alone score in the top one percent, as is alleged.

Because this is an origin story, the future Cobra Commander, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (a big-time rising star), toils in the background. He's got the raspy-voiced overacting of Cobra Commander down pat, so it'll be fun to see him get more screen time in the sequel.

Also hurting the movie is a third act explosion-fest that runs too long and has very little focus. The great thing about the finale in the original Star Wars (the attack on the Death Star) was that we knew what the rebels were trying to do: they were trying to fire a volley of torpedoes into a certain exhaust pipe, which would result in the destruction of the Death Star. There is no such organizing principle governing the attack on Cobra's underwater headquarters, so there's lots of aimless running around and shooting of stuff, which gets old fairly quick.

Ultimately the good outweighs the bad in "GI Joe," which is something I'm surprised to conclude, given all the behind-the-scenes drama leading up to the movie.

So... Yo Joe!

Sorta.

SCORE:

How Accomplished: 57/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 67/100

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Orphan

Ah, the twist.

The crazy-ass, only-in-Hollywood, how-do-they-think-that-shit-up twist.

This movie depends entirely on its third act twist -- it is the reason the movie exists -- so it's pretty much all I'm going to talk about here. If you don't want to know what's behind the much-advertised tagline "There's something wrong with Esther," then stop reading.

Okay. So who is Esther? She's a nine-year-old Russian orphan with thick eyebrows who needs a loving home and family. Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard play a nice professional couple who lost a child to a miscarriage some years back and want to give an unfortunate orphan the loving home and family they were prepared to give their own child.

Let the horror begin.

In a plot that does for adoption what "Rosemary's Baby" did for natural childbirth, Esther starts out creepy, turns violent and eventually becomes homicidal.

The steps that get us there are perfectly competent in a standard Hollywood way. Nearly every scene may be telegraphed well in advance, but there are no boring stretches and the fact that the audience has superior position -- we know Esther's a screwball way before anyone else does -- provides some decent tension.

But just how much of a screwball is Esther? Suspicious mom Vera Farmiga follows a trail of evidence (by Google and cell phone) that leads back to Russia, where she gets in touch with the good people at the Saarne Institute. That's the orphanage from which Esther was first taken.

OR IS IT???

It turns out, the Saarne Institute is not an orphanage. It's an insane asylum. And unbalanced nine year-old Esther is not an unbalanced nine year-old but a violently nutty thirty-three year old with something called hypopituitarism which has stunted her growth. She ends up trying to seduce nice-guy dad Peter Sarsgaard before killing him in a vicious stabbing scene.

Vera Farmiga returns home too late to save Sarsgaard, but just in time to participate in a classic sneak-around-the-darkened-house set piece, which climaxes with a fight in freezing cold water under the ice covering the surface of the backyard pond.

I know we've all had days like that.

It's easy to imagine how a story like "Orphan" would pitch well in a studio exec's office. Presumably that's how the project got off the ground. And I'm okay with that. The twist is surprising enough, and fresh enough -- and it's certainly loony enough -- to take a crack at making a weirdly unsettling horror flick. The resulting film only moderately achieves this goal, but at least it wasn't a total waste of celluloid.

Some movies just are what they are, ya know?

"Orphan" is a party game of a movie, where the audience is invited to try to figure out the ending before the movie reveals it. And as far as party games go, "Orphan" is kind of a fun one.

SCORE:

How Accomplished: 44/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 64/100