Saturday, 27 February 2010
After being cursed by delays, The Wolfman, Hollywood’s latest spin on the popular werewolf myth, finally bares its ugly fangs in theaters this week. Predictably, the film is a train wreck of a debacle -- one would expect nothing less from a notoriously troubled production that saw its original director, Mark Romanek, abandon ship just two weeks before the start of shooting -- but The Wolfman’s problems stem less from the late-game addition of helmer Joe Johnston, who at the very least delivered a terrific looking film (its gorgeously eerie Victorian aesthetic, evoking a palpable, exquisite sense of dread, is by far its best feature) than from the misguided efforts of its producer and star, Benicio Del Toro. The Wolfman is the brainchild of Del Toro, an ardent horror fan who conceived the film as an homage of sorts to the low-budget “monster movies” from the ‘30s and ‘40s that he loved dearly as a child. It’s fashioned as a loose remake of 1941’s The Wolf Man, a film that both established Lon Chaney Jr.’s performance as the definitive take on the character and introduced aspects of the werewolf legend now considered sacrosanct. The notion that a werewolf can be felled by an item made from silver, for example, owes its origin to The Wolf Man. But Del Toro feels all wrong in the role of Lawrence Talbot, the prodigal son of a 19th-century English aristocrat whose fateful encounter with a bloodthirsty lycan, the same creature that brutally murdered his brother just days prior, triggers his unwitting initiation into the accursed tribe of feral man-beasts. Del Toro's resume of low-key, understated performances marked by a muttering, often imperceptible delivery in films like Traffic and The Usual Suspects suggests a skill set better suited to playing another famous movie monster, one significantly less loquacious than his character in this movie. Seriously -- the guy should have remade Frankenstein instead. Playing an American-bred (but English-born, we’re told) character in an 1890 setting, looking uncomfortable in period attire, surrounded by such “proper” British actors as Sir Anthony Hopkins and Emily Blunt, and fully annunciating all of his line readings for the first time that I can recall, Del Toro appears hopelessly out of place in The Wolfman. Things only get worse, unfortunately, when Del Toro’s character transforms into the dreaded werewolf. Each time the moon is full, the film transitions, with increasing ridiculousness, from a somber Victorian drama into a hard-core horror flick, replete with grisly shots of torn flesh, exposed spines, and severed limbs. The first overly gruesome attack triggers a kind of nervous laugh, more from the shock than anything else. The second invites an amused, uneasy chuckle, which soon snowballs into an outright belly laugh. And the effect soon spreads to the dialogue, the outrageous gore rendering the film's mannered melodrama strangely hysterical. Of all the Wolfman players, only Hopkins seems to get the joke, reveling in his manipulative mischief as Talbot's inappropriately glib, stoutly aloof father. If only he'd let his castmates in on it.
From Paris With Love is a volatile hybrid, half Hong Kong action flick, half American spy thriller, fused together in the Dr. Moreau-like laboratory of French filmmakers Luc Besson (The Fifth Element) and Pierre Morel (Taken). As a result of the violent process, some parts emerge oddly distorted: Bruce Willis becomes John Travolta, Matt Damon becomes Jonathan Rhys Meyers, believability becomes an afterthought, and plotting becomes irrelevant. Made up like Ming the Merciless and channeling the hep-cat spirit of Vincent Vega, Travolta stars as CIA Agent Charlie Wax, a brusque, trigger-happy bundle of Yankee hubris summoned to Paris to prevent a potential terrorist plot on a U.N. peace conference. Rhys Meyers plays James Reese, an uptight entry-level operative tasked with ferrying Wax around the city to gather the intelligence needed to thwart the conspiracy. Predictably, the two agents quickly settle into the standard buddy cop relationship: Button-down rookie Reese is appalled by coke-snorting, hooker-banging Wax’s unorthodox tactics, which usually land them in the middle of one huge, stunningly choreographed shootout or another; Wax, in turn, belittles his young sidekick’s naivety and stubborn adherence to protocol. At times Travolta’s action-hero routine borders on embarrassing — like watching your grandmother try to rap — but his exaggerated bravado is not entirely without its charms. He’s by far the most enjoyable part of the movie, skipping merrily through the bullet-strewn Parisian underground, spewing politically incorrect aphorisms in between explosions, reveling in his role as the obnoxious American. Virtually every line he delivers earns laughs — and often on purpose. If only he had a more capable sparring partner than Rhys Meyers, whose range, From Paris With Love sadly reveals, extends little beyond his petulant, amorous act as young Henry VIII in Showtime’s The Tudors. As much as Travolta enlivens the action, the unutterably bland Rhys Meyers deflates it — and he gets the lion’s share of the screen time, unfortunately. Director Morel, who cut his teeth as a cinematographer on such kinetic action fare as The Transporter, does some virtuoso work with the camera, incorporating everyday locales into his exquisitely frenzied set pieces. Dinner at a nondescript Chinese restaurant ends in a massive gunfight; an intimate dinner party launches an extended chase; a routine brothel visit gives way to ... another massive gunfight. If only he'd put as much care into his casting decisions. After each of From Paris With Love’s violent skirmishes, when Reese questions why things went so suddenly — and disastrously — awry, Wax angrily shouts “Don’t you get it yet?” to his hopelessly obtuse partner. At times, I think Travolta is actually pleading with his fellow castmember to wake up, get his act together and stop ruining the movie. It's a doomed effort.
The phrase “from the author of The Notebook” often provokes instant, visceral reactions from those familiar with the famously sappy 2004 romantic drama, with positive and negative responses strongly divided along gender and marital status lines. It’s one of four films based on the work of Nicholas Sparks, the John Grisham of romance novelists; the other three are 1999's Message in a Bottle, 2002's A Walk to Remember, and 2008's Nights in Rodanthe. The fifth Sparks-inspired romantic epic, opening in theaters just in time for Valentine’s Day, is called Dear John, but it’s so gloomy, so punishing, so unrewarding, it might as well be retitled Dear Job. Not that director Lasse Hallstrom (The Cider House Rules) doesn’t do his best to mitigate the melancholy, infusing Dear John with all the ingredients one expects from a Sparks adaptation: a pair of appealing young stars (Mamma Mia’s Amanda Seyfried and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra’s Channing Tatum), a charming, camera-friendly southern locale (Charleston, South Carolina -- America’s most polite city 11 years running!), a palette dominated by amber and khaki hues, a handful of wistful flashbacks, and a breezy, anodyne soundtrack. But beneath the film’s gooey romantic sheen lies an inordinately dreary story that repeatedly declares, "No, love won’t find a way, actually.” When he isn’t risking his life for a largely ambivalent country, U.S. Army Special Forces operative John Tyree (Tatum) assumes the equally thankless task of looking after his Asperger’s-afflicted father (Richard Jenkins), who seems incapable of expressing anything other than a sort of pained reticence. One day, happiness arrives in the perky, sun-drenched form of Savannah, a well-bred college student with whom he immediately embarks on a passionate affair, an affair which only strengthens while John is deployed abroad, thanks to their daily ritual of writing cloyingly affectionate letters to each other. But trouble soon arises for John and Savannah when they allow a man to come between them: Osama bin Laden, whose 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center has the secondary effect of initiating the demise of their seemingly indestructible relationship. After John leaves to fight in Afghanistan, Savannah falls prey to the apparently irresistable charms of Tim (Henry Thomas), a meek, cancer-stricken single father of an autistic boy, and soon marries him. (Evidently, stealing another guy’s girl is perfectly allowable if you suffer from a terminal disease. Men, be warned: If your girlfriend starts hanging out at chemotherapy clinics, watch out.) Looks like the terrorists won after all.
Firing a rather tepid opening salvo in Hollywood’s annual Valentine’s Day rom-com blitz is When in Rome, starring Kristen Bell (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, TV’s Veronica Mars) and Josh Duhamel (Turistas, the Transformers flicks) and directed by Mark Steven Johnson (Ghost Rider, Daredevil). You read that correctly: Johnson, a guy who gave us two critically-reviled comic book flicks, was tapped by Disney to direct a movie entirely devoid of acrobatic fight sequences or computerized visual effects, the only filmmaking skills for which he’s received consistent praise. Hmmm ... maybe this is why Dick Cook was fired. Bell plays Beth, a high-strung New York City museum curator whose frustration over her barren love life spills over at her sister’s wedding in Rome, where she winds up drunkenly splashing around in the city’s fictional “Fontana D’Amore.” The embarrassing but harmless episode takes a momentous turn, however, when Beth absentmindedly steals a handful of coins from the fountain, unknowingly triggering an ancient Italian curse. Soon she’s romantically besieged by a diverse and highly aggressive group of oddballs played by Danny DeVito, Dax Shepard, Will Arnett and Jon Heder — the very men whose coins she plucked from the fabled fountain. The concept isn’t entirely without potential, but When in Rome’s script takes the quartet of previously funny actors and comedically castrates them, forcing them to survive this creative Dust Bowl on precisely one joke apiece. DeVito, playing a sausage magnate, emits only meat-related quips; Shepard’s self-obsessed model explores the comic possibilities of his washboard stomach; hapless street artist Arnett plasters the city with nude portraits of his unrequited love; and Heder’s wannabe magician mounts a series of botched magic tricks. (In a gag that might have been funny back in 2004, Efren Ramirez, Napoleon Dynamite’s Pedro, enjoys a cameo as Heder’s videographer. He’s this week’s winner of the Jeff Zucker “How Does This Guy Have a Job?” Award.) All of which serves to delay the inevitable coupling of Bell and Duhamel, two likable leads who gamely trudge through material so inane, so bland — and so safe — that it could fit comfortably in one of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s increasingly soporific family comedies. In fact, I’m not even sure if When in Rome made use of the standard PG-13 allotment of one F-word (used in a non-sexual manner, of course). Expect to hear it used liberally, however, by fellow audience members as the credits roll on this middling debacle.
The God of Legion, secular Hollywood’s latest Biblically-inspired action flick, is old-school, an angry, spiteful Almighty with a penchant for Old Testament theatrics. Fed up with humanity’s decadent, warmongering ways, He’s decided to pull the plug on the whole crazy experiment and start over from scratch. Fortunately for us, the God of Legion is also a rather lazy fellow. Instead of doing the apocalyptic work himself and wiping us out with a giant flood, which worked perfectly well last time, He opts to delegate the task to His army of angels — a questionable strategy that starts to fall apart when the archangel charged with leading the planned extermination, Michael (Paul Bettany), refuses to comply. Michael, who unlike his boss still harbors affection for our sorry species, abandons his post and descends to earth, where inside the swollen belly of Charlie (Adrianne Palicki), an unwed mother-to-be working as a waitress in an out-of-the-way diner, sits humanity’s lone hope for survival. Why is this particular baby so important? Is it the one destined to lead us to victory over Skynet? Heaven knows — Legion reveals little details, its script devoid of actual scripture. What is clear is that God’s celestial hitmen want the kid whacked before it’s born. But Michael won’t let humanity fall without a fight. Armed with a Waco-sized arsenal of assault weapons, he hunkers down with the diner’s patrons, a largely superfluous collection of thinly-sketched caricatures from various demographic groups, led by Dennis Quaid as the diner’s grizzled owner, Tyrese Gibson as a hip-hop hustler, and Lucas Black as a simple-minded country boy. Together they mount a heroic final stand against hordes of angels who’ve taken possession of “weak-willed” humans, turning kindly old grandmas and mild-mannered ice cream vendors into snarling, ravenous, foul-mouthed beasts. They descend upon the ramshackle diner in a series of full-frontal assaults commanded by the archangel Gabriel (Kevin Durand), the George Pickett of End of Days generals. Beneath its superficial religious facade, Legion is really just a run-of-the-mill zombie flick, a Biblical I Am Legend. Bettany, an actor accustomed to smaller dramatic roles in films like A Beautiful Mind and The Da Vinci Code, looks perfectly at ease in his first major action role, wielding machine guns and bowie knives with equal aplomb. Conversely, first-time director Scott Stewart, a former visual effects artist, does little to prove himself worthy of such a promotion, serving up some impressive CGI work but not much else worthy of note.
Thursday, 21 January 2010
Book of Eli, the ambitious, thought-provoking new thriller from brothers Albert and Allen Hughes (From Hell, Dead Presidents), is in many ways an anomaly in modern Hollywood. It’s a post-apocalyptic story that’s neither a remake nor an adaptation; its dystopian future is entirely devoid of zombies or vampires; and its core message, spiked with heavy amounts of faith and religion, borders on evangelical. Oh, and it’s absurdly violent, too. How this movie got made, I’ll never know.
The film is set approximately thirty years after a catastrophic war has decimated the planet, leaving its surface charred and inhospitable to the lucky few who managed to survive. A handful of dirty, decrepit, debauched cities host the last remnants of civilization; in between them, gangs of crazed cannibals, distinguishable by traits similar to those of meth addicts (shaky hands, bad skin, missing teeth, bizarre fashion sense, etc.), roam the bleak, unforgiving landscape, preying upon those foolish enough to travel alone.
Out of this infinite desert emerges a pious, solitary badass, Eli (Denzel Washington), wielding a vicious machete and carrying a rare book which, if placed in the right hands, could hold the key to civilization’s redemption. But in the greedy paws of unscrupulous folks like Carnegie (Gary Oldman), the tyrant of a lawless frontier town, the book can also be a powerful tool for subjugating the ignorant masses. Which is why Carnegie declares a veritable fatwa on Eli’s ass when he learns of his precious cargo, forcing the peace-loving missionary to brandish his blade in the service of the Lord.
Whatever their own religious beliefs, the Hughes brothers should get on their knees and thank God for Denzel, who almost singlehandedly makes Book of Eli’s hyper-stylized, incongruous mixture of B-movie splatter and high-minded spiritual hokum palpable. Together with Oldman, the film’s other fine lead, he imbues the often preposterous plot with just enough credibility to keep it afloat. Seriously, other than Denzel, who else could solemnly recite Psalm 23 in one scene, then go and carve up — literally — a handful of henchmen in the next, without eliciting howls of laughter from a movie audience? The only other actor who immediately comes to mind is a pre-meltdown Mel Gibson. Maybe.
But even a miracle worker like Denzel can’t prevent the wreckage wrought by Mila Kunis, a likable enough actress who is disastrously miscast in the role of Solara, a rough-hewn hooker-slave who eventually becomes Eli’s disciple. With her perfect complexion, shrill intonation and Valley Girl cadence, Kunis feels glaringly out of place in Book of Eli's coarse, brutal futureworld — and she can't hope to measure up to the likes of titans Washington and Oldman.
Hormones can wreak havoc on the teenage brain, causing it to contemplate all sorts of mischief in its drive to sate its carnal appetite. In the R-rated teen comedy Youth in Revolt, directed by Miguel Arteta and starring Michael Cera (Juno, Superbad) and newcomer Portia Doubleday, the volatile combo becomes downright hazardous.
The “teen” label is highly debatable here, as Youth in Revolt’s hapless protagonist, Nick (Cera), and his impish paramour, Sheeni (Doubleday), are both too quick-witted and hyper-articulate to qualify as mere high school sophomores. It’s the Juno debate: I don’t know if any teens actually talk like this, but if they do, I guarantee none are as sophisticated or attractive as our Nick and Sheeni. No, Youth in Revolt is more like a hipster’s whimsical projection of what his adolescence might have looked like if it weren’t spent buried in an issue of McSweeney’s. And on that level — as a sort of Porky’s for intellectuals — it actually works.
Though his vocabulary is highly advanced, 16-year-old Nick shares one important trait in common with most boys his age: He’d like to lose his virginity, preferably as soon as possible. But his chances seem woefully slim until he meets Sheeni, an attractive girl possessing a mind as sharp as his, but without the nagging insecurity and sexual inhibition. To top it off, Sheeni appears more than willing to escort Nick into manhood; circumstances, however, conspire to thwart them at nearly every turn, driving Nick to increasingly desperate lengths to be joined with her. Egged on by an imaginary wingman, his shrewdly Machiavellian alter ego Francois Dillinger (also Cera), Nick’s actions escalate from mere lies and manipulation to arson and auto theft with startling speed, and he soon earns the attention of the authorities.
With the cops hot on his trail, Nick spends the last third of the film in a sort of hormone-fueled version of The Fugitive, racing against time to crack the case of his virginity before being dragged away to juvenile hall. It’s one of the many odd shifts in tone that plague Youth in Revolt, as Arteta can’t seem to decide between raunchy sex comedy and surreal coming-of-age tale. Thankfully, he’s able to fall back on the talents of Cera and Doubleday, whose amusing and endearing — if suspiciously mature — repartee carries the film.
Hollywood’s burgeoning library of vampire flicks gets a bloody new addition this week with Daybreakers, a grisly horror-thriller that adds a dystopian twist to the increasingly well-worn bloodsucker mythos. If Twilight is the Romeo and Juliet of the vampire genre, Daybreakers hopes to be its Children of Men. But hope, as they say, is not a plan. Nor is it a particularly effective filmmaking technique.
Set 10 years in the future, Daybreakers envisions a world in which a nasty plague has turned all but a tiny fraction of the planet’s population into vampires. But instead of descending into the kind of violent anarchy one might expect after such a catastrophic event, folks have adjusted surprisingly well, retrofitting their lives to accommodate their vampiric needs. (Potentially fatal sunlight, for example, is avoided with an elaborate system of underground walkways and computerized sunrise alerts.)
But all is not well in the future vampire world. The supply of uninfected human blood, upon which the civilization depends to survive, is dwindling rapidly, and attempts to synthesize it, led by Ethan Hawke’s reluctant biotech researcher Edward Dalton, have thus far proved disastrously ineffective. (A side effect of the latest blood substitute, for example, is an exploding head. Ouch!)
Dressed in a drab black suit and hat, his alabaster vampire complexion rendered even more pale by his moral objection to drinking human blood (he subsists instead on vastly inferior pig blood), Hawke’s character looks something like a Hasidic heroin addict (see below). Appalled by his company’s lucrative side business of imprisoning uninfected humans in vast blood farms (akin to the warehouses of “batteries” of The Matrix), he revolts against his smoothly sinister boss (Sam Neill) and joins a rag-tag resistance group led by a homespun mercenary (Willem Dafoe) who claims to have discovered the cure to vampirism.
The majesty of the Emerald Isle is on full display in Leap Year, an opposites attract romantic comedy starring Amy Adams (Julie & Julia, Enchanted) and Matthew Goode (A Single Man, Watchmen). Director Anand Tucker (Shopgirl, Hilary and Jackie), shooting entirely on location in Ireland, takes us on a whirlwind tour of the country’s breathtaking landscape, reveling in its fabled fairy-tale charm.
Pity, then, that such a magnificent setting is so mercilessly defaced by Leap Year’s unrelenting mediocrity. The film’s dubious premise, testing the already loose limits of rom-com believability, casts Adams as Anna, a type-A career girl who flies to Ireland intending to pop the question to her feet-dragging boyfriend on February 29th, aka Leap Day. Why Leap Day? Because, according to some idiotic old Irish tradition, that’s when women are allowed to do such things. (Click here to watch Adams herself try to explain the plot.)
Unfortunately for Anna, weather problems force her plane to land far away from Dublin and her would-be fiance. Trapped in a tiny coastal town with no reliable transportation at her disposal, she enlists the help of a scruffy, abrasive barkeep named Declan (Goode) to drive her cross-country so she can reach her destination by the 29th. And thus begins the traditional rom-com mating ritual of sexually-charged bickering followed by moments of abrupt, awkward intimacy.
While watching Leap Year, I swear I could hear the Irish countryside quietly weeping as it witnessed Goode and Adams slog through the film's succession of trite misadventures, the talented actors straining in vain to manufacture some semblance of romantic chemistry as an assortment of jolly Waking Ned Devine types futilely spurred them on. Oh, if only Greenpeace could have intervened and put a halt to such wanton environmental desecration. It's the worst thing to come out of Ireland since The Cranberries.
Thursday, 31 December 2009
It takes a special film to transform an audience of movie critics, highly-trained skeptics who can dismiss the most painstakingly crafted work with a mere smirk and roll of the eyes, into a bunch of glowing, giddy teenagers, but that’s precisely what happened earlier this week when Avatar, James Cameron’s extraordinary new sci-fi epic, screened for the first time. Count me among the awestruck rabble; Avatar is a truly astounding piece of filmmaking, a leap forward in visual effects artistry that sets a lofty new standard by which future event films will be judged.
Avatar wastes little time before unleashing the spectacle. Perhaps sensing our collective anticipation, Cameron serves up the barest of backstories before shoving off for Pandora, the staggeringly lush planet upon which the film’s futuristic tale unfolds. Through the eyes of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a crippled ex-marine who navigates Pandora vicariously through a bio-engineered surrogate (aka, an avatar), we’re introduced to the planet’s boundless, breathtaking collection of natural and unnatural wonders, all created from scratch, rendered with uncanny fluidity, and presented in the most realistic and immersive 3-D ever witnessed on film.
Occasionally, Avatar’s technical triumph is betrayed by its maddeningly derivative storyline, which borrows elements wholesale from Dances With Wolves, The Last Samurai and countless similar films about oppressors switching sides and going native. Sent to gather intelligence on the Na'vi, Pandora’s blue-skinned indigenous population, for an Earth-based mining consortium, Jake becomes enamored with the proud, peace-loving natives and their groovy, granola ways. Soon enough, he’s joined their tribe, taken a smokin’ hot native girl for a wife (Zoe Saldana), and organized an army to help repel the encroachment of the rapacious earthlings.
The Bad Guys (Avatar’s moral perspective is as monochromatic as Pandora is colorful) who initiate the assault on the Na'vi are led by a tag team of grotesque, absurdly one-dimensional villains: Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) the khaki-lad, bottom line-obsessed corporate administrator of the mine; and Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), a bug-eyed, musclebound sadist who commands the mine’s vast security force. As Pandora’s Cortez and Pizzaro, they form a potent one-two punch of arrogant imperialist caricatures, deriding the noble Na'vi with sophomoric slurs like “blue monkeys” and “fly-bitten savages that live in a tree.” Neither would think twice of eliminating them entirely in order to procure the exceedingly rare, obscenely valuable element known as — I sh*t you not — Unobtainium.
Unobtanium? Really? It’s that kind of ham-fisted, uninspired pap littered throughout Avatar that makes me want to tear my hair out. If Cameron devoted a fraction of his time and effort toward improving the script as he spent perfecting the bone structure of the viperwolf (one of Pandora’s innumerable animal species), we might have a bona fide classic on our hands. But in Avatar, story and character development are treated as obstacles, pockets of narrative brush that must be clear-cut to make way for construction of the next extraordinarily elaborate set piece.
And yet, despite its flaws, Avatar represents one of those exceedingly rare instances in which style triumphs over substance — and by a landslide. I don’t know if Cameron has revolutionized the movie-watching experience (as he famously promised) but he’s surely improved upon it.