Friday, May 8, 2009

Star Trek

Watching "Star Trek," I am reminded of a line from "The Spirit," (it fits, so sue me) 'the shiny thing to end all shiny things.' J.J. Abrams take on the mythos of boldly going where no one has gone before epitomizes everything the technology of 2009 affords modern film makers. Loud, fast paced and perhaps the most visually stunning movie I have ever seen, this trek into the outer reaches of space has all the adventure of the stars but little of the finesse of its predecessors.

Taking full advantage of the liberties one is allowed with the ultimate deus ex machina of time travel, this is a whole new NCC-1701 with a whole new crew resembling the original cast in little more than name, but for most that is all right. Chris Pine is an uncouth and uninhibited Kirk to William Shatner's more refined version, playing off the likes of Karl Urban, Anton Yelchin and Zachary Quinto as they try to fill out the iconic shoes of DeForest Kelley, Walter Koenig, and Leonard Nimoy as Bones, Chekov and Spock.

At times more over the top than their predecessors, the entire cast tries its best, Star Fleet Officers of 2009 who nevertheless would stand out like sore thumbs in 1966. Of course, this is not a Federation of Planets of 50 years ago, it is instead a voyage through the space lanes for a modern age with a modern feel and modern characterizations. Abrams appears to acknowledge the limitations of capturing icons from almost 50 years ago while making them relevant for the modern age.

Of course, relevance and nostalgia don't mix, the latter traded for the former, appeasing an audience that little remembers the original Kobayashi Maru. Those who look at this incarnation and shout HERESY should be reminded that their love for the original is not enough to bring in the kind of blockbuster box office revenues this new, shiny version promises.

2009 is a very different time from 1966, with new fears and new demands, perhaps less interested in the optimistic and deeply resonant introspection of the original Trekkers and more interested in explosions and gunfights and pretty pretty lights. Boundless fun, you board the Enterprise and leave all previous impressions of its bridge, crew and history in the airlock.

Strap yourself in and enjoy the thrills, Hollywood isn't always as faithful to its past as it should be, but this time at least it has created a movie that is as much supercharged theme park thrill ride as it is story.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

“X-Men Origins: Wolverine” takes too many liberties. With plausibility, with plot, with characterization, with common sense and established plot within the framework of the X-Men film franchise. Worst of all, the film takes too many liberties with the depiction and back story of one of the most iconic of all Marvel superheroes.

Hugh Jackman remains an excellent Wolverine, full of feral fury and unstoppable death dealing, a bull in a very delicate china shop who struggles to find humanity even as he slips into the deadliest killing machine alive. But Jackman can only react as his Wolverine is put through the nonsensical ringer of a plot that spins around and around until you’re dizzy, confused, and begging for the spinning to stop and the sense to return. It doesn’t.

Wolverine’s relationships and back story, both in the comics and even in the film franchise itself, is butchered almost beyond recognition. Alas, to spoil it would be irresponsible but then again, to go see it is in and of itself an irresponsible act. Silver Fox is changed. The rivalry/history between Wolverine and Sabretooth is defiled. Wolverine’s time with and relationship to the Weapon X program and Colonel Stryker is irrevocably butchered, to the point it resembles nothing, not the depiction in the comics, not the depiction in the films.

Wolverine’s origin becomes nothing save for a barely conceived plot about running and jumping and slashing and stabbing and all kinds of nonsense that doesn’t work and shouldn’t be allowed, superpowers or not. One does not expect a great deal of realism when dealing with the x-gene, with mutants and powers and the children of the atom. Just watching or reading such a story requires an extraordinary leap of faith. But leaps of faith are meant to be rewarded, something that never happens in the film.

Instead, we get a lot of flashy nonsense that is neither compelling nor even tacitly plausible, a betrayal of everything we expect from these films. Instead of a reversal of the bastardization of the X-Universe by one Brett Ratner, it is a continuation of it, only a little bit better looking and only tacitly more thoughtfully conceived.

Considering how much I was initially looking forward to the movie and how much potential it had, "Wolverine" is evidence that Hollywood has lost the ability to remain faithful even to itself, capable of films with no plot, no sense and no compelling reason to waste $8.50.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


It’s amazing how little of the title activity actually takes place in “Fighting.” Channing Tatum plays Sean MacArthur, a garden variety struggling citizen of the Big Apple who sells whatever anyone will buy and happens to know how to throw a punch. In formulaic fashion, he meets up with Terence Howard’s Harvey Boarden who fixes MacArthur up with some illegal, high bet prize fights the proceeds of which he hopes to use to help his down-on-her-luck love interest, Zulay Valez, played by Zulay Henao. Moderately funny at times, “Fighting” meanders through its 105 minutes with a little action totally 3 and a half fights and a lot of needless and pointless plot.

“Fighting” is a complete and utter rip-off of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s “Lionheart” but without the pesky details like compelling back story or understandable dialogue. Instead of back story we get some mild daddy issues from MacArthur and a lot of attempted tension between him and his college wrestling rival, Brian White’s Evan Hailey. Other than that and a few slightly soulful glances between MacArthur and Zulay, the story of “Fighting” neither makes nor tries to make much in the way of sense.

As for the title activity, for a movie that would seem like it revolves around violence and ‘fighting,’ the action of the film is rather typical and not particularly extensive. Fairly well choreographed and accurate in its depictions, there is nothing special about the fights albeit the camera work does do a good job of capturing the intensity; most of the time you have a pretty good idea of who is throwing the punch and who is taking it.

In a lot of ways “Fighting” should really be called ‘Mumbling.’ Barely discernable and highly irritating, everything and everyone mumbles and stumbles through the film. The dialogue mumbles, the delivery mumbles and the plot mumbles. Shuffling its way across the floor, the movie itself would lose most fights it gets into, unsure of itself and so poorly edited that it never has the dexterity, mobility or energy to bounce around the ring, stinging like a mosquito and floating like a spider.

“Fighting” and the people in it do not live up to expectations. Channing Tatum is not a warrior badass but just a guy who wins just because, because well, the plot says he does. Zulay is given a funny old grandmother and cute young daughter to nag and doughfully look at MacArthur, respectively. The biggest disappointment of all is Oscar nominee Terrence Howard. His Harvey Boarden never really talks in a straight line, he is in fact the mumble king of the film, his lips move a lot and sound comes out, but he says next to nothing. Quirky and weird, we do not understand Boarden and really, we don’t want to.

“Fighting” is not extraordinarily bad, it just isn’t really any good. Prototypical about street-‘fighting’ films and the like, the action is tolerable and the acting just isn’t up to the expected par. Sometimes you just have to roll with the punches and sometimes you need to know there are fights not worth fighting and should just be walked away from.

Considering I actually was a little hopeful for "Fighting," the film is definitely another nail in the coffin. That being said, I should have known better and it isn't a very big nail, but it is there.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

State of Play

“State of Play” is at once a hyper-relevant exploration of Washington and 21st century power plays while deftly navigating the living, breathing streets of the city of Washington, D.C. from the eyes of a dying breed.

Russell Crowe’s Cal McAffrey is a dinosaur, a relic of printing presses past and he knows it. A staff writer for “The Washington Globe,” an incredibly thinly disguised “Washington Post,” Cal drives a 19 year old car and types on a 16 year old computer. Long hippy bangs and a well fed belly earmark him for future status as a fossil fuel for electric cars of the new age, angle and opinion driven, sensationalist web journalists exemplified by Rachel McAdams’ Della Frye. With the paper under new ownership, the pair are constantly hounded not just about doing the stories but about selling the prints as the film intones journalism as we know it’s death knell, a time where getting the story and getting it right is no longer everything there is, there is also getting it first and getting it last and getting it bought.

Together the still working cliché of the gray shaded vet and wide eyed newbie traverse the halls of power, digging through a tangled web woven between a U.S. Congressman, one Stephen Collins played by a contemplative but oil slick haired Ben Affleck and his dearly departed aide with whom he’d been having an affair. Careful not to use any actual names, the film points a fat finger at government contracting PointCorp, a thinly veiled analogy to Blackwater and Halliburton as the Globe is to the Post. Of course, there always has to be the inside man or men, politicians on the take and under the extramarital sheets.

“State of Play” makes no attempts to hide its role as epitaph to journalism and journalists past and present but without future. Everything about Cal screams gruff and tumble reporting with cigarettes and whiskey and instead of wild, wild women, memories of Woodward and Bernstein to drive him insane. There may be no clandestine meetings in parking garages with Deep Throat, but that didn’t stop director Kevin Macdonald from making The Watergate Hotel a prominent location and one nameless, nonexistent spook of an informant a key plot point.

Of course, the film is as much journalistic advertisement as it is death toll. Little in the way of action occurs despite the high tension and ever looming threat of shady men in dark alleys with bulges in their pockets. Instead, the film is very much a reporter’s movie, with ink to paper and fingers to keyboard as the intrepid reporters gallantly seek out the source, making phone calls and sticking feet in doors to get the interview and the scoop. Fortunately for “State of Play,” the depictions of reporting never feel contrived but instead have a sense of extreme realism. The audience feels a bit like a reporter with pad in hand, rifling through the story piece by precious piece as the many disjointed ends slowly resolve themselves without ever giving the plot away.

Few films manage to involve the city of Washington, D.C. as thoroughly as “State of Play.” More than just a few scant looks at the Capitol and night shots of the Washington Monument, the city comes alive as those familiar see literally dozens of notable landmarks, constantly making mental notes that they were there, becoming ever more a part of the story, not just a viewer but a bystander watching the cars and reporters and rolls of newspaper waft by.

“State of Play” makes its points and it makes them well. A bold and tense exploration of Washington, the city and its politics, it involves the audience in the life and times of reporting, perhaps a little more adventure and a little less droll reporting but still ultimately speaking a level of truth about the power of the pen. Great acting and a thrilling plot make the two hours fly by in a whirl of pen and ink and the power of the press.

A journalist myself, Hollywood once again proves it can remind me why I love something. The film industry still has the strength within itself to make a story exciting and compelling and human without lots of explosions but instead mounds of relevance and reflection.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Informers

The most likely question any given member of the audience misguided enough to watch “The Informers” is: Am I meant to take this seriously? Between the globbed on hair gel of 1983 hairstyles, pointless plot, disconnected acting and copious amounts of random and pointless sex the most likely answer is a resounding NO. At least, one would hope that director Gregor Jordan actually intended viewers to leave the theater with a headache and the knowledge that early 80s Los Angeles was full of omni-sexual, drug fueled mannequins attempting to pass for really shoddy impersonations of human beings.

“The Informers” is nominally about the interconnected lives of LA’s super rich, super aimless and super drugged up population with a rock star, a criminal and a TV anchor thrown in for good measure. What exactly these characters are trying to do or what Jordan is trying to prove never comes to the fore, the film mostly just middles in pointless inanity with the occasional orgy and supposedly emotional catharsis that never goes anywhere.

A scene where a character isn’t drunk, naked, toked out of his mind or just out of synch with reality occurs sparsely if ever, these are characters you can’t possibly relate to or understand unless you’ve partaken of Freudian levels of drugs, sex and Rock & Roll. Even if the sex scenes are meant to be nothing more than fan service, they are a shoddy attempt at porn, more disgusting and weird than sensual. Perhaps the film is just Jordan’s expression of his sexual fantasies; a catharsis in response to what must be a monstrous therapy bill. Otherwise, “The Informers” just middles in pointless monotony, never doing anything, never going anywhere.

The film is not contemplative of larger American society and says nothing about the larger universe, it just goes through the paces of a circular plot of bad hair and worse clothes, dialogue and editing the likes of Billy Bob Thornton, Winona Ryder, Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke can do nothing with but go through the paces of being drugged up, depressed, impossibly sexual or just insane.

It is hard to express just how pointless and bad “The Informers” is. Suffice to say it is 90 minutes that you will never get back, a black pit that sucks out all the energy, all the intrigue, all the drama, even all the curiosity that the audience has. If they have any energy left at all once it’s all over, they’ll quietly walk of the theater and make a mental note never to think about, let alone focus any energy or money on “The Informers” ever again.

If there is anything to be learned from this movie at all, it is that Hollywood likes to do nothing with nothing, sit still and collect dust among bongs and condoms and really, really horrible clothing. Faith is not a word I would associate with anything even remotely resembling "The Informers."

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Fast and Furious

“Fast and Furious” has everything a growing boy needs, fast cars, hot women and enough fiery crashes to fill out the rest of the movie. The original cast is back with Paul Walker’s Brian O’Connor having moved up in the world to the FBI and forced to return to undercover street racing alongside Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto.

Audiences have come to have certain expectations of the “Fast and the Furious” films. Bone rattling races, barely clothed and incredibly beautiful women and a plot that revolves around getting from A to B while being shot at, blown up and launched around corners only the greatest of Hollywood magic cars could ever hope to achieve. The fourth in the franchise, “Fast and Furious” delivers in spades, and it even manages a noble effort at an at least tacitly plausible plot and almost tender moments between the characters. There even manages to be a fair bit of humor mixed in to what is predominantly a massive, high octane thrill ride.

Director Justin Lin thrusts all the flaming nitrous onto the audience with in-your-face camera style that never lets up. The laws of physics are placed on hold for chase scenes that defy all logic and corkscrew across the screen, on the ground and in the air with energy and enough psychosis to give even the most daredevil drives pause. Very much a guy movie with its hordes of beautiful women, “Fast and Furious’ is even more a car movie, with hydraulics, fuel injection systems, supped up engines and some of the most beautiful cars and hippest automotive humor. Even those with a layman’s appreciation of cars will find themselves swept up in talk of wheels and gears and the tightest turns you’d never attempt even in your wildest dreams.

What the franchise is not known for is plot, but even in that area the film is not a bust. Whereas certain of “Fast and Furious’s” predecessors opted to have little if any plot, the film makes a valiant effort even as the audience experiences the rush of crashes that no one could ever survive in real life. With holes to spare certainly, it still manages to follow a logical and plausible series of events across the story. What gaps exist are passable and set against all that is beautiful in “Fast and Furious,” cars, women, scenery, and thus easily forgiven.

The film is everything you expect it to be and nothing you don’t. Fast and beautifully shot, the returning cast makes for a nice piece of nostalgia even as all that is old is blown up and all that is new is blown up right after it. Perhaps not the best of films for female audiences, garden variety males will get their hearts content, their dream garage with their dream muscle car and their dream girl wiping it down with her shirt. Strap yourself in and feel the power under the hood, you don’t have to think about it, you just have to buckle up, keep your eyes on the road and let the road take you wherever it will go, you’ll definitely have plenty of shiny things to look at along the way.

There is nothing wrong with Fast and Furious, despite all that can always go wrong, nothing did this time around. Apparently, Hollywood still has a little nitrous left in it.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


What is it with Nicholas Cage and really, really weird movies? Snake Eyes, 8MM, The Wicker Man, The Weather Man and now, director Alex Proyas’ Knowing. A solid premise, in the film a time capsule buried in the ground for 50 years accurately predicts every major disaster in that time and even a few that haven’t happened yet. Naturally, the kid who gets this particular snippet out of all the pretty pictures the 9 years olds in 1959 drew is the son of a brilliant MIT astrophysics professor, one John Koestler, played by Nicholas Cage. Chaos, bedlam and the pretty, pretty special effects of far too much CGI ensue. Of course, good premises do not a movie make.

Knowing takes its sweat time setting up the story. In fact, it takes far too much time setting up the story. And then it sets up the story some more. Then a few seconds of dazzling special effects followed by yet more middling story telling that manages neither to get out of its own way nor satisfy the need to actually understand what in the name of Nick Cage’s hairline is going on.

The film is a lot like a football game where the two teams fight for every inch of Astroturf, with no air game and a handful of accidental first downs. And when they finally mange to get the ball in the end zone, the referees call a time out to ascertain the legality of the play and spend 30 minutes deliberating.

A critic’s nightmare, the incredibly strange plot almost single-handedly ruins the film. And what do people hate more than almost anything in bad film reviews? When the critics spoils the plot. Suffice it to say Knowing is like no other disaster flick or precognitive mystery. Proyas spends precious minutes explaining the science of the sun without any interpersonal extrapolation of the stars up above. Science on top of science dazzles and amazes at the wonderful mathematical world we live in and then Proyas starts throwing curve balls, or more accurately, lobbying the ball blind and allowing a plot that could be a heart pounding mystery to instead become something straight out of a sci-fi nut’s bible. I wish I could explain more but unfortunately, to do so would make worse an already terrible story line.

In a phone conference, Proyas described the film as not a true disaster flick but instead as a “spiritual quest,” he said, a generational story focusing on the father-son bond. To fulfill that quest, the film is chalked full of supposedly tender moments and numerous references to biblical myth, prophecy and a good deal of questions of free will. In theory such musing is all well and good but in practice, the film is simply too long. Scenes that should be half as long if they weren’t cut out entirely drag on forever, often ruining what shock and awe or universality the film’s sparse good moments manage to achieve.

Whereas other films tend to glamorize disaster, Proyas said his aim was to make the film’s disasters “as visceral and as real and as unsettling as possible.” Proyas was aiming to capture some of the stunning power of the opening beach sequence of Saving Private Ryan. He failed. The disasters of the film are few and far between and last for a matter of seconds. As visually appealing as the CG flames are, they are clearly computer generated and thus instantly disconnect audiences from the quest they’re supposedly on.

Proyas describes the film as a “suspense thriller. And suspense, you know, drives the movie forward,” he said. Unfortunately for Proyas, very little of the film manages to achieve actual suspense while the bulk manages only to be strange, drawn out and confusing.

Proyas hopes audiences will realize Knowing “was about the cycle of life,” he said, what is passed down to each new generation. The film itself has little chance of surviving that transition. The few plot elements that should have been made the focal point for the movie were instead brushed aside for lots of frightened glances and nonsense.

Knowing is a reminder that the best of trailers can hide the worst of movies. While I've never put much stock in Nicholas Cage I do enjoy some of his movies. This is not one of them and in fact goes to show that it's a bad idea to put faith in Hollywood because even the best of ideas can go horribly wrong when you decide to have a left field deuce ex machina drive the endgame.