Saturday, August 25, 2012

Total Recall

Sometimes I am just at a loss.

Total Recall does absolutely everything right. And it’s terrible. And I don’t know why.

It is, of course, a remake of the 1990 film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. That movie has always been a guilty pleasure of mine. Aw heck, my tastes are so debauched, really it’s just a pleasure.

It follows the world’s greatest bodybuilder as everyman Doug Quaid, a working stiff on a future Earth which has a patriarchal relationship to its off-world colonies, notably the Martian one.

One day, ol’ Doug gives in to the advertisements and checks out Total Recall, a kind of travel agency which implants memories of an exotic experience in your mind at a fraction of the actual cost of that experience.

Quaid picks out the “secret agent on Mars” package, and gets his brain plugged into the machine.

But something goes wrong. The memory implant runs into trouble. It seems Quaid has already had a memory implant. His whole life is already fictitious!

Quaid gets dumped on the street by the panicky Recall folks, but sinister forces are already closing in; forces which fear Quaid now knows too much – about himself.

What follows is a swift-moving, often campy adventure that takes us inside Martian domes, into the red-light district of said domes – where we meet the world’s most memorable prostitute – and into the secret heart of the Martian rebellion.

Schwarzenegger is at his cheesy best, director Paul Verhoeven is still riding high from Robocop, and the script has one of my favorite lines from the era: “See you at the party, Richter!”

Despite all this, the movie is far from perfect. There’s a bunch of bad scenes, the setting is too cartoonish at times, and the underlying story is cool enough to achieve much more than the movie allows it.

What a PERFECT film to remake.

So now we have Colin Farrell as Doug Quaid, Jessica Biel and Kate Beckinsdale as dueling love interests, and Breaking Bad’s Brian Cranston as evil corporate overlord Vilos Cohaagen.

The movie is directed by Len Wiseman of the competent Underworld movies, and he makes the decision to tweak the original, not overhaul  it. The reason I just encapsulated the plot of the Schwarzenegger movie is because every bit of it holds true for the remake. The new movie deviates from its source in only a few ways.

Richter of “See you at the party, Richter!” doesn’t exist in the new version. His role has been absorbed by Kate Beckinsdale, who is not just Quaid’s wife, but also, now, his hunter. Combining these characters is not a terrible idea.

There is no Mars in this new version. Instead, the rebellion exists outside the only remaining habitable territories in a post-apocalyptic Earth. This is intended to modernize the idea – post-apocalypses are all the rage now – but it doesn’t affect the story much. (Although it does eliminate another good line from the original: “Get your ass to Mars… get your ass to Mars… get your ass to Mars…”)

So the plot is the same, the actors are fine, the direction solid – I even approve of the basic concept: a slightly-more serious take on the mind-bending Phillip K. Dick source material – but somehow the new Total Recall is a sluggish, boring piece of generica.

I’m going to take a stab at an explanation, but it’s highly speculative, and I don't feel great about it.

Maybe this story can only flourish at the cheesy level on which it was originally executed. Maybe Schwarzenegger was perfectly cast, maybe a hungry, up-and-coming Sharon Stone was perfectly cast, maybe the aggressively overacting Ronny Cox as Cohaagen (“I wanted Hauser back, but noooooo! YOU had to be QUAID!”) and Michael Ironsides as “See you at the party, Richter!” were perfectly cast. Were any of these people good actors? No. But they were the right actors.

We just didn’t appreciate that at the time.

Sorry about that, folks!


How Accomplished: 41/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 28/100

See you at the party, Richter!!!

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

Well, we'll always have Batman Begins.
That first entry of the current Batman trilogy was fresh, fast-moving and, intricate as its plot certainly was, came together pretty nicely in the end.

Then we got The Dark Knight, the second installment, and the intricate plot spun out of control. There were scores of characters, subplots within subplots and, in the end, even a great performance by Heath Ledger as the Joker couldn't salvage a ludicrous third act which undermined everything that came before.

Now we have the oddly titled The Dark Knight Rises. It takes place a decade after the events of The Dark Knight, and introduces a Bruce Wayne hobbled by age and inactivity. He has long since retired from the crimefighting profession, and Gotham City, inspired by the posthumous radiance of the previous movie's Harvey Dent, knows peace and prosperity at last.

Enter the villain, Bane, a hulking, gas mask-wearing blackguard played by Tom Hardy. Bane has a dastardly plan to topple Gotham City by... well, it's not really clear what his plan is, possibly because it's so idiotic.

What happens is this: Bane collapses the field of a stadium hosting an NFL football game. This traps the entire city's police force, which Bane has lured into the tunnels underground. It also gives Bane a chance to broadcast his intentions to everyone watching the game. He has, according to his speech, placed a nuclear bomb somewhere within the city. He has given the bomb's only trigger to a common Gotham citizen, and that person will decide the fate of the city. No one can leave, because Bane has collapsed all the bridges leading into the city -- which resembled Chicago in the first movie, but now is clearly Manhattan.

Naturally, our boy Batman comes out of retirement to intervene. Unfortunately, he's lost his edge -- not unlike Rocky when he first fought Clubber Lang -- and he gets his back broken by the physically overpowering Bane.

Since this is a movie all about theme and not even a little about logic, Bane refrains from killing his defeated foe. Instead he transports him across the globe to a remote spot in Asia, where he casts Batman into the underground prison where Bane himself was born and raised. He intends Batman's spirit to also be broken in this hell beyond all hells.

Except it's not that bad a place. A couple of the inmates take care of Bruce Wayne pretty well. There seems to be plenty of food. They've even got cable TV!

But Bruce Wayne is freaked out because Gotham City is tearing itself apart in the five months that Bane holds it hostage.

You read that right. For five months, Bane prevents all travel to and from Manhattan by guarding the collapsed bridges and threatening any would-be rescuers with his nuclear bomb.

I'm pretty sure this is not how that hostage situation would play out -- it's also a terrible violation of the Aristotelian Unities -- but the logic holes are only part of the problem in The Dark Knight Rises. The bigger issues are that character motivations are unclear, narrative coherence and flow are disdained and, just like the previous movie, the metastasizing plot threads simply gobble up too much time for the story to advance in a satisfying way. As evidence I offer Anne Hathaway as Catwoman and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a proto-Robin. They haven't even entered my plot summary yet because I don't have fifty pages to get into it.

It's a shame these characters are so pointless, because Hathaway is really good as Catwoman. If only she'd had a legitimate place in the movie. Instead she intrudes on the ending, killing Bane with absurd ease, when that is clearly Batman's job.

Meanwhile, Joseph Gordon-Levitt spends the film investigating Bane's plan and keeping hope alive during the siege, both of which are also clearly the responsibility of the Batman.

Ejected from the plot of his own movie, Batman has nothing to do but heal, and figure a way out of his underground prison. If he doesn't hurry, the movie will be over before he gets back to Gotham!

Not to fear, however, because the movie has a nearly three-hour running time.

The final battle transpires in the most obligatory fashion. It's just a lot punches and a lot of gunplay, without any art. In fact, none of the set-pieces in Rises are good, which lowers it from the bad-as-a-whole-but-good-in-places Dark Knight. (Remember when the semi-truck flipped end over end?)

And while the third act may not be as bad as its predecessor's, it sure ain't good. Batman ends up hoisting the nuclear bomb with his bat plane and flying it out to sea on a suicide mission to save Gotham.

Except it's NOT a suicide mission because Batman had repaired the auto-pilot function that Morgan Freeman had complained about earlier in the movie, in such a way that we absolutely knew it was going to factor into the ending.

Sadly, the Batman Cycle has been a descent from excellence to mediocrity to misery.

But at least this is the end. Director Chris Nolan has expressed no interest in doing a fourth Batman movie. Apparently he has other fictional worlds to mangle with his overly-complicated, under-developed screenplays.

It's smart to spread yourself around.


How Accomplished: 31/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 30/100

Wednesday, August 15, 2012


We are such prisoners of context.

Writer/director Oliver Stone's early career was so magnificent -- Conan the Barbarian? Wall Street? Platoon? This is one guy??? -- that it forever colored the way his middle and late career is perceived.

Since Platoon, Stone's filmography has been filled with perfectly acceptable, middling work that inevitably disappoints because of the expectation those early years created. Steven Spielberg is in the same camp. So is everyone who had tremendous success early in life. The smart move for people like this is to die at the height of their parabola, like Alexander the Great or Jesus. To go on living is asking for trouble.

Stone asked for trouble, so we have Savages, an adaptation of a gritty novel about a pair of young, sexy marijuana growers in southern California. They and their shared loved interest get mixed up with a Mexican drug cartel to bloody effect.

At the heart of the story is the kidnapping of the love interest, Blake Lively, by the cartel, whose kingpin is played by Salma Hayek and whose chief enforcer is Benicio del Toro. Hayek wants our marijuana growers -- Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson -- to put their remarkable skills to work for her, and she's going to hang onto Lively until they do.

Or rather, Benicio del Toro is going to hang onto her, and that's where things turn ugly. Del Toro gives an awesome performance as a scary, brutal scumbag, one of the best villains at the movies this year.

Ultimately he can't save the film, though, because we end up meandering off course with a million little plot excursions -- e.g., something about framing Salma Hayek's lawyer with the help of John Travolta as a corrupt DEA officer? -- that soak up energy better spent developing character relationships which, beyond a flicker of a possibility that Hayek and Lively might become friends -- never go anywhere.

Partly this is a problem of the set-up: the characters are established as happy and balanced in the opening, with a perfectly idyllic three-way romance. They couldn't be closer to each other; more honest; more content.

This gives them nowhere to go. Storytellers are always advised to start with a character problem, then have the plot go to hell in such a way that the character problem -- preferably, the relationship problem -- gets resolved.

Without that up his sleeve, Stone has to get really gimmicky with the ending. Namely, he has everyone blown away in a brutal finale in the desert.

Almost sensing this ending doesn't work, however, Stone performs the dreaded "it was all a dream" maneuver, rewinding the narrative to the start of the desert finale, and playing it out peacefully.

This shabby effort to get the best of both worlds -- a dramatic climax as well as a happy ending for the characters -- reveals the true problem: there isn't enough unstable, kinetic energy within the characters themselves to create a satisfying ending.

And, although Savages is well-made and generally entertaining, it's enough to sabotage the movie pretty thoroughly.


How Accomplished: 57/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 61/100

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man

If The Cabin in the Woods and The Avengers are the most culturally meaningful studio films of the year, and they are, then the new Spider-Man reboot has to be among the least.

I mean, what is there to say about a reboot of a mediocre franchise that plays out almost identically in plot and tone to the original? Which is only a few years old and still unfortunately fresh in our memory?

Don't get me wrong. I love the wall-crawler. He's my favorite superhero of all time.

But there still hasn't been a good movie made of him. In fact, you could say there hasn't been any movie in which the webspinner's made an actual appearance. Because everyone so far has gotten the character so dreadfully wrong, he's hard to recognize.

Understand this, true believers: the soul of Spider-man is found in his humor.

Sorry to get nerdy here, but you're the one reading a Spider-Man movie review on a blog. In issue #79 of the brilliant Brian Michael Bendis-authored comic book series, Ultimate Spider-Man, the deadly assassin Elektra is watching "a man in a Spider-Man outfit" battle Moon Knight on a rooftop below her. She's reporting her observations to her boss, the Kingpin -- I said I was sorry for getting nerdy -- and she says, "He's bouncing around a lot, and he won't stop talking. I think it's really him."

And that captures the essence of Spider-Man as well it's ever been captured.

"He's bouncing around a lot, and he won't stop talking."

This is why Spider-Man was such a shocking departure from the comic book canon in the sixties, and it's why he remains unique today. While almost every hero feels cursed by his powers, or at the very least considers his heroic activities to be a sacred duty, Spidey's just out there having fun.

To be sure, there's a dark side to the Spider-Man story. His Uncle Ben is killed because Peter suffers a rare moment of selfishness and egotism. Afterward he dedicates his life to fighting iniquity. The greatest sacrifice this entails is the necessity for Peter to keep his identity a secret, which means scrawny, picked on Peter Parker must remain a social pariah.

In every way that matters most to a teenage boy, Peter's powers do him no good.

He must act helpless, scared and meek in the presence of school bullies and popular girls. All to maintain his cover. This, of course, is sheer torture.

It pays off when he gets to don his Spider-Man mask, swing through the city, take on terrifying mutants, hostile aliens or mere technologically-assisted thieves, look them in the eye, and make witty remarks about their lack of fashion sense.

When he's Spider-Man, Peter Parker gets to be his true self: confident, funny, smart, pro-active. He takes off the mask to be Peter Parker, but Peter Parker is the mask.

So it drives me crazy when movies treat Spider-Man just like any other generic superhero. They treat him no different than Green Lantern, for Stan Lee's sake! A handsome, noble stiff who dons a costume reluctantly... because the world needs him.

It's such ridiculous balderdash.

The Chris Nolan Batman movies have worked well, at least in part because Nolan finds the true motivation behind Bruce Wayne putting on the costume. It's anger and fear, and a desire for revenge, that makes Batman Batman. This is human, and it makes sense, and we can connect with it. Spider-man's almost the opposite; he puts on the mask because it allows him to express himself freely, but that too is a human motivation most of us can get our heads around.

But ay-yi-yi...

This new version, this "amazing" Spider-Man, is just another handsome kid who pursues justice with a grim-faced seriousness. His girlfriend in this iteration is not Mary Jane Watson, but the proto-Mary Jane, Gwen Stacy, played with light-hearted charm by Emma Stone. If Emma Stone had gotten bit by the radioactive spider -- oops, I mean genetically-altered spider -- we'd have a much more entertaining movie on our hands, and a character much closer in spirit to the comic book Spider-Man.

Maybe next time. There's got to be another reboot coming in two or three years, right?


How Accomplished: 36/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 22/100


This is what I've read about how the Prometheus script got written.

Writer Jon Spaihts would pitch a few ideas about where this Alien prequel could go. The next day, director Ridley Scott would hand him several pieces of art produced by commissioned artists. The images might reflect the ideas Spaihts had pitched the previous day, or they might be images that popped into Ridley's head.

Either way, Spaihts would give his feedback and go away. The next day, there would be more images.

Eventually Spaihts worked through five drafts of a script -- whatever that means; "draft" is among the most poorly defined words in the language -- and then was replaced by Lost writer Damon Lindelof.

Lindelof spent several weeks meeting with Ridley for story conferences, which consisted of Ridley talking about the movie while Lindelof wrote everything down. At the end of this process, Lindelof went off and wrote the movie he thought Ridley wanted to make.

Ridley read the ensuing draft, and the process started all over again, until Lindelof finally produced a script Ridley approved. Then Ridley went and made the film.

This has to be one of the worst, most wrong-headed ways to create a script ever devised.

And the film reflects it. Prometheus has a million and one flaws, but chief among them is the overwhelming number of logical inconsistencies. Don't get me wrong; a few plot holes are inevitable, even charming. Who doesn't love the fact that Han Solo boasted his ship could make the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs, apparently oblivious to the fact that a parsec is a measure of distance, not time.

But three miscues, four, five -- a hundred! -- and the movie collapses under the weight of them.

Prometheus starts in the late twenty-first century, with paleontologists Noomi Rapace and her doomed-to-die-early boyfriend discovering crudely drawn "star maps" on cave walls; maps which specify a star system some hundred light-years away. (Or thirty parsecs!)

Noomi interprets these maps as an invitation, and soon she's convinced a rich old tech baron to fund a space mission to the system in question. Apparently, interstellar travel will not only be possible, but commercially available, within the next eighty years. Way to go, humanity!

The spaceship, called Prometheus, holds a crew of seventeen.

(Note: This is too many characters for us to get to know, and too few for us not to mind the fact.)

The spaceship discovers a planet devoid of all civilization except for one metal hill that bespeaks intelligent design.

The spaceship lands a couple of kilometers away from the hill. Now, if it had landed directly beside the hill, everything would have gone swimmingly, but this arbitrary choice means the crew must take rovers to the metal hill, and God forbid a dust storm should kick up -- which it does on the first day -- because then certain crewmembers will be trapped inside the metal hill, where they will do intensely foolish things like take off their space helmets, get lost, and goof around with the first alien tentacle creatures they encounter.

Everything that happens in the undramatic and inauthentic Prometheus happens for one of two reasons, neither of which is related to either plot or character. 1) It ushers in one of the images Ridley Scott cooked up during the so-called writing process. The movie is in love with mysterious, poetic images, and at a loss how to integrate them all into the same story. 2.) It supports one of the many over-arching themes of the movie, which are usually spoken directly by all characters in all places at all times. Boy, was Ridley keen on filling his movie with thematic importance!

Here's a writer's take on these goals: 1) The way to integrate images into story is to ditch images wherever they don't fit the story. Story should come first. Images -- and heck, everything else -- after. 2.) Theme should reside under the surface of a story, invisible, powerful. It should not be the glowing bodysuit of a movie, distracting the eye from everything else.

But hey, I didn't make this movie, Ridley Scott did. And he got exactly the project he wanted, one where the writers were utterly subservient and he could claim authorship without actually having to write.

Congratulations, Ridley!


How Accomplished: 21/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 18/100

P.S. There are an unlimited number of web pages devoted to poking fun at Prometheus' various plot problems. They're tremendous fun to read, in a mean-spirited kind of way.