Sunday, February 28, 2010

Defendor

What a strange creature this movie is.

Written and directed by actor Peter Stebbings, Defendor chronicles the crimebusting efforts of a costumed hero not only without super powers, but without an IQ within twenty points of average.

I guess I better show you what Defendor looks like.

At first blush it seems Defendor is making a play for laughs, but as the minutes tick by you start to realize this isn't a comedy, it's a drama.

It's an indie drama!

Dealing matter-of-factly with drug use, prostitution, rape and mental disability, Defendor is about how the world looks from the perspective of those unequipped to handle it.

Defendor's alter ego is Arthur Poppington, a badly damaged product of a drug-addicted mother and a developmental deficit. He is played by Woody Harrelson, the go-to guy for Hollywood strangeness.

Arthur gets it into his head that the world can be righted if only he can find and defeat Captain Industry, the imagined mastermind responsible for the death of his mother.

He is directed toward a local crimelord by street urchin Angel, played by Kat Dennings. She moves into Arthur's secret lair -- a power tool workshop -- and forms the central relationship of the movie. Her motives are impure, as are everyone's except Arthur's, but she ends up a much better person for having known Defendor.

The conceit of Defendor is the titular superhero's incompetence. Defendor doesn't win fights, he loses them. Repeatedly.

And I give the movie points for sticking to this premise: even in the end, Defendor gets beat. It's how he gets beat without losing that makes Defendor's story interesting.

Overall, Defendor is only a qualified success. It's a neat idea with a piquant tone, but it feels a little early draftish. A few more rewrites over the course of a few more years and Defendor might have been great.

As it is, it's merely good and different.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 61/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 63/100

The Crazies

A pitchfork dragged across the floor, leaving a trail of thin blood lines.

That's the signature image of this remake of George Romero's 1973 horror flick, The Crazies. It's a good image, and this is a good movie.

A crashed military flight contaminates a small town in Iowa with a virus designed to "destabilize" an enemy population by driving them violently insane. Now it's the small town that is destabilized, with horrific results.

Importantly, not everyone is infected with the virus. Among them is town Sheriff David Dutton, played by the excellent Timothy Olyphant. With his deputy Russell, his wife Judy and a rescued straggler, Sheriff Olyphant has his hands full just trying to get the f out of Dodge.

This ain't so easy, and zombies are only part of the problem.

The government has imposed a quarantine of the town. All exits are blocked and anyone trying to escape is shot. This is smart containment policy, but it's bad news for our characters.

As you might expect, our heroes end up confronting a whole mess of zombies.

But the movie takes advantage of every possible source of dramatic tension. Difficult decisions about leaving loved ones behind are brought into play. Questions of whether our heroes are truly free of the virus come up. It's even debated that it might be better to die in a dignified manner than continue the struggle against an impossible situation.

The scene that encapsulates everything good about The Crazies takes place in a car wash. Our heroes, driving Sheriff Olyphant's unreliable, old-style police cruiser -- army personnel have booted every other car in town -- take shelter in the car wash because passing gunships keep firing missiles at them.

Inside the car wash, however, a cadre of crazies is intent on killing our heroes in the most brutal way possible.

Life is hard in The Crazies. It is also tense, thoughtful and completely gripping.

We've seen horror movies like this before -- in 1973, for example -- and we will see them again. The Crazies breaks no new ground. It simply covers existing ground very, very well.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 82/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 90/100

Friday, February 26, 2010

Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief

Sucks.

But we already knew that, right? Just take a look at the title.

Oops, I just advised judging a book and its movie adaptation by its cover. I know I'm not supposed to do that. But dammit, titles MATTER.

So Percy sucks. The real question is: why does it suck with the intensity it does?

The basic story idea is not the worst in the world. It's this: young Percy Jackson (12 years old in the book, 17 in the movie; more on this later) has a completely normal life till he is attacked one day on a class field trip by an ancient Greek "fury" demanding to know where he has hidden Zeus' lightning bolt.

All the ancient Olympic gods, it seems, are real. They just remain hidden to modern eyes. And our boy Percy is one of them. His unknown biological father is revealed to be the powerful Poseidon, lord of the sea.

That's the good news. The bad news is, everyone in the Olympic world suspects Percy of having stolen Zeus' missing thunderbolt, the most powerful weapon in creation.

Why they think Percy stole the lightning bolt is never explained. An early hint that this fictional world has not been carefully thought out.

Anyway, Percy does have some friends, including his black buddy Grover, who has the legs of a goat, and museum director Pierce Brosnan, who has the lower body of a horse. Hold the jokes.

Grover takes Percy to Brosnan's "Camp Half-Blood," literally a summer camp for demi-gods, complete with cabins, canoes and organized games. The purpose of this camp is to train the offspring of gods in the fighting arts. Oddly, real swords are used in the games, and Percy receives no actual training before being thrown into actual combat with actual weapons. Hint #2 that this world hasn't been thought out all that well.

At the camp, Percy meets Annabeth, daughter of Athena, and a love interest is thus shoe-horned into the plot.

Percy can't stay long, though. His mother has been abducted by Hades, god of the underworld, and Percy's intent on rescuing her. This is an appropriate mission for a 12 year old Percy; it's a little odd, thematically, for a 17 year old.

He is accompanied on this quest by his two friends, Grover and Annabeth. And if you're thinking "Boy, this is all starting to feel a lot like Harry Potter," then you and I are on the same wavelength. Take a typical Harry Potter story, strip away all the imagination, emotion and internal self-consistency, and you've got The Lightning Thief. Enjoy.

Getting into the underworld is one thing, getting out another. Therefore Percy and his friends must acquire three magic pearls, one for each of them, that will permit them to exit the underworld once they've rescued Percy's mother.

Fatally, the quest to find these pearls comprises the bulk of Thief's plot. First our heroes must face Medusa to get the first pearl, then break into a museum for the second -- the second museum sequence in the movie; man this story ran out of ideas fast! -- and retrieve the third pearl from a Las Vegas casino.

This all takes about AN HOUR of screentime, and represents unforgivably bad but all too common "plot coupon" storytelling, where the characters must acquire a number of coupons -- in this case, magic pearls -- in order to purchase a happy ending. It's easy, it's cheap and it's lazy.

In addition to the bad plot and poorly-imagined fictional world, the decision to "age up" the central characters from 12 to 17 without changing the tone of the story gives Percy Jackson a creepily false tone. The 17 year olds are acting and talking like 12 year olds, not unlike the old tv show Saved by the Bell.

It's all very shoddy and ill-conceived, which is not surprising coming from director Chris Columbus, the one-time Steven Spielberg protege who took the brilliant first two Harry Potter books and made bad movies out of them. Here he takes a bad book and makes a terrible movie.

Chris Columbus is "The Downgrader." He can take any story and make it substantially worse. And he gets paid lots of money to do it.

Hollywood is a curious town.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 26/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 21/100

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Frozen

"Frozen" is a movie about three college-age friends who go on a ski trip.

Not a movie yet. Hang in there.

As night closes in, our friends convince the schlubby lift operator to give them one more ride up the mountain before the resort closes.

Oops.

Through a series of a small miscues -- like a plane disaster where five different fail-safes have to malfunction -- confusion arises as to whether the three kids are still on the mountain. Mistaking them for three other skiers, the temporary stand-in for the schlubby lift operator shuts down the lift, turns off the lights and goes home. Everyone goes home.

Leaving our friends stranded on a cold piece of metal a hundred feet off the ground.

The situation is simple. Simple and unforgiving.

No one knows where our friends are. The ski resort will not reopen till the following weekend. To stay on the lift is to freeze to death.

To jump is dangerous in the extreme. It's a loooong way down. To climb along the lift wire is at least equally dangerous. On the mountain, hands get cold quickly and the wire is razor sharp.

And did I mention the wolves?

The writer-director of "Frozen" is Adam Green, who has written-directed a handful of micro-budget horrors and thrillers. The actors have resumes but are largely unknown. The only one I recognized was Shawn Ashmore, who had a small role in the X-Men movies as, ironically, Iceman.

What's great about simple, impossible situations is that character has no choice but to come out. At some point, someone's got to take a deadly chance. Who goes first? How do the others respond to what happens? Who goes next? These questions, apparently pragmatic and plot-oriented, get to the hub of who a person is.

There are two critical ways in which a movie like this can go wrong. The first is, in the effort to create conflict between characters, the movie makes at least one of them flagrantly unlikeable.

"Frozen" avoids this. The closest character to being a prick is handsome Dan (the one sitting in the middle,) but during the crisis he acts in ways that make us reconsider his strength of spirit.

The second way a movie like this can go wrong is by having the characters make tactical choices that are obviously stupid.

While our friends on the ski lift do things -- and FAIL to do things -- that, in retrospect, consign them to grisly ends, they are not things the characters should have been conscious of at the time. After all, the characters aren't supposed to know they're in a movie. If they did, they would wisely stay in bed that morning.

And that's why "Frozen" works. The three central characters act like real people caught in a cruel situation.

It's strange that the same events which would make for a horrendous tragedy in real life make for a ton of fun inside a darkened cineplex.

Strange but true.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 84/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 85/100

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Ghost Writer

Directors are an immoral lot.

Famed Polish auteur Roman Polanski stands accused of sexually abusing a thirteen year-old girl in 1977.

As if that weren't bad enough, he always takes writing credit on his films. It drives me crazy when directors do that. They almost never deserve the credit, but directors have such power, especially famous ones, that no writer wants to blackball his own career by calling BS and bringing in guild arbitrators.

Okay, the sex abuse is worse.

During his long years in exile from the U.S., Polanski made a half-dozen mostly forgettable films, none of which lived up to his early "Rosemary's Baby" or "Chinatown."

Nor does "The Ghost Writer," but it's damn good anyway.

It follows aspiring writer Ewan McGregor, who wins the job of ghosting the memoirs of a former British Prime Minister played by Pierce Brosnan.

McGregor is the second ghost writer assigned this job. The first died under mysterious circumstances mere days ago.

The bulk of the action takes place in a secure island compound off the coast of New England, where the charming former PM is weathering multiple storms. The first is the media storm issuing from allegations that Brosnan committed war crimes by turning a quartet of terror suspects over to the CIA for waterboarding.

The second is the displeasure of his wife, Olivia Williams, over his relationship with his chief assistant, played by Kim Cattrall.

The third is all the rain that batters the island, creating the perfect atmosphere for the tense thriller that develops when McGregor starts to suspect the PM is hiding a terrible secret, one which cost the original ghost writer his life to discover.

The clue-gathering storyline is standard but excellently done. Information is revealed at the perfect rate to keep the audience thinking throughout.

Which just leaves the big reveal. The terrible secret!

It's this:

Pierce Brosnan's PM was recruited by the CIA in college. He was therefore an American plant in the British government who, throughout his years in power, was taking orders directly from Washington, D.C.

Or at least we think that's the secret, till the very end when McGregor discovers it is Brosnan's wife who is the CIA agent. She was the Lady Macbeth controlling her husband's actions at the behest of those dreaded Americans.

I have two reactions to this twist. The first is, it's sufficiently interesting, original and scandalous to hang a movie on.

My other reaction is, boy, Roman Polanski must have loved directing a movie that cast the British as naive dupes of the puppeteering -- and largely diabolical -- American government. No wonder he claimed writing credit! This is an idea he wished he'd thought of.

In the real world, the secret behind "The Ghost Writer" could never really happen. The CIA can't control who gets elected president of the US, let alone the PM of Great Britain. The movie thus presents an overly conspiratorial view of power politics. There are more effective ways of getting foreign countries to do what you want than working a brainwashed mole up through their political system.

But hey, in movie terms, I think it's a great idea for the scheming United States. I don't mind seeing my beloved stars and stripes portrayed as bad guys as long as it's done this intelligently and with this much fun.

But to set the record straight, the writer behind "The Ghost Writer" -- the real ghost writer! -- is Robert Harris who adapted the script from his novel.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 83/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 88/100

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Shutter Island

It's time for me to come clean about something.

I don't really like the work of Martin Scorcese.

Don't get me wrong. "Goodfellas" is one of the best films ever made, and I adore it. It's just that Scorcese's second best film is -- in my humble opinion -- not even good.

I know. Heresy. What about "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull?" But when's the last time you watched either of those movies from beginning to end? Those two are high on my unrewatchable list.

In fact, almost the entire Scorcese filmography is on that list. When's the last time we stayed up way too late because "The Last Temptation of Christ" or "Casino" or "The Color of Money" was playing on cable? Has that ever happened?

The sad truth: "Goodfellas" is the exception, not the rule.

And Scorcese's recent work all conforms to a disturbing formula: brilliant camerawork, superb editing, terrific use of lighting and music... matched with an overlong, rambling, formless story with a disappointing climax.

Unfortunate. But true.

"Gangs of New York." "The Aviatar." "The Departed." And now, "Shutter Island."

They all start out so strong. In "Island"'s case, Leo DiCaprio -- who's terrific; he's always terrific -- plays a federal marshal sent to the mental institution on Shutter Island in Boston harbor to investigate the mysterious escape of a patient.

Leo discovers a highly secure, scarily baroque fortress with electrified fences, armed guards and lots of dark corridors. The institution is run by the seemingly civilized, empathetic Ben Kingsley.

But Leo quickly comes to suspect that Kingsley is hiding a terrible secret, and that nothing he's been told since he arrived on the island is true. He even starts to fear that he knows too much already about the dark experiments being performed on the patients, knowledge that might prevent the sinister authorities of Shutter Island from ever allowing him to leave.

How awesome is that?

This exciting plot -- set in the years shortly after World War II -- is only enhanced by Leo's backstory: he's a war veteran who saw ghastly horrors in the Nazi death camps. He also suffers from personal tragedy, as his wife, played by Michelle Williams, died in a fire set by an arsonist two years previously.

Therefore Leo carries horror inside him, just as he is confronted by horror without.

This should work brilliantly. And it does. For the first hour or so. But then the twists start coming. And they keep coming. And they keep coming.

"Shutter Island" is based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, and I can imagine the complicated, intricate plot working in a book. But in the effort to turn the book into a movie, liberties should have been taken. Huge chunks of the original story should have been lopped off to allow for a more streamlined cinematic experience.

But the late revelations about the nature of Shutter Island, and Leo himself, are not just clunky and complex. They are plumb bad.

Don't read on if you don't want the surprise spoiled, but since I don't consider the surprise a pleasant one, the question is raised: is it possible to spoil an unpleasant surprise?

If so, I will attempt it here. It turns out, Leo's not a federal marshal at all, but a patient himself of the mental institution on Shutter Island. His "investigation" occurs under the forbearance of Ben Kingsley and the rest of the staff, who are trying to free Leo from his multiple-personality disorder with an elaborate role-play scenario.

If you're thinking, "wow, that's lame," right you are, reader. Right you are.

And it's not just lame but dramatically toxic. All the tension and mystery established in the first half of the movie is undone -- even in our memories -- by the revelation that there never WAS any danger, that there never WAS any evil on Shutter Island. It's like having a ten year marriage to someone who later says, "I never loved you." It sort of scotches the memories of the happy times, doesn't it?

That's "Shutter Island" for you. There were genuinely good scenes, and at one point I thought I actually loved this movie. But then I found out it was deceiving me all along. It never loved me.

It never loved any of us.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 64/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 62/100

Friday, February 19, 2010

Crazy Heart

The rumors are true: good movie, great performance.

Jeff Bridges is considered a mortal lock for the best actor Oscar next month, and he deserves it. His portrayal of past-his-prime country singer, Bad Blake, shows range, texture and vulnerability.

A four-time nominee, the fifth time will be the charm for Bridges. Everyone knows his Oscar is overdue.

Delightfully, Bridges' performance is not the only excellent one in "Crazy Heart." Colin Farrell, that Irish rapscallion, is fantastic as Blake's one-time protege, Tommy Sweet. Farrell looks momentarily out of place in a cowboy hat and boots, but once he starts talking you immediately stop seeing the actor and start seeing the character. The guy is amazing and he deserved a supporting actor nod. Let's bump Damon to make room.

Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a small-town music reporter who strikes up a relationship with Blake and gives the movie its emotional center. She is awesome in this role and it represents a welcome return to her natural environment: the arthouse movie.

Gyllenhaal specializes in authenticity. She doesn't play types, she plays people. The fact that she is not especially attractive makes this easier. Her skills as an actress invite the audience to see what lies beneath the surface of her characters.

But she's got to stay in her lane. Her turn as Batman's girlfriend in "The Dark Knight," a role which demanded an otherworldly bombshell, was embarrassing for everyone.

Overall "Crazy Heart" is a worthwhile experience, but halfway through it goes from potentially great to merely good. This occurs in the scene where Bridges loses track of Gyllenhaal's four year-old son at the mall, as it marks the movie's transformation from personal drama to "overcoming alcoholism" drama.

Such ground has been tread so many times before. I don't need to see a protagonist throw up in a toilet and go to an AA meeting. I've seen it. Over and over.

And by making Bad Blake a straight-up alcoholic, the character was simplified in ways I didn't want him simplified. His troubles in life turned out to be entirely alcohol-related. Once that addiction was dispensed with -- mostly off-screen; for shame! -- he was riding high again.

It's too easy. Real life's harder and fuzzier, and that's a truth a movie like "Crazy Heart" has to capture.

Damn, though, Bridges is a great actor.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 73/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 71/100

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Wolfman

Arrroooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!

That was a howl of boredom.

"The Wolfman" is of course an update of a monster movie first shown in 1941.

Historians around the world concur that 1941 was a hell of a long time ago. FDR had just been sworn in for his third term. Gas was twelve cents a gallon. "Chattanooga Choo Choo" was all over the radio. Dick Cheney was born in 1941!

Strange, then, that the 2010 version of the classic werewolf tale differs from the 1941 original in one -- and only one -- way.

In the original, the title was rendered in three words: "The Wolf Man." At the time, who could possibly predict that, seventy years later, Hollywood would be so far advanced as to make the same movie under the more modern title, "The Wolfman."

Let's all take a bow on behalf of western civilization. That's right, folks. Take a bow!

By so willfully ignoring every dramatic advance of the last seventy years, this movie created a battle in my heart between anger and boredom. Since I was mostly angry about how bored I was, boredom must be considered the winner.

Here's why I was bored:

Benicio del Toro plays a nineteenth-century British stage actor who returns to his family estate to investigate the savage death of his brother.

You and I know who killed his brother. It was the Wolfman! But Benicio doesn't know this yet.

Therefore he puts the moves on his brother's grieving widow, Emily Blunt.

If Emily Blunt happens to be reading this (odds are low), please stop doing period pieces. Hollywood only makes three a year and they always suck. Period pieces need you a lot more than you need them. Thank you.

Back to the Wolfman.

Del Toro seeks out a nearby gypsy camp for answers as to who killed his brother. Before he can get those answers, the camp is attacked by -- you guessed it -- the Wolfman! He puts a nasty bite on del Toro's shoulder. Uh oh, you're thinking. That means del Toro's going to become a Wolfman himself. Right you are, reader!

Not anytime soon, though. First there's lots of walking around hearing terrible legends about the dastardly Wolfman. There's lots of flashbacks about del Toro's past. And there's lots of talk with suspicious Scotland Yard inspector Hugo Weaving.

It's not till the second half of the movie that Del Toro makes the dramatic transformation we have been watching on tv shows like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" for at least the last couple decades. But boy is the movie impressed with this moment. Del Toro's hands (brace yourself) turn hairy RIGHT IN FRONT OF OUR EYES.

Del Toro runs around and eats a few people, then gets handed over to Hugo Weaving the next day by his callous father, Anthony Hopkins, who -- are you with me here? -- turns out to be the original Wolfman himself.

The movie culminates with a battle between father and son inside stately Wolf Manor. As far as werewolf special effects go, I haven't seen anything remotely so spectacular since "Twilight 2" opened four months ago.

And that's what baffles. As a culture we are familiar enough with the concept of beastly transformation in fiction that you absolutely must take the concept some new direction if you want to hold our attention.

Ultimately, "The Wolfman" is another ridiculous attempt by Hollywood to get out of having to write an original script. Even the paltry effort to re-imagine an old-time franchise has become too onerous, it seems, so Universal has opted do the exact same thing they did in 1941 but with modern effects and actors.

Thus warranting themselves a visit from the hideous... unspeakable...

...Wolfman.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 09/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 09/100

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Valentine's Day

When William Randolph Hearst learned that Orson Welles' new movie, "Citizen Kane," was a thinly-veiled and unflattering biopic of the media mogul, he offered RKO Pictures eight hundred thousand dollars to destroy all copies of the film, including the negative, so that it might never be seen by anyone.

I've never understood how someone could feel that much unbridled rage toward a motion picture.

Until now.

"Valentine's Day," a romantic comedy ensemble featuring a dozen different plots, approaches the concept of love from every angle: the stupid, the superficial AND the inane.

You know what this movie's like. Ashton Kutcher plays a florist who is interviewed by reporter Jamie Fox, who ends up at a high school track meet where he interviews Taylor Swift and Taylor Lautner, lovebirds who are friends with a couple planning to have sex for the first time, etc. etc. etc.

By the time the mouth of the snake reaches its tail, the movie has produced almost the entire roster of Hollywood stars, each of whom is connected to every other in a six degrees sort of way.

Thus "Valentine's Day" models itself after the underrated quasi-masterpiece "Love Actually" except that it is really, really bad.

Kutcher gets things off to a terrible start by being his hokey, cheesy self. He opens the movie by proposing in awkward fashion to his girlfriend, Jessica Alba, then throwing open the front door and bellowing in his best frat boy voice, "She said yes!" And with that we know we have just stepped into the first circle of hell.

At heart, the problem is all those plots. With so many characters and so many stories, you have to cut right to the chase, so characters have to say things like "I care more about my job than my personal life" and MEAN it because they only have forty-five seconds of screen time before we're zipping off to our next plot thread.

And if the bad story makes for bad writing, the bad writing makes for terrible acting. In a perverse way it's kind of gripping to watch all these Hollywood actors -- who get paid MILLIONS of dollars to act -- act so badly.

It's kind of gripping. But mostly embarrassing and uncomfortable.

The worst among them is Taylor Swift. The girl can't act. She can't really sing either, but she really, really can't act. I implore her agent to back off the Hollywood route. It can only hurt her brand. (See Carey, Mariah.)

Also horrendously false is Jennifer Garner and the aforementioned Ashton Kutcher.

The only actors to survive with images intact are newly-ascendant Bradley Cooper and Hollywood Royal Julia Roberts. Bizarrely they chose to play their scenes as if they were from the planet Earth.

It helps that their little subplot was the only one with any genuine emotion in it.

I should probably mention the casual, clearly unintentional racism -- Bulgarians with "wacky accents" and Indians with a "wacky culture" take most of the punishment -- and the equally condescending attitude toward homosexuals. When one character emerges unexpectedly from the closet, the movie trumpets "it's okay to be gay!" while in other sections, ridiculous gay stereotypes are played for cheap laughs.

The last impression "Valentine's Day" leaves is how very much it wants to be liked. It is jam-packed with puppies, cute kids, flowers and all those attractive stars mugging for laughs and "awwwwwwww's."

But like a romantic partner who is too eager to please, the movie makes you suspect a terrible truth:

You can do better.

Lots, lots, lots, lots better.

SCORE:

How Accomplished: 24/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 12/100

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Dear John

Autism, cancer, strokes, gunshot wounds, the catastrophic events of 9/11. All are thrown into the pot in "Dear John."

The movie has a pedigree of schmaltz. Its Swedish director gave us the maudlin, illness-themed "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?" and "The Cider House Rules." Its writer gave us the horrifically botched disaster tragedy "We Are Marshall."

And the story is based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks who, in classic novelist fashion, writes the same story over and over, changing only enough details to keep from having to sue himself.

And this is the movie that ended "Avatar's" reign of dominance!

So what's it about?

Sigh...

The John of the title is a special forces soldier played unconvincingly by Channing Tatum, he-of-the-limited-facial-expressions.

His correspondent and soulmate is played by Amanda Seyfried who, and I'm sorry to say this, isn't anywhere near good-looking enough to pull off romantic roles.

Put it this way: if I were remaking "E.T.," I'd cast her as E.T.

Channing and Amanda meet in prosaic fashion on a beach somewhere in Virginia. They have two magical weeks together. We know they are magical because they play out in montage against sentimental music.

I don't know if I can go on with the plot summary. It's all so phony and contrived. The characters aren't real people, the story is utterly banal. The music is insultingly heavy-handed. It's just a flimsy greeting card of a movie, and not one of those clever greeting cards, either.

The two lovers end up writing a series of letters to each other. That's all you need or want to know about the plot.

War, family, class and illness conspire to keep them apart. None of these obstacles have much to do with each other. It's a tag-team effort.

As a consequence, the plot feels episodic. It consists of a string of random, implausible setbacks until, in the end...

Spoiler alert!

...our lovers end up together.

And even that is confusing. After Channing and Amanda agree not to see each other following the death of her previous husband from a convenient case of cancer (ALWAYS a plot cop-out,) we see Amanda in a coffee shop on her computer when Channing Tatum rides up on his bicycle.

Channing ties his bike to a street sign, glances at Amanda through the window and smiles. She smiles back. The end.

Dammit, movie! That's not an ending!

But that's where the movie stopped. I ran for the exit. Come to think of it, I didn't actually see any credits roll...

So it's anyone's guess how "Dear John" actually ended. If you know, please don't tell me.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 31/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 27/100

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

From Paris With Love

You want to write a good movie? Do this:

Take two characters who are complete opposites in every way. Put them in a situation which forces them to work together to accomplish what they want.

Stand back and collect accolades.

This is what "From Paris With Love" does, and even though in some respects the movie is a disposable piece of cheap action trash, in other respects it's a hell of a lot of fun.

Brit Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays a diplomatic attache and aspiring MI-6 agent. He is given the task of assisting an American CIA agent soon to arrive in Paris named Charlie Wax. We know Wax as film star John Travolta.

Rhys Meyers is bookish, earnest and careful, while Wax is reckless to the point of insanity.

Two opposites. Can't go wrong.

What Travolta and Rhys Meyers must do is stop the assassination of a British delegation to an African aid conference. What this will accomplish is unclear, as the actual motives of the bad guys are never dwelt upon. And why should they be? There are cars to be blown up with missile launchers.

The bad guys in question are Muslim extremists, and I for one salute the European production companies behind this film for doing something Hollywood has been reluctant to do: namely, cast suicide bombers as bad guys.

After all, in contemporary society Muslim terrorists ARE the bad guys. I think we've absorbed this well enough for Hollywood to start portraying our religiously-motivated enemies as the villains they are.

But back to the action, because there's lots of it. With Rhys Meyers' marginal help, Travolta's Charlie Wax shoots his way through a Chinese restaurant, a cocaine factory and a brothel. And he's really just getting started.

The body count in "From Paris" goes extremely high, which befits the wink-at-the-camera, pulpy tone of the movie. If it were more realistic, "From Paris" would be a lot less fun. So this is one instance where a movie star, especially a hammy, overweight movie star with a shaved head and goatee, is actually an artistic positive. Travolta's presence lets us know this is just a movie and we should be ready to roll with whatever punches come our way.

Despite this unserious self-image, the script sneaks in a handful of outstanding lines of dialogue. When asked by Rhys Meyers what he could possibly know about love, Travolta's Wax replies, "I've been in love. Once in Senegal, twice in Beirut. Same woman." We never find out who that woman was, but what a story that line implies.

There's also a good recurring thread about Rhys Meyers' reluctance/inability to shoot a malefactor, or anyone else, in cold blood. This is a necessary skill for a secret agent, and by the end of the movie Rhys Meyers' weakness is put to the ultimate test.

I don't know if "From Paris With Love" is a great film. In fact, I'm pretty sure it isn't. But I had a great time watching it.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 74/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 91/100