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