Wednesday, December 05, 2012

End of Days (1999)

Last week was Arnie week. I kicked it off with The Sixth Day, Running Man, then moved onto Total Recall. All are enjoyable Arnold movies. I was starting to embark on Swayze week, but I turned my attention to End of Days, which was on my Cinemax.

I actually love those Religious Horror movies. Exorcist, Prince of Darkness, stuff like that. This movie got me wondering though... what's up with Satanists? They make no sense.  I mean, in movie after movie these guys are trying to bring about Satan. For what?

In this movie, every thousand years, Satan gets his chance by finding a chosen woman and impregnating her the hour before the millenium begins. To what end? So he can rule the earth in a shroud of darkness and evil! Duh.

Okay... let's assume for a minute that this outcome is highly desirable to Satanists. I mean, God always seems to let us down and never listen to our prayers, so who wouldn't want to live on Evil-Earth? All of our pets would be replaced by Cerberusian canines that would eat our faces off when we didn't bring out the laser pointer to entertain them. Murder would not only be no longer banned, but would be a requirement. Everyone would have a monthly murder quota. Facebook would be replaced by Gorebook. I get it, these things should be desirable to almost any true Satanist... I think! I haven't been in the company of Satanists, well, like, ever, but at least Hollywood scriptwriters see it this way time and time again. Satanists want Satan because evil is just that much more awesome than good.

Assuming all of that sounds like a trip to Disneyland, there's a lot of WTF in terms of getting there. Twenty years before Satan inhabits the body of Gabriel Byrne, Satanic-follower-dude somehow knows that the prophesied child to get it on with Satan 20 years later will be born in a particular hospital. Not only does he know which child, when and where, but he brings a snake with him to sanctify...

Wait a second, I guess it can't be santification when we're talking about Satan

...evilify the child by putting blood of the snake in the child's mouth. Bringing a giant snake in a jar to the hospital -- nothing out of the ordinary about that.

Ok fine, so let's suspend disbelief on all of this and just accept the story for what it is. With that, it really isn't a bad movie. It's at least half an hour too long, but other than that it is pretty entertaining. Peter Hyams is a director who can make an entertaining movie.

The glaring problem -- and there aren't a lot of his movies I would say this about -- is Arnold. He is way way way way miscast for this movie. This movie needed a thoughtful younger actor with biceps that aren't as large as my thighs. This is one of the parts that Arnold can't pull off with of any kind of endearing or comedic factor -- Kindergarden Cop comes to mind. According to IMDB, Arnold's role in this movie was originally written for Tom Cruise. That makes a lot more sense. Mark Ruffalo was pretty young and barely established in 1999[*], but even he would have been better in this.

[*] - Go see "You Can Count on Me" with Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo right now. It's one of the best movies you haven't seen and haven't heard of.

JSS Rating - Good / Bad. The producers and director didn't think they were making an A-list movie, but it's still entertaining. Really, only barely though. I think Gabriel Byrne makes this watchable along the way, and it's okay for what it is. This was a movie that could have been a lot. It's apparent throughout that it was one of those movies where the people involved resigned themselves to making this film no matter how many things fell through (like casting Tom Cruise).

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Skyfall (2012)

Bond, in some ways, has become a never-ending cycle of disappointment. Can Bond ever achieve the level of greatness from whatever Bond movie you happened to see first when you were ten or so? With the exceptions of the classics--assuming you have not seen them before--every new Bond movie has some tinge of "this can never live up to the greatness of my mind."

So MGM, a company that actually would not exist without Bond, really does have to keep the dream alive as best they can. Bond has to be just good enough to get people to come back. That formula worked for a long time, but when they rebooted the series with Daniel Craig, they seemed to finally take the moviemaking aspect seriously again.

Skyfall triply pulls out the stops on the "serious moviemaking" idea. They got Sam Mendes to direct. Mendes is the first Oscar winner to ever direct a Bond movie. They got Roger Deakins to shoot the movie -- he has a scant 9 nominations for best cinematography, including highway robbery where he did not win for Fargo (screw "The English Patient" in so many ways!). Oh and they got John Logan to help write. Yeah he was nominated for Oscars too. The two hacks who had been writing the last several movies got writing credits as well but one has to wonder how much they wrote the good parts of the movie.

And do they deliver? Yes, they deliver, this is the most incredibly crafted Bond movie ever put on a screen.

Yet, lately, when watching movies, I think "My god, the technicals are so amazing in this movie. The composition, the lighting, the effects, the sound. Everything is so perfectly executed. It's amazing. And yet so hollow. And this story is ludicrous."

Skyfall is a bit like that. Sometimes the technical achievement of this film is so glorious and enjoyable. Other times, it feels like a veneer over ludicrousness.

Skyfall has some of the best action ever put into a Bond movie. And while it lacks the epic scope of action scenes like the For Your Eyes Only ski chase, it delivers on (somewhat) more realistic but exciting action than recent films. The opener is just awesome. I will admit that the effects took me out of it at times. The compositing and head replacements seemed obvious to me. Granted, I was sitting 10 feet away from an IMAX screen. More on that later.

I think one of the best qualities of the movie is that the important parts take place in the UK. How novel for a Bond movie! Finally, they're not in Russia or Greece or Spain or on top of the Eiffel Tower. I would guess 50% of the movie takes place in the UK, and the end is in the moors of Scotland. That's genius. Skyfall is about Bond's humanity, and the moors, with no gadgets, are the best place to wrap this up. So much in these movies, he seems like an inhuman, invincible character. The conclusion of Skyfall is all about representing that humanity in locale. The finale is beautiful.

In a lot of ways, Skyfall represents the same kind of reboot that For Your Eyes Only tried to do before. The movie before FYEO was Moonraker, which was so over the top that the producers thought they needed to get Bond back to basics. Skyfall takes a similar tack and it's great.

And yet, the most significant flaw with this movie is the plot and character that gets us there. Javier Bardem has been called the best Bond villain from his character in this film.

Not only is Bardem not the best Bond villain ever, he's one of the most overrated villains from multiple films. As you may recall, I hated "No Country For Old Men" (I refused to review that movie, so I referenced that fact in my Cloverfield review). I thought Chigurh was silly and ridiculous. Same thing here. Bardem's villain is such a mastermind that he seems to be omniscient, able to plan every move that everyone will ever make far in advance. It's ludicrous.

I also think they did lower themselves to Bond campiness just a little bit too much in this film. It could have been a much more serious film than it was. I'm not sure it would have been the megahit it is without these elements, of course.

Yet, if you can put that all aside, Skyfall is an enjoyable movie. I personally think that Daniel Craig is the best Bond. He has the perfect blend of rough-and-tumble and cleans-up-well that Bond should be for a real tough spy guy. In retrospect, the Bond persona from the past is kind of laughable compared to the one that Craig puts out there. And because of this, and since Skyfall is about Bond's humanity, it is a really good movie with the perfect casting of Bond to do it.

JSS Rating: Good/Good.  MGM aimed to make a Good movie, and they achieved a Good movie. The plot is insanely unbelievable at times and Javier Bardem is ridiculous as a villain. That said, it is one of the top Bond films they've ever made. The execution is fantastic. Kudos to Sam Mendes.

Now, onto my main gripe: IMAX! I'm never seeing a movie this way again. First of all, I always somehow end up in a terrible seat where the screen looks distorted. Maybe all seats in IMAX are this way? I was dying to see Deakins' composition and lighting but felt i could never get a good view. Much of the time, Daniel Craig looked like he had an anvil for a head because of the screen distortion. I can't wait to see this on my perfectly calibrated "small" screen at home.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

This is a movie of epic proportions.  Epic, disastrous, proportions.

Chris Nolan is the genius who brought us Inception, The Prestige, Memento and Insomnia.  Oh, and not to mention The Dark Knight, which is arguably one of the better superhero movies of all time (I personally would say the best is the first Superman).  Nolan recently took a bunch of directors to view portions of this film on film, to convince them to keep shooting film over digital.  He also does not do 3D, which I commend.  He's championed as a traditionalist.  And today, he has brought us one of the messiest films I have ever seen.  

The Dark Knight Rises is a 2 hour, 45 minute trailer.  There's no actual movie.  Just past the Bond-like action vignette that introduces you to the film, the film moves onto a mess of short clips with little to no natural transition, pause or tension.  The entire story is told this way.  Only the fight sequences are allowed to hold a shot.  Everything else can't hold a shot, much less a scene.  Too much is going on.  Lines are being stepped on by edits.

To give Nolan credit, I contemplated this while watching the movie.  Was he trying to cut the movie like that of comic book panels?  Was he trying to give us the rapid-fire dialogue of older films, which the Coens emulated so well in The Hudsucker Proxy?  Here's an example of that kind of dialogue from Rebecca.  Probably not the best example since Joan Fontaine can't act worth a damn.

But no.  Nolan is not trying to do this with the dialogue.  I have to assume he was not because, if he was, he failed.  In fact, I could never figure out what he was trying to achieve with the editing in this film.  It was so sloppy, so overdone, that it was intolerable to watch.

The basis of good filmmaking not a scene, it's a sequence.  When you see amateurs try to make a film, that's what is inherently wrong with their work and what throws you off when you watch it.  They are not contemplating the sequence, only the scenes right in front of them one by one.  This is why storyboarding is so important, so you can get an idea of what it is you're putting together at a larger scale.  Here's one you might recall, from a movie that was storyboarded like mad in order to make some of the best action sequences ever recorded on film.

Spielberg is famous for having his storyboard artist with him, working out everything ahead of time.  He figures it all out, then throws the storyboards away and shoots the film -- he can probably do this because he's a prodigy genius, but most mortals are likely to need to refer to the boards again to pull it together.

The Dark Knight Rises fails to pull together nearly any sequence, ever, over the entire nearly three hours of the film.  It is a jumbled mess of scenes, cut together with non-stop score.  We see Commissioner Gordon, lamenting something or another, interspersed with a heist by Catwoman, with a trip to an orphanage by Gordon-Levitt-kid.   Nothing conclusive, nothing transitive.  It, my friends, is a trailer.  Not a film.  Maybe a half dozen times in the movie does enough coherency pull together to really sit back and savor something happening on the screen.  Mostly fight sequences.  No character is actually allowed to develop.  They are a technicality.  They are Deus Ex Machina.

Anne Hathaway is the only reasonable bright spot in the film.  She plays Catwoman brilliantly.  I think the only reason that Nolan allowed her to develop a strong character is because he must love her.  She is fortuitous to get enough of a lingering camera on her to show some emotion, or thought, or anything, without a cutaway to Gordon-Levitt-kid or Comm. Gordon or Bale doing non-Batman things.

I can't take credit for this observation... one of my friends with me ("LM") noted this.  But how contrived is it that a plot that takes months evolve comes down to the last few seconds before disaster?  That alone should illustrate what a disaster this film is.

A twist comes in the last half hour, but it's too late by that point.  The 2 minutes of the twist is entertaining, but there was no build-up to the twist.  It's no Usual Suspects.  It's the kind of twist where you go "Oh, OK.  Well, that's interesting.  Moving on."

Lastly, I want to say Batman is barely in this film.  He is on screen at most 30 minutes of the 165 minutes of this film.  Even Joel Schumacher understood his audience better than Chris Nolan.   Batman Forever had a lot of Batman.  How this movie is #10 on IMDB at the moment boggles the mind.  Hopefully the internet will correct this egregious oversight.  If I could take my face out of my hands, I might actually try to vote it properly.

JSS Rating:  A Bad, Good Movie.  It was supposed to be good, but it was actually bad.  This is Chris Nolan's first entry into the category that I can recall.

Monday, June 25, 2012

In Time (2011)

Andrew Niccol, you disappoint me.

In Time is a great concept:  we have the power to be immortal, so because of resource concerns, money becomes an allotment of time to live.  Next comes Robin Hood story, yada yada yada, the poor are saved from the rich, everyone happy ever after.  The end.  Simple, right?  Gonna be FABULOUS.  So let's make this movie.  

Nooooope!  The execution is just horrible.  This movie has some of the problems that I thought Gattaca had -- which I loved -- but taken to the Nth degree.  For one thing, there are too many chase scenes and the story is vastly oversimplified given the other technology made available to characters in the story.

Let's focus on the behavior of time trading for a second.  People can give time to each other with a handshake, and depending on whose hand is on top, the time is taken from one person and given to another.  A number of random issues arise here.  Like, for example, why is someone able to take my time down to zero at some crazy-ass rate of depletion?  Would anyone ever give anyone else so much time that they want just 10 seconds left to live?  It makes no sense.  You would think the minimum you could give to someone would be everything you have, but leaving an hour or two.

Ohhhh, but it's a plot device... I get it.  I just came up with a new rule.  Anytime moviemakers put in a ridiculous plot device like this, it should be made into a drinking game.  In the case of "In Time":  How many freakin times in this movie do characters get down to seconds left on their clock before they die.  Drink a shot every time you see it.

Then you have other technological issues.  They can all live forever with these time devices, but can be shot dead by bullets?  We're running out of resources so they have to ration time?  Why couldn't they just, stop eating?  If we have the technology to live forever, why aren't we on spaceships travelling for eons?  I don't expect all of these to be answered, of course.  Futuristic movies always have holes like this.  But I just don't think Niccol gives enough thought to all of these ancillary things when he devises these otherwise brilliant concepts.

The casting is also laughable.  Not one person could act in this film.  I actually like Justin Timberlake.  I thought he was great in The Social Network and think he's hilarious whenever he's on SNL.  One thing he is not, however, is an action star or a dramatic actor.  There's a scene in this movie where he's supposed to be mourning someone.  It's... pretty bad acting.  One would hope that someone would be paying attention when shooting it, in the editing room or dailies and maybe, you know, help the bad acting.  Not this time.  It makes me wonder if Niccol did not want Timberlake as the lead.

This movie is at least an hour too long, which is frightening because it's only 109 minutes -- meaning it really only has about 49 minutes of good material.  That might fill up an episode of CSI: Miami if you're lucky.  Niccol, do you ever go back to watch your own movies?  The concepts are great but they get pretty boring at times.  Let me just set a scene for you that illustrates this:

  • Timberlake and what's-her-face are on the run, shot a cop, etc.
  • They hole up in a hotel room
  • Later, they proceed to be all lovey-dovey and... wait for it... play STRIP POKER.
Now, I don't really care if characters in movies play strip poker when I'm not trying to watch a movie and they aren't running from the police.  But if this is your idea of character development it's ridiculous.  Yes, they fall in love.  We get it... we got it 35 minutes before this scene.  And who the hell is on the run from the police and takes time to mess around playing strip poker?

I ended up watching the final third of this movie with subtitles on and at 4x speed.

JSS RATING:  Bad/Bad movie.  I have no idea if Andrew Niccol intended this to be one of his good movies.  I suspect it originally was, but then they bundled JT into the picture and it became kind of a mindless action flick (i.e. "bad").  Such a great concept, and it never paid off.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Prometheus (2012)

I went in expecting to be let down.  I was let down.  I had lowered my expectations to being so low that I thought if this movie was anything better than 2 hours of black screen, I'd be happily surprised.  I was still let down.

First, let's talk about money.  Supposedly this movie cost $130 million to make.  Add on the immense marketing budget and it probably was $200 million out the door.  Congratulations, it will make that money back.  But you know what else $130 million gets you?  A full year's worth of HIV/AIDS medication for poor people in California.

I'm not going to claim moral equivalence in those two, or say that money spent on making big budget movies is a waste.  No way.  I'm just saying that if this is the end result in 15 years of waiting for an Alien Franchise sequel (prequel), then that money would have been better spent somewhere else.

And what can you cut?  Visual effects.  Virtually unnecessary for this plot.  I'll come back to that in my spoiler section.

What I really should have started this article with is pointing out the problem with prequels.  Prequels require homework.  The later story has already been established, so the foundation set up here has to be rock solid.   Like another famous disastrous set of prequels, this movie takes major missteps with the basic mythos of the franchise.  I'll get to that in the spoiler section, but here are some examples from Episode I, which if I'm spoiling for you at this point, you should be happy for never having suffered through it:

  • For three excellent films, The Force was unexplained and magical.  In Episode I, the Force is caused by midi-chlorians.
  • Anakin Skywalker--besides being an annoying child actor far younger than Natalie Portman that had no relevance to anything in Episode I except being annoying--aka the man destined to rule the universe as Darth Vader--accidentally saves the day at the end of the movie.
  • Anakin Skywalker was an immaculate conception.
  • I could go on and on about that piece of shit.
When I say "prequels require homework", it means exactly what I say.  You can't do hand waving.  The questions left unanswered must be answered in full and be reasonable to be satisfying for the audience.  Prometheus does a tremendous amount of hand-wavery and thus is not satisfying.  If it was in no way connected to Alien/s, it might actually be a decent stand alone film.  But it is connected, and that's what makes it an abject failure.

This guy makes an awesome prequel, amirite?

A prequel that does everything right is The Thing (2011).  The director and/or writers were clearly huge fans of the 1982 film.  The movie connects together with the original perfectly:  even getting the placement of an axe correct.  I, too, am a huge John Carpenter fan and have seen that movie dozens of times, so these are the things that made that prequel extremely satisfying for me.

Maybe the worst person you could have make a prequel is the original author/director/writer.  They are too close to the original material, so they don't closely study it the way a protege might.  In Lucas's case, any one of the dozens of crazed Star Wars fanbois I'm friends with could have called bullshit on those movies had they gotten the chance to review it.  Even Shyamalan could have made a better prequel.

Same here.  Ridley Scott may have been the perfectly wrong person to make this prequel.  Right from the first shots of the movie, he's trying to connect us back to the first film.  Fog machines in space ships?  Really, Ridley?  The film holds together to do what he intended with it.  But those intentions were so misguided that instead of getting a strong story about how we got to LV-426, we mostly got a bunch of religious garbage that did not add up.  That is, unless they anticipate making a sequel to this prequel, which I pray they do not.  Get it... PRAY?

JSS Rating:  Bad, Good movie.  It was supposed to be good, but was actually bad.  Ridley Scott could be the top Bad, Good director if I bothered to review his other movies.  But, for now, Robert Zemeckis will have to keep that crown.

----- And now the spoilers -----

People are passing around links breaking down this movie like it was really deep and thoughtful and complex.  It was anything but.  This is no Inception.  Prometheus is extremely straightforward, albeit with symbolism that most people won't see (including myself, since I am no Greek mythology expert).

Prometheus has a great premise:  that the beings who created us were related to that gunner dude we saw in Alien.  AWESOME.  Work from that.   Then they tried to get too smart.  They took that and made it allegorical.  Christ being the reason the Engineers wanted to kill us (ship was 2000 years ago, multiple crucifix discussions, etc).  Oh and wait for it... immmaculaaate conception!!!!  Who didn't see that one coming when Shaw was crying about being barren.   This movie is proof that when you run out of good ideas, turn to Christ to fill in the rest.  Just like the Wachowskis.

But none of this was definite.  It's all allegorical, right?  Nothing was answered for us definitively.  And that is why we were left severely dissatisfied as an audience going to a prequel.  Why wasn't the gunner dude in his place at the end of the film?  Why was anyone able to escape?  Why wasn't this on LV-426?  Why did the alien shot at the end -- which seemed thrown in there to connect this AT ALL to the other movies other than the name Weyland and the shape of the alien craft -- look so different?  

Most important:  why did no one in future movies have any knowledge of this mission?  They worked for Weyland.   This movie took place only about 5 years before the Nostromo was constructed and 25-30 years before the Alien movie.   Surely they would have known what this mission was for, right?  You would think that this mission would have been an important milestone in the Weyland history and somehow it would have come up.  You know... like Luke being Darth's son or something.

Everything about this movie takes place in a parallel universe to the Alien franchise.  As I said before, it could be an interesting movie in its own right.  But there was no way to connect it to the Alien lifecycle (Queen -> Egg -> Face Hugger -> Bad Asses).  There was no way to connect it to gunner dude on LV-426 unless you believe that random ships are strewn about the galaxy with aliens as well as Engineers.

If anything, my take on this movie is that it shouldn't have had humans.  It should have been entirely based on the Gunner.  Screw the Engineer idea altogether.  And just find a cool story that involves humanoid aliens battling badass aliens.  I mentioned to someone when I walked out that I enjoyed AVP more than this movie for exactly that reason.  Aliens battling aliens, not lame-ass Christ-complex crap and a prequel that doesn't even connect together to the movies we've loved for 25+ (Aliens) and 30+ (Alien) years.  AVP, for all of its crappiness, at least existed in the same universe in theory.

And this is why the movie doesn't need expensive visual effects at all.  Just like the original, there was no alien!  Nothing about this story required an alien, so it could have been done with the same level of effects as the original Alien.  There was no need for the snake monsters that killed the guys in the chamber.  No need for the elaborate holographic imagery and effects.  The dust storm, the deaths, everything could have been done with much less elaborate effects.  Compare the effects in this movie to, say, Transformers.  You can't do Transformers without the effects.  My AVP request above would have needed effects for the story.

Speaking of holographic imagery, one has to wonder exactly how desperate the filmmakers became to tie this flimsy story together when they introduced these holographic projections of the Engineers doing stuff.  Why would this exist?  Why would it play back the exact moment that they were running from ... whatever.. or when the Engineers were starting up the ship?  Why would the 'Droid know how to turn this stuff on?  It makes no sense, and is a really bizarre way to try to pull this thing together with VFX.  Yet another way I feel like this movie relied on VFX as a crutch, rather than something driving the story.

And are all Weyland-built 'droids inherently evil except for Bishop?

Final thought.  At least when they cast Stringer Bell in this movie, they knew he'd end up kicking some ass.