Sunday, May 30, 2010

Game On

Yes, I watched Gamer. Yes, I know it was largely panned. Yes, the trailers looked poor and the movie seemed to be completely unimaginative. Yes, it seemed ridiculous, even. Yes, I had better options for movies to watch (Descent 2 being one of them). No, I'm not sure what I was thinking.

But I was curious. Here was another movie loosely based on the video game industry and reality shows (among other things) and a treatise about how jaded and unsympathetic our world may become if someone really wanted to take that next step.

Some time in the future, the real world sucks. It's a bleak place, with society in general mostly in the toilet. The only bright spots in the future are reality entertainment, created by multi-billionaire Ken Castle (Michael C. Hall). First, Castle created Society, a game not unlike the hugely popular Second Life in which the player takes control of a remote avatar and controls all their actions and interactions with others playing the game. Unlike the digital world of Second Life that people nowadays can subscribe to, however, those avatars are living, breathing people who are paid to be part of this fake reality.

We'll get back to Society later. The reason people tuned into this movie was Castle's other creation: Slayers. In Slayers, Death Row inmates are given the chance to compete in a real-life death match not unlike those in games like Team Fortress 2 or Day of Defeat. The idea is that if they survive 30 battles of Slayer, they get their prison sentences communed. The contestants don't control their own fates however, as their actions in-game are controlled by gamers on the outside. The best of these combatants is John "Kable" Tillman (Gerard Butler), an inmate we meet with just three games left until he can be released. His wife and daughter are on the outside, and are the only things keeping him sane. But even with freedom so close, as the story is told we learn that Ken Castle would very much rather not see Kable go free.

Gamer is a very different film. A large-budget film that feels like a movie half it's budget size, it portrays society in three different lights. The brightest of these shades is Society, where the colors are so vibrant, the sunlight so bright, that you can't help but feel it's fake and showy, which of course is exactly what was intended. The users in Society are portrayed as connoisseurs of the seven deadly sins, exposing themselves, fulfilling rape fantasies or setting up their avatar to suffer bodily harm and laugh as their blood spills from gashes. The people who would subject their bodies to this treatment are usually of the desperate variety, not happy with their predicament but so desperate to escape the cruel outside world that it seems largely appealing by comparison. On the other end of the spectrum is Slayers. It's a dark, gritty, violent existence, where color rarely permeates unless it's blood red. Death can come suddenly, and it's only by the skill of their controllers that the participants make it to the end, or the "Save Point". In between is real life, where it seems poverty is up and nobody seems happy unless they're watching or playing the latest reality PPV. It's arguably the bleakest of the three existences, as people are more than willing to escape into something else, and unwilling to change the things around them.

If there's anything I found surprising about Gamer, it's just how GOOD the movie actually is. The twin writing/directing of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (Crank 1 & 2) is solid, especially the camera work, which was often done on the fly by either director. There are definitely some faults, but we'll get to those later. The casting, however, was the truly inspired part of this film. Of course Butler has since moved on to romantic comedies at this point, but this was his first big action hit after 300. He's really a force to behold both in his combat scenes and in his more insular scenes which are more of the film than you might go in expecting. Hall (Six Feet Under, Dexter) is fun as Castle, the villain. He really seems to enjoy being the bad guy here, and it's always good to have a "fun" villain. Amber Valetta (Hitch, Transporter 2) plays Angie, Kable's wife on the outside and works as an Avatar on Society to either pay the bills or escape reality, or both. She was truly the surprise of this film, as I never would have expected her to play this part with such depth, and there's a stark difference in her performance between when she is herself and when she's played by a lascivious user, as there should be. Kyra Sedgewick (The Closer, Justice League: A New Fronteir)  plays an unscrupulous TV reporter and talk show host who is seeking out Kable. Honestly, it's great to see her in a movie but her character is largely unimportant. At least she does it well. Logan Lerman (3:10 to Yuma, Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief) is great as Kable's controller, a widely respected cyber-athlete who's only 17-years-old. He's portrayed as being pretty spoiled and naive in the beginning, but the character goes through changes as the story progresses and Lerman pulls it off very well. Christopher Brian "Ludacris" Bridges (Hustle & Flow, RocknRolla) rounds out the main cast, playing the leader of a (for lack of a better word) terrorist group who call themselves "Humanz" who oppose Castle's evil plans. Kable finds himself tugged between these two factions during the course of the film, and it's good that they are led by Hall and Brown, who are both charismatic and good to see on screen.

There were also a large number of recognizable D and E-List stars who made appearances throughout the film, and it was fun to recognize John Leguizamo (Spawn, Romeo & Juliet), Aaron Yoo (21, Friday the 13'th), Allison Lohman (Drag Me to Hell, Beowulf), Terry Crews (The Expendables, The Longest Yard), Keith David (Platoon, Mass Effect 1 & 2), Milo Ventimiglia (Heroes, Rocky Balboa), Sam Witwer (Battlestar Galactica, Dexter), John de Lancie (Star Trek: The Next Generation, Stargate SG1), and Zoe Bell, who has yet to truly get out from under the shadow of the best damn car chase scene EVER (Death Proof). Even though most of these characters did little to move the pace of the story forward, it was good to see so many recognizable faces, even if they were most definitely not big stars.

Now onto the bad stuff. To be fair, I only have two gripes with this film, but they're big ones.

Gripe #1:  One-dimensional bad guys

Remember how I praised Michael C. Hall's performance? I meant every word. He did an amazing job with that character. The problem was the character was a third-rate James Bond villain, all posturing and posing, never one to miss overlong speeches detailing his great plans and how wonderful he is. Even a surprise song and dance number near the end doesn't make him any more deep or complex, and his mindless exposition makes me wish he at least had an interesting second in command. No such luck, as his cronies are even more boring than he is. At then end, after the day is saved, the second in command says to the hero: "Well played." Yes, he says THOSE exact WORDS. No excuse.

Which brings me to the second gripe:

Gripe #2: Bad ending

There's not really any excuse for how badly the movie ended. The story leading to it was actually pretty good, cloak and dagger mixed with bullets and explosions mixed with exploitation. But the end felt mostly anti-climactic, without anything original, charming or intelligent, followed with a cliche hero driving off into the sunset. For the story to have done so well to end on such a sour note is distressing, after I'd been so pleasantly surprised with the rest of the content.

If you combined Gamer's strengths with that of a more popular summer movie in '09, say Terminator Salvation, you might have had a fantastic movie on your hands. Instead, the duo known as Neveldine/Taylor have made us a merely okay film, with a strong first half, good acting, and great action sequences and camera angles but marred by an incomplete second half and cliche ending. I don't regret watching it.

I just regret watching it FIRST.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

A Film Jamboree!

It's been a busy week for me with movies. Between the Redbox and the old-fashioned movie theater, I've seen five movies this week, and that didn't even include some movies I've really wanted to see , such as Iron Man 2, The Losers, Descent 2 and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. With my week so filled, was everything I saw worth the viewing?

Pandorum was the first film I watched, starring Ben Foster (3:10 to Yuma, The Messenger) and Dennis Quaid (Vantage Point, The Rookie) as deep-space astronauts who awake on a broken ship, the Eden, with no memory from a long hyper-sleep and unable to get out of their sleep chambers and to the bridge, where they can assess the situation. Foster eventually escapes through some air ducts, but the situation only gets more dire, as he finds himself stumbling blind through a dying hulk of a ship, with something, or someone, hunting him.

 Pandorum didn't make too much at the box office (about $19 million gross worldwide, but the movie cost $33 million to make) and that's unfortunate. It's definitely difficult surviving as a sci-fi film these days if you're not directly descended from a popular author's library (Jurassic Park, Minority Report) or part of a popular franchise (Star Trek, Star Wars) or have big names like J.J. Abrams attached (Cloverfield). When a film is as good as Pandorum, that quality should be front and center, but it will always carry the stigma of being a sci-fi movie and non-sci-fi fans will never take part. Like the Oscar-overlooked Moon, Pandorum goes down as one of 2009's best ignored sci-fi films.

It's scary, but GOOD scary, with tension dripping off the screen as you feel you're in this dark, claustrophobic place with Foster and Quaid, waiting to see what insane thing happens next. Add atop that great support acting by Cam Gigandet (The O.C., Jack and Bobby), Eddie Rouse (Observe and Report, the upcoming Green Hornet) and the beautiful Antje Traue (in her first English-speaking film). Even former World Champion kick boxer Cung Le does a good job despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that he doesn't speak a single English syllable the entire movie. Overall, Pandorum was a great way to start the week off, and I definitely recommend it to anyone who liked The Descent or Event Horizon, as comparisons to both are warranted.

2012, after seeing Pandorum, is cheese. No, wait, maybe it's not Pandorum's fault. 2012 may be just be cheese all by itself. but you know what? It's more like a sharp cheddar than a plain old American cheese. First of all, it's very visually pretty, and any movie in which you see a subway train fly through the air is completely worth price of admission. All in all, 2012 might just be the most fun movie I didn't see in the theaters last year.

2012, of course, refers to the widely-held obsession that the end of the Mayan calendar signifies the actual end of planet Earth. To that end we focus on an anonymous author played by John Cusack and his family as they escape destruction after destruction. Remember when you saw Titanic, and James Cameron forced you to watch the two least interesting people on the WHOLE SHIP when all you REALLY wanted to see was the damn boat sink? Well, here you go. To be fair, I might not be as critical if they had focused more on a couple of minor story lines that actually focused on other people but were almost completely discarded until they were needed, as means to an end as it were. One, about a Chinese family, is introduced in the very beginning but don't make any reappearance until at least the third act. The other involves a couple of elderly Jazz musicians on a cruise ship (great work in limited roles by Blu Mankuma and Geoge Segal) in the middle of the ocean who only make sporadic appearances. All in all, seeing Cusack's family escape danger after danger can get a little drab, as little is done in-between to ease the tension, especially when after the first BIG disaster scene, the tension actually scales DOWN rather than UP. The big climax is actually smaller than the FIRST one, which from a storytelling focus makes no sense, since you'd want to save your big guns for the finale. No such luck, which might not be much of a surprise from the director who ruined Godzilla for the western world (Rolland Emmerich).

But it's a movie I still loved. In fact, it taught me to love! I loved the special effects, big or small. I loved Chiwetel Ejiofor (Serenity, the upcoming Salt), the Jeff Goldblum of this movie.  I loved Tom McCarthy (The Wire, Boston Public), who had a sizable role. (What the hell, I just love the director of the underrated The Visitor) I loved Woody Harrelson's cameo performance, which was spot on. I even loved a Russian pilot named Sasha (Johann Urb).

That's not to say the movie has little in the way of problems. It's not usually my way to be all gender-focused and feminist, but like his former film Independence Day, the heroes are largely male-heavy. The few female roles act mainly as support systems for the male characters to hang onto. Just as Constance Spano and Mary McDonnell were sorely underused in ID4, so are Amanda Peet and the extraordinarily talented actress Thandie Newton in this film. The only remotely strong woman (the Vivica A. Fox character, to keep the metaphor going) is Lisa Lu (Joy Luck Club) who, after her big scene, promptly has no subsequent dialogue. Does it detract from enjoying the movie as a whole? No, but it surely does make you think afterward.

Despite these gripes, you're not watching 2012 for the social commentary. You're watching it for the cheese, to grip the arms of your chair and shriek as your hero once again escapes calamity. And despite not being as good as the aforementioned Independence Day, 2012 was a great by-the-numbers action flick which succeeds in getting it's point across with a maximization of body count. Worth renting and seeing on a good TV.

Am I the only one who believes a movie about Fallen Angels toting machine guns and blasting all hell from the Apocalypse, one starring Paul Bettany (Master and Commander, Young Victoria) to boot, should be a GOOD film? Apparently so, as there's little to recommend Legion to anyone with a pulse, not anything that you haven't already pretty much seen in the trailers, anyway.

The cussing old lady? The one who turns puts the bite on a guy and then goes crawling on the ceiling in all freaky fashion? And the ice cream man, the one with the elongated limbs and the stretched out face? Yeah, those parts, which combined last all of three minutes, are the BEST parts of the movie. And they're in the TRAILER. Actually, come to think of it, there is one more good part, but I'll keep that under wraps so perhaps someone else will join me in my misery which is this film. Oh, and Paul Bettany. He was good too. Awesome, in fact. But he's just not enough.

The story, for anyone who hasn't already watched the trailer, is thus: Almighty God, pissed at us for all the bullshit humanity carries out on a daily basis, sends his Angels to Earth to wipe out mankind.The only one to defy his order, Michael (Bettany) makes his way to Earth ahead of the invasion force and seeks out an unborn baby who would be mankind's salvation. That baby is currently in the womb of Adrianne Palicki (Friday Night Lights), who up to this point was considering giving up the baby for adoption since she has trouble taking care of herself, working in a greasy-spoon diner in the middle of nowhere. It's at this diner that pretty much everything happens.

The problem is it doesn't matter what big names you get to fill out your roster (Dennis Quaid, Charles S. Dutton, Kate Walsh, Tyrese Gibson) if you don't care enough about them when they die. For a film that was supposedly the "baby" of director Scott Stewart (What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, the upcoming Priest), it's not well done, especially the storytelling aspect, which ends, but not in any ways remotely satisfying. Even the arrival of Kevin Durand (Lost, 3:10 to Yuma) as Archangel Gabriel is nowhere close to how well he played Martin Keamy (which will now forever be his signature role). All in all, Legion is a mess from front to back, with very little to recommend this movie or be hopeful for any of Stewart's future projects.

The one movie I actually saw in the theater this week, Kick-Ass, might be the best of the bunch. It's equal parts action film and nerd fantasy shtick, as any true comic fan has thought at least ONCE about what it would be like donning a costume and becoming their favorite hero.Great storytelling, combined with perfect casting and adapted well on the same-titled graphic novel by Mark Millar (who's excellent Wanted I reviewed two years ago), it's no surprise that a sequel has already been announced for release in 2012.

Kick-Ass follows Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), a normal kid who's grown tired of living in a world where crime pretty much does at it pleases and nobody will stop and intervene in a crime taking place. So, he dons a costume, gets his ass kicked in fights, but nevertheless earns a reputation for the work he does, knocking petty thugs down a notch. This in turn gets him noticed by crime boss Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong), who targets Kick-Ass thinking him the source of his late difficulties distributing his drugs throughout New York City.

The real star of this movie, despite star turns by Johnson and Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Superbad, Role Models) and "star" Nicholas Cage for the celeb factor, is thirteen-year-old Chloe Grace Moretz (Dirty Sexy Money, (500) Days of Summer) as Hit-Girl, foul-mouthed martial arts expert who can handle a firearm better than most adults and wants a butterfly knife for her birthday. She calls a roomful of grown thugs "cunts" and can single-handedly take down a whole warehouse full of armed goons in the dark. The movie may mostly focus on Johnson as the titular hero, but make no mistake, it's Moretz's character that keeps the story moving forward, and she steals every scene.

I don't want to give anything away for people who haven't seen this film yet (I don't know who you are, but my theater was fairly packed, so obviously there are some out there) so if you're in that category please please PLEASE see this film and let me know how it rocked your world.

In Daybreakers, last year's under-the-radar release by German directors Michael and Peter Spierig, vampires are the norm of society. As the opening tells us, humanity was given a chance to assimilate. They refused, and now it's estimated that of the world's population, only about 5% are human. Enter Ethan Hawke (Training Day, Hamlet) as Edward Dalton, a vampire who hates what he is, trying to create a substitute for human blood before the world runs out, and flat out refusing to drink human blood himself. Knowing he's in the minority and has no chance to change the way of things, one accident will change his future in ways he never would have imagined.

The great thing about the setup here is the society portrayed. Vampires treat the world around them the same as they did before they turned: They get up, they go to work, have their morning coffee (with a shot of type O, of course), and otherwise have extraordinarily boring lives. Soldiers go out into the world to hunt rogue humans to bring them back and harvest their blood. It's a bleak time for humanity. But something even darker lies underneath, only showing itself when there's almost no blood left in the world.

With such an original story and message to convey, you'd have to screw up royally for this movie not to pop, and with low-budget indie films like this, that happens more often than not. Fortunately, the Spierig brothers are extremely talented in not only bringing out the best in their actors' performances, but also in the scenery they create, the final product matching their visions beautifully. Hawke is perfectly cast as the conflicted Dalton, who refuses to partake in the extermination of the human race even as he knows that without human blood or some substitute, vampire society as he knows it is over. Other great performances from Willem DeFoe (Spider Man, Shadow of the Vampire), Sam Neill (Jurassic Park, Event Horizon) and Australian actress Claudia Karvan (Star Wars Episode III, Aquamarine) flesh out a cast that really come alive (or in a vampire society, is it the other way around?) in their performances. Neill especially chews the scenery with a sparkle in his eyes, and it's not just the special contacts he's wearing throughout.

In essence, Daybreakers is about us needing to adapt to survive. With resources only so finite, we have to ask ourselves how we would react were our dwindling supplies suddenly to run out.

When all is said and done, I've seen five movies over the span of a single week and that definitely means I'll be taking a break from them with the completion of this post. Most of the films were good or at least enjoyable with only Legion breaking my heart, but the best overall I think was by far Kick-Ass, with Daybreakers and Pandorum neck and neck at a distant second. With many big things happening in the future (The Lost finale and the recently released Robin Hood come to mind) I'll be looking forward to sharing my ideas and info with you in the future.

Until then, have a fun time.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

XIII, Not so Unlucky

I finally started what I hope will be a long and fortuitous relationship with Redbox today. I went with one sole purpose: to rent a copy of Pandorum, which I hoped they would still have. They did, and while I added that to my cart, I decided to check if they had anything else in stock I might be interested in. Doing so, I saw they had something that I'd seen on shelves before and had been intrigued at it's very existence. It was XIII: The Conspiracy, and frankly, I had no idea why this story had been co-opted yet again.

For those of you who don't know, XIII was originally a Franco-Belgian comic book series written and drawn by Jean Van Hamme and William Vance, both with long careers in the European detective comics scene. But that's not from where I happen to know know XIII. In 2003, Ubisoft - a computer games company responsible for developing several outstanding titles including Splinter Cell, Prince of Persia, Brothers in Arms, Far Cry, and Beyond Good and Evil - adapted the comics into their own game, also called XIII. In it, the player assumes the identity of an amnesiac struggling to rediscover his past, the only clue to his identity being a tattoo on his chest reading XIII. The game appeared on several gaming platforms as well as PC and Mac, and is played from a FPS (First Person Shooter) perspective, and with a unique cell shaded look that was far different to watch than anything else on the market that year. It also featured the voice acting talents of David Duchovny, Eve and Adam West. Sadly, poor sales have all but guaranteed that despite it's "To be Continued" ending, no sequel has been announced and it seems extremely unlikely that there will be a followup.

Gratuitous head shots were often the most satisfying part of XIII, as shown above.

Back to XIII: The Conspiracy, though. It was developed as a Franco-Canadian two-episode miniseries directed by longtime TV director Duane Clark that originally aired in France during October 2008 and aired in the States on NBC in February of 2009, though I have no recollection of that. NBC was desperate for shows even then, I'm sure. Stephen Dorff (Deuces Wild) plays the titular XIII, completely without memory but also the prime suspect in the assassination of the President of the United States (Mimi Kuzyk). On the topic of the female President, this is definitely one difference from the game, which had been essentially set up with the idea that XIII had murdered the Prez in Dallas... from a book depository... I think you know where I'm going here. The late President's brother even had a thick New England accent in the game, if you want it even more clear. Obviously the filmmakers didn't want to have that kind of controversy, so instead we see an affluent white woman with no discernible accent become the dead President (and this was filmed before the 2008 Presidential election, mind you, when Hillary Clinton was still in the running). As Rorschach might say, "Hrm."

The story splits to many different viewpoints, from the confusion of the amnesiac XIII, to Acting President Galbrain (John Bourgeois) as he and his cabinet try to track down the president's killer while also fending off political opponent (and the former President's brother) Walter Sheridan (Ted Atherton) in the upcoming election, and then to General Carrington (the excellent Stephen McHattie) who may know XIII's identity, and may or may not be his only ally in the world. Add in a conspiratorial bunch with a lot of power to make things happen (like presidential assassinations) with the face of their enforcer The Mongoose (Val Kilmer) hunting down Dorff, and you have the idea that nothing is what it seems, that everyone and everything you think you know is suspect.

And that's what XIII has always been about. It's easy to see where the inspiration for the series came from, very Jason Bourne in it's execution, right down to the close-up fight scenes where you can barely tell what's happening, it's going so fast. It's also good to see that much of the characters from the game have been faithfully interpreted for use in the series, from Mongoose, to many of the conspirators, to Carrington and several other minor characters.

Dorff, who I'd never seen good in anything before, is surprisingly likable and sympathetic as the numerical assassin who is trying desperately to find out who he is. Kilmer, as the villain Mongoose, is however a laughingstock. I'm reminded of the episode of the Simpsons where Rainier Wolfcastle responds to weight criticism with: "It's for a movie! I'm playing a fat secret agent!" That's Val. Always overrated, Val used to have his looks for fall back on. Not now. All the peripheral characters are mostly only okay, with the exception of McHattie (a longtime scene-chewer who some might remember as the original Nite Owl in Watchmen) as a perfect General Carrington. The story is surprisingly gripping for a poorly-shot, overly fading to black miniseries that WANTS to blow you away but occasionally LOOKS like the bad film it's production values aspire to. In short, it's okay. If it had been filmed by Uwe Boll, I'm sure it would have been terrible. With someone of at least average talent at the helm, it's turned out surprisingly well.

As a miniseries that owes more to it's epic source material than it's own ingenuity and originality, XIII: The Conspiracy that is still surprisingly watchable in one sitting, with enough surprises and enjoyable storytelling that you won't regret having seen it... especially if you only pay $1 to rent it. And you can't go wrong going  back to purchase the XIII game, though right now it might only be available on Ebay.