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.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Watchmen: Reflections

In case you didn’t read my review of Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, I loved the movie and in case you didn’t see the film, go, now, do not pass go and certainly, do not collect 200 dollars. A work of sheer brilliance on its own, perhaps even more importantly, the film is the most faithful adaptation ever conceived and quite probably the most faithful adaptation that could possibly be made. If any literary work truly deserves such dedication and respect, it is Alan Moore’s masterpiece, a Hugo Award winner, Time Magazine top 100 works of the 20th century and generally acknowledged as the greatest graphic novel ever written, and by all accounts, Zack Snyder agrees. In a phone conference with Snyder, the fanboy devotion he has to the original work was apparent in every question answered and every personal anecdote.

Snyder describes himself as a giant fan of Moore, having read “Watchmen” in college in the late 80s, shortly after the graphic novel came out in 1985. Snyder’s very first question upon taking the job to direct Watchmen; When do I get to talk to Moore? The answer to that, unfortunately, was never, as Moore had asked not to be contacted by the filmmakers, a fact that in true fanboy fashion, in Snyder’s words, deeply bummed him out.

Of course, Snyder is more than just a fan and he was also able to reflect on Watchmen as a filmmaker. Without Moore’s input, he “had to founder through my own experiences,” he said. It was a reality that perhaps lead to a “truer experience” in creating the film, one that was based off a fan’s reaction, an audience member telling a story with none of the prejudice or destructively obsessive filmmaking one might have in a film Moore himself was involved in making.

According to Snyder, Warner Brothers approached him to direct the film because of his record making movies based off of comics that includes directing Frank Miller’s 300. “Zack likes comic books,” he said, and the studio had a comic book to be filmed.

Originally apprehensive about adapting what has been called an unfilmable film, Snyder eventually decided that “I wanna do this,” he said. The need to make the movie came in large part due to Snyder’s dedication to the original work, especially when he read the script Warner Brothers showed him. While not as important to those who aren’t fans of Moore’s work, those who are might be incensed to learn that the original script called for a PG-13 rating (the movie is correctly rated R for nudity and explicit violence).

Incomprehensibly, the script had called for a movie that could be sequeled, and if you know anything about Watchmen, you know that it is not a story that can or at least should be sequeled, serialized or otherwise tainted. Set in modern times, it called for Doctor Manhattan going not to Vietnam but to Iraq, a big, sexy, high octane blasphemy against everything a masterpiece like Moore’s work deserves. Snyder “couldn’t let it happen that way,” he said.

Snyder persevered to make the film in order to prevent Watchmen “from becoming a superhero movie,” he said. Watchmen, Snyder said, is anything but a formulaic superhero movie but instead something transcendent of its genre and medium.

Of course, superheroes have powers and fight, Watchmen being no exception. Watchmen is an incredibly violent movie, but not violence for the sake of violence, according to Snyder. The violence is far more personal than Snyder’s other works like 300. Watchmen’s violence is “very specific to provoke thought,” he said.

The violence is so extreme because Snyder wanted to fulfill the graphic novel’s promise to see the superhero genre, movie or graphic novel, “broken down at every level,” he said. The style of previous superhero movies targeted towards kids that portray superhero stories as easy and pain free was something Snyder wanted to smash “as hard as I could.”

When it came to the adaptation, there were a few “big thematic things that I wanted to get at,” Snyder said, in transferring Moore’s words and artist Dave Gibbons’ images to the screen. For the most stalwart of Moore’s fans who disagree with Snyder’s decision to change the infamous ending of the graphic novel, Snyder explained a need to simplify the story. Remaining perfectly faithful to the ending would have meant far more detail than Snyder had time to show, causing him to “lose a lot of character.”

Of course, Watchmen the movie is not nor should it be the same thing as “Watchmen” the graphic novel. For Snyder, the most obvious difference is the real feel of the characters. While Snyder described what happened to Rorschach in the graphic novel as not particularly emotional, the movie makes that moment and many others “no longer philosophy,” he said, but instead as powerful moments with very real characters.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009


In 1985, Alan Moore’s “Watchmen” deconstructed and analyzed superheroes, setting a new bar that has never been subsequently surpassed and laying the groundwork for the last two and a half decades of comic books. Now, Zack Snyder has managed to tap into that power, deftly adapting the genius that is “Watchmen” into a movie as brilliantly stylized as it is thematically relevant in a time where costumed heroes are inundating the silver screen. Brilliant as it is, no such thing as a perfect adaptation exists, a rule to which Watchmen is no exception. To the uninitiated, Zack Snyder’s Watchmen is a stroke of genius; to the initiated, it remains a work of genius, but one with by my count, seven major deviations from Alan Moore’s vision.

Never before or since have superheroes, masked vigilantes or crime fighters been looked at as in Watchmen, the graphic novel or the movie. Few if any other comic books or comic book films are as violent, as gritty, or as sexually explicit. No other work manages to be as deeply thought out or reflective on its genre or the society that spawned it, revealing the world we live in for all its failings. Virtually any subsequent comic book you see with those elements was almost certainly inspired by “Watchmen.”

While all comic books try to tie in superheroes to our reality to a greater or lesser degree, Watchmen picks out various moments in history starting in the thirties and inserts these men and women of skill, power and more often than not, psychosis and personality disorders into the forces of history. Such events include the Cold War, JFK’s assassination, U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Watergate, and the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan.

Each of the so-called Watchmen is a deeply flawed individual far more a product of the cold and dreary world around them than they are a shaper of it. The story starts with the murder of The Comedian, played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who somehow manages to make a cold blooded murderer empathetic. Investigating his death is the only truly active crime fighter of the story, Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach, a wonderfully psychotic and powerfully compelling sociopath with no compunctions against fighting cops or killing criminals.

Much of the film is told in flashbacks as each of the characters reflects on their relationship with The Comedian. Patrick Wilson plays the Batman-like Nite Owl. The film’s resident super-genius is Matthew Goode’s Adrian Veidt, a man who has used his past as the costumed hero Ozymandias to amass a vast personal fortune, and Malin Akerman’s Silk Spectre, a woman emblematic of the over-sexualization and loose morality of 1980s America. Unlike most such movies, only one character in all of Watchmen actually has any superpowers, Billy Crudup’s Dr. Manhattan, a glowing blue god-like being who can see the future and manipulate matter on a molecular level.

Together, the Watchmen weave a story that cannot be confused for The Dark Knight, Spider-Man, or any other superhero film. Snyder brings his unique style of brilliant musical overlays and compellingly stylized slow motion choreography to an impossibly layered story and manages to be largely faithful to the original without confusing viewers. The opening montage wraps audiences in a cocoon of this alternate universe, surrounding them with the notion of costumed heroes in our reality, altering our history and changing our relationship to the universe.

Compelling as the fight scenes are, Watchmen is not an action story nor even in the truest sense a drama. It is an exploration, a whirlwind of energy and emotion. It is the accumulated magic and mayhem of men in masks, fighting the good fight, gallivanting around for their own aggrandizement or just trying to find where men who dress up in tights and set out to fight crime actually fit into the larger world.

For the record, I own a signed copy of the graphic novel, one I obtained from the living legend himself, in person. I am a geek and a fan. Like the vast majority of my brethren, I hail “Watchmen” as the greatest graphic novel of all time and Alan Moore as the greatest comic book writer ever and on the short list of the greatest writers of the 20th century. Moore is an entity unto himself, a genius of vast artistic vision whose abilities have made him a social recluse. As normal as he may speak, there is an unidentifiable inner energy to the man that belies a deep rooted anger at Hollywood for what he sees as perversions of his work. Moore has vowed never to watch a single movie based off his work, lambasting Hollywood and telling anyone who will listen that every single adaptation of his graphic novels is sheer and utter garbage.

Some of the adaptations of Moore’s work have in fact been atrocious as he claims, namely The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Most adaptations of his work however, have taken liberties while remaining essentially true to Moore’s vision, whether he acknowledges it or not.

When it comes to Watchmen itself, Moore and his most devoted fans will see in the liberties taken by Zack Snyder a sacrilege. Those who have not read the graphic novel or those who understand that a perfect adaptation to screen from any form is impossible will see in Watchmen one of the closest adaptations humanly possible, a vision that could have come only from a deeply rooted fan like Snyder. I truthfully do not think anyone else could have done a better job with Watchmen. In terms of loyal fans of comicdom with acting chops sufficient for a project of this magnitude, Snyder is at the very top of the list.

Close as Watchmen is to its source material, the liberties taken do run a high risk of alienating fans of the graphic novel. The important part is to remember that any adaptation is going to involve some level of artistic license and realize how much Snyder got right instead of how much he changed. There can be no doubt that there is far more of the former than there is of the latter. The moral ambiguity, gritty and sexual undertones, gruesome violence and a more real feel for superheroes than any other story is all there. Zack Snyder truly does watch the watchmen, finding in it a film that is compelling, energetic and incredibly fun even as it is deeply reflective and intellectual.

For its energy and its largely faithful adherence to its source material, I adamantly endorse Watchmen as a beacon that once in a while at least, Hollywood can still turn brilliant source material into a brilliant movie.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Friday the 13th

As the latest in the line of one of the icons of the horror genre, the 2009 remake/re-imagining of Friday the 13th does its due diligence. Heart rate accelerated, eyes wide, waiting for the next gruesome end; audiences expecting a slasher film that does Jason Voorhees justice will not be disappointed. Exactly what viewers expect; Friday the 13th is ninety minutes of hip young people getting creatively butchered.

Relying on the tried and true slasher trifectas, director Marcus Nispel’s take on the machete wielding, hockey mask wearing, unstoppable killing machine hunts his erstwhile victims as they partake of copious amounts of sex, drugs and Rock & Roll.

In a teleconference interview, lead actor Jared Padalecki said Jason had lost the lumbering gait of previous films in favor a “fit, capable” portrayal by actor Derek Mears that Padalecki likened to a “pit-bull with a machete chasing you down,” he said. Padalecki plays Clay Miller, a man who runs into college students looking for a good time as he searches for his sister. Sound familiar?

As such movies do, this Friday the 13th appears to be acutely aware that its screams and heart stopping moments are not enough to carry the film. To try and maintain viewers’ attentions in-between bloodbaths, male audiences get their fill of topless, nubile women and female audiences get both the geeky sidekicks as well as the deep voiced, big eyed boy toys to dream about. Like virtually every slasher ever, the hot and the horny get it on and are unceremoniously macheted, bear trapped, impaled and burned alive.

According to Padalecki, the new version is “new and sexy and hip and scary but they still pay homage to the originals,” he said. New, sexy and hip all preceding scary, this is a Friday the 13th that is “made it for a new generation.”

Supplementing the sex and violence is the modest humor of a movie that realizes it is not a bastion of horror. The comic relief characters are likeable, their jokes elicit laughs and their deaths are lamented. Then the pretty people start running for their lives and the likeable ones are summarily forgotten.

Perhaps the film’s strongest asset is its total lack of camp. Instead, the movie is as predictable a slasher as they come, while the death scenes are mildly shocking they never manage to catch you by surprise and never is the suspense enough to elicit more than a slight motion towards the front of your seat. Moderately creative in its death scenes, I imagine audiences who encounter hulking figures covered in shadow will think twice, but not a third time.

If you’re looking for an excuse to wrap your arms around your very easily scared date while maintaining calm, this is the flick. True horror fans expecting the living daylights scared out of them will find the film wanting but those who can handle modest fear will do well in a movie that almost seems designed to promote them as fearless protectors of the quickly frightened.

It's hard to be disappointed in a movie that fits a very specific niche. In its defense, Friday the 13th doesn't drop the ball. It also doesn't carry it to a touchdown, just a respectable first down. For its ability to make me revert to football metaphors and its decent frights, I'd have to say the film reaffirms my faith in Hollywood if for no other reason than I respect the role such films play.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

He's Just Not That Into You

He's Just Not That Into You is definitely, unequivocally, absolutely a chick flick. There are tears and hugs and girlfriends galore, lending helping hands, offering wisps of wisdom, providing shoulders to cry on. Chick flick or not, it is also a film that guys can not only appreciate but also learn a great deal from.

Based off a relationship advice book of the same name by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo which was in turn inspired by an episode of Sex and the City, He's Just Not That Into You is a how-to for dating, relationships and the opposite sex for men as well as women. Stellar performances by an A-list cast that includes Justin Long, Ginnifer Goodwin, Kevin Connolly, Scarlett Johansson, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Aniston portray every stereotype and archetype from the committed relationship to newlyweds and even the needy clinger. Through them audiences experience every question they've ever asked about relationships, feeling needy and fulfilled and confused as they follow the characters through weddings, parties and more than one crying session.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for audiences is Ben Affleck as Neil, an affectionate, charming, chivalrous and dare I say, likable character. In a seven year relationship with Jennifer Aniston's Beth, the two display not just a palpable chemistry but an actual feel of a relationship, one with ups and downs and a deep rooted connection they are able display despite sharing just over two hours of screen time with a number of other couples that if anything, take up even more time on screen. Despite constantly skipping from one perspective and relationship to another, never does the film feel rushed or bloated, it manages to flow between the various characters with a nimble dexterity that the audience is barely aware of. Each character is so human and representative of at least one aspect of the dating scene that audience members can't help but relate to one or more of them.

Directed by Ken Kwapis of Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, the film is very much a chick flick that nevertheless can be watched and even enjoyed by guys. Not just bearable for those dragged on a date, while two thirds of the movie is directed at women and pitfalls with men they should be on the lookout for, fully one third is dedicated to the male perspective and in revealing why the opposite sex can at times seem so perplexing. The film takes an avowed approach to avoiding the classic cliches one would ordinarily expect of garden variety chick flicks like makeover montages, singing into random objects and quirky best friends.

The problem guys have with most chick flicks is that they are directed entirely at women. So much is given to the female perspective, so much is dedicated to creating a pillow for a woman to cry into or a bright ray of sunlight to smile with that men feel completely lost. They watch painfully as things that they have no interest in play out in a world far removed from what they are comfortable with. Most men simply do not understand shoes or eyeliner or nails, it is outside their normal comfort zone. He's Just Not That Into You does not bother with such things, it prefers to stay firmly rooted in the reality of modern, high tech dating, showing the discovery of true love while still affirming that it is in fact OK to be alone, to move on, to keep waiting and looking for that special someone.

In most chick flicks audiences can expect plenty of hankies and shopping expeditions, understandable to women but often superficial and utterly lost on men. In He's Just Not That Into You, what we get instead is emotional and universal, without soul mates or love at first site but what is loved and lost and very, very real.

The fact that such a chick flick is still possible, that Hollywood can put out something heartfelt and meaningful and likeable for men and women alike, means that my faith lives for another day.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Paul Blart: Mall Cop

As far as expectations go, Paul Blart: Mall Cop is exactly what it appears to be. Kevin James plays the titular fat, moronic but lovable loser who dreams of being the hero he always wanted to be but finds himself stuck as a rent-a-cop in a nondescript New Jersey mall. The mall is not the only thing that is nondescript about Mall Cop, while there are laughs, there are also painful buildups to them, moments of stupidity and senselessness that leave audiences begging for something actually funny to happen.

A limited amount of laughs ensue when a group of criminals infiltrate and take over the mall that Blart has made up his own oath to defend. While the story is of Blart rising above his limitations to do battle with forces against which he is outmanned and outgunned, the inciting action leaves a bad taste in ones mouth as you try to figure out what it is the criminals are after and what exactly their plan was all along. The stated purpose is the codes to the credit card machines in the stores but what exactly one could do with those codes is never resolved. Director Steve Carr even threw in a few plot twists for good measure, though they are less like twists and more like wide, gentle exits the signs for which you begin to see more than 10 miles down the highway.

What little resolution we do get from Mall Cop is exactly what you would expect; Paul saves the day, gets the girl and even manages to make the criminals look like even bigger fools than he is. Of course, the biggest fools of the film are the people who ever imagined this was a good idea or legitimately funny execution. James certainly tries his best but on screen in the sole lead, his girth just isn’t enough to fill out the film. As funny as he is in other roles such as I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, on his own James just doesn’t make the grade. He appears to need someone else to play off of, to be funny and compelling where he is fat and sympathetic. You certainly feel sorry for him but empathy just isn’t the stuff that laughs are made of.

Of course, heroes are best defined by the villains they face and Blart’s are as strange and nondescript as he is. Each and every one of them appears to be an X-Games or street acrobatics champion, they hop and fly and jump and swing through the movie on bicycles and skateboards. While comedies rarely have the most terrifying of villains, it is impossible to take a criminal chasing the hero through a mall while on a skateboard seriously.

Blart’s own method of transportation is his trusty Segway, the most prominent of what is a series of glaring product placements that can only mean the film’s makers never expected much revenue from this flop and hoped instead to make it up in corporate endorsements. That being said, the Segway is a wonderful advertisement, one of the film’s few accomplishments is that audiences find themselves wishing they could whisk through the mall astride Blart atop one of the trusty gizmos, a trusty steed to Blart’s knight in bumbling armor.

To be fair, Mall Cop isn’t completely without humor. It also does not rely solely on the most juvenile and disgusting gags that many comedies today lean on when they run out of ideas. When you leave the theater, you will have laughed and you will have sympathized with Blart. You will also wonder why exactly you wasted money to ride a Segway and watch stupid people trudge through a mall. Such things, I think, are easily duplicated and far less wasteful in real life.

In the end, Mall Cop doesn't actually destroy my faith in Hollywood. Neither of course, does it do anything to affirm it. The film exists, it myopically trudges through a meaningless plot and wasted performances. A black mark certainly, but as forgettable as the film itself.