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.

Google Logo
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)

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Whiteout

At the beginning of the new crime thriller "Whiteout," Kate Beckinsdale's federal marshall Carrie Stetko walks through the Amundsen-Scott antarctic research base, goes into her cabin, disrobes slowly, and wriggles sensuously under a steaming-hot shower for about three minutes.

And you thought characer development was dead!

With our main character now fully established, "Whiteout" launches Beckinsdale into a slack, been-there-done-that investigation which concerns a crashed plane, a conspiracy of silence and a handful of uncut Russian diamonds.

You heard that right.

Russian diamonds.

What we have here, my friends, is an episode of CSI -- and not the original series, either, more like the one with Gary Sinise -- which, because it's a film and you're paying ten bucks, was arbitrarily placed in Antarctica.

Or a Burbank soundstage made to resemble Antarctica. Poorly.

"Whiteout" gives you a good-looking female protagonist, a few standard action sequences and one ho-hum twist. Thank you for coming. Please take your trash with you when you leave the theater.

The ambitions of director Dominic Sena and his four writers on this film are so low I felt like giving them a lecture about making something of themselves.

I felt like saying, You can't just sit on the couch all day, Dominic Sena. You need goals. You need a purpose. Do you really want to spend your life making soulless imitations of grade-B schlockfests last made in the seventies and considered soulless even then?

Of course not!

So put away the potato chips, clean yourself up and get dressed. And it wouldn't kill you to shave once in awhile, either.

The one good thing about "Whiteout" is that it fades quickly from memory, much as its title suggests. The same can't be said for Sena's last cinematic foray, "Swordfish," the imbecility of which annoys me to the present day.

And if you think I'm being too harsh, remember that "Swordfish" had a scene where Halle Berry gave Hugh Jackman a blowjob while he tried to solve a computer cypher in under a minute lest John Travolta shoot him in the head.

Let's not mince words. "Swordfish" was offensively stupid.

"Whiteout" is not AS stupid. But then again, "Whiteout" isn't much of anything.

It's just a bunch of phony stuff that happened while I ate Twizzlers and drank a diet Coke.

Don't rush out to see it.


SCORE:

How Accomplished: 38/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 27/100

(all the visual reminders of John Carpenter's "The Thing" reminded me how much I wasn't watching John Carpenter's "The Thing.")

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Final Destination

Some movies aren't really movies. They are mathematical equations.

Consider the equation that describes everything you need to know about "The Final Destination," the fourth movie in a series about teenagers who escape a deadly calamity by virtue of a freaky premonition, only to discover that death still considers their lives forfeit and intends to collect.

(All the following figures are in millions. Data courtesy of boxofficemojo.com.)

FINAL DESTINATION 1

domestic + international box office: $112

budget: $23

profit = $89

FINAL DESTINATION 2

d + i: $90

budget: $26 (this number came from imdb.com)

profit = $64

FINAL DESTINATION 3

d + i: $113

budget: $25

profit = $88

THE FINAL DESTINATION (CURRENT MOVIE)

d + i: $84 and counting (in only 2 weeks of release)

budget: $40

profit = $44 and counting...


There are of course a few subtleties involved in toting up profits and losses.

For starters, not all the box office revenue goes to the movie studio. Something like 60% of domestic grosses and 40% of international grosses (the exact percentage is negotiated studio by studio and often movie by movie) go to the studio. The rest goes to the theater chains. In this franchise, domestic and international revenues tend to be roughly equal, so about half the overall take represents the true net at the box office.

And you can add something like $20m to the cost of each movie for the advertising budget. (That number is a guess. A major marketing campaign runs $40m. I can't see the studio spending more than half that on these low-rent horror flicks. It would defeat the purpose: a nice juicy profit margin.)

However, we haven't yet accounted for dvd rentals and sales, pay-per-view, cable or broadcast television revenues. For commercial successes like the Final Destination flicks, that income will generally compensate the studio for whatever money went to the theater chains during the original box office run.

Which brings us back to roughly the numbers above. And they are compelling.

Warner Bros./New Line has figured a way to turn twenty-five million dollars into ninety million dollars. That is a GOOD trick.

And reliable. The plot of all four movies is exactly the same. The faces may change. The precise method of grisly demise may change. But all that happens is that teenagers die in violent accidents. Let me say that again. That is ALL that happens.

And that's what's interesting about "The Final Destination." When the numbers look like these, the actual content of the movie is of tertiary concern.

Be honest: if YOU could throw together a slapdash piece of crap about teenagers being killed in the most bloody but least affecting ways possible, and quadruple your investment doing it, then you would do it.

You simply would.

This highlights one of the great tricks for avoiding bad movies. (Which I studiously did NOT put into practice in this case): check out the recent history of the "talent" attached -- in this case, director David Ellis, who helmed the profitable second film -- and the recent box office fortunes of previous movies in the same cycle, or previous movies of a similar type. This will give you a reasonable idea whether the deck of cards is stacked in a movie's favor (moneywise) or against. With that knowledge in hand, if it seems like a foolish decision on the studio's part to even make the movie...

Then it must have a TERRIFIC script.

If, on the other hand, it seems perfectly obvious that the movie will make money whether it is any good or not -- "Saw 6," I'm looking at you -- then you can bet your allowance the script is horrendous.

Good scripts are extremely hard to write and take a long time and never turn up where you expect them to. Therefore Hollywood loves the script-proof movie.

And so I give you "Final Destination 4," an entirely script-proof -- nearly, in fact, a script-free -- slice of cinema.

Congratulations, Warner Bros./New Line. You're on your way to another $54m profit and I'm sure you've got "Final Destination 5" already up on the cork board.

You suck.

SCORE:

How Accomplished: 22/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 14/100

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Extract

I love Mike Judge.

In his twenty year career Judge has produced a classic television show ("Beavis and Butthead"), a less-cited but quietly brilliant follow-up ("King of the Hill"), a classic feature film ("Office Space") and a less-cited but quietly brilliant follow-up to that ("Idiocracy.")

Now he gives us "Extract," a typically Judgian workplace comedy.

"Extract" centers around Jason Bateman's Joel, a likable married man who owns and runs an artificial-flavor processing plant. Joel has maybe thirty employees at the factory, and each of them is a different kind of headache.

In a nice tip of the cap to reality, the only employees who aren't troublesome are the silent Mexicans who are presumed to be illegals.

Unfortunately for Joel there aren't enough of those. Instead he deals with the lazy, the distracted and the entitled. He would like to sell the entire company to General Mills, but when a workplace accident costs one of his employees a testicle, sparking a potential lawsuit, the lucrative sell-out is on hold.

Things get both better and worse -- always a good story dynamic -- when Mila Kunis' temp worker Cindy shows up. Cindy is young, gorgeous and apparently interested in Joel. What Joel doesn't know, but we the audience do -- yay superior position! -- is that Cindy is a career crook and the driving force behind the lawsuit.

"Extract" is an affable, low-key charmer. In baseball terms it's a solid base hit the runner stretched into a double. It's not a genre classic like "Office Space" but the dialogue is fun, the characters are mostly kind-hearted and there's just enough quirk to keep things interesting.

What puzzles me about this movie is the star power involved. Ben Affleck has a sizable role as Bateman's Xanax-pushing bartender friend. Kristen Wiig plays Bateman's bored and sexually uninterested wife. Comedy fave JK Simmons plays Bateman's business partner and Gene Simmons of KISS shows up as a predatorial litigator with some funny lines: "I will drop this case right now if you let me slam your balls in this door."

Isn't Mike Judge a big enough creative force not to require stars in his low-budget, low-concept comedy? As good as all the recognizable actors are in their roles, I wonder if "Extract" would have been more engrossing if Judge had gone with unknowns. A good director with a good script can get a good performance out of anybody, and as an audience member I always get more attached to actors I associate with their characters than actors I associate with other work.

Maybe Judge's acrimonious struggle with Fox over his last effort, the largely star-free "Idiocracy", convinced him to hedge his bets this time. Or maybe Judge is just superstitious. It's hard not to be in a profession so dominated by luck.

Judge shouldn't worry. He's plenty good without the help of movie stars. Maybe better.

Can I do a Beavis and Butthead quote? Is that allowed in 2009? Oh hell, just for old times' sake:

"Huh huh. Huh Huh. Come... to Butthead."

SCORE:

How Accomplished: 72/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 81/100