Sunday, January 31, 2010

Edge of Darkness

Mel Gibson is at his most Mel Gibson-y here.

He scowls. He growls. He suffers incomprehensible amounts of punishment. He kills and kills and kills.

All we're really missing is an anti-semitic remark or two and it would be the complete Mel Gibson experience.

Therefore, how much you enjoy the movie will reflect how much you enjoy Mel Gibson. Because on its own, "Edge of Darkness" kinda sucks.

It follows the story of Bawston Cawp Thomas Craven, a veteran detective playing host to his only daughter, twentysomething Emma, who gets blasted with a shotgun before you can say inciting incident.

Who killed her? Why? What perilous secrets went with her to a premature grave?

These are the questions that will be answered in ludicrous fashion.

In fact, I can't really talk about the movie without divulging the secret at the heart of the story. Everything leading up to said heart is the most shopworn tomfoolery, a pastiche of cop movie cliches that haven't been fresh for a really long time.

"What's the senatah's cah-nection ta Noath Moah?"

That's my rendition of a Boston accent. The evil corporation of the story is called Northmoor. The name gets thrown around so often in a Boston accent ("Noath Moa. Noath Moa!") that I was giggling when I was supposed to be thinking about the plot and therefore may have missed some key details.

What I didn't miss is this: "Edge" is extremely old-fashioned. This may owe to the fact that it is based on a 1985 British miniseries of the same name directed by this film's director, Martin Campbell, who also helmed the recent "Casino Royale."

The script is """updated""" -- I'm hoping three sets of quotes drive the point home -- by William Monaghan, best known for adapting Scorcese's "The Departed" from its Hong Kong original.

"Darkness" resolves itself the same way "The Departed" does, with a Friday the 13th-like depopulation of the story's characters.

And while we're on the resolution, here's the big secret. (Get ready. Here it comes!)

Mel Gibson's daughter was killed because...

(are you ready?)

...she discovered the company she was working for -- Noath Moa! -- was building crude nuclear devices out of parts originating in the jihadist Middle East. In other words, it was building nukes that would be untraceable back to the US, and selling them...

...to the United States Government!

Raising the question:

What on Earth was the US Government planning to do with dirty bombs that had jihadist signatures?

The movie never answers this question. Like a lot of conspiratorial wack jobs, its creators feel it is sufficient to assume the US government is not only capable of nuking its own people, but eager for the opportunity.

So if you're the sort of person who believes in lots of crazy theories, like, I don't know, the idea that the Jews were responsible for every war in the 20th century, then I'm sure you'll embrace this logic.

If not, the movie makes very little sense.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 32/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 27/100

Creation

This movie is right in my wheelhouse.

Written about the man I consider the most accomplished human ever -- Charles Darwin -- by screenwriter John Collee, who penned my favorite movie of the 00's -- "Master and Commander" -- and featuring that movie's co-star, Mr. Jennifer Connelly, "Creation" has a wonderful pedigree.

So I'm disappointed it doesn't quite live up to expectations.

Which is not to say "Creation" is a bad movie. It's not.

It tells the story of Charles Darwin, the nineteenth century British scientist who -- oh, you know who Darwin is!

Specifically, it tells the story of Darwin's attempt to overcome his grief at the loss of his beloved child Annie. This is complicated by the fact that he is also wrestling with the unfinished manuscript that will become his monumental "The Origin of Species."

Darwin's problem is: by producing the first explanation of human existence superior to that offered by the Bible, the completion of "Origin" will kill God. Not just in the public consciousness, but in Darwin's own heart. And with God will die any hope Darwin has that he will ever be reunited with his precious Annie.

Neat idea for a movie!

Helping matters is the fact that Darwin's wife, Emma, is played by Mr. Jennifer Connelly's real-life wife, Mrs. Jennifer Connelly. Woo hoo!

The movie is really a love triangle between Darwin, his wife Emma and his daughter Annie (who has a major role through Darwin's grief-induced hallucinations.) Darwin's heart belongs to his deceased Annie, and until he lets her go -- and publishes his damn book -- he can't be a loving husband to Mrs. Jennifer Connelly, or a loving father to his other three children.

In the end he does what has to be done. He and the Mrs. share their deepest feelings of grief and guilt with each other. All is made well.

Oh yeah, and he also makes history with the publication of his book.

And I guess that's where "Creation" lets me down. By restricting its scope to the personal, much of the sweep and charm of Darwin's long march to immortality is left out.

Darwin's scientific buddies, Joseph Hooker and Thomas Huxley, are given only a single scene and their task is largely expositional.

Historically, Hooker and Huxley stood in for Darwin (a hypochondriac who was home throwing up) at a famous scientific debate at Oxford University in 1860, shortly following the publication of "Origin." Their opponents were the diabolically evil Richard Owen and the misguided prelate, Bishop Samuel Wilberforce.

The debate grew extremely heated, till at one point Wilberforce demanded that Huxley explain from which side of his family he claimed to have descended from a monkey. Huxley whispered to Hooker, "The Lord hath delivered him to my hands," stood up and proclaimed, "I would rather have a monkey for a grandfather than such as man as this!" (meaning Wilberforce)

The crowd turned riotous. Tables were overturned, women fainted and the debate was over.

If you're going to make a movie about Darwin, how can you leave that scene out?

SCORE

How Accomplished: 72/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 79/100

SCORE (Jennifer Connelly's Physical Appearance)

How Accomplished: 99/100

How Much I Enjoy: 101/100

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Extraordinary Measures

Often when a movie is bad, it's hard to say exactly what the problem is.

Such is not the case with family medical drama "Extraordinary Measures." I know with certainty why it doesn't work.

Here's the plot. See if you can spot the problem.

Brendan Fraser has three beautiful children. Two of them have a debilitating muscle condition called Pompe disease. The movie opens with the eldest suffering a respiratory crisis that looks sure to claim her life.

But she pulls through. She returns to her happy, funny self.

Knowing his daughter is on the clock, Brendan Fraser seeks out the foremost researcher on Pompe disease: a cantankerous old coot played by Harrison Ford.

Ford is so prickly he won't even take Fraser's calls. So Fraser drives to Ford's Nebraska research lab. Through persistence, he convinces Ford to talk to him. Ford explains that he has a promising theory but no money to test it with.

So Fraser and his wife call a bunch of old friends. They raise money. They present it to Ford, who does Fraser one better. He offers Fraser a job with a new biotech start-up the two will create.

Their new start-up needs more money, however, so Fraser takes Ford to an investment company called Renzler. As usual, Ford is prickly and blows the meeting by losing his temper. But, with persistence, Fraser keeps Renzler interested and eventually gets them to buy the biotech firm for scads of money.

However, the Renzler research division operates in four different "core groups," each of which competes against each other for best results. Fraser knows cooperation is essential to finding a cure so, through persistence, he convinces the company to merge their groups into one cooperative team.

And on and on.

The problem is, this is no way to tell a story.

One fire bursts into existence. It is extinguished by our plucky hero. Then another flames to life. Our hero puts that out too. Another appears. At some point the movie stops and credits roll.

This isn't even a story!

In a story, the hero must progress backward. Every step he/she takes to improve his/her situation must make matters WORSE.

This is the most common misconception non-writers or first-time writers (or second, or third) have about storytelling. They think they need to start their character in a hole, then show the character climbing out of it. Once the character's out, the story ends.

Nothing could be less interesting.

Here's what's interesting: failure. Catastrophe. Bitter, painful defeat. Followed, impossibly, by final victory.

Pulling that off is tricky, of course. But you have to try.

In "E.T.," our boy Elliot tries to hide his extra-terrestrial friend from the government authorities looking for him. This gets progressively harder as the authorities close in on E.T.'s location.

After a series of failures -- failure to contact E.T.'s fellow aliens, failure to keep E.T. healthy with a diet of Reese's Pieces -- Elliot fails to keep the authorities at bay. They crash into the house and seize possession of the dying alien.

Within minutes they are performing electroshock therapy on E.T.'s corpse, Drew Barrymore is jumping with startlement and Elliot is screaming "You're killing him!"

Now THAT'S a story!

Shortly after our uttermost depth of despair (Elliot's final speech to the deceased E.T.), the geranium comes back to life. E.T.'s people are on the way. All is not, apparently, lost.

But you have to fail your way to that victory. You can't be confronted with a new crisis every ten minutes, then solve that crisis and never hear of it again. The results will be episodic at best, cheap and fraudulent at worst.

And those are two good words to describe "Extraordinary Measures": cheap and fraudulent. They can quote me for the DVD cover if they'd like.

If that's insufficient, try this:

"Brendan Fraser is fat, Harrison Ford is old, and British actor Jared Harris does the worst American accent in years!"

SCORE

How Accomplished: 24/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 23/100


SCORE (E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial)

How Accomplished: 99/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 108/100

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Legion

It's not every day you see the archangel Gabriel cling to the back of a police cruiser whipping side-to-side in an attempt to throw him.

You're treated to that spectacle -- and others -- in "Legion," a very Hollywood take on the Book of Revelations.

A very Hollywood take.

Very.

Fortunately I love Hollywood! So I liked "Legion."

The story in short: an angel falls to Earth. And not just any angel, but the storied archangel Michael (AKA Mr. Jennifer Connelly.)

Michael's on a mission to load up on weapons, get his divine ass to a roadside diner in the middle of the Arizona desert and prepare for an onslaught of demons bent on slaying the unborn messiah incubated by waitress Charlie. Charlie is played by Adrianne Palicki, "Tyra" of "Friday Night Lights" fame, and if you don't watch FNL, shame on you.

So we've got a fairly standard plot structure, at least in the broad strokes. A collection of good guys on the inside, a host of baddies on the outside.

This means the story will alternate between scenes of combat and scenes of character revelation, at intervals almost predictable enough to set your watch to.

The character revelation stuff almost uniformly sucks, but the action set pieces are fun. Seeing an angel wield a heavy machine gun is, let's face it, pretty cool, and I imagine it's the visual that sold the movie to Sony in the first place.

The original writer is Peter Schink, an editor by trade whose work includes such masterpieces as "Barb Wire" and "The Chase." This is his first big screenplay.

Director Scott Stewart comes from the world of visual effects. He worked at Industrial Light and Magic and then its offspring, The Orphanage. This is his first directing gig.

Surprisingly, the entire movie is well-wrought. Dialogue is more or less sparse. The camera is dynamic. The special effects are, if anything, understated. There's actual craft at work in "Legion." Who'da thunk it?

But back to the story. There's a nice wrinkle which the film is not terribly concerned with hiding: God is on the side of the bad guys.

That's right, the Man Upstairs has decided to drop the curtain on human life. But his irascible military genius Michael has other ideas. He can't just "turn off" his love for humanity the way God can. So he's going to fight.

This will bring him into conflict with God's other big gun, Michael's fellow archangel Gabriel. You may not have realized you wanted to see a knock-down-drag-out fight between a pair of archangels, but once you do see it, you're fine with it.

There's a neat psychological angle to this relationship. Gabriel and Michael are very much like brothers, the older and more responsible of whom -- Gabriel -- does whatever his Holy Father tells him to. The slightly younger Michael is more prone to going his own way. As hokey as this might sound, it actually grounds the relationship in terms we can understand and, to a point, believe.

There is, of course, a deus ex machina ending. And not just any deus, but the grand daddy of them all, the Judeo-Christian God himself!

He doesn't put in a personal appearance, since that would be hard for even a seasoned effects man to pull off, but he has a change of heart at some point and humanity is spared.

Schmaltzy, sure, but it's not as bad as you think. The movie doesn't linger long on its weak spots, and when it comes to the big emotional scenes, at least it knows what it is.

It's a Hollywood flick about a rebellious archangel intent on machine-gunning anyone God sends to get him.

If that doesn't sound kinda cool, you might want to avoid "Legion."

SCORE

How Accomplished: 62/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 72/100

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Book of Eli

This movie gets a lot out of a little.

The "little" is the premise and plot: thirty years after the apocalypse, a lone man -- Denzel Washington -- walks west. He carries a King James Bible, the last in existence. A voice has commanded him to carry the book someplace safe.

Denzel comes across a small settlement ruled with an iron fist by Gary Oldman, who has spent decades in search of just the tome Denzel carries. Oldman intends to use the Good Book to recreate the old religion with himself at its head.

Since Denzel does not wish to turn the Bible over to Oldman, a great deal of violence and mayhem ensues.

And that's your story.

But here's where "Eli" rises above the madding crowd of post-apocalyptic actioners: instead of using the post-apocalypse as a mere playground for unrestricted chaos... instead of using the Bible as a standard MacGuffin to justify a string of hackneyed fight and chase sequences... instead of all that, every moment that elapses in "The Book of Eli" is bountifully imbued with questions of faith and purpose.

The conflict between Denzel and Oldman is a thoughtful, profound debate about the uses of religion, argued with words but settled with knives, chains and guns.

Oldman's character -- unimaginatively named "Carnegie" -- succeeds because he's subtle. He's ruthless, yes, brutal, sure, but only if he has to be, and in the post-apocalypse he generally has to be. He's old enough that, like Denzel, he remembers the world before civilization crashed. Like Denzel, he's cultured and smart. And ultimately he makes a compelling argument for life as a great game of power politics and nothing more.

Wonderfully there is no trace of Oldman's typical overacting. Which goes to show what a good idea it is to cast a wild-eyed ham of an actor as your villain and then force him to dial his intensity down, down, down (see Montalban, Ricardo.)

A weak spot is the beautiful young Solara -- a MacGuffin in her own right -- played by Mila Kunis, who just doesn't have the acting chops to hang with Denzel and Oldman. Kunis is a rising star, but this is a stronger movie if the Hughes brothers had cast a young unknown -- I would suggest anyone British.

I'll let the Hughes brothers off the hook for this misstep because their directing in "The Book of Eli" is so exceptionally strong. I'm penning them in for a personal "best director" nomination which the academy will surely not give them next year.

But that's a shame. They achieve something remarkable with their use of a hypnotic musical score, a pale but complex color scheme and lots of languorous slow camera pans that placed me in an open-mouthed trance for much of the running time. Along with some great acting by Denzel and Oldman, captured in appropriate closeups, "The Book of Eli" is a visually stupendous movie.

Credit for the writing goes to Gary Whitta, a professional gaming writer and former editor of PC Gamer magazine. This is an admirable first foray into feature screenplays.

2010's off to a great start with "The Book of Eli."

SCORE

How Accomplished: 85/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 90/100

Monday, January 11, 2010

Bitch Slap and The Young Victoria: A Dual Review

Female empowerment takes many forms.

So does bad film-making.

Both are present in "The Young Victoria," which is about the first few turbulent years of Britain's longest-tenured monarch, and "Bitch Slap," which is about three sexy vixens who fight an assortment of underworld thugs in their quest to find buried diamonds.


Emily Blunt plays Victoria, who ascends to England's throne in 1837 at the age of eighteen. Three relative unknowns play Hel, Camero and Trixie, femme fatales with an array of martial arts skills and a serious affinity for automatic weaponry.

"Victoria" has two big strikes against it. First, by the time of her reign, England's monarch had very little actual power. The prime minister ran the show. Second, the era was relatively quiet on the international front, Napoleon having been vanquished twenty years earlier.

As a consequence, not much happens in "The Young Victoria" and the stakes are rather low. This stands in contrast to the other recent cinematic treatment of a storied English Queen, Cate Blanchett's "Elizabeth."

"Bitch Slap" also compares unfavorably to Blanchett's "Elizabeth," in part because of the scene where our three scantily-clad heroines get into a giggly water bucket fight, splashing each other and laughing in a manner incompatible with the professional killers they are stated to be.


What Hel, Camero and Trixie are supposed to be concentrating on is the location of stolen diamonds, which are buried somewhere near a desert locale defined by a trailer home and a stack of gasoline barrels which, believe it or not, end up exploding.

In the absence of a compelling storyline, "The Young Victoria" focuses on the romance between Victoria and Prince Albert, a German nobleman who will become the Queen's husband.

By contrast, "Bitch Slap" fills out a sparse storyline with frequent flashbacks, often having to do with stripping or fighting or both. We also learn things about our three central characters, like one of them is secretly an international spy.

The problem with the Victoria/Albert romance is that it isn't very romantic. Albert's motives are largely geo-strategic, and Victoria shares more sparks with the charismatic prime minister Lord Melbourne, played by Paul Bettany.

The fatal flaw in "Bitch Slap" is that it uses its B-movie tone to conceal the absence of true wit or excitement. It revels in the fact that it isn't very good, raising the question of whether it's possible to make a B-movie intentionally. I don't think it is. The innocent era that produced B-movies is long gone. Despite its intentions, I think "Bitch Slap" is an A-movie that just isn't very good.

And man is there a lot of fighting in it!

Meanwhile, Queen Victoria has troubles of her own, like surviving the deranged assassin who takes a shot at her while she's riding her carriage in public. Albert does the manly thing and leaps in the way of the bullet, but he only sustains a flesh wound, and as a means of reconciling our quarreling lovers, it feels like a deus ex machina.

Speaking of deus ex machina, there's a twist at the end of "Bitch Slap" that is at once predictable and absurd. I won't spoil it but... actually, wait a second, I will spoil it. This movie sucks anyway.

The diabolical "Pinkie," a mysterious figure who inhabits the shadows of the criminal underworld, turns out to be none other than the airheaded bimbo, Trixie! Trixie is the character we would least suspect. Therefore we suspect her three minutes into the movie.

But did I mention all the fighting? "Bitch Slap" is practically a martial arts instructional video. And for all the languorous shots of our actress' bodies, "Bitch Slap" isn't all that sexy. (Well, except for the lesbian sex scene between Hel and Trixie. That was sensational.)

"The Young Victoria" is full of courtliness and manners, but nothing very significant happens. In "Bitch Slap," lots of crazy shit happens, but none of it holds together, builds to anything, or makes a lick of sense.

Ultimately the question facing the potential viewer of these two movies is: how do you prefer to be bored? With gratuitous sexuality and mindless violence? Or with a stuffy historical yawner?

I chose both, of course, but I'm kind of an idiot.

SCORE (The Young Victoria)

How Accomplished: 44/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 36/100

SCORE (Bitch Slap)

How Accomplished: 25/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 36/100