Friday, June 25, 2010

The A-Team

Cue up: a brisk, military-style drumbeat and the sound of a helicopter rotor.

"In 1972 a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn't commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as soldiers of fortune."

The helicopter rotor getting louder...

"If you have a problem, if no one else can help..."

Louder...

"...and if you can find them, maybe you can hire... the A-Team."

Cue up: catchy theme tune. Daaaa da daaaa. Da daaa daaa.

What a great tv show The A-Team was. I loved it!

It helped that I was a pre-teen when it aired in the mid-1980's. For those who don't know, this is the A-Team:

That's Dirk Benedict, George Peppard, Dwight Schultze and, of course, Mr. T, as the military fugitives who paid their bills by helping those who couldn't help themselves in a series of cheesy, ridiculous, and utterly harmless adventures.

In so doing, The A-Team perfectly reflected its cultural moment. The 80's were in many ways a goofy, unserious decade in America.

But now it's 2010, and the inevitable movie version has come along.

It's written by Joe Carnahan, who gave us 2002's edgy, excellent Narc. Hmmmmm. So is the new A-Team going to be a tonal revamp?

The deadly answer is: sort of.

The movie tries to capture the TV show's breezy, witty fun while combining it with a hundred million dollars worth of explosions and out-sized action sequences.

The result is an atrocious misfire.

Starting with the casting. This is the new A-Team:

That's Bradley Cooper, District 9's Sharlto Copley, Liam Neeson and Quentin "Rampage" Jackson.

I'll give the actors credit. They try. But none of them rise above the nonsensical situations they find themselves in or the bad dialogue they were forced to memorize.

The script is an abominable mess. It almost feels like scenes were filmed randomly, with the narrative connecting them non-existent until the footage was cut together later.

And that's not as crazy as it sounds. Especially when a movie is based on an existing property, often the marketing, casting and release date come first. The filming comes second. And the script comes last. It seems absurd, but like many things that seem absurd in Hollywood, it's at least somewhat true.

This being the apparent case, I mentally checked out of The A-Team pretty fast, thus sparing myself the outrage of someone continually tortured by the hope that the next scene would be better than the current one.

Thus, the movie passed in a blur. I don't really know what happened. But here are some of the more ridiculous moments I remember:

-The A-Team trapped inside a tank plummeting toward the ground, firing the main gun sideways to push themselves over a lake so they could survive a watery splashdown from ten thousand feet. Thus observing Newtonian physics in mid-air but ignoring them utterly on impact. Interesting choice by the filmmakers.

-Sharlto Copley's rescue from a mental facility. The A-Team sends Copley a movie by mail. Copley rallies his fellow inmates to watch the movie with him. The movie, projected onto a wall, depicts the A-Team van driving toward the camera. Said van turns into the actual A-Team van when it smashes through the wall. Copley jumps into the van and is driven to freedom. Clever! I mean -- what now?

-The A-Team lures the bad guys to the Port of Los Angeles, which it then detonates with tactical nuclear devices -- or something very close. This somehow results in the bad guys incriminating themselves in front of federal officials by shooting Sharlto Copley in the head, thinking he's someone else, and not realizing he's wearing a metal helmet that makes him bullet-proof.

Bear in mind, these are just the moments that spring to mind. The movie is full of them. In fact, there isn't a non-ridiculous moment anywhere to be found in the two-hour running time.

But a movie can survive foolishness if it proceeds with style. If it's funny. If it knows exactly what it's doing and plays up its strengths while glossing over its weaknesses.

If it does NONE of that -- if it's constantly making jokes that aren't funny, executing action sequences that are nonsensical -- then it's on the way to a very low

SCORE

How Accomplished: 10/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 10/100

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Get Him to the Greek

I did the smart thing and avoided my usual practice of catching a 10 AM matinee. Instead I saw Get Him to the Greek on its opening Friday at 7 PM at the nearest giant multiplex. The theater was packed with people who laughed all the way through.

And I was one of them.

There's nothing groundbreaking about the humor in GHTTG, but there's something efficient and reliable about it.

The movie springs somewhat distantly from the creative loins of comedy titan Judd Apatow, mentor to writer/director Nicholas Stoller. But that's why this movie got made -- Apatow can get things greenlit -- not why it's good.

It's good because the basics of storytelling craft are in place, starting with that catchy title and the premise it does more than suggest.

The "him" is a down-and-out rock star played by British celeb Russell Brand. "The Greek" is the Greek Theater, an open-air venue in Los Angeles.

"Get him to the Greek" is the directive record label exec P. Diddy gives to lower-level schlub Jonah Hill. Hill must get Brand to the Greek theater to perform his comeback gig seventy-two hours hence.

The difficulty is that Brand is currently in London, that he has a multitude of drug addictions, and that he doesn't really want to play the gig.

Before we go any further into plot, acting, or anything else, it's clear we're on a pretty good story track.

We've got a clear movie goal, difficult but in a comedic way, and we've got a protagonist and antagonist who couldn't be more different. Sloppy, self-doubting nobody meets vain rock god. You could say they're exact opposites -- how 'bout that!

As long as the movie stays on the spine of its premise, it entertains. When it gets off the spine, especially in the sub-plot scenes with Jonah Hill's girlfriend, Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss, it starts to strain our attention span.

Mostly it stays on the spine.

This means we're treated to an abundance of crazy party scenes where our boy Hill is badly out of his element. His adventures include non-consensual sex with a stripper (in which Hill is the non-consenter), a hit from a joint called a "Geoffrey," which contains heroin, LSD, cocaine and metamphetamines... oh, and lots and lots of vomiting.

It's new-school comedy of the Apatow push-the-envelope variety, and it succeeds better than most.

It's not perfect, it's not great, it's not even memorable. But it's got that premise, and those characters, and it's enough.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 64/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 68/100

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Agora

Sometimes a movie comes along, and you have no idea how it got made. You're just glad it did.

Such is Agora, the tale of Hypatia, noted scholar of the famed Library of Alexandria, who was dragged through the streets of the city during a Christian riot in 415 AD.

Hypatia's death is a big deal, historically speaking. It marks the end of Pagan learning. In many ways it marks the end of Antiquity. The long slide toward the Dark Ages, which would be ruled by the Muslim and Christian faiths, had begun.

But it's nice to go out on a high note. And if Hypatia was indeed the last of the luminous Greek thinkers, she did her tradition proud, even in its twilight.

What's to like about Hypatia?

How about everything? She insisted on equality with men, and generally got it. She was eternally curious, with a special affinity for astronomy. And when push came to shove, she refused to accept the tenets of barbaric dogmatism sweeping her city, even though sticking to her guns meant sacrificing her own life.

Can't say the same for Galileo, who recanted his scientific theories in front of an Italian Pope twelve hundred years later.

The current film version of Hypatia's exciting life stars Rachel Weisz.

She's excellent, just spunky enough, just intelligent enough, just good-looking enough to pull off a difficult role.

Her co-characters include Orestes, the Roman governor of the city whose love Hypatia returns only with friendship, and Davus, Hypatia's personal slave whose love for Hypatia is secret, as is his membership in the rising Christian sect. (Betrayal alert!)

Hypatia was a hard woman not to love, unless you happened to be a Christian zealot intent on burning as many scrolls as you could get your hands on. Sadly there were plenty of those in Alexandria in the fifth century.

Thus, our story is going to end violently, but along the way we get lots of fun political intrigue -- Christian supremacy doesn't happen overnight -- lots of love-triangle fun, and more than a dollop of cutting-edge scientific thinking circa 391 AD.

But it's the visuals that surprise. You may not be the kind of person who wants a detailed look at the ancient city of Alexandria in the time of Roman rule, but if you are, have I got a treat for you.

The sets for Agora are among the best I have ever seen. The Library of Alexandria appears to have been fully reconstructed, along with the city's agora itself -- a term that means "place of assembly."

The camera moves with grace and intelligence throughout, sometimes sweeping way, way back, all the way back, to reveal the planet Earth dancing through space, as the inhabitants of Alexandria argue about its flatness or roundness.

This movie cost an astonishing seventy million dollars to make. With that money, it achieves a vibrancy on scales both large and small, befitting a story whose themes are personal as well as philosophical and historical.

Someone invested an awful lot of money in this movie. Money they are not likely to see again.

To them, I would like to say: thank you!

SCORE

How Accomplished: 86/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 87/100

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Killers

This movie shouldn't be any good at all.

It stars goofball Ashton Kutcher and TV diva Katherine Heigl, as thoroughly unlikable a pair of celebrities as you could ask for.

It has a premise that's been done before -- by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie five years ago in Mr. and Mrs. Smith -- and will soon be done again -- by Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz, at the end of the month, in Knight and Day.

Its distributor elected not to screen the movie for critics, an indication the distributor, Lionsgate, thought critics would hate it. (And they did -- it's sitting at 12% on rottentomatoes.com.)

But of course, it's an ironic universe we live in. Therefore I enjoyed Killers from its breezy opening credits to its predictable, happy ending.

Why?

Let's start with that premise.

Kutcher and Heigl play young, attractive opposites. Kutcher is a CIA spy doing the James Bond thing in Nice, Italy -- namely, sneaking onto a yacht to rig a baddie's helicopter with explosives. Meanwhile, recently-single Heigl is on vacation with her overbearing parents, Tom Selleck and Catherine O'Hara.

A chance encounter between Kutcher and Heigl results in a date. The date results in a romantic weekend. The weekend results in a flash cut to three years later, where our protagonists are enjoying their first year of marriage.

Everything is great until Kutcher's old boss returns with another lethal assignment. Kutcher turns him down -- he's out of the business now, committed to family life -- but that doesn't stop a group of assassins from suddenly trying to kill Kutcher.

Turns out, Kutcher has a twenty million dollar price on his head. And the assassins? They're the friendly neighbors whom Kutcher and Heigl have been living next to for the past year.

What follows is a playful action comedy with a quick pace, a dash of wit, and a suitably rootable relationship between the principal characters.

This last is crucial. The central emotional dynamic of the movie is Heigl's reaction to the truth of Kutcher's former profession. He's not the man she thought he was, and he's the reason she is in danger now. This is grounds for anger, and the Heigl character expresses her share of it.

But never does the bickering between the two characters become noxious, which has to be the prime danger in a story like this.

The interaction between our besieged lovers is sometimes contentious, but it is always enjoyable. This is partly because any attempt at believability has been tossed aside. Some movies aren't meant to be believable, and this is one. At least it knows what it is, and that allows it to do what it does as well as possible.

What it does is entertain, affably, while you munch on some popcorn and try not to think too hard about what you're watching.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 63/100

How Much I enjoued: 67/100

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Splice

At first blush, Splice looks oh-so-familiar.

A pair of scientists engineer a new lifeform in the laboratory. They do so without the approval of their corporate sponsors, outside the sanction of law, and by methods that lie beyond their complete understanding.

The creature that results -- a goat-legged, bubble-headed, vaguely female humanoid that acquires the nickname Dren -- has a rapid growth rate, a capacity for inflicting harm, and a mute personality that might in a human be considered at least mildly psychotic.

Our two scientists -- Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley -- are desperately trying to make a pharmaceutical breakthrough for their bosses. Dren is their best hope to accomplish this, but to conduct their research they must keep Dren's existence a secret lest their entire program be shut down.

Therefore they raise Dren covertly. They struggle to feed Dren, to teach her, to nurse her when sick. A bond naturally develops between surrogate parents Brody and Polley and their metaphorical offspring.

What we've got here, of course, is Frankenstein, not to mention its endless imitators, including Splice-parallel Species, 1995's alien-hottie-goes-on-a-murderous-rampage flick that starred model Natasha Henstridge as the ultimate femme fatale.

This makes Splice a knock-off of a knock-off of a knock-off. Or so it seems.

But Splice is not what it seems.

---(Spoilers every other sentence from here onward.)---

Make no mistake: the story takes full advantage of the audience's concern that Dren is going to a) kill our noble-minded scientists and/or b) escape and start killing bystanders.

But -- in a fascinating development -- this turns out to be the least of our concerns.

Our noble-minded scientists, you see, may not be so noble-minded after all.

Adrien Brody's character is increasingly disgusted by Dren, so much so that he repeatedly tries to kill the child-like monsterling, even when it is at its most vulnerable and sympathetic.

This creates a rift between him and Sarah Polley's character, who bonds with Dren in a way that is almost frightening in its maternal intensity. Polley is fiendishly delighted by every forward step in Dren's development, to the point where she starts to lose sight of the scientific purpose of the experiment.

Boosted by all this physical, intellectual and emotional nourishment, the biological abomination against God and Man that is Dren continues to grow at an accelerated clip.

Her growth entails a budding sexual maturity that, um...

---(MAJOR spoiler alert now)---

...results in an attempt to seduce father-figure Adrien Brody.

And that's not the worst of it. The worst of it is, Brody allows himself to be seduced. The audience is then treated to a fairly shocking monster/human sex scene that runs a good minute.

I told you he wasn't so noble-minded!

This transgression is almost (I said almost) exceeded in gruesomeness by the revelation that our gal scientist Sarah Polley didn't use random "Jane Doe" human chromosomes in the creation of Dren, as she claimed.

Nope.

She used her own genes. And guess who's got a history of psychotic behavior in the family? That's right!

As in all the best monster movies, the monster in Splice is very much of our own making, not just in the literal sense but also the moral.

Not only does this implicate the "good guys" in the crimes of the world, it suggests a degree of innocence -- or at least comprehensibility -- in the "bad guys" out there.

Splice gives us a monster we learn to care for, without stripping it of its monstrous qualities. At the same time it gives us a pair of idealistic humans we discover to be monsters, without denying their idealistic qualities.

This is a huge achievement, reminiscent of -- to pull a title out of a hat -- Mary Shelley's brilliant Frankenstein.

In that sense, Splice is just a copycat after all.

But it copies something great, and makes a run at greatness itself.

And that's not a crime. That's the artistic endeavor.

Or maybe it's both. Maybe they're the same thing.

Boy, Splice really sent my brain spinning. Good job, movie!

SCORE

How Accomplished: 91/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 89/100

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

Hollywood used to make movies like this all the time. The sub-genre even acquired a name: sword-and-sandals.

Two of the more famous sword-and-sandals movies were Ben-Hur and Spartacus.

The new Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time fits nicely with those two movies. Which doesn't mean Prince of Persia is great; if you look back on Ben-Hur and Spartacus, they weren't great either, despite their reputations. But they were good, and they were a ton of fun.

That's why Prince of Persia fits so nicely. It's an old-fasioned action romp through a cheerfully phony historical setting. In lieu of authenticity, the movie offers energy, excitement and a modern ethos accessible by modern audiences.

And why not? This isn't a pop quiz, it's a movie.

A big-budgeted movie, at that. Persia's production chewed through two hundred million dollars. Happily, the money appears on-screen. Unlike the awful Clash of the Titans, Persia is directed magnificently by Mike Newell, the British helmer who made his first Hollywood splash sixteen years ago with the Hugh Grant starrer, Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Persia contains lots of stunts and lots of sweeping visuals, from the Persian army's attack on fortified Alamut that starts the movie, to the frantic combat beneath the city which ends it.

In between, Jake Gyllenhaal's heroic Dastan tries to clear his name from the charge of regicide. It's an enjoyably complex plot, but the upshot is: he didn't do it, and the only way he can prove his innocence is with the help of the deposed Queen of Alamut (played by Gemma Arterton -- a crossover from Clash), the roguish tax-evading desert Sheik Amar (played by Alfred Molina, clearly enjoying himself), and a magical dagger that can reverse the flow of time itself.

At present, the dagger can only reverse the flow of time a few seconds, quickly running through the enchanted sand that gives it power. But the dagger has the potential to create a much grander effect, which is why the nefarious forces behind Gyllenhaal's frame-up want it, and him.

I won't reveal the identity of the mastermind behind those forces... oh yes I will, it's Ben Kingsley. Like Molina, Kingsley throws himself into his role without a backward glance, and he makes a great scheming Persian satrap.

In the end he fails to realize that love of family is the highest ideal, and that power without honor is an empty blessing. So much the worse for him.

But so much the better for us. Prince of Persia is sleek and smooth, fast and fun. Beneath its veneer of mindless entertainment, it's secretly better crafted than many an Oscar contender resting on the faux-importance of weighty social issues.

What makes the irony of Persia's achievement especially tangy is the movie's source material. Ben-Hur and Spartacus derive from a nineteenth-century novel and the scrolls of Roman historians, respectively, whereas Prince of Persia springs from a video game franchise started in 1989.

But just as the twisty tale of Jake Gyllenhaal's indigent street urchin who goes on to fame as a Prince of Persia shows, you shouldn't place too much emphasis on pedigree.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 82/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 89/100