Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Snyder Swings Big and Misses with Sucker Punch

Director Zack Snyder has proven himself to be two things 1) an incredible visual stylist with an exceptional talent for shooting action and 2) one of geek culture’s leading filmmakers. Snyder first broke out in 2004 with the Dawn of the Dead remake, a film that turned skeptical horror fans into raving devotees hungry for more. He went on to adapt graphic novels (the gorgeous and gory 300 and the underappreciated Watchmen) and children stories (Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole). Sucker Punch is Snyder’s first crack at an original idea, one of his own devising.

The film opens with a theater stage, the curtains pulled back to reveal Babydoll (Emily Browning), a porcelain-skinned 20 year-old blonde in pigtails. Her mother recently died, leaving her and her unnamed sister under the care of a monstrous stepfather who’s after the deceased’s fortune. Babydoll accidentally kills her sister while trying to protect her from their stepfather’s malicious intentions and is promptly sent to an institution. Bear in mind, this story takes place back when mental institutions occasionally cured everything from homosexuality to rebellion with a strike of a pick to the frontal lobe. In fact, that’s exactly the fate Babydoll is soon faced with.

Here’s where the film gets tricky: just before Babydoll’s lobotomy – which occurs only ten minutes into the film, for those who are spoiler-averse – we are transported into a second reality, one existing in Babydoll’s mind, where the institution becomes a 1940s club full of under-the-table gambling and backstage whoring. Babydoll’s fellow patients (played by Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, and Jamie Chung) join her in a plot to obtain four items that will aide in an escape to freedom. To do so, Babydoll must distract key male characters that stand in their way by dancing for them. Apparently, Babydoll is quite an alluring dancer, but we only see her dances represented by a third level of reality within Babydoll’s mind wherein she and her team slay dragons, defeat WWI zombies, and defuse bombs powerful enough to cripple an entire city.

At this point, you may have gone cross-eyed and be asking, “Wha?”

Sucker Punch is intended as this year’s mind-blowing thinking-man’s spectacle, like Inception, only geekier and with cooler action. The problem is where Inception succeeded at coherence without pandering to the audience, Sucker Punch fails. There is nothing that grounds us to the core reality, especially since we don’t see that reality again until the last ten minutes of the movie. Majority of the film takes place within the second reality – the first that exists in Babydoll’s mind – but we are never clued in to how it relates to the core reality, aside from some vague revelations near the film’s end.

Yet it is not a dumb movie. Snyder is clearly reaching for something with substance and he gets points for not treating his audience like idiots by not spelling things out too much. However, he succeeds a bit too well in that regard; thereby failing to help us make sense out of the story’s premise. As a result Sucker Punch is what would happen if someone were to combine the sensibilities of David Lynch and Michael Bay.

Here’s the thing: the film opens with rouge curtains being drawn from a stage and just as Babydoll is about to receive her lobotomy minutes later, we are cut to an interrupted stage rehearsal. Sucker Punch is full of theatrics that we are pulled in and out of, missions that are part of a larger plan and are fantastic representations of one of three realities existing simultaneously. Therefore, we have a pretty good hunch that the entire film from the moment of the lobotomy is a fantasy, a performance, which exists only in Babydoll’s mind. This is a set-up that is both full of intriguing possibilities and dangerous narrative traps. For one thing, if everything we are witness to potentially occurs only in someone’s mind then we need something to help us trust it, otherwise we’ll have a hard time caring about anything that happens to the character within that reality because we’ll know it isn’t real. Snyder fails to sidestep this issue and that’s a big problem.

Also, if the story exists only in Babydoll’s mind then she can’t be privy to anything that happens without her presence. Again, Snyder strolls right into this trap.

Zack Snyder isn’t an idiot. His films may be heavy on stylized action, but they contain more intelligence than most action films. You’ve gotta have something going on upstairs in order to pull off something like Watchmen or to attempt some of the concepts in Sucker Punch. So, it’s a bit disappointing that he fails to keep his ideas tight and logical – even if they exist within the mind of a character. Last year, Inception showed us that even world-building of the mind has to make sense within a story – and it accomplished that by adhering to certain rules. There are very few rules in Sucker Punch.

Make no mistake: this film has a lot of problems and because of that it will be one of the year’s biggest disappointments. But I contend there is too much here to admire for one to spit and kick dirt on it, as majority of the critical community has done. Snyder is attempting something great. He stumbles in big ways, but that only proves he’s yet to become the master storyteller of someone like Christopher Nolan. However, he’s clearly spent the past thirty years (he cited Heavy Metal as initial inspiration) grasping at saying something about self-empowerment.

That’s actually where things get a bit sticky with this film. The internet has been lit up like northern California in the summer with a firestorm of controversy around Sucker Punch. Is the film female empowerment or exploitative male fantasy? Now, there are those who are way more articulate than me that have written about this issue. I will say that I find the latter to be an argument presented largely by those who’ve jumped at dismissing the film and probably weren’t exactly fans of Zack Snyder’s films to begin with. It’s clear, having seen the film that Snyder is attempting more than just exploitation. Yes, it could be said this team of female bad-asses look sexy when they’re kicking robot butt or whatever the mission requires. However, those missions exist purely in the mind of a female character; therefore she is the one projecting her own concept of how an ass-kicking heroine looks, not the male characters. Furthermore, in the beginning of the film, we see the women dressed in drab, frumpy outfits in the institution. They are not sexualized or inherently exploited by Snyder. As a matter of fact, the men in the film are almost uniformly depicted as despicable and malicious. Snyder is clearly presenting a terrible situation from which we are to root for the girls’ escape – not revel or take pleasure in their imprisonment. To argue otherwise simply because of what the characters are wearing in an internalized fantasy of one’s mind, no matter how dimensional the characters are depicted, is preposterous.

In a way, this film could’ve been cast with men instead of women. The fact that the story is shaped around women is refreshing, because it not only adds extra juice to the ‘breaking free from oppression’ story, but also adds to the girls-can-kick-ass-in-movies truism that studios still somehow repeatedly question. Not only that, but we’ve seen plenty of movies where the male heroes are fighting their way through baddies with bulging, muscular bodies in full view (300, anyone?). To argue that we can’t have a film where women are kicking ass while looking sexy one way or another without it being exploitative or morally questionable is to perpetuate the same attitudes the argument claims to be railing against.

Be that as it may, Sucker Punch was made for geek culture – both guys and gals – by a guy who is clearly in love with geek culture. In one film we have elements of science fiction, fantasy, steam punk, martial arts, mission-based action, and zombies. Did you ever wish the Fellowship could just take a semi-automatic to those pesky Oriki? Or that a WWII-era bomber would be in a dogfight with a dragon? Then this film was made for you. It is an insane geek mash-up.

Zack Snyder has attempted to make a high-brow action film that mainstream eye-candy-chasing moviegoers could consume. It could have been his Inception. Unfortunately, he failed to iron out his narrative’s logic, making sure each fantasy he presents is anchored by the story’s reality. Sucker Punch may go down by conventional wisdom as one of the year’s biggest failures. It is certainly a disappointment, but will also be one of the year’s most ambitious films. Snyder should be commended on his attempt to bring us something more than a formulaic and brainless action film and delivering some extraordinary visuals and ideas – not to mention making a film that’s sparked so much discussion. It is one of those rare films that is extremely problematic, but has enough to offer to still be worth your time.


Should you see it? Buy tickets

Sucker Punch is in theaters now and available in IMAX.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor: 1932 - 2011

Very few actresses were as well-respected or achieved a fame equal to most actors during Hollywood’s Golden Age of the 1940s and ‘50s. There was Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Katherine Hepburn, and a handful of others. But none of them were like Elizabeth Taylor. She was one of show business’ first childhood talents to grow up, mature, grow old, and die before our eyes. Few others have managed to get so far as adulthood without passing prematurely, such as Judy Garland. Now, Mickey Rooney, Shirley Temple, Ernest Borgnine, and Kirk Douglas are the last living legends of that era, as time has moved on to begin catching up with their successors, those of the New Hollywood age (the 1960s and ‘70s).

I think the first movie I ever saw Elizabeth Taylor star in was 1956’s Giant. Of course, I was really taken with James Dean in that film, but I was just as impressed by Taylor. All the other performances by actresses from that era lacked a certain excitement or distinctive quality, an edge. Taylor’s in Giant was the first that felt real and completely identifiable to me because her character, Leslie, didn’t simply serve a love story or what have you. Taylor flexed these sort of feminist muscles years before the feminist movement was in full swing. All the men in Giant’s story expected Leslie to just serve and live passively among them. Well, she showed she could be just as tough and stubborn as they could be. I was really taken by that and it impressed me to see an actress give such a performance back then.

Taylor was careful not to play a caricature during most of her career. Every performance I saw of hers had a depth to them, maybe less so with Cleopatra. Every one of her characters, particularly in the ‘50s and ‘60s, were strong and refused to lay down for anybody. You can’t really say the same for many of her contemporaries.

Giant always remained a favorite, but I went on to see her as the manipulative femme fatale in A Place in the Sun, the grand-standing empress in the extravagant Cleopatra, the frustrated titular wife in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the venomous alcoholic wife in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and the young bride in the original Father of the Bride – six in all, which doesn’t exactly make me an authority on her 50-film career. But it is enough to understand why Elizabeth Taylor was a legend. Without her, the careers of Faye Dunaway, Sigourney Weaver, Laura Linney, Kate Winslet and many others may never have been possible.

It astonishes me whenever I remind myself that Taylor was only 34 when she played the middle-aged, boozed-out Martha in 1966’s Virginia Woolf?. Her transformation into that role is so complete and convincing that it is nothing short of incredible. Taylor, perhaps drawing on experiences of her own by that time, just threw herself into the role of Martha, spittle-spewing vitriol and all. It is truly something to behold. It’s also considered to be her last great role.

Elizabeth Taylor’s best-received works, aside from those previously mentioned, include Father’s Little Dividend, Life Without Father, National Velvet, Jane Eyre, Lassie Come Home, and Suddenly, Last Summer.

She won two Academy Awards (Butterfield 8, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), one Golden Globe (Suddenly, Last Summer), and a slew of other awards – for both lifetime achievement and acting.

Once the eighties hit, Taylor practically retired from the silver screen, appearing in an infrequent TV movie or commercial for products under her brand name.

While I was never alive during her heyday and only knew of her during her entrepreneurial and social-cause days, when I think of her now I prefer to remember her drunken daze in Virginia Woolf?, her audacity in Giant, and her famous cry “Maggie the cat is alive. I’m alive!” in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

In performances such as these, Elizabeth Taylor will remain alive forever.

Film Faves: 1997

It's time for another edition of Film Faves!

For those of you who are unfamiliar, Film Faves is a feature on The Gibson Review wherein I count down my favorites of a specific topic of film.  It is not intended as an objective Best Of list, merely a subjective celebration of film and a peek at what I love most.  Film Faves counts down twelve favorites, skipping the traditional Honorable Mentions, because ten is often too few but anything more than a dozen can get a bit out of hand.  Currently, Film Faves is going back in time, year by year.  This month, I will be looking at the year 1997.

Let's get right to it.

This year was actually a pretty good year for movies.  It was a year that featured a good share of comedies that were huge hits and became a part of pop culture for a time, such as The Full Monty and Men in Black.  There were also a lot of decent action films that did pretty well at the box office like Pierce Brosnan's second time stepping into 007's "shaken not stirred" line of work in Tomorrow Never Dies, the "President kicks terrorists off his plane" Air Force One, and the highly anticipated Jurassic Park sequel, The Lost World.

Actually, 1997 saw the release of many good films, including The Apostle, Breakdown, Con Air, Donnie Brasco, Face/Off, G.I. Jane, The Game, Gattaca, The Ice Storm, Jackie Brown, My Best Friend's Wedding, Romy and Michelle's High School Reunion, Seven Years in Tibet, and Wag the Dog.

Unfortunately, Chris Farley, a Saturday Night Live favorite, died in 1997 of a cocaine overdose.  Beverly Hills Ninja would not be his last film as Almost Heroes and an appearance in the film Dirty Work would both be released the next year.

It seems that the nineties produced a lot more crap films than the aughts, maybe it's just me.  But even a good year like 1997 trotted out An American Werewolf in Paris, Anaconda, Batman & Robin, Bean, Excess Baggage, George of the Jungle, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Metro, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, The Peacemaker, The Postman, The Saint, Spawn, Speed 2: Cruise Control, Spice World, Steel, Vegas Vacation and many others.

Here are my favorites of...


12. Titanic

I’m starting off with a popular one, I know. Yes, it was over-hyped to the point that 14 years is still too soon for many. Yes, that damn Celine Dion song is nigh-unbearable. Despite that, I will defend Titanic as a great movie. Here’s why: this film’s plot may involve a love story, but it is really about the ship through and through. The film takes its time in order to familiarize the audience with the ship’s geography and how it was organized to suit the class system of the time. Cameron excels at depicting the contrasting atmospheres of the upper class top decks with the lower class lower decks. This film is rich in detail and only a director as committed and passionate as James Cameron could achieve such a level of detail – and it pays off, because it really helps make you feel like you’re on the ship and know it well. The last hour, which depicts in great detail the crash and sinking of the ship, is spectacular on both a visual and emotional level. I saw this film twice in theaters and couldn’t help but feel it was the closest I would ever get to actually experiencing the horror the passengers went through while trying to fight their way to safety and (mostly) failing. These are the film’s greatest strengths. As for the love story, well, it’s a construct by which to help us better experience some of the class conflicts and to have an emotional anchor to what is otherwise a disaster film. As such, I think it succeeds, which is most probably a testament to the leads Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. Had someone on par with, say, Freddie Prinze, Jr. and Jennifer Love Hewitt been cast it would’ve been the disaster many feared the film would become (this poster came before the film's delay to December). All of these elements helped make it something people wanted to tell their family and friends about and return to, thus making it the highest-grossing film ever. That is, until Cameron outdid himself with Avatar thirteen years later.

11. Private Parts

I was initially quite reticent about this film when I first saw it many years ago, based on Howard Stern’s reputation. The fact that Stern didn’t write the script makes the film’s authenticity somewhat suspect. And there are moments when its commitment toward presenting Stern in the best light is questionable. However, I was completely won over by Howard Stern’s performance; he is as much a natural in front of the camera as he is behind a mic – and very funny! Paul Giamatti stars as Stern’s nemesis at WNBC. This early role as ‘Pig Vomit’ gives us some great chemistry as he and Stern antagonize each other. It may not be the cold, hard truth and Stern’s divorce from his wife years after this film’s release may undercut the heart of the film, but Private Parts is a surprisingly enjoyable watch. If only they cut out those “get the girl naked on camera” interludes with Gary...

10. Chasing Amy

This used to be one of my favorite Kevin Smith films – and it may still be, however, I’m not a teenager anymore and I’m noticing as I’m getting older, my enjoyment of his films is not as enthusiastic as it once was. Some of his jokes don’t land like they used to and the film comes off more like Smith’s response to the decade’s sexual politics, complete with ‘eye-opening’ discussions about what defines intercourse, than an actual story. Also, his low-budget production did not age well. Still, Chasing Amy is notable for probably being the most frank film about the gay vs. straight sex discussion of the time (Smith’s lone misstep comes when Alyssa’s friends discover her new love interest is a man) and it probably blew the minds of many naïve high school & college boys. Not only that, but there’s a lot to enjoy about this film. It captures well the feeling of finding someone awesome only to discover that person is unavailable and how our limited perspectives can push that person away completely. It also has great performances by Jason Lee and Joey Lauren Adams. Smith fans will notice references to such personal interests as hockey, Degrassi Jr. High, and Catholicism, as well as appearances by Smith buddies Matt Damon, Ethan Suplee, Scott Moser, Casey Affleck, Brian O’Holloran, and Joe Quesada. Chasing Amy hasn’t aged well, but it’s an interesting flick to watch as a young adult and return to in your thirties.

9. L.A. Confidential

This film deserves to be seen more often; I don’t hear enough people talk about it these days. It’s a complex crime film about the desire some have for justice and fame – and how those two often become intertwined with corruption. This film is full of complex characters, which elevates it above any by-the-numbers mystery. The most memorable of them are hot-headed Officer Bud White (Russell Crowe), noble Det. Lt. Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), fame-seeking Det. Sgt. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), and glamorous prostitute Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger). The amazing cast doesn’t end with those characters: James Cromwell, Danny DeVito, David Strathairn, and Simon Baker round it out. It’s worth noting that this film made Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce stars, which is interesting when you consider how the poster places them in the background of Basinger's breasts. It’s a fine film and I encourage anybody who enjoys well-told crime stories to check it out.

8. Cop Land

Here’s another crime film about corrupt cops that I would argue has an even more amazing cast: Sylvester Stallone, Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, Robert Patrick, Peter Berg, Janeane Garofalo, Michael Rapaport, Annabella Sciorra, Noah Emmerich, John Spencer, Cathy Moriarty, Edie Falco, and Debbie Harry. Stallone is cast against type as an ineffectual, lumpy sheriff who slowly learns his friends and the town he protects may be more sinister than he ever realized. It is Stallone’s best performance since the original Rocky and has yet to be beat subsequently. Unlike majority of his other roles, Stallone isn’t merely leaning on attitude; on the contrary, here he digs deeper and brings out a sadness and apprehension to become what he’s been told all his life he could not. Interestingly, John Travolta and Ray Liotta were both considered for the lead role, although I think things turned out for the better (Travolta would star in Mad City and Face/Off that year). Cop Land is a fine film for fans of crime sagas with oversized casts.

7. The Wedding Singer

Adam Sandler stars as a small-town wedding singer who gets stood up at his own wedding in what may be the best comedy of Sandler’s career. The humor rarely aims for the lowest common denominator, unlike Little Nicky or even Billy Madison, and whose lead comes off less like a cartoon and more like an actual character. Of course, The Wedding Singer is a huge nostalgia-trip for anyone born in the ‘70s or early ‘80s with references to Dunkin’ Donuts and summer TV reruns, as well as the requisite ‘80s pop culture references. It does lay it on thick with the slimy Glen character. Even after he admits to cheating on cute-as-a-button fiancée Drew Barrymore, we see him be even more of a dick. And the editing is a bit weird at times as one or two scenes (including the final scene) just seem to end suddenly. Oh well, it’s tough not to enjoy The Wedding Singer despite that as both a comedy and a sweet date movie.

6. Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery

Mike Myers introduced us to one of the funniest characters of the late nineties and quickly replaced Jim Carrey as the most quotable comedic actor of the time. Myers took the fish-out-of-water concept, married it with the James Bond archetype, and applied that to the politically correct ‘90s. All he had to do was surround Powers with a combination of present-day straight men and spy movie caricatures and Myers had comedy gold. I enjoyed (and remembered) the sequel, The Spy Who Shagged Me, much more, but the first is still a lot of fun.

5. As Good As It Gets

It doesn’t get much sweeter or more like classic Hollywood than this film without becoming saccharine. Jack Nicholson gives us one of his best late-career performances as Melvin, an OCD curmudgeon who falls for Plain Jane waitress Carol, played by Helen Hunt. Melvin’s fumbling attempts to capture her heart is endearing as we are the only ones privileged with his soft side. Greg Kinnear is incredibly affecting as the gay neighbor Simon whose normally jolly life falls apart and finds himself relying on his gay-bashing, hateful neighbor. As Good As It Gets is probably the year’s best romance because the ‘will they/won’t they’ plot takes a back seat to the character development of Melvin, Carol, and Simon. It is a very nice film full of heart and tenderness. It is also James L. Brooks’ last great film so far.

4. Grosse Pointe Blank

A hitman goes to his high school reunion. High-concept comedy doesn’t get richer than that. John Cusack stars as the hitman who returns to the small town he left behind for a life of cold-blooded violence. What’s great about Grosse Pointe Blank is it marries the typical Return Home tropes we can all relate to (seeing the high school crush again, catching up with old friends, seeing the town’s changes) with one of the most unlikely character types, the hitman. Cusack does a great job balancing these two lives within his character. My favorite scene has to be when Blank meets Mr. Newberry (Mitch Ryan), the father of his high school crush played by Minnie Driver. Blank’s upfront confession of his profession and Mr. Newberry’s congenial acceptance of the profession, as if it were something like sales, creates an out-of-this-world moment that is hilarious. This film is nearly as brutally violent as it is hilarious (we do see Ray Stantz die quite horrifically) and it never feels uneven. Plus it has a great soundtrack! It is my favorite comedy of 1997.

3. The Fifth Element

This wild and ADD-paced sci-fi action film was directed by Luc Besson, the same man who previously directed the hitman thriller Leon. While that film proved Besson excelled at directing action, nobody would’ve guessed he could be responsible for such a fun, tongue-in-cheek, sci-fi spectacle as The Fifth Element. If you haven’t seen this film in a long time you may wonder if it holds up or seems cheesy and lame these days. No question about it, it holds up very well. You may be able to shoot about as many holes into this thing as a Mangalorian mercenary can its bounty, but you’d end up being quite a stick in the mud given this film clearly isn’t aiming to be a sci-fi classic, just a good time. However, Besson does an amazing job at world-building, going so far as to add details that weren't required, but add to the experience. Watching it now, I was struck by how incredible the score is. The film wouldn’t have nearly as much energy or enjoyment without that lively beat in the background. The Diva’s classical vocals, contrasted with the action beat score really help make the opera scene one of the best fight sequences I've ever seen. You can’t talk about The Fifth Element without mentioning the cast. Milla Jovovich has never been so likeable or awesome (or quotable!). She perfectly conveys a sense of innocence, wonder, and confidence – and is a joy to watch kick butt. Her Leeloo is a excellent addition to the Kick-Ass Sci-Fi Heroines gallery. Bruce Willis gives another awesome “Can you believe this?” performance as Korben Dallas, a retired member of Special Forces turned taxi driver. Chris Tucker probably gives the best performance of his career as the flamboyant and annoying radio DJ Ruby Rhod. Tucker’s high-pitch rejoinders actually fit in perfect with the tone of the film. Ian Holm and the rest of the supporting cast give pitch-perfect performances, balancing humor and impending doom throughout. What a fun flick!

2. Boogie Nights

Here’s yet another example of how 1997 was a year for dramas with enormous casts. I revisited this film last year and I'm glad I did.  I love this movie! If you love a movie that gives you great character development than you’d be hard-pressed to do better than Boogie Nights. But this isn’t just a performance piece to spotlight some up-and-coming actor; Boogie Nights is a really great story about self-discovery, ambition, and excess. Paul Thomas Anderson excels in every way with this film, bringing out excellent performances, creating appropriate paces and tones for both the rollicking ‘70s and disastrous ‘80s, and using the camera in amazing ways. It is outrageous that Boogie Nights was over-looked by the Academy in favor of lesser, yet popular, films like The Full Monty and As Good As It Gets, further proof that perhaps five nominees was too limiting.

1. Contact

This film, directed by Robert Zemekis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump), takes the top spot of 1997 away from Boogie Nights, in part because I remember it gave me the best movie-going experience of that year. After witnessing The Trip and being exposed to the film’s eye-opening ideas, I was literally speechless for at least a half hour after the credits rolled. Contact blew my mind. Another reason: I thought Ellie Arroway (played by Jena Malone and Jodie Foster) was one of the greatest characters I ever saw on film. She’s resolute in her beliefs and quest to find proof of those beliefs, yet quite fragile. Her story is a compelling one: raised with a passion for science and the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence, she devotes her life to some day receiving a message from the stars. When she finally gets what she’s devoted her life and career to she is faced with political, professional, religious, and philosophical hurdles that stand in the way of being a part of one of mankind’s greatest moments. Contact was also notable for its depiction of how a message from space might actually appear and be received by the government and religious groups. Also, The Trip during the film’s climax is a visual spectacle akin to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Jodie Foster gives one of the strongest and most dimensional performances of her career. And Matthew McConaughey reminds us he actually acted once upon a time, playing Ellie’s handsome religious foil. Contact is yet another one of those brilliant, yet criminally underrated, sci-fi films for smart people.

That about wraps it up for 1997, a year full of incredible ensemble casts and notable films.  What are some of your favorites?  Vote on the poll to the right and leave a comment either below or on Facebook or drop an email at 

Next time on Film Faves, aliens, vampires, secret missions, conflicted agents, and star-crossed lovers.  It's 1996!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

B:LA = ID4 Redux

Alien invasions. We’ve seen them countless times before. Thankfully, not in real life… yet. But dozens of movies and TV shows have been made about this subject. To do so now requires something different. Take 2009’s District 9, for example. That twisted the subject into an allegory for apartheid with the aliens for once being the persecuted victims. It was also presented in a stunningly realistic manner.

This year we have Battle: Los Angeles. What’s its creative angle? Independence Day as a combat movie. That’s about as unique as it gets.

The film stars Aaron Eckhart (great as always) as Staff Sergeant Nantz, who is on his way to the civilian life when the beaches of Santa Monica are suddenly attacked by dozens of unknown enemies that appeared from meteors that fell into the Pacific from space. Nantz’s retirement is immediately postponed and he is assigned to a unit of Marines whose mission is to search and rescue any surviving civilians who might be in an LAPD station before a hasty napalm strike blows through. The film tries introducing each member of the unit, but you won’t remember their names; they’re only distinguishable as types (the black guy with glasses, the South African guy, the leader, the nervous newbie, etc.) and you probably won’t have a favorite.

Battle: Los Angeles is about an alien invasion. But it’s mostly about how a specific group of Marines and civilians fight their way through the chaos of that invasion. The film reduces a world-wide event to a microcosm with a frantic style by Jonathan Liebesman (improving greatly on his critically-panned The Texas Chainsaw Massacre prequel). This is one of the film’s strengths as it gives an immediacy that pulls one in in a manner we’ve only seen in war films.

Michelle Rodriguez, film’s current bad-ass poster girl, is soon found by the team. While Eckhart is the film’s anchor, Rodriguez gives us another reason to care about this team. She may always play a specific ‘type’ (one she’s openly admitting to being comfortable with), yet Rodriguez is that rare actress that can bring comfort or excitement to what is otherwise a rote character. She may not always survive (see: Avatar – as if anybody hasn’t already!), but she earns your trust. Her presence in Battle: Los Angeles is no different.

So, what this film gets right is at least a couple likable performances and an exciting angle on the alien invasion subgenre. The problem is nearly everything else.

The dialogue is about as dicey as the characters’ mission with lines like “I can help. I’m a veterinarian,” when an alien is being examined and “We already ate breakfast,” when a unit returns from enemy lines. Not only that, but these must be the chattiest Marines ever put to film! Once we are told our heroes are entering enemy territory, one would think they would keep lips tight and eyes alert. Not these guys, they keep yammering loudly about what they see and hear without once considering maybe they’d draw attention to themselves (they do). To make matters worse, they advance to their location in the middle of the street when there’s plenty of wreckage and debris they could use as cover. I was reminded of the Marines in Predator, who, when advancing on the enemy or happened upon a potential threat, would shut up and move silently, communicating only through hand signals. Those were a bunch of bad-asses who knew what they were doing. If the bumbling dolts in Battle: Los Angeles give an accurate sense of today’s best-of-the-best, then we’re in trouble.

That would all be excusable and somewhat nitpicky if the entire film hadn’t seemed so derivative. If you were born before 1990 then you will not be able to escape the feeling you’ve seen this movie before. That’s because it follows 1996’s Independence Day beat-for-beat: comets hurtling toward Earth, carefully watched by space pros; the destroyed military base (featuring same “view through fence” shot); inspiring speech (less maudlin here, but still); and the “if we figure out how to take the ship down the rest of the world will follow our lead” climax. Remember the scene in Independence Day when those army guys watched in a tank as the military tried hitting the spaceship with a nuclear warhead? Battle: Los Angeles is basically about THOSE guys, the guys we didn’t see for more than a few seconds fighting off the aliens and getting blown away or barely surviving. Imagine Independence Day without its coast-to-coast scale and huge cast of recognizable faces and you’ve got Battle: Los Angeles.

Because of this – and other films we’ve seen before – Battle: Los Angeles is also at times predictable. We know the rescue chopper will be blown up. We know the supposedly dead alien is going to create a jump scare. We know the pretty reporter who’s a little too close to the carnage is going to get blown away. Liebesman fails to surprise us at every turn.

Yet, despite all of this, I could give Battle: Los Angeles a marginal recommendation. It succeeds at drawing you in and providing thrills, with performances by Eckhart and Rodriguez that help us care. But I won’t. There’s just too much for the film to overcome and we are given too little to overlook its flaws. If you don’t mind seeing something you’ve seen before and love watching things blow up with vacuous, apocalyptic flair, you might not have completely wasted your time. Otherwise, beware: your time and money are better served waiting for a better bang for your buck to hit theaters.


Should you see it? Skip

Battle: Los Angeles is now in theaters.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

This Movie Needs a Slight Adjustment

Have you ever had a chance encounter with someone that you never saw again, but thought about for years afterward? Or found yourself having to choose between a relationship and a career? What if the fact that you never saw that person again or had to make that difficult choice was all part of a plan? In fact, aside from such inconsequential things as the meals you crave or the toothpaste you use, everything you do that affects the course of your life was already mapped out and only required an occasional bump (spilled coffee, a dropped book, a distracting noise) to stay on the right path.

These are the ideas that The Adjustment Bureau, a new film starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt and directed by The Bourne Ultimatum scripter George Nolfi, tries to address. It’s an intriguing premise with the potential to wrap a thought-provoking deliberation on fate in a thrilling package. Is that The Adjustment Bureau’s outcome?

Matt Damon plays David Norris, a rock star political candidate whose career takes a hit. He hides out in a restroom to gather himself where he meets Elise (Blunt), an elegant beauty who quickly captures David’s heart. Alas, they are separated by circumstances of the moment. However, on the way to work the next day, David runs into Elise again and their interest in each other grows. This is clearly the beginning of an incredible relationship.

But David was never supposed to see Elise again.

His coffee was supposed to spill, causing him to be ten minutes late to work. Since this did not happen, Norris not only had his bus ride with Elise but also arrived to work on time and, thus, walks in as his co-worker is being “worked on” by a mysterious team of men in suits and S.W.A.T.-like outfits.

David just witnessed something nobody ever is supposed to see: an adjustment. It turns out our lives follow specific paths that are pre-ordained by The Chairman (an omnipresent individual we never see in the film) and it’s up to scores of men dressed like members of the cast of Mad Men to make sure those plans follow through. Any time chance causes a slight deviation these men step in and make an adjustment to get us back on track.

David is told he can never see Elise again and if he tells anyone what he’s witnessed they will completely wipe his mind. David still plans on finding Elise; you can see it in his eyes. He’s met someone incredible and he’s not going to easily give up the possibility of a life with that person. What follows is an exciting series of cat-and-mouse chases as David tries to change his fate in order to be with Elise again.

In order for a film like this to work it is vital for the audience to care deeply about the couple’s happiness. For as much as David doggedly pursues Elise’s whereabouts, she had better be one hell of a catch!

The good news is this is The Adjustment Bureau’s greatest strength. Elise is one hell of a catch. Emily Blunt, in a role sure to take her from vague recognition (remember, she’s the bitch in The Devil Wears Prada!) to Big Name star, makes for an absolutely captivating love interest. She’s classy yet playful, elegant yet adventurous, with eyes striking enough to disarm a man with one gaze. Basically, she is the perfect date. We only get her in short bursts for much of the movie and, like Damon’s character, would do anything to get more time with her. Not only that, but you can see the spark ignite in David Norris’ eyes; their bond is instantaneous. Yet you’d think, once Norris has Elise in conversation once again, he’d try harder to hold on. Doesn’t she have an address or a Facebook profile?

And Damon, one of the biggest and lasting movie stars of today, is incredibly likeable and believable as a politician who can appeal to most demographics without resorting to indecency or manipulation. He grabs the audience and never once lets them go during his adventure.

You care so much about their being together and worry every time an adjustment causes her to slip through his fingers that you almost could do without all the urgent meetings between Bureau members.

That’s a symptom of the film’s biggest failing. Its concept, based on a Philip K. Dick story titled ‘The Adjustment Team’, comes up short of its potential. A film like this could spin thought-provoking questions about fate, religion, and chance around its palatable love story. Unfortunately, the logic regarding the Bureau and its interest in Norris ends up being as slippery as Elise’s presence in David’s life. That’s too bad, because it’s precisely what prevents The Adjustment Bureau from being this year’s first great film.

And yet there are still enough thrills here to entertain. The film may not have much to say about fate (it is humanity’s training bra for when we’ve grown up enough to handle Free Will) and it may treat its concept as nothing more than a device to tell a story about love conquering all obstacles. But thanks to the strength of its leads (and supporting performances by Mad Men’s John Slattery and The Hurt Locker’s Anthony Mackie), The Adjustment Bureau remains a gripping romantic fantasy-thriller. It may require you to think less – not more – but it still makes for a fun date movie.


Should you see it? Rent

The Adjustment Bureau is now in theaters. In 2D.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Drive Angry Is What the Poster Says

The action genre is a bit of a wild card. Sometimes action films are terribly derivative. Sometimes they are quite original. Sometimes they’re smart (or smart enough to get by). Sometimes they’re completely idiotic. Some action films gleefully revel in the genre’s over-the-top, brainless violence and nudity.

You can often tell what you’re going to get with an action film’s trailer, however that last one can be tricky to gauge. The trailer can make it look like one of those movies that are bad, but don’t know how bad it is. The Grindhouse films by Tarantino and Rodriguez (Death Proof, Planet Terror, Machete) succeeded at selling exactly what they were: gratuitous, mindless thrills for those who love movies smart enough to revel in that stuff while winking at the audience the whole time. Crank and Crank: High Voltage, while not grindhouse fare, are not too dissimilar from them.

It may not be clear in the trailers, but Drive Angry is the latest of these action romps, with a revenge plot involving characters who are literally from Hell.

Nicolas Cage plays John Milton, who is on the hunt for the man who killed his daughter and stole his grandchild. Billy Burke, hiding here from the Twilight fans who know him as Charlie, plays the heinous man in question, Jonah King. Jonah doesn’t aim to keep the baby to himself; he wants to offer her as a sacrifice for Satan in exchange for immortality and power. The catch is Milton is actually dead and escaped Hell to have his revenge, however Satan sent a man known as The Accountant (a fantastic performance by William Fichtner) to get him back. So, Milton must drive like hell to achieve his goal else he be caught himself.

Relative newcomer Amber Heard plays a tough-talking Southern babe whom Milton saves and, consequently, decides to return the favor, which gives her life more meaning than serving grits and eluding the slimeball antics of greasy spoon pigs. Heard, best-known by most as the hot neighbor in Zombieland, is no bimbo meant for the sole purpose of giving men something to ogle. She does bring some eye-candy to the table, but never gratuitously (that’s left to virtually all the other women in the film). Amber is hot, but she’ll knock you on your ass if you try anything. And that attitude is enough to put her above the Megan Foxes of the world. I look forward to seeing what she has to offer with Johnny Depp in The Rum Diary later this year.

If Drive Angry sounds ridiculous on paper, it kind of is. But you might be having too much fun to care – and that’s the film’s objective. It isn’t concerned with the how’s of its situations, just that they are. This is a film where a man engages in a shoot-out while fucking a waitress in a hotel room a lá 2007’s Shoot ‘Em Up. Cars explode in the background as characters walk slowly toward the camera. Bodies fly about as much as the bullets. If that sounds like a good time then you’re in for a treat. If not, then this isn’t your kind of movie.

The cast really helps sell the fun. Nicolas Cage seems to have found a new home in movies like Drive Angry, Kick-Ass, and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. These are films where he can be just this side of mad, because the world around him is insane. Cage successfully avoids another laughably bad performance here and adds yet another bad-ass to his resume of characters.

The highlight of the film, though, is William Fichtner. As an agent from Hell, Fichtner is casual, yet intimidating. You don’t know when he’ll let loose or what he’s capable of when he does, but you do know those unfortunate enough to be in his way had better be nice. It’s great to finally see Fichtner out from the sidelines and into the spotlight.

Drive Angry is in 3D – but that’s no reason to steer clear! This isn’t one of those conversion rip-offs we saw nearly every week last year. This, the first live action 3D offering of the new year (to my knowledge), was conceived and filmed in 3D. Is it Avatar-spectacular? Of course not – Drive Angry doesn’t pretend to be. But the technology does work well with the film’s crazy blazing-guns effects and add to the fun. If you enjoy these kinds of violent revenge flicks, I encourage you to pay to see it as it was intended: with those black frames on.

Drive Angry is a movie that is occasionally over-the-top. It knows this and loves it. It’s a film that revels in violent, naked insanity. It’s not as crazy as the Grindhouse or Crank films, nor as bad-ass as Desperado. And you may be slightly disappointed by where everything is heading. But, as they say, it is the journey – not the destination – that matters most. Drive Angry isn’t the biggest thrill you’re likely to get at the theater this year… but it sure is a fun way to kick things off.


Should you see it? Buy tickets

Drive Angry is now in theaters in 3D.

Oscar 2011: Final Thoughts

The Academy Awards aired Sunday night honoring the best films of the last year. By now, you’ve probably read or heard all the snarky reactions of many journalists. Well, now I’m going to have the last word for the twelve of you reading this.

The ceremony wasn’t that bad. Hosts Anne Hathaway and James Franco delivered a solid first hour, including an opening montage that recalled the days when Billy Crystal served as host (maybe they should’ve taken Ricky Gervais up on those jokes he offered to help with the other couple hours). Billy, himself, even made an appearance and received a standing ovation. Kirk Douglas also made a surprise (and hilarious) appearance to present the Best Supporting Actress award. The night wasn’t spectacular, but far from the complete waste that many Hollywood rags and bloggers are making it sound.

But on to the awards. Last month, I posted my picks for ten of the awards. They didn’t fare too well (only three were correct). It didn’t help that I missed what proved to be one of THE films to see, The Fighter. But it also didn’t help that The King’s Speech took home four of the major awards, three of which it stole from the more-deserving The Social Network, truly the greatest film of 2010.

I don’t think anybody was surprised by Colin Firth’s Best Actor win. What did surprise many first for various reasons was when Tom Hooper beat David Fincher for the directing prize. David Fincher, a man who created such unforgettable visions as Seven, Fight Club, and Zodiac lost out to a director whose previous work, The Damned United, barely recieved notice outside the festival circuit and critic’s circles. But let’s set aside political snobbery and look at the work.

Consider this: imagine if Fincher directed The King’s Speech and Hooper directed The Social Network. Which film do you think would be improved? There isn’t a single scene in The King’s Speech that contains better direction than those in The Social Network. The opposite is true for The Social Network.

Of course, this brings me to the main event, the Best Picture prize. The Academy may have selected a solid line-up of 2010’s best films, but they further stoked the fires of the snarky film blogosphere with their pick for the win. This year, a straightforward and conventional biopic about the triumph of the human spirit beat a complex, layered, and timeless tale of betrayal, ambition, and the changes our social interactions have undergone as a result of both the prevalence of technology and one man’s idea.

This is the kind of thing that makes many so dismissive and cynical about the Oscars.

Don’t get me wrong: The King’s Speech is a fine film – one of the best of 2010 (see my review). But certainly not THE best. It robbed The Social Network of that esteem in official terms.

The Social Network now joins the company of Brokeback Mountain, Saving Private Ryan, Fargo, Pulp Fiction, Raging Bull, Apocalypse Now, All the President’s Men, Taxi Driver, and Network – all are considered among the greatest and most important works in film history, yet lost to lesser, often more emotionally-driven, films.

A list like that might be enough to make one dismiss the Academy Awards of any credibility whatsoever – and it probably is enough for many. But there are so many other occasions when the Academy got it right, that I find it difficult to completely disregard the Oscars as what it intends to be: recognition of the best in film for each year.

The Hurt Locker. The Departed. The Lord of the Rings. Braveheart. Schindler’s List. Unforgiven. The Silence of the Lambs. Platoon. The Deer Hunter. The Godfather. The Godfather, Part II. The Sound of Music. The Apartment. On the Waterfront. The Best Years of Our Lives. The list goes on.

These are some of the reasons why – no matter how checkered its history may be by politics and dubious choices – I hold out hope each year for the best to get the recognition it truly deserves.

This year was not one of Oscar’s proudest moments.

Let’s try again next year, Academy.

The list of wins, along with my picks:

Best Picture:  The Social Network (my pick)
                     The King’s Speech (win)

Best Actor: Jesse Eisenberg (my pick)
                  Colin Firth (win)

Best Actress: Natalie Portman (my pick)
                     Natalie Portman (win)

Best Director: David Fincher (my pick)
                      Tom Hooper (win)

Best Score:  The Social Network, Inception (my picks)
                   The Social Network (win)

Best Supporting Actor:  Geoffrey Rush (my pick)
                                     Christian Bale (win)

Best Supporting Actress:  Hailee Steinfeld (my pick)
                                       Melissa Leo (win)

Best Original Screenplay:  Inception (my pick)
                                        The King’s Speech (win)

Best Adapted Screenplay: The Social Network (my pick)
                                        The Social Network (win)

Best Animated Film: Toy Story 3 (my pick)
                               Toy Story 3 (win)